Monday, October 20, 2008

Higher States of Being

Considering my recent review of an unfortunate series of correspondences between a Mathematics teacher and an aspiring English teacher in her class, I'm compelled to discuss the underlying problems in the discussion. Let me begin by offering a sort of hypothesis regarding people and their vocations. I conject that there are fundamentally two types of people; each one best suited for one of two types of vocations. Simply put, there are vocations that sustain and vocations that advance. I use the word 'vocation' to imply more of a societal responsibility or calling rather than simply a job, but of course as the argument progresses transposing 'vocation' for 'job' will suffice.

The vast majority of jobs are those that sustain our way of life. They are vitally necessary in order to maintain societies accepted levels of existence. Jobs in civil service are an excellent example. Businesses (in general) operate by exploiting a societal demand for luxury or necessity; again sustaining. One might argue that business entrepreneurs advance humanity. In some cases they would be absolutely correct. However many entrepreneurs take advantage of a missing service in a community rather than advance that community beyond any other. As we develop as a whole these vocations also develop in number and skill. They are an essential part of society.

The vast minority of jobs are those that advance our way of life. These vocations are where we find the creators. Scientists are the obvious example of the 'creator.' They are responsible for every technological breakthrough in the history of man. I submit that technology is the foremost method of advancing humanity to higher states of pleasure. Those versed in philosophy can liken these higher states of pleasures to the concepts proposed by John Stuart Mill. For those not, please understand that 'pleasure,' in this context, refers to not only physical pleasure, but comfortable living, intellectual stimulation, enlightenment, and so on. I am confident that anything created, concocted, or envisioned by man can be traced back to a fundamental science as its enabler. I cannot go without acknowledging artistic creation. The pure skill in the brush or Rembrandt, or the vision of Picasso, or the torment of Blake, the genius of Shakespeare, or the inspiration of Milton cannot go unnoticed when segregating vocations. Without question, these individuals advanced humanity and were also creators.

I give special attention to the teacher. From one perspective teaching serves as a vocation for advancement. By enlightening young people, teachers are an integral part of advancement. On the other hand, the concept of teacher has shifted. We no longer learn by the Socratic Method. The emphasis is now to unsure that students run the gauntlet of classes in order to give them a superficial exposure to many things. Clearly, the purpose is to create well rounded individuals because well rounded individuals are a benefit to society. Unfortunately, this idealistic approach is polluted by the fact that uninspired students leave this arena to embark on careers that sustain. The terrifying truth is that some become teachers themselves. This leaves the teaching vocation in a state of perpetual stagnation and therefore, with the exception of a few teaching, is unable to be classified as an advancing vocation.

I come back to the original purpose of this discussion. The argument posed in the correspondences mentioned in the opening paragraph was that no more than rudimentary mathematical skills are needed for many vocations and therefore advanced mathematical topics should not be forced upon students should they choose against it. There is a fundamental flaw with this statement in that collective advancement cannot be bore on the backs of a few. Collective advancement is the responsibility of the collective, with both creative and logical thinking being its cornerstone. Consider a world in which there were only scientists and no artists. Invention would stagnate. Creativity for invention would be lost. The 'think outside of the box' mentality would be a fairytale. We would have the most scientifically minded collective imaginable but nothing to do with it. Honestly, I have a hard time imagining this extreme because almost by definition science is creative thinking, but bear with me. Consider the other extreme; no scientists and only artists. The world would be as beautiful as anyone could possibly imagine, but it would go no farther in its development. There would be no way to support itself and inevitably would fail. I also have a hard time imagining this extreme because without scientific creation the tools of creation wouldn't exist.

It becomes clear that both extremes are not beneficial. Ideally all people would excel in both venues. This is not possible and therefore divulges the critical foundation of a society: people contributing to the common good by providing their individual skills.

Science has shown how the brain is stimulated by logical thought process verses emotional or creative (liberal arts) thinking. Pure logic and pure creation produce very specific responses that account for 'right brained' and 'left brained' thinking. Science has also shown that both sides can be stimulated simultaneously. This type of synaptic response produces a nonlinear increase in memory and skill retention. Long term training shows an increase in overall cognitive ability. It becomes irrefutable that persons well versed in both types of thinking have a significant advantage over persons who do not. This creates a scientific basis to suggest it is the responsibility, or perhaps obligation, of the individual to train in both areas.

I must discuss myself in all this. I am a scientist, an engineer who was fortunate enough to have the ability to place myself in a vocation for advancement. The title given to those who endure my topics of research is one of high intellectual regard (the astrophysicists might scoff at that statementJ), but one that is expected to have an extreme bias toward logic rather than emotion. There is some truth to both statements, but even in my position I can differentiate the worth of my peers based on their level of enlightenment through well rounded intellectual stimulation. I am confident that the tangible worth based on productivity, not just my perception, is greater for those who observe the benefit of both logic and emotion. In this case we can specifically consider the fruits of science and the fruits of literary work and communication. I personally have a deep appreciation for the liberal arts. My education doesn't include these personal indulgences so I must seek them out on my own accord. Perhaps I am too bold, but if history prevails, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that I and my aforementioned peers have as good or even a better understanding of classical literature and artistic works than does the average liberal arts major.

We are caught in a vicious cycle of ignorance and argument. People in general don't appear to have a sense of self awareness. They don't observe how their actions ripple through time and space. They can't appreciate how the ripples of others have contributed to their current state of being. It is asinine to believe that society as a whole can advance though the minds of scientific or artistic geniuses alone. A society that seeks higher pleasures collectively will outshine the achievements of any single individual. At this point, it becomes a social responsibility, not a personal choice.

To the Mathematics teacher: I rambled a bit, but I hope I have supplied a stronger basis for your argument. You touched on some of these topics and I have the feeling that you'll be in agreement with much of what I said, but certainly being the teacher you must tread lightly.

To the prospective English teacher: I'd like to know what school you teach at. That way I can insure my children aren't accidentally placed in your class. Opinionated ignorance is dangerous.

And now a deep thought…

The fortunate few cannot reach the pinnacle without the wide base of support below them. If the base of support starts a little higher, then those fortunate few are that much closer.


E.Jacob said...

I agree with what you wrote for the most part. Although, trying to separate vocations into advancing and sustaining is tricky and dangerous. As a researcher we mainly advance, but we also teach (which is both.) A construction worker does sustain, but the creation of a new building could be seen as advancement. I just think the differentiation is muddy.

As far as the English teacher is concerned, a lot of what you wrote probably isn't going to convince them that they should do math. The one point that is powerful, which you briefly discussed, was the idea of everyone striving to be better for the collective good. This is a powerful idea, but as you pointed out it relies on individuals understanding their place in society. If he was already openly hostile about math, he is probably a lost cause.

Since the course was Algebra (if I am not mistaken) it is easy to point out a multitude of everyday things where math helps. (google everyday math uses) If anything, having a understanding of math is critical in understanding how to finance your life. Money, I think we can all agree is motivation enough.

E.Jacob said...

* that is, motivation enough for someone who doesn't seem to care about all the finer things in life.

Josh said...

I was a little weary about dividing the vocations into distinct categories. I was even more weary about mentioning the teachers. In the end I decided that the creation of tangible objects doesn't not advance. Rather, the development of said things is advancement.

Teaching is a little trickier and it can certainly go both ways. At the highschool level, I'm fairly confident that it is oriented to sustain. This definitely translates into the college level for some disciplines. Our situation specifically is gray. We'll teach both students destined to sustain and advance. The fact that one does research to advance now does not mean he will ultimately do it later. Yes, it certainly is difficult to separate that example into black and white. But I suggest that we are the exception rather than the is any advancing vocation. It seems to me that defining something as purely sustaining is much easier than something as purely advancing.

Eric Tarnowski said...

While I am unaware of the context of this discussion, I have several comments. The first is that I agree with the argument that a well-rounded education is important and even vital to a flourishing society. It is asinine to argue that a mathematical education to at least the level of algebra is not necessary.

That said, my remaining comments are in regards to issues with several of the premises in your argument.

I believe that your attempt to divide vocations into sustaining/advancing is not entirely misguided, but I do think the lines you draw are oversimplified and incomplete. Certainly vocations that fall into the category of "service" industries could be classified as sustaining. However, I do not think you can classify all other vocations on the grounds of their individual function. The industrial context of a vocation must be considered before classifying it as purely sustaining.

Many jobs in the corporate world may not be considered advancing when evaluated on their own, but when considered in the context of their larger corporate environment fall on the advancing side of the scale. They may not directly contribute to the advancement society on their own, but neither do jobs in pure science. The truth of the matter is that science without commercial-industrial application or support does not advance society either.

It is the application and implementation of technology that leads to the advancement of society. That implementation requires a commercial-industrial entity. Those entities cannot function without a number of people filling a number of roles that are not in-and-of themselves "advancing". Therefore I'd argue that any vocation that is undertaken in the context of a non-service industry should be considered advancing. Not to the degree of pure science, but advancing none-the-less.

Scientists require funding, businesses provide that funding to get access to the scientific/technological advancements and implement those advancements to make money. That process introduces the advancements to society and allows for society to realize the benefit. That implementation process requires the support of many various functions and is not possible without it. All of these things are co-dependent and therefore all should be considered "advancing".

My second area of issue with your argument is with your switching from a discussion around advancing/sustaining to discussing types of creative outputs (ideas and artistic objects) and then to decision-orientation (logic and emotion). Advancing and sustaining are categories of societal contribution. Both ideas and artistic objects can fall on either end of the advancing/sustaining spectrum depending on their characteristics, and it is fallacious to contend that emotional thinking is synonymous with "creative" or liberal arts thinking.