You don’t need to study the arts. Or do you?

by David Alm on September 20, 2013

i-efc826e4d02d5703a66e54a3e7f498d1-GodelproofHe was the last person you’d expect to say that people don’t need to study the humanities. He’s made an entire career out of them — as an educator, as an organizer of public programs, and as a widely published essayist and literary critic. But a little more than a week ago, over a couple of beers, that’s exactly what he said: A person can develop a nuanced understanding of humanity, a critical mind, and a fully actualized life without parsing the finer points of Big Novels, Important Pieces of Poetry, and Seminal Philosophical Essays.

His two companions that night have similar backgrounds. One is a documentarian and a professor of film and media studies at a well-respected college, and I was the other, a journalist and a part-time professor of journalism and cultural criticism. All three of us have degrees in the humanities, and despite all odds, have managed to make professional use of them. You might expect such a trio to commiserate over the ever-more beleaguered state of our chosen fields, the shrinking humanities departments at schools across the country, and the decreasing cultural literacy among young people today. Instead, we debated a much more fundamental question: What’s the point of studying what we studied?

To be fair, two of us did defend our fields from the outset, leaving the polemics to the one who broached the topic in the first place. But as he argued his position, I started to come around. After all, what are the humanities but yet another construct of, well, humanity? It’s all arbitrary stuff. We created poems, novels, sculptures, and cathedrals, but we could just as easily have created other things. And while I’ve studied my share of poems, novels, sculptures, and cathedrals, you could fill volumes with the stuff I don’t know. Am I any less of a person for the knowledge I lack?

As we talked, I recalled Nicholas Baker’s recent essay from Harper’s, “Wrong Answer: The Case Against Algebra II,” in which the author argues that placing such a high priority on algebra in secondary schools is causing more harm than good. While a few students will grasp the subject and run with it, possibly all the way to a career at NASA, most will simply feel frustrated to the point of giving up. This is no small thing: If a student is made to feel stupid in a math class, she might think she’s stupid generally; and if a decent grade in that math class is required to get into college, she may never go.

Defenders of algebra, such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan, argue that higher-level mathematics teach us to think critically and to analyze complex, abstract concepts, suggesting that if we don’t study higher-level math, we’ll never develop those skills. But here’s the thing: I never took algebra II. I took algebra I and geometry, but managed to avoid any further torture, allowing me to focus instead on my preferred subjects of art, English, and German.

And I still got into college, where I took exactly one math class: a seminar on Kurt Gödel’s “Incompleteness Theorem” — a 90-page, highly abstract and influential proof from 1931 in which the Austrian mathematician proved that any complex formal mathematical system is necessarily incomplete. Its implications extended far beyond math to philosophy and logic in general, hence the course’s textbook: Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, and Bach.

I loved that class. It allowed me to engage with the ideas of mathematics without having to actually do math. And I did very well in it. In one assignment, we were asked to explain one of the finer points of the theorem in essay form, and among the 14 or so other students in the class, half of whom were math majors, I was one of only two who got it right. I will never forget my professor telling me that I showed a sophisticated understanding of mathematics that was rare for an undergraduate, math majors included. I hadn’t taken calculus or differential equations, like many of my classmates had, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t grasp Gödel’s theorem.

The point is that I arrived at that understanding not through the study of math, but literature, philosophy, and art history. I remember finding parallels between Gödel and Nietzsche’s concept of “eternal return,” Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky, and non-Baroque pieces of music. And I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to study math in that context; otherwise I’d have gone through life believing that I will never understand math. The confidence it gave me has paid off in professional and academic contexts ever since; it helped me see that even if I may not be able to do something, I can at least understand and write about it.

Is it  so far-fetched to think that it can’t work the other way, too? Surely some of those math majors have just as nuanced an understanding of human life as I like to think I do, and without having studied Big Novels or Important Poems. Perhaps they got it from Kurt Gödel. Or, for that matter, from Algebra II.


Jeff McMahon September 20, 2013 at 11:22 am

I never thought we *need* to study the arts to understand humanity, which seems to be the assumption behind your speaker’s statement: that we need to, that we must…. Like you, I was drawn to the humanities by an affinity for the arts. It’s a bonus that we *can* study humanity this way, or at least that we can study reflections of humanity on the mind. We can also learn about humanity from studying direct experience, history, religion… pretty much everything human endeavor… right? When we study astronomy we’re studying stuff way out there, but aren’t we of necessity also studying our place in the universe? and in the course of learning to be astronomers, aren’t we studying the history of ourselves trying to understand the universe?

David Alm September 20, 2013 at 2:24 pm

That’s right. I think the epiphany for me was that a math major and I, a humanities person, could both arrive at the same nuanced understanding of a very complex and deeply philosophical mathematical proof, suggesting that maybe the same math major and I could arrive at the same nuanced understanding of ethics or grace or humility, just via different roads.

I think the essential thing is not what you study, but *that* you study something seriously and with an open mind to the lessons — both obvious and hidden — it might contain. The problem is, government policies and social values tend to favor math and science over the arts, and deny that a person can learn the same basic skills through any number of disciplines. Hence the beleaguered humanities and arts programs, and the irrational demand that everyone take Algebra II lest we slide backwards into the dark ages.

I say let the math people discover math, and excel in it, and let the humanities people do the same. Eventually, maybe they can meet in a class about something like Kurt Gödel’s theorem and learn something new.

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