Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Do college students need to study Latin?

Dr. Stanley Fish is a NYTimes commentator and an eminent academic. He's also wrong most of the time, I think, despite his evident erudition. His most recent foray was a piece on how college students needed the grounding in the Classics that he'd gotten.

I demurred, saying:

I'm an old guy with a broad liberal education, but I think Dr. Fish is misguided. Any discussion of education needs this context: we're in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and employment is a trailing indicator.

This is why the Mexican revolutionary slogan was "Tierra y Libertad (Land and liberty)." That is, gaining the means to feed yourself comes first--even before freedom.

But the goals of getting a meal ticket and becoming capable of soaring thought don't have to be antithetical. Being able to contextualize is a job skill and the path to advancement.

But only if you have a job skill in the first place. The Ottoman Empire required all its princes to master a trade. I like that. Have every budding intellectual learn to do, say, plumbing (which I can do, for example). That will do them more good than learning Latin, and save them a bundle through the course of their lives.

And nothing teaches rigorous thinking like computer science, or even learning proficiency with productivity software. You can't browbeat or baffle or seduce a computer. Either you've got it or the system won't do what you want.

The most horrifying thing I read in this article's comment thread was the young high school senior saying "I am not a math/science person." As if you're either a math geek or it's all Greek to you.

Anyone planning to get a college education should be able to explain the fundamentals of how a car engine works, how a loan is amortized, what net present value is, why it is that without the Moon, Earth couldn't support life above the level of bacteria, explain the great narrative of life on Earth from the Devonian to now in broad terms, understand everything in the New York Times' science section, understand why no one ever committed suicide because their girl friend left them, why the eyebrow flick is a universal gesture among all cultures, while the smile has interesting variations...these are not huge challenges. Certainly no more than learning a dead language.

And they contribute to someone's survival in the workforce. Lesson One is that the hyperspecialist often doesn't have a great career. I remember I once got an English teaching job in a small school district because I could describe how two stroke engines worked (they needed someone who could teach other stuff as needed--and I did, including basic electronics and Algebra I).

I had a long, remunerative career in technical publishing because I was one of the very few liberal arts types who could understand--at least on a rudimentary level--all sorts of high tech stuff, which aided me immeasurably as an editor.

And what about those high school students who aren't going on to college? They don't need Latin, they need to know how to balance a checkbook, evaluate politicians claims and promises, how to establish credit, when they should/should not buy a house, what bosses require of them, what skills they must master.

I did some teaching in ghetto schools. All the boys were going to be pro athletes and all the girls hip hop stars. 99.9% were delusional, but not far behind the middle class white schools I taught in, where most of the kids had somehow gained the notion that they were perfect and had no need of any further education--certainly not any that was taught in a high school.

Of course the near-unreadable pap that passed for liberal arts textbooks didn't help; nor the math curriculum that was completely untethered to the mathematical skills you need to survive in this society.

But back to the young lady who airily proclaimed "I am not a math/science person." This is someone who has been failed by our educational system, and who will sail into adult life acquiring irrational political beliefs and voting behavior, and whose innumeracy will probably hamper her from doing what she wants to do, because the practicalities of life will be so difficult for her.

Critical thinking? Thucydides shmuthydides. This girl needs to be able to listen to someone she likes, like President Obama, yet when he says we must grant amnesty to illegals because we can't deport them, she should realize he just used the false choice fallacy--and not be swayed by her agreeing with his positions on other things, nor by his cool family and general likeability.

That's what today's students really, really need. And what society really, really needs them to have.

I love good poetry. I can discuss Klee's later paintings and how they dovetail with Richard Strauss's later compositions. But our liberal arts students need more math and science first, because it's 2010.

No comments: