This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email firstname.lastname@example.org
by The Science Teaching Group of Boston & Sam Anderson
We are initiating a special page on science teaching as a regular feature. This first installment is based on a letter which describes a political approach to teaching science and math at a New York State University—and the struggle to defend it. The program at Old Westbury is designed with the recognition that future “scientists must be fully aware of the social responsibilities they bear” and “must know the political and social implications of their decisions.” We feel this program is especially noteworthy because of all the areas it integrates: science and politics, learner and teacher, basic and advanced studies, practice and theory.
— Science Teaching Group of Boston
You asked about how we are struggling with the teaching of nature’s science and math at Old Westbury. First of all, Old Westbury is comprised of 75% Black, Puerto Rican and Asian students and 20% white working class students. Their average age is 27. We are a youthful faculty, also largely Third World. We do not have departments; we have program areas (Science & Technology; Politics, Economics and Society; Health Sciences and American Studies; Comparative History, Ideas and Cultures; Communicative and Creative Arts and Education). Faculty members are recruited into one of these areas but are not confined to teach solely in that program. Hence, the teacher as well as the student gets a well rounded view of education and society.
Clearly, we are dealing with people who have been mashed out of any curiosity, much less seeing the necessity of Science and Tech. They all have been told in one manner or another that they cannot understand math and the sciences because they lack the intelligence. We have to, initially, de-educate. We are very fortunate to have a Black mathematician who has—during his 12 years of teaching Black and Puerto Rican children—developed a pedagogy which produces 3rd graders passing 9th year statewide math exams. This success was not the exception, but the rule! So he decided to try to teach adults in a similar manner and begin to eliminate the uptight math teacher.
We do not separate arithmetic from algebra for our most elementary course. From there a student is introduced to a three semester development of Calculus, Algebra and Trig. We are currently working on ways of using the computer as an assistant to the flesh-and-blood teacher. We feel that it is vital to have personal contact with students who are super-alienated from science and science-people.
In Elementary Math Analysis (Precalc/calc) students work on termpapers in the applications of math to all the sciences or on a historical, biographical, or mathspecific topic (what is matrix algebra and how is it used; archeaology, halflives, logs and exponents). The major emphasis is to get the student to read and analyse different texts, journals and essays so that by the time they get to the third semester much of the work will be done on their own and the teacher would be a friendly advisor and tutor.
The more advanced math courses are 85% independent study with papers being the major form of evaluation. The students ·would form, for example, a Complex Analysis collective and decide how much to cover beyond the minimum suggested by the teacher and whether or not there will be team or individual papers. The teacher would provide the group with a textbook, journal and essay list, guidance and help over the rocky areas with one two hour lecture a week or more—upon the suggestion of the students.
What we have in design but not operation is that a student coming into Science and Tech. goes thru a (political) process of getting a general overview of S&T and how the different parts overlap and how they work for a racist-capitalist society as well as how they work for developing socialist societies. Then the student would spend two to four years concentrating in some specific or general field within Science and Tech. In the senior year students present their project paper to the juniors, seniors and faculty. The project paper must make sense. We are not concerned with (as the bourgeois scientists are) how well one can mystify others with esoterica and science for science’s sake.
But I have painted an ideal picture, far from reality. We are fighting for survival against a liberal-facade incompetent reactionary racist administration who feel obligated to destroy what little we have built over the past three years. At this point we are losing. We are losing because the state, of course, supports the revision and the students are not politically educated to the gravity of the situation.
The faculty is 55% Third World but it is unanimously united in the struggle against the state and the administration. I have never worked with or heard of such a united faculty. Believe me, it wasn’t this way initially; but in the course of COW’s development racism and individualism have been somewhat minimized because of a larger contradiction: the elimination of an educational process that was starting to educate correctly.