Science is the new Latin

Samizdata links to an article by a science professor named Christie Davies, who argues science is the new Latin, a subject we force children to study even though they hate it and have no use for it.

Science we are told is something that every child should and must study. Most children hate it, fail to master it and never use it or think about it again after they have left school. It is forced upon unwilling and inept pupils because it is supposed to be good for them. Science is the twenty-first century’s version of Latin.

A knowledge of science we are assured is essential for a proper understanding of the modern world. It is not. Very few English people whether adults or teenagers have any serious knowledge of the sciences but this does not hinder them in any way when it comes to earning, buying and selling, taking care of their children, playing elaborate games on their computers, tinkering with their car engines, giving up smoking or choosing between one fool and another at election time.

Davies takes on field trips, labs and tendentious environmental science courses. Yet he concedes we need scientists. Immigration is the answer, he writes.

By long tradition anything disagreeable in Britain is always done by foreigners, so why not science? For talented scientists in poor countries or ones where there is little personal freedom the tedious work done in a laboratory in free and wealthy England is an escape to paradise. All they need are scholarships, contracts and visas. I look forward to having 100,000 new Hindu and Chinese neighbours.

I think he’s kidding about not bothering students with science.

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  1. For talented scientists in poor countries or ones where there is little personal freedom the tedious work done in a laboratory in free and wealthy England is an escape to paradise.
    Sound like science is so unpleasant, the wealthy should prey on other countries for resource instead of educating their own hungry, huddled masses. The idea that we collect warm bodies to be any kind of servant is horrible. People coming to your country are either guests or full citizens. We don’t need a country full of servants; we need fully functional people who pull their own weight.
    When you relocate people based on regional skill, the ability to grow skill is not transferred to the new culture and the natural growth of communities is disrupted. We quit asking what it takes to be a sustainable planet and look for a easy niche that blocks the view of distruction. Providing asylum to deserving people does not need to be categorized as cheap labor.

  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    Sounds like a modest proposal to me. 😉

  3. heh. Good one, Steve.

    I would argue that some of the dissatisfaction with science HAS to be the way it’s taught.

    Otherwise, I wouldn’t be getting the comment “I always hated science until I took your class” as often as I do (I teach college-level non-majors biology; I tend to emphasize lab-like activities that can be done in lecture, the ways it’s relevant to people’s lives (for some things this is easier than others), having the students dig for information on their own, and just the fact that science is beautiful and fun and challenging and that the more you know about something, the more you care about it).

    I hated some of my math classes and loved others; I think that was largely related to the way they were taught – when they were a chaotic mess of timed-tests and tedious New Math, I hated it and when the teacher showed us the logical progression of concepts and genuinely gave the sense that math was fun and a worthwhile challenge, I enjoyed it.

  4. Since when is Latin such a bad thing? I’d argue that it is very helpful — it improves SAT scores, and definitely makes law school and med school (among others, perhaps) easier. Of course, I’m also glad that they don’t require it as part of the PhD curriculum – regardless of subject matter – anymore. My high school latin was enough.

    And for business, I would argue that you need enough science to understand if your scientists are pulling your leg. Just like athletes and authors etc. need enough business understanding to know if their managers are stealing them blind or leading them into really dumb investments!

  5. Richard Nieporent says:

    Great comment Steve. You beat me to it. Yes, as Steve indicated, it it a satire.

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Sounds like the $60,000/yr programmer who pays an Indian $12,000/yr to do all his work.
    There was a Reader’s Digest article in the 50’s about how the Steel Workers had the greatest labor contract in the world – just before foreign steel drove all of the American plants out of business or into niche fields.

  7. superdestroyer says:

    The problem with with arguing that people do not need tolearning science is that they later become the politicians and local leaders who do not have a clue about pollution, engineering, statistics, and even that water runs down hill.

    I wonder hot many of those, “I don’t like science types” are the type who give all of their money to snake oil salesmen.

  8. It’s how the science is taught. K-8, I don’t think I had a single teacher who understood the science she was supposed to be teaching. I was learning science – from my Dad, who taught Biology at the community college, and from books – but the class time spent on science was a complete waste. High school was much better; they had the budget to hire science teachers with primary majors in the field they taught and to equip the labs adequately.

  9. Cousin Dave says:

    Yes indeed, this is a fine example of the British sense of humor (I guess that would be “humour”) at work. Having been raised on Monty Python, I can well appreciate it.

    I’m not familiar with the curriculums and exams mentioned, but I think the author is trying to make a point that they are tedious or pointless or both. However, I think there is also a deeper point being made: that those things are a reflection of how British society values the subject in general — which, evidently, is not very much. The bit about bringing in immigrants to do the work that the natives find “distasteful” drives the point home.

    We have this, to at least some extent, in the U.S. too. How many doctor or lawyer characters do you see as lead roles on TV or in movies? A lot. How many scientists do you see? Not many. (How many engineers? None, unless the character being played is disreputable.) Now, I know better than to assume that Hollywood is a mirror of society, especially today. But it still has to be a bit unsettling. Suppose you are 10 years old and you are interested in, say, physics and mechanical engineering. Who are your role models? Can you name one? Can your parents name one? When I was that age we had names like Einstein, von Braun, Seaborg, and Fermi. Can anyone name a practicing physicist today? Stephen Hawking is about the only name you are likely to get from the general public, and his general noterity probably stems more from his physical affliction than from his work.

    Is science important for the average school-age child? Well, maybe the test tubes and fossil digs and frog legs aren’t something that everybody has to experience per se. But those things aren’t science; they are only artifacts. Science is not a physical thing; it is a system of thought, a way of understanding the universe we live in. It makes a few basic assumptions (there is an objective reality and we can perceive it, however imperfectly), and then lays out rules discovering how the universe works. The rules say to experiment; collect evidence and data, form theories based on that data, and test, test, test. The rules don’t say to believe anything that someone says just because they are charismatic or authoritative-sounding, and they don’t say to believe something that can’t be tested or repeated. Unfortunately over the past century, people who found certain facts and figures to be inconvenient to their own personal ambitions decided that they could dispose of same by disposing of science’s rules and substituting rules from a game of their own devising, one in which they could manipulate knowledge to their own convenience as they desired. A great many of these people, united by nothing more than their own personal animosities towards that darned scientific method, worked their way into our educational institutions and other important places in society.

    We are seeing the results of a lot of that now. And that is why it’s so important to teach science. Davies’ article mentioned the Soviet Union, and how its science failed to save it. In a way, that very science was actually its own undoing; no matter how much the Politburo might wish that genetics work a certain way for its own political purposes, the truth always was that genetics didn’t work that way, and people with science training knew it and knew the Party’s hypocrisy for what it was.

  10. Cousin Dave says:

    (BTW, I assume based on the given name that Prof. Davies is a “she”. Not that it matters to the point; I just like to keep those pronouns straight.)

  11. Richard Brandshaft says:

    This does bring up a serious question: can students be persuaded to like science? That is not a rhetorical question. I was born to be a techie. All the school system (the New York school system was a good one in my day, 40+ years ago) was expose be to it, give be some idea of what it was about, and not DIScourage me. No persuasion was necessary.

    Was anyone here persuaded to like science? Does anyone know of cases where people were?