"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.


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An open letter to Mrs. Deborah Herman

>> Friday, November 01, 2013

    DEARLY BELOVED[PLEASE HELP HUMANITY]3‏

DEBORAH HERMAN (debhrm@pstrs.com)

From:    DEBORAH HERMAN (debhrm@pstrs.com)
Sent:    Fri 11/01/13 12:31 AM
To:   

NAME: DEBORAH JENNIFER HERMAN

COUNTRY OF BIRTH:AUSTRALIA

ATTN:BELOVED,


GREETINGS IN THE NAME OF HUMANITY,I AM MRS DEBORAH JENNIFER HERMAN A CITIZEN OF AUSTRALIA BUT PRESENTLY IN THE MALAYSIA.I USED TO BE WORKING FOR THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, I AM 50 YEARS OLD, I AM NOW A NEW CHRISTIAN BUT FROM ALL INDICATION,MY CONDITIONS HEALTH WISE IS REALLY DETERIORATING DUE TO A PAINFUL LONG TIME OF SUFFERING FROM CANCER OF THE LUNGS AND NOW,FROM OBVIOUS RESULTS FROM MY DOCTORS INDICATES THAT I WON"T LIVE MORE THAN 1 YEAR, ACCORDING TO MY DOCTORS, THIS IS BECAUSE THE CANCER STAGE HAS GOTTEN TO A VERY BAD STAGE OF COMATOSE.
MY LATE HUSBAND DIED LAST FIVE YEARS, AND DURING THE PERIOD OF OUR MARRIAGE WE COULDN'T PRODUCE ANY CHILD. MY LATE HUSBAND WAS VERY WEALTHY AND AFTER HIS DEATH, I INHERITED ALL HIS BUSINESS AND WEALTH.
THE DOCTORS HAS ADVISED ME THAT I MAY NOT LIVE FOR MORE THAN 1 YEAR, SO I NOW DECIDED TO DIVIDE THE PART OF THIS WEALTH, TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHURCH IN AFRICA, AMERICA ASIA, AND EUROPE.

I SELECTED YOU AFTER VISITING THE WEBSITE AND I PRAYED OVER IT.I AM WILLING TO DONATE THE SUM OF $25,000,000USD (TWENTY FIVE MILLION UNITED STATES DOLLARS) TO THE LESS PRIVILEGED.

PLEASE I WANT YOU TO NOTE THAT THIS FUND IS LYING IN A SECURITY COMPANY IN THE MALAYSIA.ONCE I HEAR FROM YOU, I WILL FORWARD TO YOU ALL THE INFORMATION YOU WILL USE TO GET FUND RELEASED FROM THE SECURITY COMPANY AND TO BE TRANSFERRED TO YOUR ACCOUNT.

I HONESTLY PRAY THAT THIS MONEY WHEN TRANSFERRED TO YOUR ACCOUNT WILL BE USE FOR THE SAID PURPOSE, BECAUSE I HAVE COME TO FIND OUT THAT WEALTH ACQUISITION WITHOUT HUMILITY,ALL IS VANITY.

PLEASE PROVIDE ME WITH THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION SO I CAN FORWARD IT TO A CHURCH ATTORNEY WHOM MY DOCTORS RECOMMENDED SO THAT HE CAN GUIDE YOU ON CLAIM OF THE INHERITANCE FUNDS.

HE IS DILIGENT AND A CHRISTIAN SO I AM CONFIDENT HE IS GOING TO HANDLE THE TRANSACTION WITH YOU AND LEAD, ADVICE YOU ON HOW TO SECURE THE FUNDS IN YOUR FAVOR.
INFORMATION NEEDED

FULL NAME...................................

FULL ADDRESS......................................

COMPANY AND ADDRESS:...........................

MARITAL STATUS:.....................

RELIGION:.................

SEX:............................

FAX NO..............................................

PHONE NO:..................

MAY THE GRACE OF OUR LORD JESUS THE LOVE OF GOD AND THE FELLOWSHIP OF GOD BE WITH YOU AND YOUR FAMILY.

I AWAIT YOUR URGENT REPLY.(d.herman3@aol.com}

YOUнRE SISTER IN CHRIST.

MRS DEBORAH JENNIFER HERMAN 



Dear Mrs. Herman,

Salutations in the name of... erm... fellow humanity!

I have to lay it out straightly for you, Mrs. Herman: in recent months I haven't bothered writing too many open letters of this sort, but I found yours especially compelling because I do believe this is the first time in my life I have ever received an e-mail from a patient in a coma.  Indeed, while I am not a medical professional and have only a lay knowledge of comas, I think you may be doing your coma wrong, so to speak, as being in a coma usually, if not always, precludes visiting websites, praying and sending e-mails, not to mention conducting business transactions.  Speaking of which, one has to wonder whether a business transaction conducted by someone in a coma would be enforceable or have any validity; well, actually, I already know the answer to that one, so I don't really "wonder" about it at all: generally speaking, unless there's some legal provision I am unaware of, coma patients are typically considered incompetent to handle their own affairs.

Now, I have come across claims of communications being made with people in persistent vegetative states, but I have to admit I'm a bit skeptical.  And the best of those claims--the ones like the one at the link that involve scientific machinery and not merely some person coming in and saying, "Oh, he blinked when he heard his dog's name!" or "She waggled her fingers when I asked her how she was feeling, that must mean she's fine!" still fall well short of typing up an e-mail and sending it.  (Though I will also concede that your use of ALL CAPS usually suggests an author who is in some kind of semiconscious or fugue state, or who at least would display minimal brain activity if hooked up to an EEG.)

A far more likely explanation, and I believe this is good news, Mrs. Herman, is that you have really, really bad doctors.

I do not intend to impugn the professionalism of the medical community in The Malaysia.  I am sure that, like most places in the world, there are very good doctors who make the most of the available resources they have in The Malaysia, and very bad doctors who would be incompetent no matter what tools they had at hand; this is certainly true in the United States and I imagine it's true anywhere else you go.  Even in the poorest country one can imagine, no doubt there are doctors who are miracle workers given what they have to work with, and even in the richest country one could visit, there's probably some currently-licensed medical professional who would sew his watch up inside an appendectomy cavity before staggering back to wherever he's stashed his medicinal scotch.  Ability, competence and sobriety aside, it's also true that there is a wide range of medical schools and training programs, and there are certainly educational pathways that would leave even the most promising medical student on Earth without the knowledge and skills to successfully distinguish a colonoscopy slide from a photograph of a hole in the ground.

But if you're writing e-mails, and conducting web research, and performing assorted other activities, it seems likely to me that the doctor who diagnosed you with "A VERY BAD STAGE OF COMATOSE" may well be one of the least-skilled and/or least-capable doctors in The Malaysia.  We have a television program in the United States called The Simpsons in which a recurring character named "Dr. Nick Riviera" appears (that's a picture of him on the left), and the ongoing joke about this Dr. Nick (as he's usually called) is that he is a very bad doctor; he is a nice man, with a wide smile and a friendly catchphrase, "Hi, everybody!" that he draws out in a kindly, euphonious way, but he has been known to set himself and his office on fire.  For example.  Dr. Nick has a funny accent: I don't know if it supposed to be a The Malaysian accent or not, and of course Dr. Nick is a cartoon doctor and not a real doctor, but is it possible you've encountered his real-world inspiration?  Perhaps.  At the least, I feel that Dr. Nick is exactly the sort of medical person who would poke and prod you and listen to your complaints of pain and observe you sending e-mails, and (erroneously) conclude you were suffering "A VERY BAD STAGE OF COMATOSE"  (he might even announce it loudly, in a way suggesting the diagnosis was in ALL CAPS).

It is for this reason I have a humble suggestion, a counter-proposal for you.

I realize from your missive that you must be a very religious woman, and while I am not a religious man myself (I am, in fact, an atheist, an unbeliever), I am reasonably sure that any religious leader considering your situation would consider it no sin at all for you to take some of the $25,000,000 U.S. dollars you intended for charity and use it to get a second opinion.  I do not believe it would be the least bit selfish or sinful--although, again, I am no religious expert--to even take enough of the $25,000,000 as would cover airfare to your native Australia and visit a hospital or clinic there, if you didn't want to put another doctor in The Malaysia in the awkward position of confronting a peer's obvious malpractice.  Or anywhere: you could easily fly to the United States, I'm sure, and obtain legal, temporary entry to the country for the purpose of consulting one of our doctors.

I should emphasize an obvious and salient point, that if your The Malaysian doctor is wrong about you suffering from "A VERY BAD STAGE OF COMATOSE", he or she might be wrong about other things, like your lung cancer diagnosis or the prognosis that you only have a year to live.  You might be suffering from no more than a chest cold.  Or heartburn.  I definitely think you need a second opinion about the COMATOSE, but considering how radically wrong and off-the-beam he (or she) is about that, there's really no telling whatever erroneous, mistaken, or outright fraudulent diagnoses have been made by this so-called "doctor".  It's worth checking out.

And if my suspicions are correct, and this "doctor" is an idiot, you may well have many years ahead of you, years of good health during which you could personally pursue whatever charitable and philanthropic impulses you have.  You don't need me.  You might be awake and alive, and able to see to these churches in Africa, "America Asia" (Alaska?) and Europe yourself.  Who knows?  You might even feel so magnanimous with your new lease on life that you decide to build one or two churches (or whatever) in your native Australia.

Go.  See a real doctor.  One who knows what COMATOSE means.  And good luck and best wishes.


Sincerely,
R. Eric VanNewkirk








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