Innumeracy in Academia

Recently, Prof. Chad Orzel made an interesting point on his blog. He pointed out that those in academia in scientific or mathematical fields (such as himself) are generally embarrased by lacking knowledge in arts and humanities:

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. When those subjects come up in conversation, I just smile and nod and change the topic as soon as possible. On those occasions when I’m forced to admit my ignorance (or, worse yet, the fact that I don’t even like classical music), my colleagues tend to look a little sideways at me, and I can feel myself drop slightly in their estimation. Not knowing anything about those subjects makes me less of an Intellectual to most people in the academy.

In contrast, individuals in the humanities or arts have no problem admitting to a lack of basic math knowledge or skills:

Intellectuals and academics are just assumed to have some background knowledge of the arts, and not knowing those things can count against you. Ignorance of math and science is no obstacle, though. I have seen tenured professors of the humanities say– in public faculty discussions, no less– “I’m just no good at math,” without a trace of shame. There is absolutely no expectation that Intellectuals know even basic math.

Over at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Dr. Janet Stemwedel gives a possible reason for this. Namely, she argues that differences in the way the subjects are taught may be at root.

My own hunch is that instruction (both at the college level and at the secondary level) has a lot to do with where we’ve ended up. There seem to be a good number of teachers out there — math and science teachers — who make it clear to their students that one must have a gigantic brain to even understand this material, let alone to master it.

When state requirements for high school graduation include four years of English, two years of U.S. history, math to some basic level (that usually includes something algebra-ish but falls short of calculus), and a year or two of some science, this communicates societal priorities both to students and to the schools figuring out what courses they will offer and how to staff them.

She also discusses “weeder” courses, and the presence of watered-down “physics for poets”-style courses in math and science programs, while one never sees dumbed-down “poetry for engineers” classes on the other side.

Personally, I think Dr. Stemwedel has a bit of a point; I remember far too many teachers in public school who seem to have absorbed the “math is hard, not everybody can do it” idea to the point it shows through in the teaching. I’ve done math tutoring, and it’s surprising the sort of mental blocks people can develop about math and science.

(Though, I’m one of those who has always found math simple and intuitive. In fact, I had to take college math courses to graduate from high school. This was because the public schools math stopped at calculus, and I took that as a freshman; the college courses were the only way to get the remaining year-and-a-half of math credit needed to graduate).

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2 Responses to “Innumeracy in Academia”

  1. Perpetua Says:

    I don’t know, I’ve always experienced the opposite. While most people in the maths and sciences feel qualified to talk to me about literature because “everyone reads books,” it’s assumed I won’t, want want to, or can’t understand their work because grad programs in the sciences are beyond the grasp of all but the well-trained and uber-brilliant.

  2. More on Science Vs. Humanities « Twisted One 151’s Weblog Says:

    […] The post by Prof. Chad Orzel on an asymmetry between science and humanities in academia, which I discussed earlier, has continued to generate more conversations and responses. Razib of Gene Expression argues that […]

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