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Chris Edwards on Educational Reform and Thought Experiments

Thought Experiments: History and Applications for Education (book cover) Beyond Obsolete: How to Upgrade Classroom Practice and School Structure (book cover)

Chris Edwards, Ed.D. teaches AP world history and an English course on critical thinking at a public high school in the Midwest and is the author of To Explain it All: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Popularity of World History Today, Connecting the Dots in World History, Femocracy: How Educators Can Teach Democratic Ideals and Feminism, and Beyond Obsolete: How to Upgrade Classroom Practice and School Structure. He is a frequent contributor to Skeptic magazine.

Shermer and Edwards spend most of the conversation discussing educational reform:

  • Edwards’ background and motivation for educational reform,
  • his study and teaching of world history,
  • What is the value of a college education?
  • the problems in K–12 education,
  • the zip-code model of public schools and how this results in massively different educational outcomes,
  • teachers’ unions in myth and reality,
  • the seat time model of education (students have to spend X hours in their seats every year) vs. mastery of materials model of education (students learn to master subjects),
  • no child left behind and how it left children behind,
  • federal vs. state educational systems,
  • cheating scandals in education and what to do about them,
  • the future of education in a world of free (or nearly free) online learning modules, university lectures, and educational tools of all kinds,
  • If you want to learn X (algebra, physics, history…) would you (1) enroll in a university and spend $50,000 a year for four years; (2) go online and watch lessons and lectures on all these topics for free or nearly free?
  • comparing the U.S. educational system to other countries: Why do we spend so much money and get such lousy results compared to other countries?
  • Einstein,
  • trolley problem,
  • utilitarianism vs. deontological ethics,
  • self-driving cars,
  • time travel,
  • ethics and analogical thinking, abortion,
  • politics: “we hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal…”

Shermer and Edwards also discuss thought experiments, based on Edwards’ latest book, Thought Experiments: History and Applications for Education.

About the book

Thought experiments do not require a laboratory and need no funding, yet they are responsible for several major intellectual revolutions throughout history. Given their importance, and the way that they immediately engage students, it is surprising that thought experiments are not used more frequently as teaching tools in the academic disciplines. Thought Experiments: History and Applications for Education explains how thought experiments developed and shows how thought experiments can be applied to subjects as varied as theoretical physics, mathematics, politics, personal identity, and ethics. Teachers at all levels and in all disciplines will discover how to use thought experiments effectively in their own classrooms.

Michael Shermer on Thought Experiments

“In the history and philosophy of science fields one of the most underappreciated aspects of the scientific method is the thought experiment. Almost no one studies it, and yet all scientists conduct thought experiments even when they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. Chris Edwards new book is the most important work on thought experiments ever written. Every historian and philosopher of science needs to read it, along with educators in general and scientists in particular. Plus, it’s a gripping story about what goes on inside people’s minds!”

From Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc

Even the fundamental principles underlying the Declaration of Independence, which is usually thought of as a statement of political philosophy, were in fact grounded in the type of scientific reasoning that Jefferson and Franklin employed in all the other sciences in which they worked. Consider the foundational line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal….” In his biography of Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson recounts the story of how the term “self-evident” came to be added to Jefferson’s original draft by Franklin, on Friday, June 21, 1776.

The most important of his edits was small but resounding. He crossed out, using heavy backslashes that he often employed, the last three words of Jefferson’s phrase, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” and changed them to the words now enshrined in history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”

The idea of “self-evident” truths was one that drew less on John Locke, who was Jefferson’s favored philosopher, than on the scientific determinism espoused by Isaac Newton and on the analytic empiricism of Franklin’s close friend David Hume. In what became known as “Hume’s fork,” the great Scottish philosopher, along with Leibniz and others, had developed a theory that distinguished between synthetic truths that describe matters of fact (such as “London is bigger than Philadelphia”) and analytic truths that are self-evident by virtue of reason and definition (“The angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees”; “All bachelors are unmarried.”) By using the word “sacred,” Jefferson had asserted, intentionally or not, that the principle in question—the equality of men and their endowment by their creator with inalienable rights—was an assertion of religion. Franklin’s edit turned it instead into an assertion of rationality.

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This episode was released on July 17, 2021.

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