True and Useful

I recently reviewed Teaching Politics and International Relations, edited by Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Simon Lightfoot. The book is an interesting discussion of the need for studies of the study of politics to determine what should be taught; specific teaching, assessment, and mentoring techniques; and the pedagogical rationales for employing those techniques. Overall I got the impression that political scientists in the UK are ahead of their U.S. counterparts in examining these subjects. My full review will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Political Science Education.

The book, in conjunction with a curricular review process that is now occurring at my university, reminded me that our teaching is usually predicated on an assumption that we are providing something that is true, useful, and therefore important to students. This assumption is often false. Some of what we teach may be true but not particularly useful, such as the effect of zero gravity on a cat. At other times we might get so excited about teaching what we think is useful that we overlook the fact that there’s not much evidence that it’s true — the equivalent of habitually saying “those pants do not make your butt look fat.”

Why does this matter? Can’t we continue to teach the non-useful or the non-true, as long as we get the other half right? The problem is that usually what is untrue turns out not to be very useful, and vice versa. Academics, who are supposedly trained to think well and should therefore know better, often fall into this trap, as this column on teaching philosophy points out. When our debates about what should be taught and how are based on false premises, we do a disservice to our students and in the end make ourselves less and less relevant.

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