What I Learned From the Liberal Arts

As a follow-up to yesterday's post about liberal education and the failure modes thereof, I thought I should try to do something constructive and make suggestions regarding how you might go about a "poetry for physicists" kind of thing. After all, one of the things I find intensely frustrating about a lot of "crisis in ____" discussions is the lack of specific suggestions, so throwing out a "here's a problem, good luck with that" post would be suboptimal behavior on my part. This required some reflection on the question of just what I got out of my "liberal arts" classes back in the day-- what ideas and skills I picked up that I find useful today. As I was doing that, though, the thought occurred to me that I had done this before... and lo, Google eventually turned up some posts from 2005:

That's not an exhaustive discussion of the non-science classes I took, but it's a decent summary of the stuff I did and didn't like, and a bit about why. I still agree with my not-quite-nine-years-ago self about the main failure mode:

The weakest of the lot were the medieval literature and European history classes, and the problems with the two were fairly distinct. In the literature class, I enjoyed the actual texts, but hated the critical theories we were supposed to apply to them. The history class, on the other hand, suffered from a focus on material that I didn't find all that compelling, compared to some of the things we could've been studying.

Despite the different root causes, the end result was pretty similar for the two classes: I wound up treating the whole class as something less than a serious scholarly enterprise. Writing papers became something of a game, in which I attempted to come up with an argument that sounded reasonably similar to what we read for class, while not really believing any of it. It was a sort of low-level Sokal hoax, with less thought put into it.

In the end, I left those classes with no greater appreciation of the discipline, and not a great deal more knowledge of the subject matter. The lit class actually lowered my respect for the field in question, which is a shame.

The problem there was, I think, a conflict of worldviews, of the same sort as that hits the reluctant advisees I need to badger into taking randomly chosen literature classes. There were probably useful things to be gleaned from those classes, but the way they came at the material was so different from the way I look at the world that it couldn't really get through. The difference between me and the students I have trouble advising is mostly that I found the source material interesting enough, and the writing easy enough, that it wasn't all that onerous. Were I less interested in the general idea, or less confident in my ability to generate pages of adequate bullshit as needed, I probably would've resented those more.

(I should also be honest, here, and acknowledge that I wasn't exactly the ideal student, myself, lest I seem to be holding myself up too much. I didn't require all that much nagging to take the classes to fill my distribution requirements, but I didn't go all that far out of my comfort zone, either, and I did my share of picking courses by ease of expected workload. I never took Art History, for example, despite the fact that it was one of the most highly regarded departments at Williams, because I saw how much time my classmates who did take it spent trying to memorize stuff, and I didn't want to deal with that.)

So, if I'm trying to suggest something constructive, what would be a better approach? Doing "better" here means something like conveying the useful key ideas of the subject in question in a manner that the target student finds more congenial. That requires knowing both what the key ideas are and what the better manner would be, so unfortunately, I can only give half an answer. I can say what things I took away from those sorts of classes that I find useful, and make some vague suggestions about how to be more effective getting those points across, but the whole clash of worldviews thing means I don't really have a good sense of what's considered essential by the discipline itself.

Going back to the Physics Today piece about life-science physics again, one of the things they talk about is the conflict between the way physicists want to break things down to simple and abstract cases with universal rules, while biologists generally are somewhat less reductionist. They tend to deal with systems at a higher level of complexity, and don't see much point in the spherical cow models of physics. Part of the approach the authors describe involves jettisoning a lot of the more abstract material that isn't useful or appealing to biologists, but if you only do that, you lose the whole point of taking physics in the first place (other than serving as a weed-out course for people who should never be doctors). So they also put a good deal of effort into finding a situation where you could combine a bit of spherical-cow modeling with a real biological system and get some general results that allowed the biology students to see the value of the reductionist approach.

If you wanted to do "poetry for physicists," you would need to do something similar. That is, there wouldn't be much point to making English faculty teach a course that was just the technical writing skills needed for science. The core communication modes of the two subjects are so different that they most likely wouldn't be much good at it; if all you want is technical writing, you'd be better off doing that in a science context, with scientists teaching it. The point of making science students take English courses is to get a sense of the way literary scholars look at the world, and what they value. Which is the piece of the answer I can't provide, since I have only the haziest sense of what they would consider essential.

As for the part I can answer, what worldview-level ideas would I take from literature classes that I find useful today? (*) The single most useful idea to come out of those classes (and other related reading later) was the notion of context-- both that you can use literature as a way of exploring the context in which it was written, and that you can never fully separate a book from its context. The medieval lit class I took was pretty terrible about this, actually, because the only context that she seemed to want to talk about was modern critical theory, but the Classics course I took on Greek literature was really good-- while most of the students were kind of blowing it off, the professor did a good job of explaining how the original context of those works was drastically different than what we were used to. The ethics and literature course I took in the philosophy department was similarly very good at looking at how the books we were reading reflected the ethics of the atmosphere in which they were written.

Sort of related to this, but not identical to it is the notion of the intentional fallacy, the idea that it doesn't actually matter what the author intended a work to be. What matters is what the reader takes away from it. That's another really important idea, one with implications well outside of literary studies.

So how do those fail to get put across? The main worldview clash issue, I think, is a fundamentally different approach to the word "theory." People with a more explicitly scientific mindset tend to think of different theories as competing models of the world that you test against some sort of reality, and end up with a single "best" answer. Literary academics on the other hand, regard these more as things that exist in parallel.

One of the aspects that I found really infuriating about the medieval class (which I realize I keep banging on, but I really did dislike it intensely) was that it was a weird mix of chronological survey and critical grab-bag. So one week we were reading Chaucer and talking about Marxist interpretations thereof, and a week later we were reading romances and talking about feminist interpretations. But there wasn't really any clear sense about why you would prefer one or the other-- the critical sources didn't even really acknowledge each other. The Marxists wrote as if analyzing everything in terms of class and power was the only sensible approach, while the feminists wrote as if only a blithering idiot could fail to see that everything was an allegorical reference to genitalia. But it wasn't obvious that you couldn't swap them around and get equally plausible results, other than the fact that you tended to get blisteringly snide comments if you tried that and came up short of some poorly defined standard. This strongly contributed to the impression that the entire thing was a pointless bullshit game.

Given that the existence and validity of different readings of the same stuff is sort of central to the whole enterprise of literary scholarship, how would you do a better job putting this across to scientists who like definite answers? One thing would be just to make it less of a random grab-bag of stuff. That's one of the things I have in mind when I say that non-majors are poorly served by majors courses-- if you're going to major in English, maybe you need to see a little bit of all of these things as a foundation for later stuff, but if you're not going to need to grapple with all of them later, a little more depth on a smaller set of stuff would be better.

But I think you could also ease the culture shock a bit by talking about parallel situations in scientific contexts. There are places in science where similar situations exist-- the various competing interpretations of quantum physics are probably the best example. Physicists using Copenhagen-type interpretations, Many-Worlds models, and even Bohmian mechanics all calculate the same results for the same set of real experiments, but the language they use to talk about them is very different. You can gain insights from all of them, though, and moving between the different views can be instructive. Things like general relativity and QED also work, though not quite as well (because there are regimes where Newtonian gravity and Maxwell's equations break down and fail to describe reality). Or you could just compare the approaches of different scientific (sub)fields-- you can get useful insights by considering living things at the level of whole organisms, single cells, and intracellular chemical processes, and all of those approaches are equally valid. Demonstrating that similar ambiguity exists in more objective disciplines could both make the literary sort of ambiguity a little more approachable for students coming from a scientific perspective, and also help make them better scientists.

Some philosophy of science sort of stuff might also work, here. Kuhn is kind of problematic in a lot of ways, but what he's doing has a lot in common with literary scholarship. Drawing out those parallels might be useful, to see that the same sorts of ideas about cultural context that are useful in analyzing literature are also useful for analyzing the practice of science.

That's not a lot to go on, I realize, but as I said, I'm half in the dark, here. And doing this right would require close collaboration between scholars from both sides of the divide-- I might be deeply wrong about what English faculty would consider essential. But I hope this is at least somewhat useful as a more concrete example of both the problem and a sketch of what sort of thing I was suggesting as a solution.


(*) There is, of course, a cynical sense in which the bullshit game nature of the classes was the most useful thing I got out of it. That is, having gone through those classes helped me refine my ability to write in very different modes, so I can plausibly imitate the style of various sorts of documents without actually buying into any of it. But we're trying to get beyond cynicism, here.

There's also a sort of technical aspect to things that would be very practically useful-- looking in detail at how different authors use language to achieve particular effects, and that sort of thing. It would be good to have more of that sort of thing, but my sense is that that sort of thing isn't really considered part of the core of literary scholarship, which is why I'm leaving it out of this. The idea is to mix elements of what both sides consider useful and essential to their way of looking at the word, not just teaching narrow technical skills.


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I love to read, and thought I might enjoy a lit masters. (I have a math masters, and teach community college. I was doing the lit just for fun.) I hated the modern literary criticism too, though had never analyzed it as carefully as you do here.

There's a book I read afterwards that I really liked (it made me laugh). It analyzed The Great Gatsby through 6 to 10 different lenses, including Marxist and feminist. I wish I could remember the title. Hard to figure out search words. I never read The Great Gatsby. It sounds awful to me. But reading about it that way was very amusing.

By Sue VanHattum (not verified) on 09 Jan 2014 #permalink

I managed to get through college without taking any literature or history courses, but I had been lucky to have good AP level courses in high school. One of the things I got out of the AP US history class was that history at the undergraduate level and above is not the memorization-of-dates you tend to get at the K-12 level. In particular, I took AP US history the year PBS did a series on the Vietnam war, which we would discuss in class, and it happened that the American revolution came up in the textbook sequence during that series. I saw at once the parallels between the two, specifically the relative advantages and disadvantages of the imperial power versus the locals. Perhaps you went into that European history class expecting a dates and events focus and were disappointed when it turned out to be something else. But in many cases, that something else is essential to understanding some aspect of history.

I still occasionally read history books, once in a while. The best written ones are still engaging stories, even though you go in knowing the ending.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 09 Jan 2014 #permalink

I took a sociology class for a requirement that turned out to be for majors. It was great. I had to catch up a little at the start, but it was focused on the things a sociologist cares about: combining longitudinal and latitudinal studies, which factors impact our lives, etc. It was narrower than a 101 course, focusing on one facet of the topic, but it sparked some interest in the topic, enough so that I can now explore the larger field on my own.

I had to take a "Physics 101" course. It was terrible. All the material of physics was there: calculating force in increasingly bizarre scenarios, but it gave you no appreciation for the process of physics in the real world: how this knowledge was won, the importance of precision in experiments, the beautiful ways physicists control all outside factors, the power of reductionism.

I think a student is much better served by being dropped into a 200-300 level course in a major to see first hand how that topic is discussed and approached by people passionate for it. Rather than giving a "biology for poets" class that gives all the information and none of the wonder, or approaches it through the lens of literary criticism, put them in a class on one aspect of biology, say, the 'science of photosynthesis'. I think that's much better preparation for learning more on the topic through the rest of your life, and for taking away the lesson of another way of approaching a problem.

Sue (#1): There's a book called "The Pooh Perplex" that does the same thing for Winnie the Pooh. One of my college lit professors recommended it to me; it's a hoot.

By Mary Aileen (not verified) on 09 Jan 2014 #permalink

Yeah, they really need to do a better job of explaining up front the deal with literary theory instead of just assuming that it's self-evident. That exercise might also help purge some the mountains of bull that tend to accumulate in the liberal arts.

Once you start to "get it" though, the creative explorations of the ambiguities of human experience can be interesting. Conversely I think a lot of budding writers would benefit from an understanding that there is an ever present, hard core thing out there called 'objective reality' and that endlessly pulling stuff out of your arse about your feelings, notions, theories, or whatever is boring and frivolous.

By Obstreperous A… (not verified) on 10 Jan 2014 #permalink

I recieved a B.S. with major in physics, minor in math and minor in philosophy a long long time ago. In addition to the minor in philosphy I took a few poetry and music courses as well. I went on to get a PH.D. in physics. My experience was very different from yours - I found all of the non-physics/math course work to be intellectually stimulating (except for chemistry but thats another story).

To some extent, it's a crapshoot. The professor for the medieval lit class was infamous for making snide comments, though I was a freshman and didn't know that. Had I picked a different course, I might've had a better initial experience. That course, particularly the allegorical genitalia bits, strongly colors all my subsequent encounters with critical theory, so that might be a big difference in my view of things more generally.