Okay, I hope that embeds.

If not, it’s a video from Numberphile, one of my favorite YouTube channels, asking the question: “Why do people hate mathematics?” The answer, according to Prof. Edward Frenkel, is that they’ve only been taught the basic building blocks in school- just enough to get by and pass the test, but not anywhere near enough to appreciate the beauty and elegance of math.* I wonder if perhaps we could say a similar thing about the humanities- I’m speaking in particular of literature, since that is my field, but I’m sure similar arguments could apply across disciplines. When kids are little- elementary school, mostly- first, we make them learn spelling and penmanship, reading comprehension, and vocabulary words. Then, as they get older and move into middle and high school, they read the Great Books: Shakespeare, Greek mythology, Dickens, Poe, insert your own personal bete noire here. (Mine is Austen.) I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, it is important to have a decent grasp on the largest cultural touchstones, especially before kids head off to college and get to choose (mostly) what they study.

On the other hand, there have been reams and reams of paper filled with reasons the Great Books/traditional canon is problematic. You know these: all male, all white, all Western, mostly hetero, mostly dead. I received an upper-end public school education and I did not read a single book by a woman (with one very notable exception; see below) until twelfth grade. Plato, yes. Homer, yes. Huxley, Hawthorne, Whitman, Locke, yes. But no women. Forget about queer people. There was a reason Twelfth Night captured me as soon as I picked it up; Viola was the very first character I’d ever encountered who could be called anything other than straight.

The one book I read (from the school curriculum) for twelve years that was written by a woman, and one of a handful of live authors, was Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and it was not on the official curriculum. Each ninth-grade English teacher was allowed to pick one young adult fiction book to teach their classes, per district approval, of course.** I don’t think it’s a coincidence that that was the year I started becoming intrigued by literature proper, and how we “do” English, rather than the stories alone.

I think, if we want to give kids, or people in general, an appreciation for math, or science, or literature, or history, or whatever discipline you like, it’s not enough to give them the basics. They need to understand how those things can be taken outside the classroom- the Amazon.com algorithms, or how to apply critical thinking to advertisements, to name two rather simplistic examples- and they need to see how those building blocks come together in utterly magnificent ways. And (to return to an earlier theme I’ve discussed here), I think an essential component of conveying both those things is a genuine passion for the subject matter. That comes across in a teacher, and personally, I think it’s invaluable.

*I must admit to a personal affection for math, particularly calculus; two of the very few things that make me consider belief in God are Milton’s Nativity Ode and fractals.

**I still have absolutely no idea how Mrs. Farrell managed to get the very, very, very conservative school board to approve Speak. I suspect either drastic misrepresentation on her part or equally drastic laziness on theirs.


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