Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Science education and liberal education

Also in The New Atlantis is a brilliant and provocative dissection (me know scientific jargon) of the elitist anti-elitism of a popular high school physics textbook. Here’s a taste:

The pose of anti-elitism seems to be a cover for something far more disturbing, something that is perhaps typical of elite anti-elitists. The author writes, “Sometimes the results of the work of physicists are of interest only to other physicists. Other times, their work leads to devices.... that change everyone’s life.” Are these the only two possibilities? Physicists on their mountaintop, speaking only to one another, and the rest of us in the plains, waiting for them to descend bearing magical devices? Nothing in-between? Aren’t there intelligent, curious people who are not professional physicists, but who have the patience and desire to learn? I believe it is this dichotomization of humanity into two ideal types, professional scientists and ignorant consumers, that is responsible for this book’s cynicism. The author doesn’t seem to think his readers are really capable of being educated. This is the worst sort of elitism. Paradoxically, we have here the worst of both worlds: an anti-elitist rhetoric that discredits the higher human possibilities, the very possibilities by which the author orients his own life as a scientist, together with a more substantive elitism that views students from so far above that it can’t be bothered to cultivate in them those same human possibilities.

There’s lots more, about the pernicious effects of state textbook adoption processes, about the insulting utilitarian pandering that characterizes the textbooks, and about the role of frustration and natural curiosity in genuine science education. Read the whole thing.


Discussions - 3 Comments

To be honest, it sounds like the "narrator" for the text really doesn’t understand science well at all. IMHO, there are two kinds of research:
1. "Pure" research, which involves looking at something and wondering "How does this work?" then investigating it.
2. Applied Research, which often leads on from (1) as someone takes some piece of research and makes something useful out of it.
I guess the quote is true, in a sense, but the author obviously looks at it from a thoroughly leftist viewpoint and doesn’t understand the difference between pure and applied research.

Has anyone ever learned anything from a textbook? OTOH, how many students have decided they didn’t want to learn a subject because of a poorly written, even wrong, textbook?

I’d like to see an "open source" learning materials project. Of course the publishing companies would fight it, probably using state text book laws.

The faulty premise here is that Glencoe Physics is a high school text. When you write for a high school audience, a captive audience, usually an immature audience, you don’t always get students who are there for the love of the subject. (Good) college texts do exactly what the author, in his overwrought way, suggest: present the material and let the students who like it and get it like it and get it; the rest move on to the liberal arts.

High school teachers are often desperate for any hook at all to get into a student, and the texts reflect that. As was mentioned, markets drive book sales, and teachers who offer scary subjects with unfriendly books end up with course sections that don’t make. Often, we are forced to make the choice between watering down content and not showing the content at all.

Finally: what matters is the result. Even with textbooks like the one you describe, Advanced Placement physics enrollment is up 400% in the last 15 years, according to the American Institute of Physics. While those classes aren’t using Glencoe Physics, some of the students using it are going on to that second year in AP. Would this happen if we scared off those students who didn’t get it right away?

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