FEd November 1994 Newsletter - Book Review

November 1994



Previous Newsletters

Current Issue

Contact the Editor

Book Review

Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind, Mortimer J. Adler (edited by Geraldine Van Doren) [Macmillan, New York, 1988]. 362 pages. (Reviewed by John L. Hubisz, Jr.)

A common complaint among physics teachers is that their students do not read or can not read critically. Typically they go to the problems at the back of the chapter and then backtrack through the chapter to ferret out an appropriate formula to solve the problem. All in all they become very good at this, but it is well known that when essay questions, which are now being added to more and more textbooks, are asked, students fail miserably to put together a coherent sentence or two. Recent surveys of students' understanding of concepts in kinematics, dynamics, electricity, and so on, show clearly that even the best students, whether in calculus-based physics or algebra-trigonometry-based physics, do not understand the concepts.

Reforming Education is a collection of 24 essays, divided into five parts written between 1939 and 1988, detailing the problem within education generally and offering a prescription. Despite the dates, the essays are for today. In fact, I often had to remind myself of the date of the essay because the event Adler was referring to could well have been another more contemporary one.

Part One is entitled "Education in America - Problems and Principles." In the first two essays Adler shows that today's problems began early in this century and despite repeated attempts to attack and solve the problems, they have been defeated. In "Liberalism and Liberal Education," Adler points out that the basic problems of education are normative and therefore will not be solved by educational research. Our role as physicists and physics teachers, then, will be to step outside our chosen discipline and effect a change in society from within our universities and within the many boards of education in our local communities. In essay four, Adler proves that there are indeed absolute and universal principles on which education should be founded.

Part Two, "Liberal Education and Schooling," consists of five essays starting with an analysis of the relations among labor, leisure and liberal education, and follows with a history of the idea and goal of educating all the people. Next, he deals with the substance of a liberal education that should be available to all. The last essay in this part recommends the dissolution of all English departments in favor of all teachers becoming English teachers, that is, teachers of the liberal arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. All teachers thus become involved with writing & speaking and reading & listening. Physics teachers can require quality laboratory reports, oral reports, book and journal article critiques, and so on.

Part Three, "Teaching and Learning," consists of six essays, the first of which, "Teaching, Learning, and their Counterfeits," should be read even if you read nothing else in the collection. All learning is by instruction or by discovery. Communicating what you know is not enough. The learner must be actively engaged in the process; if not, learning can not take place. You can lecture all you want, but if the class is passively taking notes, learning will not take place. Motivating students is not enough. Even actively engaging the learner may not be enough. We physics teachers have a ready-made laboratory environment to do just this IF we reconstitute most laboratories. In essay 13, Adler argues that the order of teaching must follow the order of learning. Thus the methods of teaching should be primarily inductive and dialectical, rather than deductive and simply expository. The best mix will be something that can be worked out. "Two Essays on Docility" considers the relations between students and their teachers. Docility entails having an open mind, being able to suspend judgment, and being disposed to seek help from teachers and books to gain knowledge. The scientific approach is rarely integrated throughout introductory physics courses so we miss an ideal opportunity to encourage these habits of mind in our students. The last two essays in this part deal with education beyond schooling and the nature of an idea.

Part Four has three essays dealing with virtue & happiness, a sound moral philosophy, and ethics under the heading "Thinking about Moral Values." These essays should be required reading for all teachers at all levels.

All that has gone on before has been leading up to the last four essays which constitute the germ of the Paideia approach. The Paideia Proposal was introduced in 1982 as a liberal education of the highest quality that would be made available to all children, not just the college bound. The program consists of didactic instruction, coaching, and seminar. Essay 23 lists the principles of the Paideia program. In order to do this, the schools must be reconstituted. This will not be easy and will take considerable time. While there are Paideia schools in operation, they are not easily formed. An intermediate step would be to set three hours on Wednesday as "Paideia approach" time. Many more schools use this approach. During that time all teachers would engage their students in Socratically conducted seminars and coaching of reading, writing, and speaking.

It is well known that students will study that which is tested for. If essay questions are not asked, students will not prepare for them. If little or no credit is given for a writing component of the course, little or no effort will be put into that component.

We need to convince our fellow teachers that critical reading is important to an understanding of physics concepts and needs to be tested. Even that will not be enough. The Standards Committee of the AAPT and the Committee on Physics in the Pre-High School of the AAPT have recognized that no one discipline can effect a change; an attack on a much broader front is needed to solve this problem which is ecdemic in the schools. Mortimer Adler and the Paideia group have given us an approach to do just that.

Reforming Education is must reading for all of us attempting to improve education, regardless of the discipline

John Hubisz is Visiting Professor of Physics at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC. He has more than 30 years of teaching experience, mainly at the College of Mainland in Texas.