Friday, April 01, 2005

Sifting Studies

You can give humanistic value to almost anything by teaching it historically. Geology, economics, mechanics are humanities when taught with reference to the successive achievements of the geniuses to which these sciences owe their being. Not taught thus, literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and natural science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures. The sifting of human creation! -- nothing less than this is what we ought to mean by the humanities.

-- William James
(quoted from A Stroll with William James by Jacques Barzun)

I need a verb to describe the accidental transfer of knowledge or ideals from one person to another. To rub off only partly captures the idea. I shake my head the same way my mother does, and apparently the same way my grandmother did; the trait rubbed off when I was young. But when I learned how boring a monotonous voice can be in lecture, it didn't rub off. While I may or may not have learned more by watching the nodding heads class synchronize and de-synchronize than by listening to the lecture, the memory of the class's reaction to a dropped book is far more thoroughly fixed in my memory than anything the teacher said. The right sentence for how I learned that day is not she rubbed off on me; it is there but for the grace of God go I.

I have my heroes, as anyone does. There's a pantheon for every field of study and every branch of literature: great ancients, recent stars, and fictional characters. It's a little sad (and puzzling) that anyone would find Paris Hilton more interesting than Gauss. But recently I've come to wonder when students get to learn about -- and from -- the heroes of all the subjects we study in school. The gods of Greek mythology that I learned about in a literature class had more human character than the handful of idols and demons we learned about in history classes. It was a deficiency in my education through high school, one which was remedied partly by leisure reading and partly from college professors who were enthusiastic about the heroes in their fields. Men of Mathematics is one of my favorite books because the pages are filled with characters. I think it is far more satisfying to know something of how mathematics developed and who did the developing than it would be to think that all of modern analysis was created full-fledged from the superhuman efforts of Newton, Liebnitz, and Gauss, who vanished into nothingness upon the completion of their work, and who will undoubtedly show up as ghostly figures in the sky at the end of Episode III.

Gauss with a lightsaber? Okay, maybe Galois. Beware the dark side of Cauchy-Schwartz!

  • Currently drinking: Black tea with vanilla