Maria Popova has an article about Richard Feynman and the Universal Responsibility of Scientists in the latest Brain Pickings. Popova writes that “Speaking to the notion that Speaking to the notion that “every child is a scientist,” Feynman champions the true responsibility of science education — a responsibility and purpose sadly belied by the current education system”. Feynman, as one would expect, emphasizes the importance of doubt and discovery as central to science. In another Brainpickings article Popova cites Stuart Firestein:
There are a lot of facts to be known in order to be a professional anything — lawyer, doctor, engineer, accountant, teacher. But with science there is one important difference. The facts serve mainly to access the ignorance… Scientists don’t concentrate on what they know, which is considerable but minuscule, but rather on what they don’t know…. Science traffics in ignorance, cultivates it, and is driven by it. Mucking about in the unknown is an adventure; doing it for a living is something most scientists consider a privilege.
Which brings me to our educational system and the textbooks that serve it. Despite small gestures toward ‘discovery activities’ or whatever, our textbooks are overwhelmingly compilations of statements that students are required to accept if they want to pass the test and move on to the next set of statements and, ultimately, to a life and career that bows to authority. The ultimate argument in a dispute becomes ‘ipse dixit’: ‘he said it’, the ‘he’ in question being whatever authority is currently in vogue in a particular community. There is nothing wrong with presenting students with the state of contemporary scientific thought. It is, in fact essential. However, listing facts is not teaching science. Students need to be presented with genuine challenges to explore the world, not just books.
What is needed is a healthy spirit of doubt and exploration. As Bertrand Russell said:
Neither acquiescence in skepticism nor acquiescence in dogma is what education should produce. What it should produce is a belief that knowledge is attainable in a measure, though with difficulty; that much of what passes for knowledge at any given time is likely to be more or less mistaken, but that the mistakes can be rectified by care and industry. In acting upon our beliefs, we should be very cautious where a small error would mean disaster; nevertheless it is upon our beliefs that we must act. This state of mind is rather difficult: it requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy. But though difficult it is not impossible; it is in fact the scientific temper. Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility. Both are mistaken, and their errors, when wide-spread, produce social disaster. (Russell, Education and the Good Life)