Monday, October 19, 2009

Myths about left-brain schooling, II: media complicity

Mark Slouka's recent Harper's article about the supposed dominance of math and science in our schools prompted me to write the following letter to the editor:

If Mark Slouka [“Dehumanized”] were to visit an American grade school classroom, he would see that math and science do not rule the school. While classes called “math” and “science” still exist, they contain far less actual math and science than they did a generation ago. Indeed, Slouka’s observations about today’s reading assignments apply as well to assignments in math and science: intended, in Slouka’s words, to “provide students with mirrors of their own experience,” they have students connecting math and science to their personal lives rather than doing challenging problems. This worries many mathematicians, scientists, and parents, not because they want children, in Slouka’s words, to be “hired by Bill Gates,” but because we’re raising a generation of innumerate, scientifically illiterate citizens and turning off our brightest young lights in math and science.
But Harper's declined to publish any letters challenging the article's key assumption that math and science control our schools. Of the three letters they did publish, only one mentioned math education. Its author, a longtime "teacher of mathematics," writes:
I... choose to teach mathematics with reading assignments, art projects, oral presentations, even poetry--all to encourage critical thinking in my students, and to cultivate questioning minds.
Harper's doesn't seem to recognize that, thanks in large part to the many teachers like this one, math and science don't rule our schools.


Beth said...

I thought some of his points were useful. For instance, the constant assumption that the entire purpose of education is to snare a high-paying job needs to be questioned, as he does. And I believe he was talking about the college level when he complained about all the money being snarfed by math and science.

And remember the discussion on this blog about "text-to-self"? Here's a quote from the article:

"Happily ignoring the fact that the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other, our high schools and colleges labor mightily to provide students with mirrors of their own experience ... "

On the other hand, the whole article has the dreamy quality of someone who has lived inside his own head for decades. It's astonishing that anyone can write an article about education without mentioning NCLB, which has had a huge impact on our schools, full of unintended consequences.

Katharine Beals said...

Yes, I appreciated the article's critique of text-to-self! We need more people to realize that essentially the same thing is happening in grade school mathandscience.

Beth said...

Oops, I see you also quoted "mirrors of their own experience." I wish he had written more about this; he's on to something important.

Actually, I see a pattern of argument here that happens all the time. Slouka says, "the schools ignore the humanities in favor of mathandscience!" and you point out, correctly, that math and science education is a wasteland.

I feel the same way about progressives who argue that the schools are too traditional, or the traditionalists who argue that the schools are too progressive.

The tragic reality is that our schools don't do anything well. The fact that the humanities are suffering doesn't mean that mathandscience is taught well. The fact that the schools don't have the rigorous content and skills of the traditional approach doesn't mean that they encourage true creativity like the progressive approach.

They just don't do anything right. They've somehow managed to weld together the authoritarian, anti-creative, carrots-and-sticks approach of the worst kind of traditionalism, with the hollowed-out content and mushy thinking of the worst kind of progressivism.

Anonymous said...

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 na├»ve) 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, many view mathematics as 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.

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? In reality, both views are revealing.

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.