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  • Writer's pictureCameron Gordon

Arts and Science

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

Like many, I was disappointed with the Australian Government's decision to double tuition fees for students taking courses in humanities, including philosophy, international relations, and history. Maths, science, and language students will have their fees halved in the the same decision - a carrot and stick intended to shift students into strategic priorities. The intention is understandable, but the implementation is myopic. An undergraduate elective in introduction to ethics will now cost more than one in surgery. A Chinese history course will cost nearly four times as much as one in number theory - as will a formal logic course that's offered by the philosophy school rather than the mathematics department.

Ignore here the obvious question: what does the cross-price elasticity of academic discipline need to be to incentivise shifts in program more than the long-term expected career return would do otherwise, to focus on the more fundamental issue - the humanities are themselves a critical discipline. It is a poor kitchen that will a dull a knife to sharpen its others.

Richard Hamming (whose influence in computer science, signalling, and telecommunications is legendary) makes note in the Art of Doing Science and Engineering that highly technical people are often hampered by a lack of exposure to softer modes of thinking, which are required in practice to implement science within any organisational setting. In my own experience in the public sector I found that most truly competent individuals often had hidden in their past a degree in the classics, history, political science, art, or communication.

The silos between science and humanities are rarely cut in concrete - shifts from one to the other are common and often fruitful. I'll point here to the example of two scientists who made the jump from study in the humanities to hard science, who have inspired entire generations of researchers while substantially shifting our fundamental scientific knowledge.

The first is Eric Kandel, winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 2000 for his work on the cellular basis of learning and memory. Kandel initially completed an undergraduate degree in history and literature, before embarking on medical studies, psychiatry, and a research career in neuroscience. As detailed in his autobiography In Search of Memory this was driven in no small part by a desire to locate the unconscious, a philosophic abstraction central to the (at the time) prevailing study of psychoanalysis. This underlying core motivation drove him to investigate facets of biological mechanisms of memory in all its forms. The giant sea slug Aplysia Californica, which releases colourful plumes of ink when startled and has a handy ganglia of neurons controlling a gill withdrawal reflex played a central role in his research. The enduring flexibility of thought, and desire to hunt down in the concrete abstract ideals are central components of Kandel's work recurring time and again, including those specifically linking the world of neuroscience and art.

The inky clouds of A. Californica. Credit: George Anderson.

The second is George Pólya, one of the famous 'Martians' (a tongue-in-cheek name for a group of Hungarian scientists whose contributions to mathematics, physics, and physiology were so otherworldly they must be extraterrestrials in disguise). According to legendary mathematician (and recently departed) John Conway, Pólya was seemingly uninterested and showed little promise in mathematics during his secondary schooling. At university, Pólya initially studied law, languages, and literature. He was eventually directed to take electives in maths and physics to improve his studies in philosophy - from there he obtained a doctorate in mathematics, and made substantial contributions to the fields of combinatorics, probability, number theory, complex analysis, and mathematical education. His text on mathematical problem solving - How To Solve It is one of the central texts of the field, and has since inspired countless mathematicians, including the famed prodigy Terence Tao.

For my part I am an underwater basket-weaver: while I'm currently working on post-graduate mathematics and machine learning, I'm the sort to have taken everything from French film to anthropology, neuroscience, and Japanese short stories. And yet the single most valuable course I have taken at university was one on philosophy - Ethics and the Passions taught by Marguerite La Caze. It involved a deep dive on the passions (anger, love, hatred, forgiveness, etc), and forced me to critically examine and discuss texts including Nichomachean Ethics by Aristotle, On Anger by Seneca, and Beyond Good and Evil by Nietzsche. More than any other, this one course shifted my modes of thinking, and changed who I am as a person.

Flexibility of thought is a core benefit of learning the humanities - the creativity, integrity of enquiry, and reasoning flow directly to the professional and scientific worlds. It is one whose benefits are often intangible and value returned over the course of a life. Australia will be made the poorer for each student it incentivises by cost to not approach these disciplines.

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