Getting Educated at a Modern University

Thomas Scheff

Talk at the All UCSB Teaching Assistant Orientation, Sept. 18, 2001:

How can you as graduate students get the best possible education here for your time and money? First I will talk about the problem. Here and everywhere, there are actually three separate universities: the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. The three cultures, they might be called. Each is building a tall tower to reach the sky. The occupants of the different towers donít speak the same tongue. In two of the towers, the higher you go, the less understanding there is even between the different floors of the same tower: the disciplines and subdisciplines. There is a confusion of tongues.

The tower of physical science is an exception. Their crossovers between floors, such as biochemistry, have been vastly enriching. But they donít crossover with the other two towers. Each tower acts as if the other doesnít exist. The gulf between the towers and the rest of the world is also growing.

The natural sciences and the humanities are vast repositories both of wisdom and error. The social sciences have the error part, but are much less impressive in the wisdom part, as yet. However, they have two ideas they share with the humanities that make their contribution potentially but enormously important.

The first idea is well known. Philosophers and playwrights have said, Know thyself. It turns out to be much harder than getting a Ph. D, but it can be done. No matter how good you are at physics or sociology, if you know yourself only slenderly, as his daughter said about King Lear, you are likely to be a menace to yourself or others.

Some of you hit it lucky with your parents, or will be lucky in the choice of your partner. But for most of us, knowing ourselves is problematic. Even if you pay a psychotherapist or have a patient, empathic friend who is a great listener, its still a long hard road. But it is a crucial part of your education, as important as learning your profession.

The other idea is to know your society well enough to be able to sometimes escape from its clutches. We are all entrapped in a civilization which is itself a vast repository of wisdom and error. At this historical moment, there is a lot of error flying around out there, and in our own heads. Can we avoid at least some of the error?

The social sciences, especially anthropology, history, and sociology, have as subtext the possibility of seeing our own culture well enough to escape some of its limitations. The social sciences, and also the humanities, have the potential to further illuminate these two central ideas. The potential is there, in the repositories, but is not currently high priority in the two cultures.

It turns out that each of the three cultures needs contributions from the other two to escape its own limitations. One example is the opposition between calculation and intuition. The physical sciences and the dominant part of the social sciences pride themselves on their ability to calculate. The humanities and the minority part of the social sciences are proud of their intuition.

But you need both. Some of the greatest scientists, like Einstein, Boltzmann, and von Neumann, were not calculators. Their ideas were based on intuition. But intuition needs calculation as a check. Not all intuitions are true. These three intuitive types had to get help from mathematicians. Pascal said that the greatest artists and scientists both were blends of what he called system and finesse (calculation and intuition). I would say, echoing Pascal, that all human beings need that blend, if only to stay human.

Human intelligence depends on wholistic understanding, relating the least parts to the greatest wholes, in Spinozaís phrase. Within the three cultures, you will be taught to be a specialist, to concentrate on certain parts or certain wholes. History and linguistics, and much of the humanities are almost entirely devoted to least parts. Economics is mostly devoted to abstract wholes, in the form of theory and models. Even in those disciplines that consider both parts and wholes, there is little traffic between the parts people (empirical research) and the wholes people (theory).

If you donít resist engulfment by your discipline, you too will become devoted to parts or wholes, rather than parts and wholes. I hope that you will fight the attempt of your particular discipline to swallow you, so that you become an engineer or a psychologist, etc, and not much else. How can you stay whole under the onslaught of your discipline? There are several possibilities, but for brevity I mention only one. You could try to get some understanding of an area other than that you are taught in your discipline. You might be able to keep up with developments in one of the two other cultures other than your own. But its difficult without help.

One route would be to become friends with someone who works in one of the other two towers. You could try to make a new friend. I will help by being a conduit for those of you who need it. My campus phone is 3510. If you call me, Iíll match you up with another caller from a culture different then yours.

Of course there are other paths to wholeness that I donít have space to tell you about here, but maybe youíll catch me later. Wholeness is vitally important not only for you personally, but also for the advance of knowledge and the survival of our embattled planet. Whatever path you take from now on, I wish you the best of luck.