Nasty, Brutish, and Short
On our second day at Cambridge, we had the opportunity to have a discussion with Piers Bursill-Hall, a professor of mathematics, about the history of scientific inquiry. Our professor had described him as extremely smart and eccentric and he lived up to that description. He was able to command our attention with his ability to tell the story of scientific progress, while slipping in the occasional joke to keep the talk light-hearted.
In just one hour, I felt a profound yearning to want to understand more about history because I began to see how the story of the past has shaped the way that we think about the world. Several of us expressed the opinion that, “If half of the professors here are as amazing as Piers, we would absolutely love to go to Cambridge.”
After tea, our discussion continued, but proceeded with a much different focus. More of the students began to participate in the seminar as we mused over the current state of facts and logic in our everyday discourse. Pretty soon, the conversation turned to Trump and his effect on the situation and stayed there until Piers interjected, “How did we go from a talk about Parmenides to party politics? I’ve had similar seminars with American groups for over eight years and this discussion never happened when Bush or Obama were elected. We should be able to talk about intellectual ideas without defining them as ‘left’ or ‘right’.”
After that we switched gears and returned to the original topic, but I think the deviation left us with a profound takeaway: there few forums in America that are safe from party politics. Due to a variety of intentional or unintentional moves from public officials, the media, and social media, it feels like every idea has become polarized. It seems that we are now unable to have free debates about ideas because they have been anchored to policy or party.
Throughout the conversation, we came to have a greater understanding that studying intellectual history can give insights into how we might solve our current socio-political problems. At the same time however, our own evolution of the talk showed that we will have to work even harder in the coming years to do that research.
Reporter: Tony Bailey
Photographer: Trenton Davis