A Look at the Subjects
Check Out the Textbooks Your Kids Are Using
The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge.
- Daniel J Boorstin
by Linda Seebach
Politicians aren't the only people who have their names on books they didn't write. The same is often true of textbook authors, John Hubisz discovered in the course of a study of the egregious scientific errors found in widely adopted middle-school physics books. "The notion of 'author' in these texts is quite foreign to us," writes Hubisz, a professor of physics at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Of the people identified as such, "none that we contacted would claim to be an 'author,' and some did not even know that their names had been so listed."
The lengthy lists of authors, editors and consultants are attributable to the publishers' desire to present their books as authoritative and up-to-the-minute for the benefit of state and local officials who adopt textbooks and who are bedazzled by beautiful pictures and fantastic layouts. "Committees produce mush," Hubisz says, "and it is very difficult to find anyone with the authority to make corrections."
What kind of errors? When the study came out in January, news stories picked on easy targets such as the picture of Linda Ronstadt that appeared in a 1997 Prentice-Hall textbook identified as a silicon crystal doped with an arsenic impurity. I have no idea what a silicon crystal doped with an arsenic impurity actually looks like - and I wonder whether a middle-student would understand what he was looking at if the picture were correct - but such a gaffe, no matter how embarrassing to the publisher, is not damaging to the students, who will not be inclined to make this misinformation part of their permanent understanding of physics. But when they're misinformed about a subject they don't know much about - physics, that is - they are likely to stay misinformed for the rest of their lives. Even if they take more physics courses, and most of them never will, their early misconceptions will persist.
Here are a few (from a hundred pages' worth) that persisted right into print:
Okay, so those (and thousands more in a dozen different books) are innocent mistakes. Distortions for political reasons are not innocent, though understandable because offending some organised group will get a book killed much faster than merely incorrect scientific information.
One book tells its impressionable readers that "many scientists won't live near an overhead power line or sleep under an electric blanket." Yeah, and they won't walk under ladders either.
The environmental hazards of nuclear power are played up, while the hazards of other technologies are all but ignored. Another article about the possible cancer deaths due to a nuclear accident fails to point out that the largest dose "was half what folks in Colorado get naturally."
And we haven't even started on the effort to substitute emotion for knowledge. In one book with an incorrect diagram of a lunar eclipse, students are asked whether they have experienced an eclipse and told to write stories about their feelings.
They surely won't be able to write intelligently about the facts.
"Students come through school with a strong dose of mystical thinking," Hubisz concludes. This study originated, in part, when one parent tried to get an explanation for the errors in his daughter's science book, and got a runaround instead. Check out the books your children are using.
Source: "Opinions" 2 June 2001 © 2001 Nando Media and Scripps Howard News Service
Why Are We Here?: Colleges Ignore Life's Biggest Questions, and We All Pay the Price
by Anthony Kronman
In the past few weeks, tens of thousands of young men and women have begun their college careers. They have worked hard to get there. A letter of admission to one of the country's selective colleges or universities has become the most sought-after prize in America. The students who have won this prize are about to enter an academic environment richer than any they have known. They will find courses devoted to every question under the sun. But there is one question for which most of them will search their catalogs in vain: The question of the meaning of life, of what one should care about and why, of what living is for.
In a shift of historic importance, America's colleges and universities have largely abandoned the idea that life's most important question is an appropriate subject for the classroom. In doing so, they have betrayed their students by depriving them of the chance to explore it in an organised way, before they are caught up in their careers and preoccupied with the urgent business of living itself. This abandonment has also helped create a society in which deeper questions of values are left in the hands of those motivated by religious conviction - a disturbing and dangerous development.
Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life's meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends. But the encouraging news is that there is, today, a growing hunger among students to explore these topics. As questions of spiritual urgency - abortion, creationism, the destruction of the environment - move to the centre of debate in our society, America's colleges and universities have a real opportunity to give students the tools to discuss them at a meaningful level.
What our society now desperately needs is what it once had: An alternative approach to a college education that takes these matters seriously without pretending to answer them in a doctrinaire way. For this to happen, teachers of the humanities must reconsider the nature and value of their work, and confront the ways in which the modern research ideal has deformed it. That will require real boldness on their part. But the stakes are high.
The question of life's meaning is a worry of the spirit. Our colleges and universities need to reclaim their authority to speak to the subject, in a conversation broader than any church alone can conduct. The beneficiaries, in the end, will be both their students and the culture they will inherit.
Before the Civil War, America's colleges were small institutions with religious roots, training students for the higher professions of medicine, teaching, ministry, and law. Only a fraction of Americans attended college, and the education they received was based on beliefs whose truth was taken for granted. The Puritan divines who founded Harvard College in 1636 understood their task to be the education of Christian gentlemen, schooled in the classics and devoted to God. They knew the answer to the question of what living is for, and saw that their students learned it.
In the years after the Civil War, however, American higher education underwent a fundamental transformation. Thousands of American educators had gone to Germany earlier in the century to pursue advanced study in their fields, and they returned with a new conception of what institutions of higher learning were for. The German university of the 19th century was based on a novel assumption with no precedent in the history of education. This was that universities exist primarily to sponsor research - that their first responsibility is to provide the space, books, and other resources that scholars need to produce new knowledge.
In the 1860s and '70s, a handful of older American colleges, including Harvard, began transforming themselves into research universities, and a number of new schools, such as Cornell and Johns Hopkins, were established to promote research. The research ideal began to gain influence in every area of study and teaching. Faculty divided into departments, and then into more specialised units of work. Departments of philosophy appeared for the first time, followed by departments of English. In 1893, the department of biology at the University of Chicago was reorganised into 5 departments of zoology, botany, anatomy, neurology, and physiology. At the same time, the religious premises of antebellum education were called into question, in part as a result of the new scientific spirit encouraged by the research ideal. Increasingly, our colleges and universities, especially the most elite, became secular and specialised institutions.
In the process, the world of higher education assumed the shape it has today. Graduate schools were created; scholarly journals were established to publish research. Centralised control of funds for research became increasingly important. College teachers were expected to have some specialised knowledge of a particular discipline. And students were expected to specialise too, by "majoring" in a particular subject. In the sciences, the adoption of the research ideal has produced astounding results. Our knowledge of the natural and social worlds, and ability to control them, is a direct result of the modern system of academic research.
In the humanities, however, the legacy of the research ideal has been mixed. We know vastly more today than we did even 50 years ago about the order of Plato's dialogues, the accuracy of Gibbon's citations, and how Benjamin Franklin spent his time in Paris. But the research ideal has excluded the question of life's meaning from serious academic concern as a question too large, too unformed, too personal, to be a subject of specialised research. A tenure-minded junior professor studying Shakespeare or Freud or Spinoza might re-inspect every scrap of his subject's work with the hope of making some small but novel discovery - but would be either very brave or very foolish to write a book about Spinoza's suggestion that a free man thinks only of life, never of death; or about Freud's appealing, if enigmatic, statement that the meaning of life is to be found in work and love.
As this new vision of higher education took hold in America, faculty members ceased to think of themselves as shapers of souls. Today's students are thus denied the opportunity to explore the question of life's meaning in an organised way, under the guidance of teachers who seek to acquaint their students with the answers contained in the rich tradition whose transmission was once the special duty of the humanities. It has also put the humanities in the shadow of the natural and social sciences. Judged by the standards of these latter disciplines, research in the humanities is bound to seem less conclusive, less accretive, less quantifiable. In philosophy, one can reasonably claim that there has been no meaningful progress since Plato. For a physicist to say the same thing about Newton would be absurd. Teachers of the humanities who judge their work strictly from the standpoint of the research ideal condemn themselves to an inferior position in the hierarchy of academic authority and prestige.
Conservatives who bemoan our schools' disengagement from spiritual questions often point a finger at political correctness, a stifling culture of moral and political uniformity based on progressive ideals. But to blame political correctness reverses the order of causation. The culture of political correctness is only a symptom, a discouraging response to a larger sense of directionlessness in the humanities. Multiculturalism, anti-colonialism, and insistence on race and gender as organising principles of study are an expression of the anxious search for a new and morally honourable role for the humanities once their older role as guides to the meaning of life lost its credibility. It is that older role we now need to recover.
Can the meaning of life be studied independent of religion? There are many who doubt that it can. They say that any program of this sort must rest on religious beliefs, which have lost their status as a source of authority in higher education. But that is a mistake. For even after the rise of the research university, with its secular and scientific culture, there were humanists who believed that the question of life's meaning can be studied in a disciplined but nonreligious way. Their approach gives us a model to follow today.
One of the most forceful proponents of this view was Alexander Meiklejohn, a distinguished professor of government and constitutional law, and the president of Amherst College from 1912 to 1924. Meiklejohn insisted that undergraduate education be more than a preparation for a career. He thought it vital that students also explore what he called "the art of living," the spiritual question of how they ought to live their lives. He defended the idea of spiritual seriousness in a nonreligious age, and thought it could be studied without dogmatic commitments.
In the first half of the 20th century, many colleges and universities had programs that sought to implement Meiklejohn's ideal. Most have disappeared, though some survive today. At Reed College in Oregon, freshmen are required to take a yearlong humanities course, for which they prepare by reading Homer's "Iliad" the summer before. Columbia University has a core curriculum consisting of four courses devoted to the masterpieces of Western literature, philosophy, music, and art. At Yale, where I teach, incoming freshmen can apply to the Directed Studies program, which begins in the fall with Herodotus, Homer, and Plato, and concludes in the spring with Wittgenstein, T S Eliot, and Hannah Arendt. These programs differ in many ways, and inevitably reflect the culture of their schools; some are mandatory and others, like Yale's Directed Studies, are elective. But despite their differences, all rest on a set of common assumptions, which together define a shared conception of humane education.
The first is that there is more than one good answer to the question of what living is for. A second is that the number of such answers is limited, making it possible to study them in an organised way. A third is that the answers are irreconcilably different, necessitating a choice among them. A fourth is that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength. And a fifth is that their study should introduce students to the great conversation in which these works are engaged - Augustine warily admiring Plato, Hobbes reworking Aristotle, Paine condemning Burke, Eliot recalling Dante, recalling Virgil, recalling Homer - and help students find their own authentic voice as participants in the conversation.
These are challenging works. But they are accessible too, and an 18-year-old with some curiosity about life will find much that is inspiring in them: the great battle scenes of War and Peace, and Tolstoy's meditations on the insignificance of the individual in history; Descartes' invitation to his readers to doubt everything they think they know, at least once in their lives; Arendt's account of Eichmann on trial, and her chilling description of the "banality of evil"; Virgil's Aeneas and Jane Austin's Emma, both in love, but with more on their minds.
Though critics have attacked "great books" programs as a kind of indoctrination into a European-dominated intellectual canon, the students in my Directed Studies class respond in the opposite way. They become rambunctiously independent. For they learn that the greatest minds in the world are on their side - or aren't, and feel entitled to quarrel with them. A college freshman who has read Descartes, and who crafts her own reasons to reject his invitation to doubt, is on her way to an independence of spirit that is surely one of the conditions to living a meaningful life.
For our humanities departments to make room for this kind of study again, they need not repudiate the research ideal. Much would be lost if they did. But they can insist that teachers in these fields equip themselves to guide their students in an exploration of life's meaning, which can be done with confidence and honour only if the research ideal is acknowledged to have limits. There are hopeful signs this will happen. The tide of political correctness is receding on our campuses. There is an increasing demand among undergraduates for courses that address the big questions of life, in all their sprawling grandeur, without reticence or embarrassment. At Harvard, Michael Sandel's famous course on justice, which explores the meaning of the concept from Aristotle to Mill and beyond, draws hundreds of students each year. Ten percent of the freshmen at Yale now apply to Directed Studies - more than can be admitted.
Most importantly, perhaps, the great upsurge of religious fundamentalism outside our colleges and universities is a sign of the growing appetite for spiritual direction. These movements can be a source of danger and division, and intellectuals may mock and despise them, but teachers also ought to see in them the energy that will drive the restoration of the question of life's meaning - and, with that, of the humanities themselves - to a central place in our colleges and universities. The fundamentalists have the wrong answers, but they've got the right questions. We need to learn to ask them again in school. Our culture may be spiritually impoverished, but what it needs is not more religion. What it needs is an alternative to religion, for colleges and universities to become again the places they once were - spiritually serious but nondogmatic, concerned with the soul but agnostic about God.
Much depends on this. America's entire leadership class now goes to college - something that was not true a century ago. Infusing higher education with a new and vibrant humanism will produce benefits not only for the future leaders of government and business, but for society at large: A richer and more open debate about ultimate values; an electorate less likely to be cowed into thinking that only the faithful have the right to invoke them; a humbler regard for the mystery of life in a world increasingly dominated by technocratic reason. The most immediate beneficiaries of any such revival, however, would be the young men and women in school today. Instead of offering a disorganised reprieve between the hard work of high school and the challenges of a career, their college education will endow them with priceless materials for a lifetime of struggle with the most important question anyone ever asks. When this happens, a place in fall's freshman class will be the prize it ought to be.
Anthony Kronman is Sterling Professor of Law at Yale and author of Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.
Source: boston.com 16 September 2007
Speaking of School
It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.
- Alec Bourne
by Howard Zinn
I am a teacher and a writer. I understood early that what is presented as "history" or as "news" is inevitably a selection out of an infinite amount of information, and that what is selected depends on what the selector thinks is important.
Those who talk from high perches about the sanctity of "facts" are parroting Charles Dickens’ stiff-backed pedant in Hard Times, Mr Gradgrind, who insisted his students give him "facts, facts, nothing but facts."
But behind any presented fact, I had come to believe, is a judgment — the judgment that this fact is important to put forward (and, by implication other facts may be ignored). And any such judgment reflects the beliefs, the values of the historian or reporter, however he or she pretends to "objectivity."
Source: Anderson Valley Advertiser 8 July 1998
Source: USA Today Friday 17 August 2001
July 4th Basics Lost on Some Teens
Information is not knowledge.
- Albert Einstein
by Michele Healy
A large number of teens in the USA are fuzzy about the history behind Wednesday's Independence Day celebration. A survey of 1,000 teens, conducted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the education institution that operates the restored 18th century capital of Colonial Virginia, finds 22% don't know what country the United States declared Independence from in the Revolutionary War (14% say France), 17% don't know there were 13 original colonies, and 15% don't know that the Declaration of Independence was adopted on 4 July 1776 by the Continental Congress. The history gap isn't limited to issues of independence. Nearly 1 in 4 don't know who fought in the Civil War (13% say the United States and Great Britain).
Source: USA Today Tuesday 3 July 2001
Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.
- Henry Adams
The Internet may reduce effective choice while increasing options. In the rapidly changing world we live in, it may be competency to learn new skills rather than the skills themselves that we need to focus on.
I read in The Evening Post 21 February 1996 an article entitled “Auckland Pupils Most Ignorant — Digest Survey” which said that a Reader’s Digest survey of 17-year-olds across the country revealed that 97% didn’t know what year Captain James Cook arrived in New Zealand (1769) and more than half didn’t know when the second world war had ended (1945). A full 41% couldn’t name a single cabinet minister. Only 1/3 of them could name two.
Wouldn’t the century Cook arrived and the decade the second world war ended actually be sufficient?
Auckland students scored lower than others on history and grammar questions. Reader’s Digest, who surveyed 411 seventeen-year-olds across the nation, said the study "vividly demonstrates the urgent need to improve education standards." New Zealand 17-year-olds were worse on their own history and on literature but scored better on geography, environmental issues and mathematics. The article said that an educator named John Graham, chairman of a private college for teenagers, had said the results were of great concern and showed that the system had drifted too far in teaching kids issues; instead, they needed "a sound body of knowledge."
One of the questions asked in what year Christchurch hosted the Commonwealth Games (1974). Another asked in which novel did the daughters of the Bennet family find husbands (Pride and Prejudice). These questions are just like the ones asked in the pubs on Trivia Night — because that’s just what they are — trivial. Give me geographers, environmentalists and mathematicians over school educators any day!
Roger Schank, computer science professor at Carnegie-Mellon, wrote in his January "Edge" question [see www.edge.org]: "When we choose to teach our high schoolers trigonometry instead of say basic medicine or business skills, it can only be because we think that trigonometry is somehow more important to an educated mind or that education is really not about preparation for the real world. When we focus on intellectual and scholarly issues in high school as opposed to more human issues like communications, or basic psychology, or child raising, we are continuing to rely upon outdated notions of the educated mind that come from elitist notions of who is to be educated. While we argue that an educated mind can reason, curiously there are no courses in our schools that teach reasoning. When we say that an educated mind can see more than one side of an argument we go against the school system which holds that there are right answers to be learned and that tests can reveal who knows them and who doesn't."
What Kids Know
by Mark Goldblatt
It's a freshman writing assignment I give every semester: "Respond in your journals to the following quotation: 'Religion is the opiate of the masses.'" After the students copy the words into their notebooks, I ask them to name the author. I do this now out of a mixture of curiosity and masochism; very likely, none of them will know. In the 10 years I've been assigning the quotation, only 5 students have immediately identified Karl Marx as the author - and all 5 were foreign students. So as usual, in the semester just ended, after the initial silence, I offered them a hint: the author was German.
They pondered this for a moment. Finally, an older black student named Maxine raised her hand. "Was it Martin Luther?" The class roared with laughter. Their reaction puzzled me. It didn't seem such a bad guess. Luther was German, and he did write about religion. As Maxine glanced around, another student tapped her on the shoulder. "Don't you know he was a brother?" The reason for the laughter suddenly dawned on me. The entire class had assumed Maxine meant Martin Luther King - their jaws dropped as I explained who Martin Luther was.
That moment has stuck with me because it highlights what, to my mind, are the two great problems with students now entering college. The first is familiar enough: they don't know what they should know. The second is more subtle yet even more worrisome: they assume they know much more than they actually do know. In this instance, not only did the students fail to identify arguably the most famous quotation of the last two centuries, or to recognise the name of the leader of the Protestant Reformation, but they felt secure enough to laugh at an educated guess far closer to the mark than they realised.
Through the years, we've grown accustomed to New York City's students lagging behind the rest of the country's on standardised tests; accustomed, as well, to American students getting blown out of the water by their peers in Far East or European countries - or, indeed, in any country where hunger does not eclipse education as a parental concern. Less familiar are surveys in which American students show markedly higher rates of satisfaction with the poor education they are receiving; they are, in other words, utterly ignorant of their own ignorance.
It is a trend that should worry us because, unlike in the past, ignorance is no longer tempered with humility. Rather, after years of psychotherapy disguised as pedagogy, ignorance is now buoyed by self-esteem - which, in turn, makes students more resistant to remediation since they don't believe there's a problem. This resistance, indeed, is part and parcel of a wholly misplaced intellectual confidence that is the most serious obstacle to their higher education. For the last two decades, I've taught freshman courses at CUNY and SUNY colleges in the city; the majority of my students have been products of the city's public schools. I am saddened, therefore, to report that more and more of them are arriving in my classes with the impression that their opinions, regardless of their acquaintance with a particular subject, are instantly valid - indeed, as valid as anyone's. Pertinent knowledge, to them, is not required to render judgment.
Want to scare yourself? Sit down with a half-dozen recent public high-school graduates and ask them what they believe. Most are utterly convinced, for example, that President Kennedy was murdered by a vast government conspiracy. It doesn't matter to them that they cannot name the presidents before or after Kennedy. Or the three branches of government. Or even the alleged gunman's killer. Most are convinced, also, that AIDS was engineered by the CIA - even though they cannot state what either set of initials stands for. Most will voice passionate pro-choice views on abortion - even though they cannot name the decision that legalised it. Or report the number of judges on the Supreme Court. Or define the word "trimester." Most will happily hold forth on the hypocrisy of organised religion - even though they cannot name the first book of the Bible. Or distinguish between the Old and New Testaments. Or state the approximate year of Jesus's birth (a trick question). Most will bemoan global warming - even though they cannot name three greenhouse gases. Or convert Fahrenheit temperatures to Celsius. Or say what planetary phenomenon causes seasons.
Let me stress that I'm not talking about stupid kids - though yes, as painful as it is to acknowledge, there are in fact stupid kids. But in this case I'm talking about bright kids, talented kids, curious kids - kids who will occasionally concoct ingenious, if wrongheaded, theories to compensate for what they don't know. Several years ago, for instance, a student of mine suggested that a semi-colon got its name because it drew attention to the words around it. She thought the spelling was: "See me colon." Clearly, if she's clever enough to come up with that, she's clever enough to learn the proper use of semi-colons; it's just that no teacher ever bothered to correct her punctuation.
She, and students like her, have been robbed - and not simply of the instruction they should have received through 12 years of primary and secondary schools. They have been robbed of their entrée into serious cultural debate. Robbed even of the realisation that they are stuck on the outside looking in. They are doomed to an intellectual life of cynicism without ever passing through knowingness, a life in which they grasp at platitudes to resolve momentary disagreements and do not possess the analytical wherewithal to pursue underlying issues.
They are lost generations. It's too late for them to catch up. But we owe it to their children to do better.
Mark Goldblatt teaches at SUNY's Fashion Institute of Technology. His new novel is Africa Speaks. This essay first appeared in the New York Post three years ago.
Source: nationalreview.comNational Review 3 September 2002
I'd like for Mr Goldblatt to explain just why it is these bright kids are "stuck" on the outside. If they haven't learned something by the time they're freshmen at university, then they'll never contribute to serious cultural debate? Personally, I don't think you even become a mature adult until 30. That leaves a few years for experience to fill in some of the important gaps. Bright minds learn - not always what was intended, perhaps - but school is seldom a total waste - certainly not for just those reasons Mr Goldblatt perceives. It is not unusual that a teacher would assign a great deal of importance to structured education.
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