This article came out a few days ago, but I’ve been too busy around here to blog about it until now. The pseudonymous author argues against science classes for non-majors — “physics for poets”, as he calls it — on the basis that they are neither truly scientific in nature nor satisfying for students. Snippet:
I worry…that our approach to teaching science as a part of a liberal education is undermining the goals we have set for our classes. Despite the effort we put into providing classes that are both relevant and informative, I am troubled by the subtext of these classes. By their very existence, these classes send two damaging messages to students in other disciplines: first, that science is something alien and difficult, the exclusive province of nerds and geeks; and second, that we will happily accommodate their distaste for science and mathematics, by providing them with special classes that minimize the difficult aspects of the subject.
I think this is the right kind of concern for any kind of course in a liberal arts environment. You want to give students real experience in the classical fields of study, including science; a science course that deliberately avoids mathematical rigor of any sort or tries to sex up science so that it will “engage students where they are” hardly seems to be a real experience in any reasonable sense, no more than having a music course focused only on top 40 hits of 2005 can be considered a real music course — despite its relevance and student-friendliness.
The author and I share a context, namely that our small liberal arts colleges are in the midst of a radical revision of the liberal arts core. In fact, in 45 minutes, we are having a faculty meeting to vote on the new curriculum model which we will implement. Some of the proposed models have no lab science component; there is either nothing at all required for science, or else a “physics for poets” type class. Those proposals are uniformly at the bottom of my ballot. I want students to take a real science class, where they have to do actual lab work and run actual numbers and think about the quantitative (and otherwise) issues playing in to how the world works. Do the work of actual scientists, in other words, and not simply give up on science because you’re a humanities major that doesn’t like math.
Relating to math-avoidance inherent in the design of “physics for poets” classes, the author also takes a well-deserved shot at Richard Cohen, whose addle-headed nonsense about the uselessness of algebra was first
ripped apart blogged about here:
It’s a sad commentary on the state of our society that a public intellectual (even a low-level one like Cohen) can write such a paragraph and be confident that it will be met with as many nods of agreement as howls of derision. If a scientist or mathematician were to say “I can handle simple declarative sentences all right (although not transitive verbs),” they could never expect to be taken seriously again. Illiteracy among the general public is viewed as a crisis, but innumeracy is largely ignored, because everybody knows that Math is Hard.
Unfortunately the author disappoints me with this:
People with political agendas are constantly peddling distorted views of science, from conspiracy theories regarding pharmaceutical companies and drug development, to industry-backed attempts to challenge the scientific findings regarding global climate change, to the well-documented attempts to force religion into science curricula under the guise of “intelligent design.” It’s more important than ever for our students to be able to understand and critically evaluate competing claims about science.
Did you get that? “Critically evaluate”. Sounds like the author might not be ready to be critical himself just yet. But the rest of the article is good enough to wink at that.