Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Of oysters, pearls, and woke mathematics

(Image from Pixabay)

The humanities departments of most universities appear to be hopelessly dominated by the Wisdom of Woke. Well, at least English and History and the social “sciences” seem to have gone that way. I haven’t yet heard about intersectional German or Russian in a feminist perspective; maybe the objective requirement to understand what your professor says in a foreign language, and to answer him comprehensibly in that language, has somewhat insulated those departments.

I’ve heard about some remarkably creepy stuff coming out of Classics departments, but I think they shot themselves in the foot years ago when, in a desperate effort to get more students, they started piling on more and more courses that didn’t require people to learn or read Latin or Greek; reading the great authors in translation, or worse, reading discussions of those authors, was enough to get course credit. I don’t know if they’ve reached the level of desperation of my high school Latin teacher, who offered extra credit to anybody who went to see Ben Hur, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that you can graduate with a B.A. in Classics even if you’ve never conjugated “Amo, amas, amat” and the works of Aeschylus are, well, Greek to you.

Until recently I thought the STEM subjects were insulated from wokeness and social justice by the expectation that students not only solve difficult problems but also get the answers right. I mean provably right by unchanging, rigorous standards that were stated up front, not “right” because you yammered nonsensical interpretations until the professor went home with a headache. Then I started seeing “silly season” stories coming out of STEM departments. Non-physics courses in Stanford’s physics department, so-called educators developing “mathematics” courses focusing on social justice, other so-called educators complaining that algebra and geometry perpetuate white privilege. (I am not making this up; references linked below.)

Initially I thought this sort of thing was so silly it couldn’t be anything but a passing fad. Then I started to worry that the final downfall of the academic world was upon us; if STEM departments substitute essays on inclusivity and diversity for actual work in the subject, will any department of a university teach anything at all?

Last night, though, for some reason I was thinking about the humble oyster, and a more cheerful interpretation came to mind. We all know what an oyster does when a bit of useless grit gets inside its shell. It wraps the grit in layer after layer of nacreous matter produced from its own body, effectively insulating the oyster from the unwelcome foreign substance.

Well, here are these beleaguered STEM departments, being beaten up daily because their student bodies do not exactly match the ethnic/sexual/racial makeup of the population as a whole, and under intense pressure to Make Diversity Happen regardless of the talents, preparation, and interests of the students they’re supposed to acquire.

I’ve known more than a few department chairs in math and physics departments, and in general they are extremely intelligent and very tough people with a special talent for shielding their departments from whatever nonsense the Dean is promulgating this year. (My father was one of those chairmen, and he told me that he considered his first task was to get the Dean under his thumb; then he could get on with turning an okay math department into a great one.)

Now, what might such a man do when the grit of Diversity and Social Justice infiltrates his department? One possible response might be to start creating layers that would insulate incompetent students and those who aren’t really interested in the subject matter from the real work of the department. Classes like “Diverse Perspectives in Physics” would naturally attract people who want to hang around the department and get course credit without doing any, you know, actual physics.
Please note that I’m not suggesting the departments push students into taking these non-classes based on their ethnic/sexual/racial identity. The last thing they want to do is to discourage any talented and hard-working student of any background. They don’t need to push the Diversity Admission Students into these classes. The good ones won’t be interested; only the stupid and lazy will be attracted. Offer the empty course, and they will come.

I fear the Diversity Police will be with us for a long time, and that in remarkably short order – less than five years, is my guess – it will be possible for students at some previously respected institutions to get degrees in physics or mathematics or electrical engineering without ever having encountered a laboratory or a theorem or an electron. The non-class classes will have insulated them from any real contact with their supposed subject.

Why do I think this is going to happen? Because approximately ten seconds after you give in to one demand from the Diversity Police, they have a new demand. Offer “remedial” and “social” classes until the required number of minority students sign up for classes in your department? The next thing you know, there’ll be loud complaints that the students who try to progress from Social Justice Engineering to actual engineering courses are flunking out in unacceptably large numbers… so you add another imitation engineering class that these folks cannot possibly flunk. And then the scandal will be that you’ve admitted all these minority students but very few of them stick with the subject all the way to graduation, so you must be playing some nasty racist trick to force them out.

And the only way to get the Diversity Police off your back will be to design a complete parallel track within your department, allowing students who are either unable or unwilling to do rigorous work to pass from one non-class to another until they have accumulated enough non-credits to graduate with that coveted STEM degree.

Let’s call those students pearls, shall we?

The promised links:

Physics and Diversity at Stanford
Teaching Social Justice through Secondary Mathematics
The Unbearable Whiteness of Algebra

1 comment:

  1. Well, regardless of my limited Latin (2 yrs high school), "i Love" you! You always challenge our minds...one way or another! But I still miss your wonderful beading...and your Embeadery book is still my most favorite and go to book!


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