Education: A Critique of Mark Slouka

Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school) comes across as a persuasive argument that the humanities have lost out to math and science in American schools and that this does not bode well for the future of democracy.

The fact that the essay is persuasive should be no surprise – Slouka is a professor of English and he employs the art of rhetoric at its finest. The language is so elegant that one can read the essay just for that pleasure alone. But one should not allow the intoxication of elegant prose to overwhelm reason – as public policy, Slouka’s essay suffers from at least two major flaws.

Slouka’s main point has validity – the framework in which we reckon the value of things, the thrust of our education, our very language, has become excessively economistic. When we evaluate systems or programs or arrangements or plans, we more often than not ask whether they are efficient or cost-effective; we rarely ask whether they are just or fair. And this interpretive frame that has come to dominate our outlook does have definite negative consequences.

Others have made the point convincingly as well. Lewis Lapham, in his essay, ‘Achievetrons,’ ascribes this attitude as the reason that the ‘best and the brightest’ in America have repeatedly led it into disasters. In his talk on social democracy, historian Tony Judt identifies the same tendency for the growing disenchantment with governments and the increasing appeal of fringe movements that promise their own variants of justice.

Having made this point, Slouka then makes a leap of logic that is unwarranted – he associates the dominance of this economistic framework to the dominance of math and science and to quantification. By implication he associates the framework of qualitative values like justice and fairness and ethics to the humanities. And thus is set up a confrontation of cultures – science and maths on one side and humanities and the arts on the other. This is an ironic thought but could it be Slouka’s relative lack of exposure to math and science that has led him into this error?

In his comment, our reader Balasubramaniam has pointed out the fallacy in this formulation by Slouka. The central issue here is that a meaningful education needs to nurture the ability to think, to ask questions, and to analyze critically. There is no reason why math and science cannot be taught in ways that accomplish all these objectives. Bertrand Russell was obsessed with mathematics and at the same time was one of the most critical minds of the twentieth century.

It is equally possible that one could teach the humanities in ways that fail completely to develop the critical faculties. So the conflict is not between mathandscience (as Slouka terms it) and the humanities but between good teaching and poor teaching. And here we might have a different problem because good teachers are few and poor teachers are many.

The fact that our evaluative framework has become very economistic and bottom-line oriented has little to do with math and science. In fact many of Lapham’s ‘Achievetrons,’ including the neo-cons, must have majored in the humanities from the best schools. There are some other factors at work here that Slouka has missed out and this constitutes the second big gap in his analysis.

It seems reasonable to argue that education does not lead; it follows and adapts itself to the needs of production – in actuality to the needs of the ruling elites who control the means of production (and also the institutions of education for that matter). Therefore we have to look for what might have changed in society that was reflected in the changing focus of education. One can point immediately to the fact that the world of production at the beginning of the modern democratic era in the West was one of small firms. Universal general public education responded to the needs imposed by the societies of that period. Over time we have seen the emergence of the giant publicly owned corporations with their very different needs, both in terms of management and of performance. These needs, in turn were reflected in the changes in education with the growth of business schools with their bottom-line orientations. The impact of the military-industrial complex has been not only on education but on the very nature of democracy itself via the proliferation of lobbying by narrow but well-endowed interest groups.

But beyond economics lies the plane of politics that Slouka has not considered at all. There is no education that is independent of politics. Even creativity is a need of the political order in societies that are competing for global dominance because countries that cannot innovate inevitably fall behind. Thus critical thinking is to be nurtured – but critical thinking is a double-edged sword because it can also challenge inequities at home. It is no surprise that critical thinking is so carefully rationed and made available only to the extent it is needed – education can be made universal but not critical thinking.

This is not just the case in capitalist systems – countries that revolted against capitalism in the name of the masses were just as strategic with education using it as a means to political ends. And non-competitive countries based on oppressive systems, like most in the Islamic world, had no need to nurture any critical thought at all – all they needed were well-trained technicians or ideologically indoctrinated followers. In contrast, as Tony Judt has argued, social democracies in small homogenous societies (for example the Scandinavian countries) could afford to be much more liberal with their education because of their legitimacy and marginal role in global politics.

Slouka is right that “Education in America today is almost exclusively about the GDP. It’s about investing in our human capital” and he is just as right to desire instead a world in which we “invest our capital in what makes us human.” But Slouka errs in thinking that math and science have brought us to this pass. In fact, education was always about the GDP – it is the composition of GDP and how it is produced that have changed dramatically over time, a change that is reflected in the nature of our education.

Slouka makes the case for the humanities by quoting Epictetus – “Only the educated are free.” That, no doubt, is true but the way our societies are constituted they cannot afford everyone to be free. Even revolutions from above have not bought us that freedom. Only when we free ourselves will be able to get the education that we need and deserve.

The three essays mentioned in this post (by Slouka, Lapham and Judt) are all archived on The Best From Elsewhere page (# 28, 42 and 25, respectively). For our extension of Lapham’s theme to South Asia see Hearts and Minds. For a related essay on this blog about education in South Asia see Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?


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23 Responses to “Education: A Critique of Mark Slouka”

  1. Vikram Says:

    Pratap Bhanu Mehta has written extensively about education in India, his latest column is again worth reading to help understand the state of education in India,

    “For the stress associated with exams depends upon the consequences attached to not coming out on top. This in turn will depend upon the structure of economic opportunities on offer. The more egalitarian an occupation structure, the less severe are the perceived penalties for not coming out on top.”

    One can see how the caste system combined with a exam based education system combined with excess emphasis on math and science has lead to an often undemocratic middle class in democratic India. The problem, as Mehta notes, that the whole of the student body is judged on one criteria. How to improve our education system is a question few Indians want to confront, building more NITs is probably only going to make things worse in many ways.

  2. Vinod Says:

    SA, the reason why Slouka brings maths and science into the picture, connecting it with the economist value system, is that those holding such values and controlling the policies around education are passionate advocates for maths and science. Slouka also makes a good case for why that is the case by lucidly describing the ethos of maths and science. Maths and science can encourage critical thinking, no doubt. But that critical thinking is directed to manipulating mateiral things around. The criticial thinking fostered by humanities is directed to our inner selves. Hence there is a difference between the critical thinking of math and science and that of the humanities.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: I am skeptical of this interpretation of Slouka’s argument – it has too many unconvincing associations. First, is it justified to tie math and science to manipulating material things around? Pure math and science have been around since the Greeks and were not associated with the manipulation of material things – I had given the example of Bertrand Russell whose love was for the purity of mathematics; Abdus Salam was a scientist in that mould. Most mathematicians and scientists before the industrial age were like that. [Some probability theory was tied to doing better at gambling!]

      Critical thinking nurtured by the humanities is indeed directed to our inner selves but can it be uncritically associated with ‘good’ or ‘better’ values? Critical thinking is an ability that can be used for any end – I would guess that all evil geniuses were critical thinkers and that many of them had studied the humanities. The British Oxbridge elite that launched colonial adventures and benefited from the slave trade probably fell in this category.

      The confounding piece in this picture is the rise of industrialism and the machine age which now incorporates more and more math and science – but it would be a stretch to argue that it arose from the critical thinking intrinsic to math and science in opposition to the critical thinking intrinsic to the humanities. The economistic thinking is a logical development of the capitalist system which was promoted by the big critical thinkers of the Enlightenment all of whom were icons in the humanities.

      The motivations that gave rise to the industrial age transcended the desires of those involved in math and science. It might be more credible to speculate that they had to do with the profit motives of governing elites steeped in the humanities who used the critical thinking intrinsic to math and science for the achievement of their ends. This is an hypothesis but it cannot be rejected out of hand.

      The bottom line is that this is a complex narrative and its various strands have to be teased apart carefully. An article with a related theme that helps in thinking through intertwined arguments should prove of value to readers: Are Liberals Smarter Than Conservatives?

  3. Arun Pillai Says:

    In the 1997 Italian film “Life is Beautiful” there is a highly cultured Nazi officer who initially eats at a restaurant where the protagonist is a Jewish waiter. While he is there, he engages the waiter in cultural talk and puzzles. Later, they meet again at a concentration camp. Completely unmindful of the waiter’s precarious life situation, he engages him in cultural banter again even though all around them people are being exterminated.

    This side episode in the film shows very convincingly that culture and education – whether of a humanistic sort or of a scientific sort – can sometimes have nothing to do with a person’s values. The most cultured people can sometimes be the most valueless.

    Thus, education and culture are neither necessary nor sufficient for being a good human being. Having said this, I think that a sound critical education can reduce the chances of a person doing something really bad. Towards this end, both art and science are important to teach.

    I disagree with Balasubramaniam in raising science and scientists to heroic status. But Vinod seems to be wrong too in thinking that science teaches us to be critical only towards the material world. Once one learns how to think critically, it does not take much to apply it to everything – one’s inner self and society. That is why, for example, most scientists are also atheists. The social sciences are themselves about the scientific attitude applied to social things.

    However, there is also a sense in which Vinod seems to be right. There are many computer programmers in India who know something of the scientific method and critical thinking in their own fields but who are also very religious and sometimes even very ritualistic in their beliefs. So the wider application of critical thinking from a person’s own field to other matters does not seem to follow readily. Some people do it naturally, others don’t.

    It appears that what is required in society is good values + critical thinking applied to all spheres of life because, as South Asian points out, even evil geniuses are good at critical thinking. Also, he is right in saying that our education systems are geared largely to the needs of production and consumption and so fall short of extending critical thinking towards all of life.

  4. Vinod Says:

    In the example of the evil genius, there is a demarcation being drawn between thinking and values. When I used ‘critical thinking’ I used it in the wider sense of directing it towards even questioning values. And I think, Slouka uses it in that sense.

    Critical thinking nurtured by the humanities is indeed directed to our inner selves but can it be uncritically associated with ‘good’ or ‘better’ values?

    Can critical thinking lead to a reform or improvement in values? I believe so. If not, should we then blindly rely on prophets and gods to dictate that to us?

    A simple question such as – is such and such policy going to better the human condition – is not a question asked in the domain of maths and science. It is a question in the domain of humanities. It is in that sense that ‘critical thinking of the humanities’ is meant.

    Slouka’s point was really about the emphasis on critical thinking within the domain of the humanities that does not even get raised today because of the emphasis on the domain of maths and science. The particular domain that gets emphasised determines the scope of questions around which there is critical thinking done.

  5. Balasubramaniam Keluvardhanam Says:

    Vinod: It is not that the humanities don’t get any attention today on account of math and science, it is that all these areas are poorly taught – both the humanities and the sciences. Critical thinking is just not on the agenda and the reason is not that math and science are getting too much weight but rather that the system does not consider critical thinking sufficiently. As I tried to say in my earlier post, the arts and humanities are getting way too much attention but for the wrong reasons and of the wrong kind.

    I agree with you that critical thinking is about questioning values as well. However, it is basically a skill that even a Nazi can employ. An evil genius can use the skill selectively without asking awkward questions about some of his beliefs and actions.

  6. Vinod Says:

    Bala, Slouka covers and acknowledges your point too in his article.

  7. Balasubramaniam Keluvardhanam Says:

    I have to confess I haven’t read the whole article. So I just do not know how he covers the point I have made. But if he does, then why is he against math and science? He should be against poor teaching.

  8. Vinod Says:

    He thinks that that is PART of the story only.

  9. SouthAsian Says:

    I read Slouka’s essay again in order to extract the gist of his argument. Slouka’s main point is that there is a disequilibrium in American education – we are teaching too much math and science and not enough humanities. This is good for business but bad for democracy. Here are the key points in his own words:

    I see no contradiction between my respect for science and my humanist’s discomfort with its ever-greater role in American culture, its ever-burgeoning coffers, its often dramatically anti-democratic ways, its symbiotic relationship with government, with industry, with our increasingly corporate institutions of higher learning.

    It troubles me because there are many things “math and science” do well, and some they don’t. And one of the things they don’t do well is democracy. They have no aptitude for it, no connection to it, really.

    Which hasn’t prevented some in the sciences from arguing precisely the opposite, from assuming even this last, most ill-fitting mantle, by suggesting that science’s spirit of questioning will automatically infect the rest of society.

    Science, by and large, keeps to its reservation, which explains why scientists tend to get in trouble only when they step outside the lab. That no one has ever been sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant is precisely to the point. The work of democracy involves espousing those values that in a less democratic society would get one sent to prison.

    Not only are the sciences, with a few notable exceptions, politically neutral; their specialized languages tend to segregate them from the wider population, making ideological contagion difficult. More importantly, their work, quite often, is translatable into “product,” which any aspiring dictatorship recognizes as an unambiguous good, whereas the work of the humanities almost never is.

    To put it simply, science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one. Science explains how the material world is now for all men; the humanities, in their indirect, slippery way, offer the raw materials from which the individual constructs a self—a self distinct from others. 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.

    One might, then, reasonably expect the two, each invaluable in its own right, to operate on an equal footing in the United States, to receive equal attention and respect. Not so. In fact, not even close.

    PS: Quite a coincidence that there is an article today by Edward Glaeser, professor of economics at Harvard, on the relationship between education and democracy – with an interactive data display. In his view the causality runs from education to democracy. He does not dwell on whether the type of education makes a difference – the central theme of Slouka’s essay. Certainly worth a look and discussing further.

  10. Balasubramaniam Keluvardhanam Says:

    Science – through neuroscience, psychology and social psychology and related fields – also addresses the inner world. Slouka unfortunately has a narrow and conventional view of science. The essence of science has to do with the so-called “scientific method” – a way to combine a questioning of authority, looking at evidence, reasoning correctly from assumptions to conclusions, criticizing poor arguments, and so on. This method can be and indeed has been applied in the humanities in literature and criticism, in the arts and criticism, in history, and so on. Indeed, after the Enlightenment, no sphere of human inquiry was left untouched by the methods of science. This is what I meant by saying in an earlier post that the influence of science on the humanities was enormous.

    Of course, not every scientist or engineer sees science in this broad way. That is the fault of the educational system. It is also true that one needs to acquaint oneself directly with the subject matter one is interested in. If someone is interested in the inner self, they have to become acquainted with it, and here a familiarity with literature and history can be of immense help.

    However, this familiarity by itself is not enough. Even Slouka, a professor, has made what to me seems like an elementary error in reasoning, substituting one distinction for another.

    I am of course for a balanced education and someone totally unfamiliar with stories and literature and historical narratives would be a very impoverished person indeed. If that is all Slouka wants, I am happy to grant it. But he is wrong to assert that math and science wield disproportionate influence and have large coffers. On the contrary, the majority of our leaders – whether in government, politics, business, university administrations etc. – are from the humanities.

  11. Hasan Davar Says:

    India is taking a great step towards educating its population as is mentioned in this article:

    Hopefully, it is a step that will serve as an example for other countries. At the same time, we need to be aware that literacy is at times just raw knowledge; the individuals that have it don’t distinguish between its positive and negative use. We can ask the question: Who is more educated: Bernie Madoff or Sattar Edhi? Who was just more literate?

    If the schooling being provided does not teach the responsibility that being literate places upon the shoulders of the literate, we may continue to see the highly schooled, literate, and educated be the worst perpetrators of crimes. Should we differentiate between being literate and being educated by saying that the literate have knowledge but do not distinguish between its positive or negative use, while the educated understand how to use knowledge positively? Should that not be the core of education?

  12. Arun Pillai Says:

    I am skeptical of Balasubramaniam’s argument for the wide reach of science. I think people in the sciences do think rather differently from those in the humanities even though they may think critically about everything. I think the difference lies in what one may call “inside knowledge” and “outside knowledge”. I think many scientists, even many good ones, often have an outside knowledge of our inner worlds as experienced. It takes a special feel that only comes with direct acquaintance with the humanities and even spending time with others in these fields to get an inside feel for our inner worlds. In the same way, it is hard for someone to know what it is to be South Asian unless you spend some time in that society and come to know it from the inside.

    So Slouka – and Vinod – do have an important point to make. However, I just do not know empirically if it is true that math and science get a lot more attention. This is something Slouka asserts but does not seem to offer much evidence for.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Arun: Actually Slouka does provide adequate evidence that math and science get more attention than the humanities. That is the central point he is making and it is well supported. His claim is that we are living in a time where we have become slaves to the market – everything has to serve the ends of the market. Because math and science is considered more useful for that purpose (by all, not just those running the system but parents and students as well – the ethos has been internalized), it has a higher priority. Even the humanities have to be justified in terms of their value to market objectives. When resources are scarce, it is the arts and humanities that get cut. Slouka’s warning, quite rightly, is that this is short-sighted and would undermine the system itself.

      Where Slouka is vague is in leaving the impression that somehow math and science have contributed to the dominance of the market in our lives. This is clearly not correct – the causality does not run that way and the determinants are very different. Slouka also is ambiguous in leaving the impression that teaching the humanities by itself would ameliorate the situation. The link between the ability to think and ethical values is not direct. Critical thinking is necessary but not sufficient.

      Slouka provides a very valuable point of departure for us to further our investigations.

  13. Vinod Says:

    This is something Slouka asserts but does not seem to offer much evidence for

    Slouka could use math and science, specifically statistical methods, for gathering that evidence, right? ;) I think that, in some way, incorporates Bala’s point.

  14. Vinod Says:

    I think maths and science are more like methods. The humanities are more like the ends/purposes. The ‘method’ alone can lead to devastating results without the humanizing influence of the humanities on the study of the ‘ends/ultimate purposes’ to which ‘the methods’ are applied.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: A piece today on the nature of critical thinking in science – License to Wonder.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Vinod: There is a scientific method but it would be going too far to claim that math and science are more like methods. Astronomy and biology are not methods. Mathematics is a language and science provides explanations for how things work- whether the planetary system, the human body, or the global climate. Nor can humanities be equated to ends and purposes – they pertain to the study of the human condition. The humanities need not have a humanizing influence – there is a missing ingredient that is needed for that.

      It is ironic that science alone has never led to devastating results. More often than not, non-scientists have determined how science is to be used for political ends. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the poet, decided that India would test the nuclear bomb.

    • Vinod Says:

      SA, there is an area of overlap between science and the humanities. An obvious example of that is the issue of ethics in experimentation.

      It is also important that we do not translate Slouka’s criticism of the over emphasis on the domain of maths and science to the immorality or ethics of mathematicians and scientists. That is missing his point.

      To add one more point to the above, it is important not to translate Slouka’s point to a statement of the superior ethics or humanity of those educated in the humanities. Pointing out individuals who did this or that is not apposite to Slouka’s article.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Vinod: It is a fair and important conclusion that there is no direct link between the subject of study and ethics, personal or collective. This is especially true when one is considering broad categories like the humanities and the sciences. The situation becomes somewhat different when the analysis is narrowed down to professions. For example, business schools inculcate a particular type of ethic. Incidentally, it is this ethic that most concerns Mark Slouka. It is very well captured by Lewis Lapham in his essay ‘Achievetrons‘ that I keep urging participants to read. Aside from its content, its language, like Slouka’s, is a treat by itself.

        I am not so convinced regarding your point about the use of examples. They help to illustrate arguments and Slouka has used many in his own essay.

  15. Balasubramaniam Keluvardhanam Says:

    The US ranks 37th in math and science proficiency for eighth graders. The Asian countries come first. There is a great deal of alarm among many people – including Bill Gates – that this loss of its lead will cost it dearly in world leadership, not only in terms of GDP but also in terms of leadership in the world. I agree with Arun partly that there does not seem to be any proper argument for the case that math and science dominate our thinking. Indeed, something like this is becoming increasingly true in India owing to the dominance of IT. But we are nowhere near this kind of thing in the US.

    I also disagree with Vinod and Arun that science can be devastating without the humanities or that scientists lack inside knowledge of the arts. I have been saying that a balance is required and that is all. Moderation and balance are needed in most things but Slouka seems to be saying much more.

  16. John Hammond Says:

    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. And in doing so, he provides a clue to the origins of his ability to do so: he has never viewed the humanities as an outsider.

    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: Mein Kampf exerted tremendous power on a culture, but is not highly valued as a piece of writing. 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 explain or 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?

    And as with history, there are many opinions within the Academy about the meaning and value of any given book. But do the letters that literary critics write to one another—I believe they are referred to as publications—have any larger value than getting tenure or the next grant from an endowment?

    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. I chose to major in science because I loved it, not because I might be able to make a living at it. I took lots of literature classes in college, four foreign languages, music, history, art. In short, a liberal arts education. Because of this, I can’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 and anger 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. 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.

    Whatever happened to writers and philosophers that have the curiosity and humility to experience life before trying to sell others their stories and opinions? If Mark had taken even a few advanced science or math courses, he would not have composed such a well-crafted body of silly statements.

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