November 2009

Letters for Wimps? What Wimps?

Dear Dr. Petsko,

I am a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, even though I left academia (for the automotive industry, if you can believe that) a few years ago, largely due to the issues you raised in your “President’s Message” in the September issue of ASBMB Today.

I taught and did research at two different primarily undergraduate institutions over a nine-year period. What you mentioned is right on the mark, in terms of what John Dewey described in his philosophy of experimentalism. He emphasized “experience” as the interaction of a person with the environment and “knowing” as a process connecting the learner to the environment. Both of these notions require many attempts as well as more than a few corresponding failures.

Although it is true that “helicopter parenting” is a problem, in my experience, it is less “the” problem than the beginning of the problem. In my opinion, the problem began with the notion that an education is a commercial commodity to be bought and sold, rather than an elusive aspiration or a goal toward which one strives and happily never reaches. In business, commodities continually are shaped by the forces of customer need and cost. This model has been disastrous for education at all levels, with the possible exception of graduate education, as you pointed out.

In my estimate, the problem begins in K-12 education, where it is largely driven by parents with great hopes of their son/daughter amassing the necessary grades and standardized test scores required for entry into college. This, of course, coincides with the notions that parents are failures if their kids do not go to college and the absolute necessity of college for fear that no job or future could be possible without it.

My experience teaching showed me that many students lacked even the most basic knowledge of chemistry, despite resplendent grades and far higher course selections than I had at their age. This was clearly coming from a lack of requirements and/or consequences in their K-12 education.

Let’s face it: The delivery of education has not changed much from when you and I were in school. I matriculated through the same boring, canned experiments and lectures that are perpetrated upon the current generation. My only saving grace was that I showed an aptitude for memorization, which seemed to be a substitute for knowledge and understanding. Of course, I had little knowledge and almost no understanding, but this was unimportant because the instruments used to measure these quantities were wholly fitted to regurgitation. I was, therefore, placed in a “special” group that had to read ahead on its own and set up experiments from the often-cryptic directions given in basic science textbooks. As it turns out, this is the kind of environment to which all students, whether destined for great science or otherwise, should be exposed.


The difference between what the current generation and what my generation experienced is that we had real failures and real consequences. Does anyone remember the “weed out” course? It was so named by students for what it did, but, in actuality, it was the kind of tough course that showed what you could mentally lift and what you could endure. Another major difference is that we know more today, and we continue to believe that we need to cram it all into this short time frame currently embodied in what we define as an “education.” Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the number of hours actually spent in K-12 and in college has decreased, making content overload ridiculous. The need to cover more content results in a surface skimming of what I call the “white noise” of knowledge. As Hara Estroff Marano points out, and as I argued to no avail with “educated” colleagues, we need to fail to learn how to succeed. This requires time, which is in shorter supply than ever, and it has little to do with most of the “white noise.” The truth is that learning and education are lifelong processes, and this preparation period should illuminate the path rather than contain its bounds.

It turns out that our primary undergraduate universities and, I would argue, many large universities have pandered to the business model described above. I can tell you unequivocally, from a junior faculty perspective, that there is little or no room for the creation of an educational environment, let alone a curriculum, based on the core scientific skills of questioning, hypothesizing, designing, critical evaluation and perseverance. How can we produce the next generation of scientists or educated consumers of technology without paying at least some attention to these much-needed skills? I did not receive tenure in my first academic position because I stuck to my guns and designed and carried out an educational environment similar to the one described above. This, of course, did not go over well with students, whose notion of an education was one in which the instructor tells you what you need to know. It turns out that, these days, the deans of our institutions take the complaints of students (warranted or otherwise) quite seriously. And why shouldn’t they? It would not be good business to ignore the “customer.” (At least a National Science Foundation education chair recognized what I was doing and invited me to review science-education grants during my third year of teaching.)


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