Of Tigers and Bears

Why STEM will always need the humanities.

The Saber Tooth Curriculum [1] is a satire of modern academia and its resistance to change. In the allegory, New-Fist-Hammer-Maker teaches his children how to scare saber-tooth tigers with fire. The training is highly successful, and these children grow up into great protectors of the tribe. Within a few years, all the children are compulsorily schooled in the trade of tiger-scaring. The tribesmen sleep soundly for years.

They sleep soundly, that is, until an ice age creeps in. The saber-tooth tigers all die off; in their place arrive ferocious glacial bears that can’t be scared by fire. The situation is dire, until, luckily, one clever inventor devises a method for trapping the bears in camouflaged spike-pits. Soon, this method is widely-used among the men of the tribe. The schools, however, continue teaching children the archaic art of tiger-scaring, stressing the importance of knowledge as opposed to mere trade. “Why won’t you teach bear-trapping?” the rebellious inventor asks one wise old academic.

“If you had any education yourself,” the academic replies severely, “you would know that the essence of true education is timelessness. It is something that endures through changing conditions like a solid rock standing squarely and firmly in the middle of a raging torrent. You must know that there are some eternal verities, and the saber-tooth curriculum is one of them!” [1]

The stance of the author—ahem, the spurned inventor, rather—is that teaching for the sake of mere tradition is foolish; that once upon a time, the saber-tooth curriculum was a trade too;  and that we’d be wise to teach new trades rather than old ones if we’re interested in surviving.

The notion that we should continuously revise our curricula–out with the old, in with the new–isn’t limited to stodgy allegory. In fact, it appears in a literary tradition as storied as the “great books” program that emerged out of Columbia in the 1920s. Indeed, several texts universally included in the list of great books seem to denounce the very canon they compose. “Knowledge is power,” writes Francis Bacon—knowledge, that is, derived from empiricism and experimentation, rather than from the fallacious works of philosophers past. Descartes, a contemporary of Bacon’s, also scorned the so-called great books that preceded him.

As soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors, I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world. [2]

It appears that our literary canon is contradictory, and, in fact, self-effacing. Even the great books themselves deem the great books stale and unworthy of study. Was our inventor right all along? Is it time to scrap the list altogether in favor of a more pragmatic approach?

Patrick J. Deneen [2], associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, takes a different approach: he believes that only the oldest texts ought to be retained, as opposed to only the newer, more practical ones. Deneen divides the traditional list of great books into two groups. The first extolls the value of our entire literary history, while the second (containing Descartes and Bacon) denounces it. The books in the former group contain a wealth of advice on how man might adapt to nature, while books in the latter spurn the very idea of adapting to nature, and urging the reader instead to conquer nature with science. Deneen thus names the former group the humble books, and suggests that we ought to consider teaching only the humble books.

Deneen’s rational is clear enough. Sure, the empirical pursuit of the sciences (and of nothing else) is commendable. So is seeking fulfillment in that pursuit. But what if that pursuit fails? Max Delbrück worked tirelessly to support his proposed dispersive model of DNA replication. His attempts ultimately failed, however, ending with Meselsohn and Stahl’s famous validation of the semiconservative model. Meselsohn and Stahl no doubt achieved fulfillment, but Delbrück was lost in the pages of the history books (history of biology, anyway; Delbrück was an accomplished physicist). And we must acknowledge that, for every Meselsohn and Stahl, there are hundreds of Delbrücks. How are these poor souls–assume, for now, that they were educated only on Descartes and Bacon–how are these poor souls supposed to handle failure, when they’ve been taught only to best nature and not to conform to it? It’s best, argues Deneen, to not attempt to reach such dangerous heights in the first place. The arrogant books (my word, not his) offer unlikely immortality (and likely suffering), whereas the humble books secure guaranteed happiness.

Hold on, though. How are we supposed to defend ourselves against the glacial grizzlies, now? It seems that neither side gets it completely right. Without the advice of the classics, we risk despair, in the event that we fail to conquer and refuse to conform. But without the encouragement of the modern dissidents, we risk stagnation and death, since we’d never even strive to conquer nature in the first place. We need both.

Once having read all the great books (if so, great job), the student is free to make an educated choice about whether he’d rather strive for the greatness of the sciences or rest upon the comfort of the humanities. Most importantly, with experience in both science and the humanities, he’s never left high and dry. If his attempt at achieving greatness through science fails, at least he has a wealth of philosophical advice to fall back on.

One can hardly deny the merits of education in bear-trapping. At the same time, it seems that, like a solid rock in a raging torrent, the saber-tooth curriculum may truly be timeless.


  1. The Saber Tooth Curriculum
  2. Against Great Books

2 comments on “Of Tigers and Bears

  1. Ben says:

    First, an order of business regarding the allegory.

    The allegory implies that every discipline is a trade. Disciplines differ from each other, we’re to believe, not in intent but in efficacy. In a superficial sense, this is true. Every discipline (that I know of) exists to help us. Every discipline is, in this sense, a trade. It seems clear, though, that this somewhat misses the point. There are many different ways we might attempt to help ourselves. These “topics” range from the study of just political states to the study of cardiac surgery. Within each of these topics, moreover, there exist both obsolete and effective methods.

    It’s clear that we should shed obsolete methods in favor of effective ones. The allegory, quite unfairly, casts abstract topics as obsolete and concrete topics as effective. It should be clear by now that this is quite misleading. The important question remains: which topics (restricting ourselves, naturally, to the effective methods contained therein) should we consider most important?

    Thankfully, you employ the allegory only as a humorous introduction. The distinction you actually, and rightly, address is not this phony one between obsolete trades and effective trades, but the more subtle one between abstract topics and concrete topics.

    Here too, however, I have a point to add. You introduce an additional distinction, associating abstract topics with “comfort” and concrete topics with “greatness”. But this too seems mistaken. Both academic categories, I argue, equally proffer both comfort and greatness. Academic philosophers, just like medical surgeons, attempt to push boundaries and reach new heights. Chemists, moreover, might well comfort themselves with the riches of existing discoveries rather than attempt to pursue new ones.

    These categories do differ, of course, in the extent of their abstractness or concreteness. Consequently, they appeal to different minds and produce different outcomes. This distinction, though, I believe, is the only one which passes exegesis.

  2. Josh says:

    Alright so it looks like we’re dealing with three classifications here, which we might both be guilty of conflating. These are:

    1. Obsolete vs. effective
    2. Abstract vs. concrete
    3. Assured comfort vs. unlikely greatness.

    In each classificatory system, the former qualities tend to be associated with each other, as do the latter.

    In The Saber Tooth Curriculum, systems 1 and 2 are employed. Concrete things are effective, while abstract things are obsolete. The 3rd system isn’t mentioned; on that note, though, the concrete is what actually offers comfort (safety from bears). The philosophical offers, well, nothing. How does the stance offered here hold up?

    You mention that The Saber Tooth Curriculum’s conflation of the first two systems is faulty. Techniques used in concrete endeavors can be effective or obsolete, as can techniques used in abstract endeavors. Well, there’s some that’s true to this, but some that might not be. Certainly, techniques used in concrete endeavors may fall out of legitimacy. We don’t lobotomize patients anymore, for example. But is any abstract belief ever ruled out entirely? Aristotle’s empiricism came after Plato’s Forms, but does that mean Plato was no longer right? The nature of the questions asked in philosophy means that few will ever truly be answered, and therefore that it’s unlikely any theory will lose legitimacy. So, it seems that the abstract is either all effective or all obsolete. This is a matter of opinion.

    The Saber Tooth Curriculum probably believes the latter. This isn’t exactly relevant, though. The allegory doesn’t call for the removal of only the outdated, or only the abstract. It really calls for the removal of both; all that should remain is that which is both modern and concrete. So in order to dispute The Saber Tooth Curriculum you really just need to argue that there’s worth in anything that’s not both modern and concrete. Which you do, and I do too, and that’s fine.

    Now onto Deneen. He likely believes that the abstract is all effective. Therefore, he never attempts to conflate 1 and 2. Abstract things can certainly be effective under Deneen. Concrete things can be too. But here, we introduce the 3rd classificatory system. The risk of pursuing that which is concrete and effective is despair at the failure of these pursuits. (Actually, Deneen never really names the risks of scientific pursuit, but this is what I inferred). Therefore, he advocates for pursuit of only the abstract, because of the guaranteed comfort it offers.

    You mention that the conflation of 2 and 3 is also improper. I agree. Many attempts at unlikely greatness seek to achieve ends that are quite abstract. Basic research in math, or science, even, provide good examples, even though these fields are commonly considered concrete. Also, concrete pursuits might offer guaranteed comfort. A good example might be, for example, a surgeon or car mechanic (what’s the difference, really?).

    I think Deneen’s argument, though, is that the only way to achieve guaranteed comfort is through the study of the abstract. In other words, just because you’re not aiming for greatness doesn’t mean that you’re securing yourself guaranteed comfort. Deneen would likely argue that a car mechanic achieves neither greatness nor comfort. However, a car mechanic that had studied the humanities would in fact achieve comfort. The danger he speaks of is trying to achieve greatness–indeed, via either abstract or concrete pursuits–without securing for yourself the comfort that can only come, but does not necessarily come, from abstract pursuits.

    We can give the authors of both texts a break by realizing that they argue for the pursuit of endeavors that satisfy a set of characteristics without accusing them of conflating those characteristics. Saber-tooth argues for pursuit of endeavors that are both modern and concrete, while Deneen argues for pursuit of activities that are both abstract and comforting. That doesn’t mean that all concrete activities are modern, and so on.

    I argue that Deneen’s recommendation is necessary for the individual, while saber-tooth’s recommendation is necessary for society. This means, though, that one who chooses to pursue the concrete should also learn take comfort from the abstract.

    In other words, if everyone read all the great books, we’d be entirely without problem.

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