Friday, October 08, 2010

Putting Wonder and Meaning Back into Science

I just finished reading the introduction to Vern Poythress' Redeeming Science, and this section really resonated with me. He is talking about how modern teaching of science is devoid of wonder and meaning for the students; he argues that wonder and meaning return when we see our study of science as part of a larger worldview in which we are seeking to understand the world we live in and our role as humans in that world. I think the same could be true for almost every other subject; from personal experience, I did not enjoy my studies of literature or history until I started to see them as part of a bigger picture and story.

It's kind of a long excerpt, but I think it's all necessary to make the whole point:
Science as now taught is influenced by an ideology of "objectivity" that may prefer to sweep under the rug the experience of personal fascination, delight, beauty, and mystery. Excitement is not communicated as it should be to each new generation, and so they do not see the point. Science gets reduced to a game in which we learn meaningless rules in order to solve artificial problems posed on teachers' tests. Or it is no more than a pragmatic tool by which we produce gadgets that bring comfort, entertainment, and status. Or, for those who excel in science, it is a platform for parading intellectual power and achievement. Where is a vision for the whole world that would draw us into an appreciation of the human significance of science?

My son has been studying conic sections in his high school math class. I think the subject is beautiful. But he does not; and he does not see the point. I asked him whether the teacher or textbook provided any justification or meaning for it. No. If the teacher were asked, he would say, "We are doing it because it is part of the curriculum." That evasion sounds like saying, "There is no real point, but only an arbitrary decision from the authorities who drew up the curriculum." Such lack of purpose does not produce a good learning atmosphere, despite the fact that the teacher himself has a genuine love for his subject and a commitment to his teaching.

My wife and I observed the trouble with our son much earlier. In about the third grade, he was studying biology by memorizing scientific terminology for the parts of the leaf or the divisions of the animal kingdom. He was not exploring how animals behave, but just memorizing. I was so appalled by the mauled vision of science that I felt like averting my eyes in shame. I found myself saying lamely, "This is not what real science is like. Real science means exploring and adventuring." And now with more maturity I might add, "And from time to time, after a long, exhausting climb, we catch a breathtaking glimpse of the beauty of God."


I am glad to say that later there were some high points in my son's science education. The sixth grade class set off toy rockets that went 500 feet into the air. The seventh grade took a field trip to a stream valley where they dug out shale and broke it open to find fossils.

We need to reform our thinking about science. And we need to do it in a global way, by tackling on a large scale our conception of what kind of world we live in and what is our human role in it. Western civilization has lost sight of any unified goal, except perhaps the superficial goals of pleasure, prosperity, and tolerance. We have lost our way as a civilization, and the universities have become multi-versities with no center. The grade schools are little better. The atmosphere says, "Work on these apparently meaningless assignments now, so that you will be able to go to college, get a good job, and live the American dream of a large home with two cars and a plasma screen TV." The malaise about science and its meaning is only part of a larger malaise of meaningless engulfing us."

Redeeming Science, 10-12

1 comment:

Melodee said...

Oh, Molly, THANK YOU for posting this! Just three hours ago we were discussing education and science in my Brit Lit class. I'm teaching Dickens' Hard Times which attacks a Utilitarian view that champions "Facts, Facts, Facts!" In the book a student regurgitates a very factual, "scientific" definition of a horse that communicates nothing about the nature of the animal itself - its power, strength, beauty, or majesty. It was a perfect illustration of the kind of science education Poythress is speaking about.

I'm going to share this with my students next week.