Some Timeless Wisdom from Samuel Johnson on Reading, Curiosity, and Knowledge

 

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Samuel Johnson. Painted by William Doughty. 1779. Via: (Artstor)

 

 

We all know that if someone is being featured on Google Doodle, there is something extraordinary about that person. In September 18th, 2017, Google Doodle celebrated what would have been the 308th birthday of Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 – 13 December 1784). A prodigious British writer and thinker, Johnson had produced some of the most captivating writings that were widely read during the Enlightenment such as The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia (1759) (Amazon). If there’s one more work that catapulted him into fame, it’s his Dictionary of the English Language –a final product of nine year of rigorous work, and now is considered as one of the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.

Johnson might have been dead for more than three hundred years, but his words have the uncanny power to outlive his own life. Even he is often considered as the second most quoted Englishmen, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. A classic book titled Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson (Public Domain) (Public Library) is a record of some of Johnson’s famous sayings, organized neatly by George Birkbeck Norman Hill.

Here are some of my favorites of his sayings, touching on the topics such as reading, curiosity, and knowledge.

On reading:

‘He said that, for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance. He added, “what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” He told us he read Fielding’s Amelia through without stopping. He said, “If a man begins to read in the middle of a book and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it to go to the beginning. He may perhaps not feel again the inclination.” ‘

On Knowledge:

“Of whatever we see we always wish to know; always congratulate ourselves when we know that of which we perceive another to be ignorant. Take therefore all opportunities of learning that offer themselves, however remote the matter may be from common life or common conversation. Look in Herschel’s telescope; go into a chemist’s laboratory; if you see a manufacturer at work, remark his operations. By this activity of attention you will find in every place diversion and improvement.”

On Curiosity:

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last; and perhaps always predominates in proportion to the strength of the contemplative faculties.”

On Dialogue and Action:

“It is indeed much more easy to form dialogues than to contrive adventures. Every position makes way for an argument, and every objections dictates an answer. When two disputants are engaged upon a complicated and extensive question, the difficulty is not to continue, but to end the controversy. But whether it be that we comprehend but few of the possibilities of life, or that life itself affords little variety, every man who has tried knows how much labor it will cost to form such a combination of circumstances as shall have at once the grace of novelty and credibility, and delight fancy without violence to reason.”

 

The Danger of Stereotyping by Greek Philosopher Seneca

 

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Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens. Via: (Artstor)

 

If there is a book that I treat like a sacred text, it is Letters from a Stoic (Public Library)–a collection of letters originally penned by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – 65AD), one of the most towering figures in the ancient Greek school of philosophy, Stoicism. Every once when I find myself mortified over trivial things such as a WiFi outage and when a cyclist overtakes me on the road, I think of Seneca and this book. This book, which I revisit frequently, will always bring me solace in the midst of chaos and some new teachings that are extremely practical. Although Seneca was penning all the letters between 4 BC and 65 AD for his own private reflection and for the people that he loved, they surprisingly have survived two millennia later against all odd and have helped modern people to comprehend the notion of what it means to live a meaningful life.

In one of those letters in the book, I came upon a letter titled Letter CXXIII that addresses a problem that so ubiquitous in our modern world. It is our chronic habit to be seduced by stereotypes. Stereotyping someone is not only a pathway to racism, but according to Seneca, once we plant the seed of it in our lives, “the evil would follow us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future”. The letter is not only advising us to avoid the act of stereotyping but also to avoid the people who spread this harmful and misleading association.

Writing the letter to his friend, Lucilius, after a long exhausted journey that he had, Seneca wrote:

[…]

“With all such people you should avoid associating. These are the people who pass on vices, transmitting them from one character to another. One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage. For even if its success is not immediate, it leaves a seed in the mind, and even after we’ve said goodbye to them, the evil follows us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future. In the same way as people who’ve been to a concert carry about with them the melody and haunting quality of pieces they’ve just heard, interfering with their thinking and preventing them from concentrating on anything serious, so the talk of snobs and parasites sticks in our ears long after we’ve heard it. And it’s far from easy to eradicate these haunting notes from the memory; they stay with us, lasting on and on, coming back to us every so often. This is why we must shut our ears against mischievous talk, and as soon as it starts, too; once such talk has made its entry and been allowed inside, it becomes a good deal bolder. Eventually it reaches the stage where it says that ‘virtue and philosophy and justice are just a lot of clap-trap’.”

[…]

 

More on Seneca and Stoicism:

  • School of Life, one of my favorite intellectual channels on YouTube discussed this school of philosophy, Stoicism, in a very catchy visual and understandable language:

 

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Tomb of Seneca by Charles Le Brun. Via: (Artstor)

 

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Sokrates and Seneca. This sculpture is owned by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Germany). Via: (Artstor)

 

Paul Kalanithi on the Source of Human Knowledge

 

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Paul Kalanithi. Via: (paulkalanithi.com)

 

“In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eight, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationship we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them, where, as at the end of that Sunday’s reading.

the sower and reaper can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

Pulled from Paul Kalanithi‘s eloquently crafted memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Public Library). 

Kalanithi’s lung cancer tragically cut short his life. He was only thirty seven when he inhaled and released one last, deep, final breath in the room not too far from where his only daughter, Cady Kalanithi, was born eight months before. It was also the same hospital where he was trained to be a neurosurgeon. In that hospital, he had faced the death of his patients and eventually his. The excruciating pain of his cancer did not deter his vitality from writing this book. He wrote this book because of his cancer and despite of it. This memoir is not just a collection of words and pages. At its core, this is a story of what courage looks like. This is a story of how a man of inexhaustible energy had to commune with his own mortality.

Before he was diagnosed with cancer, Kalanithi knew someday he would eventually die, but he did not know when. After he realized that the cancer had invaded his multiple organ systems, he knew that his “lease” in this world would end really soon, but once again, he did not know when. In those uncertain moments, Kalanithi had lived gracefully and courageously.

 

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Paul Kalanithi. Photograph by Norbert von der Groeben. Via: (The New Yorker)

 

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Dr. Paul Kalanithi with his wife, Lucy, and their daughter. Via: (nytimes)

 

How to Have Original Ideas: Adam Grant on Originality and Creativity

 

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Adam Grant. Via: (Inc.com)

 

In a consolation letter that Mark Twain sent to Hellen Keller after she was being accused of plagiarizing, Twain wrote, “For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources […],” he continued, “when a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his.”

If all ideas are second-hand, why are we obsessed with originality? There is nothing in this world that is completely original. All of our ideas have been influenced by other ideas, big or small, significant or superficial. In other funky words: everything is a remix.

When it comes to deconstructing the mystery of originality, no one can better explain it than Adam Grant, one of the most influential organizational psychologists. Through his second book titled Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (Public Library), Grant unearths some of the most powerful and surprising findings about what does it mean to be an original and to have original ideas.

On the definition of originality, Grant writes:

“Originality is taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

[…]

Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.”

This process to make our “visions a reality” is a circuitous and complex process. However, one of the steps that we can do to ignite our creative minds is “finding the faults in defaults”. 

Grant writes:

“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.

[…]

The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience Vuja de, the opposite of Deja vu. Deja vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we have seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse–we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.

[…]

When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.”

This notion of Vuja de is the engine that fuels the conception of Warby Parker–an online eyeglasses company (A worth to read interview with one of the founders–Neil Blumenthal). In the book, Grant shares the story of Warby Parker’s creation. Initially, it started when the four founders were enraged with the price of eyeglasses. As one of them stood in line at the Apple store to buy an iPhone, he wondered why a pair of eye-glasses could cost more than an iPhone. Everything started to change after they realized that an European company named Luxottica dominated the eye industry business and was taking advantage of its monopoly status by “charging twenty times the cost”. Understanding that there was a monopoly was an “eureka” moment for them. They realized that they had never questioned the origin of the price of eyeglasses before. Looking with a new perspective to “the thing” that they had always taken for granted, Warby Parker eventually came to existence.

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George Washington’s spectacles. “Silver-rimmed spactacles, worn by George Washington. Washington commenced to wear eye-glasses in the year 1778. This pair is said to have been used by him on the occasion of his reading his Newburg address./ Presented by Captain Henry N. Marsh. S. 45,001.” Via: (NYPL Digital collections)

 

Prior to reading this book, I used to think that we lived in the age of ideas scarcity. Grant shattered my false assumption by explaining that the real issue in our world was not the absence of ideas, but the ideas selection.

He writes:

“But in reality, the biggest barrier to originality is not ideas generation–it’s idea selection. In one analysis, when over two hundred people dreamed up more than a thousand ideas for new ventures and products, 87 percent were completely unique. Our companies, communities, and countries don’t necessarily suffer from a shortage of novel ideas. They are constrained by a shortage of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas.”

To recognize ideas that are not only novel, but also have a potential to make our world a better place is a difficult practice. Grant presents two theories that capture our weakness to recognize original ideas from conventional ones. First, is a false positive, expecting something to be a transformative idea, but it turns out to be a miss. Second, is a false negative, which means believing an idea will fail but it turns out blossoming. All of these are very common. One of the greatest TV series in America, Seinfeld, was a false negative. So was J.K Rowling’s Harry potter series.

Originality conjures up images of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs for the most of us. These extraordinary figures have dominated our world with their staggering and novel inventions. We feel their success is unattainable. One of the most hopeful things that Grant writes in the book is originality can be exercised like a muscle, a concept that reminds me of Carol Dweck’s research on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. The more we exercise “it”, the stronger “it” becomes. The seed to be an original thinker is found in everyone of us, if only we nurture it and let it grow.

“Originality is not a fixed trait. It is a free choice. Lincoln wasn’t born with an original personality. Taking on controversy wasn’t programmed into his DNA; it was an act of conscious will. As the great thinker W. E. B. DuBois wrote, ‘He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.’ “

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Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

The twentieth century is the golden age of entrepreneurship, a term that was coined by Richard Cantillon, which means “bearer of risk”. The media loves to share entrepreneurs’ success stories by highlighting the bold risks that they have conquered. This media framing tricks us into thinking that all entrepreneurs are not risk-averse. To make it worse, there’s a lot of motivational quotes scattered around the internet that encourage people to be fearless when taking risks. Though, I agree that we need to have a certain degree of risk-taking attitude to achieve our goals, according to Grant, blind risk-taking is a very dangerous strategy for entrepreneurs.

He writes:

“Economists find that as teenagers, successful entrepreneurs were nearly three times as likely as their peers to break rules and engage in illicit activities. Yet when you take a closer look at the specific behaviors involved, the adolescents who went on to start productive companies were only taking calculated risks.

[…]

To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk. But the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, “Many entrepreneurs take plenty of risks–but those are generally the failed entrepreneurs, not the success stories.”

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Marie Curie. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

This notion of “calculated risk” is in fact not new at all. Half a century ago, a theory called “an innovative theory of risk” was developed by University of Michigan psychologist Clyde Coombs (Another research done by Coombs and Bowen titled “Additivity of Risk in Porfolios”). This theory can be understood as embracing risk in one area and exercising safety in another. 

One might think that entrepreneurs or creative people who practice this concept of “risk portfolio” don’t take their business seriously because they are playing it safe and not fully immersing themselves in it. However, this strategy is in fact benefiting them.

Grant writes:

“Common sense suggests that creative accomplishments can’t flourish without big windows of time and energy, and companies can’t thrive without intensive effort. Those assumptions overlook the central benefit of a balanced risk portfolio: Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another.”

Then Grant cites a captivating study by two management researchers Joseph Raffiee and Jie Feng in which “from 1994 until 2008, they carefully tracked a nationally representative group of over five thousand Americans in their twenties until fifties who became entrepreneurs.” In the research, Raffiee and Feng asked a question: when people start a business, are they better off keeping or quitting their day jobs?

Combining the research from Raffiee and Feng, Grant deduces:

“Entrepreneurs who kept their day job had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.

[…]

After inventing the original Apple 1 computer, Steve Wozniak started the company with Steve Jobs in 1976 but continued working full-time in his engineering job at Hewlett-Packard until 1977. And although Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin figured out how to dramatically improve internet searches in 1996, they didn’t go on leave from their graduate studies at Stanford until 1998.”

[…]

This habit of keeping one’s day job isn’t limited to successful entrepreneurs. Many influential creative minds have stayed in full-time employment or education even after earning income from major projects.

[…]

Grammy winner John Legend released his first album in 2000, preparing PowerPoint presentations by day while performing at night. Thriller master Stephen King worked as a teacher, janitor, and gas station attendant for seven years after writing his first story, only quitting a year after his first novel, Carrie, was published. “

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Artwork by Austin Kleon. Via: (Austin Kleon’s Tumblr)

 

Einstein once said, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” In this book, Grant shares the same idea on creativity with Einstein. He argues that creativity doesn’t necessarily spring from a single profound expertise, but it emerges when one is actively connecting one’s mind with ideas outside of one’s expertise. As he said, “A unique combination of broad and deep experience” is necessary for the nourishment of creative thinking. In order to understand the effects of  “combinatory play”, Grant turns his attention to Nobel-Prize winning scientists, in which he argues:

In a recent study comparing every Nobel Prize-winning scientist from 1901 to 2005 with typical scientists of the same era, both groups attained deep expertise in their respective fields of study. But the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists. “

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This picture was taken from page 47 of the book

 

How does this hunger in the arts help them to spark their creative insights?

Grant answers:

“Interest in the arts among entrepreneurs, investors, and eminent scientists obviously reflects their curiosity and aptitude. People who are open to new ways of looking at science and business also tend to be fascinated by the expression of ideas and emotions through images, sounds, and words. But it’s not just that a certain kind of original person seeks out to exposure to the arts. The arts also serve in turn as a powerful force of creative insight.”

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Painter at His Studio with Guests. Artist: Bundrone, G. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Reading Originals has altered the way I view creativity, the world, and myself. Though this book is brimming with scientific information, the way Grant weaves together scientific findings and personal narratives in this book is enchanting and digestible. The rest of the book, Grant explores creativity in the workplace, family, school, and truly reveals every layer of creativity that we have never seen before.

Adam Grant’s Ted-Talk on this topic is a worth to watch:

 

And, if you always find yourself hesitant to share your ideas because you think they are insignificant or “too obvious to you”, Derek Sivers has something to say:

Rebecca Solnit: Two Meanings of Lost and The value of exploration for children

 

 

I have a long history of things disappearing in my life. My favorite hot-wheels truck disappeared from my possession when I was in kindergarten. It was a devastating day. In high school, my precious brown wallet was found unexpectedly in the river far away from my house by an old bearded man who mistook my wallet for a fish. He found it six months after I lost it. The money was all gone, but my driver’s license was still in it. Shirts, socks, trophies from early childhood’s competitions, coloring books, shoes, postcards that I acquired from friends who travelled overseas, photographs, have disappeared from my life. A few of them miraculously have reappeared, years later, damaged and musty.

Losing things and getting lost, these are the things that are more commonly avoided than aspired to by people. Through her nine galvanizing essays from a book titled A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Public Library), Rebecca Solnit, one of our most lyrical writers, pens descriptively and meditatively stories of facing the unknown and finding oneself by losing oneself. This book looks like a self-help book but it does not offer explicit and practical steps to navigate oneself in the face of uncertainty. Instead, this book demands its readers to ask themselves critically about what it means to be far away from their “home” and figure out the way back.

In the first essay titled “Open Door,” Solnit contemplates the difference between losing things and getting lost. 

“Lost has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.”

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A New Mapp of the World by Samuel Thornton. 1702. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Both of these notions, Solnit argues, getting lost and losing things, have a common denominator–a loss sense of control.

She writes:

“Either way, there is a loss sense of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in on rushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss, that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

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The Dancing Shoes by Margaret Evans Prince. 1921. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Another favorite passage from this book, Solnit draws a connection between childhood roaming and self-reliance. She argues that parents’ excessive fear of letting their children to explore a neighborhood limits the children’s capacity to exercise their self-reliance muscle, which in fact can be a beneficial trait for them when they grow up.

“A recent article about the return of wildlife to suburbia described snow-covered yards in which the footprints of animals are abundant and those of children are entirely absent. As far as the animals are concerned, the suburbs are an abandoned landscape, and so they roam with confidence. Children seldom roam, even in the safest places. Because of their parents’ fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely), the wonderful things that happen as a matter of course are stripped away from them. For me, childhood roaming was what developed self-reliance, a sense of direction and adventure, imagination, a will to explore, to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back. I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.”

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Financial District Map of New York City.  Aero view of financial district above map. 1921. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Albert Einstein on The Danger of Specialization and The Value of Liberal Arts Education

 

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Albert Einstein with wife Elsa; State, War, and Navy building in background. Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewing Collection. Via (LOC)

 

Liberal arts education has become one of those overused terms like happiness and success that has slowly lost its intentional meaning. A liberal arts degree is often blamed for its impracticality and its bleak future for the graduates. Common conversations  mention that liberal arts degrees, such as English and philosophy, prepare their students for nothing but to be a coffee barista at Starbucks. Our culture of specialization, a culture that was heavily molded by the rise of industrialization in the 19th century, is obsessed with practicality and tends to shun everything that does not give us profitable, immediate, and countable results. Of course, it is hard to understand the reasons why people would spend four years of their own lives studying 19th century literature of Virginia Wolf or the history of ancient stoicism. The outcomes of learning those topics are hard to measure in any ways. This is not the failing of the choice that one engages, but it is the failing of our culture that does not recognize the deeper value of liberal arts education.

Albert Einstein expressed his disillusionment of the culture of specialization and the forgotten value of liberal arts education through a meaningful essay titled “Education for Independent Thoughts,” which was published in the New York Times on October 5th, 1952.  Later in 1954, this essay along with his other essays and speeches on Jewish people, the meaning of life, Germany, contribution to science, government, education, politics, and freedom were meticulously gathered into a book called Ideas and Opinions (Public Library).

Einstein began his essay by offering his reflective thoughts on the danger of specialization:

“It is not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he–with his specialized knowledge–more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.”

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Albert Einstein, Washington, D.C. Harris & Ewing Collection. Via: (LOC)

 

I like this notion of “a well-trained dog” that he coined. It is a harsh concept, but it illustrates precisely the characteristics of people who are afraid to explore outside of their own specialty bubbles. Then the question becomes: what one can do to be less like a “well-trained dog” and more like a “harmoniously developed person”? Einstein wrote:

“He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community.”

In the second paragraph, he went on talking about the forgotten value of the humanities as a discipline. Our modern culture despises the humanities because they are impractical and being perceived as an abstract discipline.

“These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not–or at least in the main–through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the “humanities” as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy.”

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Jewish-Palestine Participation- Einstein, Albert-At Podium. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Specialization does make everything more efficient and faster. It has given us some world-changing innovations from science, technology, to medical, and so on. However, behind its special perks, it blinds us to see any other existing ideas other than our own. It limits the way we think when solving a problem because we are only trained to see it form our own point of view. For Einstein, this is a very dangerous model of thinking to be massively glorified. He wrote:

“Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included.”

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Jewish-Palestine Participation-Einstein, Albert-With Grover Whalen at podium. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections).

 

Besides believing that humans must “learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community,” Einstein wholeheartedly believed that the selectivity of information, both in terms of the topics chosen and the amounts of topics being chose were the crucial factors that could mold one into a well-developed person. He also argued that overburdening one’s mind with too much useless information would achieve him or her nothing but superficiality. In the last couple of sentences, he wrote:

“It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects. Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality. Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.”

This sentence that Einstein wrote from the previous excerpt, “. . .a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects.” raised another critical question for me: how much is too much subjects? Is not the whole notion of liberal arts education teaching us to learn from a lot of disciplines ranging from history, literature, sociology, biology, and so on? I sensed a contradiction in what he said about the value of liberal arts education. At the beginning of the essay, he was championing the idea of studying humanities, but later towards the end of the essay, he made a case that though a liberal arts education gives us a permission to be exposed by those multiple disciplines, we need to be very cautious when it comes to deciding what discipline that we choose to learn from. 

So much what Einstein wrote reminded me of the convocation speech that David Foster Wallace delivered in Kenyon College, three years prior to the heartbreaking news of his suicide. In it, he talked about many things– those that we always know they are true but we often forget to practice: compassion and kindness, the trap of prestige, and the value of liberal arts education. This topic about the value of liberal arts education spoke to me dearly. In it he wisely said:

“. . .Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ . . .”

If you are curious about the rest of David Foster Wallace’s remarkable speech about the value of liberal arts education, here is the recording of his speech on SoundCloud: