Given that so many students are now studying STEM subjects, our children might appear well placed to debate complex, interdisciplinary issues that require knowledge of science. However, STEM education has become increasingly focused on gaining credentials rather than understanding. As a result, our children may be less well prepared for high-stakes public policy debates that require scientific knowledge than we are.
Our education system too often resembles “a straight ditch where there should be a meandering brook,” in Henry David Thoreau’s famous phrase. The idea of a meandering brook might conjure up images of students languidly pursuing idiosyncratic interests, rather than mastering a rigorous body of knowledge. However, such meanderings are frequently a prerequisite of both a broader view and a deeper understanding. The more you know about a subject, the easier it is to learn yet more, as you make connections between similar concepts in different contexts. Conversely, a scientific formula known but not understood is essentially an argument from authority.
What gets promoted as scientific truth is often only scientific consensus. But scientific consensus can be wrong, and changing that consensus is often difficult. To some degree, this is simply due to human nature, since it is hard to admit that a favored theory, which one may have spent decades investigating, is incorrect (which is why it is said that science advances one funeral at a time). Sometimes, there are profit motives for maintaining the scientific status quo, as in the case of antacid drugs, which were extremely profitable—until stomach ulcers were shown to be caused by a bacterium. The involvement of science in public policy will only add another layer of distortion, especially if a politically important scientific hypothesis becomes unchallengeable until the politicians who support it are voted out of office.
For most of us, belief in a scientific or mathematical theory is not a matter of having confirmed it ourselves by experiment or having worked through the derivation. Instead, as long as the theory is consistent with other things we know, we base our belief on an argument from authority allied to a trust that the scientific system of institutionalized disconfirmation has properly vetted the theory. Since there is far too much scientific knowledge for any single person to comprehend, this is how we must normally proceed in everyday life.
In an educational context, however, this produces opportunity costs, since time spent memorizing a formula one doesn’t understand is time not spent developing a more thorough understanding of fundamental concepts, including some very basic ones. Institutionalized disconfirmation, which should be a fundamental part of academic culture, is often discouraged both because of pressure to get through the requisite material needed to pass tests, and because of political activism at school.
For an example, for our best and brightest, high school mathematics education is increasingly a straight ditch leading to calculus. Students take calculus in high school at far higher rates than their parents did a generation ago: calculus has effectively become a prerequisite for admission to our best universities. Yet colleges still say that too many students are poorly prepared for college maths. This apparent paradox is caused by the fact that a lot of the standard high school mathematics curriculum can be cut if the goal is simply to enable students to pass calculus. Such students, however, then have to apply formulas that they do not understand—in other words, to believe an argument from authority. Since it is hard to test how well a student can think, but easy to test whether a student knows a formula, students are incentivized to memorize more formulas so that they can obtain the right credentials. It should come as no surprise if students whose STEM knowledge largely consists of trusting the formulas they have been given, go on to blindly trust public statements made by credentialed experts.
Increases in campus activism, on issues such as gun control and climate change, on the part of students and teachers alike, make it increasingly unlikely that even an expert will engage with arguments that challenge the consensus in her field. Activism and the pursuit of truth are often in conflict. If a school is committed to advocating a certain position on an issue, it is less likely to be committed to making sure its students also receive information that contradicts that position. Not only do students in the social sciences need to be exposed to opposing theories, but students in the natural sciences need to understand the limits beyond which their theories and models are no longer valid. Without institutionalized disconfirmation, gaining expertise is simply a matter of memorizing the current consensus. This turns a liberal arts education into a vocational education.
The standard of truth in a classroom should be higher than the standard of truth that prevails in public life, advertising, activism or advocacy. In public life, one has no obligation to make the case for one’s opponent—that’s the opponent’s job—and a statement is considered deceptive only if it is an outright lie or omits important information in an egregious way. But, unlike an activist or advocate, an educator has a responsibility to inform his students of the facts on all sides of an issue. Precisely because it is so easy to sway opinion by only mentioning facts favorable to one’s own case, educators have a special duty to try to avoid doing so.
Our society’s growing credentialism has produced a negative feedback loop in our education system. The importance of STEM credentials encourages the streamlining of STEM curricula so that more students can make it through. This in turn makes students’ understanding of science less thorough and their knowledge more fragile. As natural and social science experts weigh in on political issues, politics and campus activism influence what is taught to students. We don’t know what challenges our children will face over the coming decades. But, while we can’t give them the answers they will need, we can and must equip them to be able to ask the right questions.
Photo by Nashwan Guherzi