I recently read this article in Newsweek and it made me cranky.
I am pretty sure his pieces in Newsweek always irritate me. It's not that I always disagree with him; however, even where I agree in part, I find his presentation to be irritating. I don't have much time to blog today, so I am not getting into it.
Ok, I will a little. The whole metaphor about apps and viruses and rebooting the system was kind of cheesy, in my opinion. It's like that other article in Newsweek by someone else comparing Steve Jobs to Harry Potter. It's a matter of taste, I guess. It's just not to mine.
There are two things that stood out to me when I read the article. One is the way that Ferguson laments the lack of scientific education/knowledge of America's teenagers. In the concluding paragraphs, he decries, "the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science". His choice of language makes me want to ask, "What the f?" (Or, more appropriately in response to an article titled, "America's 'Oh Sh*t!' Moment," I guess I should ask, "What the f*ck?!?") This isn't the first time I've read this kind of point, however. There are some who practically lament the lack of America's budding young scientists. This is the first time, I think, I've read such language condemning the "soft subjects," and I'm a little surprised. Really, Mr. Ferguson? Are English majors ruining America? And if that's not what you're saying, what are you saying?
I would just like to say as someone who values science, who has been described in the past as a "scientist," but also as someone with degrees and knowledge in the "soft subjects," that I think this is a bunch of crap. (Note: I am writing pre-coffee and pre-7 am.) Why do people think our students need more science, or I guess what I am asking, more accurately, is why do people place such a high value on "hard" science not coupled with "soft subjects." This was a subject--the assumed dichotomy between the two--that was near and dear to my heart as a college student working toward two degrees, a B.A. and a B.S. I didn't expect, at the time, this argument would have any serious ramifications, nothing beyond me feeling, at times, like an oddball among my peers in one program or the other. To keep this already lengthy post from dragging on and on, I would just like to say that I think the non-scientific arts, or the softer sciences, have plenty of value. In fact, I would say that one set of subjects informs the other. Learning how to read and write, for example, is learning how to think, how to uncover facts, how to build and argument, and eventually, how to approach and solve difficult problems. The work I do every day, in any type of job I've had, has been informed by the time I spent deciphering things like Victorian novels. The skills I acquired analyzing George Eliot do translate, I argue, into skills that could be used to do something like ameliorate climate change or save a rare species from extinction. I have found, in my working, post-college life, that the more I read and write, the better I think.
I'd also argue that too much evidence on "hard" subjects, shifting the balance, is bad news! It could overemphasize certain types of thinking and skills over the other. Moreover, I'm concerned that there's a correlation between "hard" science and truth. Even though scientists should know that our data does not reflect "truth," but rather a piece of truth, and that science is something that has to be interpreted just like an abstruse Victorian novel, there are constantly assertions in the media, often by non-scientists but sometimes by scientists, that something is hard, factual, definite, truth. Maybe this is a big leap in logic, but I worry that overemphasizing science education might lead to inflexible understanding and interpretations of facts.
I've gone on a little longer than intended, and I still need to eat breakfast! I would just like to touch on the other concern I had, reading Mr. Ferguson's article. Of America's "killer apps" that he listed, I think he left out the most important: FREEDOM!
I'm being silly. But I'm not totally kidding. Perhaps I was just pumped full of propaganda in elementary and high school, but I was taught that one reason the Industrial Revolution was more successful in America than in England was because of America's culture of equality. And considering the crap that came out of 19th century America that passed for equality, that's really saying something. Arguably, we do not have freedom and equality even now. But we're working on it. (The things I linked to were just the first examples that came to mind. I mean, what also came out of the nineteenth century was this beautiful amendment.)
All I will say is this. I read, sometimes in the same magazines, articles about China's prosperity and articles about China's human rights abuses. (For example.) But they are never in the same article. They are never in the same discussion. Why? What impact will one have on the other? Will the public, in a growing economy, finally demand some basic civil liberties along with their cars, flat-screen TVs, and air conditioners? What role do civil rights have in economy?
No, I'm really asking. Because, like I tell my classmates, I'm just a plant geek. This is somewhat new to me.