– dehumanized: death by math and science?

What a fantastic essay in Harper’s magazine’s September 09 issue! The essay is entitled Dehumanized: when math and science rule the school written by Mark Slouka. Slouka questions the emphasis put in schools and in education on math and the sciences at the expense of the humanities. He wonders why every success is viewed from an ‘economic’ perspective, and how the humanities are therefore relegated to a secondary status. He wonders what type of students we are producing and recognizes that it is the type that, as Thomas Friedman said “could be hired by Bill Gates”.  ‘Values’ are fixed in math and science – the definitions of accountability and utility are fixed. The humanities are not so.

He argues in favor of the humanities of course, and makes his case so eloquently.  He says it is not a hard case to make, but I had always found it hard to explain it with such precision and such eloquence. Some of his most profound statements – the humanities

  • “teach us not what to do but what to be”
  • “their method is confrontational, their domain unlimited, their ‘product’ not truth but the reasoned search for truth, their ‘success’ something very much like Frost’s momentary stay against confusion.”
  • they are thus political because they “complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pietires. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redrwa the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values.”
  • “if we lack language, and therefore the awareness, to right the imbalance between the vocational and the civic, if education in America – despite the heroic efforts of individual teachers – is no longer in the business of producing the kinds of citizens necessary to the survival of a democratic society, it’s in large part because the  time-honored civic function of our educational system has been ground up by the ideological mills of both the right and the left into a radiioactive paste called values education and declared off-limits.”
  • “Worried about indoctrination, we’ve short-circuited argument. Fearful of propaganda, we’ve taken away the only tools that could detect and counter it. ‘Values’ are now the province of the home. And the church. How convenient for the man.”
  • “How does one ‘do’ humanities value-free? how does one teach history, say, without grappling with what that long parade of genius and folly suggests to us? how does one teach literature other than as an invitation, a challenge, a gauntlet – a force fully capable of altering not only what we believe but how we see? the answer is, of course, that one doesn’t. One teaches some tooless, formalized version of these things, careful not to upset anyone, despite the fact that upsetting people is arguably the very purpose of the arts and perhaps of the humanities in general.”
  • “Even a dessicated, values-free version of the humanities has the potential to be dangerous, though, because it is impossible to say where the individual mind might wander off to while reading, what unsettling associations might suggest themselves, what unscripted, unapproved questions might float to the surface. It’s been said in the margins of the page, over the course of time, for the simple reason that we shape every book we read and are slightly shaped by it in turn, we become who we are.”
  • “Rein in the humanities effectively enough – whether through active repression, fiscal starvation, or linguistic marginalization – and you create a space, an opportunity. Dogma adores a vacuum.”

How much more profound can an essay be? Every now and then there is an essay or an article that grabs you – that simply captures the essence of what you wanted to say, that lights up something deep within you. This is one such article!!