Objectivism and Reduction are Pillars of Learning
With regard to the Back Page article in the July 2007 APS News
by Parker Palmer: I’m glad that Palmer has found a personal philosophy that he finds fulfilling. But like many who find such a philosophy, he then takes on an evangelical mission to convert the rest of us. Palmer states, “[O]ne key to non-violence is avoiding the arrogance of believing that I know how others should live their lives.” He then spends the rest of the article doing exactly that: telling us how we should put our educational and professional lives in better order.
He describes the various ways “violence” (as defined by him in very broad terms) is done in the academic community. He mentions “brutalization” of a graduate student without telling us how that student was brutalized. Now, to be sure, I have known faculty who view students as little more than convenient tools in their own careers. However, I suspect that Palmer has something larger in mind, as he goes on to assault what he views as “initiation rites,” general lecture format, academic competition, and also argument through attacking another’s weak points in their presentation.
Recalling my own graduate days, I would probably have agreed with Palmer that I was being “brutalized” by the “initiation rite” of having to take four days of six-hour exams called prelims; and the months of studying that preceded those exams. A year or two later I realized it was at that point I truly became a physicist. I only wish I knew as much physics now as I did when I took them. Those “brutalizing” exams were life-changing.
Competition brings out the best in new ideas. Given the recent Duke study on grade inflation, it seems we may need to move back to even more competition in academia as A’s have become so plentiful that they hold no meaning. My own institution gave latin honors to 47% of this year’s senior class. Is this what Palmer wants: everyone is excellent and thus the term loses all meaning?
When I submit a paper for publication I expect the reviewer to attack the weak points of my argument. Isn’t that their job? How can I improve or learn anything if someone doesn’t point out my “weakest link,” as Palmer would have us refrain from doing?
Finally, Palmer disparages what I consider to be the main pillars of classic liberal learning: objectivism and reduction. This is what my older colleagues in the humanities and social sciences used to call “the dispassionate search for knowledge.” He deplores his own learning about the Holocaust that was done by facts and figures. I can only wish it were still the same. A recent survey by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (www.goacta.org/publications/Reports/VanishingShakespeare.pdf
) shows only 15 out of 70 colleges and universities now require Shakespeare for their English majors. If your institution is like mine, the English curriculum now consists of minor works that supplement a faculty member’s preferred political outlook. Objectivism and reduction are long gone from the humanities and social sciences, and it seems Palmer would like us to do away with them also in physics.
It is obvious that Palmer is not very well-acquainted with how physics is actually done when he asks, “What physicist, or astronomer, or chemist ever got anywhere by trying to reduce the amazing phenomena he or she is working with to the convenient frames that work for his or her own mind..?” That seems to contradict everything I’ve ever learned about how I, or most other physicists, do physics. Don’t we always try to reduce a complex phenomenon to a more simple model that we can begin to understand “for our own minds”? We then commit the sin of objectivism by testing that “reduced” model. Poor Newton, and Einstein. They tried to understand some phenomena by putting them in terms of models that worked in their minds, never knowing that they were disrespecting the “otherness.” Michael Monce New London, Connecticut