Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A storyteller turns preacher for math, science in digital age -- May 14, 2014 column


Twenty-five years ago, a rising star at Time magazine got on a train in New York bound for Washington to hear one of his heroes give a lecture.

How quaint, I hear you saying, with 21st century impatience. Print. Train. Hero. Lecture. Ho hum.

Not so fast. The magazine man was Walter Isaacson, then 36, who had been writing on a computer since the early 1980s, the only writer at Time doing so. Apple’s Steve Jobs would later ask him to write his biography. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Isaacson’s hero was novelist Walker Percy, chosen to deliver the 1989 Jefferson Lecture. Its sponsor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, says the lecture is “the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.”

Percy’s lecture on “The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind” was one of his last public appearances. He died a year later at 74.

Isaacson had known “Uncle Walker” – actually the uncle of a friend -- since his boyhood in New Orleans. Isaacson tried to figure out what Percy did. He had trained as a doctor and people called him Dr. Percy, but he didn’t practice medicine.

“He seemed to be at home most days, eating hog’s head cheese and sipping bourbon,” said Isaacson, who was about 9 when Percy’s first novel, “The Moviegoer,” appeared in 1961. That’s when Isaacson realized someone could make a living as a writer the way others did as an engineer or a fisherman.  “The Moviegoer” won the National Book Award, and Percy kept writing.

Percy told him two types of people come out of Louisiana: preachers and storytellers.

“For God’s sake, he said, be a storyteller. The world has far too many preachers,” Isaacson recalled Monday night onstage at the Kennedy Center where he delivered the 43rd Jefferson Lecture.  

It’s heartening to know that the federal government still honors intellectual achievement – and with an old-fashioned lecture and $10,000 prize. It’s encouraging that the Concert Hall was nearly filled, although a reporter for Inside Higher Ed observed that the audience may have been slightly smaller and grayer than previously.  

That’s not surprising. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese was last year’s lecturer. Conservationist and author Wendell Berry spoke in 2012, and Harvard president and Civil War historian Drew Gilpin Faust was the speaker in 2011.

Isaacson, who turns 62 on May 20, is one of those achievers who make even industrious bees feel like they’ve wasted too many hours flitting around Facebook and the Food Channel.

A Harvard grad and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, he was a political reporter, national editor and editor of new media before becoming the editor of Time. He then was chairman and CEO of CNN. He’s the author of bestselling biographies on Jobs (2011), Albert Einstein (2007) and Benjamin Franklin (2003), among others.  He’s president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan policy studies institute based in Washington.

In January 1984, Jobs lugged an original Macintosh to Time magazine to show it off. The editors called in Isaacson so they’d have one person there who actually used a computer. The two men kept in touch and in 2003, after he was diagnosed with cancer, Jobs asked Isaacson to write his biography. He didn’t mention the diagnosis. Isaacson took the opportunity to tell Jobs’s story.

“I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I liked electronics,” Jobs told Isaacson. 
“Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” 

The authorized biography was rushed into print in 2011, days after Jobs died at 56.

Isaacson titled his lecture “The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences.” Offering a rosy view of a digital future in which human creativity fuses with technology, he acknowledged he was “singing to the choir” about indispensible human imagination.

But he also challenged those who love the arts and humanities to shake off their complacency about not knowing math or appreciating science.

“Many people who extol the arts and the humanities…will proclaim without shame (and perhaps even joke) that they don’t understand math or physics. They would consider people who don’t know Hamlet from Macbeth to be uncultured, yet they might merrily admit that they don’t know the difference between a gene and a chromosome,” he said.

“Trust me, our patron Thomas Jefferson and his mentor Benjamin Franklin would regard as a Philistine anyone who felt smug about not understanding math or complacent about not appreciating science,” he said.

And so the storyteller preached on the need for math and science in the digital age. My guess is that both Walker Percy and Steve Jobs would have approved.  

(c) 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


1 comment:

  1. Great article! I found it inspiring and satisfying. I wrote a response which you can see on my blog: