Dehumanizing the Two Cultures

It’s probably a good thing that I don’t have full-text access to Mark Slouka’s article in Harper’s, with the title “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school.” Just the description in this Columbia Journalism Review piece makes me want to hunt down the author and belt him with a Norton anthology:

According to the article itself, the dehumanizing element of the school system (especially universities) is actually its focus on producing businesspeople and “ensuring that the United States does not fall from its privileged perch in the global economy.” But “nothing speaks more clearly to the relentlessly vocational bent in American education than its long-running affair with math and science.”

The problem with that relationship, according to the essay, is that the sciences are unlikely to produce “the kinds of citizens necessary to the survival of a democratic society”–which is to say, those who stick up for democratic as well as personal values. Because the sciences try to explain the material world rather than how one should behave in it, they are “often dramatically anti-democratic,” the argument goes.

Yes, indeed, math and science are undemocratic and their dominance over modern American education is killing democracy. You can see this reflected in the way that math and science dominate the requirements for a Regent’s diploma in New York State, accounting for 6.5 of the 18.5 credits required for graduation (I’ll call “health” a science for these purposes). This positively dwarfs the measly 10 credits required in humanistic disciplines.

Then again, it might be nice to have full access to the article, just to have a concrete distillation of everything that’s wrong with modern intellectual culture. That way, when people ask me what I’m complaining about when I rant about a lack of respect for science in the academy, I can have something nice and short to point to.

It’s possible, of course, that I’m doing him a disservice, complaining about the article based on the headline and a summary from CJR. Authors don’t get to choose their own headlines, after all, and it’s possible that the blood-boiling “Dehumanized” was the work of some editor high on the Harper’s masthead, and is a distortion of the point of the piece. I’d like to believe that, actually.

I suspect, though, that the CJR summary is pretty much dead on, because this is an attitude that you run into all the time around academia, though it’s rarely put so bluntly. The Humanities are responsible for all that is good about human culture, while Science is an alien invention that is cold and aloof and brings as much ill as good.

The reality, at least in my opinion, is that science is what makes us human. Science is not some artificial inhuman construct; science is a fundamental human activity, arguably the most fundamental human activity. Art and poetry is nice and all, but without science, we’d be hairless apes shivering in caves, hoping the lions don’t get us.

(I’m talking science-the-process, here, not science-the-set-of-institutions. Science as an institution is a modern invention, but then so is Literature as a formal academic discipline. Science the process is as old as storytelling.)

I suppose that there is something sort of refreshing about an article taking the bold stance that we spend too much time teaching math and science, as opposed to hand-wringing pieces about how we’re falling behind and must do better. But really, there ought to be a less insulting way of going about it.

Comments

  1. #1 Keith Graham
    September 1, 2009

    The conclusion of the article, it seems, is that world does not need more scientists, but it does need more magazine editors.

  2. #2 Thony C.
    September 1, 2009

    When you’ve finnished belting him with your Norton Anthology may I give him a quick kick in the balls?

    Properly taught science teaches critical thinking the basic requirment for a truly democratic society.

  3. #3 Nox
    September 1, 2009

    Having skimmed quickly through the essay I would point out that the author seems to have a problem primarily with how education is seen as valuable only in terms of how it promotes making money. The essay is a not-unusual “universities are too much like trade schools” type rant for the most part. His complaints with science and math seem to stem primarily (but not entirely) from the fact that science and math are usually seen (in his view) as more economically important than, say, literature (his own specialty). The really irritating comments, from a scientist’s point of view, are limited to a couple of almost tangential paragraphs in the middle of his essay.

  4. #4 katydid13
    September 1, 2009

    Well, they don’t understand how the civil service system works either. Anyone who does any kind of research for the government at the staff level, does not get to draw the next logical conclusion into policy. Even when that next logical conclusion is so blindlying obvious it can’t be missed. It’s not scientist vs human. It opinion as a nonpolicy making civil servant vs opinion as a private citizen.

    I would argue that such a system increases the odds of having stable democracy where we make decisons based on evidence. We depend on a group of civil service subject matter experts who do their best to present non-idealogical unbiased facts, even when it feels like they are banging their heads against a wall.

  5. #5 Alan B.
    September 1, 2009

    Here is a response to the article from someone at JREF.

  6. #6 Uncle Al
    September 1, 2009

    Diversity demands every answer is a true and valuable answer. Mathematics demands rigor, the sciences add empirical validity. If you want diversity in your schools and in your society, math and the sciences, engineering… every aspect of historic patriarchal White Protestant European oppression of Peoples of Colour must be forever ended.

    California maintains a compassionate Enviro-whiner and social activist agenda. National forests are worshipped – no fires, no logging, no “engineering maintenance” of any kind. A half century of resinous brush accumulation is piled 20-30 feet high across tens of thousands of square miles. Do you know why you never put a dried Christmas tree into your fireplace? That is what is explosively combusting right now. It burns so hot trees explode from internal steam pressure and fire tornadoes 100 feet high corksrew into the sky sucking air into the firestorm.

    Why has God foresaken us? Be brave! We must maintain our self-esteem. Come, let us chant… (Will California be massively penalized for uncontrolled carbon emissions?)

  7. #7 Eric Lund
    September 1, 2009

    The problem with that relationship, according to the essay, is that the sciences are unlikely to produce “the kinds of citizens necessary to the survival of a democratic society”–which is to say, those who stick up for democratic as well as personal values. Because the sciences try to explain the material world rather than how one should behave in it, they are “often dramatically anti-democratic,” the argument goes.

    After you and Thony C. are done with this guy, may I hammer him repeatedly with my CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics?

    It was exactly this attitude that Alan Sokal was complaining about when he published his parody article in Social Text. Science and math teach us that there is such a thing as objective reality: you are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts. The survival of democracy in this country is in question because we have a large political faction which insists on its own facts. I’ll grant him that respect for the truth is not a sufficient condition for the preservation of democracy, but it is a necessary condition, and anybody who would dispute this is no friend of democracy.

  8. #8 Jennifer Ouellette
    September 1, 2009

    as someone who came to love the sciences from a humanities background, I’m appalled at the author’s conclusions. I get what he’s saying: pure pragmatism is not sufficient for the overall good of the country. But that’s not what science is. He has clearly never bothered to explore the world of math and science in any meaningful way, otherwise he would have met the smart, principled, and highly creative folks who engage in it.

    A smack with the Norton anthology indeed! Although my enormous bound copy of the Riverside Shakespeare would hurt more. :)

  9. #9 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 1, 2009

    Are the foundations of the Diversity theory are valid? My son at USC Law School thinks they are, having been #1 in his course on Gender Diversity under Professor Susan R. Estrich [Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science, B.A., Wellesley College; J.D., Harvard University. Clerked for The Honorable J. Skelly Wright, Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and The Honorable John Paul Stevens, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.]

    Whether I agree or not, Diversity is Dogma at the California State University, where (Los Angeles campus) I earned my Secondary School Teaching Credential in June 2009.

    But I have formally appealed the two lowest grades that I received in 2 years of afternoon/night classes there: both “B” instead of provably earned “A.” In both cases, the professor was a woman with a Humanities or Social Science degree, who happily admitted “I don’t GET Math” and refused to learn from me, as someone whose career is about DEEPLY “getting Math” and teaching Math and Science to students who never before had a single teacher who did “get Math.”

    In both cases, when other students handed in 5-page “papers” on assignment, I’d hand in 20-to-40-page papers, copiously researched and carefully citing scholarly sources, and based on my superior education (Caltech yadda-yadda-yadda). One professor made me rewrite such paper several times, until skeletonized down to 5 pages or less, as she only read emailed assignments on her cell-phone (!). The other professor openly accused me of using material that I must have written in previous semesters, as nobody could write as well and much as I did that fast, and return them to me, unread.

    In my formal appeals document packages, filed with the Office of the Assistant Dean of the Charter College of Education, I carefully did NOT make anything such as the inflammatory statement: “I was discriminated against because of my identity as a Mathematico-scientific American. These allegedly pro-diversity teachers illegally refused to make reasonable accommodations under the Law, for the fact that I knew what the hell I was talking about in Math and Science, while they persisted in dogmatic incoherent ramblings about the Pedagogy of Hemaneutics of Semiotics of Why Math is Hard, Let’s Go Shopping.”

    The university is now several days overdue in, per their rules, notifying me that Hearings have been scheduled to examine the evidence, and have both me and the professors represent our cases before an objective academic panel.

  10. #10 Peter Lund
    September 1, 2009

    If I’m not mistaken (it’s been 15+ years), there’s a fantastic piece in the Norton anthology on “Opticks” by sir Isaac :)

  11. #11 BAllanJ
    September 1, 2009

    So I guess Slouka got a D in 1st year math.

  12. #12 abb3w
    September 1, 2009

    Ultimately, the universe is oligarchic, not democratic. You are only allowed to have a vote on what the laws of gravity are if you are a universe. Science behaves similarly; you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.

    What looks like a quote of the whole piece can be seen here. His rant against Staples utilitarian approach is better that the summary.

    The biggest mistake is saying of the humanities their “product” not truth but the reasoned search for truth; ultimately, this is more true of science. The humanities focus on the exploratory, and the asking of questions; as philosophical discipline, science includes this. (In educational practice, emphasis on this may be inadequate for some parts of the country. Niskayuna was quite good about this; some parts of Florida, less so.) Science also has room for creativity; the scope of conjecture is wide open. However, science is not merely search, but a measure of what the search has yielded; it is not merely the asking of questions, but the measure of the various answers those questions receive; not merely a blind search, but a measuring of where you stand in it.

    The problem is not so much the focus on science and mathematics, but type of mathematics that is chosen as focal, and moreover choice of science applications so as to allow relying on that chosen type of focal mathematics. Psychology, anthropology, sociology, and history are all sciences. The problem is the math is MUCH harder, because if you use even the simple approximations that go from statistical mechanics to thermodynamics, you leave out too much of importance.

    Another mistake is where he says “The sciences, to push the point a bit, produce people who study things, and who can therefore, presumably, make or fix or improve these things. The humanities don’t.” This is, quite simply, wrong. The humanities study things as well; specifically, human things, in all their fuzzy imprecision. The hope of teaching the humanities is again analogous: someone who presumably can make or fix or improve these things. (They are not very good at this; however, again, the math is rather harder than “∇⋅D=pf, ∇⋅B=0, ∇xE=-∂B/∂t, ∇xH=Jf+∂D/∂t” in most cases, so allowances are required.) Of course, the actual fixing technically moves from science philosophy into engineering philosophy (a border located at “design”); however, science as anthropological practice routinely crosses that border via design of experiments, so that’s not a big deal.

    That said, most humans find common social questions easier to address on a regular basis via emotion and empathy, rather than mathematics. However, it is occasionally helpful when you can use mathematics to formalize the responses for testing one’s instincts as to correctness.

    Essentially, the problem looks to me like Mark Slouka does not maintain clear distinctions between science (and mathematics) as anthropological practice, philosophical discipline, and body of knowledge… a far too common problem. His engineering attempt suffers as a result.

  13. #13 MattXIV
    September 1, 2009

    The “vocational bent” of education is largely because education costs lots of money. It’s intellectually stimulating to study the humanities even if it doesn’t increase your potential for productivity, but when the price is foregoing full-time employment and paying several thousand dollars a year, most people can’t afford the luxury.

    A liberal arts education at a well regarded instution has long served as a class signifier compared to a occupation focused one as those who have to finance their education with borrowing need to be sure they’re going to have the earning power to pay the money back. Well paying jobs in the humanities are rare and if you’re tens of thousands of dollars in debt, ending up working in a coffee shop with your English degree since you didn’t quite make the cut to become an academic or professional writer is quite a problem. The more prestige people assign to using education as a tool to increase productivity, the more the relative value of the class signifying learning for the sake of learning is eroded, the more status anxiety English professors experience, and the more articles like this we can look forward to.

  14. #14 Rob C
    September 1, 2009

    Science is not what makes us humans, but it is what distinguishes humans from other animals. Science is what makes us rational, which is much rarer than humanists want to admit. Humanists are driven by philosophy and politics, which have no real way to establish truth, validity, or even usefulness. Instead, humanists try to talk their way to knowledge, which may be why the currently in vogue philosophical perspective claims that language and culture is the source of all knowledge. Humanists have staged several attempts to redefine science to their own liking. The effects of these attempts have had the most effect in the “soft” sciences. For example, in education “science” the post modernist constructivist perspective dominates the academic departments charged with training teachers. Most teachers not only do not understand science, they consider it somewhat suspect–like the article you cite. Gee, I wonder why so many of American students are scientifically illiterate?

  15. #15 Eric Lund
    September 1, 2009

    Having read the link that abb3w provided, I will say that Slouka has wandered well into “not even wrong” territory.

    We see the “science is promoted by totalitarian regimes” canard. The man seems not to have heard of Lysenko, whose viewpoints on genetics were demonstrably false even in real time, but it would have been politically convenient for the Communists if those views were true. Likewise eugenics, which at the risk of Godwinning the thread I will point out was embraced by a certain political faction in Germany in the years preceding WWII despite the shakiness of the underlying assumptions.

    We see a rant against economics as practiced in this country. Economics happens to be, by a wide margin, the most highly mathematical of all humanities and social sciences disciplines. There is a good case to be made that the last 40 years of professional economics practice has done serious damage to this country. I didn’t see that argument in my skim of Slouka’s writings; instead, that seems to be the hook for his tarring and feathering of math and science generally.

    Slouka also seems to be unaware that science gives us a way of verifying or falsifying certain statements. Phlogiston was a perfectly reasonable theory of combustion at the time it was proposed; it has since been discarded because we have done more experiments and learned many more things that phlogiston fails to explain and that modern chemistry explains very well, thank you.

    And then, as MattXIV says, there is the matter of cost. These days, top-tier private universities cost $50k or more per year to attend. There is a legitimate argument to be made over whether an education is worth such an expenditure (as opposed to the question of whether it is a fair estimate of the cost of getting such an education; the evidence I have seen suggests that it is at least in the right ballpark). The answer necessarily depends on what sort of job you can get with your degree. You can say “Do you want fries with that?” just as easily with a high school diploma as with a B. A. in English from Fancypants U., and you won’t have accumulated six figures in student loan debts in the process. If getting a degree in English rather than physics increases the likelihood that you will have a sloppy thinker like Slouka for a professor, that doesn’t help his case.

  16. #16 Bruce Williams
    September 1, 2009

    For a vigorous defense of science (albeit on a tangent), see “An Update on C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures'” in the September issue of Scientific American:

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=an-update-on-cp-snows-two-cultures

  17. #17 lee
    September 1, 2009

    well, as a friend from grad school used to say:

    Instead of humanizing the scientists we should be simonizing the humanists!

  18. #18 dguy
    September 1, 2009

    The humanities aren’t as democratic as this guy seems to believe.

    Try reading some of those Renaissance poets who equated blond hair and fair complexion with goodness and nobility while brown hair and skin stood for assorted vices. Shakespeare with his “dark lady” was one of the worst. Later during colonial times, it was common to see reference to “savages,” meaning people with black or brown skin.

    What’s more, the classics of literature, philosophy and religion are full of passages that demean and dehumanize women. Pardon me for not citing examples, but I decided it would be better to forget most of their drivel.

    I don’t think the humanities will be rescued by well-meaning notions of diversity. So we teach the Mahabharata alongside the Ring Cycle (Wagner’s not Tolkein’s). All it would do is expose students to a different set of biases. Bias is what culture does. A shared set of biases could very well serve as a definition of culture. I’m not really against the humanities or cultural elements of education, but please give students a healthy dose of science to help them question assumptions.

    Now that I think of it, Shakespeare’s sonnets and Wagner’s opera aren’t really in high school curriculum. What we teach is in fact highly expurgated and selective. Would that be necessary if the humanities were all they are touted to be? In my opinion, they tend to be reactionary, prejudiced, and somewhat libertine – excellent self-justification for the ruling classes.

  19. #19 milkshake
    September 1, 2009

    A friend taking grad glasses towards humanities degree at Harvard once showed me his paper, after returning from Africa – about native architecture in Cameroon countryside, where he studied the distinctions influenced by class/tribe/profession etc. He was very proud of his work but I found it very turgid, meandering and reiterative.

    When I pointed out to him that he should par down his paper to more coherent description, by stating things only once and in a logical order, and sweep the various ideas, meandering discourses and verbatim references in footnotes, he was horrified – he said that writing things that “simplistic” would earn him a failing grade!

    Denis Dutton once wrote in exasperation that English and philosophy teachers beholden to Postmodern Theory have worked very hard to make themselves completely incomprehensible, pretentious, authoritative and vague at the same time, and they unfortunately teach the atrocious writing style and foggy thinking to their students

  20. #20 CCPhysicist
    September 1, 2009

    I thought about writing rants like those above, but I’ll limit it to this:

    This person thinks humanity would be better off if we replaced all of our doctors with lawyers. Riiiight.

  21. #21 h
    September 1, 2009

    Diversity demands every answer is a true and valuable answer. Mathematics demands rigor, the sciences add empirical validity. If you want diversity in your schools and in your society, math and the sciences, engineering… every aspect of historic patriarchal White Protestant European oppression of Peoples of Colour must be forever ended.

    How nice that Chad’s post provided Uncle Al with a segue into race-baiting.

    Math and empiricism are potentially wonderful areas of study for all sorts of people to make a living in. Potentially.

    At this time, here are still barriers to some students, partly resulting from teachers’ expectations about certain students, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has publicly spoken about.

    We do need to talk about how to knock down these barriers.

    Denying and mocking the existence of institutional oppression is not the answer. Uncle Al’s race-baiting is the opposite of helping.

  22. #22 h
    September 1, 2009

    How nice that Chad’s post provided Uncle Al with a segue into race-baiting.

    Someone is going to get the wrong idea there. What I meant was, “how nice that Uncle Al used Chad’s post as a segue into race-baiting.”

  23. #23 dr spike
    September 2, 2009

    The primary output of my college (columbia) are liberal arts students who finish school and then go on to law or business school. In a very true sense, the college is nothing more than a vocational school for lawyers and MBAs as the students have few skills otherwise applicable to the real world.

    It is easy for me to see the real value in fields like history, economics, anthropology, art and music. A professor in each of these fields produces something of value- a better understanding of politics or economics or the development of peoples. The art and music departments produce some great artists and musicians and do provide a context to better understand art. I tend to see these fields as just more branches of science- each builds on what previous generations have learned.

    Other fields leave me bewildered. Can most literature or a philosophy professors at the end of their lives look back and point out a series of proud accomplishments other than a few books that no one reads? What have they learned during their years of toil? As a scientist, I know I have contributed to a better understanding of how the world works and expect that my work will help people have better lives in the future. Do these ‘softer’ fields of humanities matter to anyone other than their practitioners?

  24. #24 John Novak
    September 2, 2009

    I echo CCPhysicist’s sentiment: This guy will be the first one bitching when he finds out his cancer (or whatever) is inoperable in five years.

    And I’ll bet five bucks he wrote the article in a coffeeshop, on a laptop, and mailed it off through the shop’s free wireless internet connection.

  25. #25 Paul Murray
    September 2, 2009

    @19 iow: they might get a little more respect if they did their jobs better. Science has the enviable advantage that no matter *how* weird or incomprehensible it gets, Mythbusters can still use it to blow stuff up. Science demonstrably works – by definition.

    But most of the things that are going wrong with the world today – genocides, creationists, denialists of every stripe – are problems that only the humanities can address. Perhaps *less* time deconstructing “texts” and *more* time championing rationalism (which is kind of what Universities are for) is in order. Carl Sagan was wrong – science is not the only candle in the dark.

  26. #26 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 2, 2009

    A Tip for Students Interested in Law School
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2009/09/01/a-tip-for-students-interested-in-law-school/#comment-93206
    by Sean [Caroll, Caltech]

    A new study looks at the average LSAT scores of students with different undergraduate majors, sometimes grouping related fields together to gather a statistically significant sample. (Via.) And the best scores were attained by students studying:

    1. Physics/Math (160.0)
    2. Economics (157.4)
    3. Philosophy/Theology (157.4)
    4. International Relations (156.5)
    5. Engineering (156.2)

    At the bottom of the list? Prelaw (148.3) and Criminal Justice (146.0).

  27. #27 ScentOfViolets
    September 2, 2009

    A smack with the Norton anthology indeed! Although my enormous bound copy of the Riverside Shakespeare would hurt more. :)

    Hey, I have those! Don’t read ‘em much these days because the print seems to be shrinking . . . but I have read them. As well as “Remembrance of Things Past”, “Zuckerman Unbound”, “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute”(superb, btw), “The Blue Lantern”, “The Sportswriter/Independence Day”, etc. None of these were read for a class requirement, or as part of a paying job, btw, but just because I liked them(my daughter’s middle name is Colette.) Otoh, I don’t know of any so-called “humanist” types who have even so much as cracked the covers of Gould’s “Full House”, Sagan’s “The Dragon’s of Eden”, or Greene’s “The Elegant Universe”, none of which can be described as math heavy, the usual culprit trotted out to explain the asymmetry.

    I don’t think this can be ascribed to any simple phobia, or – as some like to sneer – a difference in brain power. Something however might be made of the fact that none of the books I’ve mentioned on the lit side were big on conclusions arrived at via deductive reasoning or were much concerned with any sort of falsifiable hypotheses. This would suggest that a style of thinking rather than how hard one has to think that is the real issue. I have to say that while a lot of people understand and even appreciate the scientific method, they don’t necessarily like applying it to everyday life. In fact, they tend to find those who do to be infuriating.

  28. #28 katydid13
    September 2, 2009

    @19 milkshake — I once had an English professor tell me that my writing was too linear, as undergrad poli sci/econ type that baffled me since that was considered a good thing on the other side of the quad.

  29. #29 Jonathan Vos Post
    September 2, 2009

    “The Two Cultures” exists only for 2nd rate scholars. Did Gell-Mann quote James Joyce? Did Einstein play the fiddle? Did Leonardo da Vinci cover both sides of the alleged border?

    My Physics professor wife gave a very-well received talk in late August to 40 of the Faculty at Woodbury University last week, 20 seconds each on 20 powerpoint slides, on
    “The Three Great Scientific Theories of the 20th century.” Those being, in her talk, QM, GR, and Big Bang Cosmology (the last substituting for our frequent coauthor Philip Vos Fellman’s preferred “Chaos Theory”). This let her entertain the audience (mostly nonscientists) with dazzling notions of
    space, time, paradox, cosmic weirdness, again and again letting her mention some of the Post-Carmichael-Fellman papers which wrestle with these Big Questions. Woodbury is a strange composite of Top-10 Architecture school, oldest Business College in Southern California, famous Fashion Design/Fashion Marketing department, Animation (professors hired away from The Simpsons and Futurama), Lberal Arts. To put it mildly, it’s a Teaching University, rather than a Research University. Since my wife and I outpublished in refereed venues the entire rest of the Math/Science/Astronomy Department, we were under constant attack by those who never publish (and presumably never research). Worse, from those who PRETEND to research and publish (i.e. bullshit conferences and self-publishing) which, infortunately, includes the Department Chairman. One hostile entity, the English Lit chair was, finally, deposed as Chair. She never liked that my wife and I outpublished her in Poetry, Short Stories, and Plays.

  30. #30 abb3w
    September 2, 2009

    Eric Lund: Economics happens to be, by a wide margin, the most highly mathematical of all humanities and social sciences disciplines.

    In anthropological practice, it’s the worst of those at verifying model validity at boundary conditions. Which, in my book, makes that mathematics (or rather, the science from that mathematics) pretty durn low. Aside from that problem, I’d agree; however, I feel that’s like saying someone’s in excellent health, aside from a shotgun wound to the chest that you can see daylight through.

    katydid13: I once had an English professor tell me that my writing was too linear, as undergrad poli sci/econ type that baffled me since that was considered a good thing on the other side of the quad.

    The proper response to this is to recite in entirety (and preferably from memory) Kipling’s “In The Neolithic Age” to the professor.

  31. #31 FUG
    September 2, 2009

    I also found the sentiments in the article irritating. Both the arts and sciences are human affairs, and they’re both worthwhile: I don’t see how insulting one brings up the other, and I saw little support for the supposition that science and math are dehumanizing.

  32. #32 James
    September 2, 2009

    The really irritating aspect, for the thinking humanities person (I suppose there must be some) is that most of us who work in the sciences are able to handle the humanities on the side, just because they interest us, while the reverse is seldom if ever the case.

  33. #33 Coryat
    September 3, 2009

    “The conclusion of the article, it seems, is that world does not need more scientists, but it does need more magazine editors.”

    “Now that I think of it, Shakespeare’s sonnets and Wagner’s opera aren’t really in high school curriculum. What we teach is in fact highly expurgated and selective. Would that be necessary if the humanities were all they are touted to be? In my opinion, they tend to be reactionary, prejudiced, and somewhat libertine – excellent self-justification for the ruling classes.”

    “Other fields leave me bewildered. Can most literature or a philosophy professors at the end of their lives look back and point out a series of proud accomplishments other than a few books that no one reads? What have they learned during their years of toil? As a scientist, I know I have contributed to a better understanding of how the world works and expect that my work will help people have better lives in the future. Do these ‘softer’ fields of humanities matter to anyone other than their practitioners?”
    “I echo CCPhysicist’s sentiment: This guy will be the first one bitching when he finds out his cancer (or whatever) is inoperable in five years.”

    “And I’ll bet five bucks he wrote the article in a coffeeshop, on a laptop, and mailed it off through the shop’s free wireless internet connection. ”

    “The really irritating aspect, for the thinking humanities person (I suppose there must be some) is that most of us who work in the sciences are able to handle the humanities on the side, just because they interest us, while the reverse is seldom if ever the case.”

    Now, I whole heartedly agree that this article is reactionary. However, being a “thinking humanities person” with an interest in science, I find the knee-jerk resentment to all humanities on this thread intensely annoying. It seems to me that there’s an undercurrent of ignorant hostility to the humanities looking for a pretext to bubble up. Surely the correct response to an article like this is to disagree and call for more scientists than English Lit critics (a position I agree with) rather than trash the humanities with poorly thought out vitriol.

  34. #34 Chad Orzel
    September 3, 2009

    Now, I whole heartedly agree that this article is reactionary. However, being a “thinking humanities person” with an interest in science, I find the knee-jerk resentment to all humanities on this thread intensely annoying.

    I agree, and I meant to step on this earlier, but I’m in frantic class-prep mode, and haven’t had time.

    The point of my rant was not that the humanities are somehow less valuable or worthy of study than the sciences, or that humanities faculty are necessarily dumber than science faculty. Neither of those is true– my colleagues across campus are, by and large, terrifically smart people who are doing interesting things that I couldn’t do.

    I don’t think that scientists bashing humanists is any more productive than the reverse. Both are valid and interesting areas of scholarly inquiry, and both have important lessons to offer.

  35. #35 dr. spike
    September 3, 2009

    “”Other fields leave me bewildered. Can most literature or a philosophy professors at the end of their lives look back and point out a series of proud accomplishments other than a few books that no one reads? What have they learned during their years of toil?”

    I really was looking for an answer from someone in these fields about this. What is that English/ Literature/Philosophy professors do? My knowledge of work in these fields is limited to David Lodge novels (eg “Nice work”) and cartoons about “do we really need another thesis about Jane Austen”, perhaps not the best sources.

    I recognize that some practitioners in these fields are essentially historians, but what do the others do? (I put creative writing in with architects- each builds things of value).

  36. #36 Coryat
    September 4, 2009

    Well, I apologise if I was overhasty and I misread you. I’ll try to offer you an answer of sorts (with the caveat that I’m a student and not a practising academic of the humanities)

    I think I can see a two-fold thrust to your question; both what these people actually do with their time and also why.

    Firstly, English / literature / philosophy professors often follow quite discrete studies. An English (language) professor for example will study computer generated lexicons of the English language, and try to produce new research about how language is used and any deep structures. They also conduct work with people with aphasia (for example) to study how the brain stores language and forms associations between words. An English literature professor is, I concede often, less practically engaged. Activities include writing journal articles and books. However, there is always an emphasis on originality *and* evidence. However novel your thesis (no pun intended) it must have textual support. Texts are very flexible things so obviously a vast variety of readings are possible, but you have to prevent sufficient evidence to be convincing; if I claim Hamlet is an allegory about a late Twentieth century shop assistant without evidence, I’ll be laughed at. Again, I concede that this is nowhere near the scientific level of evidence, but there is still an emphasis upon evidence.

    You’re also right that a lot of modern criticism is in some respects history. Schools of thought such as New Historicism, exemplified by people like Stephen Greenblatt, emphasise the historical contingency of texts and explore their origins.

    I’m also going to take the liberty of not addressing philosophy, as I’ve never formally studied it, and turn to history instead. One of the ongoing debates within the field is always whether it is a science, or art, or both. Nowadays even hardline Marxists concede that it isn’t wholly a science, but it also isn’t strictly an art. The best work comes from taking the events that happened (such as can be found in a school textbook) and shaping an argument which is rigorously supported by the facts.

    Now, as to *why* humanities professors do what they do. This is a more difficult question, and I’m afraid I don’t have any one clear answer (although I suspect in some measure that’s true for scientists too: I’m sure not all of them do science as a detached, pure activity solely to benefit their fellow man.) Some do it because they love knowledge and learning. Some do it to help others, or impart knowledge to their students. Some do it in part for political reasons; Althusser was one of the touchstones of the 1968 uprising in France, and the slogan ‘Althusser- where are you?’ appeared around Paris.

    At its best, in my opinion, the humanities represent a refined space of thought (like science) in touch with humanity. My university runs in essence an outreach department for humanities students, which enables them to share the love of reading with those in prisons and care homes. Beware, here comes mawkishness! The humanities for me are a feature of a civilised society, which should have space for cool reflection. The humanities can serve both to increase knowledge, and to improve those that study it.

  37. #37 John Hammond
    December 30, 2009

    In his essay, Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school, Mark Slouka takes the unnecessarily adversarial relationship between the humanities and the sciences to a new level. Although there are many examples of sloppy (or at least naïve) reasoning, let’s start with the following statement from the essay:

    …science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one.

    He represents science and humanities as two non-intersecting sets. This naive and isolated representation goes a long way to explain his conclusions.

    To begin with, mathematics is a philosophy, not a science. It is a way of looking at the world that is, as far as we know, uniquely human. It is poetry that speaks volumes about ourselves and the world around us. It is an art form in its own right that, when carefully considered, tells us at least as much about our own minds as it does about the outside world.

    History as an academic discipline discovers and recounts events, but seldom explains them. Although there is no lack of opinions within the Academy about the forces that move us as a species, these usually don’t even aspire to the level of being wrong—they are simply not provable. More importantly, they do not address the inner world, as no historian has ever explained any event in fundamentally human terms—what motivates behavior at the individual or group level—without reaching into the storehouse of scientific inquiry.

    Literature reveals personal experiences. Good literature creates personal experiences. Great literature influences entire cultures. But the value of literature and the power of literature are distinct and independent. If the Bible were submitted de novo to a publishing house today, it would likely be rejected. But we study it because it has exerted a powerful influence over the western world. Does the Bible really address any matters of the inner world? Or do those scientists who attempt to understand religiosity at the level of the brain better address the inner world?

    I grew up in a family who made their living in the arts. Moreover, they made a living from their artistic output, not simply teaching others to create a product that they themselves could not adequately sell. I even worked professionally in the arts in my youth, before studying science in college and graduate school. I chose science because I love it, not because I might be able to make a living at it. And I love science because it forces me to step out of my inner world for a while, turn around, and from a more objective vantage get a better appreciation of the human experience.

    I also love the humanities. I took lots of literature classes in college, four foreign languages, music, history, art: in short, a liberal arts education. Because of this, I don’t see a clear distinction between science and the humanities.

    I know nothing about Mark Slouka aside from this essay. But I will go out on a limb and guess that Mark took the minimum requirements in math and science in college. I would also wager that he skimped on history, foreign languages, music, or just about anything other than English. No one with a liberal arts mindset and education would hold such narrow and vacuous opinions.

    He writes with the uncontested narcissism of an only-child who has grown up to find that, not only are there other people in this world, some are more popular than he is.Perhaps in reaction, he holed up within the Academy, learned to craft a good sentence, then satisfied himself with teaching others to do the same. Occasionally, he tries to make observations from afar and massage them into entertaining stories or essays.This essay reflects that distance. It displays a mind that has never directly experienced mathematics and science.

    I believe that great writing comes first and foremost from great experiences. And great experiences come from having the curiosity and humility to embrace life firsthand. If Mr. Slouka had taken even a few advanced science or math courses, he would not have composed such a well-crafted body of silly statements.

  38. #38 Sally
    April 11, 2011

    Great article. Based on the responses looks like you hit a topic people are passionate about.

  39. #39 treejohn572
    July 25, 2011

    Great article. People should focus on things they are going to need when they graduate and not just take useless math and science classes they will never need again, but if they need to know the science and math they should take it. The best thing people should learn is CPR. Everyone should get CPR certification so they can save peoples life.

  40. #40 treejohn572
    July 25, 2011

    Great article. People should focus on things they are going to need when they graduate and not just take useless math and science classes they will never need again, but if they need to know the science and math they should take it. The best thing people should learn is CPR. Everyone should get CPR certification so they can save peoples life.

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