Mathandscience

Mark Slouka’s essay in September’s Harper’s Magazine struck a truth chord in me. In it, Slouka argues for humanities education. He builds a strong case that students, teachers, husbands, wives, liberals and conservatives, citizens and people – that humans require some education in history and literature, ethics and rhetoric, logic and spirituality, in short, in humanities. Without it creeps “unexamined assumption,” and the dangers found there: “Dogma adores a vacuum.”

The framing of the article is anti-business, and I can see why. The language used in school reform is certainly infiltrated with the language of commerce, markets, and economy. Reasons for needing reform emerge from metrics like our declining international competitiveness, our lagging research and technology sectors, from the inability of young students to correctly perform cost-benefit analyses. The solution, as Slouka frames it, is often purported to be an increased association of education with business: Our children need to be taught work-place skills and how to become useful employees in the future economy and that “success” is positively correlated with net worth, nevermind that these are arbitrary and underwhelming axes to use for beings so complicated as people.

The arts and humanities have turned into a tool to be used by business and technophilia interests. Music is taught early because it improves math skills later, rather than as a means to appreciate the virtually unique human capacity to create and interpret musical structure as emotion. The language of commerce has taken over

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. This is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe.

It is frightening to think we have reduced humanity to a labor force–that the concept of “success” is bestowed upon the financially blessed–that our measurements of human progress refer to monetary values assigned to objects and services, ideas and lives, people and existence, rather than those things for what they are and what they mean.

Slouka rightfully calls out the disparity in education spending between the humanities and math/science – indeed, they’re both underfunded, but what art project recently received $3 billion in funding by the State of California like stem-cell research did in 2004? There’s no doubt that science and scientific research are vital enterprises, but they don’t have much purview in the fields of morality and ethics, and they fail to answer the question of Why we exist, and what that means.

To put it simply, science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one. Science explains how the material world is now for all men; the humanities, in their indirect, slippery way, offer the raw materials from which the individual contructs a self – a self distinct from others.

“What do we teach, and why?”