After #2 daughter left yesterday, I reread The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey. She is such a fine novelist. You finish her books feeling completely satisfied — that changing anything at all would spoil it. I assume that Tey must have been like Dorothy Sayers in having written other more serious things, but “Josephine Tey” is a pseudonym and I have never bothered to look for any of her other works.
In any case, The Daughter of Time has Tey’s detective in bed recuperating from an injury, and becoming interested in the case of Richard III. I assume that this controversy is familiar to you, and if not, you have only to read The Daughter of Time and you will be all set.
The thing that interested me is the larger issue that intrigued Tey: how false information gets into what we believe and what we teach and stays there.
Stephen Jay Gould used the example of a particular dinosaur that is always described as being “the size of a fox terrier.” Most of us in Hamburger-a-go-go-land have never even seen a fox terrier, and yet Americans continue to use this description. Gould tracked it down to its first usage, and trailed the tradition up to the present.
My favorite example of this is the volcano experiment. This is the bit where you make a volcano out of clay or whatever and then mix vinegar and baking soda to simulate its eruption. Around here, this is one of the most popular science experiments in elementary school; in many cases, it is the only science experiment a teacher does, and my kids did it nearly every year. However, it is not an experiment — when you measure out a couple of ingredients in order to get a predictable result, that is a recipe, not an experiment — and it doesn’t belong in an earth science lesson. There are probably scads of adults walking around who still sort of feel that volcanic eruptions are caused by a chemical reaction.
I’ve written before about the persistence of lessons on animal families, even though most animals do not live in families. The great majority of teachers tell their hapless students that “Now he plays” is a simple present tense sentence, when in fact, as any native speaker of English knows, that sentence hardly even makes sense without some very special context, and is certainly not what we say when we want to convey the information that playing is taking place at the present moment.
Why do we do this?