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New Mechanisms Needed To Effect Change in Science Education

I was dismayed to read the article by Laurie Fathe regarding undergraduate education. I hope the NSF and NRC reports from which she quotes included more than the futile exhortations that she chooses to report. I doubt that anyone concerned with science or science education would argue with the need for changes and improvements, but "redefining scholarship" and a litany of "shoulds" and "oughts" won't produce any lasting change (and I vehemently oppose the denigration of the power of the term "scholarship" that will follow from its "redefinition"). To advance the importance of and attention to teaching, one must first analyze the basis for and origin of its present low status.

Universities first formed when researchers (and by no means only in science), who had learned they could finance their research by teaching activities, banded together to reduce costs and fluctuations in the number of students, hence income. The existence of a usefully large student population was due to a combination of faddishness and recognition that learning could be valuable in many practical pursuits. But this did not change the basic motivation of the teachers, namely, their research.

This continues to color all of our higher academic institutions. When other private universities were founded independently for other social reasons later, their administrations had to provide for research of the faculty or they could not compete with the original institutions for high quality faculty, that is, faculty that, by their brilliance, discoveries and accomplishments would attract paying students. Public colleges and universities are indeed free to make a different bargain, in principle, but again, only at a cost in quality: There seems to be a very close connection between those with the best understanding of academic subjects and those who seek to advance knowledge in each area. This may be recognized and dealt with, but it can neither be redefined nor chastised away.

I do not know of a supportable solution to the need to change this situation to better accommodate the needs for teachers as opposed to researchers. My own inclination would be to require higher degrees in particular subjects, right down to and including the high school level, as a prerequisite to any training with regard to teaching as a subject-independent discipline of its own. I am aware this contention is speculative, and politically opposed by current teachers.

However, no solution can possibly be viable if it totally ignores the antecedents that have produced the currently extant, and stable, dominance of research prowess as the determining factor in faculty accumulation. Obfuscating the facts with ponderous verbiage as is so frequently done by politicians and self-styled educators can never lead anywhere really useful. Fathe represents the NSF as merely seeking to force (or worse, buy) the desired end, rather than to creatively build new mechanisms, based on realities, that will intrinsically generate the respect and value for teaching that they (correctly) seek.

T. Goldman
Los Alamos, New Mexico


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