On September 28, I attended a symposium at Dominican University about our school’s motto: Caritas et Veritas, “Love and Truth.” I wrote this essay as an extra credit assignment for my biology class. I thought it important enough to share here, too.
I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday present. Exactly 29 years after I entered this world, I was sitting in the Old Pool room at Dominican University listening to a discussion about how our school motto (“Caritas et Veritas” — “Love and Truth”) plays out in science and math courses. While not everyone’s birthday wish, perhaps, nor cause for celebration in everyone’s estimation, it was exactly what I wanted to be doing that day. Of course, the Caritas et Veritas symposium wasn’t held just for me – I’m not quite that egocentric – but I certainly took away plenty from it, on a personal level. And not necessarily what I’d expected …
I’m a post-bac pre-med student. So clearly, I’m interested in science. What not everyone knows is that I’m also interested in literature. In fact, I was a high school literature textbook editor for nearly two years, specializing in American and English lit. So when I saw the lecture title, “A Gradual Dazzling: The Nature of Truth in Literary Studies,” my heart skipped a beat.
But honestly, the first three speakers (on ancient Greek drama, Romance literature, and contemporary Irish poetry, respectively) bored me. Not because the subjects were boring, but because the speakers were boring: they simply read from their (very technical, very specific) papers. I found myself struggling to follow along. Then Ellen McManus got up to talk about the field of Literary Studies, and trends in the field. I found myself wishing she had spoken for the entire hour. Each progression of the field, starting with the T.S. Eliot-inspired “New Criticism” (which saw literature as telling a special “slant” truth different from psychology, science, religion, etc.), to Postmodernism (truth is an artifice in ALL texts), to the influence of cultural / queer studies on literary studies (you must uncover the historical truths embedded within the context of the text) fascinated me. But the most recent development – called “Consilience” – has me rapt. Believers in this philosophy of literary study are also called “Literary Darwinists.” They draw on evolutionary science to understand literature, and believe that different kinds of knowledge (i.e., science, psychology, literature, etc.) should be linked together in a nested way. I find this philosophy, also called “vertical integration,” very interesting. I desperately want to find out more about it. (Note: I have already contacted Dr. McManus via e-mail and gotten her recommendation on two books about Consilience that she thinks are good places to start. My Amazon.com order is supposed to arrive this coming Wednesday … and I can’t wait.)
After the literature seminar, I attended “What does Caritas et Veritas Mean in Science & Math Courses?” I was interested in this lecture both because I am taking three science courses (physics, chemistry, and biology), and also because my chemistry professor, Dr. Daniela Andrei, was one of the panelists. The panelists talked about how veritas – truth – is evident in that there is usually a “correct” answer in science and math courses. Caritas – love – they said, is evident in their interactions with students. One example they gave is that they work very hard to teach critical thinking skills to their students through encouraging participating, making connections between old and new material, figuring out what type of question they are being asked, etc. After that section of the presentation, I asked a question: whether the presenters thought they could really teach critical thinking skills to students at the age of 18 or 20, or whether students needed to enter college with those skills already learned (and primed to be perfected). It wasn’t a rhetorical question; I was really interested in the answer. But I felt the question was dodged, or perhaps misunderstood. Professor Aliza Steurer responded that she believed you could learn at any age. Which I agree with, on a certain level. However, there is plenty of research out there that shows that students who don’t learn certain basic skills by early elementary grades (i.e., reading and certain math skills) are essentially screwed for the rest of their education. Now, whether this is a product of the quality of those students’ education or the plasticity of the brain is another matter. But I really do wonder whether students need to have acquired some skill set by a particular age, and past that age (which may be somewhat dependent on the person), they just can’t. Or at least, not as well or as flexibly or with as much dexterity. Motivation figures in as well, in addition to whatever base level of intelligence a person has. And when you start talking about that base level of intelligence, you get into the nature vs. nurture debate, going back to infancy (and perhaps even the womb) … it becomes a very complex issue with perhaps too many branches to keep track of at once.
I think I’m fascinated by the whole issue because I had a very non-traditional educational upbringing, and I often wonder how that has affected me. My parents are both very well-educated (a family physician and a nurse with her master’s degree), and they worked from the beginning to create educational opportunities for my two younger sisters and me. Reading was a constant activity in our house, from day 1, for example. But the really atypical thing was that we were all homeschooled for several years (my first year of public school was sixth grade). Of course, we had textbooks. But that was only the beginning of our education. Area museums provided hands-on science, history, and art exhibits to engage us on those subjects. The local butcher had what we needed for every dissection possible. Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods offered the chance to study microcosms of the world’s countries, up close (including a taste of each country’s cuisine). On vacations, we studied ecosystems and plant and animal life. Life meant – means – learning. How did all of that affect the way I absorb, process, and maintain information? I don’t know exactly, but I believe the effect was a positive one.
But I digress. The last session I attended was “Seeking, Detecting, and Even Deleting the Truth: How Neuroscience is Changing Our Understanding and Powers Over Truth.” I will address the last two speakers first. While I found the subjects – using brain imaging as lie detection and drugs to delete memories – to be interesting ones, I find them extremely problematic. From the evidence presented, it seems that there are serious functionality issues with the lie detection / brain imaging idea. I certainly would not want it used to test my guilt / innocence at this point in time. In terms of the memory erasure idea, while it does seem to work in rats (which is fascinating), I see some ethical considerations in using this on humans. Also, I would be concerned as to how this would affect the rest of the memory system. I found these two topics very thought-provoking, but not particularly practical.
I connected more with the first presentation, which more about the philosophy of science as related to Veritas (truth). First of all, I found Dr. Scott Kreher’s* definition of truth – “Truth is how the world really is” – to be very interesting. Not that I disagree with it, at this point in my life. In fact, I find it very appealing. However, had you asked me 15 years ago, I would have responded with a much different definition of truth – “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” That Biblical passage still rings in my ears more than a decade after I (very decidedly) left my conservative religious upbringing behind in favor of a more empirical approach to the world.
Dr. Kreher’s definition (or perhaps explanation) of science also intrigued me: Science is a set of processes that allows us to approach the truth. (emphasis added) If you think about it, that’s so obvious. Scientists so often replace old facts, hypotheses, even established theories with new ones, based on newly discovered evidence. Practicing science requires a certain level of humility. Yet so many people look at scientific discoveries as unalterable FACTS. They don’t question them, or think critically about them. I think part of the fault there lies with the media (of which I used to be a member). A scientific paper or study will come out, and the evening news will report it in a skewed way, for maximum shock value, as a truth (or nearly so). When really, as Dr. Kreher said, “We’re always just approaching the truth.”
As I said, the Caritas et Veritas Symposium was like a gift. At each lecture, I received something to ponder, to take with me. Not merely because I went to the lectures. That’s not enough. But because I brought myself, open and vulnerable, and willing to refine my own definition and understanding of Caritas et Veritas, both in relation to my education and to my life in general.
* My biology professor