Inspired by Literature, or Philosophy, or History

Snippet of a recent conversation between two mothers over coffee:

Mother 1: We’ve got this great new tutor who does projects with Tobias to keep him inspired by science.
Mother 2: Oh, I need to get his name from you.
Mother 1: Ok. Send me an email to remind me to send it to you.

You never hear parents yearning to keep their kids “inspired by” literature. They don’t care if their kids enjoy philosophy. And history? It’s just an ossified, boring list of useless names and dates.[1] Imagine the strange looks parents would get if they said:

We’ve got this great new tutor who thinks through moral problems with Tobias to keep him inspired by ethics.

Child Protective Services would probably investigate these parents.

There are compelling reasons for kids to learn “science.”[2] But they must also learn about science. And about scientists. And about how science is funded. And to whom scientists should be answerable given the nature of that funding. And the uses to which scientific developments are put and should be put. And about the relationship between scientists and the sciences, on the one hand, and the broader society on the other, including government, law, education, business, etc. To understand those issues, to learn about science, you must know something about literature, philosophy, history, economics, language, and all those other “why are you studying that?” subjects.

So let’s inspire our kids to study history and languages and literature and philosophy and science and ….

  1. Unless you’re in Texas, in which case history becomes a battleground for political and cultural ideologies. They still don’t want kids to be inspired by history. But they sure as hell don’t want them learning the wrong history.  ↩

  2. The scare quotes highlight the way we typically banter around the term science without having any real idea what it is or without specifying which of the many scientific activities we mean. There are, to be sure, benefits from learning any one of the sciences, e.g., astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics. The details of those benefits vary. What they share, i.e., our trite claim about why study science — learning to think logically or whatever the reason du jour — is not, however, unique to the sciences.  ↩