ELAI continues to encourage liberal arts students and alumni in Europe to reflect on their pathways throughout their studies and afterwards. Today, we are happy to publish a piece by Daria Kleeva who is in her last year of studies at Smolny College in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Over the last decades, plenty arguments, numbers, and facts were presented and discussed with regards to liberal arts and sciences and its effectiveness. After all that, there are still proponents and opponents of this approach, and the majority who have simply no idea such thing exists.
Two years ago, as a freshman of Smolny College in Russia, I presented my paper on liberal education in the context of the Bologna reforms at the 1st Liberal Education Student Conference. Today, I take another route that does not attempt to prove and persuade. In my brief mind flow I want to present and reflect on my path as a liberal arts and sciences student, but also to connect my experiences with some bigger theme of how we think.
As in every personal narration, the information I present might be deemed subjective. But why do we still like listening to stories and even pay more attention to personal cases than to general statistics? It is a cognitive bias. And I will exploit it, while readers can evaluate this information in any way they please. Here is my story.
A year before finishing my school, an old gymnasium famous for its tradition of classical education, I was experiencing a desperate uncertainty about my future. Many other people felt it as well, faced with the need to choose one narrow educational pathway. But a peculiar character trait made it all the more difficult for me: passion to multivariance in everything, starting from my preferences and finishing with actual things I do. I just couldn't imagine how can I reject any part of this life in all its diversity! I still can’t.
Luckily, when I was trying to work out the strategy of my adaptation to one disciplinary field, I came across the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences (Smolny College) in Saint Petersburg State University. The sacral word "interdisciplinarity" promised me freedom of choice. And in some way, it left me with no choice, because without any hesitation I passed all the exams and got enrolled. And here the actual story begins.
Chapter 1. Diversity.
For a Russian student, socialized to the differentiation of humanities, technical and natural sciences, plunging into the ocean of disciplinary integration was rather unusual. I recall my school friend, who once asked me at our 5th grade: "Daria, what do you prefer more – arts or sciences? " I didn't give her an answer then because of uncertainty. Several years later, during my first year in Smolny College, I refused not only to answer, but to accept and to ask such questions.
Before my first classes in Smolny College started, I was confused. I understood the concept of liberal arts and sciences in general but did not know what to expect from its practical realization - especially inside the walls of Saint Petersburg State University, one of the oldest higher educational establishment in Russia. Nevertheless, this confusion vanished when the first class started: an intensive course called "Language and Thinking". We were taught to express our own opinion in an academic manner, relying on materials from different disciplines, including history, art, philosophy, sociology, psychology and others. The word "taught" can give a wrong impression: guided by our experienced and open-minded professors we actually taught ourselves.
Ever since those first weeks at Smolny I understood that the concept of liberal arts and sciences offers far more than just an opportunity to choose courses from several disciplinary fields: it also encourages students to think, to develop in a harmony with themselves, and to be responsible for their choices and actions to nobody but themselves.
One day in the middle of the first year a person who had not studied in Smolny College asked "How is this any different from school education? In both cases you study a lot of different subjects". True, but in the framework of liberal education one subject is interwoven with another, while school subjects are isolated as if they had no points of intersection or common roots. Richard Feynman famously said “If our small minds, for some convenience, divide (…) this universe, into parts—physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on – remember that nature does not know it!” The first year in Smolny College convinced me that traditional disciplinary divisions are only in our minds, which tend to classify everything.
Several requirements in Smolny curriculum restrict the level of freedom in choosing classes and make student pathways less random. For example, throughout their four years students must take courses from eight disciplinary fields, ranging from history to mathematics. These general courses are designed so that students from every specialization can find them interesting and useful. Moreover, there are core mandatory courses, for example "Language and Thinking" or "Introduction to Humanities", helping the first-year students develop critical thinking, evaluate the resources, and express their opinion.
During my first year I wished to get as much as possible from every course. I studied philosophy, music, history of art as well as mathematical analysis, theory of complex systems, and programming. Every artificial barrier in my representations of the system of human knowledge was broken and started to be built from the beginning again. I felt myself as an unstructured neural network that receives a lot of input, which it was finally stabilizing: Isn't this the way we cognize the surrounding world from the moment of our birth?
Chapter 2. From chaos to order.
The second year was special, because every sophomore had to choose their specialization and pass the so-called moderation. Apart from attending several classes of the chosen major profile, writing an academic paper on a chosen topic and presenting it, moderation also required producing a letter of motivation defending my choice to the faculty committee. I chose "Cognitive Studies" and consequently enrolled in more psychological and biological courses.
Courses from other disciplines didn’t disturb me but nuanced my major studies instead, helping me to see some problems from different points of view. For example, during classes of quantum physics we discussed Roger Penrose's hypothesis that quantum behaviour in microtubules are involved in conscious processes, and then the consistent arguments of Penrose’s opponents. The classes of chaos theory provided us with the idea that it is necessary for brain to keep high levels of entropy in order to be stable (later this idea became the basis of one of neuroscientific research project I was involved in). The beautiful and impressive interdisciplinary chaos of the first year of Smolny College became more regulated during the second year: the pieces of information from every class became emphasized from the perspective of my emerging specific interests.
As a result, I passed the procedure of moderation with the paper about different approaches to researching the brain and consciousness. Writing this paper, I realised again how many doors to one problem the interdisciplinary look can open.
Chapter 3. Confidence.
As the third year started, I fell in love with science. No, I still don't answer whether I prefer arts or sciences, but I started preferring the scientific approach with its critical evaluation of data, and applied it to everything, even art.
Liberal arts and sciences gave me the concept and the skills of critical evaluation and, consequently, scientific approach and allowed me to be confident in my conclusions. When I try to test some hypothesis, I keep in mind the legacies of different disciplines. This adds additional parameters, but also makes me confident the results meet more strict criteria.
By the end of the third year, the concept of liberal education gave me also another kind of confidence – confidence in my choice. Liberal arts and sciences students are sometimes portrayed as indecisive, stuck in uncertainty and instability. I beg to differ. Only after trying myself in every discipline I studied, I could make a justified decision to devote myself to cognitive science, all while using my knowledge and skills from other disciplines in it as well. It also doesn't mean that I finally put myself in the spot of a neuroscientist: I still write some poetry, get overwhelmed by physics, discuss philosophical issues. My interests are not the lonely solo of a violin but harmonious chords of the orchestra following one general melody.
My third year passed quickly. My study of cognitive science was richer and deeper, accompanied by some additional electives and the continuation of my research projects. I have one more year of baccalaureate ahead. Liberal arts and sciences accustomed me to the unpredictability of life, so while I don't know what the fourth year brings, I can predict with the high level of probability that it will be no less exceptional.
My experience of being a liberal arts and sciences student continues, but my laconic reflection of it has to end here. On a final note, let’s reflect on a concept of insight.
Insight happens when a person suddenly finds a solution to complex problem – a logical equation, meaning of piece of art, a scientific discovery etc. Insight comes along with a strong and unique subjective experience, called "Aha-moment" or "Eureka moment". Different brain processes were claimed to produce this effect, including a theory that an association and a strange combination of disjointed representations of pieces of information produce insight. This usually happens when the person stops to fixate on one possible strategy of solution.
I can say that most of my personal insights occurred due to my unusual educational pathway. Perceiving liberal arts and sciences as a cognitive style, I think of it as my personal style of productive thinking. As such, liberal arts and sciences in my life won't come to a halt in one year when I am officially ‘done’, nor in ten years’ time. I hope that, in Europe, communities of wonderful smart and erudite people, both teachers and students, would carry it over to even more people. I am happy to know people from the European Liberal Arts Initiative, whose energy and activities are very inspiring!
Sometimes I wonder, what would I become if I studied something more "traditional"? There are different scenarios. But one day I asked myself another question: "What would I study if I were immortal?" And then I understood I made the right choice from the start. We do not have unlimited time on Earth, at least not yet. Within my time left, remaining open to every edge of human knowledge was the best decision of my life.
To be continued…