Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Hubris of Humanities

Kristof has an interesting column in the New York Times (sadly, behind a paywall). He argues that the Americans are ignorant when it comes to science:

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.

I kept nodding my head as I read until I came to the point where Kristof turns his scorn towards the liberal arts and the snootiness of those who are trained in them. That's where he lost me, for two reasons: first, I'm well educated in mathematics, very well actually, and I'm still extremely snooty, and second, the people who believe that Adam rode his dinosaur while he went to Bible Study are not trained in humanities, either. Kristof is erecting a false correspondence between the American science ignorance and the knowledge of T.S. Eliot's verses, probably so that he can whip the latte-sipping elites, too, but it really detracts from his message. In reality, the science ignorance is a problem that begins in high school. The hubris of the humanities (Kristof's term) touches a miniscule percentage of American university students.

It is true that many decades ago a university education may well have stocked the student's head with quotations from the classics and nothing else, but this time is long gone. What is more likely today is that a student leaves equipped with a degree and a head that contains nothing but platitudes about how to do business (including formulas). I wouldn't call such an education a liberal arts one.

It's a good idea to study science, of course, but there is no reason to pretend that students must choose between humanities and science. Both are important. Consider this example that Kristof uses in his article:

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?

True, but does knowledge about the DNA suffice? Surely a more important field of study for a future leader would be ethics, and studying ethics is part of the liberal arts curriculum. Though of course it would be nice if the future leaders could first be persuaded to believe that the Earth is older than a few thousand years...