The two cultures

Another busy week.  We had school Open Evening, which finishes around 8pm;  in the past it’s been on a Thursday, so we’ve only had one day to get through afterwards, but this year it was a Tuesday, so I’ve been wandering around like a zombie for much of the week (no, I don’t know if anyone else could tell the difference…)

On Thursday, we had a Seminar Lunch. This involves three sixth formers doing a presentation and answering questions on a topic of their choice, with lunch in between. There’s an audience of 25-30, including their friends and family, our SMT, visitors who know something about their topic, governors and some subject teachers. I have a permanent invite, I think largely due to my ability to dream up questions on pretty well any topic (knowing what I am talking about is an optional extra, you understand!)

The talks this time were about chiral molecules, euthanasia,  and the American civil war.   Unfortunately, there always seems to be the same problem with science-based talks. However basic the knowledge assumed at the start, quite a few of the audience immediately seem to go into “oh, I won’t understand any of it” mode, and therefore don’t really focus on trying to.  WHY?????   I know very little about the American civil war, or indeed the ins and outs of euthanasia, but it wouldn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be able to follow a talk on them.

So why do perfectly intelligent people, with maths and science GCSEs/O-levels and even A-levels to their names, decide they can’t cope with understanding science?  They must have been able to at some point to pass those exams (so no, it is not the fault of the teaching profession…).  Most science talks (and books, and TV programmes) start at a level suitable for a general audience – they rarely assume even GCSE-standard knowledge.

So why does this wall come down? Is it because people self-designate as “Arts” or “Science” types? I’ve always been on the science side, but I’ve never felt it requires me to forswear visiting art galleries, going to concerts, or reading history or a literary novel. Could an “Arts” person not read one of the (rare) scientific articles in the popular press, and want to find out more, or pick up one of the many excellent popular science books available now?  Is it because it’s socially acceptable to be scientifically illiterate? Perhaps that has something to do with it – I’d feel a bit embarrassed if I didn’t know who Shakespeare was, but there’s not the same shame attached to not knowing about DNA, Newton’s laws or atomic structure.

In a famous lecture in 1959, C P Snow coined the phrase “the two cultures” to describe this phenomenon, and blamed the British educational system of the day for prioritising the classics at the expense of science, and hence breeding politicians, administrators and industrialists ill-equipped to understand and manage the modern scientific world.  The education system has swung the other way in recent years, with the humanities and arts under threat compared to the sciences – but still we do not have a scientifically literate population.  Instead we find people increasingly prey to every bit of idiotic pseudoscience out, and not employing their critical judgement to distinguish sense and nonsense.

Prioritising science in schools won’t solve the problem – there’s plenty of people with good GCSEs in science who have done their best to forget it all since. Making people study it for longer wouldn’t help either – force-feeding people with a subject they dislike will often merely cement that dislike in place for years.   We need to encourage kids (and adults) to actively enjoy thinking, reasoning and learning,  If you are a confident, adventurous learner then surely there must be a better chance you’ll regard something unfamiliar as exciting, not intimidating – and that you’ll feel able to enjoy the sciences, despite studying English, or pursue that interest in Classics, despite being a mathematician.

So – we need to see education as more about an approach and an attitude, rather than just test results or equipping pupils for a job. We also need a culture of lifelong learning, encouraging the idea that new ideas and developments aren’t closed to us, that acquiring understanding and knowledge is valuable, and that grappling with demanding ideas is a worthwhile and rewarding endeavour. And what have our beloved government done? Cut funding to almost everything that would help promote lifelong learning, and emphasised yet again the primacy of results.  Don’t hold your breath for a scientifically literate British public any time soon…

Edit: I see July’s prospect magazine has an article on the scientific illiteracy of politicians:
http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/politicians-digraceful-ignorance-science-technology/

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