The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"I have only one superstition.  I touch all the bases when I hit a home run." ...  ... Babe Ruth.

Commentary of the Day - October 28, 2005:  The physics classroom where science and superstition met.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

The  high-stakes trial pitting scientists who side with Darwin and his "theory" of evolution against those who argue that "intelligent design" be added to the high school curriculum as an "alternative" worth considering interests me on several levels: as a boy who went through the rigors of  high school in a small southwestern Pennsylvania town; and who, years later, taught at a small liberal-arts college just a stone's throw from the courthouse in Harrisburg, I may be able to bring  a bit of well-needed levity to the raging debate.

Truth to tell, I was a mighty  poor science student, especially when an ability to manipulate numbers was required.  So, when I had to take physics, I shuddered.  Apparently, I was not alone in this, nor was I was the only student who got a weekly dose of comic relief when our teacher, Mr. Phelan, had us gather around for his weekly lab demonstration.  He was a walking study of Murphy's Law: whatever could go wrong in an experiment did -- without fail week after hilarious week.  In fact, we began to look forward Fridays, when Mr. Phelan would have yet another chance to fall on his face.

If what I've described so far seems cruel, it was.  But as they used to say in vaudeville, you ain't heard nothin' yet.   One Thursday afternoon I happened to spy Mr. Phelan practicing for his next go at a lab demonstration, this one about breaking and completing a circuit.  He had a battery pack that plugged into the lab desk (thereby cutting off  any power problems at the pass) and his tangle of wires was connected to a bell.  When he brought the switch down, the circuit was completed and the bell sounded; when he pulled  the switch up, thereby breaking the circuit, the bell went silent.  Mr. Phelan raised and lowered the switch again and again, and  beamed with confidence because, this  week, he felt sure he had a sure-fire winner.

So far I've been describing a science class but what followed was what Bible readers will recognize as the pride that goeth before a fall.  Because  Billy Rohrbach, one of our gang of five, could manipulate the plug in the lab table and because the rest of us took up the chore of distracting Mr. Phelan, the game was afoot.  None of us was surprised when our teacher rattled on and on about circuitry.  He was, as they say, on a roll -- that is, until he brought the switch down and nothing, absolutely nothing, happened.  He tried again, with the same result.  Billy Rohrbach, rather than Mr. Phelan, was in control, at least of the plug and socket.

That's when I pointed out that the bell didn't gong because he hadn't  intoned "abracadabra" first.  "That's ridiculous."  Mr., Phelan insisted, as he pulled down the switch and, once again, the bell didn't  sound.  But when I gave it a try, after first waving my hands around the switch and saying "abracadabra," the bell sounded.  Mr. Phelan insisted that one of the wires must have gotten tangled and was now ok., but his next attempt, minus the hand waving and magic word, was to no avail.  I reminded him about the power of magic and, once again, I made the bell chime.  As time ran out, Mr. Phelan gave his experiment a final, desperate attempt -- muttering "abracadabra" under his breath before he pulled the handle down.  Thanks to Billy Rohrbach -- and me -- the bell sounded.

I'm not sure what to make of this memory.  I know that I'm not particularly proud of how mean spirited I was (I'll let Billy Rohrbach speak for himself), but I also know that high school science teachers need to worry about much more than the political issues at the center of Scopes II.  They need to do a better job  than Mr. Phelan did, and they need to go about the job of separating science from superstition with a humility that teachers -- the good, the bad, and the so-so often lack.

©2005 Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of humanities at Franklin and Marshall College. He currently divides his time between a home on the New Jersey shore and a condo in south Florida.

The IP comments:  Fortunately, the IP's high school physics teacher -- Glen Wooley -- was a gem who really knew his stuff.  On the other hand, the IP's high school chemistry teacher, who shall remain nameless, was very much like Sanford's Mr. Phelan.  Interested readers might also want to read the IP's recent commentary on the evolution-ID controversy ("Not so intelligent design.")

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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