Libraries and Laboratories

We classical educators tend to be a bookish lot. We like Cicero and Shakespeare. We like Latin and Greek. We like musty bookstores with alleyway entrances in Edinburgh. We use a picture of the library at Trinity College Dublin as the desktop background on our computers. We like traditional school uniforms and Gothic arches. We like The Lord of the Rings, and we wrote coded messages to our middle school friends in elvish script. We fantasize about a trip to Florence. We know the smell of damp tweed in the fall.

All this conjures an image that is in many ways antithetical to the person we imagine inhabits a math and science magnet school. Those schools, we imagine, are populated by an altogether different sort of creature—one who bears little resemblance to ourselves. We live in libraries; they live in laboratories.

They like aviation and science museums. They wear NASA shirts and Birkenstocks. They loved marine biology in eighth grade and won the school science fair. They like calculus homework. They put the new pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope onto all four of their monitors. They like the clack of the buckling-spring switches in their old Model-M keyboards.

This us-versus-them conception of popular imagination, however, would look strange to any scholar in the premodern world. Before the hyper-specialization of contemporary research universities in the nineteenth century, mathematics and poetry, physics and philosophy, all were part of what it meant to be an educated person. They came together as a unified package. A scholarly gentleman often housed his laboratory equipment in the same room as his library.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a great proliferation of scientific instruments and specialized equipment that gentlemen scholars were expected to have: sextants, micrometers, astrolabes, barometers, beakers and flasks, retorts and burets for titration. All of these were known, however, not as “scientific” instruments but as “philosophical” instruments, and the whole scientific enterprise was known as “natural philosophy.”

A perhaps apocryphal tradition tells us that Plato inscribed above the entrance to his Academy the words: “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.” More certainly, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates insists that an extensive education in geometrical reasoning is necessary before a student can embark on the study of philosophy.

Although known primarily as a philosopher, Plato’s star pupil Aristotle combined extensive learning in many subjects, writing groundbreaking works on poetics, meteorology, rhetoric, and physics. Although he is sometimes mocked by Enlightenment writers who ought to know better, Aristotle is the opposite of the armchair rationalist who fails to go out and actually look at the real concrete world. He made many discoveries in biology through careful dissection and knew much of the heavens through careful observation of the sky.

We see the tradition of wide learning—without any schism between libraries and laboratories—persist throughout history. We see such figures as Pliny the Elder, who combined a cultivated, literary mind with an encyclopedic knowledge of natural phenomena. We learn of Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and Nicholas of Cusa, medieval philosophers and theologians who also made major advances in mathematics. Everyone has heard about the omnicompetence of Leonardo da Vinci, but few know that Isaac Newton spent most of his later career obsessed with the textual analysis of Scripture. At the time of the American founding, Benjamin Franklin was a wise statesman and diplomat but also a major figure in the new science of electricity. Goethe, remembered principally for his literary talents, was also a profoundly insightful scientist, making significant contributions to botany and color theory.

This tradition of wide learning produces a certain kind of mind, a mind both knowledgeable and flexible, capable of handling rigorous deductive thinking and capable of interpreting nuance. Scientific education stocks the mind with facts about the concrete world and teaches it how to reason carefully about probabilistic causal inferences. Poetic education teaches the mind to see the analogy between things and create metaphor. Mathematical education trains the mind to carefully work through a difficult chain of deductive, quantitative reasoning. Philosophical education incites the mind to ask fundamental questions and to reason toward sound answers to those questions. Literary education civilizes the mind with a cultivated imagination and teaches it to both make judgments about and form emotional responses to what is imagined.

This education is the education of a single mind, not the education of separate little independent minds. Extensive scientific knowledge of the physical world, with its complex system of natural causes, makes a person a better novelist. The ability to see the analogy between things or the subtlety of a good joke makes a person a better scientist.

Conversely, deficiency in one area spreads to deficiency in others. We all know people who like to excuse their lack of ability in mathematics by saying, “I’m more of a creative, artsy type,” or excuse their horrible spelling by saying, “I’m a math and science guy.” But my experience as a teacher tells me that a student who is unable to discipline his mind to work carefully through a math problem is likely to have difficulty in carefully reading a story too. A student who interprets everything literally and cannot craft a metaphor is also likely to have difficulty with experimental design.

As they mature, students will have different interests that will lead to different specializations and different careers as adults. As they go further in one specialty, they will often let other areas drop. Nevertheless, the years before college must be spent laying a broad foundation capable of sustaining a lifetime of further building. The subjects that a student finds uninteresting or difficult, running against the natural grain of his  personality, are often the subjects that he would benefit from the most. If we simply give up on what we find difficult, especially early on, we are in danger of developing a lopsided education with major deficiencies that will trouble us down the line even in our own specialty.

Bring the laboratory, therefore, into the library of your classical education. Do not pull apart the whole cloth of learning into smaller and smaller ragged pieces. Preserve the texture and integrity of an expansive mind and it will clothe your soul in the garments of culture, intelligence, civility, and wisdom. This tradition produces a certain kind of mind, a mind both knowledgeable and flexible, capable of handling rigorous deductive thinking and capable of interpreting nuance.