The acorn and the tree

Don’t stop reading this blog because you saw the word “acorn” in the title! I’m not writing about that ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). You know: the one that was in the press so much during last year’s presidential campaign.

No, I’m referring to the plain old nuts on the ground each fall, as in the saying, “The acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak tree.” It came to me when I saw my son Jonathan’s first semester freshman course schedule. As he begins this fall in the Honors Program at the University of Alabama, he appears to be embracing the humanities like his dad. Here are our two respective schedules (mine from Amherst College in 1971):

Dad:

  • Classical Civilization
  • Evolution of Culture
  • Problems of Inquiry: Modernization in China and India
  • Introductory Calculus

Son:

  • Introductory to Music Listening
  • Philosophy: Critical Reasoning
  • State and Local Politics
  • Honors Calculus

On the face of it the two match up pretty well, except for the fancy names in my schedule and the fact that Jonathan is actually taking his second calculus course. (Few high schools in Alabama offered calculus back in my time, unlike my predominantly prep school classmates and Jonathan’s high school today. I barely managed a C+ and didn’t set foot in a math class again until business school in 1983. He’ll do a lot better than I.)

hen as life and work unfold, he or she can flip the coin of learning over and over again, examining worldly affairs from both the head of creativity and the tail of skepticism.

But I doubt Jonathan will steer his academic and professional careers much in the direction of the artistic/literary/cultural side of the humanities, despite his musical aptitude that neither his mother nor I share with him. He leans more toward the analytical/political/didactic side of the humanities, as in foreign affairs, journalism and maybe international business. Where I started with Homer and Virgil, then drifted into literature and finally architectural and art history, I suspect he will start with Plato and Aristotle, and end up in the State Department.

I think the lesson here is that with the humanities—history, literature, philosophy, languages, art history and appreciation—a student becomes invested in a broad and universal intellectual currency. Then as life and work unfold, he or she can flip the coin of learning over and over again, examining worldly affairs from both the head of creativity and the tail of skepticism. Still—with all due respect to the beauty of calculus and the analytical power of the dismal science—I just hope he doesn’t become an economist…

Written by: Bob S.