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?