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Gothic Pilgrimage, visiting the great French cathedrals.

                                Grandeur of composition, nobility of silhouette, perfection of proportion, wealth of detail, infinitely...

December 17, 2010

Know Thyself.

“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that, he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in the humanities is not learning facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” – Albert Einstein

When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting. When the job market worsens, many students figure they cannot indulge in English or a history major. They have to study something that will lead directly to a job.

Therefore, it is almost inevitable that over the next few years, as labor markets struggle, the humanities will continue their long slide. There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs are more glamorous than the libraries.

However, allow me to pause for a moment and throw another sandbag on the levee of those trying to resist this tide. Let me stand up for history, English, and art, even in the face of today’s economic realities.

Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, but unless you have the skill to use words, you are not going to be able to do this.

Studying the humanities will give you a wealth of analogies. People think by comparison — Iraq is either like Vietnam or like Bosnia; your boss is like Narcissus or Solon. People who have a wealth of analogies in their minds can think more precisely. If you go through college without reading Thucydides, Herodotus, and Gibbon, you will have been cheated out of a great repertoire of comparisons.

Finally, and most importantly, studying the humanities helps you to Know Thyself.

Let me try to explain. Over the past century or so, people have built various systems to help them understand human behavior: economics, political science, game theory, and evolutionary psychology.

These systems are useful in many circumstances. Alas, they do not explain human behavior. Deep down people have passions and drives that do not lend themselves to systemic modeling. They have yearnings and fears that reside with the inner self. The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to find because the behavior emanates from deep inside.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably will not get too far into the ‘knowing thyself’ because the fast effortless prose of journalism lacks the heft to get you deep below.

Nevertheless, over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from Self-knowledge and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape, and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

It is probably dangerous to enter exclusively into this realm and risk being caught in a cloister, removed from the market and its accountability. But it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages — learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different rituals and learning to see in different ways. We navigate social environments if we are dumb about ‘knowing ourselfs’, we will be consumed by them.

December 4, 2010

Over the top.

Frequently spotted around Cambridge: a gaggle of camera-toting tourists (us included) huddled over these kinda-cool relief maps of the city centre trying to work out how to get from where they are to their favourite coffee shop the epidemically-omnipresent Starbucks. These relief maps are great reproductions though and very realistic - the most recognisable bits being King's College chapel top right and Trinity College Great Court (a la the race in Chariots of Fire, although the film actually used Eton College school) in the foreground. The only innacuracy as far as I can tell is that, unlike the actual city centre buildings, this isn't covered in pigeon poop.

Of course, the true beauty of this map is that, whilst any photoblogger can snap a city's best bits, only a really lazy one can give you the whole city centre, to scale, in one shot. Voila!

Albeit, unconventionally... The infamous cult book  The Night Climbers of Cambridge describes the best routes around the colleges, the quietest spots for reflection, the best views to be had in the whole city. Of course, this is only if you happen to be a skilled climber - and happy to wait until the middle of the night to avoid the authorities...
Luckily - and amazingly, considering the paraphernalia needed in those days - they took pictures of their 1937 feats and included them in this incredible book, along with details of their nocturnal adventures. Republished in 2007 by The Oleander Press - it's now available everywhere because...
They've eventually moved into the future with ol' Whip and made him available on Amazon's Kindle.
Here's showing how the authorities went just slightly / wildly overboard:

Mail  &  Sunday Telegraph

The Night Climbers regularly swoop along the roofline of the city, mischief on their minds and happiness in their hearts. Their actions may confound the university but to residents past and present, of the colleges and the city, they are outriders of optimism and evoke a time when opportunities were boundless and the term PC, was a mere twitch in the dreams of tomorrow.

“Lest others should attempt the ascent of this terrible climb and perish, they swore themselves to secrecy and went off to try Everest instead.”