Literacy — the written word — empowers our “harsh desire to last”. It enables our words to extend beyond our lifetimes. Western literacy is basically a tool to escape death. But the new electric media will likely inform and change literacy. George Steiner notes in a 2002 lecture that all our electric devices are based on Victorian era Boolean logic. We harbour the illusion that our current type of literacy is the result of some inevitable and logical progression, but it only reflects one narrow perspective of human understanding. For example, mathematics is a universal language. Mathematicians who speak different languages can still collaborate on problems through mathematics. Part of the future of literacy may be numeracy.
Steiner likens grammar to the musical scale. How can we make music without knowledge of notes and scales? How can we write for understanding without mastery of grammar? Like mathematics, music is a universal language.
Steiner says that the humanities are asking less and less of students by not requiring a mastery of grammar. Even medical students at Harvard Medical School have to memorize 1,200 pharmacological formulae before they may proceed into second year. There are no such requirements for students in the humanities. Why do we demand so little in the fields of human understanding?
Architecture and music should be the two building blocks of education says Steiner. He explains how the Guggenheim in Bilbao was designed using an algorithm that not even Frank Gehry the architect understood, but which enabled plays of light and sound that change throughout the day. What Gehry did was “ask the right questions”. That is the future of human learning and work — asking the difficult questions.
We still do not know how to teach, states Steiner. It needs to begin with the “sheer animal joy of understanding something infinitely deep”. Society can advance only when the best mathematicians and humanists do not go on to research or the private sector, but instead into teaching. If the worst go into teaching, then society gets a “vengeful mediocrity” that gradually degrades all fields of human knowledge.
The isolation between the sciences and the humanities limits our ability to understand the advances being made in all fields of science. Let’s start with a question — What is happening to our intellectual world?
“Scientists and scholars in the humanities, working together, will, I believe serve as the leaders of a new philosophy, one that blends the best and most relevant from these two branches of learning.” —E.O. Wilson