Quote for Thought

“What I worry most about is that we are more and more losing the formal and informal bridges between different intellectual, mental and humanistic approaches to seeing the world.” – Anton Zeilinger, physicist

As I skimmed through an article that listed what “smart” people (mostly scientists) are worried about, I came across this quote. Most of the other worries were around science and worrying too much, which I find amusing. Of course scientists are worried about science’s role in society, and of course they think it’s one of the most important things to be studied. The culture in the United States right now definitely puts an emphasis on STEM fields, and there is a certain prestige around being in any sort of science. Even though US culture puts science on a pedestal, we still do not do well in teaching our youth math and science. And then when young people enter college, many science classes have a “sink or float” mentality, or are “weeder” introductory science classes.

I love science, I really do. That’s why I want to go into research. I have been struggling with my feelings around science culture, and what I have seen of it, at least at my university. There is a certain admiration and pity towards those who immerse themselves in their studies. Part of me wishes I could be one of those people, completely absorbed and happy in my studies, research, and work. But then I have interests in political and radical activism, traveling, arts, humanities, intellectualism… I want to think about and experience everything. So many things, so little time…

I live in a student co-op, and certain hypocrisies exist within the community, especially as we discuss the intense and complex relationship between privilege and oppression. Being able to go to university is a privilege. We are taught that it will help us get decent jobs, which will help us gain economic privilege. Classism exists, and as much as we want to fight it, we are still part of the system, as university students. Getting to think about privilege and oppression is both an intellectual undertaking and an active fight for equality and justice. Universities are often a melting pot of (liberal) ideas, and many people do not become aware of the world in this way until entering college. Even as we expand our minds and begin to understand the world differently, western/white/male ideology still influences university culture. Intellectualism, logic, thought, and cerebral understanding are seen as superior to feelings, senses, and physical experience.

Something to also acknowledge is that not everyone can do “white collar” work. Jobs that are seen as “blue collar” work, working class jobs, unskilled labor, are still necessary and important for society to function. As a college education evolves from being a privilege to a right, the value of menial jobs decreases.

Even with a college education, science is seen as more practical and needed over other intellectual disciplines. Social work is still needed in society, but our culture looks down on those who require government help, and the lack of resources can be seen with the limited income of social workers. Majoring in arts, humanities, English, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, etc. brings a certain way of thinking that is still important to the collective understanding of the world.

I appreciate the quote above because I think Zeilinger, even though he is a physicist, is trying to say that by ranking different types of understanding, we limit our understanding of the world. We rank science over other approaches and disciplines, which leads to people taking other modes of understanding less seriously. When that happens, we lose so much. And these different approaches are also interconnected. In the past, philosophy and science were the same thing, and then over time they were separated and expanded on.

Intellectualism can be fun, and necessary for humanistic growth, but it has limits and comes with an extremely privileged background. On one end, liberal arts and intellectualism are seen as very privileged disciplines rooted in white/western ideology (and thus contributes to the oppression of others). Then on the other end, liberal arts and intellectualism are seen as useless disciplines that should not be supported as they do not contribute to our capitalistic society. There is truth in both of these accounts, but I do not want to lose grasp of how liberal arts and intellectualism are also important to and have benefitted society. The value of knowledge and understanding is not necessarily monetary or universal, but the value still exists as long as we still wonder, think, and dream.

There is another level of knowledge and experience that I did not cover here, which is how people of color, eastern cultures, developing countries, and other oppressed groups relate to the collective understanding of the world. As a white university student, I decided to look at the aspects I know I can speak to. My privileges and involvement in the culture that systematically oppresses these groups is still something I am trying to unlearn and understand. My allyship will always need and have room for improvement. What I will state is that the knowledge and experiences of these groups are definitely part of the approaches to understanding and interpreting the world that are being lost, and they need to be recovered and taken just as seriously.

Perhaps Zeilinger is talking about only science, or those of you reading this had a different interpretation of the quote. And that’s okay. But what I want to get out of the quote is that the value of different types of approaches to seeing the world is relative, and each approach has its own intrinsic value.

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