23 November, 2005

Our smart friend vs. anonymous racists

Intrepid commenter Saheli wrote something really really smart about myths and facts of "well-rounded educations." Go read it. The crux of her argument in case you're not in the mood to click: Liberal arts types like to complain that math and science folks just do math and science, while we liberal artsies are well-rounded and learn everything. Back in reality, artsies (myself included) squeak through our undergraduate years without anyone requiring us to take a college-level math class; many of us don't even know statistics. We "gleefully" take "dumbed-down" classes. Scientists, meanwhile, often have to take full-strength humanities courses. So who is really the well-rounded thinker?

Meanwhile, Daniel Gross points us to a Wall St Journal article in which white parents complain that majority-Asian-immigrant schools "are too academically driven and too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurriculars like sports and other personal interests." It sounds like these parents need to have a nice sit-down conversation with Saheli. But they might not do that, as her ancestry on the Asian land mass apparently makes her one of those "majority-Asian-immigrant"s who are "too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science." Whatever.


Wow, thanks Hedgehog. You are too kind. I have lots to say on this, but I have to run right now. Two things. First of all, I'd hardly count you as exclusively artsy, O determined reader of balance sheets and identifier of varieties of granite and bark. Secondly, I was about to groan about how the WSJ is wearing me down and I will probably end up getting a subscription, but it turns out the article is available without one, at least right now.   I shall read it and return, mateys.  

Posted by Saheli

Stats...now that's a mathish course that I REALLY need to take. It's embarassing that I got through college without it, and I think it would be generally helpful for everyone in our poll- amd stidy-driven culture :) 

Posted by Saurav

I never took a stats class but I did have to take quantitative geography in order to get a degree in geography and human environmental studies, so at least I learned about the basics of significant digits, standard deviations, and confidence intervals. But to be honest, I have largely faked my stats knowledge by just reading books like "How to Lie with Statistics." It's also surprisingly easy to learn math from, of all things, math textbooks. Especially if you have friends who can explain things that fail to make sense.

Saheli:  quit wrecking my artsy cred, would you? Fact is, I dropped out of liberal arts college and finished up at a big anonmyous state school where I did take some pretty basic classes in botany and geology. My whistlepig momma was much happier with that. 

Posted by hedgehog

maybe because the artsy folks adore the artsy materials from the century where science was still something that took place at carnival sideshows. 

Posted by chromo

So, first of all, to the original point about the role of math and science in a liberal arts education--argh. There people go again, with their miscalibrated ideas of "balance." Math and Science are a big part of a liberal arts education--see Plato  & the Quadrivium. Never mind that it is a bit unseemly to violently turn up one's nose in favor of an eduational philosophy that is named after thinking fit for a master--as opposed to thinking fit for a slave. (We'll not even contemplate why it is that an educational philosophy thusly named took particular root in a young Republic which built atop revived and enlarged customs of slavery.) Those who champion liberal education must ground their measure of its standards in some sort of principle. If that principle is tradition, then they should be acquainted with tradition enough to know the importance of mathematics and also the importance of competition. If that principle is functional (skills needed for good citizenship) they should acknowledge the inadequacy of our civic math skills. Without any standards, it sounds very much like they're simply moving the goalposts to suit themselves.

I'm willing to acknowledge that averaged over the whole group, Asian Americans might be more focused on core academics and less inclined towards extracurricular activities than Whites--and even to acknowledge that it might be excessively so. If demographic of changes of any kind (say, an increase in geeky parents, regardless of race, in Silicon Valley) is rapidly changing the educational philosophy of a given school, then naturally it behooves constituencies (determined by educational philosophy, not race) to argue in favor of their own preferences. You could probably rewrite that whole article in terms of competing Silicon Valley subcultures without ever referencing race. The Ivies are historically adept at having this whole conversation in public without making it seem to be about race. But as soon as the argument is framed in terms of the dominant races or ethnic groups of each side, it easily verges into racist territory. Indeed, the fact that so many parents couldn't hide their feelings about Asians from a reporter who appears to be Asian makes it seems like this is much more about racism and much less about any kind of real, principled disagreement about education.(Indeed, after your intro, I was shocked when reading the article to see that the sources were not so anonymous.) I hope you're wrong, hedgehog, and that most of these people would be able to listen to me without referencing my ancestral landmass, but if not--they've got some serious issues, and should think about examining their own "whole person" a little bit.

I'm also habitually disturbed by how arbitrarily normative media/establishment/majoritarian assements of "well-roundedness" are. I can't speak about the East Asian American experience, but in my experience South Asian American children often have a rich cultural life that is sometimes invisible to their peers and evaluators. If you'll forgive me for quoting my own inaugural guestblog at Sepia Mutiny: "If I had to describe the culture of the South-Asian American community in a single sentence, I might very well hit on this: We’re very supportive—perhaps too supportive—of our children’s performance-related self-esteem. It only takes two or three Diwali shows with a hundred klutzy butterballs bouncing around the stage, adorably off-beat, to realize that we start drinking in theater with our mothers’ milk."  Yet Bharat Natyam performances and tabla ensembles don't always mesh well with an American PTA's preconceived notions of what "participating in the arts" means.

Actually I find it ironic that I'm even jumping into this discussion, especially as framed. I went to a private school--a performing arts powerhouse that was explicitly focused on developing "the whole person"--and not one that was particularly white. (If anything, it was significantly less white than my post-209 Berkeley experience. I'm guessing the Asian balance was approximately the same at each.) I was the kid who started the school "newspaper"*, the garden, the literary club, etc. etc.. I also happened to be one of the labrats who took calculus. These things were not seen as mutually exclusive. I'm also a big proponent of Asian-Americans accessing the full spectrum of occupations and interests, not just geeky ones, and I do have to agree that I wouldn't be happy sending my kids to schools that were overwhelmingly Asian--or overwhelmingly anything else, really. (How many of these fleeing parents would truly mind sending their kids to overwhelmingly white schools?!?) So I find this whole dichotomy a bit strange from the get-go. There are some valid cultural criticisms to be made, but it is tacky at best to get them from fleeing white parents.

Some related links: A Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker Review of the new book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admissions at Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and Matthew Yglesias also discussed the relation between the book's main story (the moving of Ivy goal posts to better exclude meritocracy-winning Jews) and today's Asian dynamic. My J-school Dean, Nick LeMann, wrote this 1996 essay in Slate while working on his book about the SATs. I went ahead and sent this to SepiaMutiny, where it's generated some discussion--notably mention of similar situations in Atlanta and Toronto.
I'll probably crosspost the bulk of my comment there too.

To step back a little bit---it seems to me a big problem is the inability to accept not being top-dog. People would rather their children be top dog at a mediocre school than be second or third at a really, really good one. This strikes me as fundamentally tragic. To take Hedgehog's kind blogposttile and play with it a bit: I may be smart, but I'm not that smart. How do I know that I'm not that smart? Because I've know some fucking brilliant people. A lot of them actually. A shallow, easy, if inadequate measure of this: I've conversed significantly with 6 Nobel Laureates, known three of them fairly well, and worked for one of those three. Would I give up my association with those kinds of minds to be the biggest fish in a small, small pond? No way. And the working of my mind is bigger and better for it. What other measure does a well-rounded, whole person need for the freedom afforded by their education?

After all that sturm und drang:Saurav--GAWD do I need to learn more statistics. Do you guys want to form a study group or something?! ;-)

It's also surprisingly easy to learn math from, of all things, math textbooks. Especially if you have friends who can explain things that fail to make sense. True. And I have these things. So yeah, who wants to learn more statistics? Maybe Saurabh can teach us when he gets back from gloomy England. :-) 

Posted by Saheli

having a debate like this in a country whose well of funding for public general education is almost empty. how best to develop the privileged mind? shall it be lavished with letters, inundated with numbers, or bathed in both? in which scents shall we drench it.

as best i can tell, apart from slavery and resource exploitation, the success of north america comes in good part because of a general working class interest in learning on the job, which is assisted more by universal elementary and secondary education than by college requirements.

there is a big numeracy issue here, definitely, and to me that means harm because it means "we" are being very slow to understand how much more expensive it is to have your own personal hoard of every conceivable service or good.

this is a lower issue than that at the college level though. 

Posted by chromo

I agree with chromo; on-the-job learning is definitely the BEST form of learning there is. I've certainly learned more DOING things that involve statistics than I ever did from a textbook. But this is a sandtrap: if we only learn what we're directly exposed to, we can become narrow-minded in our education. If we're only exposed to, say, moving fluids in Eppendorf tubes or to correctly milling a 3/8" gripley, we'll miss out on a lot of what we need to learn to function in society. Thus the value of a nice round university education. 

Posted by saurabh

Chromo - I get your point, but I think you're missing Saheli's. Yes, this is an ivory tower discussion. But we live in a republic where the masters of our society have universally gone to college. People like our pals Joel  and Chris, who have no college degrees but are nevertheless brilliant, have no chance of making it past the level of city council, and are unlikely to show up on any corporate boards. Saheli's point was, in part, that when we let our masters of the universe fly off without a solid grasp of math and science, is it any surprise that they can be snowed by corporate propaganda around the greenhouse effect?

(Not that things were necessarily better when leaders were better-rounded. Note the arguments in favor of slavery, led by academics who scientifically showed that Africans were better off as slaves. This leads to other questions about the nature of education.) 

Posted by hedgehog

seriously? you're letting everybody off the hook because of college curricula?

i see your point though.

on the other hand, there are some 200 million pairs of deaf ears in this country, being fed perfectly awful science by very knowledgeable folks who are making a pile of money sending us all to an early grave. i'll be darned if a lack of science exposure is the reason the public trustees are looking the other way. 

Posted by chromo

what if it's something else. what if real probability is taboo so that wishing can make it so. 

Posted by chromo

I'm not letting them off the hook, but I think the debate over college matters. It doesn't matter more or less than the debate over primary and secondary education. But it's the debate that Saheli was taking part in, and which I was adding to. (The WSJ story was about secondary ed, which in the case of Silicon Valley, has plenty of funding.)

I agree that there are big bucks behind bad science. But could they succeed so well if people had more of a practical science background? When the tobacco firms repeatedly lied about the connections between their drug delivery devices and cancer, scientists saw through it much faster than the science-poor politicians or public.

And it's not just about science. Knowing how to analyze contrary evidence and recognize amibiguity and follow information to primary sources -- these types of critical thinking skills are developed in science but are useful in other arenas. There's a reason why Paul Krugman was among the first public intellectuals to criticize Bush's policies.

I don't understand your last post. 

Posted by hedgehog

krugman has been leading the charge against internalized structural adjustment - "factor endowments" - for more than a decade. his theories guide him to disagree with any kind of scarcity thinking; i don't think that's because of his specific training. the majority of well-trained economists place their bets on inducing shortages. it seems like.

i don't disagree with setting the bar higher for logic, stats/probability, math, and science. what i disagree about is where that bar needs to be set. the older the population you're aiming to reach, the fewer will learn the material. communities are woven before college, by people who didn't attend college.

this thing expands outward so fast... for instance, the math standards for broadcast journalists are deplorable and the worst  stats reporting is on the single widest source of information in the country, right? but those people are professionals who pass through colleges on a different set of rails, which has not much to do with debating the proper rank of "applied" academia.

the shorter comment meant that people in my experience tend to find real probabilities depressing. they don't see a multi-hued network of better and worse outcomes spreading out before them. they see instead black and white threads that lead to happiness and dread, maybe because they're trying to feel their way through the network instead of thinking about it because social interaction takes nearly full attention. 

Posted by chromo

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