Ethics and Equations

By Polly Paddock

Vol. 5, No. 2, 1983, p. 7

I was never much of a math or science student. During high school and college, I went to great lengths to avoid taking any courses in those fields beyond what was absolutely required. Why dissect a fetal pig or struggle with calculus, I figured, when you could be reading Greek tragedy or studying U.S. history?

I'm not defending my admittedly narrow point of view. Students should get just as solid a foundation in math and science as in language and the humanities, I believe.

And today, as we plunge into an industrial and technological revolution that's fast outstripping our production of skilled workers, the need is greater than ever.

Still, I'm troubled by the sudden burst of attention math and science are receiving. There's too much talk about using the public schools to train workers--and too little discussion of injecting values and ethics into math and science instruction.

North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, as chairman of the Education Commission of the States, recently appointed a thirty-four-member task force to reassess the nation's educational goals.

". . . The most important thing we can do to increase economic growth and provide more high-paying jobs," Gov. Hunt said, "is to provide an excellent education that in strong in areas like math and science."

The public schools, he added, must begin to "provide education for economic growth, not just for citizenship, not just because education is a nice thing to have . . . "

Well, OK--nobody can quarrel with the need for economic growth. And it's logical to assume that beefing up math and science instruction will help provide that. Students today get too little classroom time in those fields; the shortage of math and science teachers is alarming. And the lack of skilled workers in such areas as electronics, engineering and telecommunications is a hindrance to the kind of economic development we so desperately need.

But one of the reasons that education IS a "nice thing to have" is because it gives you context. The lessons of history, literature, religion, philosophy and ethics are critical to all fields, especially science and technology. Without them, we would have highly trained--but possibly valueless--automatons making vital decisions about creating and destroying life, altering the environment, defying what were once considered the immutable laws of nature.

Surely that's not what we want. Yet educators and public officials are scrambling so hard to find quick solutions to the math and science lag that they aren't always looking at the long-range implications of their actions.

Pay math and science teachers more than those in other fields, some suggest; give them a wide range of incentives to stick with teaching rather than be lured into lucrative industry jobs. Increase the number of classroom hours devoted to math and science, many argue.

But what is the effect on underpaid teachers of English, say, or history? What subject areas begin to get less teaching time? What statement does our society want to make about how we assess the relative importance of technology and the humanities?

Both U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and N.C. State University Chancellor Bruce R. Poulton have, in recent speeches, spoken admiringly about the rigorous math and science requirements in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe communist bloc nations. U.S. attention to these disciplines has been far too lax, both men said; it's hardly a coincidence, they implied, that the Soviets are beating us in the race to produce engineers and other scientific experts.

That may be true, as far as it goes. But the Soviet Union is not exactly famous for its devotion to the humanities, or for the encouragement of creative, independent thinking among students. Those are qualities we claim to value highly in this country, attributes we deem essential to an enlightened citizenry. We must not lose sight of that in the mad race to turn out a new generation of science and math whiz kids.

In a recent editorial bemoaning the "deterioration" of our math and science capability. The Washington Post asserted that a "romantic bias against technology (has) inflicted real damage on the schools and their students." While I'm not convinced that such a bias has ever existed, I can't see how substituting a pragmatic bias against the humanities can possibly serve us well.

What we need at this point, I think, is a national reassessment of how much attention our schools are giving to ALL academic disciplines--and how much in the way of resources we as a society are willing to provide the schools to do their job. We may indeed need to beef up our math and science curricula, but ONLY as one part of a rigorous, total education that focuses on ethics as well as equations.

Governor Hunt's task force on educational goals has said it hopes to involve parents and other interested citizens in its assessment. I suggest that those of us troubled by simplistic rhetoric about the math and science lag make ourselves heard; letters should be addressed to the Task Force on Education for Economic Growth, c/o Gov. James Hunt, Capitol Building, Raleigh, N.C. 27611.

Polly Paddock is an editorial page writer for the Charlotte Observer.