Fear and loathing in the academy.

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.

Chad writes:

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.


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Why would you think the academy is better than individuals at deciding what they should know? Just decouple degrees from institutions and this will all change. Let validation be something done by validating organizations--not professional associations or universities.

It amazes me that people will think that free trade is good, free markets with suitable regulation are good, but will demand that students be tied to planned economic programs called "degree programs" or "curricula." People know what to do; just let them do it.

If studying music history is worthwhile, the world will demand it. If studying obscure biology is worthwhile, foundations will step in to fund and hire such folks. To plan out an economy like some sort of Soviet higher ed plan is just kooky.

By Ryan Lanham (not verified) on 26 Jul 2008 #permalink

You say;

"By the same token, though, the quantum mechanic can get the job done without being able to tell a sonnet from a villanelle. "

but that's not the point. Your average quantum mechanic knows way more poetry than a Literaturist (is there even a word for this?) knows maths. This is because they can handle the difficult bits without flinching and do the easy bits for fun in their own time.

Get it straight. There IS a scale here.

@ Lanham: There are institutions that don't have degree plans-- they're the schools that offer self-designed majors. They're few and far between, and getting fewer. I've been pretty lucky to go to an experimental undergraduate college where the science teachers are actively concerned in how to boost interest in science by planning courses that fall in between the technical and the gut level, a college where the classes a student takes are determined by give and take between a student and a committee of faculty. I'm entering my last year there, and by now I'm pretty sold on the idea. But decoupling the end result (the B.A. that I'll receive) from the institution is a bad idea. The simple truth is that I need the verification from my institution that I've completed a course of study there BEFORE someone will even take a look at the content of that study. Without the hook of a degree, as it were, I don't think anybody will pay attention.

Ideally, I'd like it if there were more schools that offered self-designed majors and gave faculty more control over curriculum. I'd like to think that if control over curriculum was less centralized, that more people would be enthusiastic about a full (read: humanities AND sciences) liberal arts education. Sadly, that doesn't look like the direction of higher education today. And why that is, I'm not sure I can say.

yet this unsupported assertion is simply wrong:

Your average quantum mechanic knows way more poetry than a Literaturist (is there even a word for this?) knows maths.

eddie has no support for the claim. even a mere "literaturist" would know that the comparison required empirical evidence. why doesn't eddie the scientist back up his dogmatic assumption with evidence?

and by the way, what is it to *know* poetry? how *would* one measure that? does knowing poetry mean one has the ability to recognize a poem when one sees it? what do you know when you know poetry?

Janet D. Stemwedel is absolutely right.

I've taught "physics for poets" and "rocks for jocks" and "moons for goons."

I've taught remedial Math in the corporate world, in college, in university, in middle school, and in high school. For that matter, I've taught remedial English, and been paid for writing speeches and memoranda for virtually illiterate executives.

Yes, things are as they are for scholars because of a number of reasons. Things are as they are for students because of a number of reasons. From the standpoint of pedagogy, there are three common threads:

(1) Assessment. What does the person know, what does the person not know, and why? Is it ignorance (curable by instruction), lack of effort or discipline, or stupidity (against which the gods themselves contend in vain). No Child Left Behind emphasizes this, without funding a way to deal with what the standardized exams uncover.

(2) Instruction. This is the visible part of teaching. This is merely the tip of the iceberg. Many students (and those Chairpersons and Deans who were once, amazingly enough, mere students) have massive deficits in their understanding BECAUSE of bad teachers. They can be made whole by good teachers. As someone currently taking night classes in a College of Education, I see a lack of intellectual viable Foundations of the field (they never use fMRI nor animal behavior nor genetics nor much of modern scientific breakthroughs). It is a real problem that some people seem to be "born teachers" and don't want to learn pedagogy. On the other side, there is little understanding of how to make adequate teachers good and good teachers great.

(3) Management. That is, lesson planning, classroom management, the methodologies that allow assessment and instruction to be efficient and efficacious.

All three need to be addressed.

I have commented thrice, in greater length, on Chad's fine blog thread.

Thank you for supporting and enhancing the wisdom in this real crisis.

Regarding humanities students: my own experience in college suggests that humanities students had a wide array of options that were not available for the technical tracks. For instance, a very common class was a study of our local beaches in Coastal City. It filled up almost immediately by seniors seeking their distribution credit. The subject matter attracted them because of the hands-on nature of the course. If I only had to take 2 classes out of 300, I think I would steer away from titles like "Physics" in pursuit of something that sounded more descriptive. By contrast, very few humanities courses were approved for my humanities distribution credits so I took from a much more accepted canon of humanities courses. Could it be that we are still trying to figure out what it means to be scientifically literate?

In a prior incarnation I taught physics, physical science, and mathematics at the high school level. To begin with, the training of teachers in the sciences is woefully inadequate (here I make the perhaps flimsy assumption that the sciences are, in some sense, more difficult). The requirement that an education degree, e.g. chemistry education, is necessary for employment takes time away from coursework that would increase/improve the would be teachers knowledge and (more importantly) understanding of the subject that they are supposed to teach.

Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, teaching is not valued as an occupation (one could make the observation that this attitude extends to the university level, but that is the subject for a later jeremiad). The workload, the teaching environment (i.e. the fact that a large fraction of time is spent in crowd control), and the lack of respect from parents tends to drive people out of the profession. As teachers of the maths and sciences (esp the talented ones) find it easier to move into university level training or the private sector, where the dollars and respect are better, there is a drain of talent (if you will) that is not matched in the liberal arts. Hence the tendency towards a belief in the importance of the liberal arts w/rt the sciences...there are simply more teachers in the liberal arts at the "early' levels.

I'm not sure the competences are even commensurable. I've known a lot of people in science and math who take having read a lot of classics to be in and of itself proof of competence in the humanities; but on the humanities side that's pretty basic stuff, like saying someone is informed about early modern philosophy because they once read Descartes's Meditations and Berkeley's Three Dialogues. I very much doubt that such people would take visiting a lot of planetarium presentations to be proof of competence in astronomy, but it's not clear why, if there is any analogy at all that allows straightforward comparison, this wouldn't be the analogy rather than something more robust. What's the analogous level in mathematics to standard college-level competence in talking about Shakespeare? Being able to multiply times ten? Being able to balance one's checkbook? Being able to handle basic differential equations? Being able to chat about category theory? I don't see how such questions can even be answered, nor how we can make sense of saying things like, "The level of ignorance tolerated with regard to the sciences is far below the level of ignorance tolerated with regard to literature." But that's the sort of thing one has to say even to discuss this matter at all.

interesting post and commentary, it's a lot to chew on. As an anthropologist, i see courses that run the gamut from technical science to social theory. And I have found that at some universities (though certainly not all) even the graduate students in our discipline are all expected to be competent in the details of social theory, but the social anthropologists are not expected to have more than a cursory knowledge of physical anthropology and archaeology. very frustrating.

Sorry, I should have said; for example....

Given the original claim, "Your average quantum mechanic knows way more poetry than a Literaturist...knows maths," I'm rather puzzled about this list. Set aside the fact that Maxwell is neither average nor contemporary (nor, for that matter, a quantum mechanic, but I assume that the original claim was a synecdoche). All the list shows is that there are scientists who have a facility with language; which neither clarifies nor confirms anything said in the original comment. Suppose someone were to claim that your average biologist knows more about art history than an art historian knows biology. Examples of biologists who paint would not support this claim because (1) trying to make them do so requires equivocating between 'knowing a lot about how to paint' and 'knowing a lot about the activity of painting in human society', which is like confusing 'knowing how to organize your personal finances' and 'knowing how financial systems operate'; (2) being a painter is not the same as being an art historian; (3) even setting this aside, a list of biologists with deep knowledge of art history would not show us anything relevant to the comparative claim about average biologists and average art historians, since it would merely show that it is not impossible for people to be both. Similarly here: the examples seem to equivocate on "knowing how to write a poem" and "knowing a lot about poetry as a human activity"; writing poetry is not the same kind of thing as literary scholarship; and it doesn't clarify or support in any way the comparative claim in question.

I think Dr. Stemwedel makes a far better case than the somewhat snarky post that inspired her comments. One point that no one has taken into account is that our University system is so oriented towards careers in the real world that both the sciences and the humanities are getting short shrift in favor of what you're going to use when you get a job after graduation. So we have armies of undergraduates who can neither write nor do non-financial math.

As for the first commenter insisting that the free market can sort all this out, what we have now is precisely what happens when you leave things be -- and it's pretty crappy. What's kooky is the notion that the desire to ensure that college graduates leave the University carrying with them some important pieces of our civilization (in both the humanities and the sciences) is somehow a drive towards soviet social engineering. The "free market" -- a fantasy that hasn't existed anywhere in the world at any time in history -- or the intensely managed and controlled economic system we like to call the "free market" always pushes for the lowest common denominator.

In a "free market" education system, we'd know only what we need to to do our jobs. And, since making money would be the only worthwhile activity, anything that did not contribute to that end would be superfluous. We'd have a nation of specialist know-nothings, who can tell you absolutely everything about their tiny specialty, but know little else beyond their limited sphere. Oh, wait! That's pretty much what we have now. Ain't the "free market" great?

Once again, Dr. Free-Ride permits us to take a 'free ride' on her intriguing excursions into the phenomenology of science. What a delightful gift for a scientist to offer.

You rock, Dr. Free-Ride!

The humanities are deemed more important because more people, either consciously or unconsciously, believe that art, literature, film, etc. have more direct connections to their lives. The bias in academia is merely reflecting the larger cultural perspective.

In their free time, the average person watches TV, goes to movies, cares a bit about the news and reads some fiction now and then. Meanwhile, at work, the overwhelming majority of jobs have little to do with cutting edge science or math that involves much beyond basic operations, trivial algebra and percentages. So, the humanities (ranging from the latest box office smash to the Thebian plays) have something to offer everyone from Joe Six Pack to the latest poet laureate. Math and science, on the other hand, have almost nothing to do with most people's jobs or leisure activities. Expressions of math illiteracy or science ignorance don't really indicate that you're dumb or poorly educations. They indicate that you're "normal".

Now, as a science teacher, I'm not happy about any of this. But I think it's hard to deny that the vast majority of people simply do not believe that math and science are a part of their daily life. Without being able to justify my assertion, I suspect a lot of this has to do with the way we teach science. While everyone agrees that we need to make science learning more hands on, nobody seems to be talking about humanizing and personalizing the teaching of science. Given that science attempts to describe universal "truths" independent of individual perspectives, humanizing science teaching will be difficult but it's an approach that needs to be taken if we are ever to get science on par with the perceived importance of the humanities.

It seems to me that there is a real difference between advancing knowledge to the betterment of our community and hobbies. The preponderance of non-technical subjects stems I think from the origin of universities as schools of indoctrination for religious sinecurists and the lesser sons of the in-bred; making a virtue of the hobbies of the idle with a misuse of the term 'scholarship'.

Don't get me wrong; hobbies are good. People who deal with intensely technical subjects in their professional lives often take up something less demanding in order to unwind. While being a well above average physicist, Maxwell was a more than adequate poet (having published work). You don't need art-history to appreciate art, but you do need it to justify a sinecure at the public's expense. What do artists do to unwind?


You get all the way down to F for Freud before you find the first example of a scientists on that list.

Janet: "A musicologist doesn't have much call, in the course of doing musicology, for a thorough understanding of evolutionary theory."

That sentence tickled my fancy! I'm working on a time in musicology when that statement would have been wrong, at least for "serious" (read, academic) musicologists. Emulating the language (and a bit of the theory) of late nineteenth-century biology allowed musicologists to sneak into The University (TM held by Big Science, I'm sure).

My personal impression, fostered by my upbringing which was quite balancedly (?) humanistic and scientific: as humanities scholar, one should know sufficiently much about scientific fields to empathize with why people would spend their life studying them. That would include evolution by natural selection and genetic drift for biology, the basics of tonality and music analysis for musicology, the notions of proof and infinity for mathematics, etc. Obviously, I stress "big ideas" more than facility, which was Chad's concern (if I understood correctly).

Some (weak but at least publicly available evidence supporting the claim that scientists know more about the humanities than humanists do about the sciences:

"University Challenge" is a long running, "highbrow" general-knowledge quiz on BBC2 in the UK. It is contested between teams of undergrads. They have rounds "on the buzzer" which are probably better to look at because there is no conferring. Without actually having watched every episode and counting (I have SOME life) there is a notable difference between students in different disciplines.

The number of humanities questions answered correctly by the average science student is noticeably less than by the average humanities student but not VERY much less; I'd estimate about half. The number of science questions got by humanities students is very small indeed compared to the number got by scientists.

Engineer friend of mine told me this story. He was in a "poetry for engineers course". He publically expressed the opinion that poetry was useless crap. The final course exercise was to write a poem. The teacher read the best one to the class. It was my friends. The teacher asked him how come he, who thought poetry crap, could write such a fine poem. My friend replied, "I am an engineer. Explain to me how something is done, and I can do it."

Lunchtable conversation with a colleague talking about remodeling his house. "Why is it that I, a professor of medieval English literature, am explaining to you, a carpenter, how properly to install this beam?"

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 28 Jul 2008 #permalink

Isn't this really about what constitutes an interesting person in our culture? I think it's safe to say that more people can enjoy a conversation about literature, history or the arts than about science. To put it another way, the arts and humanities are much more deeply embedded in our culture than is science.

Our physical natures attract us to areas of learning that deal in the most immediate way with food, sex, relationships and sensory stimulation. The arts and humanities offer easier access to thinking, dreaming and talking about these topics than do the sciences.

Isn't this really about what constitutes an interesting person in our culture? I think it's safe to say that more people can enjoy a conversation about literature, history or the arts than about science. To put it another way, the arts and humanities are much more deeply embedded in our culture than is science.

The crux of the original argument, I think, is that this is true, but why do we accept that as being the case?

Our physical natures attract us to areas of learning that deal in the most immediate way with food, sex, relationships and sensory stimulation. The arts and humanities offer easier access to thinking, dreaming and talking about these topics than do the sciences.

Depends on how you see things. Problem solving, tool-making and pattern recognition, arguably more related to science than to arts and humanities, probably had more to do with us getting out of the caves than the drawings. People are drawn to that type of thinking, too.

Kindly make room for my 0.02. *ahem*

What you choose to study, what career you enter, says something about your priorities and where your passions lie. It's how you choose to live your life, and we choose our respective fields based on our natural aptitudes, work ethics, and styles of thinking. Sometimes just knowing that another person's bliss lies in another area (especially a radically different one) can be affront in and of itself-- kind of like when people get defensive about the mere thought of alternative viewpoints regarding a contentious issue.

I think a lot of the hatred and silliness on both sides of this imaginary divide is coasting on some pretty childish thinking. I second BB's sentiments. It's important to at least try to empathize with why people study various subjects and recognize the importance of other fields. I love to meet people in all kinds of professions and learn about what moves them. There are many ways to improve the human condition involving differing skillsets.

My sister is a psych major and she did some cool neuro stuff last summer through a very selective undergrad research program. The bio/chem people couldn't understand why she was learning about programming and specialized instrumentation and were pretty snobby about letting her know she wasn't as hardcore as them. PFFT.

The only time I have ever gotten pissed off at a "humanities person" for anything resembling hum/sci rivalry is when I told a social psychology grad student I was a biochem major and he made some stupid remark implying I was in it for the "big bucks." I guess he thought he was doing his work out of love, whereas I am clearly a conformist tool. I hope my sis never works with dorks like that dude.

Oh, and this extremely observant master of the nuances of human interaction mistakenly thought I wanted to bang him on the second date. Sigh.