Learning and its Limits


The division of art and science that the scientist and author C. P. Snow once referred to as “the two cultures” seems to have widened in recent years with the advancement of technology and the increased specialization of scientific study. As a result, those of us in the humanities are in a bind. We still expect our scientific peers to have a modicum of cultural understanding outside their fields, but we are lost as soon as we venture onto their turf.

In light of this problem, I recently became determined to learn something new—not in my own field but in the truly alien territory of a field far from my own. I began reading about cosmology. My interest in this subject is not so surprising. Decaying stars and distant galaxies have a metaphorical potential likely to appeal to literary people. I had read some popularized accounts of this subject and was determined to go further.

So I made an appointment with a colleague in the physics department who came highly recommended as an expert on black holes. I arrived in his office bright-eyed and eager, full of questions about the courses I should take and books I should read in order to master his arcane science. He was eating lunch at his cluttered desk, and he paused between bites of a tuna fish sandwich to listen to my lengthy and rather garbled explanation of what I was after. When I finally stopped talking, there was a long pause as he considered how to respond. Finally, he put it to me bluntly: it was too late. At a certain age, a person can’t make much headway in higher math, which would be necessary for me to get a grasp of his subject. If I started with calculus now, assuming I could even do that, it would take me years to arrive at anything approximating what I would need for an understanding of the field.

He said this kindly, peering at me over a sea of crumpled papers and stacks of battered books, his half-eaten sandwich held aloft. I listened and smiled and said I understood. But I was upset. I had assumed that I could still learn anything I wanted if I set my mind to it. Here I was being told that I couldn’t.  I must have known in my heart that I didn’t have it in me to master higher mathematics, but my colleague’s words were humbling beyond that. They brought home the larger truth that, at a certain age, the mind hardens and closes. Certain sorts of thinking, like certain sorts of physical activity, are out of bounds.

As a teacher, I deal with flexible young minds. I try to help them learn, but there is only so far I myself can go, at least at this age and probably even when I was younger. In a memorable scene of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the mathematician Mr. Ramsey mourns his knowledge that in the alphabet of his field he will never get to R. Literary study is not divisible into discreet levels (which must be why physicists and mathematicians call literary study fuzzy and impressionistic), but even in my field, I am stalled somewhere in the middle. And in the field of cosmology, I know I will never get to B.

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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