Teaching with Contemporary Art

What Makes Us Human

Photocollage by Quentin McCaffrey

Photocollage by Quentin McCaffrey

I’m addicted to Harper’s Magazine. I started reading it in 1985 as a freshman in college and have somehow managed, through multiple moves and roommates, to keep every single issue since then. This drives my wife crazy, even though they’re tucked away in the basement. I’m not really sure what I’m eventually going to do with all of them, but it’s a symbolic lifeline to news, essays and unique perspectives that fed me growing up and, quite frankly, helped me to grow up.

This month’s issue features an essay by one of Harper’s contributing editors, Mark Slouka, and it literally made my head snap back. The essay, titled Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school, is must-reading for anyone interested in the constant debate about how the humanities have practically been forced to justify their place in education and “fit in” behind (not next to) all of the quantifying, calculating and computations that take place in school. It’s the kind of essay that’s perfect for the start of a new school year because it’s biting and doesn’t knuckle under to all of the standardized nonsense that passes for “concern” or “improvement” or, I hate to say it, “rigor” in education.

Slouka makes a remarkable case for “teach(ing) people, not tasks; to participate in the complex and infinitely worthwhile labor of forming citizens, men and women capable of furthering what’s best about us and forestalling what’s worst.” It isn’t easy. In Slouka’s “State of the Union” he describes our “horizontal world of information” that’s easily converted into product, and that the “verticality of wisdom has no place”. Basically, education has been force-fed capitalism to the point that it has no choice but to accept its criteria for “success”!

Along with undressing Thomas Friedman for blatantly sucking up to Bill Gates (a beautiful section of the essay, indeed), Slouka poses many questions that need to be asked more often, and perhaps loudly:

  • What do we teach, and why?
  • Is the “job” of education to help students “get ahead”?
  • Do our students really need to take more and more math and science, get higher SAT scores, and gain acceptance into better colleges in order to “compete” with other students (and prospective workers!) around the world?
  • Do schools have a critical role that they ignore in order to devote so much time and energy into “competing” in a global economy?

Slouka discusses, at length, the disequilibrium that exists. This is a Crisis in American Education that has little to do with the economy and everything to do with the kinds of citizens we are teaching and shaping (not “producing”). “Mathandscience”, he suggests, has become the “all-purpose shorthand for intelligence”.

Slouka ends the piece with a wonderful story about an English teacher named Marcus Eure, who doesn’t spend all of his time preparing kids for tests. Instead, his students are immersed in questions, for example,  that tackle what it means to be correct, to lie, and to be desensitized by what we see on tv and in movie theaters.

Is there hope? Yes! Read the essay. Share it with others. And have a good start to the school year.


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  2. John Hammond says:

    In his essay, Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school, Mark Slouka takes the unnecessarily adversarial relationship between the humanities and the sciences to a new level. Although there are many examples of sloppy (or at least naïve) reasoning, let’s start with the following statement from the essay:

    …science addresses the outer world; the humanities, the inner one.

    He represents science and humanities as two non-intersecting sets. This naive and isolated representation goes a long way to explain his conclusions.

    To begin with, mathematics is a philosophy, not a science. It is a way of looking at the world that is, as far as we know, uniquely human. It is poetry that speaks volumes about ourselves and the world around us. It is an art form in its own right that, when carefully considered, tells us at least as much about our own minds as it does about the outside world.

    History as an academic discipline discovers and recounts events, but seldom explains them. Although there is no lack of opinions within the Academy about the forces that move us as a species, these usually don’t even aspire to the level of being wrong—they are simply not provable. More importantly, they do not address the inner world, as no historian has ever explained any event in fundamentally human terms—what motivates behavior at the individual or group level—without reaching into the storehouse of scientific inquiry.

    Literature reveals personal experiences. Good literature creates personal experiences. Great literature influences entire cultures. But the value of literature and the power of literature are distinct and independent. If the Bible were submitted de novo to a publishing house today, it would likely be rejected. But we study it because it has exerted a powerful influence over the western world. Does the Bible really address any matters of the inner world? Or do those scientists who attempt to understand religiosity at the level of the brain better address the inner world?

    I grew up in a family who made their living in the arts. Moreover, they made a living from their artistic output, not simply teaching others to create a product that they themselves could not adequately sell. I even worked professionally in the arts in my youth, before studying science in college and graduate school. I chose science because I love it, not because I might be able to make a living at it. And I love science because it forces me to step out of my inner world for a while, turn around, and from a more objective vantage get a better appreciation of the human experience.

    I also love the humanities. I took lots of literature classes in college, four foreign languages, music, history, art: in short, a liberal arts education. Because of this, I don’t see a clear distinction between science and the humanities.

    I know nothing about Mark Slouka aside from this essay. But I will go out on a limb and guess that Mark took the minimum requirements in math and science in college. I would also wager that he skimped on history, foreign languages, music, or just about anything other than English. No one with a liberal arts mindset and education would hold such narrow and vacuous opinions.

    He writes with the uncontested narcissism of an only-child who has grown up to find that, not only are there other people in this world, some are more popular than he is.Perhaps in reaction, he holed up within the Academy, learned to craft a good sentence, then satisfied himself with teaching others to do the same. Occasionally, he tries to make observations from afar and massage them into entertaining stories or essays.This essay reflects that distance. It displays a mind that has never directly experienced mathematics and science.

    I believe that great writing comes first and foremost from great experiences. And great experiences come from having the curiosity and humility to embrace life firsthand. If Mr. Slouka had taken even a few advanced science or math courses, he would not have composed such a well-crafted body of silly statements.

  3. Joe Fusaro says:

    Wow, John… You have quite a lot to say about this article. Thanks for taking the time to examine things so closely, but I have to disagree with many of your comments….

    In public schools, at this point and time in our history, science and the humanities often do not intersect. Standardization, test-based teaching, and the obsession with using numerals to stand for what kids “learn” has elbowed out much of the interdisciplinary teaching that could take place if teachers weren’t constantly being bombarded with expectations for what their students should “be able to do” on a variety of exams.

    While I am happy you look at math as a philosophy, math is defined as the abstract science of number, quantity and space. Most public school students, as well as teachers, do not look at math and think “philosophy”… not to mention poetry! The math classes I sat through as a kid were far, far from poetry. They were formulas and lots of things to remember… for a test. They had little to do with my life as a teenager, and sadly that is still true today.

    On the other hand, history classes are more and more asking students to explain and inquire about the things that happen. That’s an observation I’ve made working with colleagues over the last decade. History classes are becoming less and less about “recounting” events and more about learning why things have happened.

    I love your quote about literature revealing personal experiences and that great literature can influence entire cultures, but do you really believe that the value of literature and the power of literature are distinct and independent? What does that mean? The Bible doesn’t address the “inner” world? Really?? That’s such a vague, loaded statement.

    While I’m not sure whether Mark Slouka took lots of art, science, or needlepoint classes as a kid, I do know that the picture he paints in his essay is consistent with what is happening in schools today. Math and science are being stressed (literally) to the point that it’s actually driving students away from enjoying these disciplines/subjects/philosophies. You saying that Mark Slouka writes, “with the uncontested narcissism of an only-child who has grown up to find that, not only are there other people in this world, some are more popular than he is” is just silly. His essay shares views that many, many students and teachers can identify with.

    I also agree that great writing comes from great experiences and the curiosity to explore these experiences. But let me tell you, while heaping piles of advanced classes in math and science might get a small number of students closer to this, courses in the arts and humanities simply do it better. In the meantime, I look forward to the day when “Math as Poetry” is offered in high schools across the country. I may even sign up for it myself.

  4. John Hammond says:

    Many thanks for the thoughtful reply, Joe!

    I don’t think we disagree much about the state of these matters in many schools. Nor do I hold anything less than enthusiastic support for teaching the arts and humanities–especially since I come from a family of artists.

    Rather, my central point and issue is the segregation of science and humanities itself. I don’t doubt that these two broad areas are portrayed as worlds apart in most academic environments, and that’s the problem: Early on we are labeled (or label ourselves) as either math/science/technology types, or art/music/English types. This is tremendously unfortunate, but is not the fault of corporate moguls who encourage teaching practical skills in our schools; it is the fault of the curriculum and those who design and teach it.

    Imagine if primary and secondary school English classes taught grammar, spelling, and vocabulary exclusively; if no student saw piece of fiction or poetry until college. Well, that’s often the way mathematics and the sciences are taught: We learn the mechanics but not the poetry.

    Here is an example of mathematical poetry that most middle school kids can understand and appreciate: Start with the number 1, then add 1/2, then 1/4, then 1/8, then 1/16, and so on, indefinitely. There are an infinite number of fractions, and so the sum of all of them keeps getting bigger, without end. However, the sum always stays below 2. In other words, one can keep adding off to infinity, but get a finite result. This always-increasing sum and its infinite collection of fractions lives entirely between two commonplace numbers: 1 and 2.

    In the poetry of mathematics, here’s how it looks:


    Six lines that capture the essential idea of a bounded infinity; of an infinite richness and depth living in the interstices of the bounded and commonplace.

    And once this poem is understood, many aspects of boundaries and infinities become clear. Considering how often most of us confront the unfathomably large or small in our day-to-day lives, this insight will forever change how one views the human condition.

    Six lines. And mathematics is filled with such poetry. It is a shame that these verses are not taught from a young age.

    Calculators do arithmetic; humans do mathematics.

    But this is not the fault of corporate interests, most of which would benefit greatly from the more numerate population that would surely result if math were presented as an object of beauty, rather than a mechanistic tool whose mastery is arduous and dull.

    Let’s look at another example from physics, which I would submit is quite revealing of our minds—our inner world—and the power of our aesthetic values. Anyone who has taken an introductory course in physics has learned about conservation laws: conservation of energy, momentum, mass, etc. In these introductory lessons, we are taught that these conservation laws for the basis of physics.

    Where do these conservation laws come from? Well, it turns out that they are a natural consequence of the aesthetic principal of symmetry. For every symmetry, there exists a corresponding conservation law. Conservation of energy is a consequence of something called time-reversal symmetry. And although there are phantasmagorical overtones buried in the phrase ‘time-reversal’, there is a simple way to think of it: a movie that can be run forwards or backwards. Systems in which the movie looks equally reasonable in either direction (think of a satellite orbiting the earth) have time reversal symmetry, and therefore energy is conserved. Systems which look impossible in reverse (think of a car driving backwards, sucking up its exhaust, unburning it, and filling the tank with gasoline) do not have time reversal symmetry, and therefore do not conserve energy.

    Physics at its most fundamental is based on these symmetries. When these symmetries are broken, things change, move, evolve, develop. Compare this to the role of symmetries in art: the contrapposto of the Kritios Boy of 500BC, which gave movement to sculpture; or the broken musical symmetries of Bach, in the form of dissonant notes, which gave us chord progressions that propel music forward.

    How we view and understand the world around us speaks volumes about the inner world of our minds.

    Science and humanities do have many differences, but this inner/outer world segregation is not one of them.

    One important distinction is that science has provably right and wrong answers, the humanities usually do not. Because of this, science demands of its students a certain humility; an ability to use doubt as a useful tool in understanding the world, including the condition and experiences of other humans. In addition, a scientific education builds the tools to analyze situations on a case-by-case basis, rather than inculcating blind adherence to group ideologies. Whereas disciples of Karl Marx or Ayn Rand will point to the 99% of the data that supports their worldviews, a good scientist will focus on the 1% that doesn’t. And often, it is that one percent disagreement that leads to major changes in our view of the world.

    A scientific education leads to the trifecta of being humble, curious, and analytic. These are foundations of a good democracy and society. In this context, Slouka’s suggestion that a humanities education builds stronger democracies than a math/science education, is just plain wrong.

    I know a little more about Slouka now than when I posted before. It seems he grew up in New York City, went to college and grad school in New York City, then taught there before he was denied tenure. Apparently he was very angry and bitter about being asked to leave Columbia. This does not strike me as the life-path of a curious man.

    Perhaps he has a dozen siblings, studied algebraic topology and quantum field theory in college, lived for extended periods of time in other cultures, and is fluent in four languages. But I doubt it. He lacked the curiosity to leave his familiar surroundings until, at mid-life, he was forced to. He writes with an articulate petulance that reflects anger at the rest of the world for intruding upon his space.

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  6. John Hammond says:

    Joe–if you are genuinely interested in this subject, you might want to check out: “A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form” (Bellevue Literary Press, 2009).

    I just read it, and he makes a far better case than I do for mathematics as art.

    As a person interested in arts education, you are in a powerful position to influence impressionable youngsters, and help eliminate this arbitrary divide between the sciences and the arts.

  7. Joe Fusaro says:

    John, I want to thank you for all your comments on this post and I will absolutely check out the book you mentioned. I have a new perspective on quite a few things due to our exchange of ideas, and while we don’t necessarily agree on everything I do believe there is room for our discussion to grow and develop. I would love to work on a Math as Art post with you, for example, and I hope that you might be interested in discussing how we might share strategies for teachers to truly bring science, art and math closer together in ways that aren’t superficial or awkward…. or just plain boring.

  8. John Hammond says:

    Many thanks for your earnest effort on this! I’d be happy to work with you in some capacity in this matter. My email is [email protected].

  9. John Hammond says:

    One more thing…The book I mentioned previously is not without its flaws. In fact, it is a bit of a scientifically biased polemic that Slouka might have written had he chosen a career as an academic scientist. That said, it does present the beauty and art of mathematics very compellingly, at least to my skewed mind!

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