More often than not these days, you hear people use the term one-dimensional to describe a shallow or superficial rendering of a person or an idea. But the term that serves that purpose is actually two-dimensional. Mathematically speaking, a one-dimensional entity is a single point or a line—not really an “entity” at all. Neither can be seen because they don’t take up any space. They’re theoretical. A two-dimensional entity is a plane. It occupies space, but it’s flat, without depth. Three-dimensionality adds depth to a two-dimensional entity. It can expand a plane to a cube. So when we speak of an inadequate characterization in a movie, for example, we’re referring not to something as slender as a line, but to a surface without depth—in this case, the depth of personality, humanity, and believability.
I’m no scientist—far from it—and the concept of a fourth dimension, time, escapes me completely. Still, I’d make the case that humanists and literary types can and should use correctly what minimal science and math they incorporate into their work. When a student tells me she can’t do math, I give her a sideways glance, a “come on!” look. I’m not asking for calculus, just very basic knowledge, like the concept of dimensions. It just isn’t that difficult to understand. I make the same face when a student tells me he doesn’t—and can’t—get grammar. If we’re talking Latin declensions, then, okay . . . maybe. But anyone can pick up passive voice versus active voice with a little concentration. She just has to want to. Or she has to believe she can.
A liberal arts education—the sort I purvey at my institution—declines to recognize some of the barriers we tend to construct between disciplines. It aims to educate the whole person. It’s about problem-solving and analysis, which an exposure to a full menu of academic disciplines can help to provide. Perhaps I’m stretching a point by arguing that knowing the difference between one-dimensional and two-dimensional and using them precisely in writing is a liberal arts issue, but I think a case can be made that considering the concept adds dimensionality to an education.