The Chronicle Review

Big Brains, Small Minds

Tina Zellmer for The Chronicle Review

May 13, 2016

We are on the verge of becoming the best trained, and least educated, society since the Romans — and reducing the humanities to a type of soft science will only hasten this trend.

As the sciences rightly grow, a free society must ensure that criticism of the sciences grows apace. Effective criticism depends on distance, in this case on an unshakeable difference, between the humanities and the STEM fields. That is not to say that STEM researchers can’t or shouldn’t be experts in the humanities, but rather that the work that the humanities do should not be judged by the metrics of hard science. As Aristotle, Plato’s most famous student, suggests at the beginning of the Nicomachean Ethics, "precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions." Similarly, we should not expect the humanities to be driven or dominated by the objectives of science. Plato teaches us that part of the liberal arts’ enduring mission is precisely to critique these objectives.

It ought to be obvious that the study of law, justice, and the arts is one of the best preparations for governing. This goes for governing our polis and equally for governing our technologies and ourselves. If you’re interested in learning about justice, you don’t go to the chemistry laboratory. You go to philosophy class and travel to Plato’s Republic.

But if you go to the Republic in search of concrete answers about justice (as many of our students are encouraged to search for the "right" answers in their labs), you will be disappointed. Plato is not famous for answering questions but for staking his life on the chance to ask them. He seems more interested in inviting his readers to ask their own questions and to finish the dialogue themselves, as if to say that it’s more important to learn to think than to memorize others’ dogmatic principles. The question about justice that motivates the Republic is posed in a lengthy series of dialogues, and it does not give rise to a fixed doctrine. Plato seems to be suggesting that part of being just is taking the time to think seriously about justice.

That involves asking questions — and not answering them before they have been posed in a meaningful and detailed way. It involves patience and reflection, increasingly rare in our STEM culture. When we dismiss perennial questions of right action as ivory-tower claptrap and try to get down to the business of satisfying our passions or current economic or military needs, we can find ourselves chasing the wrong ends because we quickly forget what the right ends could be. To put it differently: If we treat the contemplation of the best life as a luxury we cannot afford, seemingly urgent matters will crowd out the truly important ones.

If the aim of education is to gain money and power, where can we turn for help in knowing what to do with that money and power?
Plato knew this firsthand. He had watched as ambition, tied to technological superiority, had led his fellow Athenians to engage in a number of poorly conceived military campaigns, the last of which had allowed the Spartans to lay siege to Athens. In the face of such a ruthless foe, Athens did what any wealthy democracy would do: It built a wall around itself. Some of the walls of the Peloponnesian War are still visible, hastily built out of whatever the Athenians could lay hands on — the remnants of roofs and doorposts — suggesting that some buildings were torn down to make them. That is instructive, if not cautionary. It is often the case that in our attempts to guard ourselves we destroy the very things that we long to protect. Identifying and negotiating these paradoxes is the stuff of a liberal-arts education.

If the aim of education is to gain money and power, where can we turn for help in knowing what to do with that money and power? Only a disordered mind thinks that these are ends in themselves. Socrates offers us the cautionary tale of the athlete-physician Herodicus, who wins fame and money through his athletic prowess and medicine, then proceeds to spend all his wealth trying to preserve his youth. This is what we mean by a disordered mind. He has been trained in the STEM fields of his time, and his training gains him great wealth, but it leaves him foolish enough to spend it all on something he can never buy.

These days, no one really talks about Socrates or Herodicus; students don’t need to read Plato, we’re told. Harking back to the golden age of Athens is seen as impractical, old-fashioned, or elitist — terms that are now used almost interchangeably, as in the bizarre declaration in 2013 by Pat McCrory, the Republican governor of North Carolina, that universities had been taken over by "educational elites."

Plato argues that there is nothing wrong with turning education over to elites, as long as they take it as their mission to pursue wisdom and guide political and technological ambition, and to stake their lives on the chance to help students ask meaningful questions, rather than give half-baked answers, about the meaning of life.

John Kaag is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. David O’Hara is an associate professor of philosophy and classics at Augustana University, in South Dakota, and teaches field ecology courses in Central America and Alaska.