There’s an unusual but wonderful piece by Gregory Petsko at Genome Biology. (Petsko, a biochemistry professor at Brandeis and member of the National Academy of Sciences, writes a monthly column in the journal.) It’s an open letter to George M. Philip, President of the State University of New York at Albany, who unwisely decided to close the departments of classics, theater arts, French, Italian, and Russian because they attracted only a “paucity of students.”
Petsko rips Philip a new one, using along the way many allusions to the literature he studied in college. Do read it; here’s two excerpts:
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that you have trouble understanding the importance of maintaining programs in unglamorous or even seemingly ‘dead’ subjects. From your biography, you don’t actually have a PhD or other high degree, and have never really taught or done research at a university. Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that . . .
. . . No, I think you were simply trying to balance your budget at the expense of what you believe to be weak, outdated and powerless departments. I think you will find, in time, that you made a Faustian bargain. Faust is the title character in a play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was written around 1800 but still attracts the largest audiences of any play in Germany whenever it’s performed. Faust is the story of a scholar who makes a deal with the devil. The devil promises him anything he wants as long as he lives. In return, the devil will get – well, I’m sure you can guess how these sorts of deals usually go. If only you had a Theater department, which now, of course, you don’t, you could ask them to perform the play so you could see what happens. It’s awfully relevant to your situation. You see, Goethe believed that it profits a man nothing to give up his soul for the whole world. That’s the whole world, President Philip, not just a balanced budget. Although, I guess, to be fair, you haven’t given up your soul. Just the soul of your institution.
Bravo, Dr. Petsko! I don’t know where I’d be now had I not gone to The College of William and Mary, a liberal arts school that enforced a wide education on everyone, even prospective scientists. It was there that I took a fantastic fine arts course from a charismatic professor who absolutely awakened my interest in art, leading to gazillions of museum visits in the last four decades. I had courses in Old English, Beowulf, Greek tragedy, ethics, Indian (i.e., Asian) art, economics, German scientific literature, and modern American fiction. Every one of these left a residuum in my neurons. I still can’t pass up an article on Beowulf.
The best teachers are not the ones who instill knowledge in your brain, but those who instill a love of learning, making you autodidactic in their subject for the rest of your life. I don’t think I’ve attained that ability as a professor, but I sure benefited from it in college. And I don’t give two hoots for a scientist who cares nothing for music, art, literature—or food! They’re missing a great swath of the world’s wonder. Those other disciplines aren’t really “ways of knowing,” but they’re ways of experiencing, and to die without that panoply of experience, had it been available to you, is to have lived in vain.