Art, Experience and Critical Thinking

Over the past couple years, my commitment to certain causes/ideas (for instance, the ethics of international development, sovereignty of a people and universal access to education,technology) have deepened. Now, I treat these matters analytically. I look for facts, data and coherent sets of concepts and policies. But when I reflect on what first prompted me to care about these issues, it certainly was not data or logical arguments.

My first encounter with social justice/ethics in college was during orientation week itself. All new students were required to attend a student directed theatrical performance on campus diversity and social justice. The performance had imperfections and the content could be objectively contested. If I had been there to examine the performance critically, enough of the content was in the unresolved, grey area that I would have would up cynical about the whole affair. But I was there as audience for art and I was moved by the art and its subjective content.So I joined that theater troupe, Ordinary People.

During my sophomore year, I took to reading 19th century Russian literature. In Anna Karenina, the character Konstantin Levin’s inner struggle with the feudal system, his faith, meaning and righteousness all seemed to afflict me, the reader, as much as it did the character. The Japanese film maker Akira Kurasawa’s Ikiru caused an upheaval in my thought, in the kind of impact I want to have on the world. These works of art evoked emotions and thoughts which would otherwise be inaccessible in my current environment and interactions.

The raw, evocative power of art is next only to that of experience. Although I’m currently immersed in readings about environmental ethics (PHIL2680) and the socio-political theses of Aristotle, Hegel and Marx, I do not find myself personally moved by their thought or writing. I attribute this to my training in critical thinking. When studying a work of Philosophy, it has now become habit to identify claims and evaluate the arguments. I first seek to understand and then perhaps poke holes (in a constructive manner that contributes to the discussion). This is what I do when I read an opinion piece in the New York Times, listen to a well-executed speech, come across astonishing data or see a bold headline. My education in the past four years has taught me to treat data and rhetoric as tools in knowledge building, but to never believe that data or rhetoric without carefully scrutiny.

On the other hand, powerful art is not someone’s thought or speculation; it’s an embodiment of someone’s experience and that cannot be fabricated. So art has an inherent honesty which lets me set aside my critical thinking hat and simply give in to the experience, to give in to emotions that I am unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable with. My interaction with such art opened up unexplored worlds/ideas. After my first year with Ordinary People, I went back to Delhi and found summer work related to urban poverty, development and conflict. The art inspired me to experience the reality it drew from. After that summer, I took classes to understand these issues at a global level, in all their complexity, with more analytic sources and tools. Art was the first step of the process that will culminate in action, impact and change.

Academics@Last Semester

I look at sophomores in my class and wish I could be a sophomore again, but with the knowledge I have now. It doesn’t feel too long ago when I came to Cornell, when 2017 seemed to be out in the horizon. But somehow, it’s been 7 semesters already and every semester, I found a new reason to ignore the Physical and Biological Science requirement. Here’s what my current semester looks like:

Finally fulfilling that PBS requirement –

  • BIOMG 1290: Personal Genomics
  • EAS 2680: Climate and Global Warming

I currently have a Philosophy minor and need three more courses to finish the major, thus making this semester a bootcamp in Philosophy. This is going to be a lot of Hegel, Kant, Marx and Nietzsche. On the one hand, I’m very excited to read these texts which have a great influence on modern society, culture and politics. On the other, I’m worried about maintaining sanity through all the dense reading.

  • PHIL 2460: Ethics and Environment
  • PHIL 2240: 19th and 20th Century European Thought
  • PHIL 3252: Marx as Philosopher

If that’s not enough, my love for knowledge leads me to every course under the sun. It has been really hard to keep my number of courses manageable; this feels like my last chance to take any of these wonderful courses (though, hopefully, there will be grad school of some sort).

  • PMA 2830: The Expressive Voice
    This is a studio class and it’s all about voice, speech and dialect training. It was originally designed for actors who will need to assume different pitch/tone/quality of voice for different characters and have to project and perform for months at a time. But there are enough non/semi-actors taking the class that our professor is also teaching applications to public speaking of all varieties. So far, it’s made me very conscious of my speech habits and I’m awkwardly trying to unlearn the bad habits. Throw back to freshman year when I took an acting class and was part of a theatre troupe – this class is an absolute delight!

This is a reading and writing intensive semester. I’ve always had atleast two quant/technical courses, which gave me balance between the liberal arts and STEM. I need the add and drop deadlines to arrive soon, before I can change my mind about my courses.

Rethinking the Arts and Science Curriculum

Every 15-20 years, the College of Arts and Sciences evaluates and revises its curriculum. Last week, I attended a focus group discussing potential changes in the upcoming revision.

Currently, classes are categorized into KCM (Knowledge, Cognition and Moral Reasoning), CA (Cultural analysis), HA (Historical analysis), SBA (Social and Behavioral Analysis) and LA (Literature and the Arts).  We’re required to take 5 classes, satisfying atleast 4 of these categories. In addition, we have to take atleast one class focusing on non-European/north American geographies and one before the 1800s.

The alternatives we were presented with were:

1) Columbia style core
All undergraduates would be required to take classes focusing on foundational literary and philosophical texts and study art and music. While I am very attracted to that curriculum(perhaps so I won’t look like an idiot when I don’t recognize some famous Rembrandt painting), it seems to overlook pretty much all that’s not in the western canon. The elitism of western knowledge and art is what attracts me to this kind of core curriculum but it’s also what I am trying to overcome.

2) Cross Disciplinary Problem Solving
Classes focus on breadth and teach the multiple disciplines required to understand the central topic. For instance, a class on climate change might include anything from geography, global  development and politics, ethics and environmental chemistry to statistical analysis. Ideally, they would teach more professionally useful skills, while being true to the liberal arts. These sound very similar to the cross-disciplinary University courses currently offered. While they’re all very interesting, these courses are often not rigorous and are treated more like grade-booster courses. Modern curricula are moving away from being subject-less, to being topic-focused, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to approach the liberal arts.

I’ve confessed my commitment to the liberal arts several times on this blog. At the focus group, there were other equally passionate Arts and Science students. We shared our experiences and discussed the options proposed. If there wasn’t a time limit and if I didn’t have a class afterwards,  our group could have discussed the matter for hours. At the end, I left content with the current curriculum and also the fact that the college involved interested students at various levels in the revision committee and process.

A PE Class a Semester

During my very first pre-enroll in classes, I spent a lot of time on the Physical Education listings. Over a hundred classes are offered in nearly every sport/physical wellness each semester. I had never learnt to swim, so my first semester, I took beginning swimming. The next semester, I tried to take a yoga and meditation class called “Meditation and Relaxation” and utterly failed at it. The classes were on Tuesdays from 4-5:30pm, which was right before most of my evening prelims or project deadlines that semester. I’m still made fun of for failing a class on relaxation.

Sophomore year, I took meditation, and passed. I had to make up for my previous failure. Then I tried to take 8o’clock rock which is a essentially a morning workout class. Forget working out in the morning, I couldn’t even consistently wake up at 8 with my sophomore year CS major workload and late nights.

We only need 2 PEs for graduation, and since I had those, I decided to forget about the PEs. As a senior, I now have the luxury of taking a relatively light courseload and so I also took a PE called “Bootcamp”, which is a military style physical training class that meets twice a week for 1.5hours in the morning. I was also afraid that if I don’t find discipline to be physically fit while in college, I never might!

In Bootcamp, as the class description already warned us, the instructor pushes us hard (within safe limits) in strength and cardio training. I was in poor shape going into the class but by week 6, I was able to run 3 miles (in a timeframe I am still embarrassed of though) and do a decent number of push-ups. However, the hardest part of this class is not the workout itself. It is going to bed on time so I can get up in time for class, eating well so my body can keep up with the heavy workout, making sure I’m hydrated and showing up even when the weather is dreary. It has been a rewarding experience so far.

My very last pre-enroll at Cornell just passed and I made a long list of PEs I want to take. Ofcourse, I can’t take them all, so I only signed up for two. And that adds one more item to the list of “things I regret not doing at Cornell”: I regret not taking a PE each semester. That might also be my most sincere advice to underclassmen, to take a PE each semester.