High Schools Flunk Science

by | Sep 4, 2002

Physics is the fundamental natural science. Its birth in the 17th century heralded man’s coming of age as a rational being. The discovery of the basic laws of nature led to the industrial revolution and modern technology, demonstrating the enormous practical power of such abstract knowledge. Yet the vast majority of high school graduates never […]

Physics is the fundamental natural science. Its birth in the 17th century heralded man’s coming of age as a rational being. The discovery of the basic laws of nature led to the industrial revolution and modern technology, demonstrating the enormous practical power of such abstract knowledge. Yet the vast majority of high school graduates never take a course in physics and know almost nothing about the role of the scientific revolution in creating the modern world. While this alone constitutes criminal negligence by educators, there is an even worse crime of which they are guilty: the students who do take physics are indoctrinated with a fundamentally false view of science.

“There is no single scientific method,” write the authors of the most popular high school physics textbook (Physics: Principles and Problems, by Paul Zitzewitz and Robert Neff). “Knowledge, skill, luck, imagination, trial and error, educated guesses, and great patience–all play a part. For example, the two Swiss scientists who discovered the new superconductors said they ‘felt free to try something crazy.'”

This is a cavalier dismissal of the painstaking observations, systematic experiments, mathematical analysis and brilliant logical inductions that lead to discoveries in physics. Science does not progress in the haphazard way these authors describe–but high school physics courses do. There, the ideas of physics are presented as a series of thunderbolts from the blue, to be accepted on the authority of “crazy” scientists. Fundamental truths about the natural world are thus offered as a boring list of dogmas, detached from evidence and therefore on a par with the claims of astrologers and psychics.

For example, the textbook cited above covers the atomic theory of matter without a word about the crucial 19th-century discoveries–such as Dalton’s law describing how chemical elements combine–that led scientists to accept it. Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion are given with no mention of Copernicus and his arguments for the heliocentric theory, or even of the essential steps of Kepler’s own reasoning. After omitting all of Galileo’s work, the authors make a few inaccurate remarks about Newton’s discovery of universal gravitation–then give up the effort and simply assert that Newton was “so confident” that he “assumed” the law was true. The students are expected to assume it too, since no proof is ever given.

The textbook also fails to distinguish between the essential and the relatively trivial. There are fewer pages on gravitation than on musical sounds and the ear’s physiology, and fewer pages on atomic theory than on solid state electronics. Every conceivable subject is touched uponfrom the quark theory to superconductivity to lasers to nuclear energy–but nothing is treated in sufficient depth to convey any understanding. It’s MTV-style physics: pictures on nearly every page, rapid changes in topic and no overall integration.

To make matters worse, the ideas are often presented out of logical order. Technological appl?cations are discussed before the principles that make them intelligible (e.g., electromagnetic guns before the principles of electricity and magnetism, or CD players and holograms before lasers). The frustrated students can only conclude that some mystical insight is needed in order to grasp the material.

Despite their lack of understanding, students are encouraged to express opinions about very complex issues. After all, if scientists make progress by “feeling free to try something crazy,” why shouldn’t the student feel free to have an opinion about the value of a proposed facility for particle physics research or the health risks of low frequency electromagnetic fields? The clear message is: knowledge is irrelevant and any opinion is as good as any other.

A proper physics course would present the essential principles, in logical sequence, explaining how each was discovered by reasoning from observations. The students would learn simultaneously the method and the content of physics, i.e., they would understand the evidence and thinking process underlying each idea. Such an approach not only renders physics intelligible–it also makes physics an inspiring story of discovery, in which great thinkers triumph in their quest to grasp the nature of the physical universe.

Tragically, today’s high school courses accomplish the opposite: students leave with the impression that physics is an incomprehensible hash of arbitrary assertions. Such students may be well prepared for the “multicultural” university professors who teach that Western science is no better than voodoo or witchcraft–but they are sadly unprepared for life.

David Harriman, M.S. in Physics, is the editor of Journals of Ayn Rand and a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, Calif. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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