Friday, August 08, 2003

Literature appreciation too precious to leave to professors 

I was struck by the combination of two articles. Critical Mass and Too Much to Dream covered the other day a story about how Oprah's reading list jumped Steinbeck's East of Eden to #2 on Amazon's bestseller list. Unlike Erin, I'm not a big Steinbeck fan for no reason other than this: Reading him tends to lead to my chin hitting my chest. That is, I just couldn't get into the novel.

The connection I made was to this John Derbyshire article on NRO about "The Importance of Not Thinking Too Much." In it he relates a story about three math professors at a conference; they...
...resurrected an issue from the great "crisis of foundations" that racked mathematics in the early 20th century � during roughly the period from Russell�s paradox (1901) to G�del's theorem (1931). This "crisis of foundations" arose because mathematicians had begun inquiring into the logical and philosophical underpinnings of their subject, trying to find the fundamental axioms underlying all of math, trying to find unshakably firm foundations for the process of mathematical proof, asking questions like: "What is a number, really?"

Well, the three diners all expressed different opinions on the issue in question, which is a very crucial one. ("The ontological status of the continuum" � but you don't need to know this to understand my point.) Harris sought to pursue the discussion down into deeper matters�but found that his colleagues did not have the necessary knowledge, and didn't actually care. These foundational issues, though interesting in their own right, and fine for a few casual conversational exchanges over the dinner-table, do not really matter in the day-to-day work of most mathematicians.

Erin's post contains the similar thought by a professor of English.
"The literary elite persist in dismissing Oprah and her readers ... (as) lowbrow, unworthy of serious attention," said Mark Hall, who teaches rhetoric and composition at Cal State Chico. "As a teacher, however, I struggle to engage my students in reading, and so I wonder if academics might learn something from Winfrey about how to tap into the interests of general readers. ... In my experience, the treatment of literature in the classroom often kills the joy of reading for many students. By contrast, Winfrey fosters the deeply felt pleasure that hooks readers and keeps them engaged."

So why do professors do this? Why do we focus on these arcane debates that don't really influence our work and understanding of the world? I could tell you several such stories in economics. In my lower-division courses we focus on three fundamental ideas -- a pedagogy I took from a lecture Russell Roberts gave many years ago -- of the assumption of self-interest, opportunity costs and marginal analysis. Master those, I tell them, and the rest is application. Yet our text books and lectures are filled with game theory and calculus and countless minutiae.

Why the need for so much complexity, in either economics or English? I feel a rant coming on, but I have to go now.

I hope Jack will post more on this.