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by William H. Benson

January 24, 2008

     “Science is vastly more important than art, hands down,” so said a prominent writer in his most recent book. At first glance, and in light of what science and mathematics has accomplished over the past century, it appears that he is probably correct. Yet, I would contend that the liberal arts also deserve a prominent place in our lives.

     The numbers that live within the sciences and businesses are important, life-changing, the very bases for our technological breakthroughs. Without a working knowledge of mathematics, job hunters are at a serious disadvantage, virtually disabled and unable to compete for the better jobs within the workforce.

     But the words and ideas that make up our arts—literature, philosophy, theology, law, journalism, history, and psychology—are essential, a necessary component of our lives. Without words, without language, and the bodies of learning that words inhabit, we would live very poor lives indeed. I think it unwise to place the world of science and numbers superior to that of arts and words, or vice versa, for it seems that one compliments the other.

     We live in a world that includes both sets of knowledge—the number and the word, the equation and the sentence, the theorem and the paragraph, the graph and the explanatory footnote. There is number dexterity, and then there is word dexterity. Quantification is a necessary skill, but so too is qualification—the number’s explanations and meanings. Grade school students may groan, but math story problems incorporate both words and numbers, and adults daily apply numerical skills to their lives.

     Few people have successfully circumnavigated and made outstanding contributions in both worlds. Offhand, I can think of only two—Blaise Pascal and Pythagoras—both mathematicians and both philosophers.

     Numbers fascinated the ancient Greek mathematicians, men such as Pythagoras, who believed that numbers were austere, full of meaning and mysticism. They believed that all of mathematics and all science could be explained by numbers. A distinguished physicist once said, “An equation is the most serious and important thing in mathematics.” We are all richer because some brilliant minds of the past discovered equations, formulated theorems, and laid down algebraic and geometrical principles.

      Numbers do a great job of measuring the world about us, of identifying trends and projecting them into the future, defining the dimensions of objects within the natural world, and a myriad other tasks.

     But numbers do a very poor job in certain areas, such as sketching our own internal worlds. Human beings live in their thoughts, images, imaginations, dreams, emotions, and hopes, and outsiders are often in the dark as to what people are truly like on the inside, “in those places,” Charles Dickens said, “where the meanings live.” Only words and stories can even begin to diagram a human being’s internal software.

     We live in the Great Information Age. Information is in abundance, at our fingertips, easily and freely obtainable, in the form of graphs, tables, bar charts, and statistics. What is rare is “meaning” behind much of that information. Only a word person can provide that meaning or the explanation.

     Lee Iacoca once said, “There were a lot of guys a lot smarter than I was. They were engineers, design architects with lots of technical skill, numbers guys, and yet I surpassed all of them. I had something they didn’t—the ability to speak, to persuade, to convince, to lead, and to manage.”

     A student once asked the author James Michener what she should study at college, and he replied, “Unless I had extraordinary aptitude in the sciences, I’d stick with liberal arts every time. The pay isn’t as good. The jobs aren’t waiting when you graduate. But forty years from now the scientists in your class will be scientists. And the liberal arts men will be governing the world.”