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Thoughts on a rejection: Where will future critical thinkers come from?

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I’ve been writing long enough not to obsess over being turned down, especially when the editor is a long-time friend who takes the time to tell me why a book proposal doesn’t fit the publisher’s present plans. In this case, however, the reason for the turndown suggests that an organization that once took the lead in promoting innovative and critical thinking can no longer justify the risks in doing so.

For background, the proposed book is based on my current school visit presentation, “Our Next Planet: Why, When, and How People Will Settle Another World.” The publisher is associated with a major national nonprofit organization.

Here is the relevant portion of the rejection:

“… while I recognize how well qualified you would be to write OUR NEXT PLANET, the proposal simply did not win me over. We try very hard to tie our books to the curriculum, and I don’t think teachers spend much classroom time on speculative material such as this.”

I couldn’t argue with the reason for the rejection, but I lamented it as follows:

Dear _____,

Thanks for the very specific feedback. It will help me to find the right publisher, probably one with a clear niche and a risk-taking approach, if such publishers survive these days.

Your comment about NEXT PLANET is absolutely correct. Teachers don’t spend much classroom time on speculative material such as this. I can certainly understand _____’s business approach that leads to that point of view and decision.

However, if you’ll allow me a little philophizing, the reason you had to pass on that book is a sad reflection on the current state of education, which is being pulled apart by ideologues at both ends of the spectrum. Teachers no longer have time for much in the classroom besides satisfying over-defined curricular and social requirements, and those are increasingly aimed at improving scores on standardized tests. Those tests focus on answers, while science and other fields of inquiry stress questions and exploration. Critical thinking is left behind along with every child, despite the name of the program. In the name of universal competence, we are creating universal mediocrity.

It used to be that kids would be given time to explore beyond the curriculum, including the chance to browse the school library where some would discover books like the ones I want to write.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on standardized tests and the diversion of educational time and funds to meet the testing programs have left librarians with little money to spend on books like the one I’m proposing. So I can’t argue with the correctness of your decision for your organization’s current finances

I must admit that it makes me wonder whether _____ has lost its ability to set the trends in science education and has become content to be a follower like every other publisher in its market. I know you’re not the one to raise that issue, but I am relying on the fact that our friendship allows me to bring it up to you….

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About Fred Bortz

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog/ Mark Sahm

    School curriculums aside, a personalized rejection beats the shit out of a form letter though.

  • http://www.fredbortz.com Fred Bortz

    I won’t dispute that, Mark.

    This was from an editor I’ve known since we were both starting out, so Iknew I wouldn’t get a form letter.

    But the point of my post was my lament about the current highly politicized state of our educational enterprise and what it is doing to kids and publishers alike. I’d welcome additional commentary from you about that.

  • http://www.magicjunk.com/blog/ Mark Sahm

    “Where will future critical thinkers come from?”

    Maybe they’ll get their critical thought from external sources online, places like Wikipedia or even Blogcritics!

    While it’s not my cup of tea to debate the school issues you spoke about, you have to accept that the publishing world caters to demands, no matter whether they are justified or not. I’m sorry that your book was a casualty of that premise. Keep at it, man.

  • http://www.fredbortz.com Fred Bortz

    Or maybe they’ll visit “Dr. Fred’s Place.” :)

    My book is not yet a casualty, because the publishing industry includes niche publishers who try to change tastes as well as cater to them. I’ll find one, just you wait.

    In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging.

    Thanks for the encouragement. Now let’s get others talking, too!

  • Duane

    Fred, I took a look at your site, and came across the following:

    Science is not a collection of facts; it is a way to gain knowledge. It’s not as much about what we know as how we know it — and how we understand it.

    If you ask Dr. Fred for a simple fact, such as how fast, large, or hot something is, he’ll often just tell you to look it up for yourself.

    I really appreciate what you’re saying here. Too often, science courses are taught as though all one needs to do is memorize a collection of facts. The flash card approach to studying allows one to pass the course, and naturally, all those facts are soon forgotten. This approach breeds the idea that science has already happened, and all the facts are in the books. No wonder science looks dull to young students.

    I recall helping my niece with her 5th Grade science homework. Astronomy was the current subject. One of the questions was:

    “An elliptical galaxy is a galaxy that is shaped like ________ ” and the student was to fill in the blank. What’s the point of that?

    My niece was clearly indoctrinated to the idea that scientific rersearch means you go to the library and look something up in a book. Boring. I asked her at one point how people knew that the Age of the Dinosaurs was hundreds of millions of years ago. She said, “From books?” And she was one of the better students in her class.

    It would have been better to spend the entire semester learning about one topic, imparting a sense of how science is done, and especially, how it is far from finished.

    I support your cause. But I’m guessing that there is a lot of resistance to changing the science curriculum.

    What are your thoughts concerning the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution “debate” as far as bringing it into the classroom?

  • http://www.fredbortz.com Fred Bortz

    Thanks, Duane.

    In the same “Ask Dr. Fred” area that you quoted from is a link to a page entitled “What are a scientist’s views on creation?”

    My position is that Intelligent Design is not a science and thus doesn’t belong in the science curriculum.

    And I am especially annoyed by Intelligent Design advocates who speak of the “controversy” over evolution. There would be no controversy if they did not create one.

    The Darwinian hypothesis has long since earned the right to be called a “theory” putting it on an equal footing with Relativity, for example.

    Like any theory, it is constantly facing challenges and occasionally needs minor tune-ups (like quantum electrodynamics recast Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism to fit the newfound quantum reality). But it has held up quite nicely and has led to enormous advances in our understanding of life on Earth.

    That’s how I see it. My Science Shelf Book Review Archive has my comments on a number of books on that topic. Start with
    http://www.scienceshelf.com/AncestorsTale.htm
    and follow the links from there.

  • http://mistwereld.blogspot.com Floris Vermeir

    Science like philosophy should in my opinion, better be teached some facts and then let people try alone or in group to go trough the whole evolution of thought, for example in perception philosophy, to find things on there own.

    Perhaps the fact that it is often seen as looking up facts, only, doing a bit of experiments but nothing more, is giving rise to ID and creationism. If they would go thinking things trough on there own, then people might get more insight in things.

    As for the book publisher, liek a teacher once said, you give people/children information, but in school there isn’t enough time to do something with it. You just hope that someday, they will do something with that knowledge.

    Learning knowledge is good, useful, but it is also critical to allow them, to give them time to do something with it.