Marginalizing Math and Science

At Inside Higher Ed, “The Innumeracy of Intellectuals” by Chad Orzel. (Link from Morning News)

Intellectuals and academics are just assumed to have some background knowledge of the arts, and not knowing those things can count against you. Ignorance of math and science is no obstacle, though. I have seen tenured professors of the humanities say – in public faculty discussions, no less – “I’m just no good at math,” without a trace of shame. There is absolutely no expectation that Intellectuals know even basic math.

At the Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Our Culture Keeps Students Out of Science” by Peter Wood. (Link from Arts & Letters Daily)

At least on the emotional level, contemporary American education sides with the obstacles. It begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn – and worse, fail to develop as “whole persons” – if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren’t among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who “feel good” about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.

The intellectual lassitude we breed in students, their unearned and inflated self-confidence, undercuts both the self-discipline and the intellectual modesty that is needed for the apprentice years in the sciences.

I had an experience similar to those that Orzel describes at a dinner with a group of liberal arts grad students and professors. When our bill came, everyone looked around, hoping someone would step up to figure it out. I was the only volunteer. I looked at the total, mentally added 20% for tip in my head, divided it by the number of people at the dinner, then collected money and gave change. One of the professors, who’d recently been awarded a Genius grant, thanked me for taking charge, and said she was hopeless at math. I was in a liberal arts program at the time, but I told her I’d been a business student as an undergrad. She nodded as if this explained it all.

Wood’s article ties the decline in math and the sciences to the rise of an esteem based education system, which has been much bruited about online, of late, which I’ve written about here and here.) I was reminded of an English friend. When she showed early promise in school, she was urged toward the sciences, and went on to a PhD in biology from one of the world’s premiere universities. If she had been a US student, might she have become one of the overeducated liberal-arts baristas that Woods decries?

It’s interesting to ponder, as I’ll decide within the next year which school to enroll 4yo Drake in for kindergarten. The open arts school that everyone in the neighborhood sends their kids to? The Math/Science/Technology magnet school down the street (whose deal breaker may be that it begins at 7:30am)? The German Immersion school?

4 Responses to “Marginalizing Math and Science”

  1. weirleader Says:

    As a (now former) math teacher, I have to agree - I don’t know what passes for education at lower-than-high-school levels, but learning to think is apparently not involved.

    I even had the “privilege” of working with some better-off and more dedicated students these past several years and still the results were mostly depressing. There’s no interest in doing it independently; students have spent 9+ years learning the requisite skill of parroting material back to the teacher and reversing that sad process is daunting. And (as referred to in the article) I can’t tell you how often, upon hearing that I worked as a math teacher, I received the response, “Oh, I was always so terrible at math!” It’s sort of expected… perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I’m sure there are many schools out there that are doing it right - I just didn’t happen to be fortunate enough to be affiliated with them.

  2. Jeff Says:

    As the father of 13 and 17 year-old boys in a state (California) which has emphasized testing of math (and reading) to the expense of just about everything else, I would caution you to pay close attention to what interests your kids and not over-worry about whether they’re getting enough of one particular subject.

    And frankly, I think the whole “self-esteem” backlash is itself a canard, just as the movement was in the first place. When my youngest son was in second grade, one night he broke down in tears after his second hour of homework - ALL math and science, I might add - and said that he “must be stupid,” because he just wasn’t getting it.

    So…don’t believe what you read - especially from higher ed folks (and I say that after having worked in higher ed for 13 years) and “experts” who would identify one single way that is the best for ALL kids. Do what is right for YOUR kids. And you - and you alone - will best know what that is.

  3. weirleader Says:

    you make some good points, Jeff!

    sadly, so much emphasis has been placed on testing that a) it is becoming too common to teach to the test as opposed to teaching what you (the teacher) think is necessary and useful, and b) it is increasingly common to try to cram more content into the earlier grades - emphasizing quantity over quality.

    I can tell you that frequently I’ve found myself wishing just for a sophomore student who can add/subtract/multiply/divide accurately and quickly with integers, decimals, and fractions… perhaps a good grasp of order of operations and graphing would be nice as well. But the most important piece, and too often it’s lacking, is the ability (and willingness) to think, reason, and try new things. I’d rather have a kid who’s willing to think it through and ask questions and work slowly through it than a student who gets it right every time, but who insists on hand-holding through every scrap of new material.

    And I don’t want to presume anything about your son (Jeff), but I also think that our schools assume too much when they expect all students to progress through second-year algebra to graduate (or thereabouts - I’m not up on the most recent state standards). Half the students I’ve ever taught won’t need more than basic algebra and geometry, and even then will mainly use arithmetic in day-to-day life. As we come to realize that our students have a wide variety of learning styles and needs, people need to see that a one-size-fits-all educational system just can’t address those needs.

    If I could have a math class that was an elective… the things I could do and cover with kids who loved it and WANTED to be there!

  4. Kirk Says:

    I was a math major and am fascinated by the evolution of education. Nobody is satisfied with it, and yet at the state level it seems nothing positive is happening. I suppose one positive change has been the number of choices that are now available to parents. It seems like it’s not too big of a stretch to see the virtual elimination of public schools in the next 50 years or so. I’d argue that there always needs to be tax money going to education (obviously everyone benefits), but why does it have to occur in public school buildings?

    One of my recent hair-brained entrepreneurial ideas was to start an elementary school. It’d meet at somebody’s home or in public spaces, relieving the need for expensive school buildings. Part of this thought stemmed from the architectural folly of schools — population rises in one part of town; must build big expensive new school; 30 years later population declines and the town gets an unwanted community center. Seems like a great opportunity to build modular schools that can evolve over decades as the population of youth rises and falls.

    On another note: How do you navigate Arts & Letters Daily? I read it on occasion, but am always so intimidated by that insanely overwhelming home page. I was just never that good at reading.