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Science, the Rebel Educator: II

Why is school science so fraught with contention in the United States? Why is so much pseudoscience—whether "creationism" or "intelligent design"—passed off as science? Why are established facts of evolution omitted or distorted in the classroom? Why did U.S. 12th graders score "below the international average and among the lowest of the 21 participating nations in both mathematics and science general knowledge" in a comprehensive international study in 1995? And why were 70 percent of those students convinced they had performed well? Why in Texas are students assigned different evolution "facts" than in New York?

My view (November-December 2005, page 482) is that "the science education problem" is but one example of our cultural affliction: hypocrisy. Underlying American hypocrisy, as author James Baldwin eloquently put it, is a "stubborn, manic refusal to accept our history."

The ridiculous but effective public-relations tactics of hype and guile serve our television culture. Pressures to produce and consume generate deceptions and half-truths. On the dominant side of the cultural abyss, hard-sell tactics contradict the demands of science: honesty, rigor and logic. Scientific inquiry, on the other side of the abyss, is a search for truth—whether or not, to paraphrase the wise, recently deceased physicist David Bohm, the truth pleases us.

The post-Sputnik science education movement (1960s and '70s) failed. Sure, fabulous science-teaching materials were produced at public expense—classroom units, hands-on activity booklets, 16-millimeter color time-lapse films of live organisms and of physical phenomena. Few were published, fewer introduced in schools and those in a compromised, fragmented fashion. Most, on the wrong side of the cultural divide, were never distributed.

With colleagues and advanced students (see, for 45 years I have tried to rescue and supplement such engaging science materials. I, too, have failed. In work with teachers I see that our own never-supported middle-school unit (An Introduction to the Carbon Cycle: What Happens to Trash and Garbage, available from NeoSci) is subvisible. Even superb National Science Foundation-funded classroom units and films have disappeared.

When he described America as a self-imagined nation of "pragmatic, pious businessmen," Baldwin unwittingly exemplified science education. Science for schools is written, controlled and produced by publishers whose goal is to sell materials in huge quantities to avoid sales taxes. Qualified scientists and teachers are not paid for comprehensibility, accuracy or logic, but rather bribed to rapidly approve "content" that no one understands. Such beleaguered experts rush to meet publishers’ deadlines for "up-to-date" consumer products that quickly earn money. To maximize profit, books, digital media, supplies, even equipment are planned to be obsolete within the academic year.

Insistence on "local control" of science education is a charade. What professional parent, what overworked scientist or teacher without release time, financial compensation or help possibly can design, test and distribute quality "local" science educational materials? Leaders realize that true science educational materials require logical narrative and organization of hard evidence gleaned not from any virtual world of hype and guile but from real-world observation, measurement and calculation.

Our most important obligation to science students is to teach them how to continue to learn: to recognize authentic authority and challenge pedants, admit ignorance, detect omissions, bias and distortion, and observe for themselves. Educo means "to lead." We must lead students to study nature in nature. As researchers thwarted by ambient hypocrisy, as citizens afflicted by piety and pragmatism, we stumble at the edge of the science-education precipice as we try to really teach science!

(What to do? To be continued.)

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