Dilettantism and Salvation

[WARNING: This post contains self-indulgent navel gazing. Read at your own risk.]

When I was in college, I bought into the liberal arts position, hook line and sinker. It has left me tortured by regret. Fortunately, Mormonism alleviates much of my anxiety that my education has basically been a train wreck.

In college I believed that education was a matter of broadening my horizons, learning something of civilization’s arts, philosophy, science, and history. I took a lot classes in economics, philosophy, and political science, but I thought of myself as a kind of generalist student of the human condition. (I admit that I was a bit weak on literature, but I did TA a class where I ended up teaching freshman about Milton and Homer. Me! Ha!) I had vast respect for those of broad understanding who could synthesize together disparate lines of thought. I wanted to be that kind of person.

What I actually became was an intellectual dilettante, dabbling in a variety of fields, but not really specializing in anything. I graduated and self-consciously made the decision to go to law school precisely because it allowed me to avoid specialization. As an undergrad I worked for a couple of law profs and knew that law was an intersection of all of the things that I was interested it.

I still believe in the ideals of liberal education. However, I have developed a real respect for specialists and professionals. I used to see technocrats of all stripes as boring grinds, but now I see them as people possessed of secret wisdom that I envy. I wish that I could do advanced mathematics, program computers, do complex statistical analysis, design buildings and machines, and fluently speak and read other languages.

I have had fairly little religious angst in my life. With a couple of exceptions, I have never really gone through the dark tea time of the soul with regard to issues of faith or belief. I am happily shallow about such things. On the other hand, I have experienced some real funks about the disorganized state of my brain.

And this is where Mormonism’s view of the universe is a great comfort to me. For some, I suppose, that the promise of salvation and eternal life provides hope that beyond the travails of life there is peace and rest. For me, however, one of the wonderful things about the Mormon heaven is that I won’t spend my time enraptured in the contemplation of God’s perfection. Rather, I will have time to study calculus, quantum physics, accounting, engineering, languages dead and living, and catch up on all of the books that I feel like I really should read. In other words, dilettantism is only for mortality. There is hope for knowledge in the eternities.

27 comments for “Dilettantism and Salvation

  1. I hear you, Nate. I wonder, though, if this is a problem fundamental to the liberal arts, or more a symptom of the disfunctionality of our “liberal” universities. I don’t think liberalism (a la J.S. Mill) is inherent to the liberal arts. When students are too free too early–meaning they don’t get enough expert guidance–it is to be expected that they become dilettants. But lack of guidance is not inherent to the liberal arts.

    One quick way to start addressing the issue is to encourage liberal arts majors to do another major as well, such as in the “hard” sciences. I agree that far too many of our liberal arts students leave the university withough much sense of what real knowledge is. I’m not saying that real knowledge is only found in the “hard” sciences — far from it, but the kind of knowledge found there is an extremely important case of knowledge. I was lucky enough to start off as an engineering major and finish enough math along the way that I decided to finish a math major along with philosophy. I think I’m in a much better position to do the kind of thinking philosophy aspires to because I had another major, one with a very structured curriculum and very rigorous standards of what counts as knowledge, in addition to studying philosophy.

  2. Nice navel, Nate.

    I also think of eternity as time enough to actually learn enough about *something* that I won’t be a complete idiot about *everything.* I also hope it’s time enough to learn to play all the instruments in the orchestra.

  3. Ben: The last math class I took was as a junior in HS (calculus). I took several semesters of formal logic instead at BYU. If I had my education to do over, I would take classes on statistics and learn the mathematics of game theory. And I would learn Greek and Latin. And German. And Arabic. It is not as though these are not the sorts of things that one can learn on one’s own, but they are the sort of knowledge that may be best learned in a structured enviroment.

  4. I do think, though, that especially in a pluralistic society, and always in the liberal arts, it is more difficult to give good guidance to students while still achieving the purposes of the liberal arts–more difficult than in other disciplines. If the goal of the discipline can be independently specified and understood, it is much easier to judge success, but this is generally not possible in the liberal arts. So this problem will probably continue to some extent despite best efforts. But it is possible to give much more guidance. Let’s figure out: How?

    One interesting response shows up in Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, _Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry_. Rather than having every university try to be cosmopolitan, what about having some universities that are more committed to a particular tradition of thought, a particular overall worldview?

    These comments are a bit dense; I’ll be happy to elaborate if anyone’s interested in what I meant by this or that.

  5. The last math class I took was as a junior in HS (calculus)

    Ouch! What to think of AP procedures? I took APs so I would have more choices in college, not so I wouldn’t have to take those subjects. I did AP math, physics, and literature, but took more of those subjects in college. I think it is sad if students experience less of the university because of APs, because learning in the university is often pretty different from high school, and yet it might seem difficult to justify AP classes to some people if they didn’t relieve one of required classes. Still, if I were a university administrator, I would be tempted to give credit for APs, but require taking a more advanced course in the subject to fill GE requirements, rather than letting APs fill the requirements themselves.

  6. To a certain extent, it seems to me that this is precisely what really first-rate engineering schools have done: MIT, Cal Tech, Purdue, etc.

    One of the problems is that you have to get fairly deep into a field before anything gets interesting. Imagine how rotten it would be if your education consisted of a little bit of geometry, two semesters of philosophy, etc. etc.

    For example, I now find math interesting for two reasons. (1) I see how it can be applied in complex ways to questions that I am interested in; and, (2) I can appreciate it as a stunning set of abstract achievements. However, both 1 and 2 are a result of my education thus far. (1) comes from the fact that I now read and find social science interesting. Hence, I want to understand the math behind the statistics and the formal models. (2) comes from the fact that I have read quite a bit of philosophy and have developed a taste for abstraction. Niether of these are things that I had at the beginning of my advanced education when it would have made sense to get a really solid grounding in math. I didn’t know enough then to know what I would be interested in now.

  7. One of the problems is that you have to get fairly deep into a field before anything gets interesting.

    Absolutely. That’s why I would recommend a full major (not just a minor or GE distribution) in another field for those in liberal arts disciplines. Especially philosophy. If somebody really wants to be liberated as a human being, the way the liberal arts are supposed to do, I think they need to understand more of these other realms of human achievement.

    Of course, partly you’re just dealing with the problem of not knowing in advance that you would want to know statistics, rather than, say, calculus or chemistry or physiology.

  8. Nate, interesting–the last math class I took was also as a junior in HS.

    I liked the post but am not sure about the doctrinal soundness of the idea that dilettantism is only for mortality. Is that because you will have a perfect understanding of everything in the eternities? Or you will have more time there to study those things? Or what?

    Dilettantism, or just plain mediocrity, has haunted me as well, since I realize that I have conspicuously avoided the deep specialization in a field that would give me credibility. It is true that I pursued foreign languages and literature to the master’s level, so that counts for something, but it is not really a “skill” that makes me a specialist (anybody can pick those books up and read them either in the original or in translation and have ideas about them equally as valid as those expressed in my master’s thesis*). Does completion of law school make me a specialist in the law? I hardly think so. Even passing the bar doesn’t do that. Now it remains to be seen if I will put aside this avoidance of specialization and seek it in my legal career, or will I try to keep my foot in numerous practice groups and areas of law in keeping with my past course of conduct?

    I am interested, though, in your view of the eternities if dilettantism will be eradicated.

    This is, of course, subject to the Green handwave rule.

  9. Also, my comment really only applies if by dilettantism you mean amatuerism or mediocrity, to express the idea of mere dabbling in a field. If you mean more generally a lover of the arts or connoisseur, then I am sure that dilettantism is not restricted to mortality by any means.

  10. There is one value to the sort of liberal education Nate O. experienced. As we can see from his post, it does broaden your understanding, not of the fields that you barely touched, but of the people who do get deeper into them. You get enough of a flavor to understand why people would want to devote themselves to it.

  11. I’d second Ben’s comments. I still recall the day the light dawned and I realized a liberal education was a bit of a joke. For that matter the day the light dawned and I realized most of the idealism of a “university education” were highly flawed. Perhaps I’ve become too cynical? I tend to think that a university doesn’t let kids know that they have to get a job when they graduate and that often one has to prepare for that starting as a freshman.

    Having revealed my cynical self, now let me let the idealist out. (Since a cynic is only a frustrated idealist) I think that a danger with too much specialization and too little generalization is that one gets trapped in ones corner of the world. Back home in Canada, where I originally went to school, one needed only two classes outside of ones major. BYU, when I transferred there, was a bit of a shock in that regard. Yet I’m very, very grateful for all the non-physics classes I took. They certainly opened my eyes. (I still remember when the term “metaphysics” was a curse word for me dripping with venom – I was a bit of a closet positivist as a Freshman)

  12. I don’t think a liberal education is a joke, not even a bit of a joke. Rather, I think that for a variety of reasons, what students get in the course of earning a B.A. is often less liberating than it is supposed to be. Too often, what happens under the name of the liberal arts is not a liberal education. I think this is as much a problem of inadequate advising as it is a problem of inadequate feedback on homework.

    On the other hand, I think perhaps it is only to be expected that much of what makes an education a good education is not what takes place in the classroom or in the course of formal assignments, etc. I think my education in philosophy was extremely liberating. In most ways I think it was just the sort of thing a liberal education should be. As it happens, I was a student who exercised a lot of autonomy. I had some rather specific goals, puzzles to work on, and took courses for the sake of making progress on these as much as anything. Along the way, of course, my sense of what my goals should be often changed deeply and unforseeably. I had great professors, but much of the success of my university education I think should also be attributed to my parents, my unusually involved high school teachers, and my thoughtful friends.

    Again, I don’t think there is something fundamentally suspect about a liberal education. However, I do think there are serious problems to be addressed in trying to carry on the tradition of liberal education today. Today there are new factors to consider, and we have much to do to adjust. There is radical pluralism in society and in the university, and a suspicion of the sort of meta-narratives that in the past would have served as guidance, in part, for a program of liberal education. There is the increasing commercialization of the universities (I think). There is the very different demographic of university students today, as a higher percentage of young people attend universities, and university degrees become more expected as a gateway to better employment. There is the very large size of universities–one hundred years ago, who would have dreamed of a university with 30,000 students? I’m no historian, but I can’t imagine there was anything like that. Size makes a big difference in how easy it is to manage things toward such a subtle goal as education, and in how well informal and personal things like mentoring go. In a smaller department, it will tend to be much easier for majors to get good advising, because people actually know each other.

  13. speak for yourself nate. if i get that far, i intend to be playing alot of board games, card games, computer games…for a long time. of course, mayhap this is also ‘knowledge’ of a type, :)

  14. Nate, I think your comments reflect the nostalgic view that education is what happens in college (ages 18-22 or, for missionary Mormons, 18-24) and that anything you don’t squeeze into your undergraduate transcript goes onto a growing list of lost opportunities for enlightenment. The feeling often grows more acute over time — you don’t see many newly minted graduates lamenting the courses they didn’t take as a sophomore, but later on almost everyone can be heard to say something like “If I could do college over again, I would major in Sanskrit.”

    Personally, I’ve come around to almost exactly the opposite view of education. No 22-year-old really knows that much, regardless of their major or choice of classes. The best education is one which forces development of skills in critical thinking and expression, whether in technical fields like science and math or more general ones like literature or social science, and the specific major chosen really doesn’t matter much. In any case, most productive education happens after college, and a surprising amount of it is institutional, the knowledge of how to actually get things done in a specific human organization (ranging from a corporation to a university to a law firm to a church to a family).

  15. I liked your post, Nate. Dilettantism is mostly a good thing, I think. Even specialists tend to be dilettants except for one tiny bit of their own discipline. Knowing a reasonable amount about a lot of things is better than knowing nothing about almost everything. And, as you point out, there will eventually be time to study other fields in depth.

    As for liberal arts in the sense of general education, I think it’s a good thing, although I could see tinkering with what’s required and what’s not. I wish I had had at least a semester of economics in college. I’m satisfied with the amount of math I learned (up to Galois et al.), but I’m always wishing I had had a real statistics class. As for liberal arts as a college major, Ben’s suggestion that a double major be required is good for a lot of reasons, including the fact that people who teach liberal arts and lure students into their programs can’t ignore the issue of career preparation.

    Lyle, I think I should be able to work through humanity’s total output of single-player party-based computer RPG’s in under a decade. After that, there’s got to be something better to do for the rest of eternity.

    John, I don’t think Green’s theorem is terribly relevant here, but in case you haven’t heard, the 2005 formulation of the theorem is: “Academia tends to dismiss the voices, no matter how informed and original, of those without a particular credential and academic position, and to deny them a place at the table when interesting or important topics are up for discussion. This is sometimes a matter of expediency and sometimes a matter of crass arrogance, but there is rarely a penalty imposed on those who pass off arrogance as expediency.” I would never dismiss your ideas with a wave of the hand, but for dragging last year’s discussion into this one, I am strongly tempted to wave just one finger, vigorously.

  16. What with half the world’s poulation working from sun up to sun down in a rice field it’s nice to know there’s an eternity in which they may catch up on the knowledge of what makes the world go ’round.

  17. While I think that the problems discussed above are more with the student than with the discipline, and that a dedicated student can develop her or his mind and critical thinking skills reading novels (ok, maybe poems) or philosophers as working through number theory, there is a liberal arts canard that I have real trouble with: the idea that the humanities is a fundamentally more moral and humane way to spend one’s energies.

    I remember one of my professors citing (probably another professor’s) statement that one would have difficulty being “fully human” without having read a certain novel (human read here as a good thing, even in an LDS context). While I agree that the novel in question certainly helped me along the path I hope I’m treading toward charity, the reading in and of itself did not make me a more charitable person.

    The humanities is often touted as the One True Way to empathy, understanding, and compassion. Coming to terms with the fact that none of my reading inherently improved me was a bitter pill.

  18. Absolutely. That’s why I would recommend a full major (not just a minor or GE distribution) in another field for those in liberal arts disciplines.

    Depending on its structure, a minor might well suffice. I actually completed the Discrete Math program at BYU, and found that outside of the core classes (more or less what one would cover in a obtaining a minor), we were doing surveys of a given sub-discipline of math. We used the same basic skills that were developed and refined from the logic, calculus/analysis , linear algebra, and abstract algebra classes, just over different problem domains. Not to say the domain specific knowledge wasn’t useful, just that I think a Math minor could serve as preparation for any specific knowledge domain as well as a Math major could.

  19. May I quote from Nabokov’s novel Bend Sinister? The speaker is the main character, Professor Adam Krug:

    “I esteem my colleagues as I do my own self. I esteem them for two things: because they are able to find perfect felicity in specialized knowledge and because they are not apt to commit physical murder.” Dr. Alexander mistook this for one of the obscure quips which, he had been told, Adam Krug liked to indulge in and laughed cautiously.

    (Make of it what you will.)

  20. Jonathan, excellent. Great reply. I like the 2005 formulation much better. And I know I deserving a bit of that finger waving (hopefully not the middle finger!).

  21. Education, to me, is learning something new all the time.
    If you live is a town of any size, there is a library nearby, go there and make use of it. Even if all you do is go into the stacks and pluck a book out at random on a subject you know nothing about and read it all the way through.

    You don’t have to have a teacher in front of you to learn something. It is much easier and more fun if you try to figure it out yourself or with the help of a friend or three.

    Too many people think that a diploma is the end, it is only the beginning, you now know enough to be dangerous but hardly useful.

    Some people sip from the fount of knowledge,
    others just gargle and spit,
    few drink deep,
    and I want the firehose!

  22. Weston, I think you’re right that the right minor could serve quite well the purpose I have in mind, and that this would be especially straightforward in math. The goal I have in mind is not just that liberal arts folk know more in general, but that they know more about what knowledge is like, how it is obtained and how its limitations work. In math, theorems and their proofs are such a big part of what is going on in so many classes, that I agree a minor could easily be enough. If I thought about it, I might find this is more true in other disciplines than I was thinking. Still, I would have to look carefully at what coutns as a minor in various fields before I would be confident, and I think too often it would be possible to get a minor by taking a smattering of courses that didn’t necessarily accomplish what I have in mind.

  23. Boyd, thanks for that link! A very interesting and thoughtful and ambitious talk! It’s interesting how Holland underscores the importance of integration of human knowledge as a whole, of getting a sense of the whole into which all truth fits. It’s interesting, too, how this goal is one a number of people at Notre Dame feel strongly about. I agree it is about as important a goal for a university as anything. The tough question is how to go about it. Once upon a time, philosophy was the discipline most of all that tried to build these integrative perspectives on human knowledge. However, lately I’m not sure there are many philosophy programs that take this as a goal. Philosophy seems to be more just another narrow specialization. Of course, there are specific questions unique to philosophy that need to be approached this way. There is an important value to philosophy as another specialization. And the task of integration is much more challenging now that there is so much more knowledge represented in the university, which that integration will clearly have to take into account. Of course, there was always a lot of knowledge on the earth that wasn’t integrated into the overarching views of, say, Greeks or Europeans, but it was easier to shrug a lot of it off because poeple from China and India and Mesopotamia weren’t teaching at the Greek or European universities. It’s hard to believe now that a single person could build a credible overarching view. Yet perhaps this is because we haven’t been trying consistently. It would certainly require some teamwork. And it would require a community that all agree more or less on certain key points like whether there is a God, and some standards about how humans should live probably.

  24. Nate, I think what you’re pointing out here isn’t a problem with liberal education. It runs much deeper — the problem is that with the explosion of human knowledge of the last few hundred years, it is almost impossible to gain an education that is both deep and broad. I took the opposite path from you: I became very specialized in one specific field. Yes, that does give me some of the “arcane knowledge” you refer to. But it also meant that I had to forgo classes in literature, history, philosophy, language, and even sciences other than my specific field. The last history class I took was as a senior in HS. That is a lack I feel very deeply, because it’s very difficult to understand the world without knowing something about those subjects. As a consequence, at this late date I find myself trying to gain a liberal education on my own, in my spare time. Perhaps I’ll be done before I die. But probably not. So maybe LDS theology gives us both a way out.

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