Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Okay. Do this. Toss a coin. This thought experiment applies to all kinds of things, but for the sake of ease, let's toss a coin. After the coin has been tossed, what forces are acting upon it? You probably guessed the initial impetus of the toss — a gradually diminishing force that your hand and thumb transferred into the coin —and, of course, gravity, which is what makes the coin come down. Congratulations: you're in good company. The vast majority of people, when asked, say the same thing. The bad news is that you're wrong (I admit that I was wrong, too, when confronted with this problem a few months back.) In fact, the only force acting on the coin after you have tossed it is gravity — at a rather imposing 9.81 m/s^2, which is why the coin comes down very quickly. Same if you throw a ball, or shoot a bullet, or jump from one roof-top hoping to reach another, possibly while dodging balls and bullets.

This is basic Newtonian physics, worked out three centuries ago by one of history's great geniuses, and the failure to understand it illustrates the way in which our uneducated "gut" reaction is often at odds with the way things really are. What we see and hope and feel and wish to be true often aren't. One promise of education is that it will give us the necessary base of knowledge to improve upon unschooled snap judgments.

But how effectively does it do that, really? Our educational system is predicated upon this promise, but there is good evidence to suggest that things aren't as simple as telling students what's true and what isn't. Let me give just one example. In the early 1980s, a scholar named John Clement posed the same coin-toss question I asked above to engineering students at a top university. Nearly three-quarters of the students, who had just taken a university-level physics course, incidentally, gave the same wrong answer that you and I did. Only 12 percent got it exactly right. They had memorized the principles of Newton's Laws well enough to pass an exam, but couldn't apply those laws to real world examples, even in the case of something as trivial as a coin toss. In short, what they thought had not altered how they thought. Educated in physics, their ability to apply what they had learned outside of class was no greater than that of someone completely without education. This is by no means an isolated example, nor is the general lesson to be derived from it limited to physics. The implications for all teachers is very large, for it suggests that a conventional, fact-based education has far less social utility than we like to believe.

On several occasions on this blog, I've expressed my skepticism about the standard defense of history as a subject for study. The defense goes something like this: by learning history we are able to apply its lessons in the present, and to live better lives thereby. But this assumes that history provides clear lessons; it assumes that students of history are being taught the right lessons; it assumes that they remember those lessons for any length of time; and it assumes that they can actually apply them outside the curricular context. Each of these claims is highly suspect. In fact, historians already know that the first claim is false: history is a series of arguments about the past and what it means – historiography, we call it — not a bill of facts (and yet history survey courses tend to be taught as narrative rather than as historiography) and so it's difficult to see how clear lessons can be derived from its study.

At any rate, the evidence presented above suggests that the basic claim, that the study of history enables us to live better lives in the present, may be flawed from the start. Like the undergraduate students of physics, students of history might only be changing what they think rather than how they think, and any lessons (assuming that lessons can be found at all) might be left behind when the final exam is over. The ability to name the Presidents, recite the order in which the provinces joined Confederation, and name the year in which Queen Victoria died might satisfy various kinds of exceedingly tedious patriotic quiz makers, but if the ability to do so has no broader implications, then it is just, well, academic.

Fortunately, there have been a lot of people thinking for a long time about how a curriculum might be designed so as to produce students who are not merely more knowledgeable but actually more thoughtful. Some of this involves ideas that would seem to many professors of history to be positively threatening - but, as I suggested earlier, a good deal of it involves only a revival of some very old ideas about education. If the reader will bear with me, I will in the next week propose what I think such a curriculum would look like, and thereafter we can return to some much-needed and well-deserved tomfoolery on Measure of Doubt.

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