Education and Wishful Thinking

The article by Charles Murray, discussed in a Note and Comment with a measure of disapprobation, raises awkward questions that need to be faced and which rarely are. The problem is that liberal-minded people, and I am one such, are not immune from falling into the trap of believing what we wish to be true rather than that which is true.

Let me first digress to tell a story. Almost twenty years ago, a senior colleague of mine became quite well-known for
writing highly regarded books on relativity and quantum mechanics (the `Uncle Albert’ series) that were targeted at
young teenagers. He gave our (physics) department a talk on the research that he did in preparation for writing
these books. It included getting down on the floor amongst children at the local public library, the better to
understand what appealed to them. More relevant to my present point, he also did research into the
current state of research into Piaget’s theories of cognitive development. In particular, he cited the then recent work by
Shayer and Adey which showed that Piaget’s series of transitions did indeed seem to occur in the order found by Piaget.
However, Piaget had studied small groups and had failed to pick up the fact that the final transition (effectively that to
abstract thought, the one that is essential to understanding multi-parameter or multi-causal systems) is undergone
by no more than 20 percent of the population.

I clearly remember how shocked some members of the audience at the talk were. The belief that we can teach
science, at least at foundation level, to `anyone’ if only we learned to teach it properly, has been deeply held by
many in our institution. Indeed, it is closely linked to the ethos of our founders. And yes, what Shayer and Adey
claimed, has deeply political consequences, especially in a climate where the word `elitism’, its vague and mutually
contradictory meanings notwithstanding, has become a fearful political weapon. However, for many of us who had
spent many years teaching physics to a wide range of students, it made everything fall into place. It is hard to escape
the biological fact that many students simply do not have the mental templates on which the understanding, which
we strive to impart, can fit.

What Shayer and Adey said seemed to fit with our experience, but that does not prove they were correct.
Were they? I spent some time in the library trying to see what had come out in the wash over nearly
two decades. One of the two authors (I forget which) had spent the intervening period trying to devise ways in which
special coaching could get students to make the jump. The results seemed to be very marginal. This is a matter
which desperately needs an agreed consensus – so much educational policy rests, or at least should rest, upon
it. Maybe there already is such a consensus, but I have not heard it; but then it is far outside my field of expertise.
I suspect that politics does not help.

In the meantime, in the UK, we have a school curriculum that, at lower levels at least, is tailored to getting
as many as possible of the 80 percent though a monkey-see monkey-do test. One teacher has characterised the
curriculum as training in not thinking. Many students will, at 16, pass `GCSE science’ and still have
an understanding of the world so remote from reality that they are suckers for every form of snake oil. Can we face
the fact that this might always be so? In the USA there are special breadth requirement science courses at college level,
and my small experience at coaching students for such a course suggests that not much is gained. There are no
courses of this kind in UK universities. In UK secondary schools there are not, at pre-17 year levels, what Piaget’s
biology seems to make essential: parallel science courses requiring different cognitive levels. I don’t expect soon
to see the required courage from the educational authorities, although it was just this morning that one privately
agreed with me that such was needed.

I often feel that I can tell from listening to someone speak whether that person is in the 20 percent or the 80 percent.
I do believe, in all seriousness, that we (the UK) got into the Iraq war through having a leader who got a good degree in
spite of being in the 80 percent that are not strong on multi-causal situations.

So, you see, I don’t think that Charles Murray was completely wrong in everything he said, which, I thought, was far
more than an attack on pointy headed intellectuals. I can well see that the issue I have raised, is just one corner of
the huge one of how to assimilate Nature’s capricious distribution of abilities in a democratic and egalitarian society.
The specific `elitism’ issue that has been prompted by the recent US election is just another aspect of it. There are
many others: I was first jolted into an awareness of the issue when, in 1966, some professor of music claimed that
Beatles’ songs were as good as Schubert’s, something I went along with for a couple of days, until I next listened to
Schubert. The depth of the problem is signalled by the fury that can be aroused when I state my views on this
among young people. Is it too much to hope that an examination of these issues will cease to be a victim of crossfire
in the left-right war?

Raymond Mackintosh is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the Open University.

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