As If Science and Math Were All That Mattered


Another blue-ribbon panel has expressed concern about the quality of mathematics and science teaching this time the Task Force on Mathematics, Science and Technology appointed by the state Board of Education. And again I am left wondering why the crises in these subjects have attracted so much more attention than equally acute crises in the humanities.

Apparently, those who appoint these groups believe that the economic future depends utterly on our young people's knowledge of math and science, while skills traditionally belonging to English, history or foreign language are somehow less important, perhaps not even necessary.

To be sure, rhetorical gestures to the humanities are made regularly. The National Research Council, in its 1989 report on the state of mathematics learning entitled "Everybody Counts," emphasizes that reading is even more fundamental, and that literature, history, science and other subjects contribute in essential ways to a well-balanced education.

But the report also goes on to say that mathematics plays a special role -- one that is especially sensitive to deficiencies in the effectiveness of the educational system. Our leaders apparently agree.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has for several years campaigned for a residential math-science high school, and the General Assembly, accustomed to slighting all areas of education equally, has quietly turned the governor down. Imagine the guffaws from the State House if he were to propose a similar school for promising young writers, historians and philosophers.

Why this prejudice? One reason is that the governing boards that decide matters of education are heavily populated by business leaders whose corporations depend increasingly on a technologically literate work force.

Also to blame are enduring fantasies about the relative difficulty of subjects (the hard sciences vs. the soft sciences vs. the humanities, which come in somewhere around souffle). Perhaps there is residual sexism: Male-dominated politics and business prefer to fund the subjects which are the traditional provinces of boys, math and science.

Whatever the causes, you won't get an explicit admission of this bias from any member of a math-science task force, or from those who give them their charge.

Ask them: Do you think that math and science are more important than English? than history? than, heaven forbid, fine arts? Shocked and pained expressions come over their faces. Why no, they say, how could you ever suspect such a thing?

A university without the humanities is a university without a soul, said one high-level administrator at an institution which has chosen to emphasize technology programs to the clear detriment of the humanities. It's easy to imagine him following with, some of my best friends are English teachers.

In spite of these protestations of genuine interest in a balanced education, the facts of funding and public discourse tell a different story. The vast bulk of sponsored research is in the applied sciences, of course, because it brings in money for researchers and sponsors alike.

Less understandable is the fact that school leaders and politicians exhort young people to widely differing levels of achievement: distinction as computer scientists and biotechnologists, a passing score on the Maryland Writing Test (eighth-grade level) so that high school graduation is assured.

Think. When was the last time you heard a leading public figure say how important art is, or urge young people to achieve great distinction in writing, and when did you see money match words? Local defense-based corporations offer rich college scholarships for high achievers in science, while Maryland sponsors a trifling essay contest and Baltimore proclaims itself the City that Reads.

Reports warn that the shortage of qualified high school physics teachers and necessary lab equipment will dull our edge in the high-tech markets. Meanwhile, many high school English teachers still work from antediluvian assumptions about how to teach writing, such that we should wonder whether they (like some math teachers mentioned in the task force study) are in fact qualified to teach. Even if English teachers were familiar with class sizes that make teaching writing (and thoughtful reading) nearly impossible.

Many of us are worried about future generations which only consume technology, not comprehend or develop it. I know I am. But a work force that cannot read perceptively, write so that others may understand, or develop ideas with the aid of language will be of no use to our high-tech corporations, either.

Most students emerge from high school thinking that history is a lifeless pile of facts having nothing to do with them or with today. This should give us pause, including those of us in technical fields who prefer employees to avoid mistakes made by predecessors.

Most importantly, we should lose some sleep over a generation whose uncritical consumption of the shallow, violent, acquisitive culture of television comprises their foremost education on human morality and relationships. This fact becomes more and more significant in light of the ethical issues which increasingly accompany scientific innovation.

In an age enamored of technological solutions to all problems, we have given the humanities only the job of humanizing math and science, a travesty of the proper relationship among disciplines.

Language, left with the diminished role of functional subject, in fact makes the complex thoughts of the engineer and the geneticist possible. Art and literature, once their value is known, remind the developers of technology to design for people, lest they build something inequitable or ugly.

Philosophy, long regarded by some as the most useless subject, came early in our history for a reason: It was concerned with first things, such as how one should live. Putting a higher value on the questions philosophy raises may enable us to continue living, instead of drowning in the aftermath of technological upheaval.

Our culture needs educationally complete citizens. Young people denied a humanistic education in the interest of greater scientific proficiency will not only fail in this role. They will fail to accomplish the narrower intentions of their designers the technocrats who empower and sit on the math-science panels.

Stefan Martin is writing coordinator at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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