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9.9.13

On old science books

Posted by Jeanne

Nearly forty years ago a lady asked me to lend her some good introduction to the study of nature. I lent her a work which had been the delight of my own childhood; but she promptly returned it with a note to the effect that she could not allow her children to read it, for it was antiquated and not up to modern requirements; it stated that herring schools approach Europe from the North, whereas it had lately been discovered that they come from the South (or vice versa- I do not at this moment remember which theory was held thirty-five years ago and which twenty years before that); and, she added, there is so much that children must learn nowadays that they must not waste their time learning theories already exploded. A scientific man to whom I showed the letter remarked impatiently that the writer evidently had no idea what she was about; for, he said, what is most necessary for the children to learn is not what is the last new theory about where herrings are hatched, but how to extract the truth from a series of impressions and statements, each of which is only partially true. In this utterance we have, I think, the key to the most essential element in a truly scientific method of study; and the case is worth analyzing, for it illustrates the grave error, the cunningly hidden pitfall into which the advanced section of the educational profession fell in passing from the ancient ideal of an education based on classics to the modern ideal of an education based on science.

Mary Everest Boole. The Parents' Review Volume 9, 1898, p 597

Do you agree? Should we search for the latest books containing the most recent scientific facts and knowledge, or is there value in using old and outdated texts containing 'theories already exploded'? Or do we need both? What say you?

13 comments:

Ganeidaz Knot said...

The hardest thing to teach anyone is how to think. I think the text matters far less than the ability to analyze the information & draw a conclusion. If a child can do that they are already halfway educated. The other half is the result of knowing how to find out what they do not know. If they can do those 2 things they are a fully educated human being regardless of how much they think they know.

atsarahstable.com said...

I think a bit of both is fine. I don't worry if a book has outdated information, to a point, as long as I'm able to offer some commentary on what is now known. It's sometimes helpful to explore why they used to think what they did and what we learned that changed our understanding. It's good to see that scientific knowledge is changing and that it's a work-in-progress and not something complete in itself.

Daisy said...

Bottom line for me is that I'm more willing to use older (dated) books in subject matters that I know more about and that are less subject to rapid change. Examples would include descriptions of flora and fauna, science biographies, and lower elementary science topics. This is because often those older books are written in a way that grabs our student's imaginations. Those books also present opportunities for our children to learn that what we know about science IS constantly changing. I want them to learn to question what they read and not just take it as fact.

I am far less likely to use dated materials in subjects that I know very little about or in areas that are rapidly changing. It would be downright silly to read a high school book about biology that didn't include any information after 1950. You'd be severely limiting your child's knowledge of science.

Bonnie said...

Mary Everest Boole , famous mathematician.........and for that , her writings should be cherished and wisdom to be found in them.
Be sure to read living books and not textbooks just for science. I was educated in the public school system ( US) and never knew the stories of scientists! There are beautiul truths in the older books. ( a mom of 5 with 4 graduates)

Mel said...

This was Beautiful :)
Teach the Child, not the curriculum.
I think it's good to teach what was, what is and have them pick out from that.

Jen said...

I think a combination of both...those older books certainly do a better job of inspiring awe and wonder, which is foundational I think, and can also provide interesting fodder for discussions - particularly in those areas where our current understanding is different. At the same time, because science IS such a constantly changing field, I do think there is a time and place to expose our children to the modern/current understanding of the world as well. (Too bad there aren't more modern books that are written the way those older books were...)

Beth said...

I much prefer older science books, because they tend to be written in a narrative style and they're simply better reading. If my children want to know in-depth particulars of something that might have changed, I will look something up, but I've found that most things haven't changed as much as I think. I looked up books that CM used for botany, for example, and guess what? Plants still germinate and grow the same way they did 100 years ago.

There is always time for a child to learn more about something like biology, if they are interested. Yes, there is lots of new information, but there will always be more for them to learn. I wouldn't want them to memorize incorrect information, but there's a difference between incorrect vs. more.

Hopewell said...

Some of both. But, if the old book does not draw the child in and make him or her want to listen and learn it is as pointless as a dumbed-down, agenda-driven modern textbook. If the herring story (for example) reminds the child of what goes on in the sea, goads them to seek out more knowledge and causes them to remember something about ocean life or currents--then it's a living book. That's the key. Lisa @ http://hopewellmomschoolreborn.blogspot.com/

Brandy Vencel said...

I wouldn't base my entire science study upon old or outdated books, but...I think old books have great value. My son and I are reading a book right now that is about 30 years old. Some of the information is outdated, of course. It is nice to point it out, and constantly remind him that science never reaches its end, where finally it Knows the Answer. It is constantly changing, and even if I bought a book published lately, it'd be outdated tomorrow. It is easier to teach that particular principle concerning science with a book that is a bit older, I think...

Ingi Mc said...

A bit of both - we read books that are interesting. And there is value in appreciating that times have indeed changed - it is part of what makes science, science!

Claire and Colin said...

We were taught at uni that any book is already 5 yrs out of date at publication... If I want to keep my kids and myself abreast of the latest in everything, I guess I'm setting myself up for failure... Maybe a subscription to New Scientist or something as a supplement?

Erin said...

Love the writing style in many of the older books. And I was very fascinated to hear your science gentleman's thoughts.

Books For Breakfast said...

Last week, we read Knowledge Not The Limit of Belief from Parables of nature, where the zoophyte and seaweed have a discussion about classification. There was a higher application to the story, but the basic story was also of value. Later in the same week we read in Burgess Animal that rabbits are of the same class as rodents. I knew this to have been disproven. We had a great discussion about the inexact nature of science. In my own education, I had the impression that all scientific discoveries, at least the latest ones, were irrefutable. Which is just not the case. Older science books connect us to the history of science and scientists and remind us that scientists and their discoveries are not inerrant.

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