Teaching and Propaganda (Part 1)

From: Moorad Alexanian (alexanian@uncwil.edu)
Date: Thu Nov 02 2000 - 10:04:56 EST

  • Next message: Moorad Alexanian: "Teaching and Propaganda (Part 2)"


    Teaching and Propaganda

    The response by Vit Klemes (Physics Today, March 2000, page 100) to a report
    about the Kansas State Board of Educations decision to exclude evolution
    theory from its science standards has rekindled some old issues in the
    perennial sciencereligion debate in education. In particular, Klemes poses
    the question of the proper relationship of science to politics and ideology.
    This discussion has caused me to reflect on my own role as a teacher and, in
    particular, to remind me of two of my former students, Doug and Jamal. Both
    of them had taken my introductory modern physics course during their
    freshman or sophomore college year.

    Doug was an excellent student, and demonstrated a wonderful understanding of
    what I was teaching. But across the top of his almost perfect final
    examination paper he wrote, I still dont believe in relativity!

    Jamal was not the type to be so direct. He came into my office a few years
    later (just before he was about to graduate) to say goodbye. We chatted
    awhile, I wished him well, and then, as he was about to leave, he turned to
    me and said hesitantly in his characteristically shy way: Do you remember
    that stuff you taught us about how the universe originated in the Big Bang
    about 15 billion years ago? Well, I dont really believe all that. I must
    have looked surprised because he went on. It kind of conflicts with my
    religious beliefs. He looked apprehensively at me, perhaps to see if I
    might be offended or angry or think less of him. But I simply smiled and let
    it pass.

    Why was I not displeased with someone who had rejected a whole semester of
    my teachings on the physical origins of the universe, and instead possibly
    believed that the world was created by God about 6000 years ago? Why did I
    not leap to the defense of science against such irrational beliefs? (For the
    record, I am perfectly comfortable with the standard scientific models of
    cosmology and evolution, and am not a closet creationist.)

    Every time I teach an introductory modern physics course and look at the
    students final exams, a sense of puzzlement comes over me. Not because some
    students have taken the elegant theories of relativity and quantum mechanics
    and made a total hash of them (which happens all too often, unfortunately),
    but because so many of them seem to actually believe the theories. The
    difficulties those students have are mostly procedural, in the sense that
    they find it difficult to apply the theories correctly in the given

    I used to ask myself why they believed what I taught them. For one thing, as
    we now know from research into physics education, everyday phenomena and
    experience conspire to produce students who think that any motion requires a
    force. Such a preconception makes even Newtonian mechanics a tough
    proposition to sell them. (See Teaching Physics: Figuring Out What Works, by
    Edward F. Redish and Richard N. Steinberg, Physics Today, January 1999, page
    24.) Furthermore, the ideas of relativity and quantum mechanics are so
    thoroughly contrary to everyday experience that I would expect students, on
    first hearing these notions, to reject them out of hand.

    I used to wonder whether most students were like Jamal, secretly rejecting
    everything I said, but acting otherwise in order to get good grades. But not
    many students can successfully maintain that level of dualistic thinking
    over a long period of time. I finally concluded that most students believe
    me because they trust me, they feel that I have their best interests at
    heart and that I would not deliberately deceive them by teaching things that
    I myself did not believe. They also trust the institution that awarded me a
    physics PhD, and the university and the physics department that hired me and
    allow me to teach them.

    And I use that trust to effectively brainwash them. We who teach
    introductory physics have to acknowledge, if we are honest with ourselves,
    that our teaching methods are primarily those of propaganda. We
    appealwithout demonstrationto evidence that supports our position. We only
    introduce arguments or evidence that support the currently accepted
    theories, and omit or gloss over any evidence to the contrary. We give short
    shrift to alternative theories, introducing them only in order to promptly
    demolish themagain by appealing to undemonstrated counter-evidence. We drop
    the names of famous scientists and Nobel prizewinners to show that we are
    solidly on the side of the scientific establishment. All of this is designed
    to demonstrate the inevitability of the ideas we currently hold, so that if
    students reject what we say, they are declaring themselves to be unreasoning
    and illogical, unworthy of being considered as modern, thinking people.

    Of course, we do all this with the best of intentions and complete
    sincerity. I have good reasons for employing propaganda techniques to
    achieve belief. I want my students to be accepted as modern people and to
    know what that entails. The courses are too rushed to allow a thorough
    airing of all views, of all evidence. In addition, it is impossible for
    students to personally carry out the necessary experiments, even if they
    were able to construct the long chains of inferential reasoning required to
    interpret the experimental results.

    So I, like all my colleagues, teach the way I do because I have little
    choice. But it is brainwashing nonetheless. When the dust settles, what I am
    asking my students to do is to accept what I say because I, as an accredited
    representative of my discipline, profession, and academia, say it. All the
    reason, logic, and evidence that I use simply disguise the fact that the
    students are not yet in a position to sift and weigh the evidence and arrive
    at their own conclusions.

    Conflicting goals of teaching
    But if students believe my views on science because of who I am and what I
    represent, what makes this better than believing others who also claim to
    speak in their best interests but give them contrary views, such as those of
    creationism? Lets suppose I have two students, both of whom take my course
    and have listened carefully to what I have to say. One believes it and moves
    on. The other tells me she rejects it because she is unconvinced by me and
    cannot reconcile my teachings with her other beliefs. Which student response
    should I prefer?

    One part of me (the part reflecting my academic training and professional
    instincts) tells me to prefer the former. Is that not the goal of teaching
    science: to pass on the hard-earned knowledge gained by our scientific
    predecessors to the next generation, so that they can build on it? But I am
    still uneasy because such good students have accepted what I say mainly
    because I said it, and are thus also more likely to unquestioningly accept
    the words of experts in other areas, whether they be in politics, the
    military, religion, or the media. These so-called experts will (like me)
    cloak their views in reason, logic, and evidence, but will in actuality be
    using the same propaganda techniques I use.

    The other part of me remembers that I went into teaching science not just to
    train competent technicians, but also to produce people who will shake up
    the world and make it a better place. This part prefers the latter student,
    because her rejection of my teaching requires a willingness to challenge
    authority (me) and the courage to expose herself to ridicule by taking an
    unpopular view. Surely it is such people who are also more likely to
    question authority elsewhere as well, to take the side of the underdog and
    the powerless against a privileged and powerful establishment?

    Students will forget most of the information they get in my classes. The
    best that I can hope for is to enable my students to think critically, to
    detect propaganda and reject intellectual coercion, even when I am the one
    doing it. What troubles me is the assumption by some scientists that it
    would be quite admirable if people believed what we say and rejected the
    views of those who disagree with us, even though most people have no real
    basis for preferring one view over the other. If scientists want the spirit
    of true inquiry to flourish, then we have to acceptand even
    encouragepublic skepticism about what we say, too. Otherwise, we become
    nothing but ideologues.

    So I salute you Jamal and Doug, wherever you are, and say now what I should
    have said to you then: Listen carefully and courteously to what
    knowledgeable people have to say, and be able to use that information when
    necessary. Weigh the arguments for and against any issue but, ultimately,
    stand up for what you believe. Dont ever feel forced to accept something
    just because some expert tells you it is true. Believe things only when
    they make sense to you and you are good and ready for them.

    Mano Singham teaches in the physics department, and is associate director of
    the University Center for Innovations in Teaching and Education, at Case
    Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

    2000 American Institute of Physics

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