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Why Educate?

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When the September issue of Harper’s arrived at the house the week before last, I immediately read Mark Slouka’s article Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School. I was going to write about it at the time, but the website still had the August up. September is online now (though you may need an account to read the full article). If you can get access to the article, I recommend it. Slouka makes a good case for the dangers of de-emphasizing the arts and humanities in favor of math, science, and preparation to participate in the market economy. I think he mis-represents the nature of mathematics at times. Whether he does so out of ignorance or in service to his argument I have no way to tell. But any errors in this direction shouldn’t distract from his larger warning about an imbalance in US education, with which I largely agree.

It is difficult, indeed unwise, for a university administrator to resist the temptation to build strength in disciplines that have the potential to bring in external research funding (at a major research university anyway). But at least when one makes such decisions, one should be aware of the issues Slouka raises. After the jump, I’ll quote some passages from the article to give an idea of his argument.

I am reminded of my son Joel’s initial first grade homework assignments years ago. On the first evening, he was to establish a location in the house where he would put his completed homework, so that he would be able to remember on a consistent basis to bring it to school each day. There was a similar assignment the next night, maybe involving setting up a regular work location. I had the sinking feeling that the underlying goal was to train him for the workforce rather than educate him. A year later, at our parent-teacher conference to review his work, I was struck even more forcefully by the realization that that teacher’s concern was his success at developing proper work habits, as opposed to his giving free rein to his curiosity.

This is an old tension in education, workforce development and socialization versus creativity and imagination. Many have written far more eloquently about it than I can, Slouka in particular. So I won’t say more. Except to note that science and math are not on one side of this. They are very much a haven for creativity and imagination. The problem that arises is how to respond when business and legislative leaders argue that math and science, as the areas most likely to lead to new business opportunities and most in demand by highly desirable businesses, should be given extra funding so that a university can train more students to prepare for careers in these fields. This is a good problem. Yet, it can open the door to mis-understanding about what a research university’s mission is, what the larger benefits of math and science education to all citizens can be, and how important arts and humanities are as well for an educated citizen.

Let me leave it at that. Here are representative excerpts from Slouka’s article:

I believe that what rules us is less the material world of goods and services than the immaterial one of whims, assumptions, delusions, and lies; that only by studying this world can we hope to shape how it shapes us; that only by attempting to understand what used to be called, in a less embarrassed age, “the human condition” can we hope to make our condition more human, not less.

All of which puts me, and those in the humanities generally, at something of a disadvantage these days. In a visible world, the invisible does not compute; in a corporate culture, hypnotized by quarterly results and profit margins, the gradual sifting of political sentiment is of no value; in a horizontal world of “information” readily convertible to product, the verticality of wisdom has no place. Show me the spreadsheet on skepticism.

What is taught, at any given time, in any culture, is an expression of what that culture considers important. That much seems undebatable. How “the culture” decides, precisely, on what matters, how openly the debate unfolds—who frames the terms, declares a winner, and signs the check—well, that’s a different matter. Real debate can be short-circuited by orthodoxy, and whether that orthodoxy is enforced through the barrel of a gun or backed by the power of unexamined assumption, the effect is the same. …

That education policy reflects the zeitgeist shouldn’t surprise us; capitalism has a wonderful knack for marginalizing (or co-opting) systems of value that might pose an alternative to its own. Still, capitalism’s success in this case is particularly elegant: by bringing education to heel, by forcing it to meet its criteria for “success,” the market is well on the way to controlling a majority share of the one business that might offer a competing product, that might question its assumptions. It’s a neat trick. The problem, of course, is that by its success we are made vulnerable. By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.

Nothing speaks more clearly to the relentlessly vocational bent in American education than its long-running affair with math and science. I say “affair” because I am kind; in truth, the relationship is obsessive, exclusionary, altogether unhealthy. Whatever the question, math and science (so often are they spoken of in the same breath, they’ve begun to feel singular) are, or is, the answer. They make sense; they compute. They’re everything we want: a solid return on capital investment, a proven route to “success.” Everything else can go fish.

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Categories: Culture, Education, Math, Science
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