Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Education Round-Up

FLG was reading this post by Stanley Fish that unsurprisingly questions the same thing FLG questions, to wit, the science, math, and technology education to compete in a global economy nonsense.

Fish points out that Martha Nussbaum pointed out that President Obama stated Singapore and countries in Asia "are spending less time teaching things that don't matter, and more time teaching things that do. They are preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not."

First, and most obvious, the liberal arts' original intention was to educate free men. Consequently, FLG puts a lot of stock in the argument that liberal arts is, as Nussbaum puts it, "essential to the health of democracy." Although, and this is probably the ten thousandth time FLG has posted or linked to this, this isn't new; Tocqueville identified the struggle with democratic nations between education in the useful arts and liberal arts.

It is evident that in democratic communities the interest of individuals as well as the security of the commonwealth demands that the education of the greater number should be scientific, commercial, and industrial rather than literary.

Second, Obama's contention that Singapore is more time teaching what is important and less time what is not is based upon a questionable assumption, namely that we know what is important. And let's be honest, by important, he clearly means marketable skills. But as Miss Self-Important wrote not too long ago:
We simply can't know any longer (if we ever could) what our children will be and what they will need to know in advance.

Teenagers will be working into the middle of the century. Do we really think technology classes today are going to be relevant to the technology they will face in their careers? FLG's school had Commodore64s. A kid who used those would have no advantage sitting down at a computer today.

What about math, you say? Math doesn't change. Well, maybe it does. Arthur Benjamin says we spend far too much time drilling arithmetic, when that's what computers are really, really good at. (Incidentally, he also argues that the final math course for most students shouldn't be a course in calculus, but one in statistics, something which FLG wholeheartedly agrees with.)

FLG doesn't want to push this too far. Kids should memorize their multiplication tables and be able to do simple arithmetic in their head, but maybe drilling long division is a waste of time. Who does that by hand anymore?

So, maybe, just maybe, it doesn't matter if the kids in China are beating our kids in mathematics tests. Maybe their simply better at doing something by hand that can be more easily accomplished with a machine.

FLG doesn't know anything about what the future holds, but he'll say this. Given what he sees now, he'd far rather use the time devoted in the mathematics curriculum to using computers to perform data analysis than spending time doing long division.

But even that might be wrong. Probably wrong. Perhaps in the future, you might be able to tell a computer to analyze data and it is smart enough to do the linear regressions on its own. But FLG'll tell you this. No matter how good computers get an analyzing data, it will always be left up to humans to determine its meaning to other human beings. That's the key point and that's where liberal arts is crucially important.

Math, science, technology. They're merely tools. Knowing how to wield them is all well and good, but knowing when and why and when not to is far more important. That the liberal arts tells you.


David said...

"FLG's school had Commodore64s. A kid who used those would have no advantage sitting down at a computer today"...true enough if you were just using it for games or word processing (did it even *do* word processing?)....but if you'd learned to program it, even (or especially) in C64 assembly language, you would have learned a transferable skill.

More generally, it is incorrect of people to assume that innovation is always all about science/math/engineering. There are zillions of innovations--product innovations, process innovations, business innovations--which are driven mainly by someone's observation that it is possible to do something better, and the courage and leadership to get it done.

Jeff said...

It's funny--I had a C=64 at a time when computers were synonymous with uncoolness. Thanks to that thing, I type more than 100 words per minute; I still don't freeze up when I have to sift through code, even though my programming days are long behind me; and I later aced such subjects as geometry and symbolic logic.

Of course, in keeping with a recent conversation on this blog, all of this happened outside the classroom. While my friends and I were learning this stuff--designing games, writing text editors, customizing existing programs, etc.--our teachers were struggling to figure out how to run simple programs on the already-outdated handful of computers in my middle school. (Seriously--our teachers thought it a triumph to make a little LOGO turtle draw a line on the screen. Meanwhile, at 14, one of my friends was cracking unreleased software from Finland in the comfort of his New Jersey bedroom; another wrote his own BBS program that was better than anything then available commercially.)

There's something sad about watching professional educators try but fail to stay current with technology. I know adults who were getting Master's degrees from Georgetown in the '90s simply for writing stories that incorporated hypertext--something most 16-year-olds likely consider childishly easy today.

Miss Self-Important said...

Why get rid of long division by hand? Don't you have to learn what division is before you punch it into your calculator?

More generally, why assume that our inability to know what skills will be lucrative in the future gives us a basis for cutting anything currently in use out of the curriculum? Is saying that since Stata or R can run regressions for you, we must teach Stata and R instead of long division really that different from saying, in the context of literature, that since the publishing on the internet is really popular, we should start teaching blogging instead of novels?

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