This is the previously mentioned commentary on Mark Slouka’s article “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school” Since the article is quite lengthy, I’ve added a brief summary.
In his article “Dehumanized,” Mark Slouka argues that the US education’s focus on math and science and the neglect of the humanities spell the demise of democracy. The American education’s “long running affair with math and science” is “obsessive, exclusionary” and “altogether unhealthy.” And that is because the ways of science are “often dramatically anti-democratic.” “There are many things,” Slouka writes “math and science do well, and some they don’t. And one of the things they don’t do well is democracy.”
Referring to a quote by Dennis Overbye that “Nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant,” Slouka complains that “To maintain its “sustainable edge,” a democracy require its citizens to actually risk something, to test the limits of the acceptable… If the value you’re espousing is one that could never get anyone, anywhere, sent to prison, then strictly democratically speaking you’re useless.” Democratically useful are only humanists because “upsetting people is arguably the very purpose of the arts and perhaps of the humanities in general.” That is also the reason, Slouka explains, totalitarian societies are skimping the dangerously upsetting humanities: “Why would a repressive regime support a force superbly designed to resist it?”
The last thing his humanist colleagues should do, Slouka says, is to succumb to the capitalist’ demand of accountability and economic utility, and attempt to fit in by justifying their existence on the enemies’ terms. “In a visible world, the invisible does not compute… in a horizontal world of “information” readily convertible to product, the verticality of wisdom has no place.” And Slouka evidently thinks wisdom is in the domain of the humanities. The trend to math and science is “the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t” and clearly one that one should oppose.
Slouka sets out to make a case against neglect of the humanities in American education and ends up calling scientists the useless couch potatoes of democratic societies. But in his arguments he makes several leaps. Most importantly, he equates “the sciences” with “the scientists” and he mixes up the role of democracy in science and the role of science for democracy, two very different things.
The process of knowledge discovery in science is not democratic. It has never been, and I hope it never will be for it would be a disaster. It is useful to think of it from a system’s perspective. Scientific progress just doesn’t work by voting. I keep saying that it would be good if we had a better understanding of its working and what feedback mechanisms are beneficial, but we know that much. That scientific knowledge discovery doesn’t operate democratically however doesn’t mean scientists don’t understand democracy or its relevance. Science teaches you to look at the evidence, to search for causal relations, correlations, and to identify and fix problems. Scientists know about the limits of predictability and the inevitability of uncertainty. They know what that statistic means and how to read that figure. They know the value of checking the references and that of reasoned argumentation. (Well, we're all human ;-)) The evidence says women are safer drivers than men. Upsetting? Where would democracy be without scientists?
But yes, scientists aren’t the first to take it to the streets if the world doesn’t run as they think it should. The people you find in the streets, those who start a revolution and throw the stones, are in the majority young unemployed males. Something to do with hormones too I guess, I’m sure somebody somewhere wrote a paper about this. The people who like their jobs, they stay in the lab and crunch the numbers because, actually, the world never runs as they think it should, but isn’t it so damned pretty if you look at it through a microscope, telescope, or binocular HMD? So I guess what Slouka is saying then is that we need the humanities because people who don’t like their job are more likely to join that demonstration tomorrow?
Okay, I’m being unfair because I actually agree with Slouka that the trend towards measuring and quantifying everything including success and knowledge gain is unhealthy. The process of measurement itself disturbs the process it is supposed to help - a problem we have discussed several times on this blog. Though, according to Slouka, a scientist like me should be positive about this trend towards reliance on metrics. Considering how divided the scientific community is over the use of any such measure for scientific success, Slouka doesn’t seem to have bothered talking to his colleagues from the science departments.
Slouka’s main point was about the American education system, and he’d done better not to overgeneralize his argument. Having grown up in Germany, I can’t judge on the quality of the American education system. Clearly, you want to teach children how the society they live in works and that includes politics, history, economics as well as all aspects of human culture. Needless to say, many of these subjects are interrelated. The impression I got during my years in the USA is that many students there have little or no idea what democracy is or how it works, and even less so do they actually know what communism, socialism, and social democracy is – and what the differences. I talked to several people who actually thought consumerism is a form of democracy, and I vividly recall talking to one guy who thought Germany is socialistic. Such confusions explain a lot of nonsense I keep reading online and are certainly not helpful to informed decision making. I am not sure though how representative that impression is. Maybe the people who talk to me are just oddballs.
And isn’t it ironic Slouka is bemoaning the American educations’ failure to produce good citizens, since to some extend I own my school education’s focus on democratic values to the Americans of the last generation? The first time some US officer said to me “I’m just following orders,” I stood in shock, having be taught a million times since Kindergarten to never, ever, justify an action by referral to an order whose purpose I cannot explain and bring in line with my conscience. After several similar incidents, I thought that’s just me till somebody told me about their German friend who in reply to the same remark by an US officer uttered promptly “That’s what the Nazi’s said.” Which, even with German accent however, fell on deaf American ears. (And that hopefully explains why I give a shit about your so-called policies.)
The other day, I came across this article by Bruce Levine listing “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back: How the US Crushed Youth Resistance” which you might like or not like, but point 3 “Schools That Educate for Compliance and Not for Democracy” is interesting in the context of Slouka’s article. Levine lets us know that “Upon accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990, John Taylor Gatto upset many in attendance by stating: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.””
Taken together, Slouka makes some bad points and some good points, but he makes both badly. Trying to make a case for the value of good writing, Slouka asks “Could clear writing have some relation to clear thinking?” In reply to which I want to quote Niels Bohr: “Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.”