08 April 2007

Academic phoneyness - a selection

A quick tour of the UK blogosphere has produced the following gems of academic phoneyness reported by other people:

1) History, but not as we knew it
(reported by ThunderDragon on his History Journal)

Oxford Professor of History Lyndal Roper with the idea that culture in the sixteenth century allegedly revolved around the male sexual organ:

Sixteenth-century culture can clearly be defined as a phallic culture, though we are still far from knowing what the term might mean. This was a culture where, after all, the symbol of the central Christian mystery of the Incarnation was the Infant Jesus’ naked penis. It was a culture whose carnival world was peopled with walking penises, and phalluses on sticks ... Though not always expressed as fear of castration, the fear of the theft of manhood ... was a common cultural theme.
This passage, apart from striking me as the sort of tosh that a second-rate undergraduate might write in a dodgy tutorial essay, displays a number of standard mediocratic themes: obsession with sex/physiology, reductionism, blurring of concepts, boggling ("we are still far from knowing what the term might mean"), masculinity-as-threat, physicalism, (gender) politicisation, phoney radicalism, and vacuity.

2) Algebra, but not as we knew it

(reported by rightwingnation via Freeborn John)

This is about a guidebook for teachers entitled Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom by Thomas Armstrong, with a preface by Howard Gardner.
To get a feel for unknowns in basic algebra (Armstrong advises), spatially endowed students in junior high school can draw a version of "x" as a masked outlaw. Students with musical intelligence can chant "x is a mystery" and "accompany their chanting with any available percussion instruments." To get a feel for Boyle's Law, high school chemistry students can become "molecules" of gas in a "container" (a clearly defined corner of the classroom). They move at a constant rate (temperature) and cannot leave the container (constant mass).
I cannot believe this inane approach, of dancing around chanting and banging drums, would help anyone to understand the concept of an unknown variable, or the molecular theory of gases.

This example is from the US, but it's inspired by Gardner's concept of multiple intelligences which has had worldwide influence among educators, even if not among academics. (If academics don't like the specific theory, perhaps it's because it is too clear, or because it still invokes a certain degree of innateness. The fact is that they, like Gardner, tend to be critical of IQ in its simplest form i.e. the g-factor.)

PS What induces educators to subscribe to this nonsense, supposedly "child-centred" (here's phoney "individualism" again) but more likely to drive children round the bend with mindlessness? (And of course this stuff has a long history by now; in the 60s it was the similar concept of Nuffield science which was all the rage.) Do the people concerned really believe children are like this? It's more plausible that they believe children ought to be like this, because they find it ideologically preferable to the reality.