Neoliberal educational ideology would have it that education is finally about job skills. Many have lamented this narrow focus as an impoverished view of what education should do and have argued in favor of a renewed emphasis on the humanities (in the interest of more holistic formation of character, training up in the duties of critical citizenship, etc.). I am very sympathetic with all those views. I would like to suggest, however, that they do not go far enough, because they accept the notion that it’s possible for formal education to be directed purely at job skills.
Yet there’s always something excessive in formal education, something that cannot be captured in a pure utilitarian calculation — that’s what makes it “education” rather than simple “training.” Furthermore, that excessive element corresponds to society’s own self-image. In what it forces kids to learn, over and above any straightforward utility, a society is telling a story about itself and its aspirations.
In a previous regime of education, the excessive element was classical education and particularly the study of the Latin language, a practice that continued (among elites) long past the point of Latin’s actual use as a common European language. It’s not difficult to understand the message behind this insistence on the importance of a dead language — it expressed a sense of connection to a broader Western heritage as well as to the task of universal empire-building. Presumably all those goals could be met by reading the works in question in translation, or else distilling their insights and strategies into contemporary works, making learning the actual Latin language excessive — yet that excessiveness is precisely the point.
In the contemporary U.S., the equivalent of the Latin language is surely mathematics. Indeed, math is frequently evoked as one of the first types of skills that one needs for today’s job market. Thinking back, however, I learned a lot of things in math class that were excessive. I’ve never needed to use algebra or geometry to any serious degree, let alone calculus.
Obviously I’m not in a field that demands a lot of calculation, but I know many engineers who report that their hard-won knowledge of differential equations has proven useless for their chosen vocation as well. Even basic math skills such as addition and subtraction are probably excessive for most practical purposes in the era of the cheap calculator — if you have good enough estimation skills to know when you’ve made an obvious error punching in the numbers, that’s probably going to be perfectly adequate 90% of the time. Similarly, I’d imagine that even in very advanced fields of applied mathematics, such as creating actuarial tables, etc., it’s more important to learn how to use the relevant software tools than to be able to do all the pure mathematics by hand.
What message was American society sending itself when it forced me to memorize my multiplication tables and laboriously solve quadratic equations? As with classical Latin, the stated rationale is to enable a kind of mastery, but the difference between Latin and math is that math is (at least in the common sense view) ahistorical and universal — meaning it is bound by neither ideology nor culture. The kind of mastery that math gives us is a non-ideological, pure mastery.
Hence the durability of the emphasis on math after the fall of the Soviet Union (whose engineering successes prompted the focus on math in the first place) — the Cold War was not perceived as a battle between competing ideologies, but a battle between the natural order of things (liberal democratic capitalism) and ideology as such (the Soviet Union). Now that ideology has been defeated after its failed attempt to instrumentalize the objective power of math for its non-objective ends, all nations can compete on the level playing field of math.
The seemingly indisputable nature of math has made our reliance on it much more dangerous than the previous reliance on Latin. While nationalistic pride in the mother tongue ultimately displaced Latin, there is apparently no counterweight to math, no counterargument.
Our trust in math became toxic, as the finance industry clothed its gambling more and more in the language of advanced math — and syphoned off as many advanced mathematicians as possible, diverting them from the practical tasks that math was supposed to serve. Surely the big banks must really be allocating risk in the best possible way: look at all that math! Surely derivatives must be self-regulating: did you see those fucking equations? These guys must know what they’re doing, because it’s all based in the very standard of knowledge itself! They must deserve the power they have, because it’s all based in the source of all objective, non-ideological power!
All of this, of course, makes about as much sense as it would have for all the nations of Europe to do whatever the pope says because he’s such a master of Latin — or worse, to continue to do whatever the pope says even after his advice caused widespread disaster and suffering. Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing. Math still reigns supreme, as we continue to tell ourselves the story that’s making us stupider by the day.
In this perspective, the perversely ineffective mode of American math education, which focuses on “skills” without providing any conceptual background to let students know why they’re learning to shift numbers and letters around according to these rules, makes perfect sense. Just as American-style foreign language education exists solely to convince the average American that learning to speak a foreign language is impossible, so also is American-style math education designed to convince the majority of students that math is too hard for them. It’s a kind of inoculation, exposing them to just enough math to convince them not to ask questions about it — perhaps not unlike the use of Latin in legal language.
All of this does provide valuable job skills, albeit indirectly: skills in trusting the authority of elites and in accepting any mathematically-legitimated decision as a fact of nature (“they have to make money somehow!”; “there just isn’t room in the budget!”). And actually doing well on the math itself really does position one to be among the best-renumerated servants of the elites.
But I’m pretty sure that the elites themselves mostly aren’t very good at algebra — they’re the ones who somehow stumbled on enough “critical thinking skills” to know that they can always hire someone else to do that for them.