How do you terrify a physics undergraduate?

BEN HILLS

How do you terrify a physics undergrad? No, it’s not by setting all their lectures for 9am, mentioning student debt or even telling them that they are no longer allowed a calculator in their exams. The answer to this, admittedly bad, joke, is, worryingly, that nothing chills the spine of an undergrad more than asking them to write you an essay. This aversion to prose, however, is not the undergrad’s fault but rather an unacceptable by-product of the current education system in both public sector and (most) private sector schools that forces students to specialize academically far too early.

There are two main problems with our system in England that I will be discussing here:

1. There are certain life skills (writing essays and prose being amongst them) that I believe to be necessary for everybody in our society to have in order to maximise their potential and;

2. The potential impact that overspecialization is having on interdisciplinary research.

Firstly, then, by forcing students to pick their A level subjects at (at the latest) the beginning of year 12, students are prevented from learning vital skills at a level that is necessary for them to go on to be the best possible member of society that they can be. Essaywriting, for example, is one such vital skill because it teaches you to not only express your opinion in a structured and persuasive way but also to critically assess the opinions of others the cornerstone of a liberal democracy such as ours. How can someone who has not had to write an essay since they were 16 participate fully?

This criticism goes both ways, however, because, just as soon as STEM students drop Humanities, so too do Humanities students drop STEM subjects! A basic understanding of statistics, probability and calculus (such as taught in AS maths) should be required for everybody so that critical subjects such as the economy, climate change and public health can be better understood and acted upon. Moreover, due to recent incompetent bumbling, we are encouraging stronger specialization by abolishing AS level qualifications, forcing students to pick subjects to do for the whole 2 years or leave empty-handed.

Finally, overspecialization is damaging interdisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary projects are a hot topic at the moment, as Sarah Byrne mentions in this Guardian article, with research in Medicine, Physics, Sociology and Economics (amongst others) all coming together to provide fresh eyes on old problems and to push the boundaries of each field. The view that our specialized schooling system promotes, however, is one of everybody in their own separate research ‘bubble’, independent to, and sometimes in direct competition with, other ‘bubbles’ for resources, funding and results. This leads to a lack of support for these groundbreaking projects and so harms research at the highest level and this feeling comes, in part from our insistence on specialization so early!

So, ironically, the answer to how to terrify a physics undergrad is, itself, terrifying, because it is indicative of a schooling system that not only prevents students from honing life skills to a level that will allow them to fulfill their potential as a member of our liberal democracy but goes on to cultivate a mentality that damages some of our most cutting edge research through academic isolationism.

How do you terrify a physics undergraduate?

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