Sunday, May 14, 2006

The benefits of a liberal arts education

Cruising around the web I ran across a the text, at Tomdispatch.com, of Rebecca Solnit's commencement address for the Department of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Addressing students who were largely born in 1984, she discussed the power of books to change reality:

Books themselves sometimes change the world directly: you can talk about nonfiction like Diderot's Encyclopedia, about the Communist Manifesto, The Origin of Species, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, about an essay that mattered a great deal only a very long time after it was written, Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"...

After a long discussion of books she thinks important, Solnit then ends up with the best part of the speech:

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." The state of the world is always a jumble of opposing ideas, of uprisings and crackdowns, of wonder and horror. Fitzgerald's forgotten next sentence is, "One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Hopeless is one story, otherwise is another; go tell it on your mountain or internship or wherever you're headed, but never forget that you know how to dismantle stories, how to question them, how to compare and contrast them, and maybe sometimes how to invent or reinvent them. This is vital, since your task as the young being cut loose at this moment of graduation from what we, the old, have to give is to reinvent the universe, the universe made out of stories -- to change the stories, to tell them, to bury them, and to give birth to them. A difficult task, but not an impossible one. Not if you remember, as readers and scholars might, that we are living in an impossible world already.

This is entirely in line with an insight I've had in recent years, as I tried to reconstruct medieval "deeds of arms." What did they actually do in formal combats? I finally came to the conclusion that even those on the spot, watching a given challenge, usually disagreed. What we have, often enough, are the products of their disagreements, the stories they told about the event. We can't witness the event, or reconstruct it very well, but we can hear the stories.

Stories are very, very, important.

The image above on its originating site at the Technical University of Berlin, is very large. Click on it and have a look at the 7 artes liberales.

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