Monday, April 13, 2009

Two Voices on The Math/Humanities Divide.

"Or could it be that their objective, learning-oriented assessment technique allows them to just fail those who need failing, with a minimum of angst, and then move on?"


We have a winner!

The divine children of God in my humanities/social science-y courses are all innumerate as well as illiterate. How can I tell? They have no clue what grade weighting is. They cannot add their scores together to come up with a total to compare to the chart in their syllabus (because once I knew they couldn't weight their own grades, I moved to a total-point system). They cannot calculate ratios or fractions or comprehend the deep, esoteric mysteries of the decimal point. (I won;t evn mention the controversy of "rounding up.") They also cannot comprehend any grading scale other than the the 100-point scale (which is why they pitch conniptions if they earn a zero, which is not quite as deadly if you use the 4.0 scale).

I am sure they bitch and moan and whine and beg for "partial credit" from their math-centered courses, but the math proffies know all they need to do is give an approved test for basic skills, which, if snowflakes fail, there's little recourse other than accept their innumeracy and re-take the class. There's little chance of the outcome being that Mathie gets accused of hating little Snowie in course evals or a grade grievances. Also, many students openly admit they have poor math skills. Few of them can accept they're functionally illiterate. They read and write everyday online! How can they be illiterate?! It doesn't matter if they can't use a comma properly even once in a paper. Or couldn't find a thesis statement if it were bold-faced, italicized, and labelled for them. And proper spelling is just nit-picking.

Of course, most of them also think algebra is irrelevant. As irrelevant as knowing the difference between "definitely" and "defiantly." As irrelevant as knowing the phrase is "taken for granted" and not "taking for granite." We won't even mention the number of times they confuse to, too, and two. Those are just typos! You knew what they meant!


As much as I despise the divide between the arts and sciences and long for the days of the Greek philosophers who studied politics, drama, and biology, the very nature of the *humanities* means that we are teaching our students what it means to be a human being, and humane. It means we are concerned with teaching students to be engaged in all that it means to be humane. In order to do this, our work is , of course, less "objective, learning-oriented assessment technique" and more subjective. Thus, we are more likely to engage in the anguish of dealing with snowflakes who appear unprepared to engage in this society.

For those who think that we have it easy in the arts and humanities, think again. Our work is just as demanding, just as rigorous, and requires a depth of cultural literacy that only comes from years of reading, writing, and engaging in discourse. We cannot simply send students home with problems to solve, and then show them the 'right' way. We must teach them to uncover their 'right' solution. If they do not bring any basic cultural literacy with them, our job is nearly impossible.

I say we should remove this false division between the humanities and the sciences. How much more fruitful would be our work if we could engage in study as the Greeks once did.