Professor P.R. Gross’s comments on the recent study reported in Science magazine serve to make the case (on, more or less, calling into question the imposed dichotomy between content and reasoning) rather well, and show no lack in rigor; but, as one reading from outside the academic context of Gross, Bao, et. al., there are assumptions which—were Gross to turn his own critical eye round on himself—lead Gross et. al. to cause even greater harm to education than the construct of a bifurcation between content and critical thinking.
I supply a sampling of statements, made by Gross in his article, which indicate a wholehearted commitment to a very specific stance on the philosophy of science:
“What differentiates scientific, from, say, historical reasoning? Other than the content being reasoned about, I can’t think of anything.”
Then, after approving of Susan Haack’s view that science is a concentrated empiricism, Gross writes, “The practices of good science . . . are not distinguished by an array of clearly indentifiable, cognitively unique forms of reasoning.”
“Scientific reasoning is using, within a framework of scientific content, certain general cognitive abilities that develop over time or can be encouraged in most learners.”
Note that this last quote, besides being a bit tautological, has the quality of being able to define almost any field of study, by simply replacing the word scientific with the name of the field in question. But that is precisely Gross’s point: that scientific reasoning is no different from reasoning in other fields. All such reasoning, furthermore, is empirical in essence and based on conjecture. Scientific truths, therefore, can only be approximated through probability and conjecture.
Contrast Gross’s description of the student’s mind as a sort of algorithmically-oriented computer (note his allusions to processing data and “manipulating information in working memory”) to LaRouche’s description of a science class that utilizes a Classical humanist educational method:
“[T]he student is presented with the personalized historical identity of a discoverer, . . . and a visual insight into some circumstances in which one or more of the crucial discoveries which that historical person effected. The student is induced to relive the experience of discovery; the teacher’s function is, most essentially, to situate fairly the elements arrayed at the onset of discovery. The teacher says: ‘X solved the following problem, in place P, in the year T; you have the prerequisites to repeat the mental experience of that act of discovery.’ The source materials, preferably primary ones, are set before the student. The experience begins.”
Act of discovery! But what of PR Gross’s self-evident claim that “good science” cannot be “distinguished by an array of clearly indentifiable, cognitively unique [italics his] forms of reasoning”? How, for example, is an instructor to facilitate the learning of Kepler’s discovery and description of universal gravitation? Gross’s approach, as one might suppose from his article, would be to place Kepler’s three laws before the student, have the student, if possible, memorize them (perhaps prefacing it with a bit of explanation), and then employ them in a series of physics problems, so as to enhance the student’s “factual and procedural physics knowledge” and “tricks of thought.” The instructor knows he is triumphant when a majority of the well-trained boys and girls in the class “do well in a written or real-world test.”
Let us be blunt: to hold the assumption in science that physical principles are not knowable is to relegate the student to that status desired by Zeus in his attitude toward humans in the case of Prometheus. To supply students with certain products of scientific discoveries, without actually engaging them in the process of making those discoveries (in which case, most likely, the instructor has not even replicated the discovery himself!), is to scatter round corpses of otherwise living ideas for the purpose of maintaining status quo (or, worse, making the student fit to pass a scientific peer review).
Earlier today I presented to a class of eighth graders the transition from the Paleolithic to Neolithic age. They, of their own accord, located the singularity of that change, from approximately the years 12,000 to 8,000 B.C., within a series of scientific discoveries made in agriculture, metallurgy, and animal husbandry. The students brought up the point that such discoveries were passed on to future generations, and developed onward from there. Humankind, in other words, is unique in its ability to make discoveries about the universe, to transform (develop) the universe through utilization of those discoveries, and to pass them along to progeny. Of what use is it, for example, to know that the three angles of any triangle within Euclidean space are equal to two right angles when the knower is not aware of how such a conclusion is arrived at? Certainly, such an individual may be able to solve many geometric problems; but he or she has no true grasp of the subject, and is incapable of making the cognitive leaps necessary to attaining higher (not merely more complex) levels of understanding; nor are they equipped to encounter the force of the paradoxes posed by the likes of Bolyai or Riemann. A true understanding of any scientific principle requires a replication of the original discovery. Only then can the principle be built upon, and, in many cases, superseded. The eighth graders were, in their own way, aware of this uniquely human trait.
As educators, we are, in essence, passing along the products of discovery without allowing students to experience that uniquely human process of discovery. Gross not only condones such practice (as did Euler, Felix Klein, and John Dewey, to name a few), but denies the possibility of any such discoveries having ever existed! Students are spoken of as if they were a type of circus animal: always able to perform better and learn new tricks, but incapable of rising up from their animal (empirical) existence.
It is our duty as human beings to replicate (that is, to know) the discoveries of our forebears, and to pass those discoveries along to those who come after us. When teaching science, let us call all such activity education, and all else training.
 “Learning Science: Content—With Reason,” American Educator, vol. 33, no. 3 (Fall 2009), 35-40.
 All text in quotes in this letter are taken from Gross’s article, ibid., unless otherwise indicated.
 “How Bertrand Russell Became an Evil Man,” Fidelio, vol. 3, no. 3 (Fall 1994), 52.
October 5, 2009