There are two blogs I have read recently which make the good point that reading “classics” is important . At the New York Times, Philosopher Gary Gutting makes the point that a college education is not so much about “the content,” (or presumably the major) but about the habits of reading and inquiry developed. Or as he writes: “We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates.”
The fact of the matter is that we cannot remember what we learned on a test a year or less after the final is given. So what do we take away? Gutting’s answer is that it is habits of thinking, reading and approaches to knowledge that we “teach” at the university, not “the content.” He seems to recommend that the “evaluation of teaching” or whatever it is we our teaching is assessed on at the college level, we should look at readership rates for popularly written magazines like The Economist, Scientific American, New York Times Book Review, and The Atlantic, presumably 5, 10, 20 years after our students graduate. As he points out, the capacity to enjoy reading such journals is an indicator that students (and their employers) “reap the benefits of their education.” Perhaps readers from other countries can point to similar magazines that the educated public enjoys (Der Spiegel in Germany comes to mind).
Along these same lines, Razib Khan at the Gene Expressions blog is urging his science readers to return to the classics now and then to do a little “cognitive tail chasing.” He throws out Plato, Confucius, and Nietzsche by name, and points out that the reason to read them is not to find answers to contemporary issues, but to revisit the type of reasoning and argument underpinning modern thought.
Or in Razib’s own words, “smart opinions from people whose world views are fundamentally alien toward our own allow us to consider what dogmas and orthodoxies we hold as self-evident truths.”
In my view, natural scientists tend to hold to dogmas and orthodoxies a little too tightly. Sometimes they seem to be more concerned with what is “cutting edge,” and as a result tend to see themselves as what Nietzsche called “new humans” untethered to the past when their analytical categories were first defined. Sometimes tail chasing is just tail-chasing. But other times it can challenge us to sharpen our own views—or even change them.