Science Teaching: A Critique

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Science Teaching: A Critique

By Science Teaching Group

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 3, No. 3, July 1971, p. 11-13

The following is an excerpt from a leaflet that was prepared by the Boston area SESPA science teaching group for the National Science Teachers’ Association convention in Washington, D.C. It was distributed to several thousand science teachers at the convention. This version includes some slight modifications of the original text. We hope that the article will initiate discussion of this important issue in Science for the People.

The leaflet opened with an introduction of the group and a SESPA analysis of the role of science in this country. After describing the plight of scientists who recognize their own exploitation, the pamphlet proceeded to discuss the role of science education. For copies of the entire pamphlet write: SESPA, Science Teaching Group, 9 Walden Street, Jamaica Plain, Mass. 02130.


An educational system reflects the purposes of the society it serves. If the purpose of our society is to promote corporate growth, we can expect our educational system to mirror this. We believe that many of the materials, methods and curricula used in science teaching today do just that.

In the classroom, the myth of an apolitical, benevolent science prevails. The training of a scientist involves a total submersion in technical material with little if any, historical or philosophical perspective. Research productivity is the measure of worth, as the student acquires skill in a specialized field. Technical questions are isolated from all social and economic considerations, other than prestige and financial reward.

Courses are designed to select and separate out potential scientists from their fellow students. Emphasis is on competition and individual excellence instead of cooperation and shared experience. The successful student is led to view himself as a member of an elite intellectual class with a commitment to the authoritarian structures of the present system. The end product of this training is a narrow specialist indoctrinated to perform scientific miracles in a political void, a reliable instrument of the power structure.

For students who don’t pursue scientific studies, the curriculum is structured in such a way as to leave them feeling mystified, frustrated, and helpless against the enormous power of technology and those who control it.

In many of the materials available there is a “hidden curriculum” which conveys the social myths that perpetuate the control of people through technology. For example, in “educational” films provided by oil companies, the telephone company, or NASA, scientists are portrayed as infallible experts. The message, though never spoken openly, is clear: The corporations and the military, through the enormous power of technology, are omnipotent. You are utterly dependent upon their benevolence.

The framework for extreme division of labor and perpetuation of the social class structure is built into schools. To understand this point more clearly, consider for example the PSSC physics curriculum. Obviously, PSSC offered many improvements over previous physics curricula, which attests to the talents of its designers. We imagine many teachers and students would appreciate some of the inexpensive PSSC experiments and films. But the PSSC course was written by research physicists for potential research physicists. It conveys the lesson that the reason to take science is to develop research skills. Social and cultural aspects of science are considered out of bounds.

The new science curricula often come in the form of a total package. The prepackaged curriculum provides a framework for rigid tracking. This is apparent, for example in the three-track BSCS biology curriculum. But an even more rigid tracking arises indirectly from the emphasis of science curricula on “pure science” (removed from everyday experience) as opposed to practical science. The division between “academic” students who take chemistry, and those who take shop instead, is complete. The chemistry student does not learn how to harden a steel tool, and the shop student does not learn about crystal structure. The future scientist is denied freedom as well as the mechanic. He is dependent on the existence of a class of workers to perform such tasks for him, and he learns quite early in school that this is the way things should be. Students and their teachers can perceive these needs better than educational equipment companies (which operate, after all, on their need for profit). Funds should be given directly to teachers and students to use according to their mutually agreed upon educational needs; surely part of learning to cope with the technological world must be the process of seeking out and choosing the tools needed to learn.

The Role of the Science Teacher

The teacher in this society is oppressed by unfavorable working conditions, low pay, and most important, lack of decision making power. He has no funds to buy equipment that he and the students might want to work with. The critical decisions — what to learn, what tools to use — are removed from student and teacher, to some curriculum expert who has the purchasing power or to some academic curriculum designer who has a preconceived and narrow minded notion of what students need.

Science is a politically charged subject that teachers are expected to deal with in a “neutral” manner. No wonder students are turned off when, for example, a teacher attempts to discuss problems of ecology without discussing the politics and economics of consumption and waste. Another very serious problem is that the science teacher does not have access to scientific research as it progresses. Students sense this, and the relationship between teacher and student is further compromised.

What We Want

We don’t pretend to have all the answers to problems of science education in America, but we do have some ideas.

We want an end to tracking of all kinds — economic (industrial arts vs. academic programs), and sex-based (“home economics” vs. “shop”). We want the emphasis shifted from training potential technicians to providing access to real tools.

We want students and teachers to have the opportunity and power to develop their own curricula. That means that each classroom should have its own budget for books and equipment. We want teachers to have adequate funding and free time to develop their own materials, such as films, instead of having to rely on propaganda from industry and the military. We would like to see museums, connected with urban school systems, planned and operated by teachers, where students could actually work with special equipment.

It is evident that these demands are not compatible with the value system of capitalism which puts the quest of profit above human well-being. As Jonathan Kozol says: “School cannot at once both socialize to the values of an oppressor and toil for the liberation and the potency of the oppressed. If innovation is profound, it is subversive. If it is subversive, it is incompatible with the prime responsibility of public school. The public schools may be inept, archaic, old and unattractive, but they are not suicidal.” (Recent article in New York Times) Changes will not occur without a struggle. Teachers should, for example, be prepared to go on strike (perhaps together with students) to demand decent pay, decent working conditions, and a chance to give their students a meaningful educational environment. In the past year, thousands of teachers and students across the country have been on strike for such demands. We support these strikes.

There are many other things we can do now to start bringing about the changes we want. There is now a substantial alternative collection of written materials and films dealing with education and problems of technology which may be useful to teachers. We have brought a small sample with us.* There are groups of people scattered all over the country with social visions similar to ours who are working on these problems. We should build local organizations of scientists and teachers as part of a national access network for people to meet each other, share materials, and work together to start making science serve people.

Notes

* The literature which we brought with us included: The Destruction of Indochina (Stanford Biology Group); The Earth Belongs to the People and Vietnam — A Thousand Years of Struggle (People’s Press, 968 Valencia, San Francisco, 94110); This Magazine is About Schools (56 Esplanade St. E., Suite 401, Toronto 215, Ontario); The Red Pencil (c/o Phyllis Ewen, 131 Magazine St., Cambridge, Mass. 02139); Education An American Problem; Jumping the Track; The Making of a Pollution-Industrial Complex; The Politics of Ecology (New England Free Press, 791 Tremont St., Boston, Mass. 02118); and, of course, Science for the People magazine.

The films which we showed included: The Earth Belongs to the People; People’s Park and High School Rising (Boston Newsreel, 595 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, Mass. 02139); Choosing to Learn and What They Want to Produce not What We Want to Become (Educational Development Corporation, Newton, Mass.).