Saturday, January 16, 2010

24 Questions for Elementary Physics

Hilbert + 1

The State Board of Education (SBOE) has been meeting in Austin to set the curriculum standards to be used in Texas schools for the teaching of social studies. The board is split, with eight of the fifteen members solidly or frequently in the conservative camp. And by conservative, I'm talking Texas conservative. For example, former chairman of the board Don McLeroy wants to rehabilitate communist witch hunter Joseph McCarthy in our children's history books ("Read the latest on McCarthy. He was basically vindicated."). Read the Washington Monthly article for scary details about this powerful faction setting standards not only for Texas schoolchildren, but for textbook publishers who will sell into states all across the country.

After the jump, what century-old math questions can tell us about teaching social studies in the 21st century.

This year's battle over social studies standards hinges on the question of what the goal of public school education should be. As The Texas Tribune puts it, the fulcrums are: "teaching vs. indoctrination and patriotism vs. realism." The conservatives want to present schoolchildren with patriotic role models and want to suppress the teaching of any events in American history that show Americans in anything but a positive light. For example, Richardson's own Bill Ames, an "expert reviewer" appointed by the conservative members of the SBOE, argued against the inclusion of Bernie Madoff in a section on American entrepreneurs because if would "denigrate capitalism." As one speaker before the SBOE put it, "If you want to say we’re indoctrinating, then yes, we want to indoctrinate students in the American form of government."

Personally, I've always thought that the strength of America was in its freedoms, including academic freedom from indoctrination. In my America, by presenting history as history, warts and all, and not as hagiography, students come away with it all: knowledge of American history and respect for American openness. Reading about the conservatives' antics on the SBOE, I can't help being reminded of Soviet attempts to whitewash history, going so far as to airbrush out of photographs leaders who fell out of favor. Don McLeroy says, without a trace of irony,

"The never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way? Well, that fight is still going on. There are people out there who want to replace truth with political correctness. ... We plan to fight back - and, when it comes to textbooks, we have the power to do it. Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have."

Last year the battle was over science standards. Then, McLeroy was no supporter of science ("Evolution is hooey."). There was a battle over whether the science standards would require teaching the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. In the end, alternate wording to much the same effect passed, pleasing McLeroy, who says, "Our science standards are light years ahead of any other state when it comes to challenging evolution!"

In those battles against teaching evolution, Creationists took pains to paint science as being a secular religion, with scientists having an unshakeable faith in the correctness of their positions, of always knowing all the answers. I'll leave you with some reading to demonstrate just how far from the mark that characterization is. Last weekend at Caltech there was a small conference: the "Physics of the Universe Summit." Sean Carroll of Caltech gave a speech, "24 Questions for Elementary Physics." It was inspired by a similar set of math questions posed a century ago by David Hilbert. Carroll posed physics questions he believes will still be interesting 100 years from now. What makes science so interesting to scientists (and useful to the rest of us) are the questions science asks, not the answers. If we ever run out of questions, science would lose its benefit for society.

Likewise, what should make the study of history fascinating for today's and future generations of schoolchildren in Texas is the questions teachers get the children to ask, not the answers they get the children to give. That's the difference between teaching and indoctrination. And where, ultimately, the value of an education lies.

P.S. I wavered when deciding what category to assign to this blog post. Because it was about social studies and science, I first tended to "De nada" because those subjects are universal and not unique to Texas. But the story was prompted by the social studies standards in Texas public education, so I thought "Local" was the right category. But finally, I had to admit that the Texas State Board of Education, which conservative ideologues have captured and turned into the front line in the culture wars, is less about education than politics. So "Politics" it is.

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