Obama's Cold, Mathematical Calculation

Cheers for STEM. But what about the, um, rest of the fabulous, life changing, extraordinary and often more important teachers who don't teach math, engineering, technology or science?

The White house is proposing a $1 Billion federal program to create a Teachers Corps, which would provide a $20,000 a year stipend for the best 50 teachers in their fields, so long as their fields are science, technology, engineering and math. The program would, if passed, eventually include 10,000 teachers, and, beyond providing incentive for excellence, it would aim to have those top teachers share their skills and pedagogical expertise with their colleagues who did not make the cut. The hope is that this process would be a rising tide that raises all ships. In a statement about the proposal, President Obama said "Teachers matter, and great teachers deserve our support."


I have a bone to pick with this, though. A big one. There is nothing wrong with anything outlined above. In fact, there is a great deal right with it. But what about the, um, rest of the fabulous, life changing, extraordinary and often more important teachers who don't teach math, engineering, technology or science?

I've been getting fed up with this for years now, and nobody challenges it. This is not to say that there is something wrong with math and science education. If the President of The United States wants to go on Mythbusters in order to reward and support that show's promotion of science to young people, then he ought to. I just personally don't understand the heavy favoritism. If a student's goals, passions or talent is in math or science, then he/she should certainly go into math or science. And math and science, at the highest levels, require amazing creativity and insight. (Click those links for undeniable examples)

However, I submit that the heavy favoritism should be, if anywhere, towards the liberal arts. I have a few reasons for making this claim, and I'll outline them below. First, I'll repeat once again that I am not disparaging the sciences in any way, nor would I under any circumstances. My position about which way the favoritism should go, if anywhere, is relevant only in terms of public policy. One need only look at which website this is being published on to know that I believe strongly in the importance of scientists and mathematicians to change the world.

1) I think that the lionization of math and science is a hangover from history, and that said lionization is the reason for the placid public acceptance of The White House pro-math and science agenda by people who would otherwise bristle at the inherent disregard for the arts. In America, many of our most beloved historical figures have been scientists and inventors, from Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison (although the latter's only actual important invention was patent hoarding). Americans base a lot of their national pride in this history. To illuminate how arbitrary this standard is, consider a few cases of alternatives: I have lived in Ireland, home of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett, Swift, Yeats and Shaw, and the presumption that I observed there was that national pride in historical figures ought to be founded in a nation's writers. In another case, my British best friend asked me once if my national cultural pride was stifled because relatively few great classic rock bands were American (Um, Dylan, The Doors and Creedence?!). Of course, the narrative of an inventor solitarily creating something of value also plays into our narrative of the self-made man achieving the American Dream. In short, it's an arbitrary fact of (often revisionist) history that these scientifically and mathematically inclined great men and women are the ones which we have decided are the greatest.

2) People argue to me that it doesn't take away from the arts to focus so much on math and science. This is patently and ridiculously false. Obviously, if an out-sized portion of a limited education budget is going to these programs, other ones get less (see: math!). Further, children seeing everybody making a fuss over these subjects could be discouraged from going into, say, writing or philosophy or painting, and going on to create something singular and irreplaceable.

3a) The possibility and probability of creating something singular makes the work of most individuals in fields other than science and math immeasurably more valuable. I'll declare my bias here: I'm prouder to have Nabokov and David Hume and Da Vinci in my cultural history that I am to have Newton and Planck and the Wright Brothers. Note, if you please, that that was a relative statement. And, hey, wouldn't you know it? Nabokov, Hume and Da Vinci were also each accomplished in science.

3b) To rephrase, my point is simply that a mediocre writer will create something out of nothing, and it will be different from what anybody else would ever create. A mediocre mathematician will basically crunch numbers or explain facts in a way that is virtually the same as any other one. If all of science were lost, because the facts are out there and true, rational beings prone to observation would discover them again. When libraries and museums are destroyed they are gone for good. Ultimately, we (homo sapiens) could (and did) live without factories, without planes, without bombs, without electricity, without pie, and even without Pi, and it would be, in a meaningful sense, OK. We simply could not live without people showing us why slavery and rape are wrong, or without music, or without literature and have it be OK.

4)  I, of course, don't want to live in a world without either, but I have been making a broader point for why arts and philosophy are more valuable and more important, relatively speaking, than math and science. It is an interesting discussion to have even if you disagree with me, and it's a relevant and necessary in the context of this article. The discussion about the relative value of academic fields is not, however, the crux of my problem with the current pro-math and science bias in the federal government.

Here's why: Obama isn't really talking about funding so that we can have another Mendel, or Galileo, or even Edison. He's not even really talking about another Steve Jobs. He is talking about changing the educational landscape of America, the first nation founded on philosophy, rather than history, according to the famous quote, in order to have more people to design industrial machines that improve efficiency a bit, or to oversee the building of small bridges, or to be competitive in the tech world by designing mobile apps. All of those are cool jobs, by the way, and likely good for the economy, but they hardly merit the praise and idealization and billions of dollars that policies like the Master Teachers Corps bring. 

Obama's justification for his policy is even more problematic. It endorses a theory about education which is offensive and wrong. (Sidebar: I am using Obama as the poster politician for this because he is the current president and has just announced a relevant new policy; many other legislators and presidents, from both parties, have taken similar stances.)

The President's policy, broken down, looks roughly like this:

Premise 1: Education spending is justified if it leads to economically productive jobs.

Premise 2: Science, technology, engineering and math lead to economically productive jobs.

Premise 3: English, history, philosophy and art do not lead to economically productive jobs

Conclusion: Public money and support is should go to math and science programs, and not liberal arts programs.

Treating education as valuable solely for the direct practical and financial value it provides misses the point entirely. You don't go to school to get a good job, you go to school to learn things and ways of thinking that are valuable and worthwhile in themselves.

To disagree with the former opens up the arguer up to defeat by a a classic reductio ad absurdem. The argument, which we saw a version of above, goes as follows in normal language: Why not cut everything not explicitly necessary to having economically productive and desirable jobs, since the implicit and explicit justification for education spending and support is economic productivity? At the end of that reasoning is a dehumanizing and undesirable picture: citizens are just human machines, with minds set up in order to be productive and to earn personal wealth and national prestige, and nothing more.

I want to make clear that I am certainly not accusing any legislator, much less Obama, our smartest president in a very long time, of trying to maliciously contrive some Orwellian anti-intellectual scenario. It is also important to note that my argument does not rest on the idea that this scenario will actually come to pass. It won't. No politician (who doesn't list Ayn Rand as his/her favorite writer), least of all Obama, would actually follow the logic of their position into something so intuitively wrong. But the logic of Obama's position does, indeed, lead into something intensely undesirable, which neither I nor he could endorse. All that my argument really says is that Obama and those of his ilk could not agree with their own position without also agreeing with something repugnant. For that reason, their position is demonstrably wrongheaded. 

All education matters and is valuable for reasons both self-evident and practical, but it is more important that we have beauty, dignity, hindsight and the wisdom to wield power than it is to simply have as much power as possible. Only by celebrating and splitting funding with English and philosophy and history and art can we achieve this. How about we create policies that try to reward and improve the quality of all teachers as they inspire young minds, change lives and make this a world worth living in? After all, "Teachers matter, and great teachers deserve our support."


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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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