As a college senior, I decided to round out my undergraduate experience with several courses in the humanities, including introductory philosophy. Among the concepts we studied was George (Bishop) Berkeley’s contention that familiar objects like tables and chairs are merely ideas in the minds of perceivers. It seemed bizarre to me, but I was also fascinated by Berkeley’s departure from the common assumption that everyone sees objective reality in the same way. I hadn’t previously considered whether or not we all see the same tables and chairs.
A few months later, I was prescribed eyeglasses for the first time. I had one nearsighted eye and one 20-20 eye, resulting in a loss of depth perception. When I put the glasses on for the first time, I was stunned by the shift in what I saw. Had I spent my whole life seeing things differently from how they really are? I found myself wondering. Given the variations in people’s eyes and brains and given the potential for imprecisions in vision correction, does everyone see things somewhat differently? I realized that Berkeley was on to something. The table that I see is not the table that you see; it’s not even the table that I see with my glasses.
The realization that people see things differently has stuck with me. Over and over, I have noticed that people experiencing the same conversation or event do not see it the same way. As an administrator, I know that it is very important to be aware of varying perceptions before making a decision. Asking questions about why people see things as they do can be illuminating, particularly when people have moved from data to inference quite rapidly. Sometimes inferences are not well-supported by actual experience, compounding misunderstanding and divergence of views about a situation; the words I hear are not the words you hear.
My experience of reading Berkeley in close proximity to getting glasses has given me a powerful image of variation in perceptions. I am sure that my experience of shifting depth perception with new glasses would have had less impact on my understanding of many situations had I not studied philosophy. The synergy of study and practical experience made an indelible mark.
Studying the liberal arts makes such marks on the ways in which people see and act in the world. People realize that their own preconceptions are not shared, that their views and behaviors are culturally based, and that our cognition is affected by continual change in our brains. A liberal-arts education introduces students to the ways in which great thinkers and writers have interpreted, shaped, and recorded events over time. A liberal- arts education gives students theoretical constructs and ideas with which they can interpret their experiences. And a liberal-arts education gives students the capacity to understand the implications of their actions for themselves and others.
A few years ago, I tried out a depth-perception experiment at the San Francisco Exploratorium. It involved tossing a ball through a basket with one eye closed. The teenage boys in front of me in line, all of whom had failed to get a ball through the basket, watched in amazement as I landed several shots in a row using the eye that was accustomed to functioning on its own. The hoop they saw was not the hoop that I saw. Did they wonder why I succeeded where they failed? Did they have a frame of reference for thinking of possible explanations? Did they figure out that a disability can sometimes be an asset?
If they have enjoyed the benefits of a liberal-arts education, then they have joined the ranks of people for whom ordinary experiences become moments of insight.
Therese McCarty is Acting President, Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.