Dehumanizing the Two Cultures

It’s probably a good thing that I don’t have full-text access to Mark Slouka’s article in Harper’s, with the title “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school.” Just the description in this Columbia Journalism Review piece makes me want to hunt down the author and belt him with a Norton anthology:

According to the article itself, the dehumanizing element of the school system (especially universities) is actually its focus on producing businesspeople and “ensuring that the United States does not fall from its privileged perch in the global economy.” But “nothing speaks more clearly to the relentlessly vocational bent in American education than its long-running affair with math and science.”

The problem with that relationship, according to the essay, is that the sciences are unlikely to produce “the kinds of citizens necessary to the survival of a democratic society”–which is to say, those who stick up for democratic as well as personal values. Because the sciences try to explain the material world rather than how one should behave in it, they are “often dramatically anti-democratic,” the argument goes.

Yes, indeed, math and science are undemocratic and their dominance over modern American education is killing democracy. You can see this reflected in the way that math and science dominate the requirements for a Regent’s diploma in New York State, accounting for 6.5 of the 18.5 credits required for graduation (I’ll call “health” a science for these purposes). This positively dwarfs the measly 10 credits required in humanistic disciplines.

Then again, it might be nice to have full access to the article, just to have a concrete distillation of everything that’s wrong with modern intellectual culture. That way, when people ask me what I’m complaining about when I rant about a lack of respect for science in the academy, I can have something nice and short to point to.

It’s possible, of course, that I’m doing him a disservice, complaining about the article based on the headline and a summary from CJR. Authors don’t get to choose their own headlines, after all, and it’s possible that the blood-boiling “Dehumanized” was the work of some editor high on the Harper’s masthead, and is a distortion of the point of the piece. I’d like to believe that, actually.

I suspect, though, that the CJR summary is pretty much dead on, because this is an attitude that you run into all the time around academia, though it’s rarely put so bluntly. The Humanities are responsible for all that is good about human culture, while Science is an alien invention that is cold and aloof and brings as much ill as good.

The reality, at least in my opinion, is that science is what makes us human. Science is not some artificial inhuman construct; science is a fundamental human activity, arguably the most fundamental human activity. Art and poetry is nice and all, but without science, we’d be hairless apes shivering in caves, hoping the lions don’t get us.

(I’m talking science-the-process, here, not science-the-set-of-institutions. Science as an institution is a modern invention, but then so is Literature as a formal academic discipline. Science the process is as old as storytelling.)

I suppose that there is something sort of refreshing about an article taking the bold stance that we spend too much time teaching math and science, as opposed to hand-wringing pieces about how we’re falling behind and must do better. But really, there ought to be a less insulting way of going about it.