October 18, 2010

Arts vs. Sciences: How and Why?

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I love my laptop. Really, I do. The feeling just isn’t mutual. Maybe it’s the lengthy word documents or the hours spent messing around with the tints and color saturation on iPhoto, but the thing seems to know I’m of the humanities/fine arts variety and is waging a merciless war to punish my non-engineering-ness.

Last year, it was particularly vengeful. Mid-paper, the battery died. No big deal, I thought. I’ll just plug it in and re-charge it. But alas, it would not awaken from its peaceful slumbers. Undaunted, I reasoned that something must be wrong with my outlet and proceeded to try every other plug in the room and then in the hallway. No matter how many plugs I tried and how many times I pushed the power button, it remained unresponsive, mute and dead to the world.

Frantically, I tracked down a computer science major, already doubting the prognosis and anticipating the Geek Squad car at any moment. I handed the computer over, completely faithless. I remember a hiccup noise, a whirring and buzzing, and then the grand roar of the machine awakening from its long nap. The keyboard burst to life next, the black keys outlined in white light, and the dark screen melted into the apple logo, peacefully giving way to the little icons and folders of the home page. It just knew the touch of an engineer.

“You just weren’t holding down the power button long enough,” said my computer science friend.

The rational, logical answer. But I remember holding the power button down for a very long time. There are only two possible explanations. First: My technology is conspiring against me. Especially vulnerable to paper jams, my printer has a knack for running out of ink at the most inopportune times. Then there’s my cell phone, that devious little contraption continually without service last year that relishes a good game of hide and seek. My iPod dies in the middle of runs. Its predecessor — the CD player — was no better, mysteriously malfunctioning despite new batteries. I won’t even go into calculators, which I abandoned for good after my last calculus test.

But there’s also the second, more plausible explanation: I have an extreme aversion to — even a slight fear of — technology because I don’t quite understand it. Furthermore, I don’t want to understand it. I’m more interested in why something works and the significance of that fact than in the nuts and bolts of how.

In a similar way, I’ve seen engineers quacking before the Norton Shakespeare anthology, biology majors tensing up when asked to list the years of World War I, ILR kids unnerved when confronted with the periodic table of elements.

Within Cornell’s academic culture, there’s a distinctive divide of mutual fear and distrust between students who ask why and students who ask how. In the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig identifies just such a divide between romantic and classical understanding. The romantic personality is concerned with the appearance of things, the gestalt, the aesthetic, the intuitive, the forest over the trees. In contrast, the classical personality is concerned with the analytical, the rational, the procedural, the underlying structure, the trees composing the forest. Pirsig argues that from all awareness, we process only a select amount of information. That selection — a handful of sand from an endless landscape of awareness — is our consciousness, our world. To understand that handful of sand, we sort it and classify it into different piles. While the classical personality concerns itself with the way the piles are related, the romantic personality focuses on the pile before the sorting. Both, argues Pirsig, are valid ways of viewing the world. But they are incomplete. As Pirsig contends, we must encompass both views to see the endless landscape where the handful of sand originated. Moreover,­­ it’s the divide and disunity between the two understandings that produces the mutual distrust and fear.

At Cornell, this divide exists between students of different academic pursuits. More broadly, it translates into the bureaucratic red tape and relative lack of communication between colleges. While the individuality of each college is worth celebrating, we’re missing out on something more. Cornell could benefit from more interaction between colleges, more multidisciplinary collaborative projects. Each college brings a particular strength, be it design, networking skills or mathematical aptitude. Yet, these strengths exist in relative autonomy, isolated within colleges.

We’re looking too intently at the handful of sand. Some of us are looking at the pile itself. Others are comparing sand grains. Either way, we are missing the endless landscape where it came from — that place where laptops don’t conspire against their owners.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg