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Is Science the ‘new Latin’?

Christy Davies has an interesting article on the Social Affairs Unit blog which looks critically at one of the educational ‘given’ of our age:

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.

Interesting stuff. Read the whole thing.

20 comments to Is Science the ‘new Latin’?

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Not this again! For some strange reason, I’ve been grappling with this very topic for several days now, recurring again and again in other forums I frequent and even in my teaching course today.

    Science, as it is taught now all over the world, is not much better than religion. Students learn facts and concepts without any real inkling of the logical processes and principles that goes on behind the scenes.

    That’s not science education. That’s theology which just happens to have ‘Science’ as the name of the religion taught.

    Indeed, the logic processes, parsimony, and philosophy of science has been largely neglected in secondary and pre-university education. In light of this, is it any wonder why students think it is all rote learning?

    As for the point that science as it stands is largely useless, well… that’s unfortunately quite true. Still, science is the foundation for engineering and technology, both of which underpin modern civilization, and any enterprising businessman should be constantly aware of new technology that might make good investments.

    Insofar as libertarian thought is concerned, privatization of education removes the prospect of standardized education, which raises the possibility of children not learning science at all. That’s also fine, since that means for those of us who do want to learn science, we can probably command better salaries and respect. Many key industries require our services, even if we’re not involved in reserach.


  • Pluto

    The simple fact is that science is a lot harder than the humanities. Someone who can do a physics degree could probably scrape by in a cultural studies degree, but the average student of cultural studies wouldn’t last a month on the physics course. The words ‘Mouse’ and ‘Mickey’ spring to mind here, for some reason.

  • eggman

    By exposing childeren to a broad education they are able to find which areas (english, science, history, etc.) interests them and allows them to further grow and develope. Yes, the vast majority of people may be absolutely fine without scientific knowledge. The current methods of teaching science may also be far from perfect. But if we do away with it we lose those childeren who may one day become scientists. How can they choose to pursue science it if they are never exposed to it?

  • Science is not about a body of knowledge, though it certainly has built a body of knowledge. It is about learning how to reason about the real world. The method of science is the most successful way to acquire correct information that has ever been developed.

    If you want people unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, the first thing to do is to scrap science education.

  • Jacob

    Would you also recommend that students who are interested in science/engineering be exempt from studying literature, poetry, history and philosophy – since they are never going to use them and are uninterested ?

  • toolkien

    The reason that science is watered down is so that it can be claimed that the ‘average’ have been taught it. Of course those teaching it today also received a watered down version and the process erodes.

    Another reason, perhaps, is that technical knowledge is advancing beyond an ability to broadly teach it. Teaching science a hundred years ago involved much less knowledge (granted much of the ‘knowledge’ today is of the theoretical sort TWG refers to above), but there still is a much larger arena involved today, so specialization is necessary.

    In fact, one could advance the notion that in the information society we live in today, that specialization is pretty rampant everywhere. Teaching broadly might become extinct in the future as we live in an ‘advanced’ society, much of it unnecessarily serpentine to create catacombs and cloisters for bureaucrats (public and private) to inhabit.

    Looked at another way, one has to wonder if our ‘educational meritocracy’ we live in today breeds artificial segregations and such segregations feed the ever expanding educational universe. It’s circular. Hopefully this doesn’t come off as anti-intellectualism. It’s not, it’s trying to identify how much of technical knowledge, in any discipline, is more smoke than fire, complicating the whole function of providing needful information/conditioning for individuals to be productive.

  • Oops!! A thousand pardons for each of my impatiently reposted trackbacks. Won’t happen again, promise.


  • It often seems that the incentivisation of scientific research leads not to more innovation but stasis and that markets only really function well in relation to the product itself. As the article alludes, from a market perspective the decision to pursue scientific research is seldom a rational on e– at lest from a purely economic perspective. Thus anyone pursuing a scientific career is unlikely to be someone who responds rationally to economic incentives. Thus the imposition of any economic incentive program in relation to scientific research is likely to have little or no effect. Perhaps a more telling question to would be to ask under what circumstance it might also have a detrimental effect – as perhaps it did in Russia. Perhaps the cause might be that the offering of “rewards” selects the wrong sort of people to become of scientists?

  • Thank you, powers that be for cleaning up my mess.

    In response to Giles, I do agree that there is something of an “artistic” drive that gets some people into science. The drive is more often to understand than to realize a vision. Subjects tend to identify with one or the other drive; those who wish to understand might pursue pure sciences like physics or astronomy, while visionaries go into applied sciences like medical research or engineering/architecture.

  • limberwulf

    I disagree Giles,
    the free market involves more than economic incentive. The great scientific minds have receive great rewards, tho some of those rewards are in the form of fame and recognition. The scientists that seek no such reward are the ones who’s reward is the accomplishment of the task at hand. Such scientists will pursue their studies regardless of reward or reward system. Those who do seek reward only receive it upon success, so that is still a benefit to all.

    There is also the matter that science which does not discover anything economically useful perhaps should have support only from those with means who seek the answers that such science does address. Do not assume that there would be no abstract science or far-reaching research. There are plenty of people who would have not only the desire to fund such science in a free market, but the means to do so.

  • Bernie

    “Science is not about a body of knowledge, though it certainly has built a body of knowledge. It is about learning how to reason about the real world. The method of science is the most successful way to acquire correct information that has ever been developed.
    If you want people unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, the first thing to do is to scrap science education.” Perry E. Metzger

    Excellent point. I would be immensely happy if my children learnt nothing more about science than scientific method and were expert in it’s use.

    I would only add the state does not want people able to distinguish truth from falsehood. Look at all the laws prompted by “Science” that would then be jeopardised.

  • veryretired

    Science education is suffering from the same depredations that affect many other aspects of our educatinal system. The basic, and most pervasive, element that makes so much of kids’ school experience a boring and meaningless waste of time is the relentless dumbing down of every subject in order to avoid offending subgroups within the community.

    There is a powerful anti-intellectualism in American culture, as there is in others. Coupled, in the current PC atmosphere, with a dread of being accused of racist or insensitive policies, the result is a desparate attempt to make everything as simple as possible in order to ensure that everyone can pass.

    The damage being done is not just in science, but also english, history, math, and just about everything else.

    There is no more damning indictment of the educational monopoly than the fact that little kids aged 5-6 go to school gleefully, expecting a wonderful adventure, but by age 10 are so turned off by the tedious mess that the schools have become that they have to be dragged into the classroom, and by 16 are dropping out in droves.

    I have sent my kids to private schools which offer a rigorous full spectrum liberal arts education —english, math, science, and foriegn language at each level. Some people call this a sacrifice, but that is not the case at all. It is the way I was raised. I am the one who derives a great deal of pleasure, and satisfaction, out of the discussions I can then have with my children about books, movies, ideas, history, etc.

    There is plenty of blame to go around for what has happened to education, but in the final analysis, it is a parental failure of the worst kind to turn your children over to the state to be badly educated.

  • Cobden Bright

    When growing up, I was passionately interested in and pretty damn good at both arts and science. Of everything I studied, the only 2 useful subjects were logic and philosophy of science – both of them being grounded in trying to decipher truth in an unbiased manner.

    Science may be mostly irrelevant, but arts are even more so. The fact is, school should prepare people for real life. As it is, you have geniuses leaving school not knowing how to calculate a mortgage payment, let alone a profit & loss account, or knowing the first thing about managing or working for people, or about political theory. Or even – for the artists – how to submit a manuscript or hire an agent.

    Instead they know about sharecropping in Bangladesh, the breakup of the Roman Empire, or the molecular structure of bleach. And that was one of the top private schools in the land. God help anyone at an inner city state school.

    Education after about age 12 is a worthless piece of shit, end of story. Better to send someone into the world of work age 13 – by 21 they will know much more and be much more able than even the best uni student in the entire world. Oh sorry, forgot that was illegal under child labour laws.

    After learning to read and write, 98% of what I learned was self-taught or from influences I found out myself or through trusted friends. The other 2% was realising how much of what I learned at school was BS. Ironically, I enjoyed school – but for the socialising, not the learning.

  • ernest young

    Just an example of yet more socialist excuses for a degraded and impoverished education system, overseen by the most inept managers and practitioners ever seen, and that includes those in the NHS.

    Science is such a wide subject, that it should have at least some small interest for everyone, that it is poorly taught, is entirely a different problem, directly based in political dogma.

    Damned politicians destroy everything they touch…

  • Johathan Pearce

    In addition to Perry Metzger’s good point about the value of scientific reasoning, there is also a lot to be said for teaching children (not “kids”) formal logic. For that matter, one of the advantages of learning Latin was that taught reasoning skills and the ability to think clearly.

    There is also the great benefit of learning the value of controlled experiements, of learning through observation and the willingness to test out different theories. A good scientific training can teach one how to spot sloppy thinking, something that ought to be of particular concern to libertarians.

    Remember also that some of the greatest political thinkers of our time, including Karl Popper whose books grace this blog’s design, were scientists by training.

    Also agree that a lot of folk dislike science because it is hard. But you can bet that countries like China and India are investing zillions in science education.

  • The problem with the SAU commentary is that they selectively define the word “science” so myopically that the “thesis” actually becomes an axiom. “Science is that which people find boring.” Conclusion: “People find science boring.”

    I’m a volunteer docent at the Bronx Zoo (last time I checked, zoology was a science), and I can assure you that children (and adults too) love that branch of science (and real science, too, not just “look at the funny monkey” — they really do learn and are truly curious and inquisitive about biology, taxonomy, evolution, etc.).

    I can’t speak for U.K. television, but in the U.S. we have gone from one science outlet (PBS) to a wide variety (Discovery Channel, Learning Channel, National Geographic Channel, and many others). And who doesn’t remember “Cosmos” or “A Brief History of Time”?

    Most people like science, in fact most people love science. The problem is generally with science instruction, not science itself. In that sense some of what you ssay is accurate, but the answer lies in repackaging the curriculum, not disposing of it wholesale.

  • The elite academically still do well in American schools.

    My #2 son is going to the University of Chicago on a nearly total academic scholarship based on work he did in a school not noted for its academic all stars.

    Auburn High School of Rockford, Illinois. He has been totally educated (formally) in state schools.

    He was in the gifted program.

    For those who can cut it a fine education can be had in the public schools of America. Where we fail is not at the top but in the middle and the bottom.

    Low expectations mostly.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Simon, the academically gifted and motivated child will do well anywhere with minimal instruction.

    The problem is how educators maximise the potential of the less academically gifted, as well as motivating those with the gifts but no self-motivation.


  • Adhib

    Don’t submit to lowest common denominatorism. Bring Latin back: It’s still the lingua franca of scientific classification systems, not to mention being the key to all romance (and much anglo) etymology, and thus to a far richer facility for literature.

    Most importantly, learning Latin is learning *how to think* (just as the best science teaching is learning how to think): making rules of grammar conscious, observing and memorizing their functions, is a great pathway towards higher reasoning abilities.

    The prevailing concern for a minority of low achievers is removing the challenges other kids need, to cut their mental teeth. Science and Latin both, please! And what about Greek, while we’re there?

  • I’ve blogged my response to this here:

    Science and knowledge.

    I think the standard of science education today is a lot higher than you may realise.