In Other Words What Are the Arts and Sci­ences? (A Guide for the Cu­ri­ous)

edited by Dan Rock­more, Dart­mouth Col­lege Press, 361 pages

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In the in­tro­duc­tion to this col­lec­tion, Dan Rock­more, a pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics and com­puter sci­ence at Dart­mouth Col­lege, re­ports about read­ing W.H. Gom­brich’s A Lit­tle His­tory of the World with his eight-year-old son. “It made me think about how most of us — if not all of us — ir­re­spec­tive of age, don’t re­ally know what the big sub­jects of in­quiry are about,” he writes. Gom­brich, an ac­claimed art his­to­rian, pub­lished his vol­ume in 1936 with the aim of pre­sent­ing the vast sweep of world his­tory — events, in­ven­tions, ideas, be­liefs — in a way young read­ers might grasp. The book proved pop­u­lar in its orig­i­nal German and in many other lan­guages, though it was not is­sued in English trans­la­tion un­til 2005. Writ­ing in Vi­enna in the mid-1930s, Gom­brich (who fled to Bri­tain in 1939) tried not to sound en­tirely de­spon­dent about things, but nei­ther did he white­wash re­al­ity. “The his­tory of the world is, sadly, not a pretty poem,” he wrote. “It of­fers lit­tle va­ri­ety, and it is nearly al­ways the un­pleas­ant things that are re­peated, over and over again.”

So much has changed since then, and per­haps so lit­tle. One change, for sure, is that fields of in­quiry have grown ever more spe­cial­ized. The pos­si­bil­ity of an in­di­vid­ual per­son mas­ter­ing the world’s knowl­edge with both depth and breadth has grown in­creas­ingly re­mote with pass­ing years. Still, col­leges are in the busi­ness of help­ing peo­ple ac­quire in­sights to how the world thinks, and Rock­more’s book could serve as a stim­u­lat­ing guide not for eight-year-olds but rather for col­lege-bound stu­dents ex­am­in­ing what roads of dis­cov­ery lie open to them.

Rock­more roped in 27 Dart­mouth pro­fes­sors (in­clud­ing him­self) to write 10 or 12 pages each on what kinds of ques­tions their re­spec­tive fields ad­dress and how they go about ex­am­in­ing them. They present basic def­i­ni­tions and bound­aries for their study, they sug­gest some of the spe­cial­ized av­enues of scru­tiny their dis­ci­plines em­brace, and most of them pro­vide an in­ter­est­ing case study or two that re­veal how a mas­ter of such-and-such a field might go about ex­am­in­ing a prob­lem. I be­gan read­ing this vol­ume with the mis­taken idea that the schol­ars were set­ting out to con­vey what’s hot in their ar­eas right now, but on the whole these es­says look in the di­rec­tion of fun­da­men­tals rather than toward the cut­ting edge. How could it be oth­er­wise? If your last brush with math was high-school trigonom­e­try, there’s no way you can com­pre­hend what­ever got the PhDs ex­er­cised at last year’s con­ven­tion of the Amer­i­can Math­e­mat­i­cal So­ci­ety.

The es­says range in qual­ity, but many of them very suc­cess­fully frame these dis­ci­plines — clas­sics, geog­ra­phy, lin­guis­tics, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence, theater, and many others — in ways that would make a per­son want to dig deeper. “Chem­istry is the sci­ence of un­der­stand­ing the prop­er­ties of mat­ter and how mat­ter forms from the basic el­e­ments that make up our uni­verse,” writes Rock­more’s col­league F. Jon Kull. “Although chem­istry is of­ten called the cen­tral sci­ence, I think of chem­istry as oc­cu­py­ing an arc in a great cir­cle of dis­ci­plines that help us un­der­stand that world we live in. To one side, chem­istry is flanked by physics, be­yond which is math; and I think many would agree that math edges up against phi­los­o­phy. On the other side, chem­istry blends into bi­ol­ogy, be­yond which is phys­i­ol­ogy, and, for hu­mans, psy­chol­ogy, so­ci­ol­ogy, and you guessed it, phi­los­o­phy. … You can start your jour­ney of un­der­stand­ing our world at any point on the cir­cle.” Maybe you hadn’t thought of things quite that way.

Some of the es­says in­dulge over­much in boos­t­er­ism, as if the pro­fes­sors were bent on re­cruit­ing ma­jors on which their de­part­men­tal bud­get de­pends. But most keep their pre­sen­ta­tions basic and en­gag­ing, lay­ing down some pre­cepts in­volv­ing un­der­ly­ing ques­tions, in­ves­ti­ga­tional meth­ods, evolv­ing view­points, and why it all mat­ters. The first es­say in the book is the most stir­ring: Der­rick E. White on African Amer­i­can stud­ies. He throws down the gaunt­let — “What if I told you that most of the great Amer­i­can his­to­ries were half-truths and some were out­right lies?” — and 11 pages later has you con­vinced that his con­clud­ing sen­tence is in­vi­o­lably true: “African Amer­i­can Stud­ies is a nec­es­sary com­po­nent of a twenty-first-cen­tury lib­eral arts ed­u­ca­tion.”

This is the sea­son in which fam­i­lies are pack­ing their Em­i­lies and Ja­cobs off to col­lege. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if this stim­u­lat­ing book were slipped into their luggage; it might in­spire them to sign up for a few classes that might oth­er­wise es­cape their no­tice. But in this era of on­line cour­ses, Rock­more’s ge­nial vol­ume could help guide any­one with an in­quir­ing mind and some time on their hands. Spend 10 pages read­ing about some­one’s pas­sion and you may de­cide to run in the other di­rec­tion — or you may find your­self on the way to be­ing hooked. — James M. Keller

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