Radical education

Alabama's state legislature pulled off an education-voucher coup this week, variously described as "historic" or "sleazy," depending on one's view of the salutary or oppressive effects of a state monopoly on education during the tender years.  As HotAir notes, if voters disapprove of the parliamentary gambit that caused a fairly radical voucher program to emerge from a conference committee that was considering House and Senate versions of a very different bill, and then to obtain abrupt approval by a conservative majority, they will punish the legislators in the next election.  If by that time concrete improvements have appeared in the educational prospects of students stuck in failing Alabama schools, voters may reward the gambit.

The school voucher controversy is of enduring interest to me.  I abhor shoddy schools and ignorant educators, and revere personal choice and free markets, so much that I tend to embrace nearly any reform measure that takes a crowbar to a state or unionized monopoly.  But as a counterpoint to my anarchic zeal, I try to follow the main arguments against vouchers.  Today I will pass over the usual objections to cherry-picking of the best students or the unfairness to attributing school failure in broken neighborhoods to administrators or educators, and instead note an interesting theme in one of my favorite playing grounds, the comments sections to published reports on school-choice events.  What I see is a visceral distrust and hatred of improperly supervised for-profit private schools, especially those operated on religious (or -- horrors -- even fundamentalist) principles.  Apparently one of the greatest dangers of school voucher programs is the delivery of innocent children into the hands of creationists.

Returning to Sokal's "Fashionable Nonsense," which I wrote about yesterday, I note his warnings about the sad state of science education.  He begins with C.P. Snow's much-quoted "Two Cultures" lecture:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists.  Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The response was cold:  it was also negative.  Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of:  Have you read a work of Shakespeare's
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question -- such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration,[*] which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? -- not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.  So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.
Sokal goes on to diagnose the problem:
A lot of the blame for this state of affairs rests, I think, with the scientists.  The teaching of mathematics and science is often authoritarian; and this is antithetical not only to the principles of radical/democratic pedagogy but to the principles of science itself.  No wonder most Americans can't distinguish between science and pseudoscience:  their science teachers have never given them any rational grounds for doing so.  (Ask an average undergraduate:  Is matter composed of atoms?  Yes.  Why do you think so?  The reader can fill in the response.)  Is it then any surprise that 36% of Americans believe in telepathy, and that 47% believe in the creation account of Genesis?
It is not my purpose to express disrespect for the creation account of Genesis, whether viewed metaphorically or as a supernatural alternative to the ordinary mechanistic explanations of the origin of species.  I merely think it bears examining how we teach our children to rely on the most current scientific thinking.  How do we know that matter is composed of atoms?  I was relieved to find that my first guess -- "something to do with how chemical reactions obey formulas that suggest the interaction of subunits of common molecules in a handful of simple predictable weight ratios" -- was pretty close.  John Dalton made this important deduction in the early 19th century.  Why do we believe in the evolution of man from earlier living forms?  Do most children learn a useful answer to this question, or are they simply shouted at from the progressive and fundamentalist camps, respectively?  I'd be willing to bet money that few primary school teachers, and fewer school board members, could address the question in terms that would hold water for ten minutes.

If I had the responsibility to educate any children, I would want them to learn theories that hold up well to logical examination and experimentation.  But surely there will be time later in their lives to modify any shaky theories they absorb in childhood.  I'd be more concerned to know that they have been trained early in the habit of thinking through why and how they know something to be true.

*As Sokal quotes:  "Recent megalopolitan hyperconcentration (Mexico City, Tokyo . . .) being itself the result of the increased speed of economic exchanges, it seems necessary to reconsider the importance of the notions of acceleration and deceleration (what physicists call positive and negative velocities) . . . (Virilio 1995, p. 24)."


E Hines said...

objections to cherry-picking of the best students

It's immoral to burn them all just because I can't save them all. You bet I'm going to cherry-pick when incumbents are going to stay in the way of any reform.

unfairness to attributing school failure in broken neighborhoods to administrators or educators

Who else is to blame for the failure of the system they're running?

Joining you in the main topic: "something to do with how chemical reactions obey formulas that suggest the interaction of subunits of common molecules in a handful of simple predictable weight ratios"

Other than begging the question of "what's a molecule?" in fact, that's what/how I was taught. My high school physics and chemistry classes, while not team taught, might as well have been, they dovetailed so nicely (even though I had them in consecutive years). At each stage, the principles of one subject were laid bare and made applicable in the other. And my teachers took a Socratesian approach to teaching--they asked questions in series that led us to figuring out the answers for ourselves, rather than simply lecturing at us and feeding us the answers from on high. Nor did any of this slow the pace of the classes or their effectiveness. I took the SAT Chemistry Achievement test a full year after having finished my chemistry class, and from memory alone, I scored around 725 out of 800.

Modern schools have lost that. Certainly there will be failures in market-based schools; no system is perfect. However, our modern public K-12 system comes D*mnably close to perfect in the purity and breadth of its failure. But what can we expect from a system (and this isn't entirely the unions' fault) that is more enamored of its teachers being credentialed in the process of "education" than being credentialed in the subject matter they're pretending to teach?

I'll take my chances on market-based teaching systems. They'll eventually fail, too, for their own reasons, and we'll have to develop a new means of teaching. Entropy lives. But so does human ingenuity. So far.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

Sokal is being a little coy in saying that "What do you mean by mass?" is a simple question with a simple answer. It's a fundamental question, but it's really a serious question -- an answer to which was what the whole Higgs field thing was about last year.

If you're satisfied with "I mean that property which causes some things to be heavier than others," fine. Or you could go with something about the density of the material, so that a given volume of air weighs less than the same volume of lead given a set gravity. But that isn't entirely right either. It's not wrong! But it's still not complete.

Texan99 said...

That may be a little unfair. I think it's C.P. Snow rather than Sokal, but in either case I think he's looking for the most basic level of understanding, not a deeper philosophical theory. It's one thing to wonder about the inherent mysteries of space and time and conclude that we may have trouble with a deep understanding of the meaning of acceleration, and another to state that "acceleration and deceleration are what physicists call positive and negative velocity."

If a social scientist doesn't know enough about the commonly accepted meaning of "mass" to be able to distinguish it from weight, for instance, he'll have no business using F=ma or E=mc2 as a metaphor for politics, and he'll have no call to accuse a scientist of illiteracy because he's not an admirer of Derrida.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think being able to make up a verbal definition of terms is not the best measure of basic science understanding, and that's Snow's error. I agree with his general premise, but the way he is measuring is flawed.

Second, I believe in vouchers on the basis of basic freedom. I agree that the arguments against are often deeply bigoted. I also agree that competition might theoretically reward the competent and force out the incompetent. But I'll bet not. What will happen instead is that administrators will be declared failures because they work at schools with more minority students. If that were to continue, no one with any hope of promotion would work at those schools again, condemning those schools to worse and worse teachers and administrators.

NAM's do worse - on tests and in school - and that is not a function of the school administrations or the teachers' unions, but of general ability. That is a deeply uncomfortable truth, but not allowing ourselves to admit it creates the situation of blaming the only people who are trying to help them.

This is a place where I disagree strenuously with my fellow conservatives. Schools are not worse now, they are gradually better, year over year. Anecdote and reminiscence by a thoroughly unrepresentative sample of blog-commenters is simply not evidence. Yet that is what is usually offered on all conservative sites. Because of the Flynn Effect, IQ tests have to be rescaled lower every decade or so - that is the raw score that bought you an IQ 120 in 1990 only buys you a 116 now.

If we are in fact talking about science, and evidence, then conservatives should try and actually prove the point that (apples-to-apples, now) instruction was better two generations ago.

They will find that they can't. It was worse.

Texan99 said...

The ability to parrot a definition won't demonstrate a deep understanding. But the inability even to approximate a basic definition -- to avoid mangling it completely -- is strong evidence of an attempt to use the scientific term out of context and in an essentially meaningless way. It's a sign of cargo cult science, and of ineffective education. Sokal argues, and I think rightly, that science ought not to be an exegesis of sacred texts.

Grim said...

I think being able to make up a verbal definition of terms is not the best measure of basic science understanding...

Maybe one reason that I worry about it is that a fair number of Plato's dialogues start with Socrates asking for someone to define a term they use every day. "So, just what is this thing you call courage?"

The result is always worth following, but a simple answer is just what you won't get. :)

Texan99 said...

No doubt. But the problem is not the tendency to adopt simplistic definitions. It is the tendency to use words with only the vaguest notion what they refer to, out of context, and almost as a magical incantation. The social scientists whom C.P. Snow and Sokal were taking to task were not engaged in expanding a workaday knowledge of basic physical concepts into a more subtle or useful one. They were engaged in bollockspeak.

Nor am I trying to argue that public schools used to be able to teach critical thinking skills but have lost the ability. C.P. Snow gave that lecture nearly fifty years ago. My point was that we engage in pitched battles over whether children are being indoctrinated in the correct scientific theories, when not only are the kids not being given many skills for evaluating competing theories on the origin of species, but I doubt whether many educational professionals or bureaucrats or activists really have the skills either. In any case, whatever may be the arguments for and against vouchers, I have a hard time taking seriously the notion that vouchers are dangerous because too many kids may be taught creationism.

Grim said...

...to use words with only the vaguest notion what they refer to...

To whit, see "What's cholesterol?" in the clip I just posted above. :)

It's a good point. Mostly even educated people don't really know what they're talking about. But the problem is that there's not a bottom to any of this. "What's mass?" is a hard question. At some point we have to decide what level of knowledge is adequate before a person can deploy a concept. Newton told us a lot about gravity, but he famously said he wasn't prepared to make any sort of hypothesis about what exactly "gravity" might be. He could just tell you some things about what it does -- whatever "it" is.

Not that I want to appear to be defending the people you're intending to chide. I'm just saying that, at some point, we're all working with 'good enough.'

Texan99 said...

Unfortunately, that's exactly the problem. Only a few of us are working with "good enough." Those who are working with "nothing like good enough" would do better to avoid the subjects altogether.

Texan99 said...

For instance, if a social scientist wanted to point out the undeniable truth that we don't know, can't know, in any really basic sense, what either mass or gravity is (only some things about how they typically behave), in order to make some kind of point about the need for humility in knowledge, I'd have no problem with that. That's completely different from throwing around nonsense about the deceleration and acceleration of economic exchanges in the sense of "positive and negative velocity," which is pointless, obscurantist, fraudulent folderol. Not to know what mass "is" in some deep sense doesn't mean you can just as easily say "mass is a banana split of chaotic imaginary proportions, so fund my social science research" as to say "we use the word mass to describe the property that resists acceleration, according to some basic predictable laws that permit us to predict motion." Something can be a hard question without rendering all answers to the question equally sensible or honest.

Grim said...

Well, you know what I think about "social science" anyway. :) If you can admit that what you are doing is an art, and not a science, it may be worth doing -- but if you insist on being treated as a scientist, in a "social" science, you're a fraud.

Now, if it's an art, then there's some room for performance pieces. I just ask what I ask of all artists, which is that they take care to master their chosen tools. If you want to field a physics analogy to explain Mexico City, go ahead: just make sure you really know your physics. Picasso was fully competent in classical painting before he began to undertake his wild experiments, which is the difference between him and his many poorer imitators.

james said...

Back in the day everybody was required to take at least two science courses in the (4-year) high school and the most elementary course was General Science. The text clearly covered why atoms were predicted, and we did that little oil drop experiment to estimate the size of a molecule.

So even the non-tech oriented kids should have graduated with a passing familiarity with the reasons for atomic theory.

Forgetting the details of what you don't use every day is no crime (yet), but the disdain Snow referred to is offensively stupid.

I'm not convinced that education is better. Given approximately the same amount of time in school, more of it is used in secondary stuff than I recall. I grouse from time to time about the high school geometry texts, and I reviewed (they didn't pay any attention, unfortunately) the middle school math texts and found them sloppy.

Russ said...

If you are going to compare current education to former, you will need to account for a few differences.
The dismal African American test scores. (Lower than ESL) Solve this and you make history.
The English as a second language test scores.
Percent difference in non-native speakers
Percent of students completing school

These are problems with comparing the US test scores to international test scores, as well.
Getting an Apple to Apple comparison is very hard to do.

james said...

Quite so. Which is why I wrote about the material to be mastered rather than the test scores.

MikeD said...

I'll fully admit, while reading the article, I could not come up with a satisfactory definition of mass or acceleration OUTSIDE of the mathematical terms by which I can define them.

Mass - Energy over the speed of light squared

It's technically true, but utterly useless as a definition. But for me, the problem was much as Grim described. How do you define it? Any layman's definition would likely be true but incomplete. Hell, even with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, most physicists probably still can't give a complete definition.

And while I understand what "acceleration" is, to come up with a definition is like asking me "what is love?" Yes, I can tell you roughly what my understanding of it is, but it's not going to be something that a scientist could not pick apart. To claim that the ability to define mass and acceleration is science for "can you read" is malarkey. I instantly knew what the Second Law of Thermodynamics was, so apparently I can "read Shakespeare" but don't know how to read?

Texan99 said...

But you know, Snow and Sokal weren't talking about a definition of mass or acceleration in the abstruse sense of "How can we avoid a sterile circularity in definition, when the underlying phenomena remain stubbornly mysterious?" The Virilio quotation in Sokal's book was a confusion between the most everyday spatial meanings of the separate terms "acceleration" and "velocity."

Similarly, I took Snow to be referring to the ability to speak simply but coherently about the ordinary physical phenomena known by the names "mass" and "acceleration" without slipping into nonsense.

From the point of view of science, those really are terms nearly as fundamental to physics as reading is to advanced literacy. Without them, you can't get on to the hard stuff. Perhaps "Can you read?" is a humorous exaggeration, but it's very much like asking "Can you mount the horse, or do you need to take a moment to re-familiarize yourself?" in the context of steeplechasing.