Chaos and Creativity: Liberal Education for the 21st Century
David Oxtoby, Pomona College
Colby College Distinguished Bicentennial Lecture
April 8, 2013
It is truly a pleasure and an honor to speak at Colby College on the occasion of your 200th anniversary on a subject that I am passionate about: the future of liberal education. From opposite ends of the country (we are about as far apart as you can get, and still stay within the United States!), Colby and Pomona Colleges have shared a common educational mission built on the finest quality residential college experience. For several decades we have also had an exchange agreement; Colby College is one of three colleges (together with Swarthmore and Spelman) with whom Pomona maintains such a relationship. This year, as you celebrate your own bicentennial, Pomona College has been celebrating our quasquicentennial. For those of you who do not know that word, it is the technical term for a 125th anniversary. Pomona College was founded as a “college of the New England type” in 1887, and in turn was the founder of the Claremont Colleges group (comprising five undergraduate and two graduate institutions) starting in the 1920s. So we are celebrating our birthdays together this year, and I am sure that yours has been as thought-provoking and as fun as ours.
I am a chemist. Two general methods intertwine through the study of chemistry, from the earliest days to the present time. One is analysis: here, chemists may take a complex mixture and break it down into separate substances through chromatography, or take a single substance and use spectroscopy to find its atomic structure. The second is synthesis: here, chemists work in the opposite direction. They take a series of simple materials (ideally, off the shelf) and combine them to make a more complex compound with particular chemical properties. Chemists go back and forth between these two approaches in their everyday work. For example, a chemist might take a natural product with certain desirable medicinal properties, purify it, and analyze it to determine its structure; then she might develop a synthesis to prepare it from commonly available starting materials.
Why do I begin a talk on the future of liberal education with the concepts of analysis and synthesis from chemistry? I think these steps of breaking down and putting together characterize many of the activities we engage in through the curricula of our colleges. Let me explain.
First, analysis. A great deal of how we learn involves taking something complex and breaking it into simpler pieces that we understand already, or that at least we can focus on sequentially. In an English class we may do a close reading of a poem, looking at it carefully line by line to see the use of language, of meter, or of metaphor. In a sociology class we may attempt to separate out the effects of five different factors on the school systems in a city, breaking down a large problem into individual pieces. Much good classroom teaching consists of moving step by step through a complicated subject, with students realizing at the end that what seemed too hard to learn was just a series of manageable steps.
Analysis is something for which we prepare our students well from the very beginning. The techniques needed to succeed at SAT’s and other multiple choice tests often involve looking at the options, eliminating them one by one, and (in some cases) guessing between those that remain. Sometimes students tell me that an approach they use to solve a “word problem” at the end of the chapter is to analyze it to see which worked example in the text it is most like, and then solve it step by step in a parallel fashion. Critical reasoning, a key skill that is taught in a liberal education, involves developing the skills needed to analyze new problems based on experience with solutions to existing problems.
Our entire educational system is built around this process of analysis into smaller and smaller subdivisions. As students progress through college, they typically move from broad general education toward more and more focused specialized courses. This affects our organization as well: the broad contours of knowledge become increasingly divided with time into smaller and smaller fields, where only those who have completed years of study can reach the forefront. Of course, this has its value: difficult problems require detailed analysis and dedication to be resolved.
I would argue that the second concept, synthesis, is less encouraged and less rewarded in our modern system of education. First, it is harder to test. How do we assign objective grades to the big idea that brings together several different pieces into a single whole? Second, it raises questions (not always justified) of superficiality. We can spend our time moving from one area to another, searching for connections, without delving deeply into any one of them. And finally, big things don’t fit easily into the boxes that we have created for areas of knowledge. We have professors of anthropology, of sociology, and of political science, each going off to separate meetings, and not always talking to one another.
Yet the important problems we face today – from poverty to climate change to religious tolerance – are big problems that require contributions from many fields in order to reach solutions. Synthesis is not only desirable in this situation, but essential. Many breakthroughs in research, whether in the sciences or the humanities, involve bringing ideas from one area to bear in another, apparently unrelated, area and reaching a true synthesis. Interdisciplinary work is at the forefront, even though it challenges our systems of organization. Last year I had the privilege of participating in a conference at Lafayette College on the future of the liberal arts college. My own presentation outlined some of the structural and cultural impediments to interdisciplinary teaching and programs, but argued that liberal arts colleges should be centers of interdisciplinary innovation in order to foster this type of synthesis.
How can we help our educational systems to better support synthesis? Many ideas are out there: team-taught courses where a single topic is addressed by two or more instructors from different points of view, project based courses where teams of students bring different expertise to bear on a single problem, or capstone courses where students use their full four-year education to advance a problem faced by society. We don’t need to reinvent all the models that exist already, but we do need to reinvent our colleges and universities so that they support these experiments in synthesis.
The contrast I am exploring between analysis and synthesis can be translated into the language of left-brain and right-brain approaches to seeing the world. At the risk of venturing into pop psychology, let me briefly develop this connection. It is now well known that the two hemispheres of the brain have largely different functions. The left hemisphere controls words, numbers, logic, and analysis, while the right hemisphere interprets size, shape, spatial relationships, and rhythm. As Daniel Pink says in his book A Whole New Mind, “the left hemisphere analyzes the details; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture.” The subtitle of his book is “Why right-brainers will rule the future.”
Often it is said that the second half of the 20th century was an era dominated by left-brain thinking. The skills to build bridges or design computers, to get to the moon or to come up with new financial instruments, make use of linear thinking and logic. Engineering, law, and finance all are classic left-brain activities; while all remain important today, some feel their heyday has passed, especially as computers take over more and more of the analysis that left-brain thinking is made for. In contrast, pundits argue that in the future right-brain thinking – nonlinear, intuitive, visual – will dominate. As Pink argues convincingly, in an era where production becomes cheap, design dominates and helps to determine the winners. Apple has surpassed Microsoft in market capitalization in part because design is at the heart of its success.
This left-brain/right-brain dichotomy has led to considerable discussion about gender roles in the work force. The engineering and finance professions, dependent on analysis, have traditionally been male dominated, while professions stereotypically right-brain in character – the arts, writing, design – have been more open to women. In the past, the latter professions carried lower status, but now many would argue that they represent the best chance of competing in the future, in a world where analysis can be programmed or outsourced to regions of lower labor cost. This has in turn led some to predict a reversal of male and female roles and even some handwringing about the future of the male sex. Hanna Rosin, in an Atlantic article entitled “The End of Men,” asks “What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than men?” She posits that “the attributes that are most favorable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.”
While it is entertaining to argue about parts of the brain and the roles that they play in shaping our society, ultimately the people who will be successful are those who can integrate their entire brains. Relying exclusively on the left brain can lead to plodding automatons who can be replaced by computers. But relying on the right brain alone has its own hazards; it can lead to lack of discipline and focus. Consider the approach a pianist takes to learning a difficult piece; the inspirational insight into the music requires the synthetic activity of the right brain, but hard disciplined work, applied in a linear fashion on one section of music at a time, underlies the successful performance. While some would assign “creativity” to the right brain, I would argue that successful creative people integrate both hemispheres of their brains effectively; intuition works together with logical methods to achieve significant results. Unlike Daniel Pink, I do not think that right-brainers will rule the future; rather, individuals with fully integrated brains, or teams of individuals with different strengths who can connect analysis and synthesis together, will be the best positioned to succeed.
A striking observation from modern neuroscience is that the brains of 18 to 22 year olds (the typical age range for college students) are highly plastic. Sure, throughout childhood connections between synapses are made and the brain develops in response to the environment around. But changes continue to occur through the college years and beyond: there is still hope for all of us! Synapses can change from firing in bursts to firing more regularly, and existing pathways of connection in the brain can be developed or can waste away. “If a neuron is stimulated to fire frequently, its synapses may grow stronger.” Rats raised in environments with extensive and varied sensory input are found to have more highly branched networks of neurons in their brains. Our brains are constantly developing as we employ them in different ways.
(These comments raise some side concerns that I will not dwell on in this talk: the effect of sports concussions and risky alcohol consumption by college students and the potential consequences for their brains during a time in their lives that brain development continues at a significant rate.)
How can a college education be designed to give us the most integrated and therefore the most effective brains possible? This question has been addressed by neuroscientist James Zull in his interesting book The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Zull uses recent discoveries in brain science to explore how the brain responds to external stimuli, and then provides a number of practical suggestions for how teachers (especially at the college level) can use different techniques in order to most effectively “shape” the brains of their students for success in life.
People can be “trained” to do anything well, just as dolphins learn amazing tricks when they are rewarded by delectable morsels of food. I worry deeply that the United States is headed in the direction of training rather than education. For the last ten years, our K-12 educational system has been dominated by a testing culture under the superficially attractive rubric of “No Child Left Behind.” I am not opposed to assessment of learning, of finding out what works and what does not, and of modifying what we teach and how we teach it accordingly. But what has happened since 2002 is much more disturbing. Rather than set ambitious goals for all our students, schools assess performance through a series of narrow multiple-choice tests, and more and more classroom time is devoted to succeeding on such tests, rather than on learning new ideas and thinking critically.
Recently, high school teacher Kenneth Bernstein has attracted attention in an open letter warning college professors that the students headed their way have now completed their full pre-college education in this test-dominated culture, and are “better at ‘filling in bubbles’ than thinking outside a discrete set of multiple choices.” In his view, meaningful content and development of critical thinking and writing skills have been sacrificed for test preparation. And of course, the testing culture is heading to colleges and universities as well, with warnings from the Department of Education that we need to demonstrate value for money in all of our courses of study. A number of states have raised the possibility of analyzing outcomes for their universities by examining the starting salaries of graduates from different majors and closing (or charging more for) those that underperform.
Some of this results from a concern that students emerging from our colleges and universities are less competitive internationally, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields where our graduates are dwarfed by the numbers coming out of universities in China, India, and elsewhere. It is important to respond to international pressures, of course. But the solution is not to replace our highly successful higher education system with one in which larger numbers of students are “processed” through a less demanding program in order to increase numbers of graduates and shorten time to degree. Quality matters, even though it is harder to test.
Ironically, the United States looks toward the success of other nations at the same time they are looking toward us for new models of education. Other countries are recognizing that their universities are not suited to encourage the types of creativity fostered by American liberal education. Singapore is launching a liberal arts college in a collaboration between the National University and Yale University; Thailand has talked with Pomona College and others about how to bring liberal education to their university system; Hong Kong is carrying out a change from a British-style three-year degree to an American-style four year program, including broader general education coverage. Why should we be backing away from these core goals for higher education at the same time the rest of the world is discovering their value?
The jobs of the 21st Century are not ones that students can prepare for through narrow professional training. Certainly, there is a place for certificate programs that connect students directly with particular job requirements; such applied programs have always been out there. But those jobs may disappear or be radically changed in a short time, and the individuals who are successful in such a rapidly evolving and competitive economy are those who can move from one job to another with the core skills to learn new things and respond creatively. This is just what is taught in a liberal arts education.
In the same State of the Union address in which President Obama called on higher education to train students for immediately open jobs and asked colleges to demonstrate the value of their degrees, he also called for a new decade-long study of the human brain. Just as the human genome project mapped our DNA and connected the results to real-world medical outcomes, a better understanding of how the brain works could help to develop the full potential of all. One challenge I would pose is: what type of education shapes the brain into the most capable and creative organ possible? So far the evidence, which I have discussed briefly above and to which Zull devotes his entire book, is that a broad liberal education, developing all the capacities and connections of the brain, is the best way to enhance the creative abilities of all of our students, to prepare them for lifetimes of constructive contribution to society.
Two recent studies have taken quite literally the challenge to connect brain science with liberal education. A Stanford study appeared under the heading “This is your brain on Jane Austen;” it involved taking MRI brain scans while the subjects were engaged in reading excerpts from novels by Jane Austen. This medical device monitors blood flow to different parts of the brain, and thus measures which parts of the brain are engaged during a particular activity. The result was the observation that many more parts of the brain were engaged than expected, and that these differed between close reading and pleasure reading. The investigator suggested that “each style of reading may create distinct patterns in the brain.” A second study from Emory University, also using functional magnetic resonance imaging, found that when a subject read a metaphor connected to touch (such as “the singer had a velvet voice”) regions in the sensory cortex that typically are excited through actual touch became active, in addition to the expected activity connected to ordinary language processing.
Last fall, I joined a group of Pomona College students on a field trip to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles to hear a talk by Nobel prizewinning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and to view an exhibition of drawings by Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. How is neuroscience connected to art of the early twentieth century? In many rich and surprising ways, as Kandel has discussed much more fully in his outstanding book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. It is impossible to do justice to this work in a few minutes, but let me at least try.
Kandel starts with the remarkable confluence of culture and science in fin-de-siècle Vienna, including artists such as Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele, scientists such as Helmholtz and Boltzmann, writers such as Schnitzler and Werfel, and the brilliant psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. He shows how a common theme of understanding the unconscious and its effect on our actions links these disparate individuals, many of whom knew each other and saw each other regularly in salons and coffeehouses. From there, Kandel moves up to the present, focusing continually on how the brain works and how we perceive art, ending by drawing some profound conclusions about creativity and connecting art and science in the deepest way.
Kandel’s book is no mere abstract treatise on the perception of art. Rather, he makes use of the most advanced results from experimental brain science (as well as earlier studies on subjects with particular forms of brain damage) to explore the effect of art on the brain. He starts with the rods and cones and how they respond to images, and then traces the response of neurons in the visual cortex. Among other observations, he comments on the discovery by Hubel and Wiesel that “neurons in the primary visual cortex respond not simply to lines, but to lines with a specific orientation – vertical, horizontal, or oblique. . . . Different neurons will fire in response to the different angles.” The conclusion that he draws is that the eye “does not record the image of a scene or a person pixel by pixel. . . . The visual system can pick and choose and discard information, which neither a camera nor a computer can.” Kandel goes on to describe the top-down processing of information by other parts of the brain, the higher cognitive centers. Here, stored memories are used to “compare incoming visual information with prior experiences.”
Fascinating as it is to understand the connections of art and science as revealed in the neuroscience of the perception of images and of fine art, Kandel goes beyond this to discuss in the last five chapters the relationship between creativity and the science of the brain. Studies that he describes show activity in a particular part of the right hemisphere immediately before a creative insight emerges as part of an “Aha!” moment. He points out that such creative moments often come when the mind is distracted by other tasks, or while relaxing or dreaming. He quotes none other than Mozart and Schopenhauer on this subject, and scientists have also commented on how their unconscious minds work through problems and achieve breakthroughs that their conscious minds cannot.
How is this connected with education? If we narrowly train our minds – and our brains – on repetitive, linear, and logical problems (the ones that are easiest to teach and to test), we develop certain neural connections more strongly than others. But creativity – the Aha! insights that can lead to real breakthroughs – rely on the integrative and synthesizing parts of the brain. Rote learning will do nothing to develop these capacities. The value of a liberal education is that it can help a linear thinker to develop the ability to make leaps of insight, just as it can help a nonlinear thinker to reason critically about a complex problem. Both dimensions are important for the whole student.
I mentioned earlier the work of James Zull, who addresses the question: given what we know about how the brain works, how should we change how we teach? This is a problem of central importance for every faculty member and student in the room. I encourage you to look at his book, which has many specific anecdotes from his own teaching at Case Western Reserve University. For example, he describes the role of the motor cortex in initiating action and goes on to discuss the surprising result that the small but highly connected cerebellum, thought to be associated with subconscious process, is also activated by speaking words connected with verbs of action. Zull draws conclusions about how active learning and active testing can strengthen our teaching, engaging still another part of our brain. As another example, he speaks of the helpfulness of concrete metaphors in introducing abstract concepts to a class: “Metaphors are sets of neuronal networks that possess specific physical relationships to each other in the brain and thus embody the concept of the relationship itself. . . . This is why metaphors, parables, and stories are so powerful when we want to teach a concept.”
Let me say a bit more about metaphor, which has come up at several different points in this talk. Metaphor is a deep and powerful concept for understanding how we think, and especially how we relate different areas to one another. The word itself comes from a Greek root meaning “carrying across,” and of course it is most often found in literary analysis, where it is a figure of speech in which “a name or descriptive word or phrase is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable.” In a broader sense, metaphor is connected to interdisciplinary work, in which concepts from one field are carried over into another. George Lakoff has been a leader in the philosophical study of metaphor and language, emphasizing how metaphor maps abstract conceptual domains onto concrete perceptual images.
Metaphor enters into science in numerous ways. In his essay “Metaphor in Science,” historian of science Thomas Kuhn says that “Metaphor plays an essential role in establishing links between scientific language and the world. Those links are not, however, given once and for all. Theory change, in particular, is accompanied by a change in some of the relevant metaphors.”. These ideas have been expanded by chemist Theodore Brown in his book entitled Making Truth: Metaphor in Science. Brown quotes physicist Ludwig Boltzmann as saying, “How awkward is the human mind in divining the nature of things, when forsaken by the analogy of what we see and touch directly.” He gives many examples of the ways in which abstract scientific concepts are shaped by the concrete metaphors used to describe them, from chaperone molecules in biochemistry to protein folding. Another example I would give is the famous story that organic chemists tell of how Kekule discovered the structure of benzene through a dream in which he saw snakes chasing each other around in circular loops. Brown argues that metaphor is vital for science education: to make science compelling to young people, it needs to connect to real life experience through metaphor.
The most interesting questions Brown poses (but does not fully answer) are these: “What are the origins of scientific creativity? Armed with the recognition that most of scientific reasoning is embodied and grounded in metaphor, can we do specific things to stimulate creativity?” I would argue that the most creative people are those who are capable of connecting concepts and images across large domains of knowledge, inside and outside of science, and that a broad liberal education helps to stimulate the ability of the brain to make such connections.
Earlier in this series of talks at Colby College, you had the opportunity to hear from my former colleague at the University of Chicago, Martha Nussbaum. While I have not yet seen a copy of what she spoke about on this campus, I am sure that she brought deep insights into the place of the humanities in a liberal education and in our modern society, as exemplified by her fine book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. I would like to develop some thoughts about the connections between the humanities and the sciences from the point of view of a scientist who is passionate about art, music, literature, and philosophy. During my three-month sabbatical last fall at Cambridge University I spent part of my time doing research in biophysical chemistry, and part auditing courses in philosophy and the history of science and immersing myself in the musical culture of Britain.
My experiences in Cambridge brought me back to thinking about a familiar topic, the cultural divide between the sciences and the humanities in the modern world. On May 7, 1959, the British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow presented a now famous talk at the Senate House at Cambridge University, just down the street from Trinity College, where I spent my sabbatical. It was entitled “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” and his talk was subsequently published as a book that has stimulated much discussion, some agreeing with his hypotheses and some critical.
At the heart of the work by Snow is the contention that education (particularly in Britain) at the time was divided in such a way that too many educated people knew the classics of literature but not the basics principles of science. As he said, “A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”
This same statement still resonates today. With all the high esteem in which modern science is held, with discoveries of the Higgs boson to developments in modern genetics drawing front page headlines in our newspapers, there is still a woeful lack of understanding of the principles of science even by well educated citizens. This in turn has serious consequences for our ability as a society to make thoughtful and fact-based judgments about difficult policy decisions involving science and technology. Just look at the absurd public debate still underway in this country and elsewhere about whether climate change is real.
And yet Snow’s core argument, that British education, in contrast to American and German, privileged the classics relative to science and engineering seems quaintly out of date today. I would argue, with many other commentators, that there is now a serious and growing problem in the opposite direction. Narrow teaching oriented toward test-taking in our schools has forced out much of the coursework connected to reading and engaging deeply with the great works of literature; budget cuts have eliminated art, music, and theatre courses in many of our schools. As students reach college, they are focused on an “instrumental” view of education, in which the courses they take are directly connected to jobs they will qualify for upon graduation. Many of the broad skills of a liberal education are connected to the humanities, including the ability to write and speak effectively, to analyze complex problems from many points of view, to think visually, and to understand different global perspectives.
In a recent article, I called attention to the renewed importance not only of the “book oriented” humanities such as literature, philosophy, and art and music history, but also to the role of the creative and performing arts in a liberal education. I argued that by integrating arts practice and arts experience at the heart of our curricula as well as the environment and life of our campuses we help to create more engaged citizens, we encourage all students to push their personal boundaries, we foster embodied and experiential education, and we instill the capacity for innovation.
In my earlier discussion of right brain/left brain roles I commented briefly on the intriguing book by Daniel Pink entitled A Whole New Mind. Let me expand on this now, and talk specifically about how the arts and humanities work toward developing what Pink calls the “six senses”: the “high-concept, high-touch” aptitudes that “help develop the whole new mind” that is demanded by the “Conceptual Age” into which we are shifting from the previous “Information Age.” Pink’s six senses are Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. I would connect them, literally or metaphorically, to core disciplines in the humanities: Art, Creative Writing (but also History), Music, Literature, Theatre and Dance, and Philosophy and Religion.
In one of Pink’s delightful quotes: “Back on the savannah, our cave person ancestors weren’t taking SATs or plugging numbers into spreadsheets. But they were telling stories, demonstrating empathy, and designing innovations.” Part of the new age into which we have entered thus brings us back to the earliest days of humanity and the evolution of the human brain to respond to our surroundings. Let me briefly develop each of these connections between the six senses and our core curricula.
Design involves shaping our environment for our needs or to give meaning to our lives, and is taught at a fundamental level on our campuses through Studio Art and Art History courses. Both help us to see the world around us in a new way, to exercise portions of our brains that explore patterns and connect visual reasoning to meaning.
In Story, Pink emphasizes the fact that stories are easier to remember than facts: the way to make something compelling is to tell a story about it. He quotes Mark Turner’s argument that “narrative imagining – story – is the fundamental instrument of thought” and points out that facts only take on real meaning when put into narratives. These are skills taught in Creative Writing courses on our campuses, but they also connect fundamentally to the discipline of History, whose goal is to discover narratives from the past that inform our lives today.
Symphony naturally connects to Music at our colleges. In this individualistic world, it is valuable for our students to be part of a disciplined ensemble in which they adjust their own performances to create a unified final result. Pink talks about the “signature ability of composers and conductors” to synthesize: to take different pieces and put them together in a coherent whole. Study of music (performance of course, but also theory and musicology) helps us all to understand this process of synthesis.
In our interconnected world, Empathy is central to understand those who are different from us and to see how our actions may affect them. I cannot think of a better way to teach this fourth “sense” than through Literature: the great written creations in all the world’s languages that open a window on people in other times and other places.
Pink’s fifth sense is Play. He points out that in much of the twentieth century work and play were strictly separated in the workplace and elsewhere, whereas now it is recognized that mixing them can increase productivity. Early childhood education has shown that one of the best ways for children to learn is through play. At the college level, these qualities are perhaps best exemplified by opportunities offered in Theatre and Dance: playing a role on stage that takes you out of yourself, or exploring in the deepest way how your body moves and interacts with those around you. Performance in theatre, dance, or music exemplifies the kind of embodied knowledge, practical technique, and imagination that should be realized in teaching and learning across the liberal arts curriculum.
And finally, Pink turns to Meaning, perhaps one of the most central goals even in this job-oriented modern world. I would of course emphasize that the study of Philosophy and Religion is not just a way for young people to find meaning in their lives; the hard and disciplined work of studying what great minds have thought through history does help to shape our own minds in profound ways. And the study of global historical and contemporary religious practices and rituals, as well as the social context for religious behavior, contributes to students’ cultural understanding and capacity for engaged citizenship.
I don’t want to trivialize the disciplines of the humanities by making them the subject matter of pop psychology; they require hard work and compelling scholarship to keep them vital in our lives today. But it is also valuable to pause and think about their fun side as well, and how they connect to things we have been enjoying since childhood, such as playing, telling stories, and performing together for our friends. Let’s find ways to bring both that fun and that discipline to our campuses today. To push even further, I would argue that we should think of Pink’s six senses, which for him characterize the habits of mind necessary for success in the “conceptual age,” and which seem to resonate particularly with the humanities and arts, in relation to teaching and learning in the social sciences and science as well. How would it look to cultivate the “aptitudes” of Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning in the so-called “hard” sciences?
I like to say that one key goal of the college years is to teach students to deal with ambiguity. Eighteen-year-olds often arrive on our campuses with a lot of certainty in their minds, if not in their personal lives, at least on the academic side. They have succeeded in finding the “right” bubbles to fill in on the SAT test. Sometimes, their writing exemplifies the rigid five-paragraph essay form (introduction, three arguments, conclusion, each with its own proper topic sentence and development); we try to develop more flexible writing habits once they arrive. Their image of science is frequently built around the lab experiment where the goal is to come as close as possible to the “correct” answer. I do not want to minimize the outstanding education that many students bring from their high schools, but the fact remains that a great deal of secondary education involves funneling bright students through courses where they become adept at ending up at the known answer that their teacher is looking for. Our students have certainly realized that coming to an elite college is the pathway to success in the modern world, and they are eager to check off all the right boxes during their time on campus.
Part of our job as college teachers is to shock students out of the certainties that they bring, to surprise them with new ideas, and to show them that interesting questions usually do not have simple answers: in short, to teach them to deal with ambiguity. Let me take an example that I use when I teach introductory chemistry. Chemists like to characterize substances as ionic or covalent: sodium chloride is ionic, as seen by the fact that it dissolves to form a solution that conducts electrical current, while oxygen is covalent, with equal sharing of electrons between the two atoms in the molecule. A deeper study shows, though, that every substance has at least some ionic and some covalent character, and many really just fall somewhere in between. The simple concepts taught in elementary chemistry are still useful, but the classification is no longer quite as straightforward.
In his book on art and the mind, Eric Kandel writes, “Paintings engage us, in part, by creating ambiguity.” He notes that not only does a painting draw different responses from different observers – there is no one “correct” way to see it – but even a single observer sees it differently at different moments. “Our relationship with a painting involves a continuous, unconscious adjustment of our feelings as our eye movements scan the work.” Kandel quotes art historian Ernst Gombrich on viewing Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, saying that she looks “like a living being changing in front of our eyes.” Great art, like great literature, is subject to multiple meanings, multiple interpretations.
The same is true of other fields as well. One of the goals of a Socratic dialog, which forms the basis for many of our discussion-based classes, is to challenge the interpretations each student brings in by exploring other points of view. If a class discussion seems to be heading toward some particular consensus, a good teacher will often try to raise objections and cause students to question both their assumptions and their conclusions. A healthy dose of skepticism about simple answers to complex problems is one of the most valuable products of a liberal education. We certainly do not want to produce graduates who are paralyzed by doubt, but we do want them to emerge with an understanding that ambiguity is a central part of life.
In the last few minutes, let me close with some comments that connect three key words of this talk, by developing an extended metaphor that relates a liberal arts education to order, chaos, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Life exists between the two poles of order and chaos. At the one extreme, complete order is represented by a low-temperature crystal in which almost every atom is in its proper place. This crystal is elegantly symmetric, simple to describe, and completely stable: all good qualities. But it is also boring: there is no activity, no change, no deeper interest to this state of matter. At the other extreme, the chaotic state is exemplified by a gas at high temperature. Here, all the molecules are flying around at great speed, there is a lot of activity, but there is no purposefulness. Living systems are poised between these two extremes, with enough order to preserve complex structures and carry out metabolic processes (think about proteins and genetic material) but enough motion to actually change on a reasonable time scale. It is no wonder that life is thought to have arisen and to persist in the liquid state of water, between the order of ice and the disorder of hot steam.
Now the Second Law states that the entropy of a closed system always increases with time, where the entropy is a property that measures the number of states available to the atoms and molecules in the system, or more abstractly the degree of disorder in the system. In a crystalline solid, there are very few choices for the positions of each molecule and the entropy is low, while for a high-temperature gas there are many possible positions and the entropy is high. If the earth were a closed system, the second law would state that over time the extent of disorder would increase steadily with time, a process that moves in the opposite direction from the evolution of life and the emergence of complex living systems from simple molecules.
How can we reconcile these two observations? By the fact that the earth is not a closed system. It is bathed in light from the sun, and the photons that arrive from the outside provide the energy that allows living processes to take place. Put another way, the earth and the sun are coupled systems, so that if the entropy of the sun increases sufficiently (through nuclear fusion reactions) the entropy of the earth can decrease. As long as the sun continues to burn, life on earth, with its organizing tendencies toward greater order, can persist and, indeed, thrive.
In a metaphoric sense, I like to think of education in a parallel way. As learners, we stand poised between order and chaos. At the one extreme is the simple order of rigid laws; at the other is the chaos of random and unfocused ideas. The sweet spot in between is one where the two are balanced and we are able to work within constraints in creative ways. But we cannot move forward as isolated individuals.
I have done some research in the area of crystal growth, trying to understand the rate of growth of crystals from the melt. It turns out that the condition that selects for maximum growth is one of “marginal stability”, namely the stable condition that is closest to the border of chaos. I like this observation. It suggests that to maximize our own growth we should always be pushing ourselves to the edge, challenging our desire for simplicity and order and moving from simple answers to complex questions. In thinking about how the brain works, this concept of “marginal stability” might relate to the observation that creative genius and madness often can be connected in even tragic ways. Brilliant scientists, writers, and artists living on the edge of chaos can, sadly, sometimes pass over that boundary.
Maybe genius and madness are not in the cards for all of us in the room. That is fine! There is plenty of opportunity for creative expression and innovative ideas at some distance from the border of chaos. The purpose of a liberal education at Colby College, at Pomona College, or at any of our institutions, is to develop habits of mind that lie between hard work and discipline on the one hand and creative inspiration on the other. The famous quote from Thomas Edison that genius is 99% perspiration and only 1% inspiration is applicable here. College is a time to work hard and to learn about as many fields as possible, but also to explore the unexpected connections between disparate fields that can predispose the brain to inspiration throughout our lives. As Colby College celebrates its 200th anniversary, and Pomona College our 125th, it is a time to rededicate ourselves to that goal in new and creative ways.