A few posts ago, I argued for the importance of widespread scientific literacy. I claimed that “scientific literacy—in conjunction with political, mathematical, and other literacies—is a civic responsibility”. For symmetry’s sake, let’s now look at those “other” literacies and think about why they’re as important, if not more important, than scientific literacy.
Political Ignorance Uno
Can you believe that Aristotle once called us “political animals?” How many people do you know who vote? Or for that matter engage in our political process at all? The de-politicization of American citizenry (in particular young people) has been noted and studied for at least the last thirty years by people like Noam Chomsky and Robert McChesney. Some authors attribute this to corporate media keeping our heads looking at the leaves on the proverbial trees instead of the forest; others, like John Gatto, attribute it to our government-run school system ‘dumbing us down’ with a torrent of confusing, disconnected facts. Regardless of the cause, all I know is that the effect is real, observable, and frightening. A recent PEW survey has shown that American’s knowledge of public affairs and politics has, as one author puts it, been “in rapid and continual descent since the high water mark of the 1950s.”
What I would like to know is how this depressing trend varies among different college majors. In my own experience, I’ve found that STEM majors are by far more ignorant of basic political and economic ideas than majors in the liberal arts. Most of my close friends in physics don’t read (not even fiction), and give me funny looks when I tell them I do. This is unfortunate, because when it comes to big, important issues, we usually turn to scientists for their saintly wisdom. Come to think of it, why is that?
What do Scientists Know, Anyways?
In 1945, George Orwell sought to answer that question in a short and sharp essay called “What is Science?” The essay’s basic argument is simply that, on the whole, scientists are no more equipped to deal with political and social questions than the average Joe–indeed, they may even be worse off than Joe, thanks to the myopia that often follows specialization. And yet big-league politicians, news anchors and the like still cry out for more STEM majors and more investment in STEM at all rungs of the educational ladder.
For me to try and paraphrase Orwell’s response to these demands would be disservice to you and a crime against the English language, so please forgive the long quote.
Implied in the demand for more scientific education is the claim that if one has been scientifically trained one’s approach to all subjects will be more intelligent than if one had had no such training. A scientist’s political opinions, it is assumed, his opinions on sociological questions, on morals, on philosophy, perhaps even on the arts, will be more valuable than those of a layman. The world, in other words, would be a better place if the scientists were in control of it. But a ‘scientist’, as we have just seen, means in practice a specialist in one of the exact sciences. It follows that a chemist or a physicist, as such, is politically more intelligent than a poet or a lawyer, as such. And, in fact, there are already millions of people who do believe this.
But is it really true that a ‘scientist’, in this narrower sense, is any likelier than other people to approach non-scientific problems in an objective way? There is not much reason for thinking so. Take one simple test — the ability to withstand nationalism. It is often loosely said that ‘Science is international’, but in practice the scientific workers of all countries line up behind their own governments with fewer scruples than are felt by the writers and the artists. The German scientific community, as a whole, made no resistance to Hitler. Hitler may have ruined the long-term prospects of German science, but there were still plenty of gifted men to do the necessary research on such things as synthetic oil, jet planes, rocket projectiles and the atomic bomb. Without them the German war machine could never have been built up.
On the other hand, what happened to German literature when the Nazis came to power? I believe no exhaustive lists have been published, but I imagine that the number of German scientists — Jews apart — who voluntarily exiled themselves or were persecuted by the règime was much smaller than the number of writers and journalists.
All this shows is that science is not enough. Of course a basic scientific literacy among the public would be very nice, as I’ve argued here, but it can’t be the only thing. One also needs to know a solid smattering of history, political theory, economics, and philosophy to engage meaningfully in the political process.
Political Ignorance Dos
So here’s the main point of this post: for the well-being of our democracy, the liberal arts are far more important for people to be well-versed in than science.
Again, scientific literacy is extraordinarily important, and I’ve outlined exactly what I mean by that here, but the kind of overly-intimate, technical knowledge you get by majoring in a science is overkill. It’s enough to know that humans are made out of molecules and molecules out of atoms and so on— one doesn’t also need to know the exact details of the quantum chromodynamic forces holding nucleons together.
However, one does need to know the details of the political forces holding our government together. And if you want to understand why it’s held together that way—i.e why the founding fathers structured the constitution the way they did—you will need to know the aforementioned smattering of liberal arts topics. I hope you’ll agree that for a democracy to function, most of its citizens should have some basic knowledge of how their government works. Keeping that in mind, allow me to share some statistics.
- In 2006, only 42% of Americans could name the three branches of government.
- 91% couldn’t name the current Chief Justice (to be fair, neither could I).
- More than a third of Americans were unable to list any of their First Amendment rights.
- 42% of Americans thought that the Constitution “explicitly states that “the first language of the United States is English””.
- A quarter believed that Christianity was established in the Constitution as the official religion of our government.
And so on. A recent Cato institute report puts it rather bluntly: “Most individual voters are abysmally ignorant of even very basic political information.”
More science education simply will not help us here—the liberal arts can.
Education is a nuanced and emotionally charged issue, so 1200 words isn’t nearly enough space to tackle it well. I’m planning to write something bigger and more comprehensive soon, which I’ll probably be posting on my personal blog. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve convinced you–or at least made you consider–the importance of liberal arts literacy.
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