Dr Anirudh Sridhar, Interim Associate Dean – Alliance School of Liberal Arts, Alliance University
It is a tantalising idea that history moves in circles, side-lining that which yesterday seemed central, only to bring back the obsolete into new prominence. If we focus for now just on the place of knowledge in periods past, this model of history seems almost irrefutable. Thales, the Ionian philosopher with which it is said the story of science begins, spent his early life wandering along the banks of the Nile, observing the measurement practices of the Egyptian farmers. Every year, the banks would flood, and the measurements marking the boundaries of plots of land would disappear, and the farmers would set out slicing and dicing the land again in hope of fresh yield. To ease their labour and reduce margins of error, these ancient tillers of land had developed certain rudimentary formulae that seemed to ensure degrees of consistency in the shapes of plots – for this, one needed but lengths, heights, and breadths in regular units. Thales found that these formulae seemed to work in Greece as well as they did in Egypt and so brought to the Ionians a gift of knowledge leaving behind the rivers, soil, and agriculture – and in so doing, set off one of the greatest revolutions in the history of man: the idea that knowledge is a worthy pursuit for its own sake.
In the period that elapsed between Thales and Pythagoras, fascination with the seemingly perfect congruence between ideal formulae and the mess of reality had given way to an almost religious ecstasy in the divine perfection of numbers. The philosopher did not concern himself with the changing seasons or opinions of the polis – his province, unislanded by the popular interests of other men, was peopled only by the shiftless idols of eternal perfection. The circle was “pi*r^2”, not the base of this pillar or that skirt: it was the ideal circle whose properties did not change according to time or place.
The liberal arts, as they began in Ancient Rome, were descendants of this impossible worldview of the Greeks. They were not just mathematics but rhetoric, music, and astronomy, but yet the Romans observed, without fail, the distinction between the thought of pure mind and the work of lowly hand. If we rush past fifteen tumultuous centuries now, we may, for simplicity’s sake, think of the birth of modern science, the cultural acceptance and dominance of science after the achievements of Kepler and Newton, as a reaction against the Greeks and their ideal of knowledge. The industrial revolution was a clear testament to the victory of application over theory: let the scholars debate Latin grammar over high table, we will build trains and bridges and soon, change the very rhythm of human life.
Having journeyed now from Egyptian agriculture to Silicon Valley AI, it is clear that the circle between knowledge and application can no longer turn back to disinterested philosophy. The artefacts of industry and commerce are here to stay. But it is not clear that a monomaniacal focus on technology, statistics, and medicine can answer the questions that plague our millennium. How do we deliberate on the ethics of prenatal genetic alteration? Why has solar and wind energy not met with universal embrace despite their salvific virtues extolled by climate scientists and technicians? Could it be that philosophers and doctors have parted ways since the time of Hippocrates? The railways of the nineteenth century had Isambard Kingdom Brunel as their champion. What artist today has taken up the photovoltaic cell as their career’s magnum opus?
To give ourselves the chance of contending with these titanic challenges of the twenty-first century – global pandemic, environmental disaster, nuclear war, data privacy, the automation of labour – we must end the vicious cycle of history and close the fabricated dichotomy between idealism and empiricism. It is only liberal arts, a reimagined liberal arts that involves art, philosophy, and science, that can achieve this. In the twenty-first century, it is no longer the case that faculties must speak to each other but that the faculties must speak within the same mind, whispering their secrets as they attempt together to tackle the great trials ahead.
Also read: Careers after class 12: Liberal Arts