Seeking Big Enough Ideas

Seeking Big Enough Ideas
“Look to the stars, there are more important things than personal problems.”—George Bernard Shaw*


On a Sunday morning in or around the year 1910, William Wisner Adams, a New England divine approaching the age of 80, ascended his pulpit in a prosperous mill city to deliver his annual report on the latest developments in astronomy. He had been updating his congregation on these matters for years, perhaps decades. The people in attendance, however, were mostly unsophisticated factory hands and clerks. There was no pretending in that hour of devotion: a great distance equivalent to light years existed between desk and pew.

On Monday morning, Dr. Adams was asked by his much younger colleague and associate minister what use was such a sermon on the study of galaxies when the people hearing it were so severely underpaid in the making and selling of cotton. “My dear boy,” he twinkled, “it’s no use at all, but it greatly enlarges my idea of God.”

While it may seem remarkable today that a Victorian-era preacher found nothing in science at all unsettling to religion, it actually should embarrass us that we assume a deep intellectual divide was taking root then between humanities and science. Rather, the divestiture has happened, sadly, more in our own era than his. Old Dr. Adams may seem unconventional at this distance, but his scholarly bent was expected by his listeners (and affirmed as a charter member of the American Economic Association).

Notwithstanding the fact that many fewer people were going to college a century ago, there was a broad, popular liberal arts culture of learning in that era represented in the crowds at the World’s Fair, Chautauqua camps, Athenaeums, Carnegie libraries, and the countless small-town opera houses. I would argue the other way, historically, that the continental drift of disciplines (that one must be educated either in the sciences or the arts, but not both) is a more recent and ironic breach.

While St. Lawrence continues to build a wider reputation around the world for the immense variety of what its graduates usefully do in life, the very idea of a liberal arts education faces a fresh uncertainty. This troubling resistance comes now after centuries of accepting that the best life of the mind is mapped and wired in length and breadth to create the most interesting internal circuitry. Instead, an education designed to “enlarge” one’s ideas of knowledge, creation and the human experience faces popular rejection.

Why? The concentration of highly specialized scholarship perhaps places a barrier between major fields of intellectual activity, forsaking the effort to make connections. So much to do, so little time, so, therefore, know only one large thing. Isaiah Berlin would still caution us about the perils of the hedgehog that is exclusively single-minded.

Another question mark presses today on the liberal arts: is it worthwhile or simply too expensive? Hasty, sell-short assessments of financial return will disregard the tremendous gain in human capital and intellectual joy. Economic disruption often hastens a faulty logic: that entrepreneurs, inventors, technologists, business creators, innovators,  managers, scientists and engineers can readily forego “humanistic” reflection on the more sensitive issues of life. If their starting point is expressed as the immediacy of maximizing profitability, they are already predisposed to a bargain life of the mind. Hopping fences into the meadowland of arts, philosophy, literature and history is not a philosophical frill. It’s the available territory of human beingness.

Clearer, more compelling voices call from the past and present. Seventy years ago, Harvard president James B. Conant, once a wartime chemist involved with developing poison gas in 1917, who was also present at the Trinity nuclear test site in 1945, prophesied the inevitable threat to “the continuance of the liberal and humane tradition.” He concluded that in a free society all students should come into “continuing contact with those fields in which value judgments are of prime importance…and be concerned…with the words right and wrong in both the ethical and mathematical sense.”

In our own day, Aileen O’Donoghue, who has been teaching the stars and planets to St. Lawrence students for 25 years, has also given larger thought to humanity encountering astronomy. She reflects that “there is a comforting completeness in knowing that our [human] physical substance, forged in the core of the stars, shall become again a part of the interstellar dust from which new stars will be made. But we are more than our physical substance, or so we’ve always thought….” And so, at St. Lawrence we have scientists who still read Dante and know that the last word of the last canto is “other stars.” And we have English majors who turn their faces skyward and ask, “What are we seeing?”


*Seth R. Brooks ’22 wrote out this sentence on an index card and kept it tacked to the back of his office door for most of 40 years.