"The fields divided one by one"

>> Monday, November 25, 2013

I was new to the classroom, my teaching philosophy strongly influenced by Earl Shorris’ Clemente Course in the Humanities, a program developed in the 1990s to provide university-level instruction in philosophy, art, logic, and poetry to poor adults in American cities. My students, poor children from Bedford-Stuyvesant, would achieve agency and power in their own, first-grade way: we’d read poetry, study Pablo Picasso and Jacob Lawrence, listen to jazz, write folk tales about our neighborhood.

Sometimes we planted seeds and bulbs in paper cups and left them to sprout on the windowsill, but mostly I didn’t worry about science. I was teaching them to read; I was working on their cultural literacy.

But science is cultural literacy....
Slate, November 24th, 2013.

Belle Boggs' piece on the state of science education in the United States in Slate is worth a read, and brought to your attention with approval, but I also can't help pointing out a basic flaw in the above: she doesn't take her conclusion far enough, which is a part of the problem with what we've done to education.

To be fair, it's not like the "division" between the humanities and sciences is anything new, and to be even fairer, there's a superficial logic in dividing up a school day into particularized subjects taught (hopefully) by experts in that subject.  And it's how we teach college students, and there's an understandable urge to treat primary schools like miniaturized versions of the university education.

It's just that treating the primary school as a junior version of college in this way doesn't take into account that college student are (or ought to be) old and savvy enough to make connections for themselves: implicit in narrowing the focus of each college subject is that the college student is connecting the History class on Jacksonian America with the History seminar on Reconstruction, and in turn connecting those classes with American Poetry and English Poetry, and all of them with whatever else he or she happens to be taking.  The goal of the University education, when it was invented back in medieval Europe being to produce well-rounded individuals who might be experts in one arcane field or another, but who nevertheless knew a little something about everything, especially since one never knows what stray datum might be useful.  A bit easier then, when there was much less to know, but that doesn't mean we should be discarding the basic principle of a-little-bit-of-everything-and-now-you-know-something that a formal education was meant to instill.

Perhaps it's partly because there is too much to know now, and so we feel obligated to specialize, but it seems we do a lousy job of teaching generality.  And an especially lousy job when we're at the stage where generality might be best, where humans are young and their brains are plastic and they could and should be encouraged to make connections between all the amazing things that are and have been and could be, without worrying about the adult conveniences that tries to box one set of facts in a package marked "Science" and another set of items in a package marked "English".

In other words, bless Belle Boggs for trying to have her Bed-Stuy kids reading poetry and listening to jazz, but there's a larger problem with her not being able to bring science into these activities and vice-versa than her kids merely being unprepared to understand fracking or global warming.  It's that science informs art and the other way around, because these are ultimately human activities, inevitably bound together.

Go back almost two centuries and hang out with Charles Darwin, and you find that one of the milestones in his thinking about descent with modification by natural selection was happening to read Thomas Malthus' An Essay on the Principle of Population.  That Malthus' thinking and conclusions were at least problematic (and, at most, probably wrong) isn't pertinent; the point is that you have a natural philosopher taking a break from finch beaks and rabbit hutches to read a book that's more-or-less about the economics of population growth, which we might say was "outside" Darwin's field of study or expertise--we'd be wrongly projecting our notions upon his era, mind you--and this reading sets Darwin to thinking about scarcity as a natural force, and this is arguably Darwin's breakthrough.  When we talk about it now, we like to talk about those finches because we think a scientist (a word that didn't even exist until Darwin was twenty-four years old) is sticking his nose into observations of nature and spends his time doing nothing but experiments or fieldwork or other "sciencey" endeavors; a scientist looking at birds and coming up with an idea about birds that he applies to other animals sounds like the way science works.  We don't think about a "scientist" reading a book about not-about-science and putting it down and saying to himself, "Hmh... that's... interesting... I wonder...?"  We ought to.

Though I also don't want to get totally swamped in how culture informs science, because that's almost as superficial as dividing culture from science in the first place.

Because we should also remind ourselves that "science" isn't so much an "area of knowledge" as it is a way to think about things.  This is a general problem in science education, I think: we teach science as a package of facts about the universe instead of teaching it as an epistemological approach to the universe.  The scientific method is an obvious part of that, and sometimes we teach a little of that in schools as a prelude to forcing students to memorize trivia about atoms and animals, but the beating heart of science is as simple as wondering why things happen and how they go together, and the soul of science is the useful a priori belief that the world is comprehensible, that things happen for reasons and we can understand what they are.

Which isn't at all a bad way to approach History, or Poetry, or Language.

I'm not contending that we ought to approach books as if they're mere objects to be taken apart.  What I'm saying is that Science, as an academic subject, ought to be about learning how to query the universe to understand how it works, but that this is also what History and English Lit and all the rest ought to be about.  There are specific kinds of things you learn along the way--what water is made of and who Huckleberry Finn is and where the first battles of the American Revolution occurred--but all of these things are much less important than being able to understand why hydrogen and oxygen behave a peculiar way when they bond, and why The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is written the way it is, and why Lexington and Concord instead of, oh, say, New York City.

There's a framework over all of this that schools seem to have woeful difficulty with: critical thinking.  Not skeptical thinking, or criticism, but a willingness to engage with ideas and really work them over and to Reason.  I feel unnecessarily obligated to add that Reason isn't necessarily a superior cousin to family members like Emotion and Intuition: it's completely valid to think and feel about any thing on multiple levels at once, indeed it's probably desirable.

It has been a long time since I was in school, and I have no children, though my work brings me into contact with quite a lot of them.  To be fair, I may be missing something.  Then again, I don't think schools did a terribly good job with these issues when I was in school: good teachers found ways to connect things together, but there were far too many for whom a subject ended at their door.  Very often, I'm afraid, you could pass for smart merely by not compartmentalizing: if you realized that something happened a particular way in a particular battle because of the physics of the weapons being used and that Shakespeare took dramatic liberties in his reenactment--or that it was even the same battle Shakespeare was writing about--teachers might love you and peers despise you alike and for no better reason than your inability to segregate information that shouldn't have been split up in the first place.  I can't imagine, anyway, that it's any better now that everything is "metrics" and tests and so on.

But the fact that everything is connected when you look at it--that was marvelous to me then, and it's fantastic to me now.  It's the way I always wanted to learn--given my druthers, every class would have been James Burke's Connections in some fashion, and I definitely don't just mean from the scientific history angle.  And this is how I would want my children to be taught if I had them, that everything is inseparable and strung together, and that you can't just take one thing out and study it without failing to understand it and everything you removed it from.

Really, I'd teach them how to learn.


Sean Yeager Tuesday, November 26, 2013 at 8:54:00 AM EST  

From my experience with my 3 year old son, it's a child's nature to be curious, and want to learn. I feel like our response to that is critical, especially before they're in school. When he asks "why?" I always try to answer in the most simple terms but also as completely as I can. We find YouTube videos or we'll get a book at the library the next time we go.

I think if you ignore that curiosity at an early age and consequently children stop asking "why?" and "how?", it takes the interest in learning away. It's like you're telling them there aren't any answers or that asking questions is a pointless venture.

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