In his State of the Union last week, President Obama talked a little about how he wants to improve the education system, but his most revealing line might have been where he listed the subjects he thinks our schools should be teaching:
Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy—problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, math.
History, philosophy, social studies, comparative theology, and literature are all left off the list. Obama chose to focus on the hard sciences, as opposed to the social (or, more pointedly, “soft”) sciences of the humanities. The classes he chose to emphasize are all about solving problems handed to you, not about choosing which parts of your society, life, or state are problematic.
Perhaps this was only because Obama was talking about how schools prepare our children to join the economy. In order to do a job, it may only be necessary to have the technical skills to manage the tasks delegated to you. But, as a citizen, we need more. As an eventual parent, spouse, or friend, we need more.
In the most recent issue of First Things, Helen Rittelmeyer paints a picture of what our politics look like when we start pushing philosophy, history, and other non-numerical disciplines out of the problem solving toolbox. She turns to the Roper v. Simmons and Miller v. Alabama Supreme Court cases, which examined the justness of sentencing children to death or life without parole.
The Roper majority did not explicitly refer to any neuroscientific studies, though several amici did. This omission was rectified in the subsequent juvenile-offender case Miller v. Alabama (2012), in which Justice Elena Kagan, distressingly confident that scientific and social-scientific conclusions are reliable and impartial and mean just what they appear to mean to the average layman, cited an amicus brief that states: “It is increasingly clear that adolescent brains are not yet fully mature in regions and systems related to higher-order executive function such as impulse control, planning ahead, and risk avoidance.”
The Roper and Miller majorities obviously meant to convey the message, “Executing juvenile offenders, or sentencing them to life without parole, is wrong. We abhor the idea. It revolts us. We would as soon bring back drawing and quartering as affirm this practice in twenty-first-century America.” In a decision hinging on the definition of cruelty, such ethical resolve is entirely appropriate. Yet when taking this moral stand, the justices felt it necessary to reach for evidence, and when reaching for evidence, they looked to behavioral science and neurology.
Would the justices really have been left adrift in these cases if they’d been brought before the Court before the prefrontal cortex had been surveyed and mapped? Would a ruling on torture by waterboarding or threatening the family of a detainee require a careful, longitudinal study of the effect such treatment had on physical health or performance on a psychological survey?
When teachers do their jobs well, they don’t just teach children how to correctly categorize test questions and then perform whatever rote formula or heuristic is required. Education doesn’t just give us skills, but also opportunities to use those skills. It’s little use learning how to do modular arithmetic if you can’t recognize moments when it would be of use.
Just as we teach students to apply math and empirical thinking, we must also teach them to be alert to the opportunities that the arts provide to help them act justly and live well. Whereof science does not speak, we are not required to pass over in silence.
But, in order to draw on our rich legacies of historical, philosophical, theological, and literary thought, we first have to teach it and be careful not to shame those who cite it as “soft.”