“They Just Need More Science and Math”

On my commutes to work these past few months I’ve been listening to various audio books. Having just finished a biography of Alexander Hamilton, I’ve now started into one on John Adams. I haven’t had any American history since, oh, about 7th or 8th grade – 20 something years ago – so it’s been very interesting to me to hear the stories of the lives of our Founding Fathers.

One of the most amazing things about Hamilton and Adams is the immense level of education they had. Until his college years, Hamilton was largely self-educated, having read many classics, especially Plutarch’s Lives, on his own initiative as a young boy. His studies only got more intense in college in his mid teens (!). He went on to be one of the principal architects of post-Revolutionary American government, following up the magnificent Federalist Papers with detailed and learned plans for an entire economic system, the first American manufacturing city, and all manner of jurisprudential counsels. John Adams, also, was a voracious and broad reader, and as a mere lad of 20 was disciplining himself every day to read (along with the Bible) classics in both Latin and Greek, often writing in his diary that he was sticking with the really difficult works in order to “make myself the master of them.”

These points make it supremely ironic that last night, while standing in line at the grocery store, I skimmed a Newsweek article on the deplorable state of public education in Washington, D.C. (only 21% of the students there read at grade level). The new chancellor of the D.C. public schools has all these brand new brilliant ideas for “programs” to raise the quality of the education, but the interesting thing about her complaint against the system is that it makes American kids lag far behind Europe in science and math. Science and math. Yes, that’s right – science and math.

Why do I belabor that? Well, it goes to show the inexpressible difference between public education 220 years ago and public education now. 220 years ago a publicly educated person went to college at 15, and learned both Latin and Greek competently enough to read sources in those languages, translate freely between them, and use the lessons gained to write masterworks like the Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. Today, a publicly educated person is likely to graduate 12th grade only being able to read English at an 8th or 9th grade level, and with his head stuffed full of scientific equations and mathematical formulae that have very little relevance to anything other than making sure he approaches life as a mechanism to be manipulated by techniques, neatly distributed out on spreadsheets, and quantified into discrete packets of “information” that never truly communicate with each other.

High school graduates today, steeped in that attitude that science and math are the most important subjects to master, and fed a woefully inadequate diet on the side of literature excerpts (in English, not the original languages) are most unlikely to be able to even understand the Federalist Papers, let alone to write something even close to them. No wonder they go into the world and get constantly taken advantage of by the incessant advertising mania. No wonder they think public and private lives are separate, and that it doesn’t matter what a politician does in his bedroom so long as he keeps the economy running smoothly. No wonder they think “the good life” is to have a 52″ HDTV on their wall playing Blu-Ray movies in full immersion surround sound, with remote in hand to switch over to the Playstation 3 if the movie gets “boring.” No wonder they think it’s “weird” for someone to suggest that businesses ought to have some concept of the common good, not just their own self-absorbed bottom line “making money” idea of the good.

Public education 200 years ago turned out philosophers, theologians, and statesmen who could found and guide a new country based on the best of the wisdom of the past brought forward and creatively reshaped to meet the needs of the present. Public education today turns out mindless dupes of whatever the TV presents as the flashiest and most superficially gratifying; turns out like so many widgets on an assembly line. Sometimes I get critical of myself thinking that I am too much of a curmudgeon about “Modern culture,” but then something like this happens and I think that maybe I’m not curmudgeon enough.

The problem is not that our educational system doesn’t have enough money to do its job. The money they do have is spent on “programs” invented by bureaucrats who are steeped in math and science – the sorts of math and science that bizarrely think human wisdom can even be plotted on a graph in the first place, and that said graph will tell you something really important about human life. The problem simply is not that our education system doesn’t train kids sufficiently in science and math. Science and math, while goods in themselves, have gotten too big for their britches in our day, and have so obscured the humanities – the study of the human things – that kids who go through today’s educational system can’t even comprehend, let alone begin to answer, questions like “What is science?” and “What is the true place of math in one’s intellectual life?” The problem is that our educational system doesn’t turn out warm-hearted, high-souled, human beings, but unthinking drones who subserviently take their programming and run, lemming like, right off the cliff of cultural decay.

But hey, let’s just throw more money at the problem, institute some more programs, put some more computers in the class rooms, pander to spoiled children who think learning ought to be “fun,” stuff kids’ heads full of more “facts” without ever teaching them to ponder what a “fact” even is. Let’s just keep teaching them that education is for the purpose of “getting a job,” and that they have to do their algebra and trig and calculus well so they can “make lots of money.” Let’s keep lamenting that they don’t even know who Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were, but let’s not try to recover the educational methods that men like that grew up with. Science and math, science and math, science and math. Just need more science and math, more money, and more programs. If you’ve read your Plutarch and your Homer and your Herodotus and your Virgil and your Bede and your Shakespeare and your Milton, it just makes you want to weep. Which is, of course, as our modern Solons of education have it, a very “arrogant” and “prejudiced” thing to say. How dare someone flaunt allegedly superior knowledge in someone else’s face, thereby making that other feel bad.

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8 Responses to “They Just Need More Science and Math”

  1. The Scylding says:

    Well, here’s my perspective: My father was, and is, a science and math educator. He also has the most prodigous knowledge of Scripture I have ever come across. His fights with the educational “system” I have known since infancy.

    You see, when it comes to educators, even “scientific” ones, they generally scrape the dregs of scientific minds, and place them in positions of authority. He bumped his head many, many times. Yet, he made the field his speciality, and struggled on.

    You’ll also find that the ones carrying on and on about “scientific education” are the ones most likely not to have done any serious science in their lives. They view science as some sort of voodoo, a magical solution to everything.

    I have bumped heads with other scientists many times, especially when the descend to dogmatism. But the best scientic minds are the ones that have a lively interest in the world around them – and they avidly pursue history and language and everything. Renaissance men (and women).

    Not everybody can be a historian, or a mathematician, or a novelist, or molecular biologist. Thus the best education is one that lays down strong foundations in both language and mathematics. And, this is important, develops a sense of curiosity – because history and astronomy and geography and geology can be acquired – but not without the basic tools of language and math. This can be done in many ways.

    But there are few things as frustrating as ‘uncurious’, highly trained minds, be they scientific or otherwise. These tend to be of lesser use in the work environment – ask me, I’ve worked with some of them. Proverbs about monkeys and parrots come to mind….

    Yet one should be careful to assume, and this happens easily, that a good education, or even the “right” education, will yield the right result. There are no foolproof methods, no guarantees. I’ve met pro-classical people that can parrot all the lines, but remain quite blind. And obviously for people championing other methods as well. The best methods are useless unless they be administered and accepted with a certain measure of humility. And curiosity.

    In the end, it is all Grace.

  2. Ian Perry says:

    Hello, I haven’t posted before.

    I agree that teaching mathematics without a liberal arts background is a bad idea (at least if you are dealing with students intelligent enough to understand both). However I think there is a danger of just focusing on liberal arts to the exclusion of all else; here at the Baylor Honors College I’ve found many brilliant minds who have reacted against the scientificalism of our age by reacting and denigrating the particular sciences, even as the people doing the denigrating remain profoundly modern people in many ways (taking advantage of and having their minds shaped by contemporary scientific discoveries).

    We need to avoid dumping the liberal arts, but we also need to be careful not to fall into the opposite extreme.

  3. Tim Enloe says:

    Good points, Scylding and Mr. Perry. I didn’t mean to convey that math and science are bad, not at all. As a mentor of mine used to say, three cheers for indoor plumbing and antibiotics, and I myself am rather enamored with space technology. Surely it’s possible to overemphasize any given good thing, and in a different sort of time it might be possible to say that literature or rhetoric was being overemphasized at the expense of algebra and engineering.

  4. The Scylding says:

    Tim – in my estimation the best scientists I’ve ever met had a strong linguistic/literature background as well. Maybe we should ask – where have all the Renaissance men & women gone?

  5. Tim Enloe says:

    Yeah, Scylding, my concern is not that science and math are bad in themselves, but that the context in which we pursue them is very un-human, or at least anti-human. Aristotle and Plato denigrated “vulgar labor” as being unconducive to the good life because it replaced the refined human things with mere mechanics. They wanted to restrict technological development to defensive military applications. I think they went too far, but we’ve gone to the other extreme. Our understanding of the purpose and order of life is the view of Charlie Chaplin’s marvelous film “Modern Times.” From our ubiquitous wristwatches to our timeclocks at “jobs” to our industrialized concept of “work” to our concept of “recreation,” we are the slaves of the mechanical view of reality that we’ve created with our unrestrained, unanalyzed pursuit of mastering the physical world through technology, and as a result, we have no concept of what a real, refined, human life ought to be.

  6. Ian Perry says:

    Mr. Enloe, you are right in your main point regarding math and science getting too powerful in much of modern society (that is, by being considered as powerful without giving students the intellectual tools to think about what math and science are supposed to do and why). I am just concerned that some folks (not necessarily you) and reacting against this without carefully thinking of what a balanced worldview would look like that respected both the particular sciences and philosophy. Of course, your posts regarding Van Tillianism seem to show you share a similar concern.

  7. Ian Perry says:

    are reacting*

  8. The Scylding says:

    Tim – yes – I’m reminded of Chesterton, where he said – “We are learning to do a great many clever things…The next great task will be to learn not to do them”. At the same time, my father used to lament the prevalent innumeracy. This is especially prevalent when especially clergy lap up the recent findings / ideas of science, completely uncritically, because they have no idea what is being said, or what the difference is between theory and observation. This also goes for the uncritical acceptance of “Creation Science”, with a lot of drivel being passed of as the “Christian alternative..”.

    Thus I would say that it is to some extent an ignorance of science that strengthens the technolust we experience. That, and the extreme narrow focus of a subset of scientists out there.

    A lot of this can also be linked to the Arrogance of the Enlightment, where we imagine we can grasp something in toto – well, if you look at the slow realisation what we are doing to ourselves wrt say agricultural practices coming from the “green” revolution, we should be reminded that we know but little, and what we know, we knoe imperfectly. It is the mirror image of your old nemesis, the “real clear theology” phenomenon.

    To rescue science and its language, math, from this, would require Popper’s medicine – maybe.

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