Friday, 5 May 2006

Eleven Quotes in Honor of Inertia

by Richard Hake [reposted here with permission]

ABSTRACT: I give eleven quotes, led by those of John Dewey & William James, in honor of THE INERTIA OF THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM and stimulated by the backlash of parents and teachers to the implementation of Leon Lederman's (2001) "Physics First" in the San Diego schools, as reported by Wall Street Journal reporter Rob Tomsho.

  1. John Dewey addressed a root cause of human inertia

    Man is not logical and his intellectual history is a record of mental reserves and compromises. He hangs on to what he can in his old beliefs even when he is compelled to surrender their logical basis.
    John Dewey (1922/2005)

  2. William James discussed the inertia of human habits

    When the structure has yielded [to outward forces or inward tensions], THE SAME INERTIA BECOMES A CONDITION OF ITS COMPARATIVE PERMANENCE IN THE NEW FORM, and of the new habits the body then manifests. *Plasticity*, then, in the wide sense of the word, means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once. Each relatively stable phase of equilibrium in such a structure is marked by what we may call a new set of habits. Organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity of this sort; so that we may without hesitation lay down as our first proposition the following, that *the phenomena of habit in living beings are due to the plasticity of the organic materials of which their bodies are composed.*
    William James (1890)

  3. MIT's rocket scientist John Belcher (2006), in his PhysLrnR post of 16 Apr 2006

    Here is my favorite quote, which is pertinent . . . [to the problems of implementing Leon Lederman's (2001) "Physics First" in the San Diego schools]:
    And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain of success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience with them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly....
    Niccolo Machiavelli (1513)

  4. Not to be outdone, Cambridge don Sanjoy Mahajan (2006), in his PhysLrnR post of 18 Apr 2006

    Another favorite quote on those lines, relevant for reformers and radicals of all varieties:
    Principle of the Dangerous Precedent:
    You should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
    Francis Mcdonald Cornford (1908/1949)

  5. And another priceless Cornford quote, especially valuable for the young would-be educational reformer:

    I shall take it that you are in the first flush of ambition and just beginning to make yourself disagreeable. You think (do you not?) that you have only to state a reasonable case, and people must listen to reason and act upon it at once. It is just this conviction that makes you so unpleasant. There is little hope of dissuading you; but has it occurred to you that nothing is ever done until every one is convinced that it ought to be done, and has been convinced for so long that it is now time to do something else? And are you not aware that conviction has never been produced by an appeal to reason which only makes people uncomfortable? If you want to move them, you must address your arguments to prejudice and the political motive, which I will presently describe.
    Francis Mcdonald Cornford (1908/1949)

  6. On 18 Apr 2006 07:28:44-0400 John Belcher, in response to Mahajan (2006) presented a quote from Garvin (2003), contained in "Re: Student resistance to changes in professional education practice"

    Christopher Columbus Langdell, the pioneer of the case method, attended Harvard Law School from 1851 to 1854 - twice the usual term of study. He spent his extra time as a research assistant and librarian, holed up in the school's library reading legal decisions and developing an encyclopedic knowledge of court cases.
    In his course on contracts, he insisted that students read only original sources-cases-and draw their own conclusions. To assist them, he assembled a set of cases and published them, with only a brief two-page introduction.
    Inducing general principles from a small selection of cases was a challenging task, and students were unlikely to succeed without help. To guide them, Langdell developed through trial and error what is now called THE SOCRATIC METHOD: AN INTERROGATORY STYLE IN WHICH INSTRUCTORS QUESTION STUDENTS CLOSELY ABOUT THE FACTS OF THE CASE, THE POINTS AT ISSUE, JUDICIAL REASONING, UNDERLYING DOCTRINES AND PRINCIPLES, AND COMPARISONS WITH OTHER CASES. Students prepare for class knowing that they will have to do more than simply parrot back material they have memorized from lectures or textbooks; they will have to present their own interpretations and analysis, and face detailed follow-up questions from the instructor.

    Langdell's innovations initially met with enormous resistance. MANY STUDENTS WERE OUTRAGED (my CAPS). During the first three years of his administration, as word spread of Harvard's new approach to legal education, enrollment at the school dropped from 165 to 117 students, leading Boston University to start a law school of its own. ALUMNI WERE IN OPEN REVOLT.
    David Garvin (2003)

  7. But in this celebration of inertia one should not overlook the Cornfordian "Tactics for Change" by MIT's Halfman et al. (1977):

    "Difficulties of Change: . . . 9. The PRIMA FACIE AFFRONT: Whereas I have spent a significant fraction of my professional life perfecting my lectures and otherwise investing conscientiously in the status quo, therefore to suggest an alternative is, by definition, to attack me."
    Robert Halfman, Margaret MacVicart, W.T. Martin, Edwin Taylor, and Jerrold Zacharias (1977).

  8. And former presidents of Universities [who find it "harder to move the faculty than a graveyard"(Richard Cyert), both hard because "in neither case can you expect much help from the inhabitants" (American Physical Society PS president John Hopfield as quoted by Sanjoy Mahajan)] speak from bitter experience. Cyert, former president of Carnegie Mellon University complained:

    The academic area is one of the most difficult areas to change in our society. We continue to use the same methods of instruction, particularly lectures, that have been used for hundreds of years. Little scientific research is done to test new approaches, and little systematic attention is given to the development of new methods. Universities that study many aspects of the world ignore the educational function in which they are engaging and from which a large part of their revenues are earned.
    Cyert in Tuma & Reif (1980)

  9. Also voicing his frustration with recalcitrant faculty is James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, who

    "Few faculty members have any awareness of the expanding knowledge about learning from psychology and cognitive science. Almost no one in the academy has mastered or used this knowledge base. One of my colleagues observed that if doctors used science the way college teachers do, they would still be trying to heal with leeches."

  10. And then there's the famous quote that currently seems to be on the tip of everyone's tongue:

    Lesson #13: THE MONUMENTAL INERTIA OF THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM MAY THWART LONG-TERM NATIONAL REFORM: The glacial inertia of the nearly immovable U.S. educational system is not well understood. A recent issue of Daedalus (1998) contains essays by researchers in education and by historians of more rapidly developing institutions such as power systems, communications, health care, and agriculture. The issue was intended to help answer a challenge posed by physics Nobelist Kenneth Wilson: "If other major American 'systems' have so effectively demonstrated the ability to change, why has the education 'system' been so singularly resistant to change? What might the lessons learned from other systems' efforts to adapt and evolve have to teach us about bringing about change - successful change - in America's schools?" As far as I know, no definitive answer has yet been forthcoming.
    Hake (2002)

  11. In conclusion, lest all hope for change be abandoned, it is encouraging to recall the words of Max Planck:

    An important scientific innovation. . .[IMO, "unorthodox idea" could be substituted for "scientific innovation] . . . rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that ITS OPPONENTS GRADUALLY DIE OUT and that the growing generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the young."
    Max Planck (1936)

Belcher, J. 2006. "Re: WSJ on Active Physics," PhysLrnR post of 16 Apr 2006 14:20:28-0400; online. One must subscribe to PhysLnrR to access its archives, but it takes only a few minutes to subscribe by following the simple directions.

Cornford, F.M. 1908/1949. "Microcosmographia Academica - Being A Guide for the Young Academic Politician" (Bowes & Bowes, Cambridge, 4th ed.). Online in HTML courtesy Ian Utting; and as a 148kB pdf, courtesy Mark Titchener. First published in 1908, but as current today as it was then.

Cornford's "advertisement" reads: If you are young, do not read this book; it is not fit for you; If you are old, throw it away; you have nothing to learn from it; If you are unambitious, light the fire with it; you do not need its guidance. But, if you are neither less than twenty-five years old, nor more than thirty; And if you are ambitious withal, and your spirit hankers after academic politics; Read, and may your soul (if you have a soul) find mercy!

Cornford's "warning" reads: "Any one of us might say, that although in words he is not able to meet you at each step of the argument, he sees as a fact that academic persons, when they carry on study, not only in youth as a part of education, but as the pursuit of their maturer years, most of them become decidedly queer, not to say rotten; and that those who may be considered the best of them are made useless to the world by the very study which you extol." "Well, do you think that those who say so are wrong?" "I cannot tell, he replied; but I should like to know what is your opinion?" "Hear my answer; I am of opinion that they are quite right." PLATO, Republic VI

Daedalus. 1998. "Education yesterday, education tomorrow." Daedalus 127(4). The online description, formerly at has rotted and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, former publishers of Daedalus, have seen fit to list only the *titles* of past issues at The MIT press, current publishers of Daedalus, list at only issues back to 1 September 2003 :-(.

Dewey, J. 1922. "Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology," online at Brock University (Canada). The quote is in the middle of the second paragraph of Section VI "The Nature of Aims,"" in Part III "The Place of Intelligence in Conduct." I thank Tania Smith for this reference. For other online Dewey resources see A certain logic: Selected Works of John Dewey, a Mead Project website at Brock University with a nice photo of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. For a print copy of "Human Nature and Conduct . . ." see Dewey (2005).

Dewey, J. 2005. "Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology." Kessinger Publishing. First published in 1922 by by Henry Holt & Co., New York, and G. Allen & Unwin, London, according to the bibliography in Schilpp & Hahn (1989). I thank Tim Roberts for this reference. information at Note the "Search inside another edition of this book" feature.

Duderstadt, J.J. 2000. "A University for the 21st Century" (Univ. of Michigan Press); for a description.

Green, C. 2006. "Classics in the History of Psychology"; online at "Celebrating Nine Years and Over 12 Million Hits!"

Garvin, D.A. 2003. "Making the Case: Professional education for the world of practice" Harvard Magazine, September/October; online. Thanks to MIT's Lori Breslow and John Belcher for bringing this article to my attention, and to Sanjoy Mahajan for providing the undated link.

Green, C. 2006. "Classics in the History of Psychology"; online . "Celebrating Nine Years and Over 12 Million Hits!"

Hake, R.R. 2002. "Lessons from the physics education reform effort," Ecology and Society 5(2): 28; online. Ecology and Society (formerly Conservation Ecology) is a free online "peer-reviewed journal of integrative science and fundamental policy research" with about 11,000 subscribers in about 108 countries.

Hake, R.R. 2004a. " Re: The Inertia of the Educational System," online. Post of 2 Oct 2004 17:34:07-0700 to AERA-C, AERA-D, AERA-J, AERA-K, AERA-L, ASSESS, Biopi-L, Chemed-L, EvalTalk, Math-Learn, Physhare, Phys-L, PhysLrnR, POD, RUME, & STLHE-L.

Hake, R.R. 2004b. "Re: Student resistance to changes in professional education practice," online. Post of 1 Oct 2004 12:30:24-0700 to AERA-I, AERA-J, AP-Physics, ASSESS, Dr-Ed, EvalTalk, PBL, Phys-L, PhysLrnR, POD, and STLHE-L.

Hake, R.R. 2006. "Re: WSJ on Active Physics," online. Post of 14 Apr 2006 to AERA-H, AERA-K, AERA-L, AP-Physics, ARN-L, Phys-L, PhysLrnR, Physhare, and POD.

Halfman, R., M.L.A. MacVicar, W.T. Martin, E.F. Taylor, & J.R. Zacharias. 1977. "Tactics for Change." MIT Occasional Paper No. 11. online. Thanks to John Belcher for placing this gem on the web.

James, W. 1890. "The Principles of Psychology," CHAPTER IV "Habit," online. This is in Christopher Green's (2006) valuable "Classics in the History of Psychology."

Johnson, G. 1994. "University Politics : F. M. Cornford's Cambridge and his Advice to the Young Academic Politician ." Cambridge University Press. information. Note the "Search inside this book feature. I thank Sanjoy Mahajan for this reference.

Lederman, L. 2001. "Revolution in Science Education: Put Physics First." Physics Today 54(9): 11-12; online: "Laboratory work must be inquiry dominated (the opposite of cookbook labs) and designed to illuminate concepts. . . . The three-year sequence must include a lot of process in addition to content. How does science work? How did we discover some of these things? Why is science such a universal culture? How do the traits of skepticism, curiosity, openness to new ideas, and the joy of discovering the beauty of nature affect the process of science? Long after all the formulas, Latin words, and theories are forgotten, the process will be remembered. The goal of teachers using the new curriculum would be to produce high-school graduates who will be comfortable with a scientific way of thinking."

Machiavelli, N. 1513. The various modern versions listed by

Mahajan, S. 2006. "Re: WSJ on Active Physics," PhysLrnR post of 18 Apr 2006 01:29:31 +0100; online.

Planck, M. 1936. "The Philosophy of Physics." W.W. Norton. See also Planck (1959)

Planck, M. 1959. "Where is science going? The universe in the light of modern physics; The philosophy of physics" (Greenwich editions). Meridian Books.

Schilpp, P.A. & L.E. Hahn. 1989. "The Philosophy of John Dewey." Southern Illinois University.

Tomsho, R. 2006. "Textbook Battle: Top High Schools Fight New Science As Overly Simple; San Diego's Physics Overhaul Makes Classes Accessible, Spurs Parental Backlash; Test Scores Barely Budge," Wall Street Journal, 13 April; freely online for only about a week. For a more permanently available copy see Mahajan (2006).

Tuma, D.T. & F. Reif, eds. 1980. "Problem Solving and Education: Issues in Teaching and Research." Lawrence Erlbaum.

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