Chad was wondering what to blog about, and then tapped into the mother lode, judging by the number of responses. The Innumeracy of Intellectuals
I’m a professor at a liberal arts college, putting me solidly in the “Intellectual” class, and there’s a background assumption that anyone with as much education as I have will know something about history and philosophy and literature and art and classical music. I read enough to have literature covered, even if my knowledge is a little patchy, and I took enough classes in college to have a rough grasp of history and philosophy, but art and music are hopeless.
I admit it: I share similar characteristics with Chad. Even though I’m not awash in liberal-arts faculty, I think it’s support-group time.
Hi, I’m Tom, and I’m not a ‘real’ intellectual.
I didn’t take art history or music appreciation in college. I like a few classical pieces of music, but my favorites came from watching Bugs Bunny — not exactly the intellectual pedigree. I tried defending my lack of classical music in my collection in college by pointing out that I liked Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture — the response was “Who doesn’t?”
I did my humanities and social sciences without much complaint but didn’t take any literature courses after completing the English composition requirement. I read more than the canonical six books from The Big Read, but not overwhelmingly more. If I were on Cheers, I’d be laughing at Diane, not with her, when she would say something like “It’s very Joycian.” Or Jungian, or Kantian. I only know the names of some philosophers because of the Monty Python song, not because I can associate a name with a school of thought. Any ability I might have had to do that I lost through atrophy. (Except Freud, even though I never studied psychology. Basic Freud seems to be pretty easy — it’s all about the penis) But I have an appreciation that these topics exist, and I can learn about them. If I find I have a real need for this knowledge, I can acquire it.
Math and science are different. Going out and acquiring this knowledge, without a solid foundation, isn’t easy.
It bugs me still that students could take a “physics for poets” class and get course credit — but these courses did not count toward a major — and yet no such arrangement existed within the humanities and social sciences classes: when I took introduction to sociology, there were sociology majors in the class. The big difference? A math prerequisite. Two, actually, since “physics for poets” generally doesn’t require algebra, and there is an algebra-based physics sequence that physics majors don’t take, either.
I was playing a game with some kids, where we had to do addition, and I knew one of them was old enough to have learned addition, but the child was using fingers to count, rather than doing it in his/her head (the sum was less than 30). I frowned or made some comment, and one parent told me “so-and-so isn’t really wired for math.” I was amazed — that’s an acceptable response? If this were English, would anyone accept “not wired for it” as a response?
So yes, I agree with
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think the lack of respect for math and science is one of the largest unacknowledged problems in today’s society. And it starts in the academy– somehow, we have moved to a place where people can consider themselves educated while remaining ignorant of remarkably basic facts of math and science. If I admit an ignorance of art or music, I get sideways looks, but if I argue for taking a stronger line on math and science requirements, I’m being unreasonable. The arts are essential, but Math Is Hard, and I just need to accept that not everybody can handle it.
There is a minimum competence level that we need to insist that people have. There are entirely too many people who don’t know these basic things and some are even proud of that fact. And it does do damage — not understanding their mortgage, as Chad points out, helped with some of today’s problems. But there are other effects as well — people who don’t have an appreciation of science are prone to the quantum snake-oil salesman, too. If they think that free energy can be had with some new device credulously reported in the news, they aren’t likely to think any energy shortage problem is real. If they can’t evaluate the fallacy-laden arguments supporting antiscience, denialist arguments, we get inundated with “controversies” concerning any number of medical issues (antivaccination or other things Orac might blog about), global warming and evolution, that are played out on the op-ed page, where the science is, at best, an afterthought.