Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Epilogue: Why Educators Need A 'Cultural Utility Belt'

Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks at the Television Critics Association press tour in January 2010.

hide captionNeil deGrasse Tyson has a few words for teachers.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

After I had finished my discussions with Neil deGrasse Tyson about Pluto and science education, and after I'd turned off the recorder, I was thanking him and mentioned in passing that because my beat is pop culture, I've sometimes made pro-curiosity arguments that knowing about lots of different things is more often good than bad — essentially the discussion here. He stopped, looked at the recorder, and said, "Turn that back on."

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I was invited to give a keynote address to the American Association of Physics Teachers. Two thousand physics teachers, mostly high school, some community college, some teaching college. ... At the end, I said, "Just by a show of hands, how many among you do not own a television?" These are people who teach physics. Half the hands went up.

I said, "Of those who remain, who own a television, how many of you don't watch it except maybe you put a movie on it?" Half the hands went up. Which meant three-quarters of that audience had no access to the single greatest force on the thinking of the people who it is that they're trying to teach. And I said to them: you cannot call yourself an educator if you have no insights into the tangled mental pathways that exist in the people who you are trying to teach.

It's not just a lesson plan you're handing people. You've got to get in the head and find out how they're going to misthink what it is you're saying. You've got to get in the head and find out what excites them to care about what it is you're saying. And if you don't, you're just simply lecturing. You're not an educator, you're a lecturer, and they either get it or they don't. If that's what you are, fine, but don't pretend you're anything else.

So the average kid watches 30 hours of TV a week. You should at least know what it is. I'm not saying watch it every night. But if there's a hit show, know what the hit show is. Take a minute, watch American Idol. Watch NOVA. Watch the movie of the week. Watch the football game. Watch Janet Jackson's left breast. Find out what people are talking about. Because that will matter to them, whether or not it matters to you.

The shark repellent of the cultural utility belt, after the jump.

You know something? You're not the subject of that class — they are.

So I didn't know how they'd react, but it got applause. Pretty strong, sustained applause after I said that, among even those who did not own televisions. So it's not a matter of stigma, it's just a matter of ... life. Yeah, I wish people watched less TV — I know I shouldn't say that, because I appear on television, but given that they watch that much TV, you're missing opportunities to make references.

You know how much physics goes on in a football game? Transfer of momentum and moving coordinate systems — a moving ball plus a moving person intersect with a parabolic trajectory of a spiral, of a spin-stablized projectile? There's a lot of physics there, you don't even know how to go there, because you're not watching the same game they are.

Not all television programming lends itself to that analysis, but nonetheless, there could have been an episode that had an interesting twist, a plot that you can tap. In fact, I view those tools as features on the utility belt that I carry with me every day. I'll call that my cultural utility belt.

Like Batman is pulling out something whenever he needs it? I remember I saw one Batman movie, the early Batman, he'd encounter a shark, and he has shark repellent. And I said, "He could not have known at the beginning of the day that he needed shark repellent." Of course, it's kind of campy, and it's Batman, but it told me that there's no shortage of tools that you should be able to carry with you to be able to communicate with someone who's not in your profession.

And therein, I think, should be the tool kit of the educator. Little bit of pop culture, little bit of sports, little bit of politics, little bit of everything that's not in your field, because it's going to be in everybody else's portfolio of interests. It allows you to go places undreamt of if all you did was speak to the line-by-line notes of your curriculum.

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