28 November 2006

More than medicine

When I was at a textbook focus group near Austin recently, one of the things I said to the authors and others present was that "Relevance is overrated." A lot of people think that students will only be interested in something if it's somehow relevance to their lives. Most instructors spend a lot of time talking about medicine.

Personally, I think this is a short-sighted approach. At the workshop, I said that we should not be afraid to say that we study things and research them because they are beautiful. (Actually, I used the phrase "fucking cool" at a few points. (Under the influence of Kevin Broidy's post, which I found though the always enlightening Kathy Sierra.)

Steven Pinker has written an excellent op-ed piece that articulates this idea much better than I did on the fly at the workshop. Some turns of phrase I particularly like:

(S)urely there is more to being knowledgeable in science than being able to follow the news. And surely our general science courses should aim to be more than semester-long versions of An Inconvenient Truth. ...

(T)here are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. And I think that some acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge should be a goal of the general education requirement and a stated value of a university.

Though I do think he could've at least slipped a "cool" in there somewhere.

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