Rebekah wants to be an algebra teacher. She announced this a few months ago, about the time she turned 15. “You do know,” I said, “to be an algebra teacher, you can’t just study algebra. You’ll have to be proficient in math at all levels, through calculus, including geometry.”
Only six months before, she had been complaining every night about her geometry homework. It’s too hard. It’s not as much fun as algebra. I can’t think spatially.
“I know,” she simply replied. A few weeks later, her report card arrived from Sacred Heart Classical Center. Geometry: A+.
“It got easier,” she said.
When I was my daughter’s age, I knew that I would go into some field of math or science, possibly to teach, most likely to engage in research. A year later, I had decided on physics as my major, which should come as no surprise to the readers of this scientific journal. Oh, wait . . .
In the small Midwestern town where I grew up (and in most small towns in other regions of the United States in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s), everyone assumed that any child who showed academic promise would choose a math or science major for college. When we took an IQ test in the fourth grade and a handful of us were chosen to spend a few hours each week across the street at the high school, the advanced tutorials we were offered were all in math and science. (I spent hours programming a TRS-80 to draw lines on a TV screen, a skill that I use every day.)
But we were also given cards to the high-school library, and I took full advantage of mine, spending hours browsing the stacks and checking out works of history and literature and poetry, but very little math or science. (The single exception I remember was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book of essays concerning math and science, but neither a math book nor a science book per se.)
Looking back, my decision to abandon physics for political theory after my first ten weeks at Michigan State seems pretty obviously foreshadowed by my choice of reading material at age 11. But had I suggested at any point in my high-school years that I would choose to major in a humane discipline, the answer from all of my teachers—including those who didn’t teach math or science—would have been the same: Don’t waste your talents and intelligence; choose a math or science major instead.
Why the emphasis on math and science, especially in a school so small that it couldn’t offer advanced-placement courses in those subjects? Perhaps it was a product of the times. All of our teachers, young or old, had lived through the space race and the rise of computers and the rapid intrusion of electronics into every facet of human life. Scientists who had won the Nobel Prize enjoyed a fame that even Nobel laureates in literature did not.
At the height of the Rockford desegregation lawsuit, everyone knew that one of the great tragedies of court-ordered quotas was the gutting of math and science curricula. When not enough minorities enrolled in advanced mathematics, calculus was removed from the curriculum, and high schools dropped to one session of trigonometry. (Even my small high school had offered two sessions of trig, because at least half of the students took it.)
But can anyone remember what humanities courses were cut here in Rockford? Outside of Latin, I couldn’t say. There must have been some, of course, but such cuts didn’t provoke the public outcry that the gutting of math and science did.
The science and math classes in our little town were very good (of the 140 students in my graduating class, most of the top quarter easily placed out of freshman college math and science courses, even without having taken AP classes), but looking back, where my elementary and junior and senior high schools excelled was in the humanities. As grateful as I am for the solid math and science education that I received (even today, I enjoy solving equations in my head, and no waitress has to worry about being shortchanged on her tip), I’m even more thankful for the love of literature and history and philosophy and language instilled by Miss Poplaski and Miss Kramer and Mr. Lamkin and Mr. Wolbrink, among many others.
And so, while we have made sure that our children receive a solid grounding in math and science, we have never pushed them to commit to a career in those fields. If they wish to major in physics or chemistry or engineering or math, we will not stand in their way, but the core of their education will always be in the humanities. The physicist or biologist or theoretical mathematician who has no interest in literature, philosophy, or poetry condemns himself to a life as stunted as that of Dustin Hoffman’s Rainman.