Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Latest Tweet Has Education Supporters In Uproar — But Was It Misunderstood?

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author, and science education advocate, has often tweeted things that have been upsetting to some religious groups, but this time, his tweet has offended educators and supporters of education, instead. However, like many of his tweets, Tyson’s statement about teachers may be deeper than the first glance at 140 characters shows.

Neil’s tweet, below, has been read as a condemnation of teachers. Some seem to read it as calling all teachers “bad,” while others are reading that “good” teachers have no positive effect on their students. Read it for yourself before we delve into what Neil may have really meant.

While it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Neil is saying something about what effect good teachers have, let’s consider a few questions before moving on to what the tweet really meant.

First, do “good teachers” produce only straight-A students?

Second, do all students of “bad teachers” fail objective tests on the subject matter?

Since the answer to both of those is surely “no,” we are left to accept that, as Neil indicated, teachers are only one factor. They are an important factor, to be sure, but only one of several factors, still. So, what is Neil deGrasse Tyson saying about the other factors?

A straight-A student is, of course, one who has succeeded (so long as we accept that grades demonstrate success) at all courses, despite that he has probably had some wonderful teachers, and some less-wonderful ones. His success under the less-capable teacher is presumably due to his own ability to learn despite inadequate instruction. Is his success under the “good teacher” of Neil’s tweet, then, due to the teacher, or to that same learning ability?

It is, perhaps, the students who do not succeed in all classes, regardless of how they’re taught, who best demonstrate the skill of a “good teacher.” For them, a teacher’s skill may mean the difference between success and failure. This student is not mentioned in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s tweet, though — he refers only to the straight-A student.

None of this says that a devoted, passionate, skilled teacher cannot be a benefit to the already-successful student — it only indicates that an always-successful student is probably successful largely due to his own skills. Super teachers are wonderful, and every student benefits from them — but the students who struggle but pass are perhaps a better measure of these teachers’ success than the straight-A students.

It also doesn’t address whether a particularly excellent teacher taught Neil’s straight-A student those skills, of course. Tyson’s tweet addresses only one aspect of education for one subset of students.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, an avid supporter of education, who has lavishly praised particularly excellent educators, such as Carl Sagan (io9 has video of Tyson gushing about his interaction with Sagan), would surely be the last to say teachers don’t deserve credit for teaching. However, saying that students who are successful across the board are successful in spite of their worst teachers is not a slam of good teachers. It simply gives credit to those students who have the skill and drive to be successful, regardless of instruction.

Jumping on the bandwagon to accuse Neil deGrasse Tyson of an attack on education is easy, but reading his words and seeing his actual message is worth the effort.

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