The following is an open letter to Harpers' Magazine.
I am writing with regard to Mark Slouka's article, "Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school." (Subscription required) The story is marvelously written, extremely prescient, and, I'm afraid, quite dangerous.
Slouka's idea is that American education has ceased to create citizens, and instead has set about creating a generation of market-ready employees possessing little capacity for critical thought. Bravo, Mr. Slouka - take ‘em to school, as it were. But Slouka's conclusion - that a de-emphasis of the humanities and an over-emphasis on "mathandscience" are the culprits - is most assuredly counter-productive. At best, Slouka has been the victim of dodgy editing. At worst, he is shitting on those who could and should be his staunchest allies.
Despite a few tossed-off caveats to the contrary, Slouka seems out to convince us that the humanities are the only possible incubators of critical thought. He is also out to convince us that the humanities, as they are presently taught, cannot incubate much of anything. He writes: "One teaches some toothless, formalized version of these things, careful not to upset anyone, despite the fact that upsetting people is arguably the very purpose of the arts and perhaps of the humanities in general."
True! But couldn't one make a similar, and equally truthful, claim about science? That our current theory of pedagogy - if we can be said to have one - has defanged science as much as literature by de-emphasizing skepticism and critical thinking? The scientific method, the beating heart of the sciences, could rightly be described as a formalized manifestation of critical thought, and I doubt Slouka would claim that this year's high school graduates have an especially firm grasp of it. But if the study of science has attained such preeminence in our halls of learning, how can that be?
The truth is that we barely teach real science, if we ever did. Like literature, history, art, and music, it is reduced to a collection of decontextualized trivia. When Slouka writes that "we encourage anemic discussions about Atticus Finch and racism but race past the bogeyman of miscegenation" and "debate the legacy of the founders but tactfully sidestep their issues with Christianity," he misses an obvious and fruitful corollary. Do we not teach evolution and geology while sidestepping their implications for Genesis? Do we not teach astronomy while glossing over Galileo's house arrest?
Of course we do, and in doing so we teach nothing. Science is first of all a process; a way of being and looking that has consequences beyond the classroom, academia, and NASA. It is a body of knowledge only incidentally. And I submit that well-taught science has more in common with well-taught literature than Mr. Slouka might think. Because one cannot plumb the deep oubliettes of the human heart and reach conclusions as mathematically precise as those reached by astronomers, we should not assume that the novelist and the astronomer have differing aspirations. The impetus for each is awe and curiosity: a scary/wonderful certainty that there is more to the universe than meets the eye. Both artists and scientists would be forced into unhappy retirement if they believed all stories were told; that all truths were known.
As a semi-recent product of the United States' educational system (class of '01), I am freshly flabbergasted at our schools' ability to suck the wonderment out of subjects that should be full of it. At least in my own schools, the suckage did not discriminate: the sciences were no less desiccated than the humanities. And based upon my own circumscribed experience, I believe that thinking about the problem in terms of subjects can only exacerbate it. We are taught that algebra ends at the door of the math lab and that literature lives in the library. They are distinct bodies of knowledge occupying their own worlds - worth exploring only because of an imminent test - and those worlds do not overlap. Most significantly, not one of those worlds seems to be the real one; the one beyond the school parking lot.
Perhaps the problem is that teachers are not alive to the possibilities of their subjects. It may be that our schools are overburdened with regulations. Or perhaps our curricula are bad. The problem is tricky to pin down - good educations are all alike, but every bad education is bad in its own way.
Uncertainties aside, I think Mr. Slouka will agree that a good education is one that demonstrates how the world of Hubble's constant is also the world of Huckleberry Finn. Only a radical desegregation of subjects can teach us the truth: that we are a species not long out of the caves, haltingly attempting to create a better and less transient existence for ourselves than the one brute nature intended.
Brandon K. Thorp
The James Randi Educational Foundation