FROM THE PRESIDENT
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 www.sciencewriters.org), 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.)