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Old 10-22-2005, 11:02 PM   #1
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Soft Science

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As of 2006, GCSE students in Britain will only be required to learn about ’soft’ science - mainly about disputes over the benefits and risks of scientific developments - while traditional ‘hard’ science will be offered as an optional extra. The science curriculum has already been diluted in recent years, as combined science qualifications have taken the place of qualifications in separate disciplines. But the new curriculum will go further still, to the extent that it’s now questionable whether this can be labelled ’science education’.

The current GCSE curriculum will be replaced by one currently being piloted in 80 secondary schools, as part of the Twenty-First Century Science initiative. As the Sunday Times reports, ‘the statutory requirement for pupils to learn a science subject will be watered down…. There will be no compulsion to master the Periodic Table - the basis of chemistry - nor basic scientific laws that have informed the work of all the great scientists such as Newton and Einstein’.
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This is never a good thing, while facing threat of religious groups hijacking curriculums when you remove centralisation you have the bloody arbiters of truth on the other side gutting it from the inside.

The relativism that underlies some of these courses is more of an enemy to scientific investigation than the anti-rational religious groups because it is a lot more accepted in certain influential circles and it's position is coopted for those with political agendas; one only needs to look at the more high profile scientific "controversies" generated by the media and the activist organisations that are able to generate opposition within the community with pleas to emotion rather than logic.
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Old 10-23-2005, 02:45 AM   #2
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Very interesting and well-written article.

I'm not sure "relativism" is really the best way to describe what's going on here. What these proposed curriculum descriptions really remind me of is the trend towards interdisciplinary "applied (fill in name of field)" programs that we've been squabbling over in the academy here for a decade now, in both the sciences and the humanities. While these programs often provide great networking and research opportunities for faculty, and exciting electives for students, I am very concerned about the increasing ascendancy of them to major (i.e., one can earn a B.A. in it) and even graduate degree status. Although I've seen a few such programs whose curricula I was quite impressed with, all too often the result is that students graduate without having gained a solid foundation in the established intellectual and theoretical underpinnings of a particular discipline. Which means, unfortunately, that they are graduating deficient in the very analytical and critical thinking skills which (here, anyway) they're paying tens of thousands of dollars to acquire.

For example, last year I agreed, as a favor to an ailing PoliSci colleague, to take over her course in Feminist Political Theory, offered through our Women's Studies major (with a cross-list in PoliSci). Although I'm a South Asianist, as a political scientist I have enough background in political theory (and enough personal interest in the topic) that I was quite willing to stretch my boundaries a little bit. Unfortunately, pedagogically speaking, it was like teaching in a straitjacket because so few of the students had sufficient background in political theory to really understand the readings. e.g., I had them read a fascinating feminist critique of social contract theory, only to discover that only 3 of them had previously read any social contract theorists. Similarly, when we got to Marxist and neo-Marxist feminism, I found that while many of them had already read several neo-Marxist thinkers (mostly of the lit crit feminist variety), NONE of them had actually read Marx himself. So, while they were able to derive some interesting ideas from these works, very few students were able to articulate a thorough analysis of any of them--since that necessitated being able to locate them in the context of the theoretical tradition they grew out of.

The worst part of it is that this trend is not being driven simply by misguided ideological commitments, but by a powerful triad of that + deep government funding cuts + the resulting redirection of research priority-setting towards external, commercial sources of that all-important grant money (publish or perish, remember!), which generally favor "applied," interdisciplinary research. At the same time, similar pressures on students are making them more inclined to search for "practical"-sounding programs that (they imagine) will channel them more directly towards a particluar job in their intended field. Unfortunately, such choices are only likely to have the opposite effect, since it means they won't develop the intellectual versatility that most employers are, in fact, truly looking for.

In addition to the above (and to go back to the original article) I also am inclined to see this as the lazy way out of dealing with what (presumably, given international trends) are abysmally declining math and science scores. If anything, they ought to be reacting to that by teaching the hard sciences earlier, not putting them off until later and (even worse) writing off the value of such skills for students who lack professional aspirations in the sciences. Again, not the way to intellectual versatility. Why else go to school, after all?

BTW...what exactly is it that you are studying?
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Old 10-23-2005, 03:08 AM   #3
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I am currently studying for my Bachelor of Science, just finishing off second year now ready to go into third year, I basically aim to have a double major in geosciences and biology so as to go on with honours and ultimately become a paeleontologist. I am quite passionate about the hard sciences, I have good grounding in maths and physics and have been interested in evolutionary biology for quite a while. My interests in politics, history and philosophy are purely individual pursuit augmented by having access to a lot of journals through university.

I feel that there is an inherent danger in compromising science curriculums at those levels to make them more "relevent", if students don't understand subject X then when they come to tackle subject Y in later years their understanding and comprehension may be weakened. I also think that having a solid understanding of the principles can lead to better critical thinking and hopefully lead more students into science and technology fields.
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Old 10-23-2005, 03:17 AM   #4
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Wonderful! I look forward to seeing you mercilessly savage the creationists in print someday.
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Old 10-23-2005, 03:26 AM   #5
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Their far too easy, I think it would be much more controversial to throw something on issues like genetic modification, cloning, nanotechnology, anthropogenic global warming or whatever issue is politically charged this century.
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Old 10-23-2005, 03:31 AM   #6
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Megalomaniac.
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Old 10-23-2005, 03:46 AM   #7
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Easy to do when your *white, bright and young

*It's not race pride, it is a savage indictment of society.
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