Drowning in Information

Twenty years ago, noted biologist and author E.O. Wilson wrote:

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely. (Source: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge)

I think this has only become more true over time. That's why all this debate about STEM vs. the humanities has been so exhausting to me. If we don't give students the opportunity to learn both, we end up with billionaires building rockets... to shoot their sports car into space.

Then there are studies like this one, that indicate STEM majors are less politically active:

An analysis that we conducted shows that college students studying STEM disciplines — that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics — were among the least likely to vote. STEM students appear less interested in other forms of political and civic engagement, too. One study found that students who took more science and engineering courses were less likely to participate in politics by donating money to a campaign or attending a political meeting. Another found that engineering majors were less committed to social activism than their non-STEM peers.

As Fareed Zakaria wrote a couple years ago (emphasis mine):

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy.

Instead of such a singular focus on a relatively narrow field of topics, we should be spending our energy on how to integrate all the subjects that have been kept in such distinct silos for too long.

A Future Not Our Own

I wrote a dozen letters of recommendation for seniors this year, more than In years past. Fortunately, most of the students who ask me for a letter are students whom I have gotten to know well, because I taught them in multiple Latin classes over their career. And while I of course mention all their achievements in my letter, I try to keep it future-focused: why am I so confident in this young woman's future success? Yeah, she's done good work in high school, but what about her specifically makes me think she will do well in college and beyond? That can be a tough question to answer, not because of the individual student (there are plenty of nice things to say about all our students), but because sometimes I feel woefully unprepared to recommend them for a future that I can't easily imagine.

My father has spent 35 years at the same company, working his way up the corporate ladder. Lately, he has unfortunately received several reminders that the loyalty he's shown over those three and a half decades isn't reciprocated. And for my students, odds are pretty good that they will not be working at any one company for 35 years. The days of finding a job right out of college and retiring 40 years later with a pension are over, and have been for a long time. (Unless somebody gets a job at a Jesuit high school–those people tend not to leave.)

I think this uncertainty is what makes me so wary of those who push a more utilitarian approach to education, advocating for business or computer programming classes over history and Latin. In my advocating for the humanities, it's not that I'm against studying any of those more "useful" topics, I just don't have nearly the certainty that others seem to about what actually is useful, let alone what will be useful in ten, twenty, thirty years.

Given that none of us can tell the future with any certainty, many have advocated for the importance of teaching skills like problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking, and clear communication. In my mind, those skills can be taught in a variety of ways, but a humanities education, precisely because it is so broad and all-encompassing, is better-suited for that than the alternatives. I know, I've said all this before, but as I've been thinking about my students' futures, I can't help but reaffirm that.

When I sit down to write these letters of rec, I spend a lot of time trying to imagine each girl's future. Which ones will be doctors? Teachers? Politicians? And then I go back and review the time they spent in my classes. How did I ready them for those (or any other) careers? There are always things I wish I could have done better: more time writing, perhaps, or in-depth analysis. But generally speaking, I feel comfortable that I've done what I can in Latin or World History class to prepare them, and can find stories to illustrate that.

I sometimes joke with them that I will write about the time(s) they farted in class or how annoying they were as freshmen, but fortunately for them, I can generally remember stories about when they have shown passion, grit, creativity, and humor. I feel confident they were at least as well-served practicing those traits in my classes as they would have been in a business class, but I won't really know unless they come back and tell me in twenty years.

There's a prayer that's popular among teachers in Jesuit schools, that contains the line, "We are prophets of a future not our own." As I wrote those twelve letters of recommendation, and then again at graduation as I send our seniors off to college, that line rings particularly true.

"Should I take AP Latin?"

It's that time of year again, when my Latin students are registering for their courses for next year. At my school, Latin is just one language offered, and the school requires only two years of the same language. Thus my colleagues and I spend a good amount of time convincing the students to continue their Latin career.

We hate to make an argument from utility. Sure, we're happy to espouse those pitches when the students are in eighth grade, choosing between Spanish and Latin, but they are all pretty shallow arguments.

  • "Latin will help your SAT and ACT scores." Sure, Latin students do score better on standardized tests. Maybe that's because Latin helps (it certainly doesn't hurt), or maybe it's because the type of kids who choose to take Latin would have done well on their standardized tests anyway. And any English teacher worth her salt can teach non-Latin students some helpful word roots in about a week of lessons.

  • "It's a great idea if you want to be a doctor or a lawyer some day." I nod patiently when parents suggest this, because I don't have the heart to tell them that it will take a lot more than some Latin roots to be a good doctor. Yes, knowing Greek did help me pass Anatomy in college, but I couldn't tell you the last time I met a doctor who actually knew Latin. I would argue that studying Latin can make one a better doctor or lawyer (as evidenced by this piece in Harvard Magazine claiming that Classics majors had the highest success rate in law school), but not because they know what quid pro quo means.

  • "Latin is the root of the other Romance languages." This is one "practical" benefit of studying Latin that I'm not ashamed to use. Studying a language in high school is really a way to get introduced to another culture and language, and thereby be a better citizen. To really learn a language you need to go live with native speakers. And while my Latin students probably won't do a semester abroad at the Vatican (I teach all girls, after all), they almost certainly will study somewhere outside the US at some point in their college careers. Alumnae often come back and tell us they are studying French, Italian, or even German, and how thankful they are that they took Latin as an introduction.

So if our pitch to sophomores and juniors considering dropping their Latin study isn't about the utility of learning the language, what is it?

(N.B. This pitch is really a composite of numerous rants from both me and my colleagues. We think alike though, so any instances of plagiarism are really just because it's hard to tell where one of our quotes ends and another's begins.)

It's fun.

OK, this is subjective, but really, it is.

It sets you apart from the thousands of college seniors applying to the same prestigious schools.

OK, this argument may be utilitarian, but it's true. Every year the seniors in AP Latin will come in and tell us that they were asked in their scholarship interviews why they chose to take four years of Latin. Why were they asked? Because it sets them apart. At the top-flight public and private schools to which our students are applying, GPAs, test scores, and National Honors Society memberships are what it takes just to get their application considered. But studying something relatively unique tells that admissions officer: "Here is a student who values a rigorous education and learning for its own sake."

In one class, you can learn more about Western history, culture, and literature than in any handful of electives.

If a student likes history or literature or philosophy or government, they will enjoy AP Latin. I might quibble with the contents of the AP syllabus, but reading Vergil (and yes, Caesar too) is a perfect entrée into those topics. There's a reason why I still enjoy reading the Aeneid, even fourteen years after I was first exposed to it in high school. Every student has distinct tastes, and I do wish the AP syllabus gave us more freedom to explore the breadth of Latin literature, but there really is something for everybody, from the student who geeks out about literature (and Latin definitely attracts literary types), to the one who loves reading about ancient warfare, to those who have always enjoyed a good mythology story.

It's useless.

Latin is not useful. There, I said it. But that's precisely why it's still worth studying. I used to hate the argument that Latin should be studied because it "trains the mind." That argument was often used as a defense of a Classical education that was far too elitist. But as technology changes the nature of learning, there's something to be said for focusing on skills over content, and I think Latin is a great place to hone those skills. Why is it that Classics majors are successful law students? Again, there's some self-selection going on there, but still, plenty of very educated people go into law from other fields. What makes Classics different?

I think it's obvious to anybody who has studied Latin that the type of skills required to succeed are vital, in any field. On the one hand, there are some very "left brain" aspects of studying Latin: the language is very orderly, with a clearly defined logic to it, not unlike math. Critical thinking and reasoning are essential to translating any language, but especially Latin. At the same time, there's a creativity required to read Latin, beyond simply the mechanical skills. (Perhaps that's why there's not yet a good computer translator for Latin.) Reading Latin poetry in particular requires not just the logic and reasoning skills, but a creative and nimble mind to see the whole picture from those component parts and really feel the breadth of emotion being presented. I could spend twenty minutes in class on the language, content, and complexity of just these two lines from Book VI of the Aeneid:

nec minus Aeneas casu percussus iniquo

prosequitur lacrimis longe et miseratur euntem.

What other subject engages so consistently these different skills and multiple intelligences?

It's hard.

Taking a fourth year of a language, any language isn't easy, and AP Latin is no exception. With all apologies to President Kennedy, we choose to read the Aeneid next year and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Each of my students has lofty ambitions. Whether they want to be a doctor, lawyer, businesswoman, or mother, they're going to face their share of challenges. The best way for them to prepare for the rigors of life is to challenge themselves as much as they can. And AP Latin–generally a small class with students they know well and a teacher they've had before–is a great way to prepare for life. A lofty statement perhaps, but true.

There's an insidious trend we've noticed among our students lately, especially the older students. They are so worried about their GPA as they apply for college that they feel pressure to take "easier" courses. Why take AP Latin, where they might work hard to earn (gasp) a B, when they can take Underwater Basket Weaving and not risk losing their precious 4.0 GPA. As I told a group of students last week, if they expect to eventually take Organic Chemistry or apply for an Ivy League law school, they can't be scared to try something mildly challenging now. Some day, whether in college or in real life, they'll be challenged. Life ain't easy. And that college professor or boss probably won't care if they succeed or not. If they screw up, they're replaceable. AP Latin gives them a chance to practice that resilience they'll need later, in an environment that actually supports them. Seems like a good deal to me.

So does this pitch work? Well, it works often enough that I'm still employed. My colleagues and I try to instill these values in the students all throughout their career, but every year they still need some encouraging. I've been doing this long enough that I know not to take it personally if they opt out, but I can't help it feeling like I've let them down somewhere along the way if after three years of Latin they don't see the value in the fourth year of study. So we continue to try and summon our inner Don Draper and pitch them, hoping they'll trust us.

Aeneid I.203

Aeneid I.203

O, the Humanities, ctd.

America recently published commentary on the same report on the humanities that I wrote about this summer. The author, Raymond A. Schroth, SJ, is a long-time teacher and journalist, and he gives a spirited defense of a traditional, literary humanities education.

My experience, on the other hand—after teaching literature for over 40 years and, as editor of the Jesuit higher education magazine Conversations, talking with students and faculty in all 28 Jesuit colleges and universities—is that students are starving intellectually, whether they acknowledge it or not. Few can talk easily about a great book they have read. Mark Edmundson writes in The Chronicle (8/2) that literature is “character forming” and “soul making”—a way of life. Catholic and Jesuit universities, it seems to me, have always taught this. How well we have succeeded is another question.

His examples are mostly literary in nature, and I certainly can't argue with any of them. Obviously I think it's important to read the Aeneid (preferably in Latin), or I wouldn't be teaching it. But as I continue to think about this topic, I wonder if we also need to expand our definition of what constitutes a humanities education.

Many people define the humanities by giving examples: The Mona Lisa, James Joyce's Ulysses, the history of the French Revolution. But at the broadest level, the humanities are a study of what makes us human, the study of human culture. Art, literature, and history are certainly some of the best, most obvious examples of this, which is why most defenses of the humanities, including my own, focus on those topics. But if we stick with that broad definition, should there not be other lenses through which to better understand the human condition?

For example, I have read few defenses of the humanities that mention film. But for the last century, movies have been an important part of our culture. The same can be said about music, dance, or photography. When I think about human culture today, technology plays a tremendous role. The connections that people are making were impossible just twenty years ago, but are an important part of our world. The technologies themselves, the hardware and the software, that enable these connections play an important role too. Shouldn't a humanities education include these aspects of human culture as well? Even classes that focus on the mechanics of app design or filmmaking have room for humanities-inspired lessons on the impact of those disciplines, and the examples of greatness that have come before.

I suppose my definition of the humanities is based on what the humanities are not. The humanities are not "useful" in the traditional sense of the word. They are not job training. They are simply a study of what makes us human. Fr. Schroth is right–Jesuit schools have a history of valuing this kind of education, and I certainly hope there are always students who value reading Vergil. The modern focus on "utility" carries for us the risk of losing touch with an important part of our heritage. But at the same time, we must not see the humanities themselves as static and unchanging. The focus on our shared humanity is what's important; the Aeneid or the Mona Lisa or Citizen Kane are simply vehicles for that reflection.

→ "To Foster Your Creativity, Don't Learn To Code; Learn To Paint"

The key to being creative, in any field, be it scientific, technical, or business, in the 21st century definitely requires a certain comfort level in technology. But the best way to harness the power of computers doesn’t reside in coding – it resides in letting computers do the grunt computational work that humans are bad at, so that humans can focus on the creative, problem solving work that computers are bad at.

And if you want to foster those creative, problem solving skills, the solution isn’t learning to code – it’s learning to paint. Or play an instrument. Or write poetry. Or sculpt. The field doesn’t matter: the key thing is that if you want to foster your own innovative creativity, the best way to do it is to seriously pursue an artistic endeavor.

[...] History seems to agree with him. Many of the world’s greatest scientists, in eras both ancient and modern, were also artists. Da Vinci, of course, is famous for his talents both artistic and scientific. Robert Fulton, the inventor of the modern steam engine, was a painter. The actress Hedy Lamarr was the co-inventor of the patent that underlies cell phones, wi-fi and GPS. Her partner in that invention? George Antheil, a composer and musician.

As good an argument as any for studying Latin: not because it's useful, but precisely because it's "useless." (via The Dish)