Real life

Hey y’all! I’m not dead! I was moving. Now I am moved.

A couple of days ago I posted on FB, as many did, in reaction to this super-dumb op-ed about how no one uses algebra in “real life” and everyone is terrible at it, so we should stop requiring algebra and above of college students, especially of those who intend to be doctors. If a job or a specialized program wants to instruct a mathematical skill, they can do that on their own time, but, according to Professor Hacker, math above arithmetic is not a general skill for “real life.”

I wondered how many academic skills are absolutely indispensable for this so-called “real life.” In “real life,” is it necessary to know anything about history? Geography? Literature? Music? Biology? Astronomy? Religion? Languages? It’s quite simple to imagine a “real life” that never requires knowledge of any of these things. It is not hard to imagine someone who goes to work and does a job–selling things, most likely–and then comes home from that job–and buys some things, most likely, and goes to sleep, fully living a real life.

For Hacker, the base level of a real life seems to be citizenship, which he defines in terms of having “credible political opinions” and “social analysis.” As a political science professor, he’s certainly entitled to place value on the life that does not render his own expertise useless. If you asked me, as a professor of writing and literature, what I think makes an education, I’d probably say some stuff about thinking critically about discourse and representation. That’s my thing. It’s what makes me feel that I have something that I think of as a real life.

For others, being in relationships or having families might make their lives feel “real” to them; maybe it’s having a god, a culture, or a relationship with music, or working to make people’s lives longer or happier. Each of us constitutes the realness and value of our life through a system of meaning that we have, to various degrees, clarified for ourselves.

When I was young, I clarified my purpose in the world through math and logic. I always also drew and wrote poems and made music, but my real talent was always in formal, abstract sciences. I loved learning programming languages and geometry. My trigonometry teacher took me under his wing, quite forcibly, by yanking me out of my other 10th-grade classes to give me new problems to solve in his office. Like several other students at my school, I ran out of math to take after Calc 3 my junior year.

I ended up choosing to go to a private university for serious nerds, thinking that is what I was. It turns out, I had no fucking clue what someone who was really good at math or programming looked like. These were people who hadn’t just tested out of all the math in their school; they’d been doing math in their spare time since they were little. They didn’t just write a program to entertain a few friends every so often; they went on benders, stocking up on caffeine and snacks before spending days without leaving the screen. When they had problems in their lives, they didn’t ask themselves what Faulkner novel it reminded them of, or how the people of Papua New Guinea have traditionally handled similar conflicts, or even what Jesus would do. They wrote algorithms.

It turns out I couldn’t hack biomedical engineering. In my first-semester intro course, I was the one bobbing my head around, trying to catch someone’s eye, like is this guy for real? We’re supposed to be able to develop methods for calculating what? By the time we had graduated, a team from that class invented and implemented a new mechanical prosthesis for babies with limb defects. I had written a few poems and a play.

In no way do I intend to demean what I do now, which I will gladly defend as a meaningful existence. Nothing pisses me off more than when the arts and sciences are pitted against one another as having value that must necessarily steal from the other to remain alive, always at the expense of students who will never be offered the huge array of meaning-making systems that were offered to me from my youth. All I want to say is that I am afraid that whenever someone says you don’t need a system of meaning in “real life,” whichever privation it implies, it sounds like a miserable fucking life indeed.

2 responses to “Real life”

  1. T-Mo says:

    My father has a concise saying that covers much of the problem with Hacker’s thinking: “To the dentist, the world is a giant tooth.”

  2. swells says:

    Man, that article absolutely incensed me when I read it. Algebra so obviously develops critical reasoning skills that I can’t believe anyone could question it, but it’s not only that, or the fact that I use it several times a week in my nonmathematical career and life. It’s the assumption that the world is a giant tooth, or a machine in which you just need to know how to work the one level you pull for a living, or a model of commodification in which the only thing of value is the thing that can sell for a direct cash inflow.

    As many of you probably know, the president of UVA was recently fired by the Board of Directors for her reluctance to “change with the times” and cut programs that weren’t big money-earners, specifically classics and German, and beef up programs that were “forward-thinking” but also cost-effective (more online classes and, presumably, football?). Thankfully, the outcry in the academic community was so huge that the board was basically forced to reinstate her, and many of the arguments to do so also apply to Hacker’s article. Administrators’ inability to see the value of a well-rounded education, or to understand the ways that studying a subject leaves the student with much more than just knowledge of that subject, is gonna be the death of the creatively thinking citizen.