Today Chad has an interesting post about attitudes among academics toward math and science versus the humanities and arts. The general attitude Chad sees on display in his academic milieu is that a gappy knowledge of art history or music or literature is something to be embarrassed about, but when it comes to innumeracy or scientific ignorance, intellectuals have no shame.
Intellectuals and academics are just assumed to have some background knowledge of the arts, and not knowing those things can count against you. Ignorance of math and science is no obstacle, though. I have seen tenured professors of the humanities say– in public faculty discussions, no less– “I’m just no good at math,” without a trace of shame. There is absolutely no expectation that Intellectuals know even basic math.
In passing, let me point out that while this may be true in public discussions of works of art or literature or stagecraft, it’s not true in the cases where those intellectuals are actually department chairs who have to work out how to keep teaching and research activities going in the face of yet another round of budget cuts. (That my department chair can solve the complex problems created by such cuts without resorting to linear programming impresses me to no end. She would kick serious butt on math team.)
But I’ll allow that it’s true that a scholar of Victorian literature, qua scholar of Victorian literature, isn’t necessarily viewed as deficient if he hasn’t mastered trigonometry. A classics professor isn’t generally made to feel ashamed at a cocktail party if she never took M&E. A musicologist doesn’t have much call, in the course of doing musicology, for a thorough understanding of evolutionary theory.
By the same token, though, the quantum mechanic can get the job done without being able to tell a sonnet from a villanelle. The geneticist can perfectly well conduct her experiments without being able to discern Bach from Beethoven. The mathematician may not have a clue what Descartes thought he knew and on what basis he thought he knew it, despite that mathematician having used Cartesian coordinates since childhood.
But as Chad describes it, there’s more shame in acknowledging a deficit in the arts and humanities than one in math and science. He notes that those trying to dodge math and science coursework
can expect to get a sympathetic hearing from much of the academy, where the grousing of Physics majors is written off as whining by nerds who badly need to expand their narrow minds.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think the lack of respect for math and science is one of the largest unacknowledged problems in today’s society. And it starts in the academy– somehow, we have moved to a place where people can consider themselves educated while remaining ignorant of remarkably basic facts of math and science. If I admit an ignorance of art or music, I get sideways looks, but if I argue for taking a stronger line on math and science requirements, I’m being unreasonable. The arts are essential, but Math Is Hard, and I just need to accept that not everybody can handle it.
How has this lopsided view of cultural competence come to be? Have the arts and humanities somehow made a compelling case that they are essential to all other human endeavors (a case that math and science ought to be making to move from the margins to the center)?
I don’t think that’s the explanation.
My own hunch is that instruction (both at the college level and at the secondary level) has a lot to do with where we’ve ended up. There seem to be a good number of teachers out there — math and science teachers — who make it clear to their students that one must have a gigantic brain to even understand this material, let alone to master it.
When state requirements for high school graduation include four years of English, two years of U.S. history, math to some basic level (that usually includes something algebra-ish but falls short of calculus), and a year or two of some science, this communicates societal priorities both to students and to the schools figuring out what courses they will offer and how to staff them.
English and history are crucial to success. Some math is important, maybe even beyond addressing the high stakes tests used by No Child Left Behind to evaluate a school’s success. Science is almost an afterthought.
At the college level, there are a great many introductory science courses that are intentionally set up as “weeder” classes that will fail significant numbers of students (sometimes solely on the basis of where their grades fall on the bell curve, even if the average grades in the class are very high). The non-weeder alternatives (of the “physics for poets” or “rocks for jocks” oeuvre) frequently water down the science content to homeopathic amounts and treat their students like idiots, which tends not to inspire much devotion to the subject matter.
Do the arts and humanities take this approach in their curricular offerings? I have never seen an intro to philosophy course set up as a weeder, nor have I hear of “poetry for physicists” courses that dumb down rhyme scheme and meter.
Could it be that the mathematicians and scientists in academia have in their control a tool to subvert societal biases about the accessibility and enjoyability of their subject matter? Some clever curricular plotting might start shifting the outcomes.
Take it from a philosopher, this sort of corruption of the youth is possible. It’s also a lot of fun.