Star-Gazing and the Liberal Arts
By Gabriel Martinez, April 30, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Outside the Classroom, What is Education?

How do you get students excited about learning something for its own sake, even though it can be put to practical use?  How does one manage the blurry line between the Liberal and the Useful?

One way I like to use is to show students a picture of the night sky.  It's a huge disorganized mess.  Or is it?  "See these three stars?  Draw a line through them and you'll find the brightest star in the sky, Sirius.  See this large spoon-like thing over here?  From here you can get to Cassiopeia, and from there, you can find Cygus and within it, Vega, the star around which our Sun revolves."

I find this kind of thing lovely, and my kids (my progeny) love it too.  Many of my students are drawn into it as well.

AND ... if you can find that large spoon (the ars of Ursa), you can find North and with it, direction, and ultimately home.  Can you imagine a more practical skill than being able to correct a ship's course on the basis of a few snatches of a cloudy sky?

How was this discovered?  Probably some lazy shepherd, distracted from the sheep, spent his nights in wonder and admiration, in sheer intellectual excitement, peering into the night sky.  His fellows might have ridiculed him for being impractical, but he just loved it, for its own sake.  And then one night he realized that there was one star that didn't move.  All other stars revolved, but this one stayed still, faithful at its station, like ... a shepherd keeping watch over the sky's sheep.

History hides whether this shepherd made millions.  But millions were made over the millennia thanks to his discovery.

The point: the ability to take a fantastically complex mass of facts (in time, in the Iliad, in the newspaper) and organize and understand it, and from this organization acquire from it a “connected view or grasp of things,” a sense of the whole and of how all the parts fit together, can be exhilarating and beautiful ...  and a thoroughly practical enterprise.

Study economics, my friends, (or history, philosophy, music, or literature).  You never know where life might take you.

In the meanwhile, check out

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David Kidd on Apr 30, 2010 at 7:45 am

I think it bodes not well for the modern world that so few people ever get a decent look at the night sky. Sure, there are countless pictures of stars available whenever we care to look for them, but they are no substitute for the experience of gazing up in silence at upon the sight that most closely resembles the eternal.

Lee Trepanier on May 5, 2010 at 7:00 am

I agree that the entry point for students to appreciate liberal education is the professor's most difficult obstacle to overcome. The experience of awe and wonder are good ways to accomplish this feeat.

about the author

Gabriel Martinez
Gabriel Martinez

I am Associate Professor of Economics and Chairman of the Department of Economics at Ave Maria University. I have been in the Economics Department since its beginning and have taught over fifteen different courses at Ave Maria University, particularly in the areas of macroeconomics, international economics, development economics, Catholic social teaching, economic history, and social philosophy. My two favorite courses to teach are Intermediate Macroeconomics and Markets, State, and Institutions.

My work is in the general area of international finance and open-economy macroeconomics, with a focus on developing countries. My dissertation focused on the 1999 economic collapse in Ecuador,using a combination of historical, theoretical, and empirical analyses. My paper on the role of deregulation, moral hazard, and overconfidence in the Ecuadorian financial crisis was published by the Cambridge Journal of Economics. Financial crises are a perennial topic, with causes that are complex and deep, inextricably intermingled with politics and ethics. My Ph.D. is from the University of Notre Dame.