By Anjum Altaf
There has been a spirited debate triggered by Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School) and in this post I am setting down what I have taken away from the discussion.
Science and the humanities are both ancient and great traditions and I doubt if there is anyone who would set them up in an antagonistic zero-sum confrontation the way people tend to do in the case of science and religion. Both are vital and necessary elements of a balanced education. That much should be a statement of the obvious. It is only when we focus on their different strengths that we enter into an interesting discussion.
To posit their differences very starkly one can oversimplify a little and adapt the argument of a recent article on religion and science: humanities ask about the why, science explains the how; science researches matters of empirical fact, while the humanities are concerned with matters of ultimate values; scientists use empirical techniques and theories to account for the physical and material world, whereas the humanities are concerned with the non-material aspects of life. Science cannot provide the answer to our metaphysical questions and the humanities cannot explain how nature works.
The same article uses the example of the global climate crisis to show how the two are related. Human beings will only be able to respond appropriately to the crisis when the best scientific information is combined with the values and motivations that emerge out of asking what it means to be human, who we are, and how we should act in the world. Questions like these are at the heart of the humanities and in an excellent article Stanley Fish shows how just reading Milton can help us get to grips with almost all of them. (It was the inspiration for the Ghalib Project on this blog.)
An important issue in our discussion has been realization of the importance of critical thinking as a necessary condition for the achievement of a just and ethical society. While the importance of critical thinking is beyond question, its relationship to science and the humanities has not been articulated clearly. I would argue that one must differentiate between strands of critical thinking that are peculiar to the domains of science and the humanities. The critical thinking that goes with the pursuit of science has to do primarily with speculation and reasoning; in the case of the humanities the focus is on abstraction and analysis. One cannot do good science without the ability to think critically – all the great scientists were also great thinkers – but science may not be the best vehicle to teach the kind of critical thinking that was the concern of Mark Slouka, i.e., the thinking needed to investigate the nature of our humanity.
I think it is important to realize that critical thinking cannot be taught theoretically – one cannot have a Critical Thinking 101 and hope to be successful. Critical thinking is learnt by osmosis and while science and humanities nurture their own domain-specific types of critical thinking, well-rounded human beings need an exposure to both. We need to know the shortest path between two points and we also need to know where the two points ought to be located.
Some of these differences stem from the varying nature of enquiry in the sciences and the humanities. Science involves the search for truth and scientists dig deeper and deeper to uncover that truth – but there is, in general, only one true answer to a proposition in science. This is most obvious in mathematics, the purest of sciences – the answer to a math problem is either right or wrong. One speculates about the possible answers and reasons and experiments the way to the one that is true. In the humanities, on the other hand, there is no right or wrong answer – there are multiple answers, some more coherent or persuasive than others. In getting to terms with these multiple answers one learns the qualities of tolerance, detachment, openness, equanimity, and gracefulness.
One can visualize these very different perspectives by imagining a class in mathematics and in literature. Both subjects are intrinsically beautiful but the nature of the interactions between peers is quite different. In the former one is seeking a certainty, in the latter learning to deal with doubt – what Claude Levi-Strauss terms the “philosophical attitude par excellence.” His description of the trauma of ‘anthropological doubt’ should be very familiar to those who have been part of a tutorial class having to read an essay to a half dozen peers ready to tear the argument to shreds: “This doubt consists not merely in knowing that one knows nothing but in resolutely exposing what one knows, even one’s own ignorance, to the insults and denial inflicted on one’s dearest ideas and habits by those ideas and habits which may contradict them to the highest degree.”
Needless to say, neither the creative scientific attitude nor the nurturing of open thinking in the humanities can be achieved without teaching of high quality. But one can infer from the above why the teaching of the humanities might be that much more onerous. In a class in science, one finds out sooner or later that one’s answer to a problem was wrong – and that information is enough to make one seek the source of the mistake and to correct the thinking that led to the error. Nothing like that process of self-directed learning exists in a class in the humanities – the instructor has to provide the feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the argumentation, its logic, and coherence. If the class is too large, if the teaching assistants are not sufficiently advanced, if the mid-term assignments are not returned till the final, virtually no real learning may take place in a course except a superficial familiarity with the works of a particular author.
When one combines this inherent difficulty with the fact that school teachers in the humanities are accorded a lower status than those teaching math and science, that students and parents have come to think of the humanities as of little worth in the competition for jobs, that society encourages the best and the brightest to gravitate to well-paying professions – it is only then that one realizes the gravity of the challenge that Mark Slouka highlights in his essay.
It should also be recognized that because the ability to reason and the capacity of being open minded are imbibed by osmosis, the intellectual make up of a young adult is more or less determined by the end of high school. The style, the content, and the quality of South Asian school education are all devastating in this regard – it is no surprise that we are producing excellent technicians who are quite out of their depth in fields outside their narrow specializations and that the quality of political leadership has declined rather than improved over the years.
Mark Slouka is right to raise the danger flag even though, at its best, American school education is very much structured around open enquiry and colleges ensure that every student, no matter what the final choice of major, takes enough courses across the humanities and the sciences to measure up to the needs of an educated citizenry. Slouka’s concern is that the increasing orientation of society geared to the corporate bottom line – a phenomenon very well articulated by Lewis Lapham – is ‘dumbing down’ the humanities, transforming them from the engine of subversive thinking to a toothless appendage of big business.
This may well be true. If so, America would lose its cutting edge and become more like South Asia – a huge pool of technically qualified people with diminished creativity and its democracy would begin to fray at the edges. But this drift in the orientation of society cannot be attributed to the dominance of science. It has very different causes and the causality runs in the reverse order. It is the dominance of corporate interests that is dictating the allocation of resources in education with the balance shifting away from the humanities. One only has to look at South Asia where this is already the case although for somewhat different reasons.
There is one last aspect that needs highlighting. Critical thinking, whether the variant nurtured by science or the one by the humanities, is a capability that is independent of ethics and values. It is necessary to question the greed, cruelty, injustice, and the spurious ideologies that riddle our society but it is by no means sufficient. Values and ethics belong to the realm of social conscience that has its roots in a different domain – and the search for that domain has an interesting and tortured history.