Looking in amazement last week at the first full-resolution images of Mars sent back to us from the Curiosity rover, I heard echoes of buzz-kill pragmatists in my brain.
“Space exploration is a waste of money! How many jobs does it create in the real world, huh? NASA is just another government boondoggle. We should be using that money to cut taxes/pay for health care/insert favorite pet cause here.”
Impractical, insanely expensive … and all for a few photos and a handful of experiments to keep a few scientists (aka hoaxers) on the government dole. Space exploration and research isn’t necessary. Let’s be practical, here.
There will in fact be real-world applications for the knowledge gleaned from further study of our closest celestial neighbor (the moon being more like an adult child living in the garage). But even if there weren’t, mightn’t it be worth the trip(s) simply for the joy of discovery, of awe and wonder?
The gimlet-eyed economic fundamentalist types will say no; they’ll say a thing is worth only what it can bring in the free market. Wonder and awe? Yeah, yeah, we’ve got Hollywood for all that stuff.
Most of us aren’t fundamentalists of that stripe, but our culture is being dragged down into a gray pit of such economic pragmatism. We have meekly accepted the role of consumer, thrust upon us in a bait-and-switch with that impractical former ideal of the citizen — and the human. In the aggregate, we have allowed ourselves to be identified merely as cogs in an economic machine, and the absolute best, highest goal is to make a lot of money.
No surprise then that “pragmatists” now push a blandly vocational agenda, in which the only valid purpose of education is to prepare all the little human-bots to assume their place in the mighty money machine.
Nobody should study history or English or theater or poli sci any more. Forget what your passion is, your interests, and choose from the three disciplines in which you can find a “good job” : engineering, computer stuff, business. And if you are sure you can get in to med or law school, you have a wider selection — but only if you are sure. Remember, the only point of education is to prepare you for the workplace.
Meanwhile, poli sci professor Andrew Hacker caused a stir with a July 28 New York Times piece, “Is Algebra Necessary?” He more or less argues that algebra is too hard, and anyway, it isn’t going to help anyone get that chimerical “good job.”
Hacker argues, “Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.”
While I like his ideas about presenting students with classes about the applications of math in history, art and culture, dumping algebra — while other nations, from South Korea to India expect students to do the hard work of learning it — is just another symptom of a society that is accepting a stripped down, dollar-driven notion of education.
Because really, why teach impractical algebra? Useless history? Why ask students to read Moliere or Faulkner or Austen? The rest of the world speaks English, so why bother learning some other language? Theater, dance, film, art, music, architecture, for God’s sake? Please.
Instead, we should put away such childish things by, say, sixth grade and get kids on the road to a “good job.” Perhaps accounting in seventh grade, an Excel, Word and PowerPoint course in eighth grade, some basic html to build on by ninth grade for those who care about such things. Definitely teach ’em how to write a solid resume and skills for job interviews, right down to the appropriate attire. I guess a basic investment course makes sense, too.
If, of course, any students actually show an interest in the holy grail of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — well, we can steer them that way. Perhaps they should be sequestered, lest their minds be tainted with anything less practical; obviously nobody is going to take an interest in such things if they haven’t by middle school, right?
Well-rounded students with the ability to make connections and understand humanity and its cultures? Renaissance young women or men? Sorry. Not marketable. All students need to know is what their next employer will require of them. No more, no less.
Advice to students: Get busy preparing your self for that good job … and forget. Because that old-fashioned thirst for knowledge, the sheer human enjoyment of learning for learning’s sake, the desire to express it all in art, poetry, music, all that’s passé.
What about curiosity — and Curiosity? If it won’t get you a “better job,” we advise you to get back to work.