I“Science manipulates things and gives up living in them. Operating within its own realm, it makes its constructs of things; operating upon these indices or variables to effect whatever transformations are permitted by their definition, it comes face to face with the real world only at rare intervals. It is, and always has been, that admirably active, ingenious, and bold way of thinking whose fundamental bias is to treat everything as though it were an object-in-general — as though it meant nothing to us and yet was predestined for our ingenious schemes.”
– Merleau Ponty, “Eye and Mind”
I am studying a major called Comparative History of Ideas (affectionately known as “CHID”), a program which seeks to encourage critical thinking and provide enough freedom for students to pursue their own intellectual curiosities under the guidance of outstanding professors in order to allow for a more creative way of thinking and interacting, which will hopefully help create a better world. I love it. The department certainly has its issues of identity politics, but it allows me to fill the gaps in my knowledge and follow my curiosities without limiting me to a single perspective or a single style. Most of my CHID classes revolve not around acquiring a particular body of knowledge, but rather around acquiring tools to think creatively and critically, to learn and live in a way that understands the importance of ideas and their origins.
There are two typical reactions that I always get from friends, family, and strangers when I tell them about CHID. About 30% of people (often those whom I perceive to be most intellectually-inclined), are so impressed and think that CHID sounds amazing. The other 70% of people stare at me with furrowed eyebrows, gears turning in their brains as they try to find a polite way to phrase, “What the hell are you going to do with that?”
As the economy has been bad over the past few years, and more and more college graduates are working as barristas and salespeople, the educational system has increasingly emphasized science and mathematics. Skills are prized over knowledge, and it matters less which books you’ve read and more which programing codes you can write. The engineering, chemistry, and business schools at my university have fancy new buildings, while I have to run all around campus to find my classes, because our department isn’t worthy of its own building. Student culture deems that you’re only smart if you study science, and CHID is seen as a cop-out major for students who don’t know what they want and will probably never get jobs. Many of my scientific friends often scoff at my homework, because they think that everyone is literate, so reading must be easy. And no matter where I turn, there’s one buzzword that I keep hearing: research, research, research.
Research certainly has its place in the world. My life has been saved by medicine that came from scientific research, and I have a deep appreciation for the innovations in science and technology and the potential that these innovations have to improve the world. But research only teaches one way to ask questions, and only one way to find the answers. As Gilles Deleuze says, problems get the solutions that they deserve, and solutions are only as good as their problems. So if we want to live in a well-rounded, democratic, healthy society, then we need to stop privileging one style of thinking over the rest.
Science can prescribe medicine, but it can’t comfort you when that medicine fails and you lose a loved one. Science can create technology, but it can’t ensure that technology becomes a positive force in the world. Science can tell you how certain chemicals and hormones make you feel, but it can’t tell you what to do with those feelings. Science can give you an anti-depressant, but it can’t help you understand suffering.
Research is external, and deals with the world as if it is an externality. Research implies objective truth and a linear conception of time, two assumptions that have been deemed irrational and false by the philosophical thinkers of the past century. Research presupposes objectivity, which fosters a passive way of thinking and an obedient (rather than creative) thought process.
I saw a humorous Facebook status that posed the question, “If somebody from the 1950s were to visit our society today, what would be the most shocking thing to them about 2013?” Somebody else had responded, “I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing all of the information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers.”
At what point will we determine that we know enough? When will we understand that the real question is what to do with the knowledge that we already have rather than how to acquire more? At what point will we understand the importance of reinterpreting the knowledge, and focus on finding ways to recycle and reuse instead of always wanting to bring home something new? If we’re using smart phones to look at photos of kittens, then perhaps we should reevaluate the value of attaining and organizing knowledge.
I’m not suggesting that we close the canon, but I do think that a healthy society is a diverse society. If we only value one way of thinking, then we are raising a generation of employees rather than entrepreneurs. To interact with the world as if it is an external object, a toy that is there for our playing and our investigation, is a tragically arrogant and narrow way of interacting. And as much as doctors and researchers want to help others, it doesn’t help anyone to think of the world as an externality, to believe so whole-heartedly in individuality that we forget the importance of connection.
Instead of only research scholarships, we need more scholarships for experience and interpretation. We will never understand the world if we continue to treat it as if it is external to ourselves and there for us to study, and we won’t improve the world until we do a better job of understanding our place within it and its place within ourselves. We absolutely need scientists and engineers and doctors. Somebody has to build the bridges, design the computers, and prescribe the medicines. But we also need artists, philosophers, authors, and musicians. We need thinkers. The reason why the latter professions are paid lower salaries than the former has nothing to do with the inherent worth of that type of thinking, and everything to do with the value that we assign to production versus the value that we assign to reflection.