Friday, October 02, 2015

Craft and Dogma

"Real education must ultimately be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding." (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading)

On Wednesday, I found myself suggesting that we remove the teaching of evolution from the elementary school curriculum. As Jonathan rightly pointed out, that absurd consequence is a reason to re-evaluate the thinking that led me there. To that end, it's important to keep in mind that I'm not against teaching children all the science they can handle. My worry is that when we teach evolution, we aren't actually teaching them science. I'd say the same thing about showing them pictures of atoms and, indeed, diagrams of the solar system. They give a false impression about the sense in which the motion of particles or planets can be seen. And without a realistic sense of how these facts are observed, we're not really teaching them scientic method. We're teaching them scientific doctrine. We're indoctrinating them.

And my point, of course, is that doctrine is the opposite of science. Once we've told students that scientific knowledge is what comes from scientific authorities supported by scientific institutions, we've prepared them to be credulous rather than critical. My favourite example of how this enters the classroom (certainly how I was taught it back in the 1980s) is through the hero/martyr narrative of Galileo. The story we are told is that he discovered that the Earth moves and was silenced by the Church. This is, in many ways rightly, presented as "the birth of modern science", but the emphasis is too often on "science" not "modern", as if there was no science before modernity. The key element of the narrative is that the Church is not cast as a "scientific" institution, but a religious one.

The truth, however, is much more complicated. Though time has vindicated his hypothesis, Galileo's evidence at the time was not at all unambiguous. Much more importantly, the model of the solar system that he was challenging had been carefully constructed to account for the observable data. For the most part, the Church did not deny the empirical facts of planetary motion (i.e., how the objects in the visible sky behave); it just rejected Galileo's revolutionary explanation for these facts. What we call "science" is not just the matter of coming up with the right theory of the universe. It's about the careful of observation of nature. That's not something Galileo invented.

But it is certainly something he was very good at. Indeed, he was an innovator of our observational techniques, and his inclined plane experiments, which I've been harping on about, is an excellent example. Ezra Pound—my Virgil this week, my guide through this hell—put it this way (with a tip of the hat to "some Huxley or Haldane"): "in inventing the telescope [Galileo] had to commit a definite technical victory over materials" (GK, p. 50). Galileo, we might say, was not just a great genius but also a master craftsman. In making this point, however, Pound does not reject what came before. "Before the scientific method," he points out, "when men had hardly more than words as a means for transmission of thought, they took a great deal more care in defining them." He ends up proposing that "Every man who wants to set his ideas in order ought to be soused for a week at least in one part of mediaeval scholasticism."

Failing such care in defining our terms, we find ourselves believing in facts without understanding our words and, ultimately, without mastering the methods that give us access to them. My worry is that we're teaching science, too often, as dogma not as craft. Even our "methods", especially in the social sciences, are often merely ritualistic ways of invoking facts where only meanings are available. We pretend to observe what we can only interpret. I've been concerned about this for a long time, it seems. Truth be told, I think I'm through the Inferno. I'm going to have to find a way out of this purgatory now.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Good post. Suppose I'm teaching rules for counting syllables in Spanish verse. You can teach the rule, and that might be enough at an initial level, but someone understanding the rule understands the dogma and not the craft. It will take longer to understand the reasons behind the rules, the inner workings of it. In math students memorize formulae and apply them without much understanding. Rote knowledge, though, it useful because we can use it quickly and conveniently as needed.

Another examples would be aspect of verbs. There might be three ways of thinking about this:

1. There is an intuition; a feel for this, so that you just know how to use it (the native speaker's.)
2. There might be a theoretical explanation of it (the linguist's)
3. There might be rules given to the second language learner. These rules are not as rigorous or complicated as the linguist's formulation, and they are necessary because the 2nd language learner doesn't have the intuition of the native speaker either. Insofar as they are memorized as rules, they are dogma, neither intuitive nor nuanced.