There’s a fine piece in this week’s New Yorker (July 12, 2014) by Maria Konnikova entitled “What We Really Taste When We Drink Wine” that I think has some bearing on what we do in the Humanities. I had begun reading the piece looking for some Emperor’s New Clothes-style skewering of pretension, and was not disappointed. Many factors go into an individual’s evaluation of a particular wine, not least of which is the desire to agree with what has already been determined to be good. As she writes, “More expensive wines are often rated higher on taste than cheaper ones—but only if tasters are told the price ahead of time.”
Aha! I thought. The charade exposed, and confirmed by this choice remark: “In one of the most prominent studies of how expectations can influence taste, Gil Morrot, a wine researcher at the National Institute for Agronomic Research in Montpellier, and his colleagues found that the simple act of adding an odorless red dye to a glass of white wine could fool a panel of tasters (fifty-four students in the University of Bordeaux’s Oenology program) into describing the wine as exhibiting the qualities associated with red wine.”
BUT THEN there is this: “Telling red wine from white is quite difficult for amateurs, it turns out. For experts, though, the story is different. In 1990, Gregg Solomon, a Harvard psychologist who wrote ‘Great Expectorations: The Psychology of Expert Wine Talk,’ found that amateurs can’t really distinguish different wines at all, but he also found that experts can indeed rank wines for sweetness, balance, and tannin at rates that far exceeded chance. Part of the reason isn’t just in the added experience. It’s in the ability to phrase and label that experience more precisely, a more developed sensory vocabulary that helps you to identify and remember what you experience. Indeed, when novices are trained, their discrimination ability improves.”
It’s that sentence I’ve highlighted–on giving novices a useful vocabulary with which to secure their experience–that made what I thought was going to be an exercise in low pleasure (“ha ha, wine snobs are phonies!”) into a far more profound one. This is fact what we do at a liberal arts college–give students the terminology for their experiences, both lived and literary, so that they can understand and make sense of them. Our job as educators is to provide novices in the field the language they need to come to terms as they will with what they encounter. What we have loved, Wordsworth writes in The Prelude (Book XIV), Others will love, and we will teach them how.
Postscript, July 18, 2014. I wrote to Maria Konnikova to tell her much of what I say above. Her gracious reply:
Dear Christopher, Many thanks for such a thoughtful note. I really appreciate hearing from readers, especially when the content is as insightful as yours. Thank you for reading and getting in touch. And what a wonderful Wordsworth quote. All the best, Maria
Excellent post. This very reason — providing students the language to describe their experiences — is why I continue to support a liberal arts education, and why I find it distressing that many liberal arts institutions water down their offerings, attempting to appeal to nearly anyone who aspires to a college degree. If a college wants to focus on vocational or trade training, then let it do so as well as it can. But if it professes to offer a liberal arts environment, then let it do that without lowering its educational standards — or negating the value of acquiring terminology that helps young people make sense of the world.