Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why we need Aristotle and Aquinas pt 2

Perhaps the biggest complaint I've heard from educators (teachers, grad students who are TAs) is that modern American students do not have a firm grasp on concepts in physical sciences.  In particular, the average American student lacks the ability to translate a concept to the underlying reality that the concept is supposed to convey.

My own experience with this is anecdotal, but seems to capture the experience of a number of educators of varying experience levels.  The near constant lament that students are unable to recognize basic issues with the answers they write on tests.  The near unanimous testimony is that even when the students are right they still don't get it.

I will give an example where I did not fall into this trap to illustrate the point.  In my early college days I took chemistry as one of my sciences requirements.  During a test, we were told to balance an equation, and provide the numeric answer from one of multiple choices.  This was because we filled in sheets by bubbling in those stupid letters on a scanned sheet.

No matter how many times I checked my work I could not find a letter that matched my answer.  It occurred to me to look at the other answers.  Now if you remember these problems you know that when balancing a chemical equation your answer must have the same amount of components on both sides.  When looking at the wrong answers, I realized none of the answers yielded the correct answer, as all of them made the result unbalanced.  I pointed this out to professor who agreed, and noted that there should have been another letter, but the copier missed it.

When the professor announced the finding the class breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Either no one else made the connection or they were too afraid to.  Regardless, I began to sense something amiss in our school's approach to education.  This was only confirmed by complaints by TAs, profs, and commerce in general that educators teach a great deal of mechanics.  How to do the math, how to use the calculator, how to manipulate equations and formulas.  But not as much time as the concepts and the reality that those concepts are trying to encapsulate.

Let's step away from math though to another area like written communication.  This disconnect of the words from the meaning of words is pervasive in modern discourse.  And this disconnect makes communication all but impossible.

To illustrate, how often has this happened to you?  You write a post or comment, and some person fixates on one or two phrases ripped bleeding from their context.  Even if other words written negate the criticism, the person can't get past his impression of your opinion.

This is due to "code phrases" I would call them.  Some combination of words or a phrase that evokes a meaning in a hearer that has no connection to the actual words.  Take for example, "worker's rights."  Depending on who is hearing, it can either mean "the rights of a worker" or "Marxist totalitarian statist."  Or the phrase "supports the family" can mean anything from "supports the family" to "hates gays."  To put it another way, regardless of what a person is saying, the actual idea communicated via the words does not match a person's imposed interpretation of the words.

The underlying problem with all of these issues is the disconnect between ideas and the underlying reality of those ideas.  In modern discourse, this inability to connect ideas and underlying truths is rendering basic learning impossible, let alone communicating differing ideas.

So what does this have to do with Aristotle and Aquinas?  That is a subject for our next post.

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