Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Thoughts on "Dehumanized"

You should go read "Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school." Even if you've read it before, and even if it was recently, go read it again. Perhaps a few times.

In this essay, Mark Slouka expresses disappointment that education is being "retooled... into an adjunct of business" at the expense of the arts and humanities.

This is certainly a fair thing to be disappointed about.

I've never really been "in to" the humanities. I don't remember ever much caring about my history classes, or social studies. I don't think I took many literature classes, and can't say I feel like I got much out of any that I did take. I blame nobody but myself, of course. While reading "Dehumanized" I became convinced that I have seriously missed out. It's sad that now, age 26, supposedly 1 year away from a Ph.D., I'm finally ready to go to school.

I do not agree with everything in the article, though. Throughout, Slouka seems to wish that civics were the highest goal of education. I'm not sure I see why this should be. Of course, I'm pretty sure I don't even know "what" this would be, so I don't have much basis for argument. But I think many of the goals Slouka advocates, with the apparent intention of improving individuals as citizens, are goals I do agree with.

Slouka asks, "What do we teach, and why?" Clearly a fantastic question. He even provides some answers: "whatever contributes to the development of autonomous human beings", "in order to expand the census of knowledgeable, reasoning, independent-minded individuals." I like those answers, even if Slouka seems to want these things for the purpose of "the political life of the nation." I guess I feel like I want these things for the individual, and those around the individual. Perhaps that's what politics is/are. I don't know, I probably wasn't paying attention that day.

The humanities, it is claimed, are there to talk about "what it means to be fully human," to teach "not what to do but how to be". The output is "the reasoned search for truth." But then Slouka says these things are all, "inescapably, political." Perhaps the reasons why all point out why I don't know what "political" means: "they complicate our vision", "grow uncertainty", "expand the reach of our understanding" (and thus "compassion" and "tolerance"). One goal seems to be "an individual formed through questioning". The de-toothing of humanities education is summarized:
Worried about indoctrination, we've short-circuited argument. Fearful of propoganda, we've taken away the only tools that could detect and counter it.

The arts and humanities are there to "upset people", prompt "unscripted, unapproved questions", and, according to Don Randel, "force us into 'a rigorous cross-examination of our myths about ourselves'". Slouka quotes the teacher Marcus Eure who wants students to have "depth of experience and a willingness to be wrong", and notes that "every aspect of life... hinges in some way on the ability to understand and empathize with others, to challenge one's belief, to strive for reason and clarity."

These all sound like awesome things.

What confuses me about the article is that the author doesn't seem to think math and science help with these goals. I just don't see that at all. Uncertainty? Understanding? Questioning? Cross-examination? Reason and clarity? How are those not in the realm of math and science? Sure, the topics that are questioned and reasoned about are different for mathandscience than for the humanities, as it pointed out by the article. But how can the questioning nature of mathandscience, the logic and reasoning, not be helpful in the humanities? Is it because math and science education, in parallel to education in the humanities, isn't what it really could and should be? Of course, having also just re-read "A Mathematician's Lament", I worry that this is quite likely the case. But that's probably the topic for another day.


Meekohi said...

I was thinking the same thing while reading. Certainly mathematics especially are more an art than a science by any estimation. Despite that I'm sympathetic; I had many excellent opportunities to enjoy humanities courses (especially philosophy) but many don't, or were so caught up in their studies that they missed the chance.

Jameson Graber said...

Great article, thanks for the link! One irony about the obsession with "mathandscience" that Slouka talks about is that math and science are themselves dehumanized. They are valued merely for their ability to produce "stuff" rather than for their ability to produce knowledge. I think that's why mathematics in isolation from the sciences is often poorly understood and perhaps even mistrusted. Consider the number of people who ask, "What you can you do with a Ph.D. in math...?"

I guess I wish Slouka didn't tend to separate knowledge into such distinct spheres. I think of knowledge as more unified, which means that Slouka's criticisms ought to apply to all of education, not just the "humanities."