“mathandscience” destroying the humanities?
This is not an email post, or really a wingnut post at all.
There’s an article from the August September (2009) Harper’s, Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school, which is now, happily, available for free. I say happily, but I’m actually very unhappy with this article. Slouka seems to have a very skewed perspective of what is happening in academia, and gives the impression that us “mathandscience” folk are getting so much attention in grade school that it’s destroying the humanities.
As someone in the field of Bill Gates, I can say that we’re seeing problems just as the humanities are. Sure, we’re better funded, but funding I don’t think is his real issue here. The problem is that, more and more, the students who make it to higher education do not have a strong foundation on which to build. I see a shocking number of students with no real critical thinking skills; students who have not and will not take the initiative with learning. This is just as important in the sciences as it is in the humanities. Furthermore, there’s an additional factor for the sciences– we’re actively under attack by segments of the population. There’s a general anti-intellectual movement, but it hits science the hardest, with attacks on evolution, climate science, archaeology, and other areas.
I discussed the article with my family; this includes my biology major mother, my two English major sisters (one of whom is pursuing a PhD in medieval literature) and their English major husbands (one of whom is also working on his PhD in medieval literature). One idea that comes up repeatedly when discussing issues of higher education is that degrees at all levels — including high school– have lost some value. The bachelors degree is the new high school diploma, and so college essentially becomes something like job training. Furthermore, at the far end, academia is pushing out huge numbers of PhDs, probably a lot more than the system can reasonably support.
In the end, higher education is business. MS programs in computer science are seen as primarily moneymaking programs. Individual colleges within universities aim to have the highest possible enrollment, based on how money is moved around within the organization. Why are we encouraging students who do poorly in a field to stick with it? We should be advising them to try a different track when it’s not working out, but instead we lower standards to keep them in. This happens everywhere– even the Ivy League schools have serious problems with grade inflation in the name of student retention.
Slouka complains about an emphasis on “mathandscience” destroying the humanities, but really, the whole education system is destroying itself quite effectively as a whole. If he wants to find the source of the slow deterioration of students’ critical thinking skills, he should look to the business of academia and how it is making a mess of education.