Judging by the reaction this week, snobbery over STEM is as strong as ever
What did Rishi Sunak say in the first major policy speech of his premiership this week? I have no idea, because for the last two days the entire Westminster ecosystem has been talking about nothing but his aspirational proposal, buried toward the end of his speech, to make all schoolchildren study maths in some form up to the age of 18.
This triggered a sort of collective PTSD among the entire Westminster lobby, London policy world, and British third sector. If you think I am exaggerating, I can do nothing better than to quote the actor Simon Pegg, who posted this unhinged (and curiously inarticulate, for someone who professes such love for the humanities) rant online:
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It is impossible to imagine Mr Pegg bragging about being illiterate in the same manner. But whereas illiteracy is rightly viewed as a scourge that must be tackled, one can freely admit to being innumerate without suffering from any social embarrassment. Little wonder that Britain’s cultural luminaries regularly brag publicly about the fact they cannot solve maths questions set for 12-year-olds.
Curricular policy obviously cannot be made on the basis that one was good or bad at school in one subject or another. None of the great and good who complain bitterly about mathematics would countenance, say, an argument that history education should be pared back simply because many pupils don’t like history.
Of course, they would never countenance it because history — despite the slow-motion collapse of the academic humanities — is high-status among the British elites; and the sciences, despite all the empty talk about promoting STEM, decidedly are not. C.P. Snow famously complained in 1959 that his brilliant academic colleagues were not embarrassed in the least in their ignorance of the most basic scientific concepts, and nothing has changed since then, to judge from this latest kerfuffle.
None of this is inevitable. Even the Victorians, who Snow blamed for privileging the humanities at the expense of the sciences and whose achievements in both fields were at least as great as ours, knew better than to view the two branches of learning as being engaged in a zero-sum competition.
Until 1854, one could not read Classics at Cambridge without having first passed gruelling examinations in mathematics; Senior Wranglers — the highest-scoring candidates — were treated as minor celebrities, and their portraits were printed in national newspapers. As late as 1916, C.S. Lewis was not permitted to take up a classical scholarship at Oxford, the less scientifically-minded of the two universities, until he had passed the university entrance examinations in mathematics.
The Victorians could be accused of many things, but not of philistinism. They understood that different kinds of learning complemented, not opposed, each other. The shrill critics of increased mathematical education are as much enemies of culture and learning as the monomaniacal STEM obsessives who see no life beyond science.