Should formal education evaluate the humanities against the MINT

Steep thesis on the corona crisis: Our contempt for math is fatal

Educated citizens like to flirt with not knowing anything about the natural sciences. The Covid-19 crisis could change that.

Christian Drosten on January 21. If only we had listened to him then! Photo: Michael Sohn / ap

Christian Drosten, the "chief virologist of the Berlin Charité" for the media, is the man of the hour. The time asks: "Is this our new Chancellor?" This is remarkable, because the Hamburg weekly newspaper only very rarely attests to the status of chancellor. After all, for them the measure of all things is the ex-chancellor, crisis manager and all-rounder Helmut Schmidt, who was their editor for decades.

The Christian Drostens of the Republic are currently in demand, and their scientific advice is coveted. The public hangs on their lips because they explain how the viruses work and how quickly Covid-19 is spreading.

The current admiration for scientists is the flip side of social indifference in normal times. When a pandemic isn't breaking out, virologists, natural scientists in general and mathematicians are the nerds you don't really listen to. If Germany were a house, the Christian Drostens would live in the basement. They research in isolation, while the residents of the upper floors are quite happy that they live down there - you could use them someday.

In normal times natural scientists are a silent provocation for the majority society because they do what many want to do. You pursue a meaningful occupation and don't give a damn about what else counts in the upscale professional world: superficial social prestige, blindness, bluffing, money. They could easily convert their intelligence into a much higher income if they wanted. The McKinsey management consultancy, for example, where overpaid consultants pull money out of their pockets from companies or the state, has been trying for years to recruit mathematicians and physicists in a targeted manner.

The old-fashioned value cognitive interest

Christian Drosten, a trained doctor, decided to disappear into the laboratory and do research. As a senior or chief physician in a billowing white coat, he could have received a lot of recognition earlier. Scientists focus on such an old-fashioned value as cognitive interest. They want to know why things are the way they are and not the way we want them to be.

Math nerds are often the outsiders even in puberty. Nerds tend to dance awkwardly and spend too much time reading science fiction. They tend to be unsportsmanlike and wear practical clothing. Your area of ​​interest is unsexy and difficult to see through for others. Of course, this does not apply to all, but, as natural scientists would say, to a subset. A relatively large one, however.

Unless a pandemic breaks out, virologists, natural scientists in general and mathematicians are the nerds you don't really listen to

Nerds only become sexually and reproductive-technically interesting in their late twenties outside their own population, when they have a title and have come further than the hip hobby DJ from the same school coffers who are still doing some kind of project. Mathematics in particular, the basis of the natural sciences, is uncool - at least in circles that are not necessarily at the levers of power, but have a decisive influence on the zeitgeist and social taste.

In the so-called classically educated milieus, it is socially acceptable to flirt with having been bad at maths. Nobody in these milieus would, for example, admit during small talk at a party that they have not yet read anything from Goethe; that would mean social death.

One knows Goethe, but no exponential curves

This attitude can also be seen in many who are currently at the federal levers. You may know Goethe, but mostly could not imagine that with an exponential curve, an initially seemingly harmless increase in the number of infected people suddenly shoots through the roof. This has consequences that are currently causing deaths.

The Christian Drostens of the Republic warned early on that the increase in corona infections is exponential and not linear: If each infected person only infects two people, the chain goes like this: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 , 128, 256 - and so on. If the number of infected people doubles every three days, the Robert Koch Institute would count 16,384 infected people after just 42 days. For comparison: if two new infected people were added every day, which corresponds to a linear curve, it would only be 85 people after 42 days.

There is something touching about attempts to explain exponential growth to the public. Health Minister Jens Spahn recently published two curves that would probably not even go through in sixth grade: One went exponentially up and then down again (why was not explained), the other looked like a cozy low mountain range. Spahn preferred not to say how many factors have to come into play so that the curve soon looks like a low mountain range.

Thank you very much, Humboldt!

Wilhelm von Humboldt is to blame for the disdain for science and math. It was from him that the “Humboldtian educational ideal” comes from, which German educated citizens are still in awe of today. Associated with Humboldt is “comprehensive personality development”. Education should therefore serve self-realization and is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. The word “usefulness” is very bad for the Humboldt ideologues. Education must not be useful!

The gold standard in these circles is ancient languages. Those who shine here could just as easily have used their intelligence and logical thinking in the natural sciences - but these subjects are too trivial because they are useful. The subject of German is available today as a catchment basin for the less gifted educated middle-class children. These skills are rewarded here: written and verbal ranting, being able to present oneself well, the main thing is to have an opinion, to be able to text the other person.

This text comes from the taz on the weekend. Always from Saturday at the kiosk, in the eKiosk or with a weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.

Up until the 1960s there were two types of grammar schools in Germany: the “real”, old-language grammar school and the real grammar school. The educated elite naturally sent their children to the former; the educational climbers went to the Realgymnasium, where such terribly useful subjects as new languages ​​and natural sciences were mainly taught.

To this day, math and science are the channel of advancement for those who come from less privileged families. There are practical reasons for this: math is damn cheap. In addition to talent, you need a calculator or a cell phone and an Internet connection, which used to be a few specialist books.

STEM subjects as an opportunity for advancement

Equipped only with a pad and a pen, a math freak can sink into self-made tasks for hours. You don't need a representative wall of books that you or your parents have painstakingly built up over decades in order to be able to have a say.

That is why math and science are also attractive to migrant children. These subjects are based on universally applicable laws and formulas that are easier for them to penetrate than the black box of German educational arrogance. The rule of three and the exponential calculation apply everywhere.

The international math community communicates using technical English, which consists of a relatively small vocabulary. Math is inclusive, not exclusive. This is precisely why the so-called MINT subjects, math, computer science, natural sciences, technology, are frowned upon in the German educated bourgeoisie, because they cannot be used to create social demarcation.

The corona catastrophe could have something good: that the nerds are being taken out of the basement and allowed to go to the upper floors because there is chaos and excessive demands there.