A physics professor, writing in Inside Higher Ed, asks why intellectuals think it's ok to be ignorant of math and science, but not of art, music and literature. When among intellectual company, humanities professors can confess, without a trace of shame, their complete ignorance of science, one of humanity's most important intellectual achievements. But in our culture, a science professor had better not admit to a similar level of ignorance about art or music. This physics professor quotes another blogger to illustrate the phenomenon:
Is it worth considering that perhaps there are even some smart people who aren’t great at math and/or science?.. [A]re we to force every peg, round or square, into that hole at the expense of forcing students, who may be gifted in other equally important subjects, to drop out after a long series of demoralizing failures?
To which he replies:
This is the exact same chippiness I hear from physics majors who are annoyed at having to take liberal arts classes in order to graduate. The only difference is that students seeking to avoid math or science classes can expect to get a sympathetic hearing from much of the academy, where the grousing of physics majors is written off as whining by nerds who badly need to expand their narrow minds.
I'm sympathetic, but really, there is a difference between math and the humanities. There is a reason, I think, that being literate and appreciative of the fine arts has always been considered an important trait of educated people in general, while being competent in math and science has instead been viewed as the province of whizzes and geeks whose minds are somehow abnormally suited to equations (but not to other social graces) . You don't have to be able to play music or produce art in order to appreciate it. But to appreciate math, and to a lesser extent science, you have to be able to do it. Think about it: there is obviously a huge difference between Art 101 (even when you assume a very rigorous, challenging Art 101) and Algebra 101. You simply can't appreciate math without being able to solve equations. You can look at a work by Rembrant or Cezanne or Marden Hartley and appreciate what it's trying to express, the techniques behind it, the culture context, without being able mix colors yourself, but you can't look at a 3rd order polynomial equation and admire its structure or its significance, without actually being to solve polynomial equations. This is not completely true of science, but unfortunately, science and math have been linked together in cultural circles. While students today who are science majors need lots and lots of math to be successful in today's computer-based scientific world, all other students don't need most of that math - but they do need an appreciation of science. What we need, to change this culture of shameless science ignorance, are more classes designed to teach science to people who will never have to practice it. Scientists might learn from the humanities professors who have to teach complicated subjects, like philosophy, in general ed. classes. This way, humanities students won't be dropping out of science classes "after a long series of demoralizing failures."