Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Hey Kristof: Liberal Arts ≠ Humanities!

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Clearly, I should finally get that post about the value of the liberal arts up, because some people out there aren't even clear what "liberal arts" means. (I know, I'm preaching to the choir.)

One of those people is Nick Kristof, who thinks the Liberal Arts and its proponents are responsible for the lack of science education in the U.S. Wha?? Seriously, here's what he has to say:

The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of ... well, of people like me - and probably you.

What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.

(emphasis mine)
Um...

Seems Kristof really does need a bit more education in the classical liberal arts, and not in the science part. Seems he needs to take a course in Logic and Rhetoric (two-thirds of the classical and medieval trivium, the other third being Grammar), because he doesn't know about the problems of starting from a false premise. (Complete article at the bottom of this post.) [Edited to add: hmm, actually, I think it's more a category error than a false premise. But I had other problems with the article, too. Read on.]

In this case, he doesn't seem to know that the Liberal Arts includes not only arts and humanities, but also mathematics and pure sciences (with origins in the second part of the classical/medieval liberal arts, the quadrivium: Arthimetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and, perhaps surprising to us, Music). Just about any basic reference work would have told him that, and in these days of Google and Wikipedia, he could have come up with some reliable, if not quite scholarly, sources very quickly.

I'd be more forgiving of his confusion, given a general confusion of terms -- after all, my own department is in the College of Arts and Sciences -- but then he creates that straw-man of an educated person who thinks you should know art and literature but not science. Please. Who is this person? My undergraduate college required a year of science of all majors and has since expanded that to two years, and we read some landmark texts of science in our required Western Civ. class. And I'm pretty sure his alma mater was no slouch in the broad, liberal arts (all of 'em) education either. Yup, in fact, I just looked it up here (warning: PDF file) and it seems that that old college (of arts and sciences) in Cambridge, MA, has a core curriculum with the following requirements:

Foreign Cultures
Moral Reasoning
Historical Study A
Historical Study B
Quantitative Reasoning (Math!!)
Science A (Science!!)
Science B (Science!!)
Social Analysis
Literature and Arts A
Literature and Arts B
Literature and Arts C

Apparently he's forgotten that he took math and science classes. (Yeah, yeah, I know. The requirements were likely different when he went there. But I bet they still included math and science.)

Really, who are these "educated people" running around in "educated circles" saying you don't need that icky math and science stuff, (edited to add: since they clearly aren't people who work on general education curriculum committees at liberal arts institutions)? Ohhhh...they're journalists at the New York Times:
A year ago, I wanted to ornament a column with a complex equation, so, as a math ninny myself, I looked around the Times newsroom for anyone who could verify that it was correct. Now you can't turn around in the Times newsroom without bumping into polyglots who come and go talking of Michelangelo. But it took forever to turn up someone confident in his calculus - in the science section.
Let me get this straight. He looked around a newsroom, full of writers and editors and other sundry sorts who make their living working with language, and couldn't find anyone who knew calculus off the top of their head until he went to the science section.

I have a one-word response to that: duh.

Oh, and I'm sure their knowledge of Michelangelo and T. S. Eliot (that's his poetic reference, in case you didn't know) was deep and boundless. (In the arts and book review sections, perhaps.)

Argh. The point of an education like the one Kristof had, that I had, that most of you have had (at least the people I know who read this) is not the information learned -- much of that is forgotten if you don't use it (as journalists would not be likely to use calculus but clearly have use of the occasional T. S. Eliot reference!) -- but the process of learning across different disciplines, of understanding how knowledge is developed, produced, disseminated, judged, etc., in different disciplines (through experimentation, archival research, writing, etc.). But that's a post for another time.

Today I just wanted to bitch about this assinine piece by Kristof. Yes, science education in the U.S. could be a helluva lot better. But no, the problem is not people in the humanities, and definitely not people in the "liberal arts," which includes the sciences.

Read the whole straw-man argument here, since it's one of those "if you want it, you'll have to pay for it" articles at the Times (I got to it by doing a Technorati search and lifting it from here):

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
The New York Times
December 6, 2005

The best argument against "intelligent design" has always been humanity itself. At a time when only 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution, and only 13 percent know what a molecule is, we're an argument at best for "mediocre design."

But put aside the evolution debate for a moment. It's only a symptom of something much deeper and more serious: a profound illiteracy about science and math as a whole.

One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of ... well, of people like me - and probably you.

What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people.

"The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the Western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had," C. P. Snow wrote in his classic essay, "The Two Cultures."

The counterargument is that we can always hire technicians in Bangalore, while it's Shakespeare and Goethe who teach us the values we need to harness science for humanity. There's something to that. If President Bush were about to attack Iraq all over again, he would be better off reading Sophocles - to appreciate the dangers of hubris - than studying the science of explosives.

But don't pin too much faith on the civilizing influence of a liberal education: the officers of the Third Reich were steeped in Kant and Goethe. And similar arguments were used in past centuries to assert that all a student needed was Greek, Latin and familiarity with the Bible - or, in China, to argue that all the elites needed were the Confucian classics.

Without some fluency in science and math, we'll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues - avian flu, stem cells - that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, 12 doctors and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines. A year ago, I wanted to ornament a column with a complex equation, so, as a math ninny myself, I looked around the Times newsroom for anyone who could verify that it was correct. Now you can't turn around in the Times newsroom without bumping into polyglots who come and go talking of Michelangelo. But it took forever to turn up someone confident in his calculus - in the science section.

So Pogo was right.

This disregard for science already hurts us. The U.S. has bungled research on stem cells perhaps partly because Mr. Bush didn't realize how restrictive his curb on research funds would be. And we're risking our planet's future because our leaders are frozen in the headlights of climate change.

In this century, one of the most complex choices we will make will be what tinkering to allow with human genes, to "improve" the human species. How can our leaders decide that issue if they barely know what DNA is?

Intellectuals have focused on the challenge from the right, which has led to a drop in the public acceptance of evolution in the U.S. over the last 20 years, to 40 percent from 45 percent. Jon Miller, a professor at the Northwestern University medical school who has tracked attitudes toward evolution in 34 countries, says Turkey is the only one with less support for evolution than the U.S.

It's true that antagonism to science seems peculiarly American. The European right, for example, frets about taxes and immigration, but not about evolution.

But there's an even larger challenge than anti-intellectualism. And that's the skewed intellectualism of those who believe that a person can become sophisticated on a diet of poetry, philosophy and history, unleavened by statistics or chromosomes. That's the hubris of the humanities.

6 comments:

HeoCwaeth said...

May I still claim hubris and cultural snootiness if I don't particularly like Monet?

Dr. Virago said...

Yes, you may. In fact, *especially* if you don't like Monet. Cuz, um, knowing who Monet is is hardly culturally snooty. People who paint on velvet probably like Monet!

Anonymous said...

On the perils of starting from a false premise.

Indeed, I myself was shocked, shocked(!) to learn that science is indeed a part of the liberal arts. Wow, I thought to myself, how could I, prancing around with my own doctorate and university position, not know this? How wrong I was about those liberal studies majors at my own undergraduate institution - how unfairly I judged my fellow graduate students later on!

Of course, then again, I am no slouch at reasoning or rhetoric - I think. After all, these are useful skills in a scientific career. Should I have had more education in the classical liberal arts? Should Nicholas Kristof?

Well, let's take a closer look. First, what did Kristof actually say? Did he say that the liberal arts doesn't include the natural sciences? Hmm, I can't find where he does. But he certainly implies it, doesn't he? Well, actually he just says that science and math teaching is inadequate, and that people who are well educated, presumably in the liberal arts, don't understand the importance of Einstein's first paper on relativity.

This does seem a little unfair. After all, how does he know that otherwise educated people don't understand it? Who are these people? How does he know they didn't watch the special on NOVA about it last week? And really relativity wasn't nearly as important as quantum mechanics anyway...

But unfair or not, it doesn't add up to a claim that science is not part of the liberal arts.

So if he never made such a claim, he didn't really need to visit google or wikipedia in the first place.

Still, Dr. Virago (if indeed that is your real name) presumably wanted to make a point about the larger premise of Kristof's peice, not just nit-pick that he doesn't know what the liberal arts are. (it's called the principle of charity - I learned about it in an English class a long, long time ago) So how about it, is he wrong?

Well, let's start with the undergraduate curriculum. Dr. Virago points out that Kristof himself must have had a few science and math classes back in the day, so presumably this means that science and math are not victims of an emphasis on the humanities.

Looking at the posted curriculum, we see that 3 out of 11 courses are science or math. It is likely not very informative to try and posit whether or not this is enough in the modern world, but as a student has to take 2 science courses and 3 literature and arts courses, so Kristof's argument really cannot be refuted by this list.

Looking at my own undergraduate instutution's current offerings in liberal studies, cannot see how much science and math are required, only that they are. Students are required to pick two subjects in which to "concentrate" on in thier later years, and I see that the natural sciences are well represented. Of course, on closer observation, one notices that they constitute only 9 of the 39 disciplines. Furthermore, while a student interested in American Studies, Asian Studies, Ethnic Studies, European Studies, Hispanic Studies, Latin American Studies, Religious Studies, and Women's studies can choose from each of these individual disciplines, students interested in Neuroscience, Molecular Biology, Evolutionary Biology, Pharmacology, Genetics, Developmental Biology, Botany, Microbiology, Entymology, etc., have the overly broad subject heading of "Biological Sciences" as thier only choice. Oh, did I mention Antropology and Sociology are also on the list? (to be fair, Anthropology can cut both ways, although I did not include it in my tally of the natural sciences)

More informative would be the number of students concentrating on subjects in the natural sciences, or the quality of science classes humanities students are required to take.

At my graduate institution, things were even worse. There was a graduate institute for liberal arts at this institution, a Ph.D. program, in which absolutely no natural science or mathmatics is listed among the departmental contacts or interests of the institute. Nothing even close. I knew some of these people, and quite frankly, many of them epitomized the caricature of the well educated person in Kristof's column.

One Ph.D. student in comp lit told me that he thought Sigmund Freud was the greatest scientist of all time.

As a neuroscientist, I found that statement far more shocking and disturbing that the statistics that show that only 40% of Americans believe in Evolution (although that's a close second), that the idea of "teaching the controversy" of evolution and intelligent design has widespread support across America, and that so many people believe that all the embryos frozen in fertility clinics can be adopted and grow into little boys and girls. Maybe I’m being too hard on him though – he had probably been taught that empericism was dead.

So given the evidence, is Kristof really making a straw man argument? Well, I think yes and no… Yes the number of people in the Times newsroom who can proof an integral equation is a straw man, but no, the Americans who refuse to believe in evolution are men and women of flesh and blood, as are graduate students in the liberal ARTS (emphasis apparently theirs). Is this the fault of people in the humanities? Well, no, but then, Kristof didn’t say it was, he says it’s the product of a culture where George W. Bush caught at least as much flak for saying that his favorite philosopher was Jesus as saying that Intelligent Design could be taught in science class, where scientists are nerds and poets are sophisticated.

It is important to remember that this is a world of limited resources, and nowhere more so than in education. So yes, it matters when we add ever more opportunities for students to study the history and culture of another ethnic group, but fail to distinguish between botany and behavior, calculus and quantitative reasoning. One has to ask ones' self, (self,) if a liberal arts education teaches one how to learn across different disciplines, how come so many people can't do it when it comes to science and math???? How do we know they can do it at all?

Dr. Virago said...

Anonymous -- I'm sorry you mistook this for a serious blog (it's really just a way for me to keep in touch with friends and family -- including ranting to them) and poured all that energy into that essay-length comment!

I wish I had equal energy and time right now to respond at length, but by the time I do have it, you will probably have forgotten all about this humble blog. And my regular readers numbering only about 12, I think they've probably forgotten about this post already.

And no, Dr. Virago *isn't* my real name. It's a facetious pseudonym. But thanks for the the laugh (not at you, I assure you). I *wish* it were my real name.

Brian said...

Don't be sorry - I didn't mistake it for serious or unserious, it just said what it said, as far as I was concerned.

Really it was just very interesting, and I ended up thinking about the subject a lot more than I would have if I had just read the Kristof piece. (Note: if you post a NYT column on the same day as it comes out, you can expect a lot of hits - you came up on my Technorati search)

And just so you know, I really did have no idea that science was included in the liberal arts, so I really did learn something!

Dr. Virago said...

Brian (nice to meet you) - What I'm really sorry about is that I don't have time to respond in kind since there was much to chew over and think about in your comment! (I'm sincere in that lack of time -- see the current top post on the home page.)

Here's my short answer for the moment: For what it's worth, I agree that the Harvard requirement of only 3 math/science classes isn't enough -- which is why I obliquely lauded my own alma mater for expanding its own requirement to two years. And I agree that the American public is deeply science illiterate. And man, it must really drive you crazy. I just don't think it has much, if anything, to do with the "hubris of the humanities." And I found Kristof's piece unconvincing, in part because he starts with a confusion of terms, which weakens his authority. (That's more a "category error" than a false premise -- I'm going to edit my original post, thanks to your comment!) But also, he seems to think a straw poll of the NY Times newsroom is reliable evidence. Even I, an English prof, know that's not good sampling!

And yeah, you're right -- I should expect new visitors with a post like this. They just don't generally stop to comment! So thanks! And thanks for coming back (didn't expect that either -- thought maybe you were more a drive-by commenter).

PS -- Also, just FYI, I'm a very science-friendly humanities person, so I think I took Kristof's piece too personally. I started college wanting to be a zoologist (and I've done volunteer zoological research in recent years) but I decided literature gave me more consistent pleasure.