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Friday, April 19, 2024 — Houston, TX

The academic menagerie of knowledge

11/4/15 4:17am

The other day I learned that a solution to Einstein’s field equations, found by the mathematician Kurt Gödel, calls for a rotating universe that (in theory) permits travel between any two points on the space-time continuum. The same day, I also learned of the Elliott Wave Principle as a method of economic analysis that can predict market trends, as well as how I will probably never fully understand what Wittgenstein meant by “The world is everything that is the case.” Funny thing is, I didn’t learn any of these things in the classroom, but from simply engaging my peers in conversation. 

This illustrates what I’d call cross-pollination learning. Rice students are scattered across 53 majors, 18 minors and several other interdisciplinary programs and certificates. So it’s odd we don’t normally consider the academic diversity around us. Think about it: When and where else in our lives will we be in an environment so pacaced with individuals with such heterogeneous intellectual interests, yet still united by this unadulterated thirst for knowledge and learning? I know a junior who’s read Goethe’s “Faust” and another who’s currently ploughing through Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu” — in their original German and French, respectively. A friend of mine is using organic semiconductors to build electronics on the molecular scale, while another can parse a Mahler symphony into its most basic harmonic and formal components and explain the logic behind each measure. The collective breadth and depth of people’s knowledge and capabilities here is staggering.

We come to college to study under professors, but we can learn a lot from each other as well, scholastically speaking. As Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, “It contributes greatly toward a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.” But in our day-to-day activities on campus we rarely partake in this cross-pollination learning. Even though our social lives are spent in close proximity with students from all disciplines, we generally wind up clustered together with those who take the same classes, or are in the same major and division, as ourselves. When we do meet those in disparate disciplines, through chance acquaintances or student clubs, how often do we bother to inquire deeply about what they’re learning in their favorite class, or what their research project is all about?



It’s never pleasing to find out how much we really don’t know, how confined we are with our existing knowledge and skills, but that’s exactly what Socrates realized after all his philosophizing, isn’t it? It’s an experience at once profoundly humbling and tremendously conducive to the refining of our minds. No one ever complained about getting more educated. Learning a bit more about astrophysics, mathematical finance, analytic philosophy and the other fields I’ve stumbled across through my chats with other students in my five semesters here, has only imparted on me a more sincere appreciation for the diversity of human knowledge, for how far we’ve come  in comprehending the confusing, farcical, sacred, tragic, surprising and infinitely intricate world around us and its inhabitants.

A function of education is obviously to acquire knowledge, but it also shows us the limitations of our knowledge and helps us press on despite those limitations. Our peers are thus a substantial resource we can harness to grasp this. So next time you meet a fellow student, try starting up a conversation about his or her intellectual passions. It will be worth your while.

Henry Bair is a Baker College junior.



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