Tag Archives: science

Paul Kalanithi: When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My friend and colleague, Devin Manzullo-Thomas, warned me that he broke down weeping on a Chicago subway as he finished the book, to the consternation of his fellow passengers. I found it easier to weep discretely in a Barnes and Nobles cafe. As one might guess with a book that opens with the discovery of a young and hopeful and brilliant doctor at the beginning of his career that he has what by all accounts is an incurable cancer, death awaits. And awaits relentlessly. But the knowledge that the book ends in our common human destiny does little to steel the reader for the way the heart breaks against the stony shores of that certainty. We are not given the witness of his death; no autobiography could do that. But we are given the witness of his dying and are included in that process, one that is by turns, noble and wretched and then, in some sense, ennobling of the author, of those around him, and perhaps even of us as readers.

While focused on death, the book is not morbid. If it ends in tears, it is not even really depressing in any meaningful sense of that word. What we are given is the striving after understanding, and the effort to make meaning out of experience with the only tools we have been given to do it, through our language. The book is fascinating for its testimony to the difficulties of the life of the mind and the body, to the agonies of both surgery and uncertainty. Kalanithi began as a devotee of language and discusses his turn away from the study of literature and what might loosely be described as “the mind” and towards the study of the brain and the body in the attempt to understand more completely the physical mechanism by which, after all, we come to speak and conceive of ourselves as having something called a soul or a mind. Kalanithi does not go deeply enough into this transition away from literature and language for my personal taste, though he offers the throwaway line that he thought the study of literature had become too embroiled in the study of politics and was not leading him into the study of meaning. However, he also seems to think that the study of literature is too divorced from the world of action, of doing something in the world that makes a difference, a difference he thought he could make in the healing professions. Kalanithi’s book is not about a theory of literature, but if it were I would want to argue with him more forcefully here. There is, after all, nothing more thoroughly politicized in our day and age than the practice of medicine, though his book does not seem to take up the question of who gets to be there to have a chance at healing at a first rate medical center and why that might be. I might want to argue as well, as I have at other times, that the embrace of literature in particular, and of the humanities more broadly–indeed, education per se–is actually one part of the world’s healing, though we fail too often to recognize it as such. As Milton suggested, the purpose of education is to repair the ruin of our first parents (and perhaps the ruin of our own parents, and of ourselves, I might add).

But these are not the main points of Kalanithi’s book. He manages to make the beauty and power of the study of science, and especially the study of medicine real and persuasive. More broadly he shows convincingly that a life of intense study is a life worth living, that the life of the mind matters, even if that point is made more poignant by the fact that that life is cut off by a disease of the body that cannot be studied away and that as of yet remains beyond the realm of human comprehension and control. It is interesting to me that, in the end, Kalanithi returns to literature to make meaning of the death that he cannot, that none of us can, avoid. He makes mention of the fact, of his return to stories about living and dying, stories that tried to make sense of the fact of death. Some of his final memories are of sitting with his infant daughter on his lap, reading to her the words of Eliot’s “Waste Land”, a fact that might be comical were it not for the fact that it rings true for a father given over to the power of language to give meaning where meaning seems tenuous at best, were it not for the fact that I and other fathers I know in the English major set do or have done precisely the same thing.

Of course, he made his own story in the end. A story, to be sure, that could not have been written without his unimaginably deep engagement with science and medicine. But finally his story lives for us, tells us something about what it means to be human, because it lives for us in words.

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Do Humanities Programs Encourage the Computational Illiteracy of Their Students?

I think the knee-jerk and obvious answer to my question is “No.”  I think if humanities profs were confronted with the question of whether their students should develop their abilities in math (or more broadly in math, science and technology), many or most would say Yes.  On the other hand, I read the following post from Robert Talbert at the Chronicle of Higher Ed.  It got me thinking just a bit about how and whether we in the humanities contribute to an anti-math attitude among our own students, if not in the culture as a whole.

I’ve posted here before about mathematics’ cultural problem, but it’s really not enough even to say “it’s the culture”, because kids do not belong to a single monolithic “culture”. They are the product of many different cultures. There’s their family culture, which as Shaughnessy suggests either values math or doesn’t. There’s the popular culture, whose devaluing of education in general and mathematics in particular ought to be apparent to anybody not currently frozen in an iceberg. (The efforts of MIT, DimensionU, and others have a steep uphill battle on their hands.)

And of course there’s the school culture, which itself a product of cultures that are out of kids’ direct control. Sadly, the school culture may be the toughest one to change, despite our efforts at reform. As the article says, when mathematics is reduced to endless drill-and-practice, you can’t expect a wide variety of students — particularly some of the most at-risk learners — to really be engaged with it for long. I think Khan Academy is trying to make drill-and-practice engaging with its backchannel of badges and so forth, but you can only apply so much makeup to an inherently tedious task before learners see through it and ask for something more.

via Can Math Be Made Fun? – Casting Out Nines – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This all rings pretty true to me.  There are similar versions of this in other disciplines.  In English, for instance, students unfortunately can easily learn to hate reading and writing through what they imbibe from popular culture or through what the experience in the school system.  For every hopeless math geek on television, there’s a reading geek to match.  Still and all, I wonder whether we in the humanities combat and intervene in the popular reputation of mathematics and technological expertise, or do we just accept it, and do we in fact reinforce it.

I think, for instance, of the unconscious assumption that there are “math people” and “English people”;  that is, there’s a pretty firmly rooted notion that people are born with certain proclivities and abilities and there is no point in addressing deficiencies in your literacy in other areas.  More broadly, I think we apply this to students, laughing in knowing agreement when they talk about coming to our humanities disciplines because they just weren’t math persons or a science persons, or groaning together in the faculty lounge about how difficult it is to teach our general education courses to nursing students or to math students.  As if our own abilities were genetic.

In high school I was highly competent in both math and English, and this tendency wasn’t all that unusual for students in the honors programs.  On the other hand, I tested out of math and never took another course in college, and none of my good humanistic teachers in college ever challenged and asked me to question that decision.  I was encouraged to take more and different humanities courses (though, to be frank, my English teachers were suspicious of my interest in philosophy), but being “well-rounded’ and “liberally educated”  seems in retrospect to have been largely a matter of being well-rounded in only half of the liberal arts curriculum.  Science and math people were well-rounded in a different way, if they were well-rounded at all.

There’s a lot of reason to question this.  Not least of which being that if our interests and abilities are genetic we have seen a massive surge of the gene pool toward the STEM side of the equation if enrollments in humanities majors is to serve as any judge.  I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who recently pointed out that genius has a lot less to do with giftedness than it does with practice and motivation.  Put 10000 hours in to almost anything and you will become a genius at it (not entirely true, but the general principle applies).  Extrapolating, we might say that even if students aren’t going to be geniuses in math and technology, they could actually get a lot better at it if they’d only try.

And there’s a lot of reason to ask them to try.  At the recent Rethinking Success conference at Wake Forest, one of the speakers who did research into the transition of college students in to the workplace pounded the table and declared, “In this job market you must either be a technical student with a liberal arts education or a liberal arts major with technical savvy.  There is no middle ground.”  There is no middle ground.  What became quite clear to me at this conference is that companies mean it that they want students with a liberal arts background.  However, it was also very clear to me that they expect them to have technical expertise that can be applied immediately to job performance. Speaker after speaker affirmed the value of the liberal arts.  They also emphasized the absolute and crying need for computational, mathematical, and scientific literacy.

In other words, we in the Humanities will serve our students extremely poorly if we accept their naive statements about their own genetic makeup, allowing them to proceed with a mathematical or scientific illiteracy that we would cry out against if the same levels of illiteracy were evident in others with respect to our own disciplines.

I’ve found, incidentally, that in my conversations with my colleagues in information sciences or math or sciences, that many of them are much more conversant in the arts and humanities than I or my colleagues are in even the generalities of science, mathematics, or technology.  This ought not to be the case, and in view of that i and a few of my colleagues are considering taking some workshops in computer coding with our information sciences faculty.  We ought to work toward creating a generation of humanists that does not perpetuate our own levels of illiteracy, for their own sake and for the health of our disciplines in the future.