Cristina Odone is not happy that her daughter is required to take science and math classes — and it’s all those damned feminists pressuring girls to go into STEM fields. She thinks it isn’t right that, under the British system, kids are required to take a couple of GCSEs in the sciences.
Now this is where my Americanism gets in the way — I’m unfamiliar with the British system, so I had to do a little digging to relate her complaint to the American system I understand. GCSEs are qualifications that demonstrate basic understanding of a subject — students take exams, after a couple of years of coursework, when they’re about 16 years old, in a collection of subjects, some of which are required, and others which are elective. They’ll typically get 8-10 GCSEs.
Speak up, readers from the UK, if I’m getting any of this wrong!
In the US, we don’t have any qualifying exams — instead, we have state standards that design a general curriculum for our high schools. To get a diploma, students are expected to take and pass a series of courses in subjects like earth science or algebra or English or history. There are also recommended, somewhat more rigorous courses that it is suggested that students take if they want to go on to college. When I was in high school, for instance, I took the recommended college track, which included more math and science and two years of a foreign language than was required for graduation. I didn’t have to take an exam at the end of a sequence of courses, just pass each course along the way, so the British system is a bit more demanding.
But the point is that in both systems, and as a general rule in good education everywhere, students are expected to take courses that they might otherwise avoid: to be properly educated, one should have some exposure, at least, to diverse subjects, such as your language, a foreign language, world and local history, some basic math and science, and there should also be an opportunity to explore in greater depth subjects that students find appealing. So maybe a student really wants to do nothing but theater…but they should also know a little geometry and physics. The math nerd may want to just do calculus, and hates the performing arts…but it would be good for them to take a communications class.
We continue this practice at the university level. We have a required core in a subject, and distribution requirements that force students to take classes outside of their comfort zone. When advising students, I get a lot of annoyed people (especially the pre-meds) who just want to take physiology and genetics and molecular biology, and hate the fact that we also require them to take history or sociology or psychology. I suspect that faculty across campus have to deal with students peeved at having to meet the university requirement to take a science course in order to graduate.
I have little patience for people, like Odone, who want to demand that their little girl be sheltered from the breadth of education. It is fine that her daughter wants a career that’s more literary; Odone seems to think that expecting her daughter to take math courses at the age of 15 is the same as shoe-horning her into a lifetime of soldering and pouring things into flasks. But let’s get real: the stuff you learn at 14, 15, or 16 isn’t the detailed knowledge of the subject that you’ll need to go on to a career. It’s the general basics that are broadly applicable to many subjects.
I’ve seen this over and over: being able to cross-fertilize ideas is incredibly helpful. In high school, my daughter was really into theater, especially theater tech; understanding math and programming was important. I’ve been impressed with the art department at my university — did you know that chemistry is a good thing to know for artists? I was just listening to an episode of Radiolab in which a medieval historian and a microbiologist teamed up to evaluate a medicine described in an old manuscript. So, please, don’t try to tell me that you know exactly what narrow range of human knowledge ought to be dispensed to your daughter. She might surprise you.
But Odone goes even further, from promoting ignorance and tall tales of conspiracies by feminists to lock her daughter into an engineered future because she has to take a few math courses, into full-blown offensive stupidity.
She tries to suggest that literature makes everyone happier.
J K Rowling, say, strikes me as a lot happier and more successful than Alan Turing, the tortured mathematics genius who took his own life.
My dog, but that’s stupid. Alan Turing was unhappy because people, anti-homosexual prudes like the Catholic church Odone so loves, criminalized his sexuality and chemically castrated him. It wasn’t because he was tortured by math or his genius. He would have been even more miserable if they’d taken his mathematics away from him. And he was also a polymath who applied his ideas more broadly than just to computer science — developmental biologists are familiar with his work, because he applied it to morphogenesis and pattern formation.
And then Odone goes even further.
Attempts are being made to remedy this. Elizabeth Truss, the former education minister, has warned against “science deserts”, while Wise, the campaign run by the Engineering Council with the Equal Opportunities Commission to promote girls’ take-up of sciences and maths, wants at least one million more women in the UK Stem force.
This sounds laudable. But to a girl such as Izzy with a literary bent, this focus on STEM subjects sends a message that makes her (and me) uncomfortable: doing a man’s work is more impressive than doing a woman’s.
I can’t help thinking that this denigrates women’s achievements. Maybe the time has come to discard the straitjacket of compulsory science GCSEs. I believe we should free girls to choose the subjects they are passionate about rather than force them to boost productivity or Britain’s ranking in the STEM-obsessed indices.
Science is a “man’s work”? Jebus. She begins her essay by talking about her son, who read English at Oxford. How would she if we characterized that as doing “woman’s work”? I have one son who was an English major in college; another who was a political science and economics major; and a daughter who is a computer science student. I oppose any attempts to stereotype professions by gender — we should allow students to pursue their passions no matter what their sex.
But that does not mean that we should wedge education into narrow pigeonholes where kids are able to specialize to a ludicrous degree at an early age, or where meddlesome parents feel they are entitled to protect their kids from the horrors of mathematics or art history.