Here’s a question for you Terry readers: What makes us happy?
Maybe it’s obvious to you. But I think it’s not always as easy as we like to think. Sometimes unusual patterns emerge. Sometimes it’s not the things we’d expect.
Speaking personally, I would say well-crafted language, the power gained by expression through writing, the study of people’s stories-real and imagined-those things make up part of my happiness mosaic.
What I find funny is how often I’ve found myself compelled to justify or rationalize my desire to persist in studying literature despite its distance (and not just figuratively–Buchanan is a long way from LSC!) from my degree. Maybe it’s a symptom of the emphasis we place on science, business, law, on “useful” degrees in our culture. Or the fact that we are willing to categorize knowledge as “useful” or not in the first place and where we chose to draw our lines.
I was talking with a friend the other day who had spent a year studying in Paris. He told me that at the school he had attended, which sounded sort of like the French equivalent of Harvard business school or a finishing school for politicians and diplomats, people took classes in the humanities (i.e. history, literature, art, classics etc.) in order to gain that veneer of culture that presumably gives successful politicians that air of je ne sais quoi.
In other words, the humanities were approached in a very utilitarian way.
He said he found the experience different from UBC, where, in his mind, the humanities are accepted–both by those in them and those in other areas–as rather esoteric or removed from direct practical application. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
Our discussion got me thinking. There are several ways I’ve found myself addressing the question of whether paying the extra money and taking the extra time to study literature is really “worth it”.
First is to question the assumption that all knowledge has to be directly “useful”, in the way that engineering or medical knowledge is. Bertrand Russell apparently once said that
there is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge
Whether or not that is case (I was unable to find the reference in a cursory look through my Russell books), he did write a rather fantastic essay entitled “Useless Knowledge”, in which he extolls the virtues therein. (I was only able to find a partial version on google books, but I highly recommend it). To quote:
Curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less pleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant. I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of the Han dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kanisaka introduced them into India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word “apricot” is derived from the same Latin source as the word “precocious” because the apricot ripens early; and that the A as the beginning was added by mistake , owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.
Not the best quote of the piece, but you get the idea.
All well and good, but I think there are some perhaps, both in and outside the field of English literature, who would object to the classification of such knowledge as useless in the first place. Not to mention, the parents who are helping put me through college wanted a bit more of a justification for extending my degree than “because it helps me enjoy apricots”.
Which brings me to argument number two, which I like to call “What Humanities offer the Sciences”.
In a nutshell, creativity. The keystone to good science.
Because I gave up the struggle to appear cool sometime in the middle of pursuing my degree, I’ll go ahead and admit to the world that the gift and value of scientific creativity is embodied by my new scientific crush, V.D. Ramachandran (bumping Bill Nye and Robert Oppenheimer down a couple notches on my top-ten list). Ramachandran, who was featured in the New Yorker this summer, has made some remarkable leaps forward in the field of neuroscience…using only his imagination and a couple of ten dollar mirrors. I admire him because he is living proof that true scientific advances are made by genuine curiosity, insight into some phenomenon and elegant ideas, not by the expensive equipment in one’s lab.
Ramachandran has written a book about his work entitled Phantoms in the Brain, although it’s as much a book on the scientific process as anything else. What strikes me the most is how rooted in the humanities it seems. Which makes sense, really, since neuroscience is largely the study of what makes us human. And I don’t mean just the quotations Ramachandran has pulled from Sherlock Holmes or the ancient Indian Vedas, although they hint at a man who carries the collective literature of our species in him (as do we all to some degree although we don’t often notice or think about it).
In a more practical sense, his research seems to often stem from old case studies and stories of the people who somehow deviate from the norm. Unlike some of his colleagues, who saw no scientific value in the early 19th century reports of unusual men and women, Ramachandran pours through all the smoke and finds at the root, a genuine neurological puzzle to solve.
I like to think his Vedic references and neurological insight stem from the same source. I’d like to picture him going to school in India as a child and learning the importance of the one so that later, as a scientist, he could recognize the importance of the other. I’d like to think.
I’ve heard that Oppenheimer was a fan of the Indian Bhagavad Gita. And an amateur poet.
Some psychologists who study the basis of creativity and how one defines creativity, have proposed that there are two modes of thought between which our minds alternate: associative and analytical. When you are trying to put together a Rubik’s cube, your brain switches into analytical. When you are painting a picture of a pretty sunset or composing a piece of music, your brain is working in associative mode. They are proposed to be mutually exclusive, by which I mean that it is not possible to think using both modes at exactly the same time. Though I can’t prove this is the case, it seems logical to me that, like anything, without practice you might become less efficient at a particular mode. That being the case, it seems largely advantageous to give your brain time in both areas (reading this blog is probably a good start!)
Over the summer, the Atlantic ran a wonderful story on a long-term study of almost mythical proportions carried out at Harvard. Spanning more than fifty years, the Grant study (named for its original director) followed the lives of two hundred some male students in the attempt to determine what factors and elements of personality and environment make people “normal” or “well-adjusted”.
You can imagine the volume of data collected.
Initially, the study appeared to be a failure. The original investigator was, in a sense, too much of a “scientist”. It took someone with a more literary bend–the psychiatrist George Valliant–to uncover the value in that data. To quote: