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Obama’s Cold, Mathematical Calculation

Cheers for STEM. But what about the, um, rest of the fabulous, life changing, extraordinary and often more important teachers who don’t teach math, engineering, technology or science?

The White house is proposing a $1 Billion federal program to create a Teachers Corps, which would provide a $20,000 a year stipend for the best 50 teachers in their fields, so long as their fields are science, technology, engineering and math. The program would, if passed, eventually include 10,000 teachers, and, beyond providing incentive for excellence, it would aim to have those top teachers share their skills and pedagogical expertise with their colleagues who did not make the cut. The hope is that this process would be a rising tide that raises all ships. In a statement about the proposal, President Obama said “Teachers matter, and great teachers deserve our support.”


I have a bone to pick with this, though. A big one. There is nothing wrong with anything outlined above. In fact, there is a great deal right with it. But what about the, um, rest of the fabulous, life changing, extraordinary and often more important teachers who don’t teach math, engineering, technology or science?

I’ve been getting fed up with this for years now, and nobody challenges it. This is not to say that there is something wrong with math and science education. If the President of The United States wants to go on Mythbusters in order to reward and support that show’s promotion of science to young people, then he ought to. I just personally don’t understand the heavy favoritism. If a student’s goals, passions or talent is in math or science, then he/she should certainly go into math or science. And math and science, at the highest levels, require amazing creativity and insight. (Click those links for undeniable examples)

However, I submit that the heavy favoritism should be, if anywhere, towards the liberal arts. I have a few reasons for making this claim, and I’ll outline them below. First, I’ll repeat once again that I am not disparaging the sciences in any way, nor would I under any circumstances. My position about which way the favoritism should go, if anywhere, is relevant only in terms of public policy. One need only look at which website this is being published on to know that I believe strongly in the importance of scientists and mathematicians to change the world.

1) I think that the lionization of math and science is a hangover from history, and that said lionization is the reason for the placid public acceptance of The White House pro-math and science agenda by people who would otherwise bristle at the inherent disregard for the arts. In America, many of our most beloved historical figures have been scientists and inventors, from Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison (although the latter’s only actual important invention was patent hoarding). Americans base a lot of their national pride in this history. To illuminate how arbitrary this standard is, consider a few cases of alternatives: I have lived in Ireland, home of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett, Swift, Yeats and Shaw, and the presumption that I observed there was that national pride in historical figures ought to be founded in a nation’s writers. In another case, my British best friend asked me once if my national cultural pride was stifled because relatively few great classic rock bands were American (Um, Dylan, The Doors and Creedence?!). Of course, the narrative of an inventor solitarily creating something of value also plays into our narrative of the self-made man achieving the American Dream. In short, it’s an arbitrary fact of (often revisionist) history that these scientifically and mathematically inclined great men and women are the ones which we have decided are the greatest.

2) People argue to me that it doesn’t take away from the arts to focus so much on math and science. This is patently and ridiculously false. Obviously, if an out-sized portion of a limited education budget is going to these programs, other ones get less (see: math!). Further, children seeing everybody making a fuss over these subjects could be discouraged from going into, say, writing or philosophy or painting, and going on to create something singular and irreplaceable.

3a) The possibility and probability of creating something singular makes the work of most individuals in fields other than science and math immeasurably more valuable. I’ll declare my bias here: I’m prouder to have Nabokov and David Hume and Da Vinci in my cultural history that I am to have Newton and Planck and the Wright Brothers. Note, if you please, that that was a relative statement. And, hey, wouldn’t you know it? Nabokov, Hume and Da Vinci were also each accomplished in science.

3b) To rephrase, my point is simply that a mediocre writer will create something out of nothing, and it will be different from what anybody else would ever create. A mediocre mathematician will basically crunch numbers or explain facts in a way that is virtually the same as any other one. If all of science were lost, because the facts are out there and true, rational beings prone to observation would discover them again. When libraries and museums are destroyed they are gone for good. Ultimately, we (homo sapiens) could (and did) live without factories, without planes, without bombs, without electricity, without pie, and even without Pi, and it would be, in a meaningful sense, OK. We simply could not live without people showing us why slavery and rape are wrong, or without music, or without literature and have it be OK.

4)  I, of course, don’t want to live in a world without either, but I have been making a broader point for why arts and philosophy are more valuable and more important, relatively speaking, than math and science. It is an interesting discussion to have even if you disagree with me, and it’s a relevant and necessary in the context of this article. The discussion about the relative value of academic fields is not, however, the crux of my problem with the current pro-math and science bias in the federal government.

Here’s why: Obama isn’t really talking about funding so that we can have another Mendel, or Galileo, or even Edison. He’s not even really talking about another Steve Jobs. He is talking about changing the educational landscape of America, the first nation foundedonphilosophy, rather than history, according to the famous quote, in order to have more people to design industrial machines that improve efficiency a bit, or to oversee the building of small bridges, or to be competitive in the tech world by designing mobile apps. All of those are cool jobs, by the way, and likely good for the economy, but they hardly merit the praise and idealization and billions of dollars that policies like the Master Teachers Corps bring. 

Obama’s justification for his policy is even more problematic. It endorses a theory about education which is offensive and wrong. (Sidebar: I am using Obama as the poster politician for this because he is the current president and has just announced a relevant new policy; many other legislators and presidents, from both parties, have taken similar stances.)

The President’s policy, broken down, looks roughly like this:

Premise 1: Education spending is justified if it leads to economically productive jobs.

Premise 2: Science, technology, engineering and math lead to economically productive jobs.

Premise 3: English, history, philosophy and art do not lead to economically productive jobs

Conclusion: Public money and support is should go to math and science programs, and not liberal arts programs.

Treating education as valuable solely for the direct practical and financial value it provides misses the point entirely. You don’t go to school to get a good job, you go to school to learn things and ways of thinking that are valuable and worthwhile in themselves.

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To disagree with the former opens up the arguer up to defeat by a a classic reductio ad absurdem. The argument, which we saw a version of above, goes as follows in normal language: Why not cut everything not explicitly necessary to having economically productive and desirable jobs, since the implicit and explicit justification for education spending and support is economic productivity? At the end of that reasoning is a dehumanizing and undesirable picture: citizens are just human machines, with minds set up in order to be productive and to earn personal wealth and national prestige, and nothing more.

I want to make clear that I am certainly not accusing any legislator, much less Obama, our smartest president in a very long time, of trying to maliciously contrive some Orwellian anti-intellectual scenario. It is also important to note that my argument does not rest on the idea that this scenario will actually come to pass. It won’t. No politician (who doesn’t list Ayn Rand as his/her favorite writer), least of all Obama, would actually follow the logic of their position into something so intuitively wrong. But the logic of Obama’s position does, indeed, lead into something intensely undesirable, which neither I nor he could endorse. All that my argument really says is that Obama and those of his ilk could not agree with their own position without also agreeing with something repugnant. For that reason, their position is demonstrably wrongheaded. 

All education matters and is valuable for reasons both self-evident and practical, but it is more important that we have beauty, dignity, hindsight and the wisdom to wield power than it is to simply have as much power as possible. Only by celebrating and splitting funding with English and philosophy and history and art can we achieve this. How about we create policies that try to reward and improve the quality of all teachers as they inspire young minds, change lives and make this a world worth living in? After all, “Teachers matter, and great teachers deserve our support.”



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