Judith Shulevitz offers a novel (ha!) defense of the liberal arts in the latest TNR . Liberal arts should be supported because they produce science fiction and science fiction inspires scientific breaththroughs that make a lot of money.

Shulevitz’s challenge: “Take any world-altering feat of engineering from the past century or so and science fiction probably dreamed it up first. Smithsonian Magazine recently published a list of ten such inventions. There’s the submarine, one of whose most important architects was inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea . (He received a congratulatory letter from Verne after he built the first vessel to operate successfully in open seas.) There’s the modern helicopter, also inspired by a Verne novel ( Clipper of the Clouds ). The liquid-fueled rocket, invented by a man whose passion for interplanetary travel came from reading H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds as a child. The nuclear chain reaction underlying atomic power, first envisioned in Wells’s The World Set Free . The cell phone, modeled on the flip-top communicator used in Star Trek . And the inventor of Second Life has said that, although he’d been thinking about virtual worlds for years, Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, Snow Crash , showed him what they might look like.” The list doesn’t even include William Gibson’s use of the term “cyberspace” in his novel Neuromancer . Before new technologies can be made, they have to be imagined, and imaginative writers have often inspired imagined science.

How could these writers construct world’s and technology so compelling as to inspire real science? Because they studied the liberal arts:

“Constructing a viable fictional world, human or alien, takes more tools than they give you in games like Settlers of Catan. It requires a working knowledge of—to give the short list—cartography, geography, cultural anthropology, linguistics, law, history, religion, and, of course, mythology. Political and moral philosophy come into play, too, because many of the great works of science fiction explore and amplify the social and moral consequences of technological innovation.” It’s a new thought: Genre fiction as the telos of the liberal arts.

Science is beautiful, but its beauties are accessible only to the select few who can understand the formulas and the theories. Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin says that science fiction unlocks the beauty of science from its “cold formulae,” and thereby provides “a bridge to this beauty, freeing it from formulas and displaying it for all to see.”

Liberal arts colleges can adopt a new slogan: The liberal arts - it’s where the big bucks are.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart