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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
11. Biology Texts
The national ferment in biology education was matched by concern for college materials dealing with current advancements in biology. I have mentioned already the program for writing high school biology texts. An agency concerned with shaping new college programs and teaching materials was the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, headed by Henry Koffler at Purdue University. I was invited to join the BSCS while innovative biology programs from several major universities were being analyzed and evaluated. One of the projects was to survey the content of significant new university curricula, such as those under development at Stanford and North Carolina. The topics covered in the courses were identified and divided into 15 minute segments, and thus characterizing the substance and weight of the emerging consensus.
As a member of the council I participated in regular meetings of BSCS and went as a representative to colleges and universities that requested advice about curricular development. Most of these visits were to small liberal arts colleges scattered across the country. I had never realized how many such small institutions existed, how limited their resources were, and how daunting their tasks. The advice we provided, however, was not very useful. Mainly the colleges wanted to know how to get more funds for buildings and staff; the programmatic challenges were of less immediacy. Eventually Koffler retired from the effort; I was invited to take it over, but declined in the face of my projects at home.
Academic publishers were also very much aware of the changes in biological education and eager to get insight into developing markets. Representatives from publishing houses were frequent visitors to professor’s offices, and one of these was probably responsible for my invitation to a conference at the University of Pennsylvania, funded by John Wiley and Sons. This conference had been organized by Clifford Grobstein, a prominent developmental biologist, and included a number of outstanding young educators with ideas about improving college education in biology. I presented my ideas about “putting biology back together” and they received unexpectedly enthusiastic support from the delegates and from the sponsor.
Wiley offered to publish a series of three books representing the essence of modern biological understanding about The Biology of Cells, The Biology of Organisms and The Biology of Populations. I agreed to write the cell book if I could persuade a botanical colleague at Illinois to join me. Herb Stern eventually agreed to the task. Don Kennedy (subsequently the president of Stanford and currently the editor of Science) wrote the organism book with William Telfer. Robert McArthur, a brilliant student of E. O. Wilson, and soon to be recognized as the founding theorist of island biogeography before his premature death, undertook to write the population book.
The Wiley series seemed initially to meet a real educational need. The reviews were favorable, and early sales were good. Translations were prepared and published in Spanish, Japanese and Hebrew. However, the sales dropped soon and no new editions were published. The concept of succinct, authoritative, historically connected, overviews of major concepts within biology was challenged by an alternative approach: the publication of encyclopedic current summaries of the latest developments in rapidly moving areas. Jim Watson’s Molecular Biology of the Gene was a forerunner of this genre, and it became a marked success, in part because of Watson’s skills as a communicator. From a marketing perspective also, the concept of a large, expensively illustrated, and quickly obsolete summary of a rapidly moving discipline was attractive to both publishers and authors. Whether such texts would provide the best grounding in the breadth and depth of contemporary biology was questioned ineffectively in the face of marketing forces. The challenge of transmitting a coherent summary of biological inquiry, past and present, has not been met, and few institutions are making a serious effort to do so.