Why we teach what we teach

David Hershey dh321 at excite.com
Sat Jul 17 23:53:55 EST 1999

I think you are correct that botanists often teach what they know, but
that kind of approach may not be the most efficient especially in an
introductory course given the usual specialization of graduate study.
What is taught in botany courses is still determined to a great degree
by what is in the textbooks so those few textbook authors have a major
impact. However, given the advances in computer technology, it is
already possible for an enterprising teacher to dispense with paper
textbooks and make their own computer textbook tailored specifically for
their course. Exchanging ideas on "what are the most profitable topics
for consideration" as Bailey said, is certainly worth doing in a forum
like this.

Another thing that has shaped botany education is the long term
distinction between liberal education and applied education. This is an
old illogical bias that studying something of no practical value has
greater purity and intellectual value than an applied course of study.
So you still have Phi Betta Kappa which recruits undergraduates majoring
in botany but excludes those majoring in forestry, horticulture, and any
other applied or professional program. The silliness of that bias is
that some Phi Betta Kappa botanists go on to get a Ph.D. and become
professional botanists. I guess to maintain the intellectual purity
demanded by Phi Beta Kappa, PhD botanists should plan to teach and do
research, basic only of course, without pay!  

I quoted Liberty Hyde Bailey before because he very prominently ran
afoul of the liberal bias against the applied after getting his PhD in
Botany. Bailey had an extremely promising career as a botanist ahead of
him but he seriously stunned and dismayed his botany mentors when he
accepted a position at Cornell as a Horticulture professor. Based on his
later writings, it seemed that botanists never completely forgave Bailey
for his decision but he went on to a long, extremely productive and
highly distinguished career.

Botanists need to ask themselves if what they teach is influenced by
this old liberal bias against the applied. In 1919, Liberty Hyde Bailey

"We yet speak habitually of "pure science" and "applied science" as if
they were realities. Science knows no impurity. Until we outgrow this
old partiality, we are not scientists."

David Hershey
dh321 at excite.com

Dave Haas wrote:
> Have been following these teaching threads and thought I would put in my
> 12 cents.  With inflation this should be about right.
> As far as what should be taught and what shouldn't, I don't think you can
> draw a line here.  If you are looking for relevance there isn't a whole
> lot that we need to know about plants (or a lot of things for that
> matter) to survive.
> Most of us teach what we were taught and in many cases how we were
> taught. (with modification)  I'm not saying this is bad or good but for
> the ungifted older person like myself its hard to change.  Part of the
> problem as I see it is that when you look at speciality areas college
> profs. do not teach with the intent that their students should teach the
> same stuff in the future.  Most teach what they know and have studied all
> their lives and try to give an interested student as much current info.
> is possible.  This I think goes back to the time when college was for
> those well to do who had a desire to learn what there was to learn about
> the world and a specific area.  In those days you could actually learn
> almost everything that was known. I think this why they call us Doctors
> of Philosophy - knowing everything about everything and all.  Besides,
> they didn't have cars, TV, electricity, and other distractions.
>  Seems like College today is becoming more and more like high school and
> everybody thinks they should have a degree.  The community thinks so too.
> I won't go into what the Colleges think.   Sorry for the ramblings but
> I'm off this summer.
> D. Haas

More information about the Plant-ed mailing list