Education & Sci Comm

Cargo Cult College Students

The singular Richard Feynman liked to describe science that lacked a certain rigor as “cargo cult science”. In his words from a 1974 commencement speech:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

He went on to explain that the essential thing that “cargo cult science” is missing is a strict integrity that prevents researchers from fooling themselves. They’re going through the motions, but missing that spark that drives them to discover flaws in their own ideas and results. Because of this,  their work isn’t very valuable. It’s a cardboard cutout of Mike Tyson- it may look the part at first, but won’t last long in a fight.

I’ve realized that the “cargo cult” concept can be usefully applied to education (especially higher education), as well. Many students seem to think that getting a college education means paying the tuition bills and sitting in the classrooms. Sit in enough classrooms, and you’ll be college educated. It’s a ritual- perform it as you’re told to, and the cargo will magically arrive.

Assignments? They’re just busywork. Hoops you have to jump through for the ritual. Best to dispatch them with minimal effort.

Exams? Nothing but stress quests placed in your way by the devilish keepers of the cargo. They are tests of your worthiness. Defeat them and the instructors that guard the gates will let you pass.

And the content of the courses? The rope, wood, and coconuts you scavenge  to build the weapons necessary to defeat the exams. Ignore everything but the critical bits.

The conflict between that view and the instructor’s intent behind all these things is the rub that frustrates educators so. They know that an education is something a student creates, not receives, and they try to give students the knowledge and opportunities to build something in themselves. (And strive tirelessly to achieve that outcome more effectively each year.)

But too many students fail to see this- fail to see the purpose behind “the ritual”. And so, the story plays out semester after semester. “Cargo cult college students” appear, ready to go through the motions. Because as long as their score is greater than x%, they assume they’ll receive 3 college “experience points” (if I can weave in a gaming metaphor) and move one step closer to being handed what they’re after: a college education.

The question is, how do we help students see this? Is it one of those things you have to learn for yourself (too late)? Do you have to entice your students into really engaging with the course before they realize what they’re doing? Because if you can’t ignite something inside them, they won’t go anywhere you don’t take them.