Teaching Math, Science, and the Humanities

Is the college curriculum too heavy in humanities and social sciences and too light on science and mathematics?

One of the interesting side discussions in the comments section of this morning’s Make Professors Teach post, which seeks to overcome some misimpressions of what higher education in general and college teaching in particular are about, is the complaint that the core curriculum is too heavy in humanities and social sciences and too light on science and mathematics.

As someone who went on to get a PhD in the social sciences, I’ll defend the emphasis on writing, history, government, and the like all day long. But I agree that there’s not enough emphasis on science, economics, practical mathematics, and statistics. The two languages of a solid education are mathematics and English (or whatever the host language of one’s country). We’re definitely deficient on the first, if not both.

Moreso than this being a curriculum issue, however, is that I think we have a problem with the way we teach these subjects. College level math and science courses quickly get unintelligible. I was good at these subjects throughout school and was even on the math team at high school. But once I got to college, the courses were no longer about math or science on a meaningful level but about complex equations and formulas using strange symbols.

It’s almost the opposite of the humanities and social sciences problem, which is that far too many students are introduced to those subjects by teachers whose first name is “Coach.” They think it’s about memorizing boring facts rather than stories about the progress of humankind. By the time they get to college, where the people teaching are subject matter experts with a genuine passion for the material, they’re turned off and hard to turn back on.

Rather than requiring all students take math and science classes aimed at future engineers and physicists, wouldn’t we be better served having them focus on an increased understanding of how math and science effect the world around them? I’m not talking about accounting classes or other “life skills” training so much as teaching probability and statistics, chemistry, physics, biology, anthropology, and the like in a way framed around the physical world rather than equations. I’ve got something along the lines of John Allen Paulos’  A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper or Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time in mind: High level, theoretical grappling with the subject matter in a way to develop scientific and mathematical habits of mind.

FILED UNDER: Education, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I would recommend any number of books by Richard Feynman that I think accomplishes what you are looking for, at least for the very, very small.

    So long as homeopathy exists (to give just one example), it is clear we are failing. Personally, I’d settle for Journalism majors to have a little numerical literacy, but I digress.

  2. sam says:

    “I’ve got something along the lines of John Allen Paulos’ A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper or Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time in mind: High level, theoretical grappling with the subject matter in a way to develop scientific and mathematical habits of mind.”

    Maybe the best example of this is the very best intro book ever written on relativity, imo, Einstein’s own little book, Relativity. It’s charming in its simplicity and clarity. All that’s required to grasp the fundamental concepts is simple algebra, very simple algebra. I wonder if there are similar books by pioneers in other fields?

  3. michael reynolds says:

    That’s a really good suggestion, James.

  4. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Well, given that the gravy train of non-meritocracy academia is derailing as we speak and that real public sector work (U.S. Attorney’s Offices, FBI, DHS, state attorneys general, state departments of finance, departments of transportation, etc.) is ultra competitive and at best a crapshoot, your kid after spending untold tens of thousands of dollars on college likely will have to make it in the private sector, or be consigned to a hard, hard life.

    The private sector is a tough row to hoe, Captain. That’s what happens when U-6 unemployment is in excess of 15%. There’s a fine line between systems manager and Starbucks barista. To avoid that latter untoward result you better hope that Junior receives a real education in real-world topics. That would include, in no particular order, such items as accounting, finance, economics, business management, H.R. and personnel managemet, IT systems, MIS, computer programming, software and hardware, business law, the fundamentals of taxation, the fundamentals of insurance, corporate governance, securities and investments, mergers and acquisitions, real estate transactions, real estate finance and land use regulations.

    Being able to pontificate about social justice, Native American history, the origins of French neo-noir cinema, and like items, doesn’t pay the rent in a bad economy.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Unemployment is hovering around 9 percent. It’s concentrated almost entirely among the segment of the population without a college education. An overabundance of theoretical knowledge and abstract thinking skills is not the problem.

    It’s true that accounting, business, and technical degrees prepare people for entry level jobs in those lines of work. It’s not true that there’s a massive demand for those skills that will scale sufficiently that it makes sense for Junior to study one of them if he finds them boring.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    Perhaps with a bit more of a foundation in history one would know better than to pick Tsar Nicholas as a pseudonym.

  7. Wayne says:

    I agree that more math, science and history need to be taught. I also agree the approach in how they are taught need to be adjusted depending on the group. Also history need to go away from remembering dates and names so much. I also would suggest taking a history event and present it from writings from more than one side. Reading it from more than one perspective not only show the difference between two perspectives but also what they have in common.

    This may hurt my case to some of you but my degree is in mathematics. I haven’t used it much per say since graduating. However I keep thinking I should get some books so I get back into higher math some. Anyway trying to teach the higher level math to many would simply be impossible. Our classes were always small compared to others and our dropout rates were extremely high. However as James suggested, adjusting them so some of it can be taught to less mathematical inclined is a good idea. The finer details though are where the true enlightenment exists. However I’m not sure if math concepts can be adjusted to be taught in a viable way. Especially if how they butcher statistics in the business statistics class is any indication on what they would do.

    My weak area was English. Did fine with literature but my writing skill was and still is less than desirable. I tend to write run on sentences while leaving off key words and skipping ahead. I tend to skip ahead on steps in math also but there you either get it right or wrong. Yes I know it still good to go through the steps. There are different strengths for different folks.

  8. André Kenji says:

    The problem of Math in the US is not the Math in University level is hard, but that Math in High School level is deficient. Most people from Brazil that I know that studied in the US found Math to be too easy.

    Besides that, the problem is that University Learning requires somekind of effort besides playing Beer Pong and things alike.

  9. mattb says:

    I agree on all counts. In many ways I wish we could go back to the “old school” liberal arts education which featured more of a balance between the two categories. Even as I work through my PhD in anthro, I find myself needed to engage with more and more scientific theory (and not just because I work with technologists).

    Heck, today was spent learning about the “Pauli Exclusion Principle.”

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Wayne: I never had a *college* history course that had much to do with memorizing dates. High school, yes. But college was mostly about narrative and relationships between events.

  11. steve says:

    A lot of these complaints just dont match up with what I have seen at my son’s high school. He has not had to memorize dates for his history classes. They have been interesting and challenging. He took second year calculus at a local University his senior year, and was well prepared by his high school. The teaching seems to be there if the kids want it.

    Steve

  12. Hello World! says:

    Wow…I actually like a James Joyner post! Just kidding but I love the idea of teaching the high level concepts. It’s more practical and can be applied to daily life, unlike calculous 3 or geometry.

  13. Franklin says:

    This may hurt my case to some of you but my degree is in mathematics. I haven’t used it much per say since graduating.

    I use my math nearly every day and wish I had paid more attention and taken even more classes, but perhaps that’s unusual. Anyway, you probably use *some* math every day without thinking about it … the idiot at the grocery store couldn’t give you the correct change if his cash register stopped working.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @steve: Our secondary education system is uneven and evolving. I graduated high school in 1984, before AP classes and such were widespread. And I finished in a small, rural high school in Alabama. I took every math and science course available: Algebra I and II, Geometry, and something called Advanced Math (trig and some other stuff; it’s been a long time) on the math side and Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, Chemistry, and Physics on the science side. I did well, including getting the highest grade in several of the classes and winning the annual award for the course. And I even liked the subjects.

    But college chemistry and physics and Calculus I and Calculus II were a completely different experience. I simply didn’t understand the material in any intuitive sense, seeing them basically as sets of equations to memorize and spit back on exams. I literally have no idea what calculus is.

    I remain interested in science and mathematics as tools to understand the world around me. But lost complete interest in the subjects as academic fields and never took another course once my requirements were met.

  15. JKB says:

    You have to mix the calculus with the physics and they actually do coalesce. Nothing to deep, just statics and dynamics or the first year intro engineering courses that overview statics and dynamics while teaching problem solving. Or at least that was how it was done way back in my time.

    The problem with the humanities is that they are infested by ideologues, many who end up teaching the GE courses. At Ole Miss, my niece ended up in a freshman GE class, actually called “Liberal Arts.” She had a conflict with the instructor over shall we say, viewpoints. I counseled that she could stand by her beliefs, fail the class and have to find something else to meet that requirement (which costs money)or just regurgitate whatever the professor wanted to hear, forget it all, then never look back at the ‘liberal arts.’ She chose the latter. So unless the courses offered to non-majors are less dogmatic, then the whole scheme will only cause more revulsion in science majors, who are used to empirical learning.

  16. SJ Reidhead says:

    I loved my humanities, history, and literature courses, and loathed math. I found that where I attended school, the emphases on math and science, for someone majoring in history and fine arts, was simply not necessary.

    I use my history, journalism, fine arts on a daily basis. Aside from basic math to live in the world, I’ve never touched it.

    I think one of the problems in the world is that there isn’t enough emphasis on history and the humanities. We are turning out a world of ill-educated nurds who have no earthly idea why we are here.

    Once upon a time, for someone in the sciences and mathematics were required to have a background in history and the fine arts, or they were not considered educated. I am loath to mention this, but still find someone without a background in history and the fine arts ill educated, no matter how many degrees they have.

    SJR
    The Pink Flamingo

  17. Wayne says:

    Yes James my college history courses were much better than my high school ones. However there were still plenty of names and dates to memorize. Understandably you need some of them. Perhaps they have gotten much better but I doubt it. If anyone can produce a current test, we can look at it.

    @ Franklin
    Where in your everyday life do you use Numerical Analysis, Discreet Structures or even third semester Calculus?

    I use math quite often but not at that level. I do miss it at times and like I said would like to get back into it. However about the only time I use it is looking at someone else’s work.and I admit I’m very rusty at it.

  18. Wayne says:

    IMO often humanities, literature and history taught you a philosophy. My experience was that most of the time you had to regurgitate whatever your professors wanted. A few exceptions which were great but they were exceptions.

    Now when I had to deal with science and math “theory”, we would spend more time and effort trying to prove ourselves wrong than we did trying to prove ourselves right.

  19. Wayne says:

    One more thing, please don’t’ misunderstand me that I didn’t find higher math to be useful only that I don’t use it very often.

  20. george says:

    We live in a world of humans (humanities and social sciences) which are governed by physical laws (science). If you don’t understand both then you’re making decisions on half a picture. It doesn’t matter if you use the knowledge directly later on (I’ve heard both humanities people and science people complain that they never use anything from the “other” in their day to day life – when was the last time I needed calculus, or had to write an essay on the 30 years war), but that’s much like arguing that because you’re not playing basketball now, gym was a waste of time.

    What those courses do is build up mental abilities (and the different focuses build up different mental strengths), and give a background against which you can judge whether some sort of statement makes sense … whether people and nature really act the way someone claims, whether the stats we’re inundated with are meaningful, whether claims about technology (good or bad) pass the smell test.

    If we’re only going to teach things people use in their day to day lives, there’s no reason to go past grade six – that gives you basic speaking, reading, and arithmetic skills. If we’re going to educate people who can make good decisions in our highly social and technological world, they’re going to need a solid education in humanities and sciences.

    And I’m not sure about having special course for non-specialists … science for humanities, humanities for science. A lot of what you learn majoring in a subject is the complexities and difficulties in it … general overview classes tend to paint everything as understood – it creates false confidence in our understanding.

  21. george says:

    Once upon a time, for someone in the sciences and mathematics were required to have a background in history and the fine arts, or they were not considered educated. I am loath to mention this, but still find someone without a background in history and the fine arts ill educated, no matter how many degrees they have.

    SJR
    The Pink Flamingo

    I agree. And I also find them ill educated, no matter how many degrees, if they don’t have a basic understanding of the physical world around them. I make exceptions for spiritual beings that aren’t governed by the laws of nature.

    A lot of this was discussed by C.P. Snow in his Two Cultures … kind of sad that half a century later its still just as divided.

  22. Sandra says:

    Not at the University and college levels, not at high school, it’s that “leap” from discrete arithmetic (1+1=2, 2-1=1) using natural numbers (counting numbers 1, 2, 3, 4…) to using fractions and decimals in operations.

    The human brain does NOT develop the same in all individuals, and it requires a degree of brain development to be able to comprehend some specific concepts. Forcing it too soon, leads to frustration, and a very specific avoidance of all mathematics and in turn all of the sciences.

    Most people DO develop these “connections” between age 10 and 12, some develop it earlier, and some later. Which correlates to when kids start having the separation of academic performance (as measured by standardized testing) between the sexes, and between social-economic groups. (Race is less of a base than the income levels of the parents).

    This “phobia” of math is not a “natural thing, it is learned, and then reenforced by having teachers in the lower grades, without strong math skills themselves, pass on THEIR phobias and bias against math and in turn, the sciences.

    Nearly all people CAN learn some calculus (once considered the precursor to college math), but not everyone will or can learn it by age 16.

  23. Rob in CT says:

    It’s odd… I loved math until freshman year of high school. I loved basic algebra. By then we got into signs/cosigns/tangents and stuff and I started to lose my love of math class. At the time, I remember repeatedly complaining that it all seemed so darned abstract (which, admittedly, would apply to algebra as well but somehow I liked that). By the time I got to calculus, I was done w/math. Sure, I got a B or somesuch in Calc, but I don’t remember a damned thing. I got through the tests, but that’s it.

    I ended up a History major, which has worked out fine for me. I love History. My math skills are plenty for my job and everyday life. But I’d make a piss-poor engineer.

    Perhaps I’d be better off if somebody had taught me calc (and physics, which I also hated, despite having liked other science classes – man I loved learning about plate techtonics and I liked biology) in a different manner. I don’t know. I think it’s a good idea to look into though.

  24. john personna says:

    On this topic, I’d say don’t give up on high school.

    As I was reminded when reading about GE requirements, one thing foreign schools can be confident of is a good grounding in fundamentals by incoming university students.

    If you fix high school, you can unburden college for better things.

    (On employ-ability, we are coming to the harsh realization that much of the value in a college degree is in “signaling.”)

  25. john personna says:

    (This probably means being harsher about HS graduation requirements.)

  26. Franklin says:

    Wayne, in answer to your question: mostly physics simulations (as I think JKB alluded to). Not sure if I ever use or even took *3rd* year calculus, but it might be helpful in some situations that I currently avoid.

  27. Anon says:

    As a computer science professor, I use math, though I don’t teach it. I’m not sure of the exact source of the problem. I’d guess that it has multiple factors. To some degree, it’s a matter of time and effort allocation. There is a lot to cram into something like a Calc I course. If you just jump right to the abstract level, then you can cover a lot more.

    Also, part of it probably is the constituencies served by the courses. If, currently, the lower-level math courses exist to educate engineers and scientists, then the courses are going to reflect this. Note that engineers that quit because of math won’t directly register on the radar screen. What will register are students that major in a technical field, but are perceived to be inadequately prepared by the math courses. That will cause professors in those departments to complain back to the math department.

  28. mattb says:

    @SJR & @George — Agree on your general points… but there’s one thing that I’d tweak:

    @George: And I’m not sure about having special course for non-specialists … science for humanities, humanities for science. A lot of what you learn majoring in a subject is the complexities and difficulties in it … general overview classes tend to paint everything as understood – it creates false confidence in our understanding.

    In the “old days” – where college was a far more elite experience, I think that general courses work.

    However, as students became more specialized, and they now are, I think teachers and programs need to take that into account. The unfortunate fact is that most modern liberal arts students are NOT prepared to sit in the same courses with science majors. And all to often the teachers of those courses are much more comfortable teaching to science majors than they are to liberal arts majors.

    When the teacher doesn’t try to come halfway to meet students whose foundations are shaky, then learning often stops.

    BTW, the same, I have found is true with people who are science majors. One of my recent teaching experiences was guiding 40 bio/pre-med students through a medical anthropology course. For most of them, it was their first critical social sciences course and the were exceedingly defensive (assuming that I was there to tell them everything they knew was wrong, etc.). I learned how to use my (shaky understanding) of science and math to bridge the gap between us and get them to draw upon those skills to better access the class material.

  29. Wayne says:

    Franklin what job do you do. Give me a one solid example where you use higher math (anything above calculus like District Structures, etc) during your day. Yes we deal with systems, sciences and such that have to do with higher math. However the need to write out a problem and solve it just doesn’t happen for the very vast majority of people.. I deal with computers and it helps to understand the binary system but that is still not above calculus.

    At my college we had three “semesters” of calculus. One usually took the first two before going to the higher math classes. It was a good idea to do so before taking physic classes also since you use a good deal of calculus in all. I don’t recall ever having a class that last a year. The closest one was our thesis but that still was recorded as a semester class.

    That said I agree with George that although you may not use the specific techniques that it can still helps your understanding of the world.

  30. george says:

    That said I agree with George that although you may not use the specific techniques that it can still helps your understanding of the world.

    Its a key point for both humanities and sciences. I can’t remember a single time outside of school that I needed to know anything about the history of the civil war for work, or of Charlemagne. I’ve never had to write a critical essay about literature since Lit 100, nor have I needed to use any sort of political theory (except of course for the manditory Alinksi) since leaving school. In my case I do need to solve systems of partial differential equations at work, but that happens to be because I’m in a very specialized field.

    However, I’d argue that even my weak understanding of history, literature, political theory, science outside my discipline, and math has definitely helped my understanding of the world – and hopefully kept me a bit mentally sharper, in the same way that playing recreational basketball has nothing to do with my work, but keeps me physically healthier.

  31. One thing that might help is introducing a social stigma to being openly innumerate. To give a specific example, I remember last week I was listening to a local new radio report on a bike race occuring in Philadelphia. After mentioning the grade of main hill in the race and then the reporter casually mentions that since she’s not good at mathematics, she interviewed a university mathematics professor to find out how tall the hill was.

    Throughout this whole digression, the reporter acted like being unable to solve a basic algebra problem is perfectly normally when it really ought to be the equivalent of the reporter beginning with the announcement that they don’t know how to read.

  32. Drew says:

    “But once I got to college, the courses were no longer about math or science on a meaningful level but about complex equations and formulas using strange symbols.”

    I guess its been touched upon throughout the thread, but I’ll briefly weigh in. I don’t really understand where you are going with this point, James. “Complex equations using strange symbols” is simply a way of saying you got to a point where you were exploring more complex physical and chemical phenomena inherent in the world, which simply required a more complex language. That’s all. To transfer it to the less scientific, its like decrying Shakespeare or, say, William Buckley vs grunting and monosyllable text. Something more complex and even elegant is necessary.

    The Gibbs-Duhem equation might seem complex to some, but its simply a necessary tool to express whats happening to “free energy.” And free energy lords over the world, you know. (You don’t have to believe me, just email Alex Knapp; he’s a chemist.)