January 31, 2007

Wisdom, Knowledge, and Magic

In 1996 the Agnes Etherington Art Centre presented a remarkable exhibit called "Wisdom, Knowledge and Magic: The Image of the Scholar in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art". I remember being struck by the notion that there was no real demarcation between fields of study in the 17th century as there exisits today. I imagine the idea of obtaining a degree in a specific field would be very odd to the 17th century scholar, who did not place such arbitrary boundaries between the study of the just life, for example, and the study of the laws of physics. If you consider the study of Philosophy, you learn that it encompassed moral philosophy (which begat ethics, applied ethics, etc), natural philosophy (which begat the physical sciences), and the classic Mediterranean languages. The point is that the scholar examined things holistically; that understanding the art of an era is just as important to its history and its politics. How sad that our contemporary business students aren't required to study international politics, international relations, or a second language. How sad that our engineering students aren't required to study aesthetics, or that our humanities students aren't required to study economics. The 17th century scholar understood the instrinsic web of connection that exists between all forms of human activity, economy, plight, strife and creativity. Ironically, faculty members at universities across the continent had an epiphany of sorts in the 1990s (likely spawned by feminist and identity-politics scholars) and began creating interdisciplinary and multi-disciplinary programs to redress our myopic paradigm; thus hopefully tipping the balance of knowledge, wisdom and, perhaps, a little magic in our self-understanding. [Painting: Michiel Sweerts, "Self-Portrait with Skull" (1660)]

PS: Read my Queen's Gazette op-ed on the need for a return to a core curriculum in the arts & sciences on page 6 at

No comments:

Post a Comment