Saturday, 16 May 2015

Maths, science, technology and Bill Shorten

made the news this week. Ah  yes, the importance of having students well educated in maths, science and technology. Ah yes, all students should be learning computer coding.
But Mr Shorten went a step further than that. He suggested that 100,000 students who choose to do maths, science and technology at university should be eligible for "free" degrees. Those who choose to do "arts" degrees on the other hand should have to pay.
It was enough to make this cat froth at the mouth in fury.
I agree the world needs students who are well educated in maths, science and technology. I also agree that all students should know about computer coding and have at least an elementary understanding of how to do it. 
But we also need students who are well educated in the art of communication and that means well educated in the arts. There is absolutely no point in being a maths genius if you cannot communicate your ideas to others. You won't be able to do research in science unless your mind is able to create possibilities and you won't be able to design the technological equipment you need unless you know something about art.
We cannot learn "all about everything" and the amount of knowledge has increased multiple-fold since my childhood. Even when I was going to school there was a strong tendency to prevent  the most able students from doing any art or craft subject but we did do English (it was compulsory) and at least one arts subject  if we were science stream or one science subject if we were arts stream. In the rural schools I attended - where the academic stream was aimed at boys and science - there were opportunities to do history, geography (then considered "arts"), and art or a craft. It was not because this was considered particularly valuable for the brighter students but because the availability of the teachers and the timetabling made it necessary.
My last rural school still managed to produce, among other professionals, a word renowned paediatric heart surgeon, two doctors, a dentist and an agricultural scientist who solved a serious problem for the state's farmers. Those were just the scientists in my year - and they all did English, history,  and one of woodwork, art, and sewing. There was no opportunity to do a foreign language or another arts subject might have been added to the list.
Now the body of knowledge is said to be too great for students to do those things. Is it really? Can we really afford not to teach these things to the brightest students? How can we expect a student to use language if they have never studied it?  How can we expect them to read scientific material with understanding if they have not been taught to comprehend what they read and assess it? How can we expect them to write up their work so others can understand it if they have only written dry "reports" as exercises? How can we expect them to draw a diagram if the only "drawing" they have ever done is on a computer screen in a lesson primarily designed to teach them computer code?
Can anyone convince me that the arts don't matter? Is Bill Shorten right? 
Or am I right in thinking we are in danger of losing  our cultural literacy to a view of the world that seems to say, "If you aren't the sort of scientist we want then you aren't worth anything"?


Judy Edmonds said...

My husband spends half his working life peer reviewing reports written by his staff, who are all thoroughly qualified in areas such as accounting or insurance and frequently have a degree in an unrelated discipline as well - and he finds that about 50% of them cannot even follow a reporting template and write coherently. He has sent them on report writing courses and things don't improve. He now tries to recruit staff who have 'life experience' beyond the necessary qualifications in the hopes that as wide a range of experiences as possible will help with communication skills. He is someone who managed to straddle both sides of the intellectual fence - a degree in economics/accounting but excellent writing and communication skills as well - and it is driving him to despair that it is already so hard to find people with both sorts of abilities. This sort of approach can only make it much harder. Oh yes, he can code too :)

catdownunder said...

I sympathise Judy!