Friday, May 05, 2006

The basics

Lewis Thomas could spin elaborate thoughts on the interconnections of science and the humanities, the cell and the symphony. But at bottom what he cared about was basic scientific research. Without consistent levels of work in basic research (and without corresponding levels of government support for it), nothing new or important would follow.

For our 13-year-old son Tucker, science is so basic that it promises a lifetime of fascination. Asked at age 8 what fueled his passion, he said to a reporter,

"Well, ever since I was a kid, I've been interested in life," Tucker says in a matter-of-fact manner. "Then I heard about DNA, and I got real interested."

I have a sense that most people who pursue an academic or professional passion do it because they think what they are doing is basic: that practically everything else follows from it. As an English Ph.D. I come from the assumption that language is basic. And so it troubled me when the UNC Ph.D. program ceased to require students to study the history of the language or Old English--how can you profess to be an expert in English language and literature when you don't know the basic thing about how the language started? For I apparently also think that history is basic.

Indeed historians who are passionate about their work betray a conviction that understanding history is key to human understanding and growth. The same for law or religion or economics, or even engineering or architecture or land planning or public health.

From a psychologist interested in getting down to basics, a thoughtful appreciation of Jane Jacobs.