There’s been quite a discussion over at Uncertain Principles that relates to my Salman Rushdie-inspired diatribe last week on literary criticism. Chad Orzel took the opportunity to riff off my suggestion that students be taught close reading before they are taught critical theory, and by analogy extend that discussion to physics. Most physics cannot be understood without mathematics. Yet physicists are often asked to teach “physics for poets” courses where math is not required.
What would be the equivalent for literature teachers? A class where reading is not required? Orzel argues that a more appropriate analogy might be my suggestion to teach literature without invoking theory. You’re not going to get anywhere in the field of literary study without understanding theory, just like you won’t get anywhere in physics without math.
Gordsellar at Eclexys makes this point crystal clear:
What feels like a spontaneous, naive (ie. unstudied) insight into a text is usually a rather standard and formulaic reading of the text. You may think you under stand a book straightforwardly but your straightforward “understanding” is really built upon a huge network of preexistent reading and understanding strategies which you have been taught. Given the kind of things that have gone into building our education system — the way curriculum has been formulated with the approval of “specialists”, the way literary figures and establishments have rallied behind insane, awful, ridiculous things like, oh, war and slavery and the like, why should we trust “received” understandings of how we come to understand books?
Allow me to expand on that point just a bit: In Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories (as I mentioned the other day, the one Rushdie text I’ve read) there are dozens of references: to other texts, to Indian/Pakistani politics, even to Star Wars. If you read Haroun sentence-by-sentence, as Rushdie suggests, but you don’t understand his references, you’re never going to come to the same conclusion Rushdie intends you to. You’re forcing the text through the iron grate of your ignorance. Worse, as Gordsellar points out, you’re never truly naive: you’ll add your own nuances to the text based on what the educational establishment (and TV, and popular culture in general) has managed to impress on you previously.
Here’s the problem: physicists can pretty much agree on how students can be prepared to take physics courses: study mathematics. Yet if we must understand critical theory in order to appreciate texts, what theory should we be taught? Could English professors ever agree? If they can’t, is it because English has become too permissive as a discipline, or is physics too rigid? Or is the unified approach of physics simply a reflection of the nature of the discipline?
I think there is some truth of each of these ideas. Math, especially the ability to understand integrals and derivatives, makes a huge difference in understanding physics. But what do we really want educated people to understand about science? I’d argue that what’s most important is the ability to approach new research. Sometimes, to even begin to understand a research study, you must backtrack and gain the necessary knowledge: integrals, Newton’s third law, whatever, but it’s also true that science not necessarily a unified progression towards truth. Different areas of science require different background knowledge. Not all the math you learn in calculus class will necessarily be applicable to everything you learn in physics.
It’s similar in literature: the most important thing is probably knowing how to approach a text. Without some understanding of Indian politics, Haroun takes on a different meaning, but you don’t necessarily need to have had an intensive course in Indian history to get something out of the text. And yes, it’s also important to understand that in any case, all approaches to a text involve many assumptions, that no approach is truly neutral.
It would be good if some of that skepticism could also be taught to scientists. Scientists, of course, are not nearly as “neutral” as they’d like to appear. I noted one example of this on friday, when psychology researchers threw out evidence suggesting that people prefer lighting slightly to the left of themselves, rather than directly overhead. This sort of bias is difficult to root out, whether in science or in literary criticism. Perhaps the sort of general education Chad Orzel and I are advocating will help.