Maths and Science Can’t Save Our Country

The so-called STEM subjects won’t save education, nor our economy.

maths and science

The latest student riots have put education in the spotlight. The students are re-deploying an old argument of the intellectual and political establishment – education can save our society (particularly the sciences) therefore it should be free for all.

The irony is that the violence of the riots and the lack of any meaningful dialogue around the conflict only shows the need for a new kind of education that goes beyond just preparing people for the workplace.

We need an education that helps us see and understand the big issues that have always either inspired or plagued human beings.

Simply getting a basic degree is not going to be enough anymore, if we are going to resolve all our national crises.

Unless young people are given cultural capital, the ability to think, read, and to grapple with the history of what it has meant to be human, technical and scientific knowledge has no soil in which to thrive. Science, Tech, Engineering, Maths (the STEM grouping) will lose their magical ability to advance society.

After all, humanity is human first, scientist second.

A while ago, I delivered the following paper to an English teachers’ conference about this shriveling of the humanities, and why it is so ominous.

I honestly believe that this week our country is reaping the fruits of a systematic attack on the humanities.

Enjoy.

Defending the Classics

My speech today is entitled ‘Defending the Classics’.

I am passionate about passing on the best ideas of western civilization to a younger generation, because I believe those ideas make for a life well lived.

But in preparing for today I realised that questions of curriculum cannot really be considered without a prior discussion of what education is for. When we know why we teach, what we should teach becomes obvious. So this is what I will focus on for the next ten minutes.

Every good English teacher I have ever met has been an interesting person, somebody who wants to live ‘the examined life’, who is intrigued by his or her humanity and the humanity of others, who has a sense of wonder at existence.

This leads me to conclude that most of us chose English because the subject is about everything. It is not a specialisation such as accounting or geography (as noble as those subjects are) but an avenue to explore life itself.

But the reality is we live in a world in which education is undergoing a seismic shift. No longer is education seen as formation, a venture into life, but rather often as the simple transfer of information.

The sciences are dominating and even extinguishing the humanities. And that is a serious problem, because science only makes sense as a function of humanity. Science and logic never exist in the abstract – yet that is the very premise of modern education.

And that premise is founded on a series of myths.

Tamsin Meany, a Swedish professor, speaking at Nelson Mandela University at a conference hosted by the Southern African Association for Research in Mathematics, Science and Technology this year, noted that the entrenched dogma of modern education (namely, that maths teaching leads to economic growth, that success in education ends poverty and that regular assessment raises standards) are myths completely unproven, but convenient in a world in which children are seen as commodities.

JM Coetzee writing in the foreword to UCT English professor John Higgins’ book, ‘Academic freedom in a Democratic South Africa’ states that, ‘All over the world, as governments retreat from their traditional duty to foster the common good and reconceive of themselves as mere managers of national economies, universities have been coming under pressure to turn themselves into training schools equipping young people with the skills required by a modern economy.’

My great fear is that we, as school teachers, have without much thought bought into this highly radical re-envisioning of education. And in the process we are on the cusp of changing English into a subject better described as Communications 101.

At times, I find myself sympathising with radical education activist, John Taylor Gratto, who, after winning New York public school teacher of the year award three times gave an infamous speech in which he regretfully declared that in actual fact he has never taught English, but rather has only taught ‘school’. And that is why he has won so many awards in a rotten system of falling literacy.

So what does it mean to teach school instead of English?

I think it means constant assessment, in which we train students to succeed at esoteric tasks that will never be repeated in life; I think it means when we focus on transferring knowledge as opposed to exploring ideas. I think it is when we have time to analyse a crude Zapiro cartoon, but no time to read a great book. I think it means when we give up on the classics because we give up on the intellect of modern children. I think it means to teach our students to be critical thinkers, without giving them anything of lasting value to think about.

But for all this, the good news is that magic of English remains alive and resilient, surviving in the nooks and crannies of OBE and CAPS.

For no matter what we do, the youth will always have an innate desire to pull together the scattered threads of modern life and try to make sense of the world.

The question is, are we helping or hindering them in doing that? Are we introducing them to literary beauty and profundity, the best ideas of the past, or are we just teaching ‘school’ drowning them in worksheets, endless and disconnected comprehension texts, and transactional tasks that dabble in the ephemeral mundanities of modern existence.

The British political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, in opposition to the spirit of the age, described citizenship not as a legal relationship but rather as a spiritual experience. Subsequently, education was not to be seen as technocratic process creating workers, but rather as an initiation into ‘the conversation of mankind.’

That is precisely what a classical and literary education would imply – a conversation with the past.

Recently, in the American magazine, The Atlantic, Scott Samuelson, a philosophy professor at a community college, the US equivalent of a Damelin, explained why he taught Plato to plumbers, because ‘we should strive to be a society of free people, not simply one of well-compensated managers and employees.’

Samuelson noted that the term ‘liberal education’, which refers to a non-professional or trade education in the humanities, received this label originally because the Romans believed such an education to be worthy of free, or liberal, men. It was slaves that only learnt trades and technical knowledge.

Is it a coincidence then that modern managers of our economy, the governments, the EU, the Henry Fords, the Bill Gates, all push for technical education as the antidote to all social problems? Could it be that in denying the cultural capital of the humanities to the masses, we ensure a compliant workforce?

Samuelson, in addressing the common objection that normal students don’t want to learn about history and classical literature offers the following anecdotes:

‘Once, during a lecture I gave about the Stoics, who argue that with the proper spiritual discipline one can be truly free and happy even while being tortured, I looked up to see one of the students in tears. I recalled that her sister in Sudan had been recently imprisoned for challenging the local authorities. Through her tears my student was processing that her sister was likely seeking out a hard Stoic freedom as I was lecturing.

‘I once had a janitor compare his mystical experiences with those of the medieval Sufi al-Ghazali’s. I once had a student of redneck parents—his way of describing them—who read both parts of Don Quixote because I used the word “quixotic.” A mother who’d authorized for her crippled son a risky surgery that led to his death once asked me with tears in her eyes, “Is Kant right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth?” A wayward veteran I once had in Basic Reasoning fell in love with formal logic and is now finishing law school at Berkeley.

‘The fire will always be sparked. Are we going to fan it, or try to extinguish it?’

Do you think Samuelson’s students are battling with their essay writing? Do you think a student inspired enough to read 1000 pages of Don Quixote, the world’s first novel, is going to battle with their comprehension?

We’re English teachers – we should be comfortable with subversion, and right now the most subversive thing we can do is offer our students a classical education, an education that understands that before you can know how to make a living, you should know yourself, that before you study the branches of knowledge, you have to know the root.

Such an education knows that the leaves of technical knowledge actually wither away when disconnected from the root.

Modern education has cut off the root – and the depressing statistics of university failure, youth unemployment are evidence that our tree, rootless, bears no fruit. Students leaving school find themselves adrift as fragmented people in a fragmented world.

Such students have been denied the ability of great literature to create an awareness and reflection that others have known and faced and seen what we see and what we feel. They have been denied a shared experience with those who have been able to articulate what we ourselves cannot articulate ourselves, a shared experience which lends our intellect a kind of depth and toughness that lead to wisdom.

We have made an idol of Matric assessment and results, but the time is coming when we discover that idol to have feet of clay, to be an idol that will not help you live your life.

The British educationalist of the Victorian era, Charlotte Mason, wrote that ‘the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body.’

What if, instead of passing time at school, scrapping over bits of information, we laid out for students a meal of the greatest literature ever written? And what if we didn’t give it to them simply so they could write a test on it that forced them to learn details like a parrot, but rather in a way that gave them the freedom to explore for themselves the great adventure of being human?

The great challenge I believe is for us as teachers to learn again to enjoy great works of literature. If we enjoy them, and we guide our students toward them not as lecturers preparing our students for assessment, but rather as mentors sharing treasure, our classroom would become little guerrilla units waging war against the dumbing down of modern society.

This is not just idealism. Social scientists have confirmed that reading literary fiction is perhaps the only way to grow IQ.

So it is not a choice between a grand classical education; and a pragmatic education that gives children skills for life – it is a choice between education of real people and a slow slide towards the hypnopaedia and particularisation of the labourers of the lower castes in Huxley’s Brave New World.

The battle lines are not that stark yet, but as JM Coetzee notes, there is a coming reckoning for the humanities, and the humanities seem ready to lie down and die.

Does this mean I believe that every student can and should become experts in Dante and Shakespeare?

Of course not, nor do I believe every student who passes through our schools can and should go to university to receive academic or even professional degrees. In fact, I am of the opinion that there is possibly not enough education in trades and crafts at our schools.

But what I am arguing against is the reduction of the humanities to another type of technical skill amongst the sciences.

When we do that, the humanities die and eventually, I think, so do the sciences, because they have no coherence, no final end, barring the goals set by the managers of neo-liberal economies.

Acknowledging that the majority of our students passing through all our schools will, or should, becomes tradesmen and women and professionals, there should still be a priority for an education that positions work and employment in the ambit of what being human is all about.

When Dante’s Divine Comedy was written in the 14th century, for decades afterwards the common folk of Italy could be heard reciting the poem as they built houses and rode carriages for the nobility. Dante’s vision of an entire cosmos ordered towards redemption had enriched their lives.

Shakespeare was not an exceptionally well educated person for his times – his plays in general only reference the Bible and Ovid’s Metamorphoses – yet his words were not for an age but for all time – and it was the common folk who filled the Globe who made him popular.

But if now we deny the classical literature of the past to our students, we are not being progressive, rather we are going past the Middle Ages to the Roman reservation of the liberal arts to only rich men who had not had the misfortune of being born as slaves.

In the words of history professor and journalist, Niall Ferguson, children who don’t read the classics are cut off from the civilization of their ancestors. They are trapped in the mirrors of original thought, constantly making speeches about their own ideas with no reference to the history or depth of those ideas.

In conclusion then, if education is meant for the development of the whole person, then it would be tragic and foolish for such an education to neglect all the wisdom and genius of the vast majority of literature and authors who were born more than fifty years ago.

Without that great conversation, modern education becomes Shakespeare’s fallen king, King Lear, charging through a barren plain, in conversation only with himself.