"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."

Written by Jarrett E. Chapin
Monday, 13 July 2009 19:00

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New Jersey’s Education Commissioner has suggested that the new curriculum will be more rigorous, it will deploy more emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects, and it will be administered in a way that eases the shift for students in the entire K-12 span. We cannot be certain how many more students will be left behind as the curriculum gets more difficult for them—especially in areas where they are having the most trouble, areas like Math. Rather than a hard-line approach, more general rigor and attention to math and science, why don’t we create legitimate alternatives for different kinds of thinkers? Alternative course areas, not alternative graduations routes, cater to different thinkers and allow students to exercise their capacity for decision. This latter aspect of the approach, the exercise of decision, can cause an increase in planning skills and critical thinking. Arguably, federal curriculum standards prevent curriculum crafters from deep or fundamental overhaul of K-12 education, but there are approaches that can be applied that would embrace more students in the curriculum and in successful educational outcomes. Commissioner Davy has proposed math and science, I propose philosophy. Though less likely to be integrated into a curriculum than a more rigorous approach to math and science, there are benefits to philosophy.

Our national math and science fixation began during the cold war. It really is an educational program of national defense, though it has definitely been instrumental in the development of many non-military scientific breakthroughs in the U.S.. Early in a founding document of this doctrine, the often cited “A Nation At Risk,” a 1982 Gallup Poll is cited to support a more vigorous approach to education:

The public’s attitudes toward the public schools strongly supported a theme heard during our hearings: People are steadfast in their belief that education is the major foundation for the future strength of this country. They even considered education more important than developing the best industrial system or the strongest military force, perhaps because they understood education as the cornerstone of both.

I would argue that since the early 80s we may have changed our late cold war attitudes significantly and perhaps someone ought to take the public’s temperature again. There is nothing inherently wrong with the union of education and national defense—though the education-defense approach does not always serve education as much as it serves defense. We every year hear about the decline of literacy in this country, though we only seem concerned about how our TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) scores measure up to those in Asia. Though not really original, augmenting the areas where students are already having the most difficulty is daring—and apparently close to the Commissioner’s heart. Though a lawyer by training, Commissioner Davy owes her own educational foundation to her mathematics degree from Seton Hall. She has said as much. Math, she touts, is the foundation of critical thinking.

For those from the more liberal arts, reforms like this give us chills. I, for one, spent most of my time in education avoiding mathematics. I did not, however, go without critical thinking. As a philosophy major I was required to take symbolic logic which is similar, but not the same, as mathmatics. I was very glad to have the opportunity.

Most of my enthusiasm for logic originated in the fact that logic was not mathematics. I thought that learning symbolic logic would make me sharper and mastery might grant me omniscience. In the end, however, logic really turned out to be a bunch of tricks or devices, pigeonholes, really. Logical formulae, like numerical formulae, are nothing but elaborate versions of that thing people do when they make it look like they've pulled off their own finger or pulled a quarter from a someone's ear. Logic is a study of patterns in language and most of the patterns have been cataloged since the Middle Ages. In this way, it has some noticeable symmetry with the study of mathematics. Logic is necessary, but not sufficient, for rational thinking. On the other hand, I would say that mathematics, per se, is not necessary.

In my opinion students at the K-12 level should be given an option. Some schools around the country have proven that it is possible to teach symbolic logic on the K-12 level. Why not let the many students with mathematics terror (perhaps 12 percent of New Jersey’s high school graduates) chose their own path and throw themselves into an alternate discipline like propositional logic. In the long view, the aims and application of logic are almost the same as those of mathematics, critical thinking. Symbolic logic just shortens the circuit a bit as it is less esoterically, or perversely, engaged with the development of critical thinking.

Commissioner Davy’s background has produced for her an impressive career and thinking life. However, everyone can agree that one size does not fit all. As we try to move beyond teaching students to recite items on a test, we should include more students in our teaching. We ought to look to philosophy in general as an alternative and a compliment to math and science in our schools. Instead of chemistry, some may take the philosophy of science which is really the history of scientific thought. Also, an alternative to mathematics might be propositional logic.

The philosophy approach is one proposed by Montclair State University’s Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC). From their website:

As reading and writing are taught to children through the discipline of literature, why not make reasoning and judgment available to them through the discipline of philosophy? However, these benefits don’t come from learning about the history of philosophy or philosophers. Rather, as with reading, writing and arithmetic, the benefits of philosophy come through the doing-through active engagement in rigorous philosophical inquiry.

As we move further away from the emphasis on literacy and verbal skills, there is a danger that new generations will lose the ability to clearly transmit complex ideas in speech and writing. I do not agree with the disjunction between reading and writing, and reasoning and judgement, or literature and philosophy. As early as Sophocles, literature and philosophy have been joined at the hip. Historically, philosophers have often borrowed anecdotes from literature to articulate and even formulate difficult philosophical points. And some the greatest observations ever made about political theory and social science can be traced to literary antecedents. Much of the work and career of Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), in fact, represents an important union of mathematics and literature, in a sense, logic.

In this vein, students might read more Lewis Carroll in high school. We all know that, for the most part, only a few students are reading anything at all. Why not let them closely study the semantic nonsense of Carroll. Also, an extremely important figure in modern propositional logic is Bertrand Russell who wrote one of the most accessible and textbook-sized philosophical histories ever written, A History of Western Philosophy. A high school curriculum could easily grow around this book.

Commissioner Davy and the State Board is correct in emphasizing the role that mathematics can play in the development of critical thinking, though, for the same reason, similar if not better results can be had with the addition of philosophy to K-12 curriculums. Philosophy college majors score the third highest out of 22 other majors on the LSAT—though math majors and econ majors score higher. Philosophy students score second highest to math majors on the GMAT and are the highest scorers on the GRE. For those who get indigestion over TIMSS scores, IAPC boasts that its materials have been translated into 40 languages and are taught in more than 60 countries. Math makes sense, but it is illogical to exclude philosophy which may:

As an alternative, promote critical thinking by simply promoting decision among students.

May compliment other disciplines such as mathematics.

May improve literacy.

May raise critical thinking and test scores.

May legitimately produce more high school graduates.

May increase the number of college bound high school graduates.

 

 

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