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This week in The Guardian Unlimited columnist Simon Jenkins squeezes out an extraordinary rant against science education.
He argues fervently that “this challenging subject” should be “returned to its proper place” as “a specialism for the highly motivated”. He is honest enough to use his own educational career as a source for generous illustration of his point, although it obviously predates the system he is arguing against. A flavour is given below:
The 1988 national curriculum [is] stuck-in-the-mud… My own science O-level included trigonometry, advanced algebra and differential calculus, and related them to physics, engineering, statics and dynamics. I can not remember any of it, nor have I found the slightest use for it. I imagine more people use Latin than trigonometry. Maths teachers have joined classicists in that last refuge of educational sophistry, that the very uselessness of subject is good “mind training”.
There’s plenty more of that sort of thing. Jenkins makes for himself an even bigger target by later in the piece concatenating science with maths; and en route manages to have a go at Galileo, the USSR and Thomas Arnold – presumably having had to learn some of that other very useful subject, history. The Ranger is mystified by this bizarre essay. It could almost be dismissed as simple provocation, and certainly the string of comments afterwards suggest, unsurprisingly, that the worthy Guardian online readers don’t exactly line up to endorse the point. Hmm. Teachers, probably. Maybe academics. The mystery is how far this proposal deviates from the reality of life, to the Ranger anyway. Working in a local authority as a countryside manager seems a long way from science and mathematics. But, like many roles, it is not. No, far from it. At present the Ranger is sifting through dozens of applications from eager types looking for jobs as a real ranger. It may well be that the successful applicant is not a scientist. But it’s not a good bet. If they have no maths or science background or experience (not necessarily a qualification, mind you) then they will struggle with much of the job. You need to be able to handle figures, and analyse problems. You need to be willing to experiment – and fail, and know why. If you’re specifying work, and paying for it, you need to be able to measure stuff and make predictions. Yes, we’re talking about algebra and trigonometry here. It doesn’t get called that but that is what it is. And don’t even mention budgets. That’s a very sore subject right now. But it certainly necessitates some mathematics. The message, here, is that science is something real and useful. Nothing to do with white coats and bald men with glasses – unless you are watching an advert. Nor is maths anything to do with blackboards and men in corduroy jackets. Perhaps they were when Sir Simon went to school in Mill Hill, back in the 1950s, but in the real world of The Ranger, at least, things have changed.