Feynman on Modernity

We plan to have more posts on VCAA’s ridiculous curriculum review. Unfortunately.

Now, however, we’ll take a semi-break with three related posts. The nonsensical nature of VCAA’s review stems largely from its cloaking of all discussion in a slavish devotion to “modernity”, from the self-fulfilling prediction of the inevitability of “technology”, and from the presumption that teachers will genuflect to black box authority. We’ll have a post on each of these corrupting influences.

Our first such post is on a quote by Richard Feynman. For another project, and as an antidote to VCAA poison, we’ve been reading The Character of Physical Law, Feynman’s brilliant public lectures on physical truth and its discovery. Videos of the lectures are easy to find, and the first lecture is embedded above. Feynman’s purpose in the lectures is to talk very generally about laws in physics, but in order to ground the discussion he devotes his first lecture to just one specific law. Feynman begins this lecture by discussing his possibly surprising choice:

Now I’ve chosen for my special example of physical law to tell you about the theory of gravitation, the phenomena of gravity. Why I chose gravity, I don’t know. Whatever I chose you would’ve asked the same question. Actually it was one of the first great laws to be discovered and it has an interesting history. You might say ‘Yes, but then it’s old hat. I would like to hear something about more modern science’. More recent perhaps, but not more modern. Modern science is exactly in the same tradition as the discoveries of the law of gravitation. It is only more recent discoveries that we would be talking about. And so I do not feel at all bad about telling you of the law of gravitation, because in describing its history and the methods, the character of its discovery and its quality, I am talking about modern science. Completely modern.

Newer does not mean more modern. Moreover, there can be compelling arguments for focussing upon the old rather than the new. Feynman was perfectly aware of those arguments, of course. Notwithstanding his humorous claim of ignorance, Feynman knew exactly why he chose the law of gravitation.

This could, but will not, lead us into a discussion of VCE physics. It suffices to point out the irony that the clumsy attempts to modernise this subject have shifted it towards the medieval. But the conflation of “recent” with “modern” is of course endemic in modern recent education. We shall just point out one specific effect of this disease on VCE mathematics.

Once upon a time, Victoria had a beautiful Year 12 subject called Applied Mathematics. One learned this subject from properly trained teachers and from a beautiful textbook, written by the legendary J. B. “Bernie” Fitzpatrick and the deserves-to-be-legendary Peter Galbraith. Perhaps we’ll devote some future posts on Applied and its Pure companion. It is enough to note that simply throwing out VCE’s Methods and Specialist in their entirety and replacing them with dusty old Pure and Applied would result in a vastly superior, and more modern, curriculum.

Here, we just want to mention one extended topic in that curriculum: dynamics. As it was once taught, dynamics was a deep and incredibly rich topic, a strong and natural reinforcement of calculus and trigonometry and vector algebra, and a stunning demonstration of their power. Such dynamics is “old”, however, and is thus a ready-made target for modernising zealots. And so, over the years this beautiful, coherent and cohering topic has been cut and carved and trivialised, so that in VCE’s Specialist all that remains are a few disconnected, meat-free bones.

But, whatever is bad the VCAA can strive to make worse. It is clear that, failing the unlikely event that the current curriculum structure is kept, VCAA’s review will result in dynamics disappearing from VCE mathematics entirely. Forever.

Welcome to the Dark Ages.

It’s Time to ATAR and Feather the Labor Party

Tanya Plibersek, Australian Labor’s Shadow Minister for Education, has just been reaching out to the media. Plibersek has objected to the low ATAR sufficient for school leavers to gain entry to a teaching degree, and she has threatened that if universities don’t raise the entry standards then Labor may impose a cap on student numbers:

We [should] choose our teaching students from amongst the top 30 per cent …

This raises the obvious question: why the top 30 per cent of students? Why not the top 10 per cent? Or the top 1 per cent? If you’re going to dream an impossible dream, you may as well make it a really good one.

Plibersek is angry at the universities, claiming they are over-enrolling and dumbing down their teaching degrees, and of course she is correct. Universities don’t give a damn whether their students learn anything or whether the students have any hope of getting a job at the end, because for decades the Australian government has paid universities to not give a damn. The universities would enrol carrots if they could figure out a way for the carrots to fill in the paperwork.

The corruption of university teaching enrolment, however, has almost nothing to do with the poor quality of school teachers and school teaching. The true culprits are the neoliberal thugs and the left wing loons who, over decades, have destroyed the very notion of education and thus have reduced teaching to a meaningless, hateful and hated profession, so that with rare exceptions the only people who become teachers are those with either little choice or little sense or a masochistically high devotion to civic duty.

If Plibersek wants “teaching to be as well-respected as medicine” then perhaps Labor could stick their neck out and fight for a decent increase in teachers’ wages. Labor could fight for the proper academic control of educational disciplines so that there might be a coherent and deep Australian curriculum for teachers to teach. Labor could fight against teachers’ Sisyphean reporting requirements and against the swamping over-administration of public schools. Labor could promise to stop, entirely, the insane funding of poisonously wealthy private schools. Labor could admit that for decades they have been led by soulless beancounters and clueless education hacks, so as much as anyone they have lost sight of what education is and how a government can demand it.

But no. Plibersek and Labor choose an easy battle, and a stupid, pointless battle.

None of this is to imply that Labor’s opponents are better. Nothing could be worse for education, or anything, than the sadistic, truth-killing Liberal-National psychopaths currently in power.

But we expect better from Labor. Well, no we don’t. But once upon a time we did.

Update (27/02/19)

Tanya Plibersek has announced a new Labor policy, to offer $40,000 grants for “the best and the brightest” to do teaching degrees, and to go on to teach in public schools. Of course Plibersek’s suggestion that this will attract school duxes and university medal winners into teaching is pure fantasy, but it’s a nanostep in the right direction.