Saturday, August 15, 2009


There's an excellent article in this month's Harper's magazine about the approach we take to education in our society. It questions the emphasis we place on math and science at the expense of the humanities, and asserts that this emphasis stems from the misguided belief that education exists primarily to train people for jobs.

It questions the way our educational institutions bring in people from the business world to help direct educational policy. Thinking of education merely as job training impoverishes us, and measuring our successes solely by economic output, the money we make and national productivity is limiting and even dangerous.

"In our time, orthodoxy is economic. Popular culture fetishizes it, our entertainments salaam to it (how many millions for sinking that putt, accepting that trade?), our artists are ranked and revered for it. There is no institution wholly apart. Everything submits; everything must, sooner or later, pay fealty to the market; thus cost-benefit analyses on raising children, on cancer medications, on clean water, on the survival of species, including -- in the last analysis -- our own."

The author, Mark Slouka, points out that Democracy and the richness of our humanity stem from subjects other than science and math. Not only that, but all the "danger," the areas in which we push the boundaries of society, is in the humanities.

"By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and the humanities, we're well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world made safe for commerce, but not safe."

And later:

"The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be."

This article struck home for me for several reasons. When I was in college, I remember my fellow students making decisions about what to study based solely on job prospects. Majors in business, accounting, marketing and other similar fields abounded, while it was a rare student who chose philosophy or music. It seemed a bleak way to make decisions about one's future. (In fact, when I chose to study mass communications, some of my friends made fun of me for picking a study course that would never lead to a very substantial salary.)

The fact that my boyfriend is a music teacher adds a dimension to my appreciation of this issue. As Slouka said:

"To put it simply, science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one. Science explains how the material world is now for all men; the humanities, in their indirect, slippery way, offer the raw materials from which the individual constructs a self -- a self distinct from others. The sciences, to push the point a bit, produce people who study things, and who can therefore, presumably, make or fix or improve those things. The humanities don't."

(Photo: Columbus Circle, August 2009)


Reya Mellicker said...

Wow, this is great. I have to track down the article. Maybe it's online.

As I'm sure you can imagine, I agree completely with what you've quoted here.

In a world where I was Queen, we would invest lots of money in education so that everyone could study whatever they want. Math and science? Cool. The arts? Cool, too.

I've always loved the idea of having apprenticeships, being able to study not only the subject you're most called to, but with the teacher you're best suited to learn from.

The world according to Reya would really be a different place than the world we live in. Not so sure that would always be such a great thing!

Steve said...

I bet it would be pretty great, Reya! :)

Barbara said...

I was far too practical in school, studying mathematics and computer science so I could get a job instead of pursuing French and literature, about which I was much more passionate. I would do things much differently if given another chance!

Pauline said...

There was an interesting discussion going on at Philip's blog ( about the use of a philosophy degree. Have you read The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America? It explains the thrust of the education for employment movement.

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