Dehumanized Mark Slouka Argument Essay

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Rehumanized

This is the previously mentioned commentary on Mark Slouka’s article “Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school” Since the article is quite lengthy, I’ve added a brief summary.

Summary

In his article “Dehumanized,” Mark Slouka argues that the US education’s focus on math and science and the neglect of the humanities spell the demise of democracy. The American education’s “long running affair with math and science” is “obsessive, exclusionary” and “altogether unhealthy.” And that is because the ways of science are “often dramatically anti-democratic.” “There are many things,” Slouka writes “math and science do well, and some they don’t. And one of the things they don’t do well is democracy.”

Referring to a quote by Dennis Overbye that “Nobody was ever sent to prison for espousing the wrong value for the Hubble constant,” Slouka complains that “To maintain its “sustainable edge,” a democracy require its citizens to actually risk something, to test the limits of the acceptable… If the value you’re espousing is one that could never get anyone, anywhere, sent to prison, then strictly democratically speaking you’re useless.” Democratically useful are only humanists because “upsetting people is arguably the very purpose of the arts and perhaps of the humanities in general.” That is also the reason, Slouka explains, totalitarian societies are skimping the dangerously upsetting humanities: “Why would a repressive regime support a force superbly designed to resist it?”

The last thing his humanist colleagues should do, Slouka says, is to succumb to the capitalist’ demand of accountability and economic utility, and attempt to fit in by justifying their existence on the enemies’ terms. “In a visible world, the invisible does not compute… in a horizontal world of “information” readily convertible to product, the verticality of wisdom has no place.” And Slouka evidently thinks wisdom is in the domain of the humanities. The trend to math and science is “the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t” and clearly one that one should oppose.

Comments

Slouka sets out to make a case against neglect of the humanities in American education and ends up calling scientists the useless couch potatoes of democratic societies. But in his arguments he makes several leaps. Most importantly, he equates “the sciences” with “the scientists” and he mixes up the role of democracy in science and the role of science for democracy, two very different things.

The process of knowledge discovery in science is not democratic. It has never been, and I hope it never will be for it would be a disaster. It is useful to think of it from a system’s perspective. Scientific progress just doesn’t work by voting. Ikeepsaying that it would be good if we had a better understanding of its working and what feedback mechanisms are beneficial, but we know that much. That scientific knowledge discovery doesn’t operate democratically however doesn’t mean scientists don’t understand democracy or its relevance. Science teaches you to look at the evidence, to search for causal relations, correlations, and to identify and fix problems. Scientists know about the limits of predictability and the inevitability of uncertainty. They know what that statistic means and how to read that figure. They know the value of checking the references and that of reasoned argumentation. (Well, we're all human ;-)) The evidence says women are safer drivers than men. Upsetting? Where would democracy be without scientists?

But yes, scientists aren’t the first to take it to the streets if the world doesn’t run as they think it should. The people you find in the streets, those who start a revolution and throw the stones, are in the majority young unemployed males. Something to do with hormones too I guess, I’m sure somebody somewhere wrote a paper about this. The people who like their jobs, they stay in the lab and crunch the numbers because, actually, the world never runs as they think it should, but isn’t it so damned pretty if you look at it through a microscope, telescope, or binocular HMD? So I guess what Slouka is saying then is that we need the humanities because people who don’t like their job are more likely to join that demonstration tomorrow?

Okay, I’m being unfair because I actually agree with Slouka that the trend towards measuring and quantifying everything including success and knowledge gain is unhealthy. The process of measurement itself disturbs the process it is supposed to help - a problem we have discussedseveral timeson this blog. Though, according to Slouka, a scientist like me should be positive about this trend towards reliance on metrics. Considering how divided the scientific community is over the use of any such measure for scientific success, Slouka doesn’t seem to have bothered talking to his colleagues from the science departments.

Slouka’s main point was about the American education system, and he’d done better not to overgeneralize his argument. Having grown up in Germany, I can’t judge on the quality of the American education system. Clearly, you want to teach children how the society they live in works and that includes politics, history, economics as well as all aspects of human culture. Needless to say, many of these subjects are interrelated. The impression I got during my years in the USA is that many students there have little or no idea what democracy is or how it works, and even less so do they actually know what communism, socialism, and social democracy is – and what the differences. I talked to several people who actually thought consumerism is a form of democracy, and I vividly recall talking to one guy who thought Germany is socialistic. Such confusions explain a lot of nonsense I keep reading online and are certainly not helpful to informed decision making. I am not sure though how representative that impression is. Maybe the people who talk to me are just oddballs.

And isn’t it ironic Slouka is bemoaning the American educations’ failure to produce good citizens, since to some extend I own my school education’s focus on democratic values to the Americans of the last generation? The first time some US officer said to me “I’m just following orders,” I stood in shock, having be taught a million times since Kindergarten to never, ever, justify an action by referral to an order whose purpose I cannot explain and bring in line with my conscience. After several similar incidents, I thought that’s just me till somebody told me about their German friend who in reply to the same remark by an US officer uttered promptly “That’s what the Nazi’s said.” Which, even with German accent however, fell on deaf American ears. (And that hopefully explains why I give a shit about your so-called policies.)

The other day, I came across this article by Bruce Levine listing “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back: How the US Crushed Youth Resistance” which you might like or not like, but point 3 “Schools That Educate for Compliance and Not for Democracy” is interesting in the context of Slouka’s article. Levine lets us know that “Upon accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award on January 31, 1990, John Taylor Gatto upset many in attendance by stating: “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.””

Taken together, Slouka makes some bad points and some good points, but he makes both badly. Trying to make a case for the value of good writing, Slouka asks “Could clear writing have some relation to clear thinking?” In reply to which I want to quote Niels Bohr: “Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.”

Mark Slouka’s essay (Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school) comes across as a persuasive argument that the humanities have lost out to math and science in American schools and that this does not bode well for the future of democracy.

The fact that the essay is persuasive should be no surprise – Slouka is a professor of English and he employs the art of rhetoric at its finest. The language is so elegant that one can read the essay just for that pleasure alone. But one should not allow the intoxication of elegant prose to overwhelm reason – as public policy, Slouka’s essay suffers from at least two major flaws.

Slouka’s main point has validity – the framework in which we reckon the value of things, the thrust of our education, our very language, has become excessively economistic. When we evaluate systems or programs or arrangements or plans, we more often than not ask whether they are efficient or cost-effective; we rarely ask whether they are just or fair. And this interpretive frame that has come to dominate our outlook does have definite negative consequences.

Others have made the point convincingly as well. Lewis Lapham, in his essay, ‘Achievetrons,’ ascribes this attitude as the reason that the ‘best and the brightest’ in America have repeatedly led it into disasters. In his talk on social democracy, historian Tony Judt identifies the same tendency for the growing disenchantment with governments and the increasing appeal of fringe movements that promise their own variants of justice.

Having made this point, Slouka then makes a leap of logic that is unwarranted – he associates the dominance of this economistic framework to the dominance of math and science and to quantification. By implication he associates the framework of qualitative values like justice and fairness and ethics to the humanities. And thus is set up a confrontation of cultures – science and maths on one side and humanities and the arts on the other. This is an ironic thought but could it be Slouka’s relative lack of exposure to math and science that has led him into this error?

In his comment, our reader Balasubramaniam has pointed out the fallacy in this formulation by Slouka. The central issue here is that a meaningful education needs to nurture the ability to think, to ask questions, and to analyze critically. There is no reason why math and science cannot be taught in ways that accomplish all these objectives. Bertrand Russell was obsessed with mathematics and at the same time was one of the most critical minds of the twentieth century.

It is equally possible that one could teach the humanities in ways that fail completely to develop the critical faculties. So the conflict is not between mathandscience (as Slouka terms it) and the humanities but between good teaching and poor teaching. And here we might have a different problem because good teachers are few and poor teachers are many.

The fact that our evaluative framework has become very economistic and bottom-line oriented has little to do with math and science. In fact many of Lapham’s ‘Achievetrons,’ including the neo-cons, must have majored in the humanities from the best schools. There are some other factors at work here that Slouka has missed out and this constitutes the second big gap in his analysis.

It seems reasonable to argue that education does not lead; it follows and adapts itself to the needs of production – in actuality to the needs of the ruling elites who control the means of production (and also the institutions of education for that matter). Therefore we have to look for what might have changed in society that was reflected in the changing focus of education. One can point immediately to the fact that the world of production at the beginning of the modern democratic era in the West was one of small firms. Universal general public education responded to the needs imposed by the societies of that period. Over time we have seen the emergence of the giant publicly owned corporations with their very different needs, both in terms of management and of performance. These needs, in turn were reflected in the changes in education with the growth of business schools with their bottom-line orientations. The impact of the military-industrial complex has been not only on education but on the very nature of democracy itself via the proliferation of lobbying by narrow but well-endowed interest groups.

But beyond economics lies the plane of politics that Slouka has not considered at all. There is no education that is independent of politics. Even creativity is a need of the political order in societies that are competing for global dominance because countries that cannot innovate inevitably fall behind. Thus critical thinking is to be nurtured – but critical thinking is a double-edged sword because it can also challenge inequities at home. It is no surprise that critical thinking is so carefully rationed and made available only to the extent it is needed – education can be made universal but not critical thinking.

This is not just the case in capitalist systems – countries that revolted against capitalism in the name of the masses were just as strategic with education using it as a means to political ends. And non-competitive countries based on oppressive systems, like most in the Islamic world, had no need to nurture any critical thought at all – all they needed were well-trained technicians or ideologically indoctrinated followers. In contrast, as Tony Judt has argued, social democracies in small homogenous societies (for example the Scandinavian countries) could afford to be much more liberal with their education because of their legitimacy and marginal role in global politics.

Slouka is right that “Education in America today is almost exclusively about the GDP. It’s about investing in our human capital” and he is just as right to desire instead a world in which we “invest our capital in what makes us human.” But Slouka errs in thinking that math and science have brought us to this pass. In fact, education was always about the GDP – it is the composition of GDP and how it is produced that have changed dramatically over time, a change that is reflected in the nature of our education.

Slouka makes the case for the humanities by quoting Epictetus – “Only the educated are free.” That, no doubt, is true but the way our societies are constituted they cannot afford everyone to be free. Even revolutions from above have not bought us that freedom. Only when we free ourselves will be able to get the education that we need and deserve.

The three essays mentioned in this post (by Slouka, Lapham and Judt) are all archived on The Best From Elsewhere page (# 28, 42 and 25, respectively). For our extension of Lapham’s theme to South Asia see Hearts and Minds. For a related essay on this blog about education in South Asia see Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?

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Tags: Democracy, Economics, Education, Humanities, Judt, Lapham, Politics, Science, Slouka

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