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Response to 'Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school' by Mark Slouka - Journal of Omnifarious

Sep. 28th, 2009

11:27 am - Response to 'Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school' by Mark Slouka

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This is a response to this article: "Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school" by Mark Slouka. Initially I'm going to be tossing ideas against a wall because I feel his argument is broken in several different respects. Later I intend to try to go back to edit it to be more coherent. Or, at least, that's my intention right now. :-)

In his article he talks about how the humanities are being consistently and constantly dissed in favor of science and math education in our schools. He thinks this is a bad thing. I think he's right about the dissing, but I partially disagree that it's a bad thing, and I definitely disagree about why it's happened.

In my opinion, the humanities have almost completely failed us. Starting sometime in the 30s the humanities became utterly derailed into a self-congratulatory circle of rarified academics almost completely disconnected from reality. I cite as evidence things like the post-modern paper generator which generates output I largely find indistinguishable from the academic output of the humanities.

I also cite the modern fiction that receives critical acclaim by fellow academics in the club. It almost universally says nothing of substance while telling us we're all idiots for leading the lives we lead or having the values we have. Reading 'White Noise by Don DeLillo is like sitting on the porch with an imaginative and lively old coot who loves pointing at people on the street and telling you just how silly their fashions are. Amusing, but ultimately pointless. And in so doing, it helps create the very intellectual fashions it then proceeds to make fun of. Like Andy Warhol's soup can, its real art is in getting us to take a picture of a soup can seriously as a piece of high art.

Meanwhile, other academics in the club are telling us that science is just a social construction and the things we observe are simply a product of our cultural perspective and don't have any objective reality at all.

And he wonders why nobody takes the humanities seriously. It doesn't even take itself serioulsy. It lost its connection to reality ages ago. For all of Mr. Slouka's vaunting of the humanities ability to gives us the tools to evaluate our values he seems to miss that the main point of the academic branch of the humanities seems to be that there are no values worth having.

I do think his criticism of valuing education as a means to create people who will be valuable workers for modern corporation is spot on. But the problem is that we have no more values left. They've all been deconstructed out of existence by the very field he thinks would save us. If we cling to math and science it's because they at least admit there are at least some answers that are better than others.

He feels that one of the jobs of education is to create people who challenge popular thinking. I don't think he's wrong. But the problem is that all the major challenges to popular thinking I know of have come from the hacker community. A bunch of extremely creative scientists an engineers. They are the ones getting in legal trouble for saying stuff nowadays.

All the really heated debates in which ideas about what we should be building and why are flung back and forth and tortured until they crack in those communities. Mostly in modern journalism, that bastion of the humanities, I see a failure to understand and consequent disinformation and stupidity that further perpetuates the problem. The humanities has treated science as a red-headed stepchild, distasteful and embarrassing for its insistence in a testable objective reality. The consequent explosion of ignorance and inability to evaluate the products of the engines of science and technology are the predictable result.

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Comments:

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From:gamerchick
Date:September 28th, 2009 08:11 pm (UTC)
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Meanwhile, other academics in the club are telling us that science is just a social construction and the things we observe are simply a product of our cultural perspective and don't have any objective reality at all.

I agree with a fair bit of what you've said here (particularly about the role of hackers and the aesthetic value of certain trends in literary fiction right now, though I read White Noise rather differently than you did, I think), but I would like to say that I have a master's degree in a humanities field and I have never once heard any respectable academic in a humanities field say anything like what I've quoted above. Then again, my MA isn't in literature, which is what you seem to be talking about for most of this entry.

I think that in this entry you are somewhat conflating the excesses of literary criticism and deconstruction with a number of totally different fields. Which, yeah, a lot of deconstruction and post-modernism is very silly in my opinion, and that's a big part of why I gave up writing fiction and poetry. But I'm pretty sure that even within the field of literature, a Marxist critic or a feminist critic or a post-colonialist would absolutely not say "there are no values worth having" in modern society - the point is that those critics interpret and discuss works through the values they possess. And that's leaving aside whether a critique of post-modernism is even entirely applicable to the prevailing viewpoints among historians, or anthropologists, or linguists, etc. "The humanities" is a big and varied entity, and you can no more judge all of it by foolish things that some deconstructionist critics say than you can judge all of the sciences by the insanity of so-called "scientists" who espouse intelligent design.
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From:omnifarious
Date:September 28th, 2009 08:31 pm (UTC)

Yes, you have a point

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Yes, I guess you're right. I don't even think of anthropology or linguistics as being a part of the humanities, though really they are. I am primarily attacking literature and literary criticism. And history can be connected to that sometimes. I think I'm partly fooled because some bits of anthropology make a regular appearance in Scientific American.

The thing is, I think Mr. Slouka is making a similar mistake to mine. :-)

And as far as the sentence of mine you quoted... I distinctly remember some attempts by deconstructionists to apply their ideas to science within the past 20 years in which the basic result was that science was treated as just another myth about the world we tell ourselves to give ourselves a sense of identity. I did do a bit of googling to find references to point to, but couldn't find anything. :-/

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From:gamerchick
Date:September 28th, 2009 08:44 pm (UTC)

Re: Yes, you have a point

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I will admit that my reaction to your post was greatly colored by the fact that my MA is in linguistics, which is a fairly evidence-based humanities field at least in my conversation analysis and sociolinguistics corner of it. I never liked the stuff like phonology or syntax which can get a little more theoretical and loopy depending on what you're studying (Optimality Theory owns though, even though it doesn't entirely make sense sometimes). I would be extremely skeptical, to say the least, of anyone who tried to tell me that the conversations I recorded and analyzed as part of my thesis were meaningless social constructs that didn't actually exist. They sure felt like testable objective reality, or at least obnoxious drudgery, to me. (Though I guess if they weren't actually real I wouldn't have needed to take years off my life transcribing them. Maybe I should have stuck with literature after all. *grin*)
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From:mysticalforest
Date:September 28th, 2009 08:39 pm (UTC)
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/agree with gamerchick

P.S. The article's poorly written. Aside from being TL;DR, it takes rather forever and too long to get to its point.
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 28th, 2011 09:24 am (UTC)

you're dumb

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The arts and humanities PRECEDE science!
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From:omnifarious
Date:January 30th, 2012 01:53 am (UTC)

Re: you're dumb

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Well, maybe so. But they certainly aren't now. For the most part the humanities have dived off the bridge into la-la land and have been living there comfortably for years.



Edited at 2012-05-01 08:33 pm (UTC)
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From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 1st, 2012 06:42 pm (UTC)

Appreciate this thread, I have to

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Eh? What makes you come up with such a broad generalization?
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From:omnifarious
Date:May 1st, 2012 08:37 pm (UTC)

Re: Appreciate this thread, I have to

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Sites like this: The Postmodern Paper generator.

Also, the general treatment of the output of scientists as a 'narrative' that must be interpreted purely subjectively. Things like that. It's pure nonsensical intellectual masturbation.



Edited at 2012-05-01 08:37 pm (UTC)
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