Friday, September 11, 2009


I got Regina Spektor's latest album, Far, a few weeks ago, and have been pretty inseparable from it. It's rare that music haunts me nowadays, except with nostalgia. I seem to have developed a strange separation from music; I don't "need" it as much as I used to, and tend to prefer silence. So when I get into my car to go to Milwaukee, for instance, once a week to teach, I listen to Alan Watts or This American Life, and when it comes to time for a "music filler" at the end of the trip, I'll default to something familiar, skipping over newer albums Dylan has played for me which I liked at the time but now can't tell apart by name.

The song that haunts me the most is the high-powered song "Machine." In it, Spektor depicts a world in which everything is taken care of, one is up and downloaded at the top and end of every day, and there's a strange comfort to it; even God wishes he were in her place (lyrics below). Today, the song hit me especially strong, as I had just finished the article "Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School" by Mark Slouka, in this September's issue of Harper's Magazine. I started the article awhile ago and, like I often respond to things that are very powerful for me and dense in terms of digesting, I put it down for awhile.

Slouka does a very fair job of pointing out that education priorities are now primarily determined by commerce. Our "Crisis" in education, if one carefully looks at and listens to the media, has more to do with our global position in business than to do with broadened minds or critical learning skills. No one talks about democratic process, whether or not our kids are able to critically think (and those of us teaching those kids or raising those kids do see some of these things slipping) - especially in "sacrifice" to the "marketable" skills of, as he calls it, mathandscience.

This is not a dualistic argument. Slouka has a lot of respect for both. He points out that it's not mathandscience's fault that they have been taken up as causes to save our society, nor inherently humanities' fault that it's been relegated to the trash heap. Politics and, even worse, strangely invisible controlling factors, determine how all of these educational aspects are represented in the media and, therefore, in pundits' and "consumers'" minds.

I have grown to have increased respect for mathandscience. I have developed a very keen interest in particular in science, and read a lot more on physics and neuroscience in the last few years than I had since forced to read science texts in high school. There's obviously, if done right, a lot of humanities in science, in particular, and a lot of science and math in humanities. And yet they have been separated and pit against each other more and more since the Renaissance, and now they are flung against each other.

Slouka's concern, if I may be so bold, is painted out in Spektor's song. Scienceandmath don't have to lead to us all becoming mindless machines, but the way it is being sold (and not "they" are being sold, but the package, as a single object, is being sold) is just in that way. How can we move forward in measurable progress? No child left behind means no child on a chart we cannot keep track of. How does one measure the opening of one's heart, either through science or math or humanities? One doesn't. It's not relevant and in fact, potentially dangerous.

(Lyrics from
My eyes are bifocal
My hands are sub jointed
I live in the future
In my prewar apartment
And I count all my blessings
I have friends in high places
And I’m upgraded daily
All my wires without traces

Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into hooked into
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into
Hooked into machine

I collect my moments
Into a correspondence
With a mightier power
Who just lacks my perspective
And who lacks my organics
And who covets my defects
And I’m downloaded daily
I am part of a composite

Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into, hooked into
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
Hooked into machine
I’m hooked into
Hooked into machine

Everything's provided
Consummate consumer
Part of worldly taking
Apart from worldly troubles
Living in your prewar apartment
Soon to be your postwar apartment
And you lived in the future
And the future
It’s here
It’s bright
It's now
Lest we demonize science, or get ANY impression that I mean, or Slouka, or, for that matter, Spektor is anti-science, it's not about that. Even Humanities, which is often the first to go in times of dictatorship due to its messiness in the face of Science or Math, can be neutered and used in a dangerous way. The problem is usually it is cut before that even happens. Another problem is that it is easier to strip science and math of other meaning. We accept that easier, fund it easier, even neutered of healthy debate, discussion, insight.

Call me a Renaissance lady. I'd love to see the two back together again. This re-invigorates my fire to teach a course on inventing and the creative process using science as well as art, for Junior High School kids next spring. And when I go back to Marquette next week, I'll be sure to emphasize that which my Miksang course already does naturally - it is WHAT you learn, but also HOW you learn, and this course will hopefully help you to "see" that (literally) so you can use it in all of your other classes, from Engineering to English. Stay aware, you non-machine, as long as you can.

1 comment:

  1. wow, Miriam! Great thoughts and alignments! We need more like you making the world of education a better place! :) Thank you for sharing things I have not read (the Harpers article) or heard (the song.) Lori