Saturday, July 20, 2013

Specialized Fluency
When I got to college, one of the most exciting prospects was never again being oppressed by a trite summer reading book. Or any summer reading at all. I naively imagined myself sitting on a beach, sipping a drink with an umbrella, reading a text of my own choosing. Luckily for me, I was completely wrong. I never really was a fan of umbrellas anyway. And while I have enjoyed a number of good books (of my own choosing) this summer, I have also thoroughly enjoyed The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, assigned as summer reading for a class in the fall. The major difference between summer reading for high school and college might be the craftiness of the instructor. In order to ensure we have been keeping up with our reading our professor required us to prepare three reflections on the book over the course of the summer. Here is the first:

“But each of us should be on the way toward perfection, should be striving to reach the center, not the periphery.” And thus the Music Master advises Joseph when they are discussing Joseph’s further education. My friend once sent me a cartoon of a circle with a very small bulge along the periphery. The caption helpfully informed me that this bulge was the amount I could increase human knowledge if I chose to get a PhD. That image has stayed with me and the Music Master’s advice reminded me of it once again. The world is pushing us constantly to every increasing specialization and sub-division. And when the age of the liberal arts education, of the person fluent in mathematics and philosophy and history, is recalled wistfully it is so often discounted as obsolete. Reading The Glass Bead Game has helped me solidify my own support for the liberal arts tradition. The Game requires an understanding of a large number of subjects and the ability to translate a concept in one discipline to another. The real goal of a liberal arts education should be have the knowledge and skills to approach problems from a large range of perspectives. Not to seek the peripheries of subdivided knowledge, but to seek of synthesis of inner passions in a center that combines all disciplines. In this, one is not straining one’s capacities by studying disparate areas, but is strengthening a central focus. Knowledge is not necessarily precious for its own sake, but its direct application doesn’t need to be immediately apparent for it to have value.

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