Roosevelt Montás’ story reminds us that the steam has been taken out of education.
A friend recently sent me an article, Rescuing Socrates. I know, I know… zzzz… yawn. But Socrates is not a yawner, at least not to Roosevelt Montás. Born in the Dominican Republic, his family moved to the United States shortly before his twelfth birthday. When he arrived, Montás spoke no English. Nearly four years later, a remarkable thing happened.
A neighbor was throwing out a big pile of books, leaving them on the curb for pick up. Turns out, the pile was Harvard Classics. Published in 1909, they were part of a series that sought to embody the best of Western literature and philosophy. Montás recognized a name: Plato. He grabbed a volume and started reading. He was enchanted.
Today Montás is a senior lecturer at Columbia University. He says he’s an evangelist for trying “to persuade colleges to organize curricula in which every student gets the liberal arts.” This requires bridging the divide between the liberal arts and the servile (utilitarian) arts. Montás has chosen a hard time for this, as education increasingly focuses on the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Yet STEM takes the STEAM out of education, relegating the A (Liberal Arts) to the “impractical.”
“Often the debate is framed as either you study the liberal arts or you study something that is practical,” says Montás. “My argument and vision of education is that studying the liberal arts is the basis for a more effective practical training. Doctors, engineers, and computer programmers should have a liberal education and perform their specialized function with a broader conception of what they are doing in society, in history, and in the world.”
We rarely get this broader view in public education. Our current system dates from 1843, when Horace Mann called for the Prussian educational system to replace a liberal arts system, promising to crank out high volumes of “workers” for the industrial society. H. L. Mencken said this made the aim of public education “to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry.” It elevated “practical” knowledge (STEM) at the expense of a purpose-full education.
The physical sciences can tell us how things work, how to make things. Important. But making sense of them requires going beyond STEM. The Greek word for beyond is meta—where we get our word metaphysics. The metaphysical sciences include theology, philosophy, poetry, the visual arts, and fantasy literature. They address questions like: what’s the purpose of technology? What’s the wise use of technology? What’s unwise? What are the limits?
If you want to know more about how the steam was taken out of education, read Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: The Story of Ideas in America. He describes how dense, overlapping networks of influentials and institutions divided the world between facts (STEM) and personal values (A—the Arts), which hardly have any place in modern education.
I also urge you can listen to our recent podcast (below) on how this division created a world of “hard” and “soft” knowledge. STEM is the hard stuff, real science. The arts (A) are soft stuff, unreal, like religion. This division took the steam right out of education.