Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
 
Grrrr: Slate Forgets Half of Campus

I love Slate. I love its tone and format, its casual but smart use of links, the range of authors it uses, the way it dives into nitty gritty, intellectual debates in a highly conversational and accessible way. And I love the extent to which it drags academics--public intellectuals--into the conversation, and opens up their world to readers.

So I was pretty excited to see today's package on the future of liberal education in America, Harvard-centric as it is. I had some minor operational quibbles with the way the package is organized, but I like the idea of letting a bunch of professors battle out their vision for what college should be in such a public forum. I might have taken it a step further and talked to people not in Academia--for example, it would have been interesting to have each of these professors nominate an especially accomplished, respected student from the past ten years who's not currently in academia, and then get that student's take on things as well. But perhaps that might be saved for the second iteration of the discussion.

What really should have been included in the first iteration was, well, some math or science. By my count the authors' fields are: Religion & Public life, Committee on Social Thought, Philosophy, unknown, Psychology, Psychology, Literature, European History, Kenyon College President, Classics, and History & Germanic Studies. All great fields. I'll let others stand up and shout about the lack of art or music or theater, the possible Euro-centrism, and what have you. There are plenty who are louder and better about complaining about that. But no Mathematics, Statistics, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Environmental Science, Geography, Astronomy, and, let me repeat, no Mathematics? Remember Plato? Let No One Ignorant of Geometry Enter. There is not one person on this list, as far as I can tell, who would necessarily have been required to take calculus in college. It's completely ludicrous to assume that Science and Mathematics form no part of a liberal education, but Slate has stacked the deck towards such an assumption by not involving any scientists or mathematicians in their query. Luckily Alison Gopnik, K. Anthony Appiah, Steven Pinker & W. Robert Connor, bless them, seems to be speaking up for quantitative reasoning. But what was Slate thinking?

I've often said that if I was Empress, I'd make everyone in college take mathematics through mutivariable calculus. I recently saw an Econ professor pose a problem to a room of mostly economics students, attributed to Charlie Munger: Imagine you have a rope tied taut around the equator of the earth. Now imagine that you want the rope to be raised five feet above the ground everywhere. How much more rope would you need? The point of the story, both when Munger told the story and when the professor did, is that most people--people who all had to take the SATs and do well to get into the audience--are stumped and have huge answers, on the orders of miles. I--and, I think, a couple other people--sort of ruined the story by blurting out the answer. "Um, well, 2 times pi times, yeah, 5--so about 30 feet? A little more?"

See, the original amount of rope is 2*pi*r, where r is the radius of the earth. People think that r is involved, and freak out wishing they knew it. But the new amount of rope is 2*pi*(r+5) --so the difference is just 2*pi*5, and r is not necessary to answer the question as posed. The Professor, who majored in physics and knew that I majored in physics, rolled his eyes slightly. "Okay, well, those of us who majored in physics and would have to be beaten to death before we'd forget 2*pi*r get the answer, but most people don't." His point was that it's not knowledge which is retained from education, it's how to think. Really, what it is, is how to not panic. I agree, but I also think that you shouldn't have to major in physics to know basic arithmetic and geometry so well that you have to be beaten to death in order to forget it, and you shouldn't need to major in physics to not panic when requested to think just a bit seriously about the nature of a circle. Knowing basic arithmetic and geometry is not knowing a collection of facts and strategies. It's knowing how to think a particular way so well that you don't have to remember a collection of facts and strategies. Literature and rhetoric teach us how to think in terms of language and arguments--a linear progression of spoken and written thoughts. History teaches us to think in terms of chronological sequences of human events. But mathematics teaches us to think in terms of numbers--which are everywhere--and shapes and proportions and visual maps. Science teaches us to think about evidence and uncertainty. Geography teaches us to think about space. And in the real world we have to constantly deal with numbers, shapes, proportions, maps, evidence and uncertainty. They're utterly vital to being a well-rounded thinker.

My family is probably laughing at me, because when I was little and not wanting to finish my math homework, they told me all these things and I pouted and said I was the creative type. Which, you know, I am. True story: When I was eight, I said I wanted to be an architect. My dad smiled and said architects had to know a lot of math. I sulked and said fine, no architecture for me. Then I grew up and majored in physics. The thing is, I'm not eight anymore, and neither are most college students. (The ones who are eight and in college are not the ones who need convincing.) In journalism school I saw brilliant students--graduates of top ten universities, who had clearly done beautifully on their SATs to get where they were, with fine analytical minds, shining self-confidence, and years of work experience--freak out over calculating percentages with a calculator, figuring out the area of a rectangular rug from its posted dimensions, or doing the arithmetic necessary for laying out a webpage with tables. Of course, all of this was well within their abilities. And most of the time they got it after a while, sometimes correctly. But it was disconcerting to watch them panic over something I knew they could do--and something which is so terribly important. Colleges tell non-science majors that they are no good at science and no longer need to know math. And the students believe the colleges. Then they grow up and run the world--badly.

Back at Slate, Michael Berube predictably tars those not around to defend themselves:
Amid the confused alarms of the 1990s culture wars, very few people realized that some of the most determined opponents of general education courses in the Western tradition were quite far afield—over in the finance, physics, and engineering wings of the campus, where neither professors nor students could be persuaded to see the point of getting acquainted with the Western literary and philosophical tradition from Plato to Nietzsche (or Homer to DeLillo). . . .Though I understood those professors' desires to train students in the dense technical aspects of their fields, I believed that A) students of finance, physics, and engineering will, upon graduation, have to live in an advanced society partly of their own making;. .
I'm sorry, I need more evidence of this oft-repeated, cliched narrative. I went to one of the strongest engineering and science schools in the country. But I know that any science and engineering major at Berkeley is required to take some humanities and social science courses at the same level as humanities and social science majors, while humanities and social science majors are always offered--and usually gleefully take--courses that are purposefully dumbed down. There's no other way to describe them, they are dumbed down. Every science department has some service course that's been stripped of problem sets and bizarrely spun to be more fun. There is simply no analogue going the other way. You can find plenty of science graduates who have analyzed Shakespeare, taken Latin, read Nietzsche, and ruthlessly followed politics and economics. How many politicians, economists, philosophers, classicists, writers or journalists know in their bones what a derivative is, how to analyze a histogram, or what stars are made of? We science-students read books for fun, but do we journalism students do math problems for fun?

Let's see. Our budget is deeply out of balance, our climate is changing, we're fighting over teaching the basis of all modern biology in the public schools, and the current rage in the blogosphere is over the technical meaning of the chemical in chemical weapons. The American people have very little understanding of how income and poverty are distributed in this country, how common death and destruction are in Iraq, or how much more likely they themselves are to die by gunshot than by plane crash. What do you think tomorrow's citizens need to learn better?
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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