Putting Liberal Arts in the Equation

Equation

F=Ma: Force equals mass times acceleration. This is the one formula I remember clearly from my only college science course, “Introduction to Scientific Thought.” I enrolled in the class my freshman year because I really didn’t want to take a “science” class. Arithmetic and numbers made math and science courses difficult. To graduate high school I had to balance a checkbook; there were four copies of the exam — I passed on the fifth try. I pursued a degree in philosophy.

So first semester, I found myself with Dr. George Blount, a wiry man whose red hair filtered out through the grey. His eyebrows were longer and redder than average. He taught in the classroom off the observatory, where he also had his office. He was the physics department and the engineering department, and he directed the Astronomy Club. Neither graceful nor kempt, he remained focused on teaching and pursuing ideas. In polyester pants and checkered shirts, he looked the part of what later would be called “nerdy.” His persona was that of the absent-minded professor whose cluttered office and stacks of notes hid his gentle soul.

And so he would lecture disinterested students. He would start each class with a formula and then discuss the implications of that formula on our lives. Yet the class was never about formulae or even science as much as it was about philosophy — perception and reality. He described particle wave theories of light, and he explained the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. By seeing how what one looks for, or tries to measure, affects the results, even science and the objective hope of modernism fades into post-modernism. Not that we students appreciated the consequences then. In time, though, Heisenberg would find his way into my dissertation.

After the class was over, I went with Dr. Blount to an off-site campus for the January term where we explored education and environmentalism in the mountains of Southern Oregon. A couple years later, I took him for another class, “Electronic Gadgetry in the New Age,” where I tried to make a sound-activated device that a later inventor would call the Clapper. But the product was never as important as the process; a value learned as each successive computer advancement disenfranchises the user. Dr. Blount remained concerned with investigating the man behind the curtain, not the wizard before it. One summer, he purchased some land in Southern Oregon, built a cabin and continued teaching. He welcomed visitors, so long as they worked and did not oversleep. I gave back to the land by rescuing and replanting pine trees that progress had condemned.

In time, I graduated, and he retired. I visited fewer times and wrote Christmas cards. Eventually, his wife died and the returned cards indicated that age was taking its toll. Then the cards stopped, but no obituary found its way to me when he died in 2005. I still think of him occasionally when I explain to a first-year student the value of the liberal arts education. Or when I think about education, or see a student teacher start that long process of reaching out to an all-too-indifferent world. Yes, we have things to do and certificates to earn, and often teaching and learning are subsumed by the ends rather than the means. What we remember is seldom facts and equations; we remember the people, even though they get smaller in the rearview mirror.

One day my physics colleague was intrigued to hear that I still remembered the equation. He had to ask if I knew what acceleration was. A=d/t : Acceleration equals distance over time.

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