Sunday, April 10, 2011

Why Should Science and Technology Majors Study Literature?

I am hoping that soon I will be in the position to have to defend this question: How would you explain to a science major why learning about literature should matter to them?

After all, I believe that I am in a unique position, as someone with a Bachelor's degree in recombinant gene technology and two years of graduate school in molecular biology, to answer this question. Why should a physics major or an engineering major care about literature? Why should a chemistry or biology major? A pre-med or psychology major? An economics or sociology major?

Certainly one can make the argument for each of the above learning something about the others. Clearly the psychology major should know some biology and sociology. And in the case of Hayek's theory of spontaneous orders, anyone studying networks, including sociology, psycholgy, brain science, and biology, should definitely learn some economics. But where does literature fit into all of this?

Is literature some kind of outlier, mere entertainment for those wealthy enough to get a liberal arts education? Or may there be something more to it? What does literature do for you?

The first answer that comes to mind is that literature helps stimulate creativity. Of course, many things can and do stimulate creativity. Art in general is stimulative. When I dabbled in painting for a while, I was actually writing more short stories than at any other time. There is creative crossover, and this crossover actually helps one to see patterns and connections in other fields -- which is simply another way of saying it makes one creative. Literature is filled with any number of patterns. There are complex patterns of meaningful word distribution in novels, rhythmic and often rhyming patterns in formalist poetry, patterns of speech and action in plays. Some of these patterns are regular, others are irregular, and many are fractal (exhibiting both regularity and irregularity simultaneously). Literature is filled with the expected and the unexpected. It is sometimes filled with the strange -- Kafka's The Metamorphosis being an obvious example -- that challenges your thinking, the way you view the world. Great literature is of course unpredictable, yet postdictable. One cannot predict what will happen, but when one looks back on it, you realize that it of course had to have happened that way. Literature is full of such tensions, heightening them, bringing the paradoxes of life and reality to the fore. To the extent that it does this, literature is a fantastic stimulant for any kind of creativity one will have to bring to bear to be successful in any of the fields one will study.

Another thing literature allows you to do is inhabit the life and world of an other. Men can experience what it's like to be a woman; women can experience what it's like to be a man. I've experienced being an African-American woman through Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, being an African-American man through Langston Hughs, being an African tribal priest through Chinua Achebe, being Hispanic through Gabriel García Márquez, being a Czech expatriot through Milan Kundera, being a Czech Jew through Kafka, being French through Andre Gide, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Stendhal, de Beauvoir, Camus (really, French-Algerian in this case), Balzac, Michel Houellebecq, etc., being German through Goethe, Hesse, Rilke, Celan, Gunter Grass, Heine, Holderlein, Nietzsche, and Thomas Mann, being an Indian woman through Arundhati Roy, being a Japanese man through Kawabata, being ancient Greek through Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, and being a contemporary Greek through Kazantzakis, just to name a few. I have inhabited these in the only ways actually possible, and it has made me more open, cosmopolitan, and creative. (I have even been described by a few Europeans as the most European American they had ever met.) This opennes, this cosmopolitanism contributes to creativity, by opening up new ways of thinking. New ways of thinking do not occur just among disciplines, but among cultures as well. These cultural differences have resulted in geographically distinct scientific developments -- is it a coincidence that so many of the revolutionary physicists of the early part of the 20th century were Germanic? or that early Darwinism was an English phenomenon? or that the Nobel Prizes for the sciences have been dominated by Americans? There were cultural elements that contributed to these patterns. If a person can tap into these different ways of seeing the world, different ways of thinking, different world views, that cannot help but contribute to their creativity. The more perspectives one can bring to a problem, the more creative solutions can emerge to solve it. Or even discover the problem in the first place.
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