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The Traumatic Kernel of the Pomona/CMC Rivalry

April 14, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
The Traumatic Kernel of the Pomona/CMC Rivalry

So the other day I saw this flyer in the dining hall. It was for a talk at Pomona, and as is so often the case, the thing had already expired… lucky for me, however, "Hellfire Nation" was just the third lecture in a longer series. "Truth, Justice, and the American Way," it’s called. Cue the choir of angels to herald the incarnation of immaculate truth. Because that's the point of a series like this (at a school like that), right? It's intellectualism for its own sake—too self-absorbed and broadly-construed to yield any real insight. Like Civ. 10 without cynicism, or the Gov. department without Pitney.

It’s easy to pass judgment as a CMCer. For us well-wielded intellectualism affords more than just mental masturbation. It becomes something practical-- a means to a desired end. We don’t study economics for the sake of knowing economics; we do it because we want to make sick cash (not that there’s anything wrong with that). We don’t study political science – the theory and study of how things operate – but rather government: how shit goes down in Washington. I am reminded of a question raised when Ronald Graham, a mathematician, came to the Ath this last Tuesday and gave a talk on non-computable outstanding problems in mathematics: (paraphrasing) “This is all very interesting and fun… But how is this practical?”

I actually disagree with the question itself. But I do agree with its sentiment and the central tenet of CMC: a liberal arts education is too valuable not to be practical. I believe ideas have meaning only insofar as they help us to live our lives better–collectively and individually.

Yet if pure mathematics is fun, how is it not practical? On the wall of the math commons room, JH Poincare is quoted as saying, “The mathematician does not study pure mathematics because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it and he delights in it because it is beautiful.” That seems to reduce mathematics to aesthetics: pretty yes, but not really necessary. So why then do we as humans feel a need, a drive to answer these questions? It's hard to believe that Andrew Wiles spent seven years of his life in an attic proving Fermat’s Last Theorem because it’d look nice when it was all done up on the board.

Man is a curious animal. That's why our Professor/Politico Jack Pitney end each of his classes with a quote from A Man for All Seasons: “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” While we act, we must also ponder, explore, and discuss. I think that we CMCers are too quick to dismiss abstraction and purely intellectual pursuits as impractical. A half empty Athenaeum when one of the greatest living mathematicians comes to speak says to me that we’ve chosen against those pursuits. I think that’s the wrong choice, especially when I see the childlike wonder in the eyes of so many when they actually try to grapple with the pure mathematics just like Graham’s demonstrations.

My point is not simply a cry for more interest in pure mathematics. Rather I think that here at CMC we are too quick to classify the “non-practical” disciplines (literature, philosophy, art, etc.) as just that. I think we’re too critical of non-empirical ideas and too ready to dismiss what hasn’t been socially-edified as practical. When we scoff at Philosophy or Literature or Psychology (actually here we should) majors, I think we run the risk of missing a valuable if not indispensable part of life. If we care about the big questions in life, we do we dismiss some of the methods of elucidating them? Despite it’s cataclysmic failure, I don’t think anyone truly disagreed with the sentiment behind Civ. Thinking critically about how to live, about what is justice, wouldn't be just a study of “feelings.” Literature isn’t just refined story time so that we learn how to pass the hours. It provides an indispensable pool into which we can peer and gaze at the reflection of our own lives.

Big questions and inquiries are immutable and necessary facets of our lives. To ignore or dismiss them as impractical is the height of folly. If we care about our lives, we need to stop so cavalierly imposing artificial distinctions like practical and impractical in what we study. That is not to say that we should to study all areas equally—no discipline relativism here. But if pure mathematics or whatever helps us to cope with existence—help us to find it “fun” or “beautiful”—then I ask, how could it be any more practical?

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