Keeping the humanities alive

There’s an unusual but wonderful piece by Gregory Petsko at Genome Biology.  (Petsko, a biochemistry professor at Brandeis and member of the National Academy of Sciences, writes a monthly column in the journal.)  It’s an open letter to George M. Philip, President of the State University of New York at Albany, who unwisely decided to close the departments of classics, theater arts, French, Italian, and Russian because they attracted only a “paucity of students.”

Petsko rips Philip a new one, using along the way many allusions to the literature he studied in college.  Do read it; here’s two excerpts:

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly ‘dead’ subjects. From your biography, you don’t actually have a PhD or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that . . .

. . . No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it’s performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get – well, I’m sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don’t, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It’s awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That’s the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven’t given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

Bravo, Dr. Petsko!  I don’t know where I’d be now had I not gone to The College of William and Mary, a liberal arts school that enforced a wide education on everyone, even prospective scientists.  It was there that I took a fantastic fine arts course from a charismatic professor who absolutely awakened my interest in art, leading to gazillions of museum visits in the last four decades.  I had courses in Old English, Beowulf, Greek tragedy, ethics, Indian (i.e., Asian) art, economics, German scientific literature, and modern American fiction.  Every one of these left a residuum in my neurons.  I still can’t pass up an article on Beowulf.

The best teachers are not the ones who instill knowledge in your brain, but those who instill a love of learning, making you autodidactic in their subject for the rest of your life.  I don’t think I’ve attained that ability as a professor, but I sure benefited from it in college.  And I don’t give two hoots for a scientist who cares nothing for music, art,  literature—or food!  They’re missing a great swath of the world’s wonder. Those other disciplines aren’t really “ways of knowing,” but they’re ways of experiencing, and to die without that panoply of experience, had it been available to you, is to have lived in vain.

h/t: Gail

71 Comments

  1. andrew
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    A sad trend amongst the universities these days. The humanities describe the beauty of the world that science explains.

  2. Posted November 19, 2010 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Someone should send this entire dialogue to Cathy Black, the publishing executive who Bloomberg just selected to be New York City’s next school Chancellor.

    And I’ll mention the marvelous book, “Faust in Copenhagen,” by Gino Segre, which even in its title knits classic literature with physics. Indeed, what little advanced physics I — emphatically a non-scientist — can understand, I learned from this book.

  3. Chuck
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne,

    You’ve inspired much auto-didactic behavior in me. Your blog has been a source of great inspiration to me. My faith has ebbed over the past 2 years to where it no longer exists and your commitment to critical thought has been a way I’ve eased through this transition. I’ve been seeking knowledge that hones my ability to practice logic and at least a rudimentary empiricism. I work with clinical data and use it to shape messages so there is also a practical application to your passionate presentation of the benefits science brings.

    I love your blog and read it daily. I can’t wait to introduce my 6-month-old-son to WEIT and hope you continue teaching for quite awhile because I want him to study with you at U of C (we live in Ravenswood). At the very least, I might try to audit one of your courses one of these days and shake your hand. You have many appreciative students (even this 42-year-old ex-fundy, English-Lit student, playwright and communications strategist). Peace.

  4. JS1685
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I love how he not only invokes Faust, but also proceeds to explain what it is and how it applies. Such delicious condescension!

    • Chuck
      Posted November 19, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Brilliance.

    • daveau
      Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I was practically falling off my chair at that paragraph. Hilarious.

    • Sven DiMilo
      Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Evidently Faust was a Gnu Atheist:

      The Faust of early books—as well as the ballads, dramas and puppet-plays which grew out of them—is irrevocably damned because he prefers human to divine knowledge; “he laid the Holy Scriptures behind the door and under the bench, refused to be called doctor of Theology, but preferred to be styled doctor of Medicine.”

    • bigjohn756
      Posted November 20, 2010 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      Beautiful! The necessity of explaining Faust to a university president is a clear indication of the problem.

  5. Martim
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of George Orwell ‘What is Science’ 1945 essay.

    Here’s the end:
    “At the moment, science is on the upgrade, and so we hear, quite rightly, the claim that the masses should be scientifically educated: we do not hear, as we ought, the counter-claim that the scientists themselves would benefit by a little education. Just before writing this, I saw in an American magazine the statement that a number of British and American physicists refused from the start to do research on the atomic bomb, well knowing what use would be made of it. Here you have a group of sane men in the middle of a world of lunatics. And though no names were published, I think it would be a safe guess that all of them were people with some kind of general cultural background, some acquaintance with history or literature or the arts — in short, people whose interests were not, in the current sense of the word, purely scientific.”

    and also:

    “But does all this mean that the general public should not be more scientifically educated? On the contrary! All it means is that scientific education for the masses will do little good, and probably a lot of harm, if it simply boils down to more physics, more chemistry, more biology, etc., to the detriment of literature and history. Its probable effect on the average human being would be to narrow the range of his thoughts and make him more than ever contemptuous of such knowledge as he did not possess: and his political reactions would probably be somewhat less intelligent than those of an illiterate peasant who retained a few historical memories and a fairly sound aesthetic sense.”

    Complete essay here:
    http://orwell.ru/library/articles/science/english/e_scien

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      One exception: Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan project, was extremely broadly educated. Remember that he quoted the Bhagavad Gita at the moment the Trinity bomb went off.

      • MadScientist
        Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        J.R. Oppenheimer was the norm, not the exception.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted November 19, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

          Yes, Orwell was surely being a bit naive. Not that Oppenheimer’s knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita or his colleagues’ liking for the arts mitigates, to my mind, the appalling nature of the project on which they worked, and their appalling complicity in it. (I think it was Oppenheimer, wasn’t it?, who had had from childhood a fascination with explosions and explosive devices.) There is, by the way, an excellent play by Michael Frayn, ‘Copenhagen’, which is really an extended and passionate debate between Nils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg (who was by all accounts a very good amateur pianist) about, among other things, the making of the atomic bomb.

      • Gordon
        Posted November 20, 2010 at 3:58 am | Permalink

        Quoting the Bhagavad Gita is all well and good but I find it less stirring than William L. Laurence’s “Now we are all sons of bitches,”

        • Gordon
          Posted November 20, 2010 at 4:03 am | Permalink

          damn misattributed quote, still as stirring.

  6. Posted November 19, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I like to explain that I have the second-most useless degree on the face of the planet. I used to think that nothing could be more worthless than a Bachelor of Music in Orchestral Trumpet Performance…until I heard of a university somewhere in Scotland that offers a Bachelor of Music…in Bagpipe Performance.

    But if I were to hear even a hint of a rumor that ASU was thinking of cutting the School of Music significantly worse than the other schools on campus, I’d be furious.

    (Sadly, the Arizona legislature always cuts state university budgets before cutting anything else, and there’s only so much the schools can do to replace the funds from other sources…so budget cuts have been the order of the day for…oh, about for forever, now.)

    Cheers,

    b&

    • JS1685
      Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Ben,
      Since I’ve gathered you live in the Pheonix area, and appreciate a good tune, let me recommend the Pheonix Opera’s upcoming production of The Magic Flute. My sister will be the Queen of the Night. She’s a very fine colloratura. It ought to be worth it. (don’t ask me how I derived that “ought”. lol)

      • JS1685
        Posted November 19, 2010 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        did I honestly reverse the “o” and the “e”? wtf…

  7. Andy
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Petsko’s response is pitch-perfect.

    This is part of a larger watering down of a college education. No matter what a student’s major is, the full value of a well-rounded education simply cannot be measured. The finest universities in the country (for the most part) still make this a priority, and that’s as it should be.

    The fact that a decent school like SUNY-Albany no longer has a department of classics, is depressing to me. The very notion of a university insists upon a community of scholars and students of various disciplines. When universities themselves stop seeing the “point” of things like classical studies, that’s not a good sign. [Dismounting my high horse now…]

    • MadScientist
      Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      So are you suggesting that the departments should remain funded and perhaps students should be forced to sit in classes which they did not choose to attend? I have experienced much of that and had hoped the next generations would not be victims of this medieval myth of the “whole person”. People will do whatever interests them. So what if I can quote Cicero extensively – it may be OK as a party trick but is there really anything lost in never knowing Cicero? There is so much out there in the world to experience; there is no need to be fettered to the past. Hell, no one even heeds the old adage about repeating history – look around and see how many people are all too happy to invade other countries. The willingness to act poorly has little to do with history and much of what people claim to be benefits of knowing history can also be learned from studying contemporary societies. Not all knowledge from the past is of value.

      • Andy
        Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        So are you suggesting that the departments should remain funded and perhaps students should be forced to sit in classes which they did not choose to attend?

        Well, I do support a general education curriculum, which most schools already have—but that’s not what you’re asking.

        No, I don’t think anyone should be forced to sit in classes. I also don’t think people should be forced to eat Oreos if they don’t want to. Something about forcing people to do things makes me uncomfortable, I guess. However, if a person chooses to attend a university, then I think the university does have an obligation to, you know, be a university. That means that classes in the Humanities and Fine Arts are available options. If you don’t want to read Cicero or Marcus Aurelius, I won’t force you. You’ll notice that when a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays comes to town, no one in the audience has to be strapped to their chair Clockwork Orange-style. Some of us actually enjoy these things. Some college students, also, enjoy these things. And I just think it’s a shame when their university gets rid of these things—because many of us who enjoy these things discovered them in college, and we would not have otherwise.

      • gillt
        Posted November 19, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

        Do you mean like Oxford and Cambridge Medieval?

        As I remember undergrad at a State University, there are core courses for the major of your choice and there are electives that typically “force” you to take a few courses outside the department of your major. Besides, if you can actually sell people on the idea that such courses help you get laid by quoting famous dead people at cocktail parties then I doubt you’d have to force those courses on anyone.

      • Posted November 20, 2010 at 12:10 am | Permalink

        @mad. So either these programs go away or students are forced to sit through them? Those are the only 2 options?

  8. Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    This is eerily timely. Though a scientist, I serve on my University’s Humanities Steering Committee, and we just met at noon today to consider dissolving our interdisciplinary program due to a lack of support that makes the program unsustainable. We decided to hang on for another semester. I’ve forwarded the link to Petsko’s piece to all my fellow committee members.

  9. MadScientist
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Why the allusion to Goethe’s Faust? I could never understand that; people seem to mention it as if Christopher Marlowe never existed.

    I do not see why anyone should object to some courses being dropped – how many universities still have Latin courses? If it is unpopular, forget about it and let other institutions where it remains vibrant continue the work. I am reminded of an episode of The Simpsons:

    Lisa: You know, if we get through to just that one little girl, it’ll all be worth it!

    Stacy: Yes. Particularly if that little girl happens to pay $46,000 for that doll.

    Although I harbor no good will for MBAs, they’re not always wrong.

    • Andy
      Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Why the allusion to Goethe’s Faust? I could never understand that; people seem to mention it as if Christopher Marlowe never existed.

      Such slights seem to happen to Marlowe a lot. The Merchant of Venice will get praised up and down without even the smallest mention of The Jew of Malta.

      • Posted November 19, 2010 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

        Wull maybe that’s because it’s better. Marlowe had a mighty line but his plots were just a tad simplistic.

        • Dominic
          Posted November 21, 2010 at 4:19 am | Permalink

          “I’ll burn my books!”

  10. Sven DiMilo
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Stirring words indeed.

    I checked the biography mentioned. Philip is a career financier. Suppose you were primarily fiscally rather than scientifically minded. These programs served only “a paucity of students” at Albany (read: lost money) and are presumably represented elsewhere in the SUNY system. What’s the argument for continuing to teach every single subject at your campus when some of them are (evidently) chronically underenrolled or even unpopular?

  11. Tim Harris
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Marlowe is one of my favourites. I love his mischief. Some years ago in Oxford, I saw a performnce of The Jew of Malta, with the great actor Ian McDiarmid playing Barabbas. As one anti-Christian joke after another (the only decent people in the play are the Turks!) rolled out, you could see the good burghers of Oxford come for a bit of culture squirming in their seats and wondering whether they ought to laugh. I, on the other hand, was trying to control my giggles. I really don’t know how Marlowe got away with what he wrote in those days (of course, in the end he didn’t). The Merchant of Venice, incidentally, is a far more anti-Semitic play than Marlowe’s.
    And, finally, one thing that I very much admire about Jerry Coyne is his obvious love and respect for the arts, and it is one of the important reasons why I read his blog.

    • Posted November 19, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      His love and respect for the arts and food.

      • Posted November 19, 2010 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

        ….and kittehs:)) How can you not admire someone who allows kittens to claw their way up his jeans to get a treat, and goes out for hikes around Greek islands with cat food in his pack for strays ;-))

        • Posted November 21, 2010 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

          Ahhhh… Art, food and kittehs – the three pillars of a life well lived. If only more people got their priorities right, the world would be so much better…

      • astrokid.nj
        Posted November 20, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

        His love and respect for the arts and food and leather boots and… such worldly pleasures.. could he have struck a deal with the devil? 😀

  12. daveau
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know where I’d be now had I not gone to The College of William and Mary, a liberal arts school that enforced a wide education on everyone, even prospective scientists.

    That’s one of the things I like best about this blog: it’s so well rounded. Sure there’s biology, evolution and atheism, but there’s also art, music, film, literature, photography, food, cats and cowboy boots. JC is a wellspring of surprises, and I really appreciate it. How do people function in real life without that?

  13. Christoph
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    I think it comes down to a matter of priorities. Here in Vancouver, Canada, we are closing schools but there is hundreds of millions of dollars available for a new stadium roof. For the U.S., military budgets are in the hundreds of billions (trillions?) yet education is starved.

    Maybe Education can be put in the “Defense” Budget? Then your universities would be untouchable. Of course, it would be another Faustian bargain…

  14. Helen Wise
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    No one needs Art or Music or Humanities in University.

    Independent thought and critical analysis pose real existential threats to the only subject that’s worth studying, really: the Bible.

    Yesterday, I took the morning off from work so that I could watch Hitch debate Dembski, and I still feel terribly sad about it.

    • still learning
      Posted November 19, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      ???

  15. Bryan
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    I agree that studying the humanities is a fulfilling and wonderful experience. Nonetheless, these courses are not free – and that is NOT Philip’s fault. Unless anyone disagrees with my assertion, perhaps some sympathy is in line for Philip. There is no free lunch…

    • winwar
      Posted November 19, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

      Bryan:

      None of the courses at a State school are free. They are ALL subsidized by the taxpayers. The President of the University has made a choice to value certain programs less than others. Which does not make sense for a University, an institution of higher learning. It is not a vocational school and thus should not operate as one.

      I will give him no sympathy. After all, he doesn’t seem to be eliminating their Division 1 athletics program. I doubt that supports itself. His priorities seem clear.

      • yesmyliege
        Posted November 20, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        I wouldn’t be surprised that many athletic departments/programs DO support themselves – when you add alumni and booster donations into the equation.

      • Posted November 20, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        Feel free to suggest some alternative “priorities” that you think would be a better choice for the President of the University. Examples include 1) raise tuition, 2) cut funding to a different program (for example, Biology or Marketing), 3) I can’t really think of any alternatives beyond these two, but I’d be interested to hear suggestions.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 20, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

          Let’s see; you could quit hiring tenure-track people and instead employ “adjunct” personnel, thereby greatly lessening your fiscal responsibilities to what should be some of the most important cogs in the system…oh wait, someone’s already thought of that…

      • Posted November 20, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        Also, all decisions about academic course offerings involve “valuing” certain subjects over others. Even before the most recent decision, I’m sure that SUNY had made decisions in the past to exclude certain subjects – for example, astrology. Without making any value judgments vis a vis Classics and astrology, I assert that it most certainly does “make sense” for a University President to make choices to value certain programs over others.

  16. Posted November 19, 2010 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    Mr Bennett: “What say you Mary? for you are a young lady of deep reflection, I know, and read great books, and make extracts.”

    Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.

  17. Posted November 19, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    “The best teachers are not the ones who instill knowledge in your brain, but those who instill a love of learning, so that you are autodidactic in the subject for the rest of your life.”

    That’s gotta’ be the quote of the week.
    ~Rev El

    • Posted November 19, 2010 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

      Second that!! It’s not the Universe we are given at University–just the keys to it:))

  18. JS1685
    Posted November 19, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Although I cherish my liberal arts education, and now enjoy, as a musician, a professional life in one of the humanities, the ambivalence some demonstrate toward them is perhaps understandable. I watch with horror as too many charlatans are not just tolerated, but celebrated.

    I first read about this disaster here, in an article by Stanley Fish. I was dismayed to learn he was upset primarily because he saw the “contributions” of French philosophers like Derrida as some kind of paradise that we are now in danger of losing. In my own field of music, I am bombarded every day w intellectually meager efforts. Hacks abound in ALL fields, I know; but it seems they’re more likely to get away w their inferiority in the arts because too many people buy into the notion that the arts are completely subjective. You can’t pronounce on a piece of music or art. You just can’t. You’re a closed-minded dogmatist if you do. Allowing for novelty and experimentation is one thing. Blindly and unthinkingly proclaiming everything you come across to be AMAZING is another. The latter happens A LOT in music.

    There’s got to be some way we can introduce standards into the arts; some way to turn it into a real meritocracy. But cutting humanities programs is certainly not the way to do it.

    • Ben Breuer
      Posted November 20, 2010 at 1:21 am | Permalink

      “Blindly and unthinkingly proclaiming everything you come across as AMAZING …”

      Is this perhaps due to our general ignorance about how music does what we value it for?

      [Full disclosure: musicologist speaking here. I have no quarrel with the “French school” and some of their insights are rather useful, but (like certain music) they suffer from overexcited admirers. I haven’t been able to read myself seriously into Derrida and Co. but once I’m done with my current project, I’ll take a peek.]

  19. Posted November 20, 2010 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    The “Voltaire” that Petsko cites in the letter is likely misattributed, but I guess that happens when humanities departments shut down. Heh.

  20. Diane G.
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    Although…ahem…some of the liberal arts have been inordinately full of BS lately…And I’ve known far more scientists who are also passionate about and often talented in the arts than vice versa…And Petsko put me off at first with his “you don’t actually have a PhD or other high degree,” which, while it might be highly relevant in this particular case, does serve to tar any number of un-degree-ed but nonetheless learned connoisseurs, autodidacts, as it were…

    –Diane, feeling contrarian

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 20, 2010 at 6:30 am | Permalink

      I agree; that statement was gratuitous and detracted from the rest of the critique.

  21. Paul Spence
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    I have to differ from the general tone here. I was brought up and educated in the UK in the 60s and 70s. Then one specialized early (I think it’s different now as I’ve been living in the US for the last 15 years and diversity in education has been inflicted on the populous with a general lowering of academic standards I understand). I stopped doing subjects other than physics chemistry biology and mathematics at age 15, my undergraduate and D.Phil work was all science (sorry, D.Phil is an Oxford University pretension). I wouldn’t have had it any other way. My interest in non-science subjects was and still is zero. I haven’t read a novel or been to the theatre for >30 years. I just have no interest in the stuff. However, I’m more than happy to pay taxes to support the arts, as I know everyone is different. I’m sure I’m not the only scientist who regrets the time wasted (even in my case as little as possible) not just doing science.

    • poke
      Posted November 20, 2010 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      You’re not alone. I don’t care to study the subjects and find the idea that that makes me ‘incomplete’ faintly offensive.

      Also, I hate cats.

      • JS1685
        Posted November 20, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

        I’m not fond of cats, either. In fact, I have a hard time understanding the compulsion to own pets at all. But as it is manifestly important to a majority of people, I can’t say I’d look on w indifference as pet stores began closing.

        (a weak analogy, I know, but I think you get my point)

  22. Paul Spence
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Martim

    Just saw your comment re: Orwell. It might be >30 years since a read a novel (I do read books usually >5 at a time – just not story books)but I was forced to read him at school. Your quote says it all – he was a fool.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted November 20, 2010 at 6:33 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but despite the quote (which I think you may have misinterpreted), Orwell was no fool, and you show yourself for one by saying that. As for your pride in not having any interest in literature or theater or the like, well, yes, to each his own, but I feel about that like I feel towards someone who doesn’t care about food or wine: they’re missing something, and I feel sorry for them.

  23. Paul Spence
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    whyevolutionistrue

    No. I don’t appreciate the arts you appear to. Perhaps you are being arrogant, assuming that just because I don’t “get” anything from non-numercal culture I’m missing something. Hey, if you have never had a sense of taste you can’t miss out on the taste of crispy duck. Don’t be arrogant in feeling sorry for me it makes no damn difference.

    Regarding Orwell:

    “But does all this mean that the general public should not be more scientifically educated? On the contrary! All it means is that scientific education for the masses will do little good, and probably a lot of harm, if it simply boils down to more physics, more chemistry, more biology, etc., to the detriment of literature and history. Its probable effect on the average human being would be to narrow the range of his thoughts and make him more than ever contemptuous of such knowledge as he did not possess: and his political reactions would probably be somewhat less intelligent than those of an illiterate peasant who retained a few historical memories and a fairly sound aesthetic sense.”

    Now I couldn’t have written something more foolish if I taken all week to think about it! He was an ignoramus to the 10th degree.

    • Eric MacDonald
      Posted November 20, 2010 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      What as silly remark Paul. In what way does your quote from Orwell show him to be “an ignoramus to the 10th degree”? That, as I say, is just silly. Notice the important qualification:

      All it means is that scientific education for the masses will do little good, and probably a lot of harm, if it simply boils down to more physics, more chemistry, more biology, etc., to the detriment of literature and history.

      Without that qualification (in italics) Orwell would show himself ignorant. With it, it’s just plain common sense.

      And remember, while you’re at it, that the host of this blog is not only a scientist, but has shown himself knowledgeable about literature, history, theology, and the arts generally — and food, and cowboy boots for the well dressed scientist! This makes what he says not only worth listening to, but, in many instances, profound. Whereas your five books at a time seems to have done you a lot of harm, since you clearly cannot read with attention or understanding.

      • Paul Spence
        Posted November 20, 2010 at 8:14 am | Permalink

        Dear Eric,

        No you are the fool (or at the very least a sloppier reader than me). It is exactly the quote you use which identifies Orwell as a fool. It shows clearly that he did not understand and and probably had no interest in doing so the value of science. The very fact that education in the sciences is a valuable and positive thing. He clearly thought that the literature and arts are more important or at least should be preferred to science. In my view this is so wrong as to (in his words) be dangerous.

        I know Coyne has broader interests in literature, clothes food (and theology – a subject no value). I visit this site for science and put up with the other distractions.

        • Eric MacDonald
          Posted November 20, 2010 at 8:59 am | Permalink

          Paul, your response shows how insensitive to language you are. I said that your remark was silly. I did not call you a fool. The one is a judgement about a remark; you make a judgement about a person. Language can be a sensitive instrument, as reading Orwell with care would show you. By using language as you do, you make the case for Orwell, Coyne and Petsko.

          • Paul Spence
            Posted November 20, 2010 at 9:13 am | Permalink

            Your quote:

            “Orwell was no fool, and you show yourself for one by saying that”

            So you did say I was a fool. I’m very sensitive to language and read what is written.

            In science the words are data. In literature they may represent the person’s position. I go for science.

            • Eric MacDonald
              Posted November 20, 2010 at 9:54 am | Permalink

              I merely point out, Paul, that I did not say that. Read what I said again.

              But, really, I would take Jerry’s advice. If you don’t like kittens, literature, thoughtful remarks on literature, art and music, intelligent appraisals of theological arguments, descriptions and enticing pictures of food, cowboy boots, and other general reflections on the good life, then obviously “Why Evolution is True” must be a constant annoyance. And still my claim stands: you simply do not read carefully.

            • Eric MacDonald
              Posted November 20, 2010 at 9:58 am | Permalink

              I should add here that I do not dissent from Jerry’s judgement. I simply did not make it. But anyone who can read Orwell and call him ignorant to the 10th degree (whatever that means), clearly hasn’t read Orwell with care.

            • JS1685
              Posted November 20, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink

              Paul,
              You misattribute that quote to Eric.

              Surely you can’t be serious in consigning everything that’s not physics, biology, or chemistry to the “distraction” heap. Truly great music is an intellectual achievement.

              I think the expression you’re looking for is “to the nth degree”.

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted November 20, 2010 at 9:06 am | Permalink

          I would suggest then, Mr. Spence, that you visit Carl Zimmer’s The Loom, or Ed Yong’s site, or any of the other sites that feature much more evolution than I do—without those annoying “distractions.” Anyone who dismisses Orwell as a “fool”, and on the basis of one misinterpreted statement, is nearly as ignorant as fundamentalist creationists.

          If I had George Orwell here, and could pull him out from behind a sign, he’d tell you, “I heard what you said. You clearly know nothing of my work.”

  24. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven’t given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.

    I am shocked! Shocked, I say, to find gnu atheist Jerry Coyne supporting supernaturalistic twaddle such as the existence of souls.

    (For the ultra-dense: yes, I’m being sarcastic.)

  25. Filippo
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    The mention of the autodidact brings to mind the notion not a few people have, to-wit: one is not legitimately educated unless it is via an accredited institution. It seems that both formal and autodidactical are necessary. The problem with the latter is that the bar is raised re:sufficiently demonstrating ones academic credentials, bona fides and competence at such time as they may be questioned.

    I was a science major but the rudder on my academic ship was somewhat loose. Desiring to remain in the academic “cocoon” atmosphere after graduating (trans: “hanging out”), the course “Renaissance and Reformation” caught my eye, and there I became aware of Machiavelli and “the Prince,”, Loyola, Calvin, Thomas More, Erasmus, Martin Luther, the sale of “indulgences,” “Utopia,” and a score of other humans and ideas.

    I wanted to read about the above, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to a subject matter-expert hold forth on them. I did not enjoy running the gauntlet, enduring the crucible, of having to WRITE about the subjects. I simply didn’t feel I had anything compelling and orginal to say. (Also, those of a certain age remember too well the drudgery of typing a paper, only to find that when finished one has left out or misplaced a sentence, and it is to do over. We are now ‘spoiled’ by cut-and-paste convenience.)

    I suspect a lot of people think that they will get around to in-depth avocational reading in the humanities during personal discretionary time, but they never get around to it, what with that commodity being in short supply in frenetic contemporary life, or so it seems. Investing time, energy and money in a formal course forces ones attention on the subject. As it is currently, to use my grandfather’s colorful, colloquial Appalachian saying, I’m “like a dog on a meat wagon.” I want it all, but don’t know where to start or what to continue on with. I’ve finished Coyne. I’ve started Prothero (paleontology, not theology). I need to finish Carroll (Sean B., and I’m sure Sean R. has some good things to say.) Bertrand Russell. Portions of Shakespeare, Shelley, Dickinson and a score of others are worthy of memorizing. Am finishing up a Neil Postman. Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” is beckoning me to continue after a two-year hiatus. At a distance I’m hearing Richard Henry Dana calling me to continue the voyage I started 25 years ago on “Two Years Before the Mast.” And a couple of scores of other books I don’t know that I will ever get to.

    Finally, I’m reminded of the end of an Apollo 15 post-mission news conference when Dave Scott (remember his great demonstration using a hammer and falcon feather, reconfirming Galileo’s experiment?) quoted Putarch: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited.”

    • Posted November 22, 2010 at 2:34 am | Permalink

      Beautiful piece, Filippo. And that Plutarch quote should be on every teacher’s wall.

      Nice one.

  26. Filippo
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    One more thing. As a matter of principle and self-respect, ought any humanities Ph.D be able to do a two- or three-step algebra problem?

    From my own experience, it won’t do for some cultural studies-type to get up in front of a group of prospective middle and high school teachers (mid-career-changers with significant science, math, engineering backgrouds) and, upon hearing the word “math” uttered, preemptorially announce, “I was never any good at math” (Trans: “I can’t be bothered to lift a finger and inconvenience myself to work at it.”) and perfunctorily dismiss the matter as if it were of no relevant consequence.

    Either don’t mention it at all, or in the next breath or two say words to the effect that one feels the lack of that skill and it is something s/he needs to press on with and become competent at.

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 20, 2010 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Hear, hear! I’d feel a lot more charitable about the liberal arts if it wasn’t so easy to run across sweeping dismissals of anything science-related on that side of the fence. This debate reminds me a lot of the accomodationist/gnu dynamic. One side feels so free to speak dismissively about the other, the other being automatically put on the defensive.

      And it seems to be always math that’s OK to not understand. Do so many artsies really want to sound like that infamous Barbie doll?

  27. Apples
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t realize you went to W&M, Professor Coyne! From one alum to another, hark upon the gale!


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  1. […] Russell Blackford (from a humanities perspective) have been discussing similar charges lately (see Keeping the humanities alive and Keeping the humanities alive – and a bit on “other ways“). I liked this […]

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