Peter Wood has a tour de force editorial today in the Chronicle, titled “How Culture Keeps Our Students Out of Science”. Snippet:
Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market’s demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off — often too far to see. But they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren’t very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, “Why bother?”
[...] A century ago, Max Weber wrote of “Science as a Vocation,” and, indeed, students need to feel something like a calling for science to surmount the numerous obstacles on the way to an advanced degree.
At least on the emotional level, contemporary American education sides with the obstacles. It begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn — and worse, fail to develop as “whole persons” — if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren’t among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who “feel good” about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.
Wood goes on to trace the failings of postmodernism and relativism for preparing our kids for science and math. Go read the whole thing. I believe he is dead-on, and the article is full of money quotes such as:
Talk to recent college graduates and you are likely to hear something like: “Asian students are just better at science and math.” That is a verbal shrug, not a lament. The reward of 16 years of diversiphilic indoctrination turns out to be a comfort zone of rationalizations.
Wood does make a serious omission in his article, and that is the effect of popular culture on students. This is something I have blogged about over and over again. Kids are immersed in a culture that trains them for laziness and entertainment and deprives them of opportunities for hard, sustained efforts of the mind that are eventually rewarded. They are constantly bombarded by messages that say math and science are uncool, too hard, lame, etc. and nobody is systematically fighting that cultural flow. Elementary school teachers have a chance to inculcate the math and science “bug” in young kids and train them up with good basic skills, but many fail to do so because they themselves are ill-prepared in, and ill-disposed towards, science and math. (Note that this is not all elementary teachers — but certainly too many of them.)