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“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.

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  1. September 24th, 2009 at 15:09 | #1

    I think I agree with Slouka’s assessment that the money in higher education is one of the driving sources of the problem (in particular, schools seeing themselves as practically for-profit intellectual property generating institutions). I also agree that, at least in my slice of the technical field, a person with a broad background is much better than someone who is only about “pure” mathandscience.

    My thinking in this vein keeps coming back to a desire to implement some coarse-grained majors at the high school level. Start to figure out where people are headed earlier on, and emphasize those strengths. While this might feed into Slouka’s perceived problem re: emphasis, I think this is more likely to make education on the average pareto positive for most students. Right now, if a student is simply bad at math, they are forced to continue to do it, which in turn ingrains a sense of disgust for educators who “make” you do “stupid” and “hard” stuff. I suppose this runs counter to what I just said about being broadly educated, but there’s a balance, and I think emphasizing one’s individual skillsets will help make the overall experience better.

  2. Fritz Heckel
    September 24th, 2009 at 16:47 | #2

    My problem is that he’s making a claim in there that the problem is due to an emphasis on mathandscience, with the suggestion that declines in humanities are an enormous problem while mathandscience isn’t suffering. The sciences are running into serious problems, even with the money– pointing over at the engineering school and saying “it’s all your fault” is counterproductive.

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