Euclid, Newton and Adam Smith

I missed the hubbub over the piece by Mark Slouka in Harper’s last fall (“Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school”), but came to it after reading a few mentions of it recently. Its title does a pretty good job of giving the gist of it, which (roughly restated) is that priorities of commerce have hijacked American education policy, shutting out the humanities, and unduly elevating math and science (or “mathandscience,” in Slouka’s formulation). It’s an interesting polemic, although its attention-seeking rhetorical feints (which you'll get the full flavor of if you read the whole thing) leave me outside the choir to which it preaches.

I worry about young people who can't find work. The unemployment numbers from last summer were discouraging; I expect this summer's numbers will be worse. The kids from demographic groups that are the least successfully served by our educational system fare worst in the job market. They won't have the social capital to draw on to get a foot in the door, to get helped onto the first rung of the ladder. Where will they be without employable skills?

Slouka's piece is profoundly wrongheaded not just because it treats as trivial the matter of how one puts bread on the table, but also in its claim that skills that are useful and knowledge that is valuable are mutually exclusive things. If we can get public education back to basics—to teach kids how to read and write, do math, and think critically, in a school that is safe—is there any reason why that education could not, and should not, teach its students the beauty of Euclid's Elements, the philosophical and theological origins of Newton's science, and how Adam Smith understood human nature and ethics in The Theory of the Moral Sentiments?

Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a "subject" remains a "subject," divided by watertight bulkheads from all other "subjects," so that they experience very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon—or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?
Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning” (presented at Oxford University in 1947).
The student revolution has thus come full circle and joined those who were originally its worst enemies: those who willingly corrupt the present in any degree necessary to achieve an imagined future, those vicious establishment constructors of the rat-race who reduce the lives of students and workers to mere means.
Wayne C. Booth, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (1974).
But the world as revealed by its scientific discoveries is also reality, regardless of how it may appear, and people in John's dimension are going to have to do more than just ignore it if they want to hang on to their vision of reality. John will discover this if his points burn out.
Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (1974).
The question of what a good job looks like—of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored—is more open now than it has been for a long time. […] The meta-work of trafficking in the surplus skimmed from other people’s work suddenly appears as what it is, and it becomes possible once again to think the thought, “Let me make myself useful.”
Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009).

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