View Full Version : Civilisation is built on Physics (alas), not on Business Studies

10-04-2006, 03:33 PM
Civilisation is built on Physics (alas), not on Business Studiesby Boris Johnson (MP)

UK Daily Telegraph

You remember being at school, and looking at the timetable with a lurching horror. You've just been doing something cushy, like playing football or snoozing through a movie about global warming in Double Geography. Or perhaps, if you have been really cunning with your options, you have been making biscuits with lovely Mrs Sindall in Double Cookery.

And then you look at your schedule to see how your teachers propose to divert you for the last two periods of the day; and a shadow passes before your face and your hair stands on end, as though you had been plugged into a van der Graaf generator.

Omigosh, you say, it's Double Physics, and there's no way out. It's an hour and a half of struggling to understand what's watt, and who's an amp when he's at ohm, and frankly you'd do almost anything to skive. You'd rather be dipped in liquid helium and hit with a rubber mallet; you'd rather be locked in a cyclotron and humanely dispatched with subatomic bullets; you'd rather give a personal demonstration of the properties of potassium cyanide, because the only thing you can remember about Physics (or is it Chemistry?) is a poem to the effect that "Sir Humphrey Davey /Abominated Gravy;/ He lived in the odium/ Of having discovered sodium" - an odium you believe to be richly deserved. And as the Physics keenies take out their lavishly illustrated homework, with swotty little drawings of electric circuits, you have only three options.

You can throw a sickie and bunk off to the local chip shop. You can sit there in a coasting daydream, looking forward to the next Double Cookery, occasionally making discreet grunts of assent and endeavouring not to catch the teacher's eye.

Or else you can try. You can really try. You can wait for the moment, perhaps five minutes into the class, when you cease to understand what the teacher is saying; you can wait for the clouds to descend, as they will - even on the cleverest - with all the inevitability of an English August, and then, instead of giving up, you can battle on.

You can strain all your faculties until your brain feels as though it is about to give birth. You can take out your panga and hack hack hack through the dense undergrowth of your stupidity until - kazam! - you get it; for one brief, shining instant, you stumble into a clearing.

The clouds part and you can see straight up to the heavens and the fundamental facts of the universe, and, in that instant, you will look on your Physics teacher with new eyes and, instead of a torturing old pedant, you will see a prophet and a man blessed, like the first great atomist, because he was able to understand the Causes of Things.

Of course, if you are anything like me, you will find that your Physics weather forecast is still cloudy-bright, and that the fog soon envelops you again. But you would surely agree that, in that delirious moment of understanding, you have had more intellectual pleasure than in all the long, happy hours of doing the softer subjects.

In your heart, you know that grasping one hard point in Physics beats all the cake-baking and Religious Studies and making up stories for Media Studies (an excellent preparation for the real thing, by the way) and pretending to be a baked bean in Drama.

The trouble is that, in your heart, you also know that Physics means pain. It means moments of palpitating panic when you may be asked to explain something you don't get, and above all you know that, in Physics, it is much harder to get an A at A-level.

Worse still, your teachers know that, and partly because we live in a mad world of school league tables, where an A in Drama is apparently as valuable as an A in Greek and an A in Mathematics is as good as an A in Business Studies, there has been a huge incentive to steer children away from the crunchy subjects, and towards the softer options, so that, every year, a bigger crop of A grades can be presented to the ludicrous tithe barn of the Department of Education, and every year ministers can make absurd speeches of congratulation, redolent of the 1950s Soviet Union hailing the record production of grade A* tractors in the factories of Minsk.

No one really believes in this equivalence of A-levels. Children don't believe it; we all know that the guy who comes top in maths is smart; the guy who comes top in English is smart; and the girl who comes top in both is out of sight. We don't have the same respect for Business Studies, nor does British business, and nor do top universities.

So thank heavens for Cambridge, which yesterday had the guts to inform applicants that they would need A-levels in at least two crunchy subjects, and that an application based on History, Business Studies and Media Studies would not do.

We must stop this flight from the crunchy subjects, not just because it is slowly denuding the country of scientists - it is hardly surprising that 30 per cent of university Physics departments have closed in the past eight years, when the number of Physics candidates at A-level has slumped from 46,606 in 1985 to 28,119 in 2005.

We must stop this disaster because we are cutting the roots of our civilisation: when I think what has happened to Latin and Greek and modern languages in the maintained sector, I alternate between rage and black depression.

We must encourage the uptake of crunchy subjects with an equitable system of financial incentives not just for those who teach them but also - why not? - for the students who excel in them; and we must do it as a simple matter of social justice.

Cambridge has revealed which subjects it really values. The tragedy is that the A grades in the sciences, advanced maths and languages are increasingly ghettoised in the grammar schools and the independent sector, and when the Blair Government is brought to the bar of history, it will be one of the single heaviest charges that, by failing to tackle the crunchy subjects in state schools, a Labour government presided over a shocking decline in social mobility.

10-04-2006, 03:53 PM
The most interesting thing about this article to me is that I had no idea that there were post-secondary schools that didn't consider the subject matter when assessing a student's merits. The article is from the UK - is this SOP there?

I had a great friend in university who I was stunned to find out was 15 years older than me. He looked 20ish, just like the rest of us, and as we got to know each other he told me he'd been an undercover narcotics officer in Toronto for over a decade. He was planted in schools to ferret out the dealers because he looked so young. Now THIS guy was smart.....

He quit the police and came to university. His major was advanced mathematical theory. This was the ultimate in "weeding out the weak". His freshman class had 219 people enrolled. After four years, FOUR graduated. The other 215 flunked out or changed majors because the grades were nearly impossible to make.

My friend (Mike) ended up first in his graduating class of 4 with an average of 86%. The next highest was 72%. During his time studying he also wrote a math textbook which is still used in many high schools in Ontario. He then applied for teacher's college - in those days (early 90s) Ontario teacher's colleges weren't even accepting applications from anyone with a university average below 90%. But Mike got in not only immediately, he received a full academic scholarship.

I liked to tell Mike that he was no smarter than I because we had the same scholastic average. I, of course, majored in Marketing and minored in History, two subjects where I could cruise, miss as many classes as I wanted, and know I would still get by without too much effort. But I knew who was smarter, or certainly who was more deserving of academic plaudits. And so did the review board at the teacher's college; my application was rejected by acclimation.....

10-05-2006, 04:28 PM
They do consider the subject matter in the sense of subject relevance, in otherwords undertaking subjects in Humanities or science subjects will lead to degrees in those disciplines. Unlike the European Baccalaurette system, and I believe, the North American systems, British students start specialising from when they are 14 years -well before they prepare to enter university.

They do have a points system linked to the grades students get in their 'A' Levels. The problem is that alot of subjects carry equal weight. Some don't. An A grade in A level Turkish is not considered on par with an A in English or Mathematics. I suppose people are worried when some subjects like Media Studies carry the same points as Physics.

One thing that has irritated me is that a number of universities, particularly a number among the top ones, do not like students to take A level Law or Psychology prior to taking degrees in those disciplines. No cogent reason is ever given, and the feeling is that the lecturers prefer to have students come to them as the "great unwashed." It's arguably discriminatory in the sense that students who go to private schools don't have law on their curriculum (more History and Politics), while those from less well off backgrounds are definitely enriched by encountering the subject of law at this stage. Many will not have antecedents who have been barristers or solicitors unlike many in private schools.

While there is a suspicion that examinations have generally become easier at A level, A law, particularly its second and final year, is still pretty challenging.

10-05-2006, 04:33 PM
No matter the problems with education in the UK, just watch an American quiz show like "Jeopardy" or "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", and compare it with "Mastermind" or "Masterteam" and you will see how far ahead the Brits are.

US questions are written for infantile intellects; UK questions are difficult.

10-05-2006, 05:10 PM
whenever watching american tv you know immediatly moes than half the poualtion is below or more of avaerage intelligance.

10-05-2006, 11:40 PM
whenever watching american tv you know immediatly moes than half the poualtion is below or more of avaerage intelligance.

Fun with irony. Thanks for the laugh.

10-06-2006, 01:29 AM
No matter the problems with education in the UK, just watch an American quiz show like "Jeopardy" or "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", and compare it with "Mastermind" or "Masterteam" and you will see how far ahead the Brits are.

US questions are written for infantile intellects; UK questions are difficult.

Not really a fair comparison, old bean. I've watched the UK version of "The Weakest Link," and aside from the (very) many Brit geography questions, I had no more difficulty with it than with "Millionaire" or "Jeopardy." Those programs are "dumbed down" (if you wish) for a wider audience, as Mike pointed out, but did you ever catch the old "College Bowl" shows on Sunday afternoons back in the Seventies? Those brain-busters left me repeating the first syllable of the object which can be defined as, "A light folding circular covering of silk, etc., on a steel framework, carried in the hand to protect against rain. [L. umbra, shadow]." And that was back before much of my trauma and narcotics-induced cerebral damage.

I don't believe the collective intelligence varies much from nation to nation. And I don't think that the morons spotlighted on programs such as Jay Leno's ("Which came first, World War One or World War Two?" "Uhhh, Two?") are representative of the populace at large. For one thing, we're never told how many people Leno and his staff interviewed to cull the "cream" for broadcast. For another, the participants almost certainly know that correct responses have about as much chance of getting included in the program as I do of getting it on with Portia de Rossi (wrong gender and way too old, ugly, and broke).

I've been to the UK. It's a marvelous place, and aside from a couple of minor blips (okay, I got into a fight in a pub when someone called me "Nigger"), I really enjoyed myself. I'd like to go back once my financial situation permits. But, at no time did I feel myself to be smothered by towering intellects quoting the Encyclopaedia Britannia from memory. It seemed pretty much the same as walking along a street here. Or in Canada. Or in Mexico. PeteLeo.

10-06-2006, 02:39 PM
There is a definite decline in science subjects like Physics. Universities are actually closing down physics departments. There's a shortage of mathematics and physics lecturers. Many lecturers will be due for retirement with few in place to take over. It's a crises. They are going to have to offer more incentives to people to study and teach these topics.

Another interesting point is that due to the shortage of plumbers, those existing ones are earning impressive amounts of money. The situation may have been somewhat eased by the influx of Polish plumbers now that Poland is now a part of the EU.

Maybe they just need to change the name to something else since alot of people see it as a rather less than prestigious qualification. The reality is that people who have to do these sorts of jobs will increasingly need to have IT skills and mathematical skills to degree level. Too many are studying not very helpful or practical degrees in criminology and media studies. These are useful disciplines but it's all too disproportionate to the needs of society. Standards in UK education have been lowered due to the drive of the Labour government to ensure that over half the population have a degree by around 2010....