The Great Debate: Humanities vs. Science

Albert Einstein

Image via Wikipedia

‎”… we should mandate dial-up internet connections for all rooms that house humanities departments and the re-appropriation of network power to the people who actually make contributions to humanity: the mathematicians, engineers,and scientists.”

This was a comment by some truly  “eloquent” person in response to an article called “The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail” found in The Chronicle for Higher Education (The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail – Do Your Job Better – The Chronicle of Higher Education). Once my eyes stopped bugging out of my head and I was able to close my dropped jaw, I began to think about a world where people only focused on science, math, and engineering. Or a world where people in the humanities were not contributors to society in any way. That world, my friends, would not be my choice of homes.

How dare someone argue that the humanities are not of value to society? I acknowledge the worthiness of science, math, and economics. I admire people who do those things well. But, I also know plenty of people in those fields who are not capable of communicating with anyone unless it is another member of their field. Perhaps the arts and humanities don’t contribute to finding cures for cancer (which, may I remind you, hasn’t happened) or getting us to the moon. But, without them, how would anyone be able to raise funds for support of these worthwhile projects?

I’m sure that most of the great scientific minds we know about today did not limit their knowledge to math, science, and engineering. Albert Einstein loved music and played the violin. The study of music itself helps with understanding math. I’ve seen that myself as my daughter began taking piano lessons and her math scores improved. Galileo loved art and considered becoming a painter. Looking at the world through the eyes of art allows anyone to think differently, and leads to the creation of engineering marvels. Let’s not forget the importance of language, and storytelling, and the ability to write and express oneself. For example, Dr. Paul Farmer, an anthropologist and physician (oh no, he dared combine humanities with science) writes prolifically and speaks eloquently.

Education suffers in our world because of these attempts at making one field more valued than another. We’ve seen that in primary and secondary schools, where the focus on testing has not led to great success stories. I see it at the college level, when students don’t have the desire to learn anything beyond what is in their major or what will get them the job. The recent stories in the news about Brockton High School (which I have written about elsewhere) show that learning can be enhanced by combining humanities and science or math. By requiring students to write in every class, their grades have improved all around. If that isn’t evidence that an interdisciplinary approach to learning works, I don’t know what is.

Shouldn’t educators encourage learning for the joy of learning? The more we learn about anything, the greater our capacity to learn. If we keep our brains alive then that makes us stronger. But if we limit our knowledge to only one field or type of fields, it only makes us weaker.

For your amusement, when arts, humanities and science meet

Make: Online : Kinect hacks keep rolling in.

More about BHS: When Passion Saves the Day

A short time ago I wrote about the amazing success that my high school had in turning around student grades by incorporating reading and writing into every classroom. (Making Connections with Words A Powerful Tool in Education). This success story has made national news, Large School Prompts Academic Turnaround – CBS News Video, and continues to be studied by Harvard University. The above video clearly shows the power of adding writing (as well as reading,  speaking, and reasoning) into every classroom to improve test scores as well as overall learning and helping students move on to college.

What interests me the most about this story, besides my close connection to it, is that so many people are surprised at the success rate of this program. What is so surprising about it? Human beings learn through communication, through language. Whether it is spoken, written, or signed our earliest learning is how to communicate our wants and needs. Young children absorb language and meaning at an incredible rate when you think about it. The move from simple sounds to express need, to full conversations seems to happen at lightning speed (even though, yes, it takes a couple of years). So why are we so astonished that incorporating language and communication, through reading, writing, speaking and reasoning, will help people learn. To me it seems like common sense.

Now I acknowledge, some people learn things more easily than others. I struggled through math, myself.  Last year, in my daughter’s first grade classroom, they approached math with more word problems. The students were able to place the problems into real-world situations, and the end results were always expressed in both a math equation and a sentence. “Sarah bought 8 balloons, but 3 flew away in the wind.  Sarah had 5 balloons left.” Now, I don’t know yet how that applies in higher mathematics, but it shows that, by incorporating writing things can make more sense.

The other thing this program has going for it, which is almost more powerful than language, is the passion of Dr. Szach and all the teachers to make it work. When you get people together working towards a common goal, amazing things can happen. I’ve known that feeling myself when putting on a show that seems doomed to fail, but in the end comes together better than expected. The teachers at BHS did not throw their hands in the air and say it is hopeless. Instead, they worked together to find a viable solution. Even those who were “doubters” eventually climbed on the bandwagon. I’m sure that every teacher does not necessarily agree with every decision, but they went along with it for the good of the students with astonishing results. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that could happen in other areas of society (ahem, government officials, this means you!)?

Go BHS! Go Dr. Szach! Now let’s use this example to really make change.

Creating Passionate Readers; Engaging Passionate Learners


On the platform, reading

Image by moriza via Flickr


Yesterday I watched as my seven-year-old daughter did her required 20 minutes of reading.  The 20 minutes were not finished when she sighed and said, “I wonder how long I’ve been reading.” As soon as the time was up, she closed the book and went on to her next thing.

My heart broke a little.

I read. Depending on what I’m reading, I can go through piles of books a week. Or sometimes I focus on just one: savoring every word, picturing every moment, getting lost in the language. Of course, I have my times of getting sucked into movies and television as well, and my daughter knows that. But books have always been my escape, my comfort, my best friends.

Sarah knows I love books. She loves to have me read to her. She loves getting new books from the library. She loves all these things, yet somehow she doesn’t love reading. She does not get lost in the books, letting time pass in the blink of an eye. She doesn’t fall asleep dreaming about her favorite characters and the adventures they might be having.  I wonder if she is better off, or is she missing something truly valuable.

When I changed my Facebook status to reflect on this question, an interesting discussion started.

My husband blamed himself and the internet. He was not much of a reader until I came along, and now his interest in books has grown. The internet is a time sucker for us all. But, is reading blogs and articles on-line less valuable than reading books?  What about playing games which challenge her thinking and math abilities? In our society, it seems important to develop internet skills, as so much is done through social networking, and so much information is gained through access to the vast resources on the web. So perhaps it isn’t the time suck that I think it s.

Two friends responded that her love of reading will develop over time. I’m sure that is a possibility in that her interests change and grow daily. But, I also see her following the trends of friends, and that doesn’t always include books.

Two friends commented on the idea that education today squeezes all the joy out of reading because of making it a chore or a punishment. Students are required to read so many minutes, to keep logs, to write journals, and to read from required reading lists. Reading then becomes a chore rather than a pleasure or, as I view it, a reward.

It makes me sad to realize that learning isn’t fun for most kids. Maybe it never was. Maybe I was one of those strange children who loved learning just because I did. I still love it; that is why I read. But I see the possibility that my daughter won’t find the same joy. Learning is a chore, not because she’ not smart (she is) but because there is some subtle competition or pressure going on in her education that feels wrong.  To me, it seems like we should be less concerned with timing the reading and more concerned with having her enjoy, comprehend, and learn from what she reads. Yesterday she was more concerned with time than reading.

In the same way, I see her struggle with timed math tests. How many answers can she get correct in three minutes? She doesn’t do well on those, but if you give her time to think about her problems she does fine.

In a way, it seems, that the only thing we are teaching our children is that fast time and quantity are more important than quality and enjoyment. I think that is going to make a sad society, if it hasn’t already.

I’m not sure how to encourage Sarah to become a passionate reader. I know she loves learning right now, and I only hope I can continue to encourage that love. I glimpsed one possible answer, though. The other day I asked one of Sarah’s 10-year-old friends to read the book I wanted to enter in a contest and give me some feedback.  Sarah is still too young for this book, I think. She read it in an afternoon, and loved it. Sarah saw her reading it and asked “Can your write some stories for me to read, Mommy?”

Looks like I have some writing to do.

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