In the Game of Science vs the Humanities, We Lose

My friend Casey Blair just made this post, which I liked because it made me think. I’m a sucker for that sort of thing.

There has been a fair amount of discussion in Some Circles about which is more important, education in science, or education in the humanities.  The general attitude is, you only have so many hours of education in college, you can only take so many classes, you have to choose how to divide them.  Casey points out that what is trendy today is to concentrate on math and science, because that will make you employable, and she elegantly picks apart the logic behind that position.  The crux of her argument is this: “Education is not primarily about teaching students employable skills.  That’s called training, and that also matters, but it’s not the same as education. Education is about teaching people how to think.”

In my opinion, the biggest problem in education today is that one needs massive student loans just to get enough of an education to get a job that will never allow one to pay off the student loans.  But, for the moment, let us ignore that and concentrate on the issue of education in science vs education in the humanities.

As far as Casey went, I have no disagreements; my argument comes in the next step.

I would argue that science is, in fact, about teaching people how to think.  However, when I say science, I do not just mean, “CSCI 4061 – Introduction to Operating Systems ,” or, “MATH 4707 – Introduction to Combinatorics and Graph Theory,” or, “BMEN 2501 Cellular and Molecular Biology for Biomedical Engineers .”  When I speak of science, I speak of using using our reasoning abilities and our means of gathering information to form conclusions that bring our thoughts as close as possible to objective processes in the real world.

In this regard, there can be no distinction between “science” and “the humanities.”

It is a false, pervasive, and dangerous dichotomy.

The point Casey makes above, that I quoted, is exactly on point: The idea of education is, yes, to teach us to think.  But just as much, it is to make us more complete, more empathetic, more well-rounded human beings.  That is also the role of art in life, as well as in education.  A good education ought to help us understand the world, both physically and emotionally–or, if you will, spiritually.

I think it is one of the great crimes of capitalism that today fewer and fewer people have access, not only to training in how to think, but in how to get the most out of works of art.  Of course, the closing of museums and the attacks on symphony orchestras are part of that same process.

I’m getting off-topic.  Sorry.   I’ve often heard things like, “science shows us how we change the world, the humanities show us why” and similar distinctions.  They’re clever, but I don’t agree. My point is, I think it is misleading and pernicious to make such a sharp divide between the sciences and the humanities. What matters is being able to understand, operate in, and change our world.   When it comes to education, to understanding how to think and to fully appreciate the world around us, we all need it all, and we all deserve it all, and, really, I don’t think that’s asking for so much.

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39 thoughts on “In the Game of Science vs the Humanities, We Lose”

  1. While I agree that education is most useful when it teaches us to think and to crave understanding, the path is probably different for each of us.

  2. There was a time when the two realms were not just implicitly joined, as they are now (though few recognize the ties), but explicitly so. Natural philosophers like Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Locke, Boyle, and Hook were engaged in the pursuit of knowledge in general, whether that knowledge was about the human soul or the building blocks of the universe. The rebranding of natural philosophy as science, and its further classifications like hard and soft science, obscures what the disciplines have in common. To everyone’s detriment.

  3. BackpackingDad: Well put. It is worth pointing out that the 20th Century marks the first appearance of philosophers who aren’t also scientists.

  4. Spot on for both Casey’s original post and for your addendum. If I were to draw another set of useless distinctions, I would attempt something like this:

    Science is the process of how we gain and share greater understanding of the world around us Humanities is the process of how we gain and share greater understanding of the people around us.

    One *must* have both.

    Having grown up with an education that divorced science and the humanities (and de-emphasized philosophy as a result), I’ve spent most of my adult life feeling like I was playing catch-up for the gap. In my career as an IT consultant, the humanities and philosophy are *far* more important to my day-to-day success (and that of my customers) because so much of what I do is people-driven, not technology driven. Trying to drive from the technology/science results in projects that fail to solve the problems they were supposed to solve.

  5. I also think this is a false dichotomy.

    The real problem in the US is that education is horrible no matter which path you prefer. Obviously colleges should have a “core curriculum” that provides a basic background in mathematics, the arts, the sciences, history, literature, government, and so on. Obviously people entering college should have a sufficient basis for learning that material.

    But the average high school graduate in the US is more or less universally ignorant. The average college graduate in an engineering or science degree winds up with very little knowledge of anything outside their field, and the average humanities or liberal arts graduate winds up knowing very little in any field at all.

    So how to fix it? Start with good public schools — especially in poorer communities, but public schools have sunk very low even in wealthy areas. The basic competency levels required at the end of elementary school are absolutely pathetic, and so naturally the skills of high school students are similarly weak. This really is a throw-money-at-it sort of problem. Teachers have to be respected and properly paid. Inner city and poor rural schools need books, computers, space, and security. Then I don’t know, wave some kind of magic wand and fix the million problems in all colleges and universities, for which space does not permit even a summary, much less a screed.

  6. I have two points. One is that when I was in college, there were far more people in science and engineering attending humanities seminars than people in humanities attending science and engineering seminars. But which group is called “well rounded”?

    The other point is a recent article which can be found by looking in your search engine for the following:
    why does sweden have so many billionaires?

  7. OML, Steve!!! I have never wanted more to hug your scruffy, mustachio’d heart. Thank you for this posting, most especially:
    ‘In this regard, there can be no distinction between “science” and “the humanities.”
    It is a false, pervasive, and dangerous dichotomy.’
    For me, it took getting my degree at a ‘science’ university to really comprehend that.

  8. All good stuff. Good topic skzb.

    I would add that there could be a tendency to think it takes equal time to teach humanities and technology. I don’t think so, at least for the important stuff in the humanities – to have some understanding of people and empathy for others. It isn’t necessary (maybe entertaining) to know about the ancient Greeks or History or literature, but that isn’t the important stuff (actually, that might go against real humanity as it often glorifies bad behavior). I really don’t know how one teaches compassion and morality, it ether is there or it probably never will be? But we sure need a lot more of it in this country.

  9. I would add that in Law school and Business school, the present tendency (my impression, anyway) is to negate the value of empathy, morality, truth, social responsibility and maybe even obeying the law. It seems to be about what you can get away with, without being thrown in jail. Now days, that is way too much. I would like to be wrong.

  10. Here’s what I posted on Casey’s blog:

    There’s a logical flaw in your argument. You assert that education is not about getting people jobs but about getting them to think. But you say nothing about why, if that is your definition of education, we need to encourage or support (or fund) it. If education means jobs, then there’s a clear selfish interest for every individual to get some. If it means something else, you’ve got to find a different motivation.

  11. “If education means jobs, then there’s a clear selfish interest for every individual to get some. If it means something else, you’ve got to find a different motivation.”

    To the extent that a tremendous amount of valuable free material stays available to most people on the internet, people who can find what they’re interested in can educate themselves. Of course, the valuable information is mixed with misinformation and disinformation, so sorting that out has to be a high priority. When you learn in school you are presented with pravda — official truth — and it’s easier to just accept it.

    So the central thing we need people to get is the concept that if you only learn enough, things will make sense. Making sense of things is so important and so satisfying that people will learn as much as they have time for, once they believe that.

    The trouble is that in fact things do not make sense. For example, once you learn enough physics it stops making sense. Humanities are even worse. You certainly can’t expect to teach empathy, morality, ethics etc in lecture classes or even interactive seminars.

    Behavioral psychology teaches us that people continually try to teach each other how they want to be treated, by behaving in stereotypical ways that others can easily understand. Ahead of time it’s very hard to tell what people want, until they competently show us. Afterward we can look back and make up plausible stories to explain things, unless their performance was too incompetent to fit any reasonable story. So — in general, people don’t make sense. When they do make sense it is because they are good at creating stories that make sense, and not because there is something real about them which does make sense.

    So what does education have to do with humanities departments or science departments? Such things exist as a historical accident. Presumably they will continue to exist through cultural inertia. We may easily revert to having <10% of the public attend college, as an expensive status symbol, perhaps followed by a world tour. If so, it might not make much difference in the amount that people learn, but it would of course have big social implications.

  12. I hope you don’t mind, but between this post and the comments I have more thoughts to throw out into the ether.

    First, complete agreement on the biggest problem in education, and as to the next biggest, I also agree that the dichotomy is at the crux of it, because it changes how people think of both science and the humanities and changes how they’re taught.

    Especially in pre-college education, science and math classes are treated as the measure of educational success, and that is measured in test scores. Standardized testing is its own problem, but it’s at least in part related to the first. Scores equal funding, so teachers teach to the test rather than teaching the student. The study of science then becomes about the percentage of students able to execute a particular formula, which is not what science is about.

    Science is not just a series of facts about the world any more than literature is a series of events in written form. If memorizing SparkNotes is all it takes to get through a literature class, it’s a stupid class. Treating an introductory STEM class as a box to check off the list of prerequisites before you get to the meat is a problem. There’s no reason you can’t have an introduction with some meat to it. If I have to read through a lot of boring exposition to get to the story, I’ll want to put the book down, because it’s poorly crafted; that doesn’t mean I don’t need exposition to get the meat of the story, but there’s no reason they can’t happen at the same time and be interesting. It’s horrible that so many people get out of school thinking math is boring.

    There shouldn’t be a distinction between science and the humanities, because the principle is exactly the same. The problem is that people treat them not just as separate, but as incompatible, when they are both ways of seeking truth, of understanding our world and how we fit in it. I don’t know how to undo that dichotomy in people’s heads. The idea that there are “math people” and “language people” and that those two can coexist in the same person as unusual rather than completely natural is ingrained.

    But if the dichotomy can’t be undone easily, I at least think people need to stop devaluing humanities. Everyone should learn history, foreign languages, and chemistry and all the rest. We lose out by focusing too narrowly. Borrowing and combining ideas from other modes of approaching a topic is one of the ways innovation happens — and breaking genre conventions is fun, too. And of course understanding different approaches isn’t just about innovation; it’s clearly about empathy. How can creation happen without some form of understanding?

    There’s a reason the liberal arts exist. “Well-rounded” isn’t just a buzz word; it means something. The greatest bulk of my knowledge of history is medieval, and modern distinctions between disciplines always seem strange and arbitrary to me; I think we lose a lot in that separation. People argue so much about what constitutes a “hard” versus “soft” science because the distinction itself is imposed to help navigate what is “valuable” (“soft” being the “less scientific” and ergo less valuable).

    I think the way we teach and think about science needs to be revamped, so that it’s about exploration and discovery and not test scores. A lot of professors do this, and I want that to be the base line of teaching, not the exceptional. And people need to stop calling support to close down opera houses and libraries in favor of more science programs, because if we don’t understand why all of it matters, then our education system has failed.

    Er. Apologies, that went on rather longer than I meant to.

  13. “There’s a logical flaw in your argument. You assert that education is not about getting people jobs but about getting them to think. But you say nothing about why, if that is your definition of education, we need to encourage or support (or fund) it. If education means jobs, then there’s a clear selfish interest for every individual to get some. If it means something else, you’ve got to find a different motivation.”

    There’s a logical flaw in your argument. You assert that selfish interest is the only possible cause of social or political development. This is an ideological construct of late capitalism, not an actual proven fact.

    if you want a selfish reason, though, I can give you one: wanting to live in a society capable of understanding the problems it faces, capable of appreciating its own history and culture, and capable of using scientific and philosophical thought to improve its future.

  14. I’m a substitute teacher–throwing more money at public schools would certainly help. It would not in the least affect the fact that most of the students at “poor” schools lack the family support necessary for a stable life. There’s a lot teachers can do, but they can’t “fix” poverty.

    More to SKZB’s point:

    Before stumbling into substitute teaching, I was an academic. I think much of the Science vs. Humanities debate is a classic case of “Let’s you and him fight.” *Inside* the University system, resources are scarce and increasingly channeled toward administration and facilities. Humanities and social sciences are under constant assault (witness right-wing screeds about indoctrination and the dangers of critical thinking), and inclined to feel defensive. They also fail to generate useful (i.e. marketable) intellectual property for their institutions. Sciences that don’t generate patents often feel the same kind of squeeze, even though they’re the ones that are telling us such cool things about the principles of the cosmos.

    The arguments over which fields are more important is already a win for the parties whose interests lie in control: the managerial class that dominates contemporary university administration. Rather than mounting a coherent challenge to the idea that education’s value should be tracked by monetary measures like job placements and alumni wages, academics are distracted into fighting over pieces of the shrinking pie. When you start proclaiming your field’s worth in terms of its value as–to borrow SKZB’s term–training, you’ve already lost.

    There *are* wholly intellectual arguments about the value of scientific versus humanistic methods, about the ability of different disciplines to tell us meaningful things about the world…but I think that those have become secondary to the depressingly mundane scuffle for resources.

  15. I agree about how science and humanities are presented as “a false, pervasive, and dangerous dichotomy.” I first encountered (and hated) it in one of the general science classes I took to meet graduation requirements in place in the early 1970s. One of our textbooks was completely based on the dichotomy, presenting all of the content as seen separately by “the scientist” and “the poet.” According to that book, it was impossible to be both a scientist and a poet. If I’d known the quote, I would have responded “I say it’s spinach, and I say to Hell with it.” As it was, I just thought it was f/u/l/l/ o/f/ s/h/i/t/ so profoundly flawed I was disinclined to believe anything else the book said, either.

  16. I was going to try to say something thoughtful and coherent here, but after reading “the average humanities or liberal arts graduate winds up knowing very little in any field at all” I end up just sort of twitching madly. I think I need to go have a bit of a lie-down before I try to engage with the actual conversation in a useful manner.

  17. Hm… and nearly half of them know even less than those average ones!

    It always seemed like a false dichotomy to me, too, kind of like asking, “which is more important, flossing or washing your hands?” A decent human being is familiar with both.

    I agree with jdjplocher.

    I think it’s an attempt to exploit personality differences for ideological gains or to otherwise get ahead in the culture wars. Artists and scientists are by-and-large liberal, and the managerial types in the business school are dominated by conservatives. Maybe it’s just because I live in Texas where Governor pretty-hair has blatantly tried to close down everything in public schools and universities except what promotes business and sports, but when I see serious “false dichotomy” arguments between arts and sciences I have to suspect it’s largely political subterfuge and “divide and conquer” at play.

    Brings to mind a whole new Martin Niemöller schtick: “First they came for the artists…”

    I think the true dichotomy is …

    Wait a minute! I almost forgot this is NaNoWriMo! Can’t waste words… bye!

  18. I’m in favor of including humanities in the college curriculum, but it’s a mistake to call it a false dichotomy. There is an argument that someone going to college to get a job need only study in their field (this is the theory in the British university system). If so, then all those humanities courses are simply increasing the cost of education; choosing to take one of them means you take one less science course (a dichotomy) or spend more time in school (expensive!).

  19. In Britain, high school graduates have already achieved what amounts to a few semesters worth of a liberal arts degree here in the states.

    The phrase “all those humanities courses are simply increasing the cost of education” does not compute for me. It’s semantically equivalent to “all those education courses are simply increasing the cost of education.” What the what?!

    A more precise and revealing phrasing might be “all those humanities courses are simply increasing the cost of getting a diploma,” or, per the other post, “of getting basic job training.”

    It is only a false dichotomy for certain values of “getting an education,” in other words.

    For someone going just to get a job, there are all sorts of tech schools and trade schools which might accomplish the goal and already de-emphasize humanities. People are free to go get their inhumanities degrees there.

    I’m suddenly aware I’m currently playing the very game Steven’s title suggests is a losing proposition. (Sigh.)

  20. “If so, then all those humanities courses are simply increasing the cost of education; choosing to take one of them means you take one less science course (a dichotomy) or spend more time in school (expensive!).”

    David, traditionally college was for people who were independently wealthy. It was a status symbol. Humanities served at least as well as sciences — If you could quote Byron and Schiller it showed you belonged to the elite. If you didn’t know who Gibbon was, it showed that you were not One Of Us but somebody else, somebody who perhaps should have some trade or perhaps you might be a thief who should be caught and punished.

    Somehow we have decided that people who work for a living should also go to college. Maybe it’s an egalitarian thing. The peasants can go to college and get graded on their work; the ones who flunk out have had their chance and any future lack of success is their own fault. The ones who can’t get into a *good* school likewise had their chance, and blew it, and getting a degree from someplace is some sort of accomplishment.

    It’s a little bit like offering ballet to everybody. You can’t give everybody good seats at the ballet theatre, but everybody can watch it on TV if they want to. Only guys who’re more used to pole dancing might not like it all that much. Maybe the ballet dancers used to be available to the highest bidders, which gave an entirely different appreciation for the dance, but they aren’t available to proles.

    How did we go from believing that university was part of what showed the elite were elite, to thinking everybody needed it? Being expensive used to be part of its function — if you couldn’t afford it, you usually had no business there. It certainly wasn’t a place to learn trades. It was a place to hobnob with your college-age peers and meet the friends and enemies that would help define your life.

    Do we really want to change colleges into job training centers or argue that everybody needs what they have to offer? We need people to get a solid education, and maybe some of them will get a good liberal education by thinking about Nasrudin jokes and by reading Steven Brust.

  21. As a high school student, I’m in an interesting position. While I agree that focusing solely on what are considered to be hard sciences can be extremely detrimental to students, I also think that the problem isn’t necessarily the dichotomy between sciences and humanity. Ultimately, the failing in educational systems is the inability to teach a desire to learn. For me, I want to take both hard science and writing classes in college, because I genuinely am interested in both the biomechanics of the body and in literature. One may lead to a more profitable career, but without either field of study, I would feel just as incomplete. I love reading, and thinking, and learning. But not many other students do. Books are “reserved” for English classes, and learning is limited to what it takes to earn the grade. Whether it’s a humanity or science class, the school system too often encourages students just to shoot for a grade. There are certainly exceptions, and great teachers I’ve had who have actively striven to share their passion for their subject with their students. But in general, I think the issue runs deeper than the subject matter. Education, as Casey defines it, can’t be limited to just the humanities or just the sciences. If an ability to think is taught in one of these divisions, then shouldn’t that not be any different than if this ability is taught in both? I guess what I’m trying to say is, all things being equal, the fact that this dichotomy is false should mean that labeling it as a dichotomy shouldn’t make a difference; in other words, saying something is false doesn’t change the fact that it is true. You say yourself that the problem is getting people to think, and in that regard I don’t think the subject category matters at all; rather, it’s how things are taught that needs to be changed. Thus, from my perspective, standardized tests are more dangerous than the dichotomy between humanities and sciences. Hopefully this made some kind of sense and doesn’t come off as me rambling aimlessly.

    Also, college tuition. Yes.

  22. With the internet an education is essentially free for everyone. A diploma is not.

    Employers usually look for the diploma. It serves as a proxy for a certain set of skills with minimal investment of time on the part of HR..

    As a society we need educated citizens. Since K-12 is the only guaranteed education our citizens receive, the most basic skill set required of a good citizen should be taught there, including how to think – which should be job one, since it’s applicable to every discipline.

  23. With the internet, an education is essentially free for everyone who has the knowledge of where to seek out the sort of education they might desire, the time and energy to actually do so and follow up on it, the self-control to pursue it at length and actually internalize the knowledge rather than just browsing it, and the discernment to work out what’s actually good information and not crackpot theory.

    I mean, yes, you can find an amazing amount of things on the internet. And many very self-motivated people with the existing information (or “intelligence”) to pick out what’s useful to them personally and follow up on it can get a lot of education out of that. But by god, it’s certainly not going to work that way for everyone. I’m going to into academia as a long-term career (yes yes I know), and I know damn well that I could not get an Education from the internet. I could browse a lot of things casually as they entertained me, and make multiple earnest attempts to learn more, and would in several months of earnest attempts not get the education out of that which I can get from a single semester-long college class with an encouraging expert instructor.

    Everyone can get an education from the internet about as well as everyone can get an education from their local library. There is, for most people, a great deal more to acquiring an education than “Look! Information exists in a format you can access! Good luck!”

  24. “With the internet an education is essentially free for everyone. A diploma is not.

    “Employers usually look for the diploma.”

    Yes. My wife once got a job based on an intelligence test. The employer administered the test, and she did well at it, and he thought she’d do well at the job. Possibly he could have been sued for that, but nobody will sue for requiring a diploma.

    “As a society we need educated citizens. Since K-12 is the only guaranteed education our citizens receive, the most basic skill set required of a good citizen should be taught there, including how to think – which should be job one, since it’s applicable to every discipline.”

    The schools do a bad job even of teaching students how to memorize. They ought to be teaching mnemonics in first and second grade. I’m not convinced that building memory palaces and memorizing things like shuffled decks of cards is actually that useful — you need to notice the important patterns and test them and remember those — but if kids did learn how to memorize it would be a big help, and it’s reasonably straightforward. And schools mostly don’t teach it at all.

    What do they do toward teaching students to think, beyond giving them stuff to think about? In general, original solutions are discouraged. Teachers who say they want creative solutions usually want creative solutions that are similar to the creative solutions they have found themselves, and most of the creativity comes in predicting what they are looking for. This is a useful job skill, of course, since predicting what the boss wants when the boss doesn’t know how to say it is often important.

    How do you teach people to think, anyway? Which kids is it that don’t know how to think already?

  25. “How do you teach people to think” – So I like this thread, but I’m busy. Is it ok to note that there is a HUGE body of research in how to teach critical thinking for everyone from toddlers to adults, and not, right now, provide reams of citation?

  26. In the 50s (before I was born), my Mom applied for a job with the phone company. (In those days, essentially there was only one.) They gave her an IQ test and told her she had failed – nobody who scored that high would be happy in the job she applied for. (And yes IQ tests are bullshit.) Today, our corporate structure is basically the phone company metastasized,

    Today’s power elite want being taught to think reserved for children of the rich. They want the rest of us to learn the right technical skills to serve them at the same time we learn to take orders and shut-up. That is why Obama pushes the “Most Children Left Behind” model of teach-to-the-test, while his own children go to a private school that gives kids plenty of freedom to use their creativity and learn in their own way. Teach-to-the-test is for our kids, not for the kids of Very Important People.

  27. “I think it is one of the great crimes of capitalism that today fewer and fewer people have access, not only to training in how to think, but in how to get the most out of works of art.”

    Fewer and fewer compared to when? A thousand years ago, did the 3,000,000 peasants in Japan have greater access to art than the tens of millions of non-CEO Japanese have today? Did Russian serfs or medieval craftsmen have larger public libraries and more museums than we do now?

    You are romanticizing the past. More people did not have training in how to think in years gone by. On the contrary, for most of human history the average person’s world was constrained by what was dealt with daily. There were no books and no schools, just the plow, hunting skills or a trade to learn, then death.

    “When I speak of science, I speak of using our reasoning abilities and our means of gathering information to form conclusions that bring our thoughts as close as possible to objective processes in the real world. In this regard, there can be no distinction between ‘science’ and ‘the humanities.'”

    This describes rational thinking, which is not identical with science. Science involves testing, refining, deriving a principle and being able to apply that principle in the manner best suited to the field – predicting an eclipse, treating a disease, creating a light bulb etc. And these results can then be replicated by anyone who cares to do so.

    Science concentrates on the objective and the humanities concentrate on the subjective aspects of life. Granted every sculptor learns the same basic techniques and uses the same tools, but the result will be distinctive to the individual artist.

    “What matters is being able to understand, operate in, and change our world.”

    I agree with this, but I don’t feel blurring the lines between disciplines is necessary or desirable. And of course, not everyone does agree with this – there are some who can make a compelling case for universities’ being corporate training grounds, and others who can argue that whatever the market wants is what a university should provide, i.e. if the campus can attract money for sculpting classes, let them have sculpture. The point of an organized education would have to be settled before the best means of attaining it could be determined.

    “A good education ought to help us understand the world, both physically and emotionally–or, if you will, spiritually.”

    If we’re going with ought, I think primary schools ought to teach the basics – how to read, write, perform math etc. – side by side with training students in logic and giving them other tools they can use to analyze new information. Those who go on to a college would then receive more specialized instruction in their areas of interest, while those who opt for trade school or no higher education will already be ready with the basic tools needed to teach themselves for the rest of their lives. That’s what really matters – the ability to continue learning for the rest of your life.

  28. I think much of this discussion is using the terms “science/STEM” and “humanities” as an inaccurate proxy for “useful” and “”useless””. (Flame retardant: note the double-double quotes around “useless” which indicate that’s not what I actually mean.) We stereotype STEM as teaching practical skills that a person can use to make money; we stereotype humanities as teaching hifalutin’ stuff that cultured people ought to know for their own good.

    But I remember the recursion theory class I took in college; it stated off by saying “here are a bunch of mathematical functions that we can prove it is impossible to compute. Ever, no matter how good your computing tools are. But we are going to spend the rest of the semester analyzing what you could do if you *were* able to compute these impossible to compute function.” So this entire class was fiction, teaching nothing that can be put to work in the real world. There are plenty of such examples in science—string theory, exobiology, universal algebra, paleontology. Meanwhile, my “humanities” fiction-writing class was teaching me how to communicate, a skill I use daily in my current (science) job.

    So I think the real dichotomy here is between meeting *individual* and *societal* needs in education. There are lots of subjects—more in STEM, but plenty in the humanities—where you can draw a straight line to the way those subjects will be used to improve one’s productivity and ability to make money. It’s easy to justify paying to study these subjects in college (if you have the money) because it’s going to improve your ability to support yourself later. There are other subjects—mostly in humanities, but some in science—where we can say “This is a good thing to know; it makes you a better person. Having this knowledge widespread makes our society better; it allows us to reason as a society about improving our laws, culture, and behavior.” It’s a lot harder to convince someone to spend their own time and money on this thing that benefits society as a whole but doesn’t benefit them directly.

    Framed slightly differently, I’d say STEM learning hits relatively low down in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, helping an individual meet their Physiological/Safety needs (earning money for enough food, a home, etc.) while humanities is often directed high in the hierarchy, addressing people’s needs for self-actualization (morality, creativity, etc.). It’s predictable that when resources are limited, people (and societies) are going to look first to the lower tiers of the hierarchy, and sacrifice the higher up.

  29. “Is it ok to note that there is a HUGE body of research in how to teach critical thinking for everyone from toddlers to adults, and not, right now, provide reams of citation?”

    Yes, that’s fine. What I want to note is that pretty much everybody learns to think unless they are taught not to.

    And pretty much everybody is taught not to think in some circumstances, notably when somebody who’s dominant over them is telling them to do as they’re told.

    Lots of people learn to double-think, to notice where their thinking is headed and stop if it is going in a forbidden direction. I think the skill that particularly needs to be taught is to triple-think, to continue thinking in forbidden directions while giving no appearance whatsoever of doing so.

    If that gets taught in schools, for social reasons it’s important to teach it without giving any hint that we realize we are teaching it. We must give every indication that we are teaching it entirely by accident.

  30. The saddest words of tongue or pen….”will this be on the test?” It was my very first graduate school course, after an undergrad degree at one of the finest Liberal arts colleges in the country/ (Oh, should we ponder that concept). I was amazed that the instructor did not invite her to leave the room, the class, the course! Now, 30 some years later, I am not so naive. I understand that some people do not learn for the love of learning. No, I mean I know it; I still don’t understand it.

    Here, I think, is the true dichotomy; not science vs humanities, but the thirst to understand vs the drive to finish the work and get the h–l on to more important things, like making money, or wielding power, or both together. Dichotomy? Lobotomy.

  31. “Is it on the test” doesn’t necessarily indicate a two valued “Do I need to learn it” person. Sometimes finding out we don’t need to write it down and make it exactly right for the test, allows us to listen to it better and even learn it better.

    Even if the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd reasons to take the class are to learn, understand, and grow – grades matter too. (Something I sometimes forgot way back when – enjoying the others too much)

  32. Two words: Loren Eiseley. No one comes to mind more that embodies the framework we’re all discussing here.

  33. What howardbrazee said…..also, even in grad school, one can be required to take a few classes that are not of interest, but they satisfy a degree requirement….and for those classes, the strategy tends to be do only what you need to get the necessary grade, and spend the rest of your time on the stuff you came to learn.

    Doesn’t make the grad student any less…just makes the student realistic….they only have so much time to study for stuff they *have* to take.

    I know I had a couple of classes I had to all but hold my nose to get through, and I happen to love learning….but that doesn’t mean I have to love learning *everything.*

  34. Let me just say that if you can test it using a multiple choice exam, it ain’t education. When people say that science is useful, they don’t even mean science; they mean technology. And there should be no dichotomy between science–true science–and humanities. They are both ways of learning to think. And a composition course is just like any other technology course. Undeniably useful, but not really part of learning to think (don’t take that too seriously; to write well you have to be able to organize your thinking).

    I am a retired mathematics professor. Before an exam, I would schedule a study session. Almost the only question asked was, “Are we responsible for X?” (My invariable answer was “yes”.) What a waste. I begged the students to stop me and ask questions. It hardly ever happened. Let me emphasize. Mathematics per se is often not “useful”. But learning to think always is. And you can learn to think just as much in a literature or history course as in math or physics course. But one thing is clear. You rarely find a scientist or mathematician who is ignorant of the arts and humanities. Sadly, there are all too many people in the humanities who are utterly ignorant of science.

  35. I know what you mean, Big Mike….I used to teach mathematics at community college….and that is well known among my friends…and a number of them them come to me when their kid has problems on their high school math….they are almost proud of the fact that they don’t know how to help their child with algebra….They certainly think it’s funny. And most of these folks have college degrees. It’s disheartening.

    Also, while philosophy used to include study of what we now consider science, math, etc….many current students of philosophy cannot for the life of them think through simple logical arguments…as can sadly be seen where I did my own undergrad and grad degrees…a major, well-respected school. There, the philosophy undergrads are expected to take one class (lower division) in basic logic…and it’s a stumbling block for them. These are folks that go on, often, to fields that require logical thinking, argument, etc….and they struggle to get through what is really a very basic course in critical thinking…..

    And yes, as a math major, I also took courses in French, philosophy, history, anthropology, etc….many classes beyond what was required to graduate…I took every chance I had to learn as much as I could from true experts. Many of my fellow math students did similar things.

    However, only one of my friends that majored in a humanities took anything in the math/science realm…and he happened to be an English/Chemistry double major, so he may not count.

  36. As a history major, I took three science classes. One was the entry-level class to Astronomy, meant to weed out the week. I was so proud of my C+. One was an oceanography class taught by a teacher I did not respect. I received a C+ because I did no work. One was a physics class “the trail of light,” taught by a brilliant physicist who had thought, at length, about what he could best teach to anyone (whether they were good at math or not). It was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. I think of it as physics for poets in which the poetry was taken as seriously as the physics.

    When I write about liberal learning, a phrase that replaced liberal arts and sciences for reasons that I do not know, I emphasize the unpredictability of life. I say that one aspect of education is to provide training for specific occupations, but that liberal learning prepares you to play whatever cards you are dealt.

    I then talk about the birth of my son and the complexity of responding to the words “Down syndrome.” I needed to learn biology, public health policy, education policy, disability history, and the complex thoughts of philosophers and literary scholars on how to live a good, if atypical, life. My broadly based liberal arts and sciences education has guided me through the most difficult challenge of my life. I’m grateful to it.

    So yes, in science vs humanities, we lose.

    In an essay on the retirement of Pope Benedict, I wrote:

    “In America, we are in the midst of an ongoing debate about the value of different types of education. We see STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) pitted against the Humanities; vocational training pitted against the Liberal Arts. But Catholic history tells us to reject “either/or” in favor of “both/and.” We need both specific expertise and the fruits of contemplation. We need passionate commitment to both job training and liberal learning, especially when they seem to clash in opposition, so that we are ready to respond to the unexpected events that life generates. Who knew on February 10 that the public square would require the expertise of so many historians and theologians? Who knows what kind of experts we will need for the next surprise?”


    I think those words are true.

  37. I do see more science and engineer majors taking liberal arts courses than the reverse.

    Even though my undergraduate major was physics, in the real world, most all of the math I have ever used is stuff I learned to use a slide rule. Too bad those are obsolete, as those skills are *still* what every adult should know, such as:

    The ability to estimate/guess to the nearest power of 10 the answer.
    Proportion (in numbers and outside of numbers)
    Significant figures

  38. The “ability to think” was poor phrasing. Yes we all have the ability to think, if we don’t suffer extremely severe clinical disability. But the essence remains true. Our elites want encouragement of creativity and independence and generalized problem solving skills reserved to the extent possible for their children. Our elites want to the rest of us trained in obedience, deference, tolerance for abuse, and some narrow technical skills so that we make good servants. That what really is at the core of this debate. The “humanities vs science” framing is just one of many frames to sell it. Not to say that some people don’t sincerely buy the frame. Someone who has been convinced by a good liar, and sincerely believes the lie will often be a better seller of that lie than the liar was.

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