Combatting the Cult of Ignorance

by David M. Edwards

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The decline in interest in science among young people, as well as the population in general, can be attributed in large part to the representation of science and scientists in popular entertainment media and to dry, lifeless presentations of the subject in the schools. The images presented in popular culture have led to the evolution of a "cult of ignorance," praising and glorifying the uneducated while demeaning intellectualism (Asimov, 1967). It is possible to reverse this trend and to some extent negate the effects of the negative image of science by applying innovative, creative approaches to the teaching of science in the classroom taking advantage of insights provided by research in science education.

The roots of the anti-science sentiment may be traced to the nineteenth century romantic movement. The idea was promoted by various poets and writers that scientific knowledge had a way of destroying people's sense of wonder and beauty (Wolpert & Richards, 1988). Now, in the latter half of the twentieth century, "it is television and radio, rather than poets and writers, who are responsible for moulding public opinion" (Wolpert & Richards, 1988).

Isaac Asimov (1967) described typical heroes of movies and television as ignorant brutes who do not read books and who find school a boring waste of time. He points to the role played by the wearing of glasses in the portrayal of the image of intelligence. According to Asimov (1967), glasses are not normally worn by heroes and heroines. If, perchance, the hero is an architect or scientist he "must wear glasses to prove he has gone to college. In this case, he is constantly whipping them off at every forceful speech he makes, since you can't be virile and wear glasses at the same time". A pointed example is comic book, television, and now movie hero, Superman, who completes his disguise as Clark Kent with glasses.

In the case of women, there is a well worn cliché in which an obviously beautiful actress is perceived to be homely and spinsterish because she is wearing glasses-due to her occupation as a librarian or a school teacher-until at some point she removes them and the hero suddenly falls passionately in love with her (Asimov, 1967). His article, originally published in 1956, met with profound indifference. A year later the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, and for a while attitudes were changed due to the ensuing competition to get into space. Asimov (1967) points out that "it is ordinarily desirable to see the cliff edge before you fall over and down".

The situation hasn't changed much in the years since Sputnik. A recent film hero, Indiana Jones, is a professor of archaeology at a large university and is seen wearing glasses as he stands before his class of admiring, mostly female, students. When he goes into action in the field, however, the glasses are traded for the overtly phallic bullwhip.

Several films of John Hughs made during the 1980's, including Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, and Pretty in Pink, have been very popular among adolescents. The caricatures presented in these films are said to reflect current adolescent attitudes. Male sexuality is dependent on fast, powerful cars; females in general are objects by which males acquire status; and intelligent "nerds" are the only ones likely to remain virgins, although it is possible for them to become "real men" if they can produce evidence of sexual experience (Whatley, 1988).

A twist on this theme can be found in the Revenge of the Nerds series of films. Here the brainy nerds are the heroes and the ignorant but popular jocks and cheerleaders are the objects of derision. While representations of this sort are still in the minority, other examples can be found.

Tom Clancy's fictional hero, Jack Ryan, of The Hunt for Red October, and Tom Wolfe's romantic portrayal of real-life hero, Chuck Yeager, in The Right Stuff, are examples of men who manage to retain their virility in spite of being intelligent.

All of these examples are white, middle-class males. A much more difficult and complex situation surrounds blacks, women and other minority groups. In recent years, some black commentators have lamented the situation in which many inner-city school children are mocked and ridiculed if they try to study and excel in fields other than entertainment and athletics (Greene, 1991). Franklyn Ajaye, a black comedian/writer, recently left his job on the popular Fox television network series In Living Color because of a desire not to promote the stereotypical popular black image. Mr. Ajaye is quoted as saying, "This whole street, urban rap thing needs to be pulled back some. The ghetto is being glorified, and there's nothing good about a ghetto except getting the hell out of one. Being black and speaking properly are not mutually exclusive. My father was an African, and he spoke beautifully at home. Nelson Mandela speaks beautifully. Should Mandela put his hat on backward and say, 'Yo homey, this is Nelson. Yo Winnie Yo, this is def'?" (Greene, 1991).

Research identifies Blacks, Hispanics, lower socioeconomic status (SES) students, and students from households with few educational resources as being most likely to drop out of high school. One interesting fact which has emerged is that Catholic schools seem to be particularly good for at-risk students who have a history of discipline problems (Bryk & Thum, 1989). This suggests that perhaps something which is missing for these students is an underlying moral-philosophical structure. These students have little or no self-discipline and require a distinctive organizational environment in order to succeed. A picture emerges of "smaller high schools where there are substantial opportunities for informal adult-student interactions, where teachers are committed to and interested in working with students, and where students are pursuing similar courses of academic study within an environment that is safe and orderly" (Bryk & Thum, 1989).

The role of parents in children's educational development is of great importance. The apparent superiority of Asian students over Americans has led to studies that attempt to discover the reasons for it. One often cited observation is a more intensive interest on the part of Japanese parents in their children's education (Hamilton, Blumenfeld, Akoh, & Miura, 1989). The manner of parental involvement seems to play a significant role as well. When asked in a recent study why it is important to do well on tests in school, both Japanese and American students had similar answers indicating that doing well on tests meant the students had "learned a lot." When asked questions oriented toward feelings, such as, "Why do you feel good if you do well on a test?", however, the Japanese responses indicated it was because their parents would be proud of them, whereas the Americans more often made answers such as, "Because I'll stay out of trouble" (Hamilton et al. 1989). Parental involvement requires the setting of realistic, positive goals and meaningful rewards for desired performance in order to be effective. As reported by Hamilton et al. (1989) "Identification can emerge as a powerful force only when the [parent] actually offers an opinion, provides a goal, or sets an agenda by example."

The attitudes of educators and administrators as well as classroom procedures can have a tremendous impact on student performance, although not necessarily that which is intended. Giroux and Simon (1988) quote Egerton Ryerson, head of Ontario's public school system in 1870, as saying, "Persons who read little or nothing besides the trashy novels of the day would do better not to read at all." The "trashy novels" Ryerson referred to included works such as Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, now considered to be an American literary classic. It seems unthinkable, given the current crisis in literacy, that anyone in a position of authority could ever have made such a statement, but it points out how counter-productive rigid views of education can be.

Critics of science education suggest that traditional teaching methods help to convince students they are incompetent at science, and that science is really a boring, inhuman activity (Woodhull-McNeal, 1989). Teachers can not be held entirely to blame for this, because they are usually following instructions set out in the teacher's guides that accompany their textbooks. These methods usually take one of three forms: (1) the students take turns reading aloud from the text book in class, (2) students are assigned a passage in the textbook to read, after which there is a class discussion, or (3) students are given written questions to be answered from the textbook, followed by a class discussion (Newport, 1990). These kinds of approaches may be characterized as reading about science, as opposed to actually doing science.

Newport (1990) quotes James Rutherford, Chief Education Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), as saying, "Science text books should be removed from the elementary schools . . . at best, words and pictures alone simply cannot provide the necessary engagement that is the essence of science. At worst, textbooks will make science dull and stultifying, and turn young people away from it."

Students' failures have been tied to a lack of purpose (Borchardt, 1989). This being the case, it appears that any effort to improve education in general, and science education in particular, must look to motivation and inspiration of students if there is to be any hope of success.

A student's conception of knowledge-what it is, what its domain is, and how it is acquired-plays an important role in academic achievement. Studies have shown that a variety of college students' behaviors in class can be explained and predicted based on the students' conception of knowledge (Wilkinson, 1989). Little research has been done on the concept of knowledge in adolescents, despite this demonstrated power in predicting aspects of academic behavior in college students. According to Wilkinson (1989), it appears from early research that knowledge preferences among adolescents fall into two general categories: some rely on feelings about self, others, and interests as the basis for all knowledge; others conceive of knowledge as a set of facts to be learned by reading and thinking. More research on the acquisition and development of these conceptions is clearly needed.

Another predictor of academic success is a student's cultural literacy. Kozmoski, Gay, & Vockell (1990) define cultural literacy as "a body of knowledge that is shared by the literate and educated individuals within a society." This includes knowledge of the language used by the power structure of the society. Opponents of this view charge that it is ethnocentric and elitist because it doesn't adequately address contributions made by ethnically and socially diverse groups (Kozmoski et al. 1990). One way to reconcile these notions would be to incorporate more of the contributions of these groups into mainstream education, as Black awareness and women's studies programs have attempted to do in recent years.

Results of recent studies show a high correlation between cultural literacy (as measured by the Cultural Literacy Assessment Test) and academic achievement. Interpretation of these results is inconclusive. The relationship may be causal, with cultural literacy affecting academic achievement, or a result of academic curricula affecting cultural literacy. Both cultural literacy and academic may both be affected by some unrecognized variable. Finally, the correlation may be the result of cultural bias in the CLAT (Kozmoski, et al. 1990).

The recurring theme in studies done to evaluate students' academic success is that an individual's motivation to learn is a more important factor than cultural or economic background. In a study examining the relative effects of home and school environment on performance in science classes, Tamir (1989) reports that, after accounting for SES, 80% of the remaining difference in performance was accounted for by interest and motivation. Comparison of the achievement of boys and girls in different countries suggests that differences in performance are due to cultural differences in the image of gender (Tamir, 1989).

In an effort to identify factors which lead to success in science, a survey was taken of high school students who participated in the U. S. Department of Energy's High School Science Honors Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The students were asked: (1) Why he or she developed an interest in science, (2) How high school science education could be improved, and (3) How students become interested, or lose interest, in science as a career. Their answers provide valuable insight into how to proceed in improving science education. On the first question, 74% of the students identified a teacher (or teachers), generally at the secondary school level, as their prime source of motivation. 45% also indicated the key role of a family member. Regarding the improvement of science education, 75% indicated a need for teachers who were better qualified academically and more enthusiastic about their subject; 30% suggested more "hands on" teaching methods; and 15% called for more teaching of concepts and less memorization of facts. On the last question, almost 50% cited poor teaching for turning students off to science. 30% indicated that students who didn't like science thought it was too difficult, and 20% said those students found science boring (Stow & Ashwood, 1989).

Specific proposals for improving science education are beginning to emerge. The American Association for the Advancement of Science is sponsoring a long-term project aimed at reforming science education. Project 2061, named for the year in which Halley's Comet next returns to the vicinity of Earth, emphasizes the role of educators in shaping the science curriculum (Yager, 1989). Echoing the sentiments of the students at Oak Ridge, a Project 2061 report said "instruction in science, mathematics, and technology should downplay the learning of large numbers of facts in favor of emphasizing important concepts, themes common to all the sciences, and clear thinking" (Holden, 1989). In emphasizing a softening of the boundaries between traditional subject categories, as well as concentrating on thinking skills, and computer use rather than specialized vocabulary and memorization, James Rutherford acknowledged some risk in this approach. If the reforms are enacted there is a danger that in comparisons with other countries such as Japan "we'll look worse for a while," but in the long term "we'll be way ahead" (Holden, 1989).

Another approach to science education reform which emphasizes the role of the student as active partner in the education process is known as the Science/Technology/Society movement. Proponents of this approach have identified five domains for use in teaching science and assessing success.

(1) The information or knowledge domain - includes facts, laws or principles, existing explanations and theories;

(2) The process of science domain - deals with how scientists think and work. This domain includes observing, classifying, measuring, communicating, hypothesizing, etc.;

(3) The creativity domain - includes visualizing, finding new combinations of and uses for objects, fantasizing, and pretending;

(4) The attitude domain - encompasses developing positive attitudes toward oneself, exploring and expressing feelings in a constructive way, and making decisions;

(5) The applications and connections domain - involves seeing scientific concepts in everyday experience, understanding scientific principles employed in common household devices, and integrating science with other subjects (Yager & McCormack, 1989).

Traditional teaching methods are said to introduce students to science at the information domain, moving eventually to applications, sometimes ignoring some domains altogether. Programs developed under the S/T/S paradigm begin at the applications and connections domain and move through the other domains with facts and theories at the end of the journey rather than the beginning (Yager & McCormack, 1989).

Models of this type are developed on the premise that "students meaningfully learn problem solving skills and science concepts through concrete experiences in solving problems in science" (Pizzini, Shepardson, & Abell, 1989).

Although these approaches to reform in science education place their emphasis in different areas, there are common threads running throughout, and specific techniques are emerging from research which, if properly applied, can go far toward improving the quality of science education. Among such techniques are studying from more than one textbook, and the use of inquiry-oriented laboratory experiences (Tamir, 1989). An example of a program using this technique can be found in the elementary science course at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. In this course, which is for all students whether or not they are science majors, students work on a topic of their own choosing. They must define a scientific question and carry out library or laboratory investigations to begin to answer the question. They must then write up their work, and revise it in response to faculty criticism (Woodhull-McNeal, 1989).

Another technique which can significantly improve students' retention of subject matter presented in the classroom is the judicious use of relevant humor (Ziv, 1988). Although early research in the effect of humor on learning showed little or no influence, those studies were invariably of short duration and used audio tape as the delivery medium. Later studies which involved lectures sometimes accompanied by use of visual media, and which were of longer duration, showed consistent significant positive effect (Ziv, 1988). A key consideration is that the humor should illustrate in some way the concepts being taught.

Techniques which make use of common experiences, such as popular films and television, can serve to capture students' interest and attention. Although the John Hughs films mentioned earlier present some negative images of sexuality and gender-based power, Whatley (1988) points out their value as a starting place for discussion, and she adds that "challenging the presentation of gender roles, sexual behaviors, and the categorization of students into narrow groups does not seem to 'ruin' the films for the viewers" (Whatley, 1988).

The exploration of space has motivated many people to pursue the study of science, although this influence has waned as budget cuts have continually narrowed the scope and effectiveness of the U. S. space program. The advance of science education was dealt a serious setback when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986. That mission was to be the first to open a new frontier of teaching as Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian to go into space, was to conduct classes via satellite television from orbit. In an article which appeared shortly before the ill-fated mission, McAuliffe stressed the importance of "firing students' imagination, getting them thinking for themselves" (1985). She had hopes that her trip on the space shuttle would cause people to see education as an ongoing process worth supporting.

The chill which enveloped the U. S. space program following the Challenger disaster has perhaps reduced the extent of the influence of space on science education, but it has not eliminated it altogether. The NASA program which provides for small self-contained payloads, known as "get-away specials," on space shuttle missions provides "an unparalleled opportunity for emphasizing the educational value of a strong background in the basic sciences as a sound basis for an engineering education" (Looft, 1989).

One of the most ambitious and effective uses of space technology in science education is the Space Camp/Space Academy adjacent to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The complex was the dream of famous rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. It is owned and operated by the state of Alabama, with the cooperation of NASA and the support of private space-related industries (Coburn, 1990).

The sense of excitement and interest generated by attendance at a Space Camp session is reflected in comments of students who have participated, such as "Coming to Space Camp has definitely made me a lot more interested in school and really changed my interests completely. . . Now I love biology and chemistry." The key to how such a transformation can occur may be found in the way another student summed up the Space Camp experience: "I learned a lot and had fun while I was doing it" (Coburn, 1990).

Unfortunately, although more than 90,000 young people have already been to Space Camp, every student who could benefit from it will not be able to attend. There are no prerequisites other than teacher recommendation and parental permission to attend, but most students who participate come from the top fifteen per cent of their class (Coburn, 1990). Many more students can be reached through the teacher education program, operated jointly by Space Academy and the University of Alabama in Huntsville. In five day sessions teachers learn innovative activities and experiments to use in their classrooms, and earn three hours of college credit in the process. Perhaps through imaginative programs such as those offered by Space Camp/Academy it will be possible to move toward a method of teaching that will "help kids look toward the future, consider what life is going to be about, what culture is going to be about, what's going to change" (McAuliffe, 1985).

Having seen that interest and motivation are the most significant factors in success in science education, methods which stimulate interest should be vigorously pursued, because "it is imagination itself that fuels our desire and provides us with the energy to reject relations of domination and embrace the promise of possibility" (Giroux & Simon, 1988). To this end, the phenomenon of science fiction bears close inspection.

Astronomer Carl Sagan, also a prolific popularizer of science, has recounted his early fascination with the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The scientific discrepancies in those works, as well as other stories, stimulated questions in him. Although now he can not enjoy such stories if they conflict too much with the knowledge he has gained of the world, he says that "science fiction has led me to science" (1980).

Asimov differentiates between science fiction literature and the typical adventure-fantasy of the Hollywood variety. As opposed to the "bug-eyed monster" movies, science fiction in general "is largely given over to the proposition that brains are respectable" (1967). Although there have been serious attempts at science fiction movie making, most of the intellectual stimulation in the genrè is to found in literary works. Two standards in science fiction writing that have emerged are: (1) the criterion of intellectual coherence and scientific plausibility, and (2) stylistic competence (Le Guin, 1980). The gift science fiction has to offer literature is the ability to face a universe that is open to consideration of all possibilities.

In response to the charge that science fiction, like all fantasy, is "escapist," J.R.R. Tolkein is reported to have said that "moneylenders, the knownothings, the authoritarians have us all in prison; if we value the freedom of the mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as possible" (Le Guin, 1980). But care should be taken, according to Le Guin, that the escape is into a more intense reality where joy, tragedy, and morality exist, and not simply into a phony delusion which insulates us from reality (1980).

The value of science fiction to science education can be seen, in part, in the fact that both are based on some of the same underlying assumptions. For example, according to Allen (1975), "It is absolutely essential in science fiction to assume that there is an inherent order in the universe and that this order can be discovered through the scientific method and expressed as natural law, for without order and this kind of discoverability, science is not possible."

Realizing that courses which teach science fiction can be uplifting educational experiences or disasters, depending on how they are done, Sagan (1980) is optimistic about "properly planned science-fiction courses, in which science or politics is an integral component."

In conclusion, science education can have a brighter future in an environment where enthusiastic educators use techniques which will fire the imagination of students, and parents function by providing meaningful support. An old Chinese proverb says "If I give a man a fish, I feed him for today, but if I teach him how to fish, I feed him for a lifetime." The road to a lifetime of active intellectual inquiry starts with teaching young people how to think for themselves and introducing them to the true joy of personal discovery.


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Copyright 1991 David M. Edwards, All rights reserved

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