“I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god — sullen, untamed and intractable.”
When Eliot wrote these lines in “The Dry Salvages,” he was writing about truth and reality. The river is a reality that we continuously fail to understand. Eliot continues, telling us that the river god is “patient to some degree, at first recognized as a frontier; / Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce.” At first we recognized reality and truth as a frontier, beyond our comprehension, something we strived to reach and know we cannot cross. Then, we tried to use it to achieve prosperity and happiness. Yet just as Eliot’s river was untrustworthy, so too was our reason. Consequently, Eliot tells us, the river became:
“Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities — ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget.”
We can now, through science, manipulate the world without even realizing all that we have forgotten to investigate and understand. If this is true, could Serrena Iyer have been correct in saying that science majors are receiving a better education? (“Easily gutted education,” Sept. 18)
I posit that science is the builder of bridges. The strong brown god, the river, is what we attempt to understand through science. For example, the river could be gravity. We should try to understand gravity. Science, instead, builds a bridge over gravity and forgets it.
Science describes gravity, but doesn’t explain what it is. We know it attracts two masses together, but what is this attraction? Why does it happen? We don’t know. Our descriptions of gravity pass off as definitions. Science is full of definitions.
We then learn about the interaction and relations between these definitions. We don’t really understand what mass is, but we can describe it with a term called grams. We can then describe the relationship between one group of mass to another using gravity and time and speed. Time! Another concept that has a “definition” but one that no one understands.
Math is an even better example of building bridges. We come up with definitions such as the definition of a “normal subgroup” and a “group.” Then we play around with all the interactions between these two concepts for which we have chosen the definitions.
Let’s start with something more basic, though. We have a definition for a “1” and “2” and “+” in math. But how can 1 + 1 really equal 2? Two is an individual number — how can it be broken up? And if 1 is 1, then how can 1 turn into 2? These are the kinds of questions Euclid struggled with. Yet we have defined 1 + 1 = 2 and subsequently have forgotten how little we understand about the concept of a number.
Perhaps this explains why there are more gut math and science classes. The first classes in each of these areas focus on learning definitions. After learning these, one learns how to apply them and find relationships between them. The more relationships you find, the more laws, theorems, hypotheses and definitions you have to work with. Consequently, there are even more relationships to seek between all these new ideas. The work gets exponentially harder with each class. And yet, doesn’t it seem like we have forgotten the brown river god by building these bridges of definitions?
The most remarkable consequence of building such bridges, though, is that somehow there is a correspondence between the theorems we derive from our definitions and the real world. So, perhaps we can never come to understand what the brown river god is exactly, but we do learn technical training. In other words, we learn how to manipulate the world around us. Surely, though, even this knowledge of manipulation is limited. How well have our attempts to manipulate nature, politics and the market turned out?
Most importantly, technical training is not the same as education. Yale is also not a vocational school. True education seeks to understand, illuminate and open our souls; this is the goal of the liberal arts.
Humanities classes do not set precise definitions of words like justice, goodness or love. In that way, the humanities make it difficult to build bridges, and instead their students wade into the strong, murky water of the river.
The ideas and questions that we value as humanities majors are tossed about each other in the river, catching the light, playing in the current, coming together and drifting apart as we try to catch glimpses of them and extend our hands trying to grasp them. Our clothes get soggy and dirty as we try to understand the river while the science and math majors walk serenely across the bridge above us, laughing at our foolishness.
Isabel Marin is a sophomore in Trumbull College.