Reading the comments on my post and Chad’s post about the different societal attitudes towards humanities and arts and math and science (especially in terms of what “basic” knowledge a well-educated person ought to have), I get the feeling that some interesting assumptions are at play. Since I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth, I’m just going to lay out some of the hypotheses that have occurred to me as I’ve read through these discussions:
- Math and science are objectively harder (and/or require greater intelligence to learn) than humanities and arts.
- While math and science do not require greater intelligence to learn than humanities and arts, the people who are really good at math and science tend also to learn a lot about humanities and arts, while the people who are really good at humanities and arts tend not to learn a lot about math and science.
- Something about humanities (maybe that postmodernist stuff?) interferes with the ability of people who are good at humanities and arts to really grok what science is about (which, obviously, undercuts their ability to get a basic grounding in the sciences).
- The amount of brain-labor required to get a “basic grounding” in math and science is much greater than the amount of brain-labor required to get a “basic grounding” in humanities and arts.
- What would count as a “basic grounding” in math and science is many more levels of complexity removed from current work in science than what would count as a “basic grounding” in humanities and arts is from current work in humanities and arts.
- The humanities and arts lack rigor and/or operate in a sphere where “there are no wrong answers”.
- Most people see the connections between their lives and what is being taught in humanities and arts better than they see the connections between their lives and what is being taught in math and science.
- All this talk of “basic grounding” and “well-educated people” is a trick to fill classes which are mostly useful in keeping the people teaching them employed.
I’m probably forgetting some. Feel free to chime in with others (or to elaborate on or modify any of these) in the comments. Also, let’s all keep in mind that hypotheses without data to support them need not force anyone’s assent.
With so many people coming at the initial question — why does it seem like so many intellectuals are OK knowing a lot less about math and science when they’d be embarrassed to acknowledge the same level of ignorance about humanities and arts? — from so many different starting assumptions, it’s no wonder that there’s not broad agreement about what can be done about this, or about the extent to which it’s really a problem.
Myself, I’m inclined to think that almost everyone can learn more than he thinks he can (not just in depth but also in range), given inviting materials or a good teacher. And I’m not inclined to get into a debate about which kinds of competencies people need more at this particular moment in history, this particular political era, this particular set of economic conditions. The best reason to learn something is that learning it is a fun thing to do with your brain. Learning math and science can make your brain just as happy as learning humanities and arts, so who wouldn’t want to be an intellectual omnivore?