For a long time, the battle cry among students was Relevance! to me, to my future. I taught algebra and geometry in a hospital setting to a group of emotionally disturbed high school students whose diagnoses were very serious: schizophrenia, severe depression, acute anorexia. Math was the last thing they wanted to study. How could I make it relevant?
First, I cleared a bulletin board and put a heading on it: Math in the News. My students laughed. I offered extra credit every time they brought in an article. After a few weeks, the board was filled and we had to start taking articles down to make room for more. The articles were mostly about mathematicians, theories, and curriculum. No rock star statisticians then. Eventually the students stopped laughing and started seriously discussing the articles.
Secondly, I appealed to them emotionally by explaining that unlike literature and history which are subject to interpretation, math is a discipline of certainty. Figuring out the correct and only mathematical solution can give you psychological relief from other anxieties (the mental anguish that brought them to the psychiatric unit in the first place). According to psychologists, even small positive emotions associated with “I got it” situations can help de-stress.
Now we don’t need to defend math. STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) has become an education war cry, an area that receives millions of dollars for creative learning and assessment. Now we talk about teaching 21st century skills so students can get jobs. Relevance is a priority. Students don’t even have to raise the issue; educators, business leaders, and politicians are doing it for them. Liberal arts is being pushed out of the curriculum.
You may say, no, no, it’s now STEAM with the “A” standing for the arts. But subject areas such as history, sociology, psychology, and entrepreneurship are not the arts. Fareed Zakariah’s recent article, “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous,” in the Washington Post, makes a great argument for the value of a liberal arts education featuring quotes from leaders in the tech world.
So what would I say now to my students if I were teaching a liberal arts subject? First, I would ask them to find articles about liberal arts, to post on a class Tumblr, track reblogs and invite comments from fellow students.
Secondly, what about the interpretive aspects of the humanities and social sciences? Certainty can be confining at times. Living is not about absolutes. It’s messy and we need to be able to understand and communicate all issues. What would life be like without the ability to dream and explore beyond science, beyond reason? What color is math?
The difference between the sciences and liberal arts is not an either/or situation. It’s an age-old tug-of-war that resonates in all of us. It’s what attracts millions to Star Trek’s very human(ities) Captain Kirk and the logical Mr. Spock. The success of their adventures confirms for us that together they are stronger than each alone. As technology draws us into global complexities, we also need the liberal arts to understand and solve the problems that arise. We need Kirk-Spock solutions.