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Astronomy and the Liberal Arts

Astronomy is as pure a science as one can find. Nothing we know about the universe outside of our Solar System can be applied here on Earth. So, why study the subject?

Earlier I commented on Professor Stanley Fish's definition of academic freedom. That discussion focuses on his assertion that a topic becomes inappropriate within the classroom when the instructor proselytizes his student to his own viewpoint on the topic. I argued that this concept of the bounds on academic freedom is unworkable in a science class, because science has accumulated a body of knowledge that is firmly established through experiment and observation. An undergraduate must acquire this knowledge to be a successful scientist, and the best way to treat this knowledge within the classroom is as established truth.

But to me the more troubling aspect of Professor Fish's concept of academic freedom is his definition of what constitutes an appropriate topic of scholarship. He claims that any topic that intellectually rewards a scholar is appropriate for study. This definition removes any rigor from the idea of intellectual study, promoting one of failings of the modern university—the drift away from a serious pursuit of the large questions and towards the study of trivialities. This places the modern scholar on the same footing as the modern artist. Artists today claim that art does not define the artist, but rather the artist defines art. So a signed urinal or a fish tank full of basketballs is art because the self-proclaimed artists declares it to be art. In the same way, modern scholars have proclaimed trivial subjects—the quote from Professor Fish provides some stunning examples, such as golf tees and gourmet coffee—as worthy topics of study. By making the subjective feelings of a scholar the overriding determinant, Professor Fish makes scholarship a blatantly narcissistic pursuit, a pursuit that can have meaning only to the scholar, but not to the larger community.

This line of though brought me back to my student days at Notre Dame, when we physics students would get together over beers and discuss the ethics of working in an esoteric field rather than in a field that could benefit others. Usually our debates paired astronomy or particle physics, two fields that are as pure science as you can find, against medicine. Usually we would conclude that knowledge for the sake of knowledge was a social good on the same level as advancements in medicine, but this was more a common belief that we all shared rather than a conclusion we drew from logical arguments. The more cynical, and perhaps the more realistic, among us argued that professions such as medicine cannot accommodate every student that is qualified, so many of us out of necessity would be in jobs producing material goods, and so we might as well do something interesting, such as study an esoteric topic in physics.

Now I turn these arguments around in justifying to myself the practice of astronomy. It is not so much that the unqualified pursuit of knowledge is a social good, but rather that the pursuit of certain types of knowledge is to the good of society, just as the creation of many, but not all, material goods are to the good of society. The issue then becomes deciding which scholarly pursuits are to the good of society. In part, this is an issue of context; an appropriate topic for an individual in his leisure may not be an appropriate topic for a university professor. The reason is that the university professor has a primary obligation to his students, their parents, and the alumni. University knowledge is to the good of society in this context when it is to the good of university students.

So what kind of knowledge should a university provide to its students? There are two common ways of answering this question: the tech-school solution and the liberal arts solution. The purpose of a university in the tech-school solution is to train a student in a profession, whether that profession is civil engineering, medicine, or business. Under this point of view, an appropriate topic of study for a student is any topic that enhances his skills in his chosen profession. In other words, the goal of the university is to create narrowly educated technocrats. The liberal arts solution, on the other hand, has a broader view of an education; a student should have a broad knowledge of the world so that he can find his place within the world.

Of these two solutions, the tech-school solution is the easier to implement. The market economy immediately provides a university with the knowledge of which professions are in demand and what pieces of information are valuable. The liberal arts solution, on the other hand, requires the university to adopt a philosophy of how to value knowledge. This is generally easier for a university affiliated with a religion, such as the University of Notre Dame or Brigham Young University, than for a state or non-religious private university.

This difficulty in defining the goals of a liberal arts education came home to me when I was a postdoctoral fellow in the Astronomy Department at Stanford University between 1985 and 1987. At that time a controversy had erupted over requiring students to take a course on Western Civilization; some students didn't want to study the history of Western thought. I don't recall much about the students' arguments, beyond that they parroted a doctrinaire multiculturalism. What I do remember is the argument (paraphrased) of one of the professors for teaching the class as it was: “I know the Western classics, I don't know the literature of other cultures, so I would not be able to competently teach a broader course.” When I read that, I decided that there was no point in teaching the controversial class, because the professor could not explain how a student benefits from his class.

The questions that mankind has pondered throughout its history justify the study of liberal arts. I study the liberal arts to understand how the world I live in came to be, my place in this world, my limitations within this world, what is good in this world, and how to preserve what is good. Such questions are more than a simple fascination by a scholar; they are deeper, because they are universal and timeless.

How does astronomy fit into this division of purposes? The temptation is to think of astronomy as a technical topic, unassociated with the liberal arts. But the problem with this view for the astronomer is that astronomy has little to offer a student interested only in a particular profession. As part of a technical education, the justification for studying astronomy is weak. Only a handful of topics within astronomy affect our material well being. Study of the Sun does impact our understanding of the weather and of telecommunications, as does the study of weather on the nearby planets. But our knowing how the stars evolve, knowing the structure of the Milky Way Galaxy, knowing of the possible existence of black holes, and knowing that the universe expands does not increase our health or material wealth. Astronomy can serve a pedagogical purpose by attracting students to the sciences in general and by providing an interesting setting to explore basic physics. But none of these uses for astronomy within the classroom support study of astronomy beyond a basic level. We need to justify astronomy as an end in itself to justify its detailed study, and this justification is the same justification one gives for studying history and classical literature.

I study astronomy, because it shows me the beginning and and the likely end of the universe; it not only presents me many fascinating objects, but allows me to understand these objects rather than just accept them as mysterious wonders; it shows me what is and is not possible within our universe; it gives me insight into why we can understand so much of our world; and it hints at the limits of our understanding. These are the reasons why astronomy, but not the golf tee, is worth studying.

Jim Brainerd

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