Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Machines or Magic

"In the study of physics we begin with simple mechanisms, wedge, lever and fulcrum, pulley and inclined plane, all of them still as useful as when they were first invented. We proceed by a study of discoveries.” (Ezra Pound, “How to Read”)

As I recall, I was shown a picture of Niels Bohr's atom in a science textbook in grade five or six. It wasn't until high-school physics that I was taught Galileo's inclined plane experiment—complete with the historical detail that, lacking a mechanical clock, he timed the rolling ball against a musical phrase that he would hum. Not yet a teenager, I was being taught that apparently solid matter consisted mostly of empty space, that the function of science is to make fools of my senses. (They call this "wonder" sometimes.) Only much later did I learn that science was a way of making sense of my experiences.

I don't want this to be a complaint about K-12 educational ideologies, but the difference between these two images is interesting to me. Bohr's atom is a wildly inaccurate representation of an object that I will never experience with my senses, and which only very few people ever really learn how to observe empirically. Galileo's inclined plane is a sensible object and a physical machine that, as it happens, shows us very precisely how one of the indisputably most important forces in the universe operates. At best, Bohr's atom helps us to remember that there are (whatever they are) electrons, neutrons and protons. Galileo's plane teaches us how to decompose the motion of an object into its vectors, and thereby determine its acceleration due to gravity.

On one of my other blogs, I recently argued that we could safely leave the teaching of evolution out of the elementary school curriculum.* For one thing, it would avoid making our children's minds an ideological battleground that pits parents against teachers, religion against science. Instead, we could simply teach our students how to actually observe the life around them. Our current approach is to insist they come to believe in a theory of our origins that is, when you think about it, very difficulty to understand, very difficult really to get your mind around. Even those who rightly think evolution is true, often don't really know how it works. It's a bit like teaching children that matter is really mostly space. They might get that answer right on an exam, but it's unlikely to be based on an understanding of the fluctuations of the quantum ether.

By a similar token, I believe that the "crisis of representation", the "metaphysics of presence" and the "archaeology of knowledge", however rightly they may get at the complicated situation of contemporary writing, have distracted us from the heart of the matter, which is not "language" or "experience" but words and letters arranged to be about something.

The teacher of prose who has grown bored with the paragraph is like the teacher of poetry who doesn't want to see another sonnet. It's time to find another subject to teach, not to declare the genre retired. (I know. That's the second potshot I've taken at Adam Banks this week. I'll try to come at him more directly next week.) It is because we lack the patience to show students the full variety of expression that is possible using at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words arranged to support a central claim that we have turned to occult notions of "inspiration" and "expression". We have to show students once again that three quatrains and a couplet are resources, not constraints, when the aim is to be precise about our emotions.

We should confine education to the teaching of things we know. There is so much out there that our students don't yet know the first thing about. And we refuse to teach those first things to them. It is a mystery to me why we waste their time trying to get them to believe things they are unlikely to be able to understand. We're leading them to believe that our machines work by magic. They certainly seem increasingly unable to distinguish between sticks and stones and words.

*[Update, October 1: In the comments, Jonathan rightly points out how weird this suggestion is. I wish I could claim I meant it as a "modest proposal" of some kind, but at the time (even yesterday) I thought it had some plausibility. Obviously, it could never be implemented in actual curriculum design, and the suggestion, taken as an analogy, probably just reflects the depth of the despair about writing instruction that I mentioned in my last post. When I'm more optimistic (which I usually am) my ideas are less ridiculous.]


Presskorn said...

Adam Banks seems too eager to nail the coffin of the essay and too anxiously awaiting what has come to be known as a "paradigm shift".

I take it, however, that Stanley Cavell caught the appropriate sense of conservatism that must along even with the most revolutionary of paradigm shifts:

"This is how, in my illiteracy, I read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: that only a master of the science can accept a revolutionary change as a natural extension of that science; and that he accepts it, or proposes it, in order to maintain touch with the idea of that science, with its internal canons of comprehensibility and comprehensiveness, as if against the vision that, under altered circumstances, the normal progress of explanation and exception no longer seem to him to be science. And then what he does may not seem scientific to the old master." (The Claim pf Reason, p. 121)

Jonathan said...

Kids love dinosaurs and primates. I know I went through a very intense period of studying primates in the about the 5th grade. Not to teach evolution seems like a way of stifling intellectual and scientific curiosity at an early age. A lot of this is inherently interesting, like the study of genetics. Of course, direct observation of the physical world is great as well, but it seems to that depriving kids of the intellectual framework that can explain a lot of things is a huge disservice. You don't need to have all the intellectual tools at that age (you won't) but even things like relativity can be very fascinating even for someone without the advanced maths to really grasp it. I used to know what general relativity was but I've forgotten it and am left with only special relativity.

Thomas said...

You're right, Jonathan. Reading that paragraph again, it does seem a bit unhinged. I've also sometimes fantasized about teaching children first a geocentric universe, constructing it from observations about the sun, moon, planets and stars. Only after the anomalies and epicycles begin to accumulate, I imagined, could we introduce the idea that the earth moves, making the model much more elegant. Both ideas are completely unrealistic and, as you point out, probably not even ideal. I do feel like we're skipping over something important, though, that we're telling them things we might better show them, even if it would delay their confrontation with the concepts of selection and relativity. It would give them a sense of the problems that these notions solve.