depending how far beyond zebra you go
July 18, 2013 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Why would a liberal education, the deeper acquaintance with a number of diverse modes of symbolic production, enhance our freedom? University of Chicago sociology professor Andreas Glaeser, in his 2005 Aims of Education Address to incoming students, muses: How About Becoming a Poet?
posted by shivohum (6 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Can "How about becoming a poet?" be the new join the Coast Guard and rescue people for a living?
posted by chrchr at 5:54 PM on July 18, 2013

This is really, really great, and not really about "poetry" at all:
The point is not only to avoid becoming a cosmopolitan idiot but also to become a free symbol maker who is ready and eager to participate in the creative rejuvenation of meaning. For this to happen, you can not just surf on diverse modes of symbolic production—scientific, artistic, religious, or cultural. Instead, you must delve into them and engage with them to such a degree and at such a proximity, that they, in fact, stand a chance to alter the way in which you think, feel, act, dream, and imagine. To reap the benefits of diversity, you must risk yourself—ready to become transformed in the course of the engagement. This does not mean that you have to make your own all of the modes of symbolic production which you encounter on the way. You will undoubtedly find some of them misguided or even wrong. But you should know why. The point is that by fathoming the operations of diverse modes and by wrestling with their limits and possibilities, you stand a very good chance of becoming a freer and more creative person.
I mean, yeah. Yeah.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:21 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Great post! I also liked:
In sum, freedom has four components: the relief from necessity, the curiosity about and desire for deeper and broader experiences, the ability to critique and judge alternatives, and, finally, the courage to commit on reasonable grounds. And I have not yet spoken of that last part. After we have come to know a wider range of modes of symbolic production in some depth, we should know all the better why we prefer the one over the other for a particular issue at hand. Our choice is not made for lack of alternatives or out of sheer ignorance but for good reasons. Liberal education, thus, may enable us to make reasoned commitments to a mode of symbolic production for a given purpose.
posted by adrianhon at 1:21 AM on July 19, 2013

Great selections! I thought the insights about Einstein were quite interesting, including this passage:
How could Einstein come up with the theory of relativity? First, it is important to understand that throughout his life Einstein worked from a fundamental belief about the nature of nature which he did not derive from physics. Instead, it had deep roots in his ongoing studies in the philosophy of nature and in his spirituality. He was convinced that nature is governed by simple, all-pervasive, economical, and aesthetically appealing principles. For Einstein, nature was materialized reason, an imminent God. In all likelihood, he gleaned this understanding of matter from his readings of enlightenment philosophy, Spinoza above all. These readings date back well into his high school years, and they were continued throughout his studies in Zürich and among a circle of friends during his years as a patent officer in Bern. On the basis of his beliefs about nature, he felt that asymmetries in the explanation of natural phenomena were intolerable. One such asymmetry marred for Einstein the theory of electrodynamics, which was widely considered the crowning achievement of nineteenth-century physics. Maxwell, its finishing architect, offered two discrepant accounts of how a magnet rotating in a coil—or a coil rotating around a magnet—produces an electric current. Such asymmetries, along with seemingly inexplicable experimental results, offended Einstein’s spiritual-aesthetic sensibilities, thus motivating his work. Philosophy also influenced the way he found his solutions; he was convinced that such problems could only be resolved on the basis of principles of a higher generality. And this is what he set out to do—more geometrico.
Oh and today I learned that more geometrico isn't a typo for more geometry but means "in the geometrical manner or method," meaning using logical proofs starting from self-evident axioms a la Euclid or Spinoza.
posted by shivohum at 6:22 AM on July 19, 2013

The Einstein point here is kind of iffy for me.

While I'm sure Einstein's beliefs drove him to some degree, the fact is, that if Einstein hadn't come along, we probably would have had the theory of relativity around the same time or slightly later. The idea-space that Einstein was working in was also occupied by other brilliant mathematicians and physicists who were all pretty close to generating similar things. So just like if Alexander Graham Bell didn't come along, Elisha Grey would have invented the telephone just fine, we probably would have had a the theory of relativity without Einstein.

To bring this back to the essay, if we accept that relativity could have been arrived at without Einstein, possibly by several different people, do we have to accept that they all would have shared Einstein's particular views? That seems kind of absurd. So, while I think a broad education helps, it seems kind of silly to me to hone in on Einstein's particular set of beliefs as a unique "pump" that lead to his particular set of discoveries.

The other issue is that while the author would say that Einstein's beliefs freed him to think in ways that diverged from what came before, those same beliefs eventually formed a cage that prevented Einstein from fully accepting quantum mechanics.
posted by delicious-luncheon at 12:11 PM on July 19, 2013

So, while I think a broad education helps, it seems kind of silly to me to hone in on Einstein's particular set of beliefs as a unique "pump" that lead to his particular set of discoveries.

Well, the point may have been that Einstein's road included a liberal education and access to multiple, seemingly unrelated perspectives which he brought to bear to get to relativity. Now if someone else had gotten there, perhaps their road would have been different, but, Glaeser would argue, I suspect, that it too would involve the application of interdisciplinary views. The exact combination of those views would have been different, but any thinker who came up with such a radical breakthrough would have had knowledge of a diverse set of fields from which to draw metaphors.

those same beliefs eventually formed a cage that prevented Einstein from fully accepting quantum mechanics.

Well the game's far from over. It may well be that Einstein was right and that there shall one day be a grand unified theory that unites relativity and quantum mechanics into a more elegant, symmetrical, and classically beautiful framework.
posted by shivohum at 3:48 PM on July 19, 2013

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