Monday, 12 August 2013

The Error of Compartmentalisation

The excellent Jason has kindly included myself in a list of his friends with good blogs. Over on his blog, with the awesome Phantom-of-the-Opera-esque name (at least that's what I think of) The Masked Thomist, Jason regularly displays his talent for concisely distilling his own thoughts, or those of others, deftly rebutting where appropriate. He also courageously shares various personal struggles, which I find quite inspiring, as well as helpful, providing a perspective not much voiced in the Catholic world.

Also on this list was the very new (only one post so far!) Platitudes in the Making. This first post was on the problem of compartmentalisation, with specific reference to mathematics and music. As someone with a degree in Advanced Mathematics, naturally this caught my attention. It's a very interesting read: did you know, for example that
Beethoven loved to take geometric figures and twist them, raise or lower them, taking certain points on the figures as musical notes, and write entire motifs that way.
What a cool way to compose!!

This compartmentalisation has troubled me for some time in other areas though, especially in the area of university education. It seems to me that the widespread specialisation of most degrees is not the best of ideas. Admittedly, part of the reason why I did Maths was because I hated essays, thought I was no good at them, nor could I ever be, because I just wasn't one of those "English-y types". If I'd been forced to non-Maths or Science subjects, I'd have been pretty ticked off, back in the day.

But now I think that learning to think in a variety of different ways, and learning skills different to the ones that you excel at, is ridiculously important.

When universities began, this was well understood. One didn't simply pick a specific area to be educated in, and specialise right from the get-go. You had to study rhetoric, grammar, logic, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, before you could study philosophy, and before you reached the queen of all studies, theology. They understood that you had to be well-grounded in how the world is, how reality functions as a beautiful whole, in order to not be a slovely theologian.

These days, obviously not everyone is going to be a theologian. But I think there is nevertheless great merit in encouraging students to broaden their intellectual horizons.

Some ways this is done in Sydney:

UNSW gets their students to do a number of General Education (Gen Ed) subjects, which, as I understand it, are just subjects not in your field. This is a good start, but from what I hear most people don't take these seriously, don't really understand why they're important, and try to find "bludge" subjects: in other words, how little work they can get away with.

My own Notre Dame has the Logos Program, which basically involves getting a general introduction to the basics of philosophy, theology and ethics. This is definitely awesome in theory, but I'm not sure how much students get out of it (as I think many probably resent having "Catholic stuff shoved down our throats"), and also it's only three subjects worth.

Campion College is the winner on this front, as it offers the Liberal Arts degree, and that's all it does. Basically, you sit at the feet of history's greatest thinkers, and learn to think and express yourself well, in the areas of history, literature, philosophy, science and theology. By doing so Campion hopes to produce the leaders of the next generation, who are able to think well no matter what profession they choose to enter. Here, crucially, one's specialisation is delayed slightly, which I don't think is any bad thing. Many I have talked to, however, think it's a bit of a waste of time.

This pretty much because education is not generally seen as a good in itself, but merely as a means to getting a degree in something, so you can work. The idea of educating the whole person, aiding them in their pursuit of wisdom, so that they can live a virtuous life in accordance with what we were created for, and thus find true fulfilment, is non-existent in most universities. At Sydney Uni, I pretty much felt like one nobody among many, part of a production-line of graduates, helping the uni make money. This is the sorry state of our unis, which is not going to do society any favours, because university graduates go on to get positions of power and influence, and if they're not well-formed individuals, they're not likely to make well-informed decisions. And I think this is already being seen.

So, to conclude: if you have the chance to not narrow your straight after school, putting yourself into the "teaching" box, or the "politics" box, or the "science" box, or the "IT" box, go for it. Stretch those intellectual muscles! The world needs people who can both think logically and clearly, and express that well, whether in writing or verbally, and who know something of the rich inheritance of knowledge our forebears have bequeathed to us, so that they can contribute something valuable of their own.


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