In Other Words What Are the Arts and Sciences? (A Guide for the Curious)
edited by Dan Rockmore, Dartmouth College Press, 361 pages
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