Campus News

Sarah and James Bowdoin Day Address: Mary J. Carruthers

Story posted October 26, 2007

"Seeing Twenty-six Sides of a Particular Problem: The Liberal Arts in the Age of Experts"

Bowdoin College's 2007 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 26, 2007, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is the address by invited speaker Mary J. Carruthers, Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Literature, New York University, and Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford.

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Mary J. Carruthers

When Dean Judd and President Mills first invited me speak on this occasion, I did what any decent researcher in any field does these days — I went to the Internet and I found Bowdoin's Web page. There was a quotation from a previous President, William Dewitt Hyde, describing what Bowdoin aspired to give to its students. I'm sure all of you have seen it and perhaps memorized it. It includes the words, "To carry the keys of the world's library in your pocket, And feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake."

This thought particularly struck me because my own scholarship over the past 25 years or so has involved studying a set of related historical cultures from late antiquity and the Middle Ages (roughly the fourth through the 14th centuries), which educated their citizens to do exactly that — "to carry the keys of the world's library in [their] pocket[s]." But not pockets in their clothes: rather, mental "pockets," conceived of as virtual containers for all that they had learned, inventoried within their memories in orderly constructions: buildings, trees, roses, ladders and other multi-compartmented structures. Here what one knew was also consciously marked for ready access and retrieval by individually-fashioned cues, a great, accessible mental library whose keys opened the particular compartments within which the various matters were stored which one might need in speaking and writing, in thinking itself. In the fourth century, St. Jerome wrote of a talented young man that "by constant reading and [continual] meditation," he had made his mind into a library.

A century or so later the Roman scholar Cassiodorus described a blind Greek student named Eusebius, who had come to the monastery at Vivarium in southern Italy at Cassiodorus' invitation. This Eusebius had been blind since childhood, yet he had hidden away in the library of his memory so many authors, so many books, that he could assuredly tell others who were reading in what part of a codex they might find what he had spoken of. Another example known to Cassiodorus was that of the Scriptural expositor, Didymus of Alexandria, a man whose commentaries were renowned for their comprehensiveness and subtlety, yet who had been blind from birth and thus could read only by means of his orderly memory. There are also examples of scholars from the later Middle Ages, including Aquinas, Ockham, Wyclif and Petrarch, whose reading and compositional habits make clear that the goal of making a library of one's memory was by no means dimmed in an age when written books were far more plentiful, at least to scholars.

In ancient Greek mythology, Memory (mnemosyne) was the mother of all the Muses — history, philosophy and natural science, poetry, tragedy and comedy — all had their source and foundation in Memory. Memory and imagination together were the matrix for all creative thought and science, all knowledge and all thinking. Our modern libraries, including the great library that is the Internet today, are prosthetics, external scaffolding and support for our creative minds. But imagine having much of that within you, accessible in your own memory. Another medieval thinker, the 12th-century scholar Hugh of St. Victor, taught his students in Paris how to use their memories and imaginations to create great structures for their thought and study that were based on imagining detailed models of buildings whose dimensions are described in the Bible (such as Noah's Ark). He did this, he said, because no one can be said to have learned something if he cannot recall it securely and immediately. We human beings cannot think without materials with which to think; we cannot invent well without an inventory. That is the fundamental principle of a liberal arts education as traditionally conceived. As in a library today, all knowledge, all science, is related and housed in a single vast but securely inventoried structure, and with that knowledge — available to us all so long as we carry its keys in our mental pockets — we can create new knowledge, new ideas.

But knowledge alone is not enough. Ancient and medieval writers on the subject of memory stressed as well that a memory library, of the sort I've just described, was fundamental to the virtue of "prudence," the ability to make wise judgments and plan effectively for the future. Memory was also associated with prophetic writing, as in the Book of Ezekiel, whose prophecy consisted in large part of recreating imaginatively from memory the dimensions and layout of the destroyed Temple complex in Jerusalem in order to envision and motivate the future — in his case the return of the Jews from their Captivity in Babylon. Important in such planning efforts is not the accuracy with which something in the past is reproduced, but the act of imaginative, rational recreation itself as a totally sensed and felt experience because it is that which motivates and provides the materials for our intelligent judgments.

In ancient and medieval art, Prudence or Memory was said to have three eyes or three faces, one facing the past, one the present, and one the future. These three faces are all on one head, serving one thinking mind. The insight captured by this icon is that the ability to judge wisely comes from being able to look at problems from different directions, all at once, in the way the head of Prudence does. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, once said of himself, "My difficulty is that I can always see 26 sides of any particular problem." It is a difficulty but it is also an opportunity and a strength. Prudence is called a virtue because it gives strength and ability to our human minds. Having a simple, definite, narrow answer to all things is much easier. But accepting that life is complicated, that very often there are twenty-six and more sides to a question, goes with having brains as multiplex and complicated as ours, and living in a world as various and multi-sided as ours is now.

For this reason if no other, I have been dismayed to witness over the decades of my academic life how the concept of "science" has been constricted and isolated, especially here in America. The word "science" means "knowledge" — of all kinds. Yet as we have carved our curriculum into three managerial "divisions" — science, social sciences and humanities — we have come to treat them too often as though they had little to do with one another, and accepted that "science" properly belongs only to one of these. In today's world, this is not only a pity but a political and institutional danger. As the Nobel Prizes were announced a few weeks ago, complete with the obligatory interviews with the press, one recipient scientist spoke of his difficulty in communicating to what he called "the laity" — that's us. A science dean at a famous American university spoke of his need to "protect" his scientists from "too much exposure" to teaching. Historically speaking, this is the language of theocracies, the rule of high priests — experts who alone can interpret the divine oracles and auguries — enclosed in secret worlds with a secret language shut off to the world at large. Science has not always been conceived in this way, nor fortunately is it always so now.

A half-dozen years ago I had the rare privilege — certainly for a historian of the Middle Ages — of working with a group of archivists, historians of libraries and computer program designers on the central problem of how best to design memories for the effective retrieval of quantities of complex information. A year or so later I worked with another group of neuroscientists, psychologists, architects, urban historians and urban planners on the question of how humans visualize themselves and plan their movements within the spaces of their worlds, physical and mental, and how those two worlds, seemingly separate, mesh with and affect one another. Since then I've worked with a group of musicologist-performers on issues of notation and memory in early music, with scholars interested in histories of pilgrimage and spiritual meditation, with architecture historians trying to understand the multiple social functions of the monumental buildings they study and attempt to conserve.

But I am not a neuropsychologist or an architect or an archivist or a musicologist. My own interest deliberately resists categorizing. I was never required to be an expert except for the unhappy and fortunately brief period in my life when I studied for my Ph.D. — it was the only time when I had to squeeze myself into somebody else's idea of what I needed to know to become a certified "expert." By now I am indeed considered an "expert," but focused on a subject I have defined for myself, namely the techniques, exercises and cultural supports devised and used in the Middle Ages for training human memories to be comprehensive inventories and reliable instruments for inventing ideas. Techniques similar in principle and in practice can be found in many other "cultures of the book," which are nonetheless largely oral in character, such as traditional Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and indeed ordinary classrooms throughout the world even today. It is the universality of these basic principles that makes the memory training of cultures long gone, and so different from our own, of interest still to such a range of natural and human scientists.

Upon entering college, like many of you, I had a firm idea of what I wanted to become — an astrophysicist. I recall sitting down with the college catalog at the start of second semester freshman year and mapping out exactly which sequences of courses in astronomy, math, physics and German I would need to take to have what I thought would be proper preparation for an astrophysicist. I stared at it for long while. And then I tore it up. I realized with that schedule that I'd never have time to take all the other courses I wanted to take in history, literature, and philosophy, and other things I wanted to learn about — like short story writing, the textual history of the Bible, zoology, logic and enough Italian to be able to read Dante. Oh yes, and horticulture and medieval sculpture. I still have a comment made by my third-grade teacher: "Mary is easily bored." It's true. And fortunately for me I went to a college that did not insist on tracking me into a major or a pre-professional curriculum from the day I entered, and then holding me to it. Mine was not an education to make me an expert.

Needless to say I attended a small liberal arts college, not a research university. It is a decision I have cherished, for it allowed me to build intellectually upon my education as though it were a multi-chambered structure, with many paths and a variety of connections within it; and most critically, it provided me with the keys to my mental library that I have carried always with me in my pocket.

Thank you.

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