“Why teach math and science?”

According to six posters prepared by OMSC (The Ohio Mathematics and Science Coalition), the reasons are these (I’m paraphrasing):

– you need math and science to get a good job

– you need math and science to be a good citizen

– you need math and science to build critical thinking skills that will help you with everyday tasks.

I actually believe all three of these claims (spread among five different posters, in slightly different forms) are dubious – either in truth or in importance. But that’s not what I’m writing about – at least not yet. Instead, what I’m writing about is a poster that is much more to my liking.

With their sixth poster, OMSC makes this claim:

“Why study mathematics and science?”

“To appreciate the beauty and complexity of the arts, nature, and so much more of our world.”

On the other hand, art teachers get to this last idea a lot quicker.

“Why teach art?”

According to http://www.princetonol.com/groups/iad/Files/why.htm

Not because we expect you to major in Art.
Not because we expect you to create art all of your life.
Not so you can relax or just have a hobby.

So you will be human.
So you will recognize and appreciate true beauty.
So you can communicate from the very depths of your soul.
So you will be sensitive to life and the peoples within it.
So you will be closer to an infinite beyond this world.
So you will have more love, more compassion, more gentleness –
more life. 

Notice how neatly the “not”s of the “why art” answer match the first three reasons of the “why science” posters.

Now I’m not denying those “why science” ideas from OMSC have some value. I’m sure they excite the donors and politicians. But if you want to excite the learners (and after all, if they’re not excited, none of the rest of it matters), as Randy Olson would say, you’re talking to the wrong organ.

Art types are used to talking to the heart. Science types are used to talking to the head. But that’s just habit. Science, like art, is fundamentally not concerned with utility. Instead, it is about being human. As Richard Feynman said, “Physics is like sex. Sure it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

So why do we do it? Science, I mean, not  . . . the other. What’s most interesting is that the “practical reasons” for studying mathematics and science all have measurable results. Better job, better world, better decisions. The “appreciation” reason isn’t so easy to measure. Yet it’s the one, through self-motivation, through lighting that spark that keeps on burning, that might (if you have faith) lead to all the others and more. Maybe. Or maybe it won’t, and that’s ok, too, because it’s about the learner and the learner’s choices. It’s about ideas that catch you.

It’s the difference between what is easy and what is important. Science and math education lead to higher-paying jobs. That’s an easy thing to measure. Science and math education lead to a stronger, more competitive nation. Science and math education lead to better problem-solving skills. All these things can be measured, quantified, put on a graph.

But inspiration? Inspiration is wishy-washy, wispy, hard to get hold of. There’s an old saying that when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I think there’s a corrolary to that: when you’re a hammer anything that can’t possibly be a nail becomes invisible. If the hammer is testing, quantification, measurable behaviors, I fear that these less graph-able concepts like appreciation become invisible.

I applaud OMSC for taking a chance with such a wishy-washy concept with one of their six posters. But I have some suggestions for expansion. OSMC, if you’re out there, these are for you, free of charge.


– because science is one of the things we human beings do. Charles Darwin roaming Patagonia, discovering how life became.

– because the world is beautiful beyond measure, and science can reveal that wondrous, unfathomable beauty. James Clerk Maxwell, capturing a light beam in his mathematics.

– because the world is mysterious, and unraveling that mystery is as rewarding as any poem or song. Albert Einstein, looking for the idea that would bring time and space together as one.

– because science teaches us who we are, a young and fragile species on an ancient world in an enormous, lonely universe. Jill Tartar and the other scientists of SETI listening, listening for whispers from afar.

– because science is a pathway to hidden worlds. Christian Huygens, discovering with the simplest of equipment that the stars are suns, only very far away. The Sun is a star, only very close up. The universe is vast, and we’ve only just begun to explore it.

– because science is a grand and unending adventure, a love affair with life. And as Carl Sagan said, when you’re in love, you want to tell the world.