Sunday, December 14, 2008
SEEING OURSELVES IN THE COSMOS
John S. Cline
October 18, 1998
In his quest towards increasing self-consciousness, mankind searches for meaning in the world he occupies. Using the tools at hand to help him explore, he uses the most logical technique available to explain his surroundings… categorization. Combining rationalism, empiricism, and emotionalism to arrive at the most sensible answers, mankind has defined his place in the cosmos to the finest detail, often redefining his own perceptions in the process (Krupp 82-4).
Since the first glimmerings of intelligence, man has sought order in the seemingly chaotic world around him. Probably the first realization was the cycle of birth and death, along with the intimate part humans play in this process. We are born, we mate, and then we die, but our children live on to mate and continue the cycle. Perhaps shortly following this revelation was the development of the afterlife concept. Taking as many forms as there have been cultures to promulgate them, these conceptions of an afterlife had one underlying common thread… immortality.
What better symbol for immortality did our prehistoric (and modern) ancestors have than the heavens? Unlike the constantly changing and uncertain world around them, up there everything was orderly and relatively unchanging. While an earthquake may wipe out your village, you can rest assured that the Sun will rise the next morning and the stars will still shine. Explaining why such orderliness existed in the heavens, however, required the further development of mankind’s worldview.
One can make the assumption that even as our prehistoric ancestors began leaving the forests and savannas and began forming communal units, they had developed some sort of underlying mythology about the world around them (Asimov 27-30; Hadingham et al; Calvin 194-99; Abetti 3-7). For humans with limited technology, the simple existence of a rock or tree or animal must have seemed far removed from human abilities to fully understand, much less create. Therefore, it was only “natural” that supernatural beings must have created mankind and their world (Aveni 82-3; Armstrong xix). Every rock and tree may have had a minor god or spirit associated with it, and as they turned their thoughts to the sky, it was a foregone conclusion that more gods must occupy such grandeur as well.
Though evidence is sporadic and often conflicting, our theories about Stone Age and non-literate cultures do include some intriguing physical evidence to support their preoccupation with the cyclic nature of the sky. Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon cave paintings and bone carvings over 50,000 years old, from such scattered locations as Australia, France, China, and the Americas, suggest a strong sky-oriented ritualistic motive for their creation (Hadingham 86-8). A carved bone found in southern France dating back to 30,000 BCE records what appears to be phases of the Moon or perhaps a lunar calendar (Krupp 158-64). Whether this was the result of careful astronomical observation or simply some bored caveman whittling on a bone, we will probably never know. However, we do know that beginning about 5,000 BCE careful observations and even rough calculations were being conducted in order to catalogue, and predict, events in the sky.
In Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Americas, Africa and China, cultures began to arise which observed and kept regular records of heavenly activities. Although written records were sketchy or nonexistent until approximately 3,500 BCE, we have stone carvings (known as stelae) which detail astronomical events from before this period. In addition, the Egyptian pyramids were constructed as early as 4,000 BCE, and there is ample evidence of considerable astronomical and mathematical skill in their construction. These monuments and writings were almost certainly not astronomical observatories or scientific studies as we know them today, but are instead the physical representations of that culture’s need to understand the world through ritual and myth.
The Babylonians were primarily interested in astronomy for astrological purposes and for keeping time, as were the Chinese and the Egyptians. Time, in fact, is the central concept behind many astronomical observations. With time, mankind could introduce order into the world surrounding him, and predict what was to come. It was a sense of power derived from a supernatural source. As such, the ability to measure time from the heavens became a source of political and economic power to those who could “divine the will of the gods”. Though this seems a despotic view, in actuality the rulers were just as much a product of and just as bound by their cosmologies as the people they governed .
To the ancient Egyptians, their great monuments and temples were erected to reflect their cosmological views. The god Osiris, lord of the underworld, was associated with the constellation Orion, while the north celestial pole represented eternal life. For this reason (we believe) the famous “airshafts” built into the Great Pyramid point directly towards the ancient positions of Thuban (a star in Orion’s Belt) and the north celestial pole (Hadingham 22-4). This allowed the dead Pharaoh’s spirit to rise towards heaven under the watchful eye of Osiris, there to join the other gods. This use of astronomy was entirely funerary, with no intended scientific or evaluative purpose. Included in the mythos of the Egyptians (at least by the time the first pyramid was constructed) was the belief that the Pharaoh was a god incarnate among men, deriving his power from the heavens itself. With great ritual and passionate fervor, the people joyfully (and voluntarily) constructed hundreds of tombs, pyramids, temples, and palaces throughout Egypt for the purpose of worshiping their gods and ensuring the return of their Pharaoh to his heavenly realm.
Even among non-literate cultures, there exist today startling monuments and artwork testifying to the astronomical sophistication of their creators. In ancient Britain near present-day London a culture predating the Celts by over 2,500 years built the famous Stonehenge (Hadingham 36-8). Obvious alignments of solstices and equinoxes lead to the conclusion that this was a significantly astronomical monument. Less certain are the actual purposes intended by it. Was it supposed to be a central calendar, by which anyone could know when to plant and when to harvest? Was it a simple religious symbol, only aligning on the Sun’s positions in order to signal significant religious holidays? Was it the seat of some government or a meeting place to resolve differences? As the history of Stonehenge spans over 3,000 years before the Romans arrived, and it was in almost constant use and renovation during that time, the possibility of Stonehenge representing all of these things and more is very great. In addition, other monuments erected in both the Pre-Celtic and Celtic periods also indicate a strong attraction to astronomical symbolism and design.
We can make fairly accurate assumptions about the myths and beliefs of both pre-literate and literate cultures, and actually may be able to better understand the relatively simple (yet remarkably sophisticated) cosmologies of pre-literate, semi-nomadic cultures. With the benefit of both archeology and cultural hindsight, we can safely assume that Stone Age man’s gods probably reflected a very pragmatic and physically relevant worldview. Gods of the hunt, the harvest, the sky, and the earth would have been prevalent, as well as gods controlling natural forces such as the weather and the water. God-spirits inhabiting living things would explain much of the apparently conscious activities found in animals and even plants.
Even when the nomadic tribes began settling into villages and cities, these pre-agrarian gods would have remained with the cultural mythos. After agriculture began in earnest, gods controlling the weather or the Sun began to also take responsibility for the harvests and seasons. Gods of the earth, already representing fertility, took on more significance. With the advent of a stratified culture, long before cities and agriculture, common sense told our ancestors that the sky produced rain and the earth produced food. It would be only sensible then to associate life-giving sky with a male god-entity and the fecund earth with a female god-entity. By the time cities and agrarian culture was established, these gods had been formalized into the originators of the cosmos, often with a whole pantheon of gods (some stronger, some lesser) springing from them. One notable exception was the Egyptians, who viewed the life-giver as Osiris (the male god who is associated with the Nile) and Nut (the female goddess who is associated with the sky). Perhaps the aridity of Egypt and the infrequent rains there influenced this viewpoint (Krupp 72-3).
Both nomadic and agrarian communities share common roots in their mythologies; after all, agrarian communities began as collections of nomadic peoples. What is more important, perhaps, is that no matter what form of culture is represented, their mythology is adapted to suit their purposes and temperament (Aveni 81-3). Although seldom artificially introduced, the gods and the mythologies these people used worked for them. Their mythologies gave them a mental “handle” on the world, which allowed them to order their lives and develop socially. In many cases, gods which no longer “fit” the society’s needs were eventually dropped and forgotten, while new gods and mythologies were adopted, or even artificially introduced, as the need arose.
A commonality between most mythologies is the anthropomorphism used to portray the various gods. Even Meso-American and Egyptian gods who were represented as animals had human features. Native American cultures had, in various forms, a Great Spirit as the central god, and various animal gods as well, but they all shared anthropomorphic characteristics. As Sigmund Freud said, we make gods so that we may call them up when needed. So too do we make them in our own image, that they may be more accessible. What that image may be depends largely on the culture and the mythos they have developed.
In the drive towards defining their place in the cosmos, various cultures throughout history have recorded their observations of the heavens. In fact, in many cases the earliest examples of writing contain references to astronomical phenomena, recorded alongside commercial transactions, current weather conditions, and the equivalent of Mrs. McGuffey’s recipe for chicken soup. Obviously, astronomy was tied into the everyday life and times of the cultures which recorded these events. Astronomy was not the pursuit of science as we know it today, but a highly evolved and socially-intertwined astrological prognostication device. Every event which took place was analyzed and intuited to determine the astrological significance, and the accumulated records of centuries were compiled and scrutinized by astrologers and priests to forecast the future.
Though by today’s standards the forecasts were unscientific and heavily biased, when one reads them carefully we can see the incredible feats of observationally-based calculations which went into the predictions. If in an ancient Chaldean text we read that some event will occur when Ishtar rises against a full moon at the same time Marduk is in such and such a constellation, we should not dismiss the value of the observations based on the modern worldview that neither Ishtar (Venus) nor Marduk (Jupiter) could possibly affect our lives in any appreciable way (Krupp 68). To the Chaldeans, or the Egyptians or Greeks or Romans or any other ancient culture, the movement of the planets was actually the movement of their gods through the heavens. We know today that Venus is an inhospitable, cloudy world resembling a hellish Earth, and Jupiter is a giant ball of gas. We accord them no special influence on our daily lives because we view them as inanimate, non-living things. To the ancients, they were far more animated and fully alive, and certainly powerful (Aveni 47).
As time progressed, some astrologers began questioning the study of the heavens for portents and signs. They began seeing the patterns and movements of the Sun, moon and planets as possibilities of something more physical in nature. By the 1st Century CE some Chaldeans had broken away from astrology and began studying the sky from an almost modern scientific viewpoint, chastising their astrology-minded compatriots as being quacks (Hadingham 17). Unfortunately, we may never know exactly where their studies would have taken them, since Babylon suffered many invasions and was eventually destroyed. The ancient Greeks and Romans, however, seem to have taken some interest in these Chaldean cosmological theories and expanded upon them, although they became diluted amidst the prevalent worldviews of those cultures. Aristotle adapted much of Babylonian and Chaldean astronomy and its centuries of data to develop his concepts of the universe, and Ptolemy refined them into the cosmological model which survived for over 1,500 years (Abetti 42-5; Hetherington 74, 105-145).
The greatest leap which Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy made was the development of a cosmology based, not on the whimsical motion of the gods, but on the movement of physical (though “ethereal”) bodies in some mechanistic framework of shells and orbs. This shifted the entire worldview of the ancients, which though still cloaked in mystery and occupied by gods, was now something which could be openly studied and explored (Aveni 33; Abetti 33-6, 42-5).
Today, we unabashedly study the heavens and develop new cosmological theories largely due to the influence of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Though they were incorrect in their theories, and though treated dogmatically for centuries, in reality they spawned the first instances of scientifically-based cosmological study. Though we can trace the advent of calendars, astrolabes, eclipse prediction and even our holidays to the pre-Aristotelian era, we owe him and his contemporaries for giving us science.
We are constantly in contact with our prehistoric and pre-literate ancestors. Their gods, their worldviews, their cultures, all are reflected in our day-to-day speech and thought. We can still look up into the sky and invent our own gods and mythologies, whether they are fantastic visions of mystical beings and supernatural deeds or the dreams of spacecraft soaring out to the stars and men walking on Mars. Our viewpoint may change, but our mythologies live on.
SOURCES AND CITATIONS
Abetti, Giorgio. The History of Astronomy. Trans. Betty Burr Abetti. Henry Shuman, Inc. 1952.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1993.
Asimov, Isaac. Beginnings: The Story of Origins. Walker Publishing Company, Inc. 1987.
Aveni, Anthony. Conversing With the Planets. Times Books. 1992.
Calvin, William. How the Shaman Stole the Moon. Bantam Books. 1991.
Cornell, James. The First Stargazers. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1981.
Hadingham, Evan. Early Man and the Cosmos. Walker Publishing Company, Inc. 1984.
Hetherington, Norriss S. Cosmology. Garland Publishing, Inc. 1993.
Krupp, Edwin C. Echoes of the Ancient Skies. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1983.
Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. Random House, Inc. 1980.
Wilson, Colin. Starseekers. Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1980.
And another old paper I discovered:
QUARKIAN PHILOSOPHY: IT’S A SMALL WORLD, AFTER ALL
John S. Cline
Few people can escape marveling at the grand scale of our universe. When they see photos of galaxies and nebulae, awe and a certain uneasy humbling are the usual result. Imagining the swirling maelstrom of a black hole, or the explosive ignition of a new star, or even realizing that the 3K background heralds the birth of our universe, usually results in a desire to burst into poetry. When we begin looking back, shrinking our perspective to the very small, however, awe and amazement soon turn to queasiness and befuddlement. Nothing works the way we have come to believe it should when we enter the realm of the subatomic. This can be very unsettling, and has caused no end of speculation and metaphysical legerdemain. Most unsettling, perhaps, is the realization that the operating principle behind the smallest bits of “matter” is actually the principle behind all that we see, if only we alter our perspective [2, 5, 6, 8, 10, 14, 17].
The subatomic world is a place of bustling activity and incredible energy. It is populated by a veritable zoo of creatures we call particles, ranging from the familiar electron and proton to elusive and often mysteriously-named beasts such as the graviton and Z-boson. Even more fundamental to the structure of this microscopic universe is the most basic building block of what we call “matter”, the quark. This particle, along with the neutrinos, photon and the electron, make up all of the physical, material substance of the universe [4, 16, 21].
Although often discussed as being a single particle, the quark is actually a whole family of particles, with such fanciful characteristics as color, spin, charge, and mass. Overall, however, there are six main subgroups of quark (and their twins, the anitquarks), which have equally imaginative names: Top, Bottom, Up, Down, Strange, and Charm . One mnemonic invented to remember them goes something like this:
“Whether you look at a quark from the Top or the Bottom, turn it Up or Down, Strange as it may seem, it’s still Charming.”
Like many subatomic particles, physicists constantly argue over the question of whether the quark is really “there” [6, 12, 18]. Does it exist as a particle, a wave, or a probability? Does it exist at all as an independent entity? This indeterminate nature has given rise to much speculation on the construction of our universe on the grand scale as well as the microscopic, and begs us to consider the question of “what is reality?”
Quarks were first hypothesized in 1963 by Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig, and all the different flavors have been mathematically predicted through symmetry and relativistic quantum field theory (QFT). Experimental evidence had to wait until 1977 when the bottom quark was first detected, but other quarks have since been found in more and more powerful particle accelerators. The top quark, one of the most elusive, was finally detected in 1995 .
According to QFT, all quarks are divided up into three families of fermions (matter particles) and bosons (messenger particles). The first group consists of the up and down quarks, electrons and electron neutrinos, and their antiparticles. The quarks combine into triads to form neutrons and protons. When a neutron decays into a proton, it releases an electron neutrino and one of the quarks “flips” into a different state, changing the neutron’s fundamental properties. The second and third groups have not been found in ordinary matter, but can be produced in accelerators; they consist of the charm and strange quarks, the muon and muon neutrino, and their antiparticles in one group, and the top and bottom quarks, the tau and tau neutrino, and their antiparticles for the third group .
We know from examining the neutron and proton that they indeed have structure, so the question of the “reality” of the quark must certainly be moot. Unfortunately, we are left with a few fundamental questions which remain to bother us, not the least of which is “is there anything smaller than a quark?” In every theory presented so far in quantum mechanics, we have not been able to predict the presence of any other smaller particles because as far as we know, the quark has no structure, no physical shape, and no size [4, 6, 12, 13, 15].
Is it any wonder, therefore, that physicists debate the essential substance of quarks, and similar particles? At the same time as we can measure the quark’s mass, spin, charge, and color, we are still unable to measure its dimensions. How can a thing that is essentially “not there”, “be there”? It is an area which lends itself well to both physics and metaphysics, a philosophy of the quark, one might say [5, 6, 8, 9, 14].
Quantum philosophy is hardly new, having sprung into existence almost coincidentally with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle [8, 14, 17]. Various branches of metaphysics devote themselves to accepting a universal worldview based on quantum theory. By these accounts, the entire universe is a quantum particle, with its own quantum state, and our observations of the universe simply “collapse” bits and pieces of the universe (or its wave function) into recognizable and measurable phenomena. One way to picture this is to imagine that nothing in the universe exists without someone or something to observe it… it simply floats in a quantum probability field until its wave function is collapsed. Venus was simply a glowing dot in the sky until Galileo turned his telescope on it and found it to have phases; therefore, Galileo collapsed the wave function of Venus and created the planet we see today [6, 14].
This remarkably egocentric-sounding viewpoint actually has a firm basis in modern quantum theory. In essence, quantum theory holds that unless a quantum particle (in this case, Venus) is observed or measured in some way, it is simply an undefined grouping of probabilities. The act of viewing forces the particle to assume one of its many probabilistic forms; Venus could have “chosen” to assume the form of an amorphous cloud of used car salesmen (it was a real but horribly unsettling possibility).
So what is a quark “choosing” to become when we measure it? We find six distinct varieties, only two of which appear in “ordinary” matter. We can assume, therefore, that quarks, for all of their resemblance to something that is “not there”, must somehow “know” that they must appear in certain forms within certain particles. We would not find, for instance, a strange or a charm quark residing within a proton, though we might expect to find such creatures within other kinds of fermions. We have been singularly ineffective in breaking quarks or photons into any constituent particles, though experiments involving high-energy bombardment of hadrons (protons, neutrons, etc.) produce a quark “jet”, a burst of hadronic material having the same spin characteristics as the original quark [2, 4, 12, 13, 16]. This allows us to not only “observe” the quark inside of the proton, but also know its characteristics. Some theorists suggest that either a quark is the combination of these particles, or that there is in actuality no “real” difference between photons, leptons, and quarks: they may all be the same particle, but in different “states of being” [1, 2, 5, 6, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21]. A quark, for instance, cannot exist outside of its proton or neutron, it must be bound with other quarks. However, if a quark were to “tunnel” out of a neutron, the result could be a shower of neutrinos and photons, which are essentially “immortal” particles. Neutrons are know to decay into protons, and now we know that protons will eventually decay (in something like 1063 years) into neutrinos, photons, and other particles. If they do not change their states of being, where then did the quarks go?
One interesting theory suggests that the universe will not end with a Big Crunch (to mirror the original Big Bang), but will end up a “soup” of loose quarks and other free particles once the proton decay finally occurs. This quark soup would be too dissolute to recombine into hadrons again, except for chance encounters, so a hypothetical observer would find himself swimming in an infinite sea of elementary particles, free-roaming photons, and the occasional island of still-intact matter [5, 7, 9, 10, 16, 20].
Another subject of debate among physicists and astronomers is the possible existence of a middle-ground between the neutron star and the black hole. In this scenario, the quark itself supports the enormous crushing force of the collapsing star, preventing it from achieving a singularity. Called a quark star, this stellar remnant utilizes one of the components of quarkdom, color charge, to provide the repulsive force required. In a typical collapsing star, the core of the star collapses into a “white dwarf” stage, which resists further compression by electrostatic forces. For a more massive star, this is not enough and the star continues to compress to the neutron star stage, where the entire star essentially becomes a huge neutron (all protons have combined with electrons to form neutrons). Though incredibly stable, this process can be taken yet another step, to where the neutron pressure is no longer able to sustain the star and the whole thing collapses into an infinitely-small point with infinite gravity called a singularity.
In the quark star model, the crushing pressures and gravity of the collapsing black hole squeeze neutrons together, essentially “bursting” them and forcing quarks to come into close contact with each other without the benefit of the binding particle, the gluon. Since the quarks inside a neutron have (combined) a neutral color charge, when they are forced together they resist the effort mightily. This forms a temporary, stable framework to maintain the structure of the star. Unlike the fairly stable equilibrium of the neutron star, however, this shadowy territory between quark star and singularity is very slim. Depending on the original mass of the collapsing star, it may only take the influx of a few hundred billion tons of additional matter to finish the process (the equivalent of a couple Jupiters). In some cases, calculations show that quark stars would look very much like regular neutron stars; they would, in fact, have a neutron shell over a core of quarks. In other cases, speculations that the quark star would be so massive as to form an event horizon around it or just within its outer layers present themselves, but one has to wonder what essential difference such a quark star would have from a black hole; in each case, information about the collapsed star is limited to spin, charge, and mass. Finding a quark star is thought to be relatively easy, if one exists: Find a neutron star that is too massive or a black hole that is too light. One of the most exciting discoveries of the last couple years is the potential discovery of a quark star (distinctive by the particular emission of x-rays and gamma-rays one would produce) near our own galactic center called 1E1740.7-2942 [19, 20].
It is in cosmological laboratories such as 1E1740.7-2942 as well as earthly particle accelerators that we can study the nature of the quark. Some possibilities for the future include producing a true absolute zero temperature in the lab, in which even the slightest subatomic movement is squelched. This in essence is the same as setting all quantum probability states to zero… some theorists even feel that if we were ever able to produce such a state, the atom itself would vanish! This makes a weird kind of sense, because with the probability that the given particle exists at any given state set at zero, then the probability that the particle exists at all becomes zero [6, 9, 14, 18, 20].
In this sudsy, soupy quarkian universe we occupy, where probability and uncertainty guide the workings of everything within, it is little wonder that the quark and other similar particles are fast becoming the most fascinating constituents of the subatomic world. Applications from relativistic quantum theory to quantum models of the universe itself present themselves for our testing and imaginations. Most intriguing of all is that our universe may have once consisted of a tightly-compacted group of quarks and other leptons, all in intimate contact with one another, and that they each “remember” their fellow companions [1-21] . If this is true, then in a very real sense we and the universe are all tied together in a common “Oneness”, or as the late Carl Sagan was so fond of saying, “We are all star-stuff”.
SOURCES AND CITATIONS
1. Lederman, Leon. The God Particle. Houghton Mifflin Co. 1993.
2. Han, M.Y. The Secret Life of Quanta. Tab Books. 1990.
3. Gregory, Bruce. Inventing Reality: Physics as Language. John Wiley & Sons. 1988.
4. Fritzsch, Harald. Quarks: The Stuff of Matter. Basic Books, Inc. 1983.
5. Stenger, Victor J. The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology. Prometheus Books. 1995.
6. Herbert, Nick. Quantum Reality. Anchor Press/Doubleday. 1985.
7. Osserman, Robert. Poetry of the Universe. Anchor Press/Doubleday. 1995.
8. Friedman, Norman. Bridging Science and Spirit. Living Lake Books. 1994.
9. LeShan, Lawrence L. Einstein’s Space and Van Gogh’s Sky. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1982.
10. Davies, Paul. The Mind of God. Simon & Schuster. 1992.
11. Zukav, Gary. The Dancing Wu Li Masters. William Morrow Co. 1979.
12. Close, Frank. The Particle Explosion. Oxford University Press. 1987.
13. Gell-Mann, Murray. The Quark and the Jaguar. W.H. Freeman and Company. 1994.
14. Clayton, William R. Matter and Spirit. Philosophical Library. 1981.
15. Riordan, Michael. The Hunting of the Quark. Simon & Schuster. 1987.
16. Kane, G. L. The Particle Garden. Addison-Wesley Publishing. 1995.
17. Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. Shambhala Publications. 1991.
18. Davies, Paul and Gribbon, John. The Matter Myth. Simon & Schuster. 1992.
19. Cline, John S. Quark Soup, Anyone? Opinion Column, Exponent, University of Alabama in Huntsville, September 1997.
20. Cline, John S. Quark Stars. Oral/Written Presentation for Dr. Carol Strong’s Astronomy 107 Class, University of Alabama in Huntsville, Spring Semester, 1998.
21. Microsoft Encarta 97 Encyclopedia. [Quark]/[Gluon]/[Standard Model]/[Elementary Particles]. Microsoft Corp. 1996.
I wrote this more than 10 years ago; I happened upon it recently and realized it's just as relevant today, if not more so. Just look at Al Gore's book "The Assault On Reason" and other recent works that have come out in the last couple of years. The last eight years we've been led by those asleep at the switch; maybe the next four/eight years will help get us back on track. What do you think?
THE DUMBING OF AMERICA
December 10, 1998
“I Want to Get Off!”
December 10, 1998
“I Want to Get Off!”
America is on a roller-coaster. We are careening down the track, screaming our heads off, enjoying the heck out of the ride. Suddenly, we see that the track is broken a few meters ahead. Do we fall to our deaths, or can we do something to save ourselves?
Unlike a real roller coaster, our situation is salvageable. The defunct roller coaster in our analogy is in fact literacy, that multifaceted and culturally touchy subject which touches every American’s life in some way. Literacy is not a simple matter of being able to read and write, though those are important basic skills. It is an entire way of life, one in which many Americans today are being cheated out of participating.
Worse yet is that America had been warned about the broken roller coaster track before they ever climbed on the ride. Since the early 1960’s, scholars and educators have been bewailing the dropping scores and increasing number of culturally (as well as functionally) illiterate citizens [6, 7, 11, 15, 18]. For one reason or another, few efforts have been made to correct the problem, and it grows almost geometrically every day [1, 8, 9, 10, 16].
Literacy and the Liberal Arts
Literacy in America is founded in the Liberal Arts . These are not simply subjects one takes in college, but the foundation of our Western culture and the structure of our country itself. They begin at the earliest ages: As the child takes their first steps into daycare, they are buffeted by cultural mementos. Music, folk stories, poetry, skits, construction-paper and scissors, all are founded in the Liberal Arts. Every aspect of the Liberal Arts is presented to the child as they progress through primary and secondary education, and onward into college. Humanities, arts, social sciences are combined with studies in mathematics and science and physical development. They receive a smattering of philosophy, English, art, music, history, political science, and social science; at least, this is the ideal. Somewhere, the cord has been cut [1, 4, 8, 10, 13, 17].
Why Study Liberal Arts?
The Liberal Arts benefits everyone. With exposure to philosophy, history and sociology, we can think more critically about social issues and participate more fully in political discourse. With a background in English, foreign languages, and communications, a person can see racial, ethnic, and nationalistic viewpoints closed to those without a wider perspective. Those with a framework in music, art, theatre, or mass media have developed skills in original thinking and creative pursuits. With Liberal Arts, we empower people with the tools necessary to express themselves. We give them the tools to succeed, grow, and become who they wish [5, 6, 8, 14, 15, 16].
Many employers even prefer hiring Liberal Arts grads. They find them more flexible, more creative, and more amenable to planning, managing, and “seeing the big picture” [5, 6, 15]. So why do we see Liberal Arts losing out in American schools, from Pre-K all the way up? Enrollments in Liberal Arts collegiate programs are down [1, 3, 9, 14]. Courses which offer exposure to Liberal Arts material are often watered down or modified to meet “politically correct” criteria [3, 8, 16, 17]. High schools have reduced or eliminated many Liberal Arts courses from their “minimum graduation requirements”, standards which are set by state governments at ever-decreasing levels. Colleges promote liberal arts differently depending on whether the student is pursuing a technical degree or not; engineers at many schools have to take fewer than 15 credit hours of Liberal Arts courses . What is causing this rapid, almost panicky reduction in the Liberal Arts in America? And what do we really lose?
The Bastardization of the Liberal Arts
Part of the problem is a misrepresentation of the validity of the Liberal Arts, perhaps beginning as far back as the 1950’s. In this decade of mixed social upheaval and rigid status quo, the leaders of many of the social movements were well-educated in the Liberal Arts. From Martin Luther King to the Beatniks, socially radical citizens were identified with the Liberal Arts. Many so-called Communists were from Liberal Arts backgrounds. The stigma of association rankled deeply within the conservative classes of our society, causing distrust of “what they’re teaching them kids nowadays” [1, 3, 16].
Another problem is the misunderstanding of the overall usefulness of a Liberal Arts background. Many times in recent decades Liberal Arts grads have been told that they are essentially “unemployable” except at menial jobs or vastly underpaid career paths. In the 1980’s, for instance, the “degree of choice” was engineering; Liberal Arts enrollments were at an all-time low. Unfortunately for engineering students, but perhaps fortunate for many Liberal Arts grads, was the end of the Cold War in 1989. Liberal Arts grads were suddenly employable again, but the effect was only temporary. Despite efforts by many colleges to increase Liberal Arts’ students’ technical skills, many jobs are still beyond their reach because they lack the necessary technical skills to operate and function within today’s high-tech computerized workplace [5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 17].
American Culture: Taking a Nosedive
We lose a great deal when the Liberal Arts are watered down or removed entirely from America’s schools. Perhaps the most drastic for what is supposed to be a representative democracy is the lack of skeptical analysis and even ability to make decisions concerning the running of our country. “If we don’t study history, we are bound to repeat it.” Where are the multitudes of concerned citizens storming the gates of Congress to demand an end to poverty, illiteracy, bloated government spending, inadequate schools and public facilities, rampant drug use, child pornography, and a social welfare system which is the laughing stock of the industrialized world? Often, people express concern over these issues, once they are aware of them, but fewer and fewer people seem to understand their role in overcoming them. They hear on the news that “the economy is improving” or “joblessness has decreased”, but do they understand what this means in real gains [1, 4, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 16, 17]?
As many as one-third of Americans cannot even read at the 8th grade level, with perhaps 35 million of those completely unable to read . Where do they fit into the democratic ideal? Most of them do not vote, even if they could read the ballots or understand the issues. For those who have little exposure to education, much less the Liberal Arts, making critical, informed decisions and utilizing the resources around them are simply not an option. We are an America in which well over half of its citizens have no firm grasp of current events [10, 16, 17].
Eroding the Fabric of Our Society
Worse even than simply not being able to participate effectively in our government (and thus in how our lives are run), is that with the decline of Liberal Arts we are seeing the decline of our uniquely American culture. Whether this is causal or symptomatic is still very much in debate, but clear indicators for a causal relation exist [1, 8, 10, 16, 17]. Societal demands for “political correctness” are one of the leading agents of this decline; multiculturalism, demographic shifts, attempts to teach to the level of the lowest-common-denominator student, and a general fear of litigation for “offending” someone’s moral, spiritual, or sectarian beliefs result in a general watering-down of Liberal Arts education [1, 13, 16, 17].
In the attempt to satisfy the most eclectic requirements of their students (or their parents), schools have created a mish-mash of multiple and often conflicting curricula. By trying to engender a multiculturalism-mentality, schools actually reinforce the disappearance of American cultural history and tradition. While it is beneficial for students at all levels to understand the values and traditions of other cultures, schools have lost sight of the simple fact that America has a culture too, which is the most important for Americans to comprehend. Citizenship, rather than being strengthened, is eroded until it resembles a confusing array of “do’s and don’ts”, many of which are mutually contradictory [1, 4, 10, 12, 14, 16, 17].
Learning for Profit
The importance of learning for the sake of learning is something which we no longer bequeath to future generations; it has become a search for enough knowledge to get a good job, little more [1, 7, 8, 9, 10, 14, 16]. Education today is a Tetris game, fitting all the random pieces together in a meaningless conglomeration with no discernable pattern. The game always ends the same way, with the student as the loser. Without Liberal Arts as a major structural component bolstering the overall framework of education, there is no real scheme, no underlying goal, behind the information a child receives. And this ephemeris is passed on to the everyday life of the student as they enter adulthood [8, 10, 16].
Important, though seemingly trivial, examples of this indifference to “proper” methods can be found in everyday activities. Email and telecommunications are a part of everyday life. How often do we receive emails from friends, family, even businesses and sales people which are rife with spelling and grammar errors, poor use of analogy or metaphor, or blunt and rough language when subtle and empathetic would be more appropriate?
Could You Repeat That?
Other examples are the increasing use of clipped and slurred speech patterns; colloquialisms and new dialectic patterning are on the increase (witness the attempt by California to incorporate Ebonics as a valid dialect). Grammatical, enunciated “proper” American English is dying a slow death, not due to a conscious effort to replace it, but by simple neglect. Some linguists suggest that at the current rate of dialectic pattern expansion, within as little as 50 years there will be Americans who cannot understand the spoken words of other Americans, both of whom are 4th generation natives [8, 10, 16, 17]. In a country like Germany or Great Britain, where dialects were mixed together in the incorporation of the state, dialectic patterning is a very real difficulty, but one which they were aware of from the start. In America, we are becoming Babel. If we lose the continuity of language, we introduce variables such as increased misunderstandings, mistrust, and even more divisive ethnic monoculturalism [8, 16].
A Nation of Bumpkins
Perhaps the most dangerous symptom of a Liberal Arts poor society is the apathy and lack of skepticism which are taking over our country. The number of adults unable to discern between reality and fiction, between truth and half-truth and outright lies, between the feasible and the fanciful is distressing. Rejection of the rigorous (and skeptical) methods of science and logic have resulted in the resurgence of New Age beliefs, UFO aficionados, and a dramatic increase of sensationalist “newspapers”, magazines and television programs. Sales of supermarket tabloids have tripled in the last 20 years, while the number of magazines and television programs devoted to sensationalist audiences have doubled every 5 years since 1975. This is more than a simple search for entertainment; there are a surprising number of people who actually believe that “if they print it or say it on TV, it must be true”. They lack the palate a Liberal Arts background would give them to discern the pabulum from the gourmet meal. They have never even heard of the Socratic ethos, much less know how to apply it .
What We Can Do
What as a society can we do to curb this trend? Despite our American ideal of self-determination in all things, we are in fact closely tied with our centralized government in Washington. It may rankle, but the general consensus is that we must implement national reforms. Local or even state-wide reforms will not by themselves be enough to attack over 50 years of neglect. National implementation standards and realistic, reachable goals must be developed, with funding and oversight by Federal agencies to ensure continuity between educational efforts. Most researchers agree that the Liberal Arts by themselves would be useless without a solid blending of math and science within the curricula [5, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 18].
The most successful Liberal Arts programs in all levels of education are those which combine mathematics and science with history, geography, philosophy, literature, and social studies. Probability and statistics can be applied to social issues; spatial relationships and geology can be used to teach both history and geography. Students can apply science to philosophy, literature, and any other area of the Liberal Arts. By incorporation, students will no longer see science and math as separate, “harder” subjects, but will consider them in the whole framework of learning [3, 8, 16, 17].
Another way to curb the decline of the Liberal Arts is to popularize it. Television, radio, and mass media advertisements, programming, and news can be geared towards making the Liberal Arts “sexy”. Make it clear that with the Liberal Arts, citizens can improve their lives and livelihoods. Employers could be encouraged to hire Liberal Arts grads rather than more specialized degrees, since research has shown that in general Liberal Arts grads tend to be more productive employees [5, 14].
Increasing teacher pay to reflect the professional status of the job would be a major step in the right direction. Many teachers with Masters degrees are paid less than 1/3 as much as their counterparts in business and even civil service [2, 10, 13, 18]. Increasing teacher pay will result in two immediate benefits to society: A better “image” for good potential teachers who might otherwise choose to enter another profession, and the increase in morale which will be reflected in even the most jaded teacher’s teaching methods. With increased pay, however, must come increased scrutiny and expectations. Teacher standards must be raised and teachers must be qualified in the subjects they are teaching [2, 12, A Nation At Risk, Goals 2000].
One idea which is slowly catching on around the country is that of involving the student in their own education. Programs have been developed which match the student to his or her abilities, and provide curricular aids to help them learn at their own level and speed. Students should be able to find coursework which both enriches and challenges them, and fewer choices of “easy” classes should be available for students with demonstrated ability to handle the harder stuff. In addition, many teachers are successfully using instructional methods which make learning fun again, without incorporating song-and-dance routines to “entertain” the students [2, 3, 8, 10, 16, 17].
Taking the Reins
Overall, America can become “smart” again, in a way which fits our disjointed and high-tech society. A strong America is a learned America, and the best way to ensure that critical thinking skills are engendered within our citizenry is to teach them the Liberal Arts. Competition from abroad will become less threatening to a society which is a cultural unit and has common goals reached through intelligent consensus [1, 6, 14, 16, 17]. International competition is not just in mathematics, computers and science; it is in basic abilities to think creatively and cogently. Communication between ethnic and religious factions within our country and abroad will ease with a better mutual understanding of the other’s viewpoints, establishing cooperative opportunities rather than cutthroat competitiveness and antagonism [4, 16, 17].
It is a Utopian ideal, but one which can actually be created with a realistic plan of action. For all of the ideas, including increased funding, better “image” for the Liberal Arts, national involvement in our children’s education, there is one underlying truth behind the person who has a solid Liberal Arts background: If you teach ‘em to think, their lives will be in their own hands. Perhaps it is time, before it is too late, to teach America to think again.
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