Michael Dirda, book reviewer extraordinaire, opens his essay review on Jenny Uglow’s “The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World” this way:
“In the time of the Lunar men science and art were not separated: you could be an inventor and designer, an experimenter and a poet, a dreamer and an entrepreneur all at once.” Lunar men? Is this some science fiction vision–a la Edgar Rice Burroughs or Olaf Stapledon–of humankind’s future evolution? To the contrary. Jenny Uglow’s magnificent group history chronicles a last great upsurge of the all-embracing Renaissance spirit, when a few amateurs and tinkerers of genius ushered in, ironically enough, the gloomy Age of Machinery and Specialization.” (Bound to Please, 74)
The Lunar Society (“Lunatics”) met regularly from 1765 to 1813. These are the five friends of the title: Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt and Joseph Priestly. It would be worth your time and understanding of the world to, if not read this book, do some wiki-work to learn about these fellas and their work. The Society included several more men (yes, just men) of real historical significance.
One of these “others” was John Keir, chemist, who invented “a cheap industrial process to produce the alkali used in the manufacture of soap” (75). He proclaimed “Knowledge is important, but whether the discovery is made by one man or another is not deserving of consideration.” Dirda notes dryly that Keir went to the grave with the secret of his alkali process unshared.
Knowledge seems ultimately, to us, and perhaps due in no small part to these men, rather the opposite; we believe the genius must be lionized and idolized. They “make their mark” after all. Emerson offered the same kind of contradiction that Keir seems to exemplify. On one hand, he advised we “read for the lusters” and use “great men” recognizing that all they are and know we might know as well; on the other hand he offered a primary text on what made certain men great (Representative Men) and they were all of unique genius (Goethe, Shakespeare, Plato, Montaigne, Napoleon, etc.) and no doubt Waldo thought himself of some note. (He did take his own advice: not only did he read for the bright bits of genius, he wrote in that fashion too; nearly all his essays are simply sentences of shining brilliance strung upon the cord of the essay form.)
But you can see that in all of the above, I’m speaking of our common history; even great scientists who seem to make startling discoveries as if by magic have not started from scratch; they are indebted to the past. In this way they are somewhat like great artists steeped in tradition, apprenticing their minds to all who have come before. In this way perhaps they are like poets.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) bequeathed to us nearly 1,800 poems…Like all capacious writers she baffles complete understanding: to enter her poetics entirely a reader would have to know by heart (and ear) all her poems. Ideally, too, her reader should possess the King James Bible as firmly as she did, and should have read the poetry of the English past as fervently as she had: she knew Shakespeare, Herbert, Vaughan, Milton, Wordsworth, James Thomson, Keats, George Eliot, Emily Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and others. (Helen Vendler in her introduction to her book Dickinson, 1.)
(Emily read The Atlantic Monthly, too, Brave Thinkers!)
My point though, isn’t just about the “great” among us, but how you and I READ the world. We must practice and deepen our understanding by reading, by writing, by experimenting, by observing. That is how we become fully and uniquely human. Instead many of us seem to simply want all of that work to get done by someone else. In fact I’d say we are encouraged to do less and less of what makes the human mind such a miracle–think.
We cannot set out to understand our history, our science, our language, our gods, without a firm grasp on what has already come to pass before we come to presently spend our brief time upon this orb.
We are truly dangerous creatures when we apply the knowledge of the past–the discoveries, the machines, the techniques, the manipulations–without first understanding that knowledge.
This is one of the primary functions of all levels of the institutions of learning from elementary school to university research. At least that’s always been my understanding.
To the contrary, apparently. Florida Governor Rick Scott shares the real truth.
“You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state,” Scott said in an interview on the Marc Bernier Show. “It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”
The American Anthropological Association offer this, “Letter to Governor Scott” (PDF) in response:
Perhaps you are unaware that anthropologists are leaders in our nation’s top science fields, making ground breaking discoveries in areas as varied as public health, human genetics, legal history, bilingualism, the African American heritage, and infant learning.
Jonathan Turley, law professor at George Washington University, offered a response as well (“Florida Governor Campaigns Against . . . Anthropologists”):
Scott however was not done. He continued to use anthropologists as an example of a deadweight loss for the public in a speech to the Northwest Business Association: “We’re spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it’s not great. Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology? I don’t.”
It is a false premise that public education is measured by the “results” of charting how many people go into a job in their field. First and foremost, public education allows people to develop as independently thinking and intellectually alive citizens. Education is essential to realize the full potential of being human. Every citizens should study in a field that engages them intellectually and exposes them to a greater reality.
Second, most graduates go into jobs that are not directly linked to their course of studies. Many lawyers do not practice law. They go into business or management or entirely different fields — benefiting from their legal education but not directly working as practicing lawyers. Likewise, political science majors generally do not become politicians. For their part, Anthropologists may go into public health or city planning or any number of collateral fields. Their degrees have many of the same component as other fields in learning statistics and research skills etc.
But, I’m sure you’re aware that Rick Scott is not alone in his quest to create the right kind of labor market out of our children.
Yesterday and today San Francisco hosted The National Summit for Education Reform, “chaired” by Florida’s former Governor Jeb Bush. In attendance and on panels is Indiana’s Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Bennett who has made of Indiana, with the help of mighty Mitch and the legislature, the “next Florida” by passing the broadest voucher legislation in the nation. He’s likely at this conference to crow and pass on legislative tips and tricks for all those politicians and edupreneurs in attendance who want to bring their message back to your state.
This is where the real Occupy Wall Street protest needs to be.
Unless of course, you feel it’s best if we simply institutionalize the ignorance that apparently was given political birth in Florida.