Now, more than ever, we live in a hyper-mechanized world.
Most of us wake up with alarm clocks on our smartphones, which allow us to do everything from make calls to tweet. We turn in homework assignments via ELMS or email, and good luck graduating from high school if you’ve never used Microsoft Word. An ever-pervasive world of wires and Wi-Fi surrounds us at all times.
It would seem that the logical thing to do for those who are entering college nowadays is to enter into a field of study that contributes to and accelerates the efficiency of the vast system around us.
“Almost all modern day pioneers of technology and innovation have thorough understanding of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. These broad disciplines are collectively called STEM and don’t refer to a single curriculum or subject. Apart from the love of the subjects, the primary reason to get an education in STEM is the ease of securing a job,” claims the introductory paragraph at STEM Majors.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find the Liberal Arts — vilified, downtrodden, and denigrated as areas of knowledge with no relevance to the real world.
“Basket weaving majors,” a friend of mine once called them, while I held my tongue, indignant at his ignorance.
But it would help if, before disparaging the Liberal Arts, people actually knew what they referred to.
At the time, the Liberal Arts were comprised by the trivium, which consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, which consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Together, these seven fields were thought to be essential in the development of free citizens.
They were known by the Latin title of artes liberales precisely because this type of knowledge would have produced a free citizenry capable of thinking for itself rather than simply accepting dogma put forth by the Church or the edicts of power-hungry monarchs.
But times have changed.
No longer is our small, precious collection of knowledge to be found in the hands of a few monks who work on translating Aristotle into Latin by candlelight, and argue about whether the Timaeus is a reflection of creatio ex nihilo.
Nowadays, an immense wealth of knowledge is accessible to us all at any moment thanks to the internet. There are more Wikipedia articles in English alone than there are seconds in a month. Though the hum of our computers has gotten quieter over the years, it seems that unless we get lost in the mountains, we can never really escape the entanglement of the mass of wires, webs, and data around us.
What hasn’t changed, in spite of it all, is the inherent value of being able to think for oneself.
The times and the customs be damned, we will always be in need of a Socrates to rouse us from our lethargy and get us to question our beliefs in pursuit of the truth, or of a Victor Hugo who will stand up to Napoleon III and declare forcefully that the new monarchy will never make 2 + 2 equal 5.
In Les Misérables, Hugo exhorted his society to “Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”
For the most part, society has done a decent job in this respect. It is up to us , as beneficiaries of our society, to seek our self-determination. Whether we pursue knowledge, and if so, of what kind, is up to no one but us.
Though we use machines more than ever, it is good to remember that we are not machines. There remains an element within us, qualified by Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, that transcends mechanicity and complacency. We have the capacity for much more than the blind execution of tasks.
Rousseau rightly declared “Man is born free but today everywhere he is in chains.” In our age, this can amount to anything from our dependence on smartphones to political oppression, in all its forms.
What can counter both is free thought. What can differentiate us either into bureaucratic drones or visionaries and rebels is free thought. And we can still hone our capacity for free thought by delving into the area of study that the sages of the Medieval and Renaissance worlds believed would forge a free citizenry.
Master or slave. Drone or rebel. Man or machine. The responsibility for determining responses to these dilemmas falls on no one’s shoulders but our own.
Horus Alas is senior philosophy major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.