Defense of Liberal Arts Education + The Barbarism of Specialization from Opening Talk of the School Year

The following is the text of my opening talk to the faculty at DeMatha Catholic High School as we begin the 2011-2012 school year.  Next week some comments on, I think, Janet Evanovich and some non-fiction I’ve been reading including Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster.

One DeMatha—August, 2011

Daniel McMahon

One DeMatha.  There are nearly 38,000 high schools in the United States and only one DeMatha.  There are 6,000 Catholic schools in the United States and just one DeMatha. We are unique—and not by name alone—we are singular in that we are the only Trinitarian school in the country.  Often we work to build community with our neighbors, we are proud to be a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Washington; and we choose to belong to organizations such as Independent Education, Middle States, HSPA, WAMTC, WCAC and others.  But it is important that devote some time to think about our unique place in the universe of schools, the universe of Catholic schools, the universe of order-run schools, the universe of all-boys schools and all the rest. 

Our “One DeMatha” campaign has three distinct parts—as befits a Trinitarian school.  The first is that we celebrate our unique status as the one-of-a-kind school that we are.  The second is that we take seriously the notion of being number 1—our attempt to achieve excellence in every area where we have a presence—from Campus Ministry to chemistry and from music to mathematics.  When we are at our best we internalize competition to become; not better than some exterior competition, but better than the people we are today—better teachers, better students, better friends, better alumni, better family members, and better neighbors. The third sense in which we say “One DeMatha” is primarily directed inside the community, to those of us in this room and to our students—and that is the “e pluribus unum” aspect of One DeMatha—“out of many, one.” Schools, with their departments and divisions are tempting places to become Balkanized or a collection of feudalistic states at war with or in conflict with each other.  This is a particularly dangerous temptation at a school that has so many excellent programs—so many programs that measure themselves on local, regional, and national levels.  That is one reason why a common reading of the mission statement and its appearance in every room is so important.  We must always recognize that in no matter what area we contribute as our primary work here—we are One DeMatha.  Recognizing that also means celebrating all of the other people who make us One DeMatha.  To this end we have been developing a marketing campaign to the external world about our uniqueness and our excellence.  You’ll see some of that in newspaper ads, video promotions, and graphic art work.

How does “One DeMatha” manifest itself inside the academic walls of the school? How does our individual academic work reflect One DeMatha?  It seems to me that this happens in our emphasis on a liberal arts education.  We emphasize the unity of knowledge—the integration of knowledge that—that is distinguished even from a school that demands a common core of classes.  It is not enough to have students take the same classes—they need to be taught to assimilate what they are learning with what they already know and to actively incorporate learning, faith, and life. To make the emphasis on integration of knowledge even more explicit this year I am asking each person here to invite someone from another department—or with another specialty—to guest teach your class—to render the interdisciplinary explicit.  There is no question that specialization is important and I’m not the enemy of specialization—well not exactly.

The Washington Post reported in January that there is a new movement in education to, “Assign each student a single, specific topic, which he or she will study over and over again, from every conceivable angle, from early elementary school through high school.” Kieran Egan, a professor of education, is the author of this idea which he claims is gaining ground in school systems.

[Egan] begins with apples.  He imagines a young student first drawing apples, then cataloguing apple varieties, and later collecting stories about apples (from the Garden of Eden and Johnny Appleseed to William Tell and Isaac Newton) and figuring out why apples float.

Dust, meanwhile could take a student from house dust, to the Dust Bowl, from the origins of the color khaki (‘khaki’ is Urdu for ‘dust’; how it came to refer to a color is a long story involving British camouflage uniforms and Afghanistan) to the origins of the planet.

I imagine that following his own logic that Professor Egan would also be one of those who advocates a child playing only one sport to the exclusion of all others—a dubious practice at best and an injurious one at worst. I’m not quite clear on how we get to calculus, chemistry, computer science, or the constitutional convention from apples or dust and the article doesn’t say—I suppose that some alchemical process will magically make it happen. 

As a culture we were not always so fascinated with specialization.  José Ortega y Gasset, an important Spanish philosopher, published a series of essays called The Revolt of the Masses and in it is the incredibly prescient essay called “The Barbarism of Specialisation.”  Ortega y Gasset notes that from 500 AD until 1800 AD the population of Europe never goes above 180 million.  Occurrences of plagues, wars, and emigration contained population.  From 1800-1914 the population jumps from 180 million to 460 million—and that is even including the Irish Diaspora and the British emigration to its far-flung colonies.  Two other tremendous historical shifts happen in this time period: the rise of democracy and the full running of the Industrial Revolution—what Ortega y Gasset will call “technicism.” A key component of technicism is its increasing use of specialization and specialists—this is where all of these additional people go.  Education becomes increasingly specialized to satisfy the need for specialization. Science education and study provides a compelling model of this movement though the same drive towards specialization is found in all disciplines.

Ortega y Gasset writes

Experimental science is initiated towards the end of the XVI [sixteenth] Century (Galileo), it is definitively constituted at the close of the XVIIth [seventeenth] (Newton), and it begins to develop in the middle of the XVIII [eighteenth]….  [T]he constitution of physics, the collective name of the experimental sciences, rendered necessary an effort towards unification.  Such was the work of Newton and other men of his time.  But the development of physics introduced a task opposite in character to unification.  In order to progress, science demanded specialization, not in herself, but in men [and later women] of science.  Science is not specialist.  If it were it would ipso facto cease to be true.  Not even empirical science, taken in its integrity, can be true if separated from mathematics, from logic, from philosophy.  But scientific work does, necessarily, require to be specialized.

          It would be of great interest [Ortega y Gasset goes on]… to draw up the history of physical and biological sciences, indicating the process of increasing specialization in the work of investigators.  It would then be seen how, generation after generation, the scientist has been gradually constricted into narrower fields of mental occupation…. [So] in each generation the scientist, through having to reduce the sphere of his labour, was progressively losing contact with other branches of science, with that integral interpretation of the universe which is the only thing deserving the names of science [and] culture.

          My wife Donna was a bench chemist or wet chemist for WR Grace some 25 years ago and she observed that most of the PhD chemists she worked with—specialists in: NMR – Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, PLM – Polar Light Microscopy, FTIR – Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, ICP-MS – Inductively Coupled Plasma – Mass Spectroscopy, HPLC – High Performance Liquid Chromatography, SEM – Scanning Electron Microscopy, GC – Gas Chromatography, X-ray Diffraction, Atomic Absorption, and X-ray Fluorescence—could not speak to each other.  Their work was so specialized that even other highly educated people could not (or they often thought could not) understand what they were doing.  Only the division head could see all the work and how it fit together—and sometimes not even that person had a grasp of the whole.

          The creation of all these specialists has an interesting psychological effect.  “The specialist know very well his [or her] own tiny corner of the universe; he [or she] is radically ignorant of all the rest,” This leads to what Ortega y Gasset calls the paradox of the “learned ignoramus”—and this is different from any other time in history.  Through the 18th century people were either learned or ignorant—those more or less the one and those more or less the other—by the late 19th century you have people who are ignorant in many areas but are in fact specialists and therefore knowledgeable in one area.  The specialist, Ortega y Gasset will argue, has a certain arrogance that goes with being “one who knows” (and some of this is deserved)—but he transfers this arrogance to all areas where he is NOT knowledgeable.  “For the purpose of innumerable investigations it possible to divide science into small sections, to enclose oneself in one of these, and to leave out consideration of all the rest.  The solidity and exactitude of the method allows of this temporary but quite real disarticulation of knowledge.”  You can advance the cause of science—or knowledge in almost anything, without having any real idea about meaning or foundation.  I went to graduate school with way too many people like this.

          Specialists—and this is a massive irony—are almost always dismissive of specialists in other areas and they have contempt for people who venture outside of their narrow specialty or who are generalists.  When Carl Sagan wrote Dragons of Eden (about evolution and the nature of intelligence, the importance of dreams, why we are either left- or right handed, etc.) he was vilified by fellow scientists for venturing outside his specialized realm of astronomy; popular historians such as Barbara Tuchman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and David McCullough are regularly looked down upon by “academic historians” or “specialists.” Woe to the journalist or scientist who writes a “popular book” of science or history.  There are countless examples of this.

          As it happens, I have spent large portions of my life fighting specialization—my dissertation is an example—and I was told not to write it because it conformed to no category that MLA [Modern Language Association] recognizes.  But writing about mythology and utopia from Plato to the present allowed me to read around in theology, political science, anthropology, philosophy, economics, social history, urban planning, literature and criticism.  I have long loved the notion of being a generalist but realize that the phrase “jack of all trades but master of none” is designed to insult the jack of all trades.

          What we do here in making students take a survey course in American History is give them a coherent narrative of our history and that may be the last time that they ever get this—even for those who major in history whose classes will be dominated by “period” study and other subdivisions.  By giving students a survey of biology (and later chemistry and physics) we hope to pique their interest in some form of science that will interest them but we also give them a reliable base of knowledge to be conversant with topics that will allow them to understand their world from nano-medicine to end of life issues, from global warming to dangers from industrial run-off.  If we don’t give students an integrated picture of the world, and a way to approach the world with integrity, where will it happen?

          Can knowledge be packaged discretely in pre-packaged bits that are all separate from each other? Many educational theorists say yes.  Can people be taught to think without regard to content? Again, some argue that this is both possible and desirable (perhaps the most overused and under-challenged assertion in education jargon comes from those who are going to teach students to “think critically”).  If content is necessary, what content is important? This is the source of enormous fights regarding curriculum.  I hope that as a school and as individuals we are breaking down the boundaries between theorists as well as breaking down the boundaries between our disciplines—that we become comfortable actively seeking out the tension that helps create the connections between our disciplines.

          Increasingly as people are “niche-marketed” to, as they listen only to music they already like, as they read only blogs with which they already agree, consume news that has been tailored to their political views, view television shows and movies that have been focus-group tested to appeal only to them—not to stretch them—where will they learn about the larger world and, more importantly, how to think about that world? Our commitment to One DeMatha in the academic realm must involve the intentional break down and crossing of disciplinary boundaries, of inviting expertise beyond our own into our classrooms so that we model for students our own curiosity and appreciation for our colleagues and other disciplines.  There are at least 160 teaching days in the year (give or take)—it seems inconceivable that we couldn’t take one of them and give it over to a colleague to demonstrate our commitment to an interdisciplinary “One DeMatha.”

          Let’s come full circle back to Professor Egan and his “study one thing from K-12 theory.” In 1869, Alfred Lord Tennyson published the poem “Flower in the Crannied Wall.” 

                   Flower in the crannied wall,

                   I pluck you out of the crannies,

                   I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

                   Little flower — but if I could understand

                   What you are, root and all, and all in all,

                   I should know what God and man is.

          Tennyson is blending a sort of specialization—the deep study of the flower and its environment—with a kind of inquiry that leads us to see how all things are connected—a study of one thing that leads to universal truths.  To understand that flower—its root system, soil composition, nutrients, vascular movement, photosynthesis, working of the sun, origin of the sun, evolution of the plant and all who feed on it, the earth, plate tectonics, the aesthetic dimensions of proportionality and the golden mean—and on and on—you get the idea.  We’d eventually understand everything—and that should be the goal, our asymptotic quest.

Though we cannot understand everything we can still make it our life’s journey to try to do so and to model for our students the desire to connect all that we learn.  Let’s have a great year.



Filed under books and learning, popular culture, teaching, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Defense of Liberal Arts Education + The Barbarism of Specialization from Opening Talk of the School Year

  1. I sometimes teach persuasive writing to seniors at U of Maryland and we discuss “liberal arts” education in relation to the following argument, written by a student, addressed to university administrators, in an attempt to get out of a math requirement (see below). Despite the author using all the best argumentative tools — pathos/logos/ethos; classical argument structure (ala Aristotle/Socrates); and the rhetorical triangle (exigence, audience, context) — the argument fails. The adiminstration did not grant the author a waiver. Why? Because math is part of a liberal arts foundation. Students love to debate these ideas. Does a stock broker need to know “A Midsummer’s Night Dream?” Does a dance major need algebra? The answer is yes, but I am hard pressed to explain why….your ideas above might help. Some of my students would prefer the British system — trade schools and only a handful of “universities” for those who want a liberal arts ed.

  2. Charlie Kenny

    I truly enjoyed reading your comments to the faculty. I was a business major and then eventually received my JD. If I had to do it over again (hopefully with more maturity), I would pursue the liberal arts degree. As it has turned out, I have become perhaps a “jack of all trades” which has allowed me to adapt to life’s twist and turns as necessary. Go Stags.

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