Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

Educational howl

So. I'm reading Laurie Garrett's Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health. Like her previous book, The Coming Plague, it's a good book: mostly well-written, fascinating information, important topics. Also like The Coming Plague, it makes me want to hide under the desk and never come out. So I'm cutting it with short, light (or, okay, light-ish) mystery novels: first John D. MacDonald's Dress Her In Indigo and now Rex Stout's Some Buried Caesar. This is all for the best for my sanity.

But a line in Betrayal of Trust just hit me. Garrett is talking about health procedures in the Soviet Union -- long-standing effects of totalitarianism including Lysenkoism, and how they've affected the post-Soviet states. She quotes an expert on public health in the region as saying, "The system here is still find the scapegoat and punish them. The focus is always to get the bad guy and throw him in the slammer....So infection control is a bunch of rules, it's not a thought process." (Emphasis mine.)

And that, right there, is the essence of what is wrong with how we teach science in this country. Even the classes that are teaching the scientific method are often teaching "The Six [Four, Eight, who knows?] Steps Of The Scientific Method, To Be Regurgitated On A Test." It is of course a bad thing to teach bad science as dogma. But I can't figure out yet whether it's better or worse to teach good science as dogma. If you teach kids that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created the life on earth three weeks ago, okay, that's not so good. But if you teach them that Evolution Created It ("Question 1: What created life? Answer: Evolution") and we know because of Evidence Like Dinosaurs, Dammit, Stop Bugging Me, Kid, I'm not sure that's a step up.

We're teaching Lysenkoism, but with the best answers we can currently find put in place of the ones we know are false. Can I say how depressing I find that?

(Well -- except in those places where the false ones still hold sway, of course. One of you -- an educated and literate person -- had been taught actual Lamarckian theory of inheritance under the name of "Darwinist evolution." In a public school in the United States. It was not her fault, and she had correctly reasoned out the problems with Lamarckian inheritance. But realizing she was taught that in the first place made me want to tear my hair and howl at the moon.)

What's worse, I think we're teaching Lysenkoism across the board -- all knowledge as ideology and rule rather than skill set and approach. You go to gym class because Getting Exercise Is A Good Thing, rather than to learn a skill set in different types of exercise, which muscle groups can be affected, ways they help your body, ways to avoid injury, types of exercise you can still do with various kinds of injury...anything, in short, that might be educational. In the school district where I grew up, someone had decided that we should be taught study skills. And we were by God Taught Study Skills: one teacher taught us that we had to take notes in cursive because it was faster, and if it wasn't faster, it was just because we hadn't done it enough. Another taught us that all note-taking had to take the form of a hierarchical outline. No matter what. Learning French verbs? Time for a hierarchical outline. Calculus derivation of basic laws of mechanics? Hierarchical outline. Because it is The Right Way For Students To Take Notes. Because there is a one true way of note-taking, because there has to be, or how else can we test on this?

Is it more harmful to teach the wrong stuff or the right stuff in the wrong way? I don't know for sure, but I know how many people are convinced that they're no good at math, because they were taught math as a series of dogmas rather than a set of ways to approach problems, and so if they got as far as calculus, it appeared -- it was presented -- to them as a new, fairly unrelated, and entirely confusing set of dogmas, rather than an extension and an application of the skills they already had. (Or should have had, if they were getting A's and B's in geometry and algebra.) I know that people think grammar is a set of genuflections to be made in deference to some people's faith rather than a means of communicating ideas more clearly.

The more I look at this stuff, the more broken it appears. I think more reading is required. If you think I'm being wrongheaded and have reading to combat that, by all means, please recommend. (Or if you think I'm being rightheaded -- how come no one is ever rightheaded? -- and have reading recommendations to expand and/or bolster my rightheadedness. Or something in the middle. Whatever.)

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