The End of Science Education in the West?

New Zealand may adopt a new science curriculum that doesn’t have much actual science in it:

Central concepts in physics are absent. There is no mention of gravity, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, mass or motion. Chemistry is likewise missing in action. There is nothing about atomic structure, the periodic table of the elements, compounds or molecular bonding,” he said of the draft.

Rather than physics, chemistry, and biology, the document proposes teaching science through four contexts that appear to draw from fundamental principles of the United Nation’s Agenda 21: climate change, biodiversity, infectious diseases, and the water, food, and energy nexus.

Sounds a lot like the science curriculum that was proposed in the UK circa 2005:

Instead of learning science, pupils will “learn about the way science and scientists work within society”. They will “develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others’ decisions about lifestyles”, the QCA said. They will be taught to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the “social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions”.

They will learn to “question scientific information or ideas” and be taught that “uncertainties in scientific knowledge and ideas change over time”, and “there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address”. Science content of the curriculum will be kept “lite”. Under “energy and electricity”, pupils will be taught that “energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use”. (The above is from John Clare’s article in the Telegraph.)

According to Melanie Phillips: “The reason given for the change to the science curriculum is to make science ‘relevant to the 21st century’. This is in accordance with the government’s doctrine of ‘personalised learning’, which means that everything that is taught must be ‘relevant’ to the individual child.”

2005 was a long time ago–I don’t know whether or not this curriculum is still in place in the UK; I use it as an example because it makes a certain kind of thinking very clear.  The class is not really about Science, it is about ‘Society’, and everything that is taught must be ‘relevant’ to the child.

And, closer to home, California has a new math curriculum.  While math teaching certainly could use improvement, I don’t have a good feeling about this program…see for example this and this, also these comments.

Also, the curriculum includes “data science” as an alternative to Algebra II…see this critique:  “Here’s the issue: the data science course is not a good path to a career in data science…It’s math lite for kids who don’t expect to use much math in life. And that’s fine!…as long as the kids KNOW that’s what they’re signing up for. But it’s not being sold that way — it’s being sold as a way to get more kids into data science. …and that’s misleading.”

An actual San Francisco data analytics guy offers this detailed analysis and critique of the curriculum.

Here’s a post with a rather arresting title from a few days ago at Ricochet:  She’s a brilliant teacher, perhaps she should stop.  At a BBQ, the writer encountered a teacher from his high school days.

Besides my mother, she is the best teacher I’ve ever had. She taught me Physics and Inorganic Chemistry. And the way she taught — understanding rather than memorization — allowed me to ace science and math classes in college and medical school. She helped me so, so much.

She is now 61 years old and is considering retirement. She moved from my public school to a private school, but it’s still wearing her down. She complains that modern students lack curiosity and motivation, while administration and parents pressure her to just give everyone A’s. She teaches how to understand science and math — but they just want her to stamp her approval on their resume. She’s growing increasingly frustrated, to the point where she doesn’t want to go to work anymore.

This is a different problem from the problems of deliberately-weakened curricula, but the root is the same: the belief that acquisition of knowledge is not what matters, rather, what matters is moving through the system and getting that piece of paper.  (And, in the case of many updated curricula, ideological indoctrination is also a key objective)


This isn’t by any means just a trend with science and math.  Basically, all subjects are being turned into “social studies.”  See my post Classics and the Public Sphere.

In that post, I included a passage in which C S Lewis (in A Preface to Paradise Lost) contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’  Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. “Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”

One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves.  There do seem to be a lot of people today whose interests are largely restricted to themselves and to the endless struggle for power, and who can’t really believe that anyone else may be different..  And a high proportion of these people seem to become ‘educators’ and educational administrators.

There is still plenty of high-quality science teaching available in universities and in graduate schools, for those who seek it out.  But the weakening of science education..and education in general..implies that an increasing portion of this teaching capacity will be devoted to those who are not natives of the United States, or even permanent immigrants to the same.

It is ironic: the sharply increased Federal involvement in education was driven in substantial part by the feeling–especially in the wake of Sputnik–that we needed more high-level scientific expertise for national defense reasons and more general scientific knowledge among the populace for citizenship reasons. Now, the funding remains–but the original objective has in too many cases been abandoned.



16 thoughts on “The End of Science Education in the West?”

  1. I have some ugly suspicions about how this dumbing-down will be used. If there’s less ability to critique claims using objective criteria, challenges to the claims of the powers-that-be are less dangerous.
    But perhaps the people pushing this have drunk their own kool-aid, and actually believe that politics defines mathematics. (It is ironic–if any field of knowledge has successfully abstracted its facts away from complications of age, history, language, politics, sex, religion–it is mathematics.)

    The data analytics writer missed a few points: rote memorization is easier for young kids than for older ones–teach ’em the facts early and there’ll be less problem. The link he cites doesn’t actually demonstrate that girls are taught to fear math.

  2. Look at this from the perspective of the average educational bureaucrat or teacher. She learned little arithmetic, less math, and even less science. Yet she lives in a nice house and drives an expensive imported car, takes nice vacations and expects to receive a pension that most people in the private sector can only dream about. She knows nothing of economics, is totally unaware of the unsustainable US budget & trade deficits which (temporarily) support her lifestyle. So, from her lived experience, where is the need for her students to learn any of that difficult math & science stuff?

    Meanwhile, China & India are graduating many times the number of math & science students. Those graduates fill the serious post-graduate research departments of US & European universities, and many go back to populate productive industries in their home countries. You don’t have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing.

  3. None of this is new. Author Robert Heinlein wrote about the decline of American education in his Expanded Universe collection circa 1980, and I recall circa 2000 that the Bush admin secretary of education would present a graph showing flat test scores and ever-increasing education spending.

    So we’ve just been continuing on the long-established glide path to ignorance. We’ve finally reached the point at which the so-called teachers have decided they don’t want to be bothered teaching hard subjects they don’t understand, especially to students who don’t connect education to success.

    Bluntly, the teachers are too ignorant to teach, and the students are too lazy to learn.

    Of course, that’s an oversimplification. There still remain many good teachers and many students who want to learn.

    But on the whole, the educational system is being swamped by the rising tide of idiocy that is washing away any chance of success.

    At this point, the system simply isn’t salvageable.

  4. Read somewhere that dark ages don’t come when people forget how to do things, they come when people forget that doing those things is even possible.

  5. Not the end of teaching science in the West, just the end of teaching science and math in the public schools, de jure. It actually ended years ago de facto. Anybody want to start a pool on how many hours until the media starts pointing out how parents providing instruction in these dark arts, or, gasp, home schooling out of the oversight of the educrats is racist?

    Surely, instruction in the holy dogma of intellectual nullity can’t be left to anyone but the anointed acolytes of the true creed, let alone heretics, or even worse, apostates.

  6. As far as turning subjects into social studies, if the idea behind the post-modern wave that is sweeping education is that all aspects of human society (laws, culture, knowledge etc…) are simply a discourse, a social superstructure imposed by a certain group to maintain its dominance (white supremacy) why should we think math and science is any different? If Lysenko taught us anything, empiricism be darned.

    David, I think your comment regarding parents and pieces of paper touched on a larger truth which is that there is not an effective constituency for academic rigor in general, let alone in STEM. We have been in the post-Sputnik reform reform era since the 1980s and we have been spinning our wheels. A large part of it is the simple fact that K-12 education is a bureaucracy, nothing nefarious about it, they just behave the same way as Motor Vehicles except they have more of patina of respectability and they have your children. K-12 is internally focused, the employees have life tenure, and with its political muscle and tap into public funding it’s unassailable.

    I will also add that one of the worst things we have done is the creation of teacher colleges, specially post-graduate degrees. They encourage the notion that teaching is a certified profession on par with the medical fields, a view that is exacerbated by the requirement in many districts for teachers to get a post-graduate degree after so many years on the job. This has produced a level of arrogance among the teaching profession through inflated credenitalism (Dr. Jill Biden) that translates into a moral obligation to disregard the opinions of parents

    In my conversations, I find many of the “Educrats” frightened to death of the Woke revolution in education and will do anything to appease it believing they can ride out the storm. However, the one thing that both the Educrats and Woke have in common is their abhorrence for any objective measure of student performance, especially standardized testing as it offends their sense of professional self-worth and holds them up to criticism,. Back in the 1990s we worked to implement statewide standardized testing in Arizona (AIMS) which was such a target of vitriol by the education establishment, that the missus insisted that if we ever met K-12 people at social functions to say I was employed in a less-contentious industry, like Tobacco

    I don’t see parents as having any real interest in stronger STEM education. Their primary interest is getting their kids ahead, if higher ed demands certain levels of proficiency then they will strive to accomplish that. However that’s not the way high ed is going as COVID has allowed many schools to shut down use of standardized testing for admissions. Basically parents are investing in hacking the the system for their kids; in a choice between learning more and the risk of getting less than a A and learning less and definitely getting a A I haven’t seen a parent take the latter. From their standpoint it makes perfect sense. That’s why I doubt you will see for now the equivalent of a grassroots organization like Moms4Liberty pushing for STEM reform.

    If you want to change K-12 STEM, you have to go to people who either objective need for skills or a large enough constituency to overcome the special interests of the K-12 establishment. It used to be business that drove the K-12 reform efforts because they needed good people, but with Woke/ESG/DEI that is no longer the case. The one actor that has a large enough interest in driving K-12 reform is state government; however, not in the sense of trying to reform the K-12 establishment but rather funding alternative educational models through voucher systems and charter schools.

    You cannot institute K-12 STEM reform from the federal level; 40 years of failure has shown us that and plus I would want to keep the feds as far away from K-12 as possible. This is a good time to drive the point home as we work through the Republican nomination process because it is there that ideas get tested with voters (think 2015/16 with Trump and immigration) We have to approach this with triage, California has made its choices and can no longer be helped, you cannot save someone who is bent on self-destruction. Their descent into to Hell will be leveraged to push others to action. Instead work with the space given, Red states with “fund students not systems” programs and work to build local success stories through home, private, and parochial schools that can be used to shift the reality. That’s what the Left does in their information warfare campaigns right? Use “facts” and “events” as the indelible bulwarks to drive their narrative. We should do the same.


    * 1960s test: “A logger cuts and sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is four-fifths of that amount. What is his profit?”

    * 1970s new-math test: “A logger exchanges a set (L) of lumber for a set (M) of money. The cardinality of Set M is 100. The Set C of production costs contains 20 fewer points. What is the cardinality of Set P of profits?”

    * 1980s “dumbed down” version: “A logger cuts and sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost is $80, his profit is $20. Find and circle the number 20.”

    * 1990s politically correct version: “An unenlightened logger cuts down a beautiful stand of 100 trees in order to make a $20 profit. Write an essay explaining how you feel about this as a way to make money.”

    I think the original was in Reader’s Digest

  8. 2020s woke version: ” An evil white supremacist murders many of Gaia’s Children for capitalism. Students of Colour: Think about the evils of capitalism and why white people are so evil. White Supremacist scum: Beg the blessed people of colour for forgiveness for your endless crimes, list the actions you have taken to fight racism, and know that your very existence is itself evil.”

  9. I have nothing beyond disgust for the education system and the political party that is the benfactor their contributions when those same “educators” continue to clamor for higher pay when the product of their livelihood is left so ignorant and un-educated that they cannot pass a standardized test. Being the poster child, the Baltimore, MD school district has failed several times at least to ‘graduate’ students able to pass the competency tests administered to HS seniors upon graduation. Not one could pass (at least one of the sections, many could not pass any) and I think this years results are worse in that not one student could pass any.
    The D party is fine with this, and cater to the NEA, and take the contributions as their constituency are the TEACHERS, or supposed teachers, not the victims, the students.
    In effect they sentence millions of young people to a lifetime of poverty, victomhood and being robbed, beaten, or killed as they fight among them self for scraps.
    The pity is they claim to be ‘for the poor underprivileged’, yet they continue to support the system that leaves them in poverty, penury and prison.
    The party is dispicable, IMO, for kissing the behinds of the NEA leadership, kowtowing to the teachers who could give a fig less about their students’ success, and whine about ‘hours wasted trying to teach’. They ignore the not hours, but LIFETIMES they sentence their students to. The students get a LIFE SENTENCE to poverty.
    Any person who acknowledges the above as approaching reality, and remains a member of the D party is truly phenomenal at having two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time. Democrats bury their evil with claims of ‘helping’. They do not help, they destroy.

  10. The deep purpose of education is to render the children relevant to knowledge and the world, not the make knowledge and the world relevant to the children.

    Even the most gifted and motivated child is lazy and stupid compared to the sheer volume of what even an ordinary person needs to know, if only because the most gifted and motivated are rarely if ever equally interested in everything and are often natural specialists.

    That the people coming up with that NZ curriculum don’t think it valuable or necessary to teach the subjects themselves, fundamentals first, before moving on to contemporary applications, is closing in on sufficient evidence that their academic system, nation, and society deserve to fail. And likely none of our nations is any better.

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