Captain Fishsticks is one of our local conservative nutjobs who haunts the pages of the St Paul Pioneer Press—he’s a free market freak who wants to privatize everything, especially the schools, and yet everything he writes reveals a painful ignorance of anything academic. This week he’s written a response to an article that left him distraught: Peter Pitman advocated more and better science education for Minnesotans, especially on the subject of climate change. Fishsticks, to whom all education is a zero-sum game because every time he has to learn another phone number a whole ‘nother column of the times table drops out of his brain, objects to this threat. He starts off by agreeing with Pitman’s argument, but does so by tying it to some of his lunatic obsessions—he’s a pro-smoking anti-vaccination guy.

I’ve made much the same argument relative to policymakers who unscientifically exaggerate the dangers of secondhand smoke and bureaucrats who ignore scientific evidence about the dangers of universal vaccination.

This approval will not last. The rest of his column is a weird paean to excusing ignorance of science. You see, if people learn more math and physics, they’ll get the idea that we live in a “clockwork universe”, and then they won’t like music or poetry anymore. Seriously.

This is, however, not a column on global warming, secondhand smoke or childhood vaccines. It is not a column questioning Pitman’s premise of the need to deepen our understanding of scientific principles, which I wholeheartedly agree with. It is a caution that in the popular rush to promote science and math we don’t automatically assume a “clockwork universe” where physical laws are waiting to be discovered and acted upon.

Science can always teach us how we might do something; it can never determine for us whether that “something” is something we ought to do. That is the realm of the liberal arts education, without which science loses most of its humanity and much of its usefulness.

I’m a big fan of a liberal arts education, as you might guess from my place of employment. Somehow, though, in the minds of too many people, that broad, diverse form of education gets translated into “less math”. Wrong. A liberal arts education should mean that the student gets exposed to the breadth of learning, and that includes math. Science is an exceptionally human endeavor already—it’s always the ignorant who assume that learning algebra or the scientific method is dehumanizing.

Fishsticks seems quite taken with this “clockwork” stuff—it’s a bit bizarre. His logic is a mess, too: students who learn more physics may learn that the universe is lawful like clockwork, but it isn’t (says Fishsticks), and the physicists explain that his simplistic analogy is wrong. So…maybe they should learn something from the physicists, who seem to have a more nuanced understanding of the universe than he does?

In a “clockwork universe” governed by self-evident physical laws, such distinctions would not matter. But do we really live in a clockwork universe when even physicists tell us, however unbiased our observation might be, by observing we affect what we observe in ways we can never know? In our quest for security have we cast off the pseudo-certainty of our ancestors’ superstitions or merely traded up to a more sophisticated mythology?

He goes on and on about this “clockwork universe”, and finally ‘fesses up to the source of his analogy: Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, in which a young man was strapped down by a police state and conditioned against violence, but also against music. It suddenly makes sense: Captain Fishsticks imagines that the way students at the university learn math and physics is that they are strapped down in a dark room, injected with drugs, get their eyelids braced open, and then are forced to view horrific scenes of polynomials being expanded and equations being derived, and the whole experience is so ghastly that ever after they hate Beethoven.

(The man does have a point that that might be a good way to finally get students to master those basics.)

Just to explain Burgess’s work of literature to poor Fishsticks, though, I need to point out a few things. A Clockwork Orange is a work of fiction. It is not the basis for modern pedagogy. The terrible techniques used in the novel were intended to make the subject averse to violence; believe it or not, our calculus instructors would like to encourage students to enjoy math—these classes are not exercises in aversion therapy. Beethoven is not piped into the physics classrooms, so even if a student hates physics, there is no opportunity to make the association between music and science. And finally, the book is a statement against totalitarianism and fascism, not science, and is a testimonial to the importance of individuality, something training in science does not ask you to sacrifice. Well, not any more so than in-depth training in any specific field, that is.

Science does not immunize man from trade-offs. The “clockwork” Alex was nonviolent, but he also lost his love of Beethoven; eventually he attempts suicide. Galileo, Pasteur and Darwin created more knowledgeable human beings, but what did mankind give up? If we put our faith exclusively in scientific certainty, is there room for Beethoven?


Are we done now?

I would just suggest that I hope no one ever takes advice on education and education policy from a man like Captain Fishsticks, whose knowledge of scholars and the intelligentsia seems to consist entirely of random, erroneous, and silly pop-culture associations.


  1. #1 Rick Schauer
    January 2, 2007

    Nice blog!
    I suggest a look at this history of education written by a former Teacher of the Year from New York:

    It’s a nice historical survey of education in the USA, he advocates a return to the trivium and quadrivium.

    Additionally, Richard Dawkins in his book, “Unweaving the Rainbow” does a masterful job of putting poetry to science as Dawkins answers Keat’s lament that Newton’s science (a prism)destroys the beauty of the rainbow.

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