The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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February 2013

Boskone: The Year in Short Fiction – 2012

 

The Year in Short Fiction: 2012
Short fiction may be making a welcome comeback, in both print and e-media. Let’s discuss last year’s most notable stories. What new authors and markets are emerging? What promising trends are developing? What are we already getting tired of? What can we look forward to for 2013?
David G. Hartwell (M), Jack M. Haringa, Don D’Ammassa, Toni L. P. Kelne

Hartwell opens with the statement that is “an extraordinary time” for short fiction, and that we seem to be in the early stages of a revival that we haven’t seen the likes of since the 30s and 50s. He recommends reading “Old Paint”, which appeared in Analog last year. He remarks that he liked it despite that fact that it is “sentimental, which is hard to take in science fiction.”

(Note: Compare this to comments made in the Mythology panel, in which an audience member also commented about the expectation that science fiction be cerebral. My opinion is that if science fiction really does want to expand into new markets, its going to have to actively fight the image of being solely for cerebral-minded men who like spaceships. There is SO MUCH of current and past science fiction that does NOT fit this stereotype, and plenty of room to expand it outward as well. I’m not criticizing Hartwell… he is a giant of editing and no doubt knows the field better than I could hope to. Its just that the offhanded remark kind of struck me as a common theme that I’ve been seeing in a lot of the panels and other discussion around SF.)

Hartwell highlights the contributions of Robert Reed and Ken Liu to the body of short fiction produced in 2012, remarking that one of the hardest things about the year was deciding which Ken Liu story to include in just about everything.

Hartwell goes on to praise Liu’s recent work with translation, saying that he hopes this will become part of a larger trend towards more translated works. He says there is a huge untapped universe of non-US science fiction work out there since the 1950s that we simply don’t have adequate access to. Specifically, he would like to see true comparative criticism of science fiction across nations and languages, that compare movements, ideas, and reactions between cultures.

Haringa says that 2012 was a great year for collections and anthologies and thinks the trend will continue. He points out that the rise of POD and small presses does mean that there is more crap out there, but also that there are more avenues to get out there for formats (like novellas) that are hard for the big presses to touch.

(There is a back and forth here for several minutes between Hartwell and Haringa about the role, quantity, quality, and trends of small presses, particularly with respect to print periodicals. I was not able to follow the conversation, but my interpretation was that their disagreement came down to semantics on what constituted a periodical.)

I asked the question about what specifically they were getting tired of and what we could expect for 2013.

Hartwell: There is a proliferation of new markets and a fanning out of where the field is at any one time. The downside of this is that its impossible for any one person to really stay on top of what’s happening in the field, but the upside is that there are a lot of opportunities for new young writers. He sees trends in examining artificial intelligence particularly in light of the biotech revolution, and what the new bioengineering era will bring in terms of visionary futures.  He is tired of zombies and vampires.

Kelner: anthologies seem to be rising and hope to see more of them. Tired of stories that are all mood and no plot. 2013 trends will probably include more crossed genre work, blending of fantasy, science fiction, horror, urban fiction, etc.

Haringa: Noticed a lot more submissions for the Jackson awards from university presses. This seems like a good sign that we have infiltrated academia as a genre. Used to be they wouldn’t touch us as a serious genre. Tired of the dystopian boom, but thinks we’re probably dropping off of that anyway since it was likely jut a reaction to the sudden instability of the times. Hoping to see more short story collections and great themed anthologies in 2013.

(Note: I wonder if the reason anthologies and collections are selling well is the coherence of theme. A magazine issue is a collection of short stories as well, they generally aren’t related. Whereas an anthology can be marketed and sold as a diverse set of variations on a particular theme that may be of interest to the reader.)



Boskone: Mythology in Science Fiction

 

Mythology in Science Fiction
    How have myths and fables from our past affected SF writers’ development of fictitious off-world or future-world mythology? Are most of their myth systems just the old stuff dressed up with different names, or is anybody coming up with anything truly new? Does a mere hint of myth make an SF story a fantasy?
    Julia Rios (M), Debra Doyle, Greer Gilman, Margaret Ronald

Doyle: Myth is great for structure. Use it as a template.

Gilman: As humans we make patterns and map the heavens — this is how we navigate the unknown. Stories are mapmaking, stories are cosmography — little candles to help us along the way. They are the intersection of the familiar (story tropes) and the totally alien.

Rios mentions that Western stories are often the template, and wonders if we are telling the same stories over and over again, in space.Refers to the dichotomy between known myths on the one hand and the totally new on the other. (Note: I think there is room for the in-between. E.g. myths that are not totally new, at all, just unknown to the bulk of English-speaking readers. Why not bring in more eastern, middle-eastern, african, and native mythologies from around the world? Some of these are used more than others, in more or less “diversity-shopping” ways, but I think there is a huge set of untapped possibilities here.)

Panel and audience mention some sci fi that do mythology well: Stross’ Accelerando, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and Anderson’s Goat Song.

What are the oppositions between science and myth? Cursory discussion.

I ask the question, what makes a mythology credible in fiction, and is that related to what makes it publishable? Ronald responds that she would have to believe that this is a story that would be voluntarily told over and over again, because it is really a story about the people who tell it. Gilman says that stories are the old way and the best way, those that are told over and over again. Ronald continues that the mythology can’t be “too tailored” to the story, e.g. too convenient to the plot or characters to where it seems contrived. There needs to be some sort of cognitive dissonance related to a sense of awe. Rios says that she thinks what makes a mythology believable is that everyone sort of has their own take, that the story is told over and over but in different ways, and that the whole thing is actually inconsistent leading to a modicum of instability and dissent. Real myths and real societies are inconsistent, and it is a mark of human authenticity to be so.

Gilman: A good mythology should give us “the illusion of a huge cultural space” behind what we see.

Audience member points out that the mythical tends to stimulate the emotional side of us rather than the cerebral side, which is counter to the purist notion of what science fiction is. (Note: I think some of the most wonderful science fiction out there is on the more human side… consider Flowers for Algernon, GATTACA, and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind… excellent books and movies that many don’t even consider to be science fiction because they are so human, though of course they are.)

Panel considers the difference between a story based on a mythological template (mythology of the writing) vs a mythology that is espoused and believe by the characters (or encountered by the characters).

Gilman wants to see more stories that alien races tell about themselves, with writing that has something to say about who we the audience are as humans. What would an AI that just woke up believe about it’s origins? If it were truly intelligent, would that mean that it would create a story about its own beginnings and purpose?



Boskone: Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?

 

Is the Internet Reprogramming Our Brains?
Short attention span? Hyperdistraction? Googlecrutching? But parallel multiprocessing? Outsourced memory hyperaccessiblity? Superinfotegration? Let’s chat, C if anything clicks.
James Patrick Kelly (M), Justine Graykin, Jerry Pournelle, John P. Murphy, Charles Gannon

Gannon opens with the observation that the internet has increased the speed at which debate and negotiation can move forward. A query or proposition can be researched to a shallow extent very quickly and responded to in minutes or seconds. This is now the speed of business. It is like a cold war if information speed… if you can’t respond faster than the competition you may lose the deal. So this is driving shallowly researched dialogue.

Kelly comments on information hopping and how distracting it is to look up something and then get fascinated by a whole trail of information and find himself hours later reading about something totally different.

Graykin says the internet has greatly improved her research, reduced her patience, and reduced her reflection. She finds herself wanting things instantly, even not on the internet.

Pournelle opens with a sociopolitical tack, quoting someone that a sufficient condition for the end of a totalitarian state is the fere exchange of information within it. Proposes a gameshow of sorts for Iran called “Name That Prophet” in which all the winners and everyone else wins ipads that can’t be blocked (say via satellite link). Then liberate the minds of the people using them as a “cultural weapon of mass destruction”. (No public comment, but as Gannon said in a later session, “silence is not consent”.)

Gannon changes the direction and cites a Pew study in which 73% of people thought that the internet will make us smarter, with enhanced intelligence over time. Murphy responds that he doesn’t think that it’s making anyone smarter, but it is increasing access to the tools necessary to do so. Pournelle points out that the internet allows access to information from anywhere, so that smart people even in the middle of nowhere can now access knowledge, and further that the internet will “make the smart people smarter.”

Gannon says that technology is like a lens, amplifying whatever trends are already there. Draws analogy to a supermarket. If everyone had unlimited access to a supermarket, you wouldn’t get a population that was healthier. People already disposed to eating healthy might be eating the healthy food, but you’ll find most Americans in a pre-diabetic coma in the Twinkie aisle. As a professor he observes that the depth of analysis and thinking of his students has gone down over time, but the number of ideas and threads that they can hold in parallel and combine at once is higher.

Graykin notes that IQ tests can be biased and only really measure the ability to take an IQ test. Gannon seems to agree by making a comment about how it definitely depends on what we claim intelligence is.

Pournelle speaks disdainfully of political correctness and goes off on a rant about how IQ tests are the best single measure of human potential ever invented. This rant last several minutes. (Again, I don’t really think I need to comment here.)

Murphy tries to bring the panel back to less polemical topics by trying to segue into the marshmallow test (kids who could resist instant gratification ended up doing better later on), and trying to connect that to how the neuroplasticity of our brains is possibly changing our response to stimuli.

Pournelle responds with another rant about how there is no credible evidence for Head Start.

Kelly steps in as moderator and diverts the conversation to depth of thought and distraction, which Gannon is quick to back him up on with a brief discussion of ADD/ADHD and a balanced summary of its increased prevalence in society. Graykin tries to join in by remarking that flipping focus is physiologically stressful and these hormones can have negative effects.

Gannon recommends two books for further reading, The Shallows and Cognitive Surplus,

Opened up for audience questions. I ask Graykin (since I had heard the least from her) what observations she can lend to a science teacher. She lit up and responded with great advice. Firstly, to ignore quasi-intellectuals and polemicals and get to the real science, which is moving faster than any textbook can be. Passing on facts in the age of the internet is redundant, but the need for the mental skills necessary to filter, process, analyze, and synthesize that information is more in need than ever before. (Note: See What is 21st Century Education? for related thoughts.)

Questions I didn’t get to ask: What is the role of the digital divide in this? If the internet is truly changing our brains, then does that mean that those who do not have access (or choose not to have access) are not changing, and what are the social consequences for this phenomenon?  Also, what about the homogenizing effect resulting from the fact that a single cultural hegemony controls a disproportionate level of the discourse and media on the internet?



Boskone: Reinventing Sherlock Holmes

As I’ve been mentioning on my twitter feed (but am now realizing that I forgot to blog about) I am at Boskone 50 this weekend. As New England’s oldest science fiction festival, Boskone annually brings together writers, artists, scientists, and fans of science fiction and related literary fields. I’ll be tweeting (@quantumcowboy) on hashtag #boskone and sending out rapidfire (and largely unedited and unrevised) blog posts whenever I get a chance.

I just hit my first panel and took a break for dinner since I was starving. So here’s my first report from the front.

Reinventing Sherlock Holmes
From Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr. and beyond, how does the dashing Victorian detective keep pace with the changing times? How do the new films and television shows measure up their predecessors as well as to the fictional sleuth who first wound his way into the hearts and minds of the reading public through his unparalleled wit, tenacity, and relentless deduction? What more might be in store for the old boy in the future?
    Joe Siclari (M), Brendan DuBois, Tony Lewis, Vincent O’Neil, Toni L. P. Kelner

Overall a general discussion of fan favorites and how the interpretations of the great detective have changed over time.

DuBois pointed out that one of SH’s unique characteristics is his (“borderline asperger-ish”) obsession with his current task at hand. He referred to Holmes’ famous remark, in which Watson asked him if he didn’t know about the earth revolving around the sun, to which Holmes replied with something to the order of that it didn’t make a difference to him so why should he waste the brain space on it. Made me think: so much of the discourse now (certainly in teaching) is on interdisciplinary knowledge and how each subject study and mode of self-discovery can influence all of the others. “Cross-disciplinary ideas”, “STEAM” (Science Technology Engineering ART and Math), and the nonlinear nature of innovation are examples. I wonder if a single-minded character that relies so heavily on direct, linear logical deduction runs the risk of being seen as archaic in the modern world.

(As an aside, I am now thinking that whole Holmes character kind of assumes an underlying reductionist/deterministic view of the world, which fits perfectly with Victorian times I suppose. I love the BBC show, but in a “real” sense, is a Holmes-like character really credible in a more holistic age?  Or societies with more holistic worldviews than the Western tradition typically has featured?)

Tony Lewis clearly has a huge trove of knowledge on the subject and did have many thought-provoking points. I latched onto a remark he made about “Mary Sue” fan fiction (will need to look this up, but it’s something related to Star Trek and female fans wanting to melt Spock’s cold heart). He seemed to be implying (I’ll assume best intentions and say unintentionally) that women writers’ interpretations of Holmes can be lumped into the same category of mere fantasizing or fan fiction. I was happy to see Toni Kelmer (the only woman on the panel, btw) push back on this and rise to defend and clarify the role of female interpretations of a Victorian classic.

During the Q&A, I asked the panel if a non-Western Holmes could be both credible and authentic. DuBois, Kelmer, and O’Neil responded in the affirmative, but we were close to the end of time and I wasn’t able to press for much in the way of details. DuBois mentioned a character (didn’t catch the name) who channeled Holmes as non-Western character though still with “Victorian sensibilities”. Siclari mentioned that he had heard of Indian interpretations of detective stories and though he had never seen/read them, he knew that they existed. O’Niel followed up with the observation that Holmes’ take on crime was that “the more bizzare the crime, the easier it is to solve – it’s the simple crimes that are the hardest to solve” as a universal statement.

Other interesting topics that came up which I don’t have time to write about right now:

  • Lewis suggested that the three major hero archetypes (unsure of the scope) were: Holmes, King Arthur, and Robin Hood
  • Moriarty as the archetype of the twisted genius, a truly brilliant criminal who is the spider at the center of the web.
  • Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” (bookmarked for later).
  • The possibility of Sherlock Holmes as a lower class hero instead of the Victorian elite.

More later.



The Role of the Science Classroom in an Enlightened Democracy

This post is an old version. My philosophy of education has been revised.

______________________________

Below is an excerpt from my final analytical paper for the class Language, Power, and Democracy. The prompt asked us to examine our social location and to formulate a philosophy of education based on it. I am including only the latter section below (as the former section is a bit personal).

While this was what I ended up submitting this morning, I recognize that this process is just beginning. This is the first cut of my philosophy of education, what I believe as I am preparing to enter the profession. I have no doubt that these ideas will change and grow over time.

Those of you who read my blog regularly may recognize passages taken wholesale from previous posts (Why Learn Physics? and Scientific Literacy as Social Justice in particular).

Comments and discussion welcome.

________

My philosophy of education is informed by my social location and beliefs towards the goal of establishing a democratic classroom through scientific literacy. This goal is difficult to address without first defining what I mean by democracy, and along with it, my sense of democracy’s role and legitimacy in human life. In the interest of focusing on the primary question of a philosophy of education I will defer to John Dewey, who simultaneously sums up my conception of democracy and places education in the context of democracy in the same passage of Democracy and Education:

“If democracy has a moral and ideal meaning, it is that a social return be demanded from all and that opportunity for development of distinctive capacities be afforded all. The separation of these aims in education is fatal to democracy” (Dewey 2004, p 117).

Contained within Dewey’s assertion is that true democracy is not self-sustaining, nor is it separable from the moral and ideological character of its citizens. To the contrary, he implies that a stable democracy is explicitly contingent upon the existence of equitable development of individual capacity and the parallel development of social consciousness in all citizens.  If rule is to be of, by, and for the people, then fulfilling the promise of a free, just, and enlightened state depends on the existence of an independent, critical, and socially conscious electorate made up equitably of all peoples within the state’s domain. And in expressly laying the expectation of social return upon the citizens of a democracy, it is necessary that the opportunity to develop the distinctive capacities of each individual be made equitably accessible to all; otherwise, there is no justice in expecting these capacities to exist in all citizens, nor does it follow that they could be then exhorted to service on behalf of one’s community and fellow human beings.

I further interpret Dewey’s statement to reinforce a logically-subsequent assertion: that it is explicitly the function and proper aim of the public education system within a democracy to cultivate these two qualities in its future citizens. Accepting this premise, the goal of education then becomes twofold: firstly, to develop the distinctive capabilities of every individual who is expected to participate in the democracy, and secondly, to instill a sense of social awareness and community action that will motivate the application of these distinctive capacities towards the betterment of our shared human condition in the world.

I will consider the aim of developing individual distinctive capacity first, as well as its implications for the role of the education system and the educator.  A student who graduates from the public education system in the possession of developed capacities may be said to have acquired agency – the means and self-knowledge necessary to interpret the world on one’s own terms and to act upon it with intention. However, it stands to reason that the groups, factions, races, etc of people who are in power would, consciously or not, see it to their advantage to deny acquisition of agency to those who are perceived to threaten the existing social order. This reason alone is sufficient to subject the public education system, and any public educator acting towards this fundamental aim of education, to the epithets reserved for subversives by the dominant elite.

As Giroux (2008) so poignantly reminds us, “education is always political because it is concerned with the acquisition of agency” (transcript p 1). It should be no surprise that the education system finds itself in a paradoxical position, both politically and existentially. On the one hand, public education must be provided by the state in order to be truly public — that is, accessible by all. Yet, by virtue of the fact that it is a public institution, it is also by definition an arm of the state, which is disproportionately influenced by those with a vested interest in maintaining their dominant position in the hierarchy of society. Truly public education in the context of a democracy cannot (and should not) evade this conflict; the political element is unavoidable for any self-aware public educator acting in good conscience. Education, in spite of – and because of – its immense capacity for liberation and empowerment of all people towards the ideal of our common humanity, is subject to the pervasive influence of the political machinations of those in power at every level.

Within the education system, face to face with the individual student, is the public educator who finds him or herself in the position of being the human interface between the institution and the hierarchies that it represents on one side, and the moral imperative for cultivation and liberation of the student on the other.  De los Reyes and Gozemba (2002) provide the blueprint for how educators may use this unique position in the matrices of power to pave the way toward democratic liberation for all students:

“Teachers with a passion for democracy play the central role in pockets of hope. Their commitment to sharing power and engaging themselves and their students in the ‘practice of freedom’ transforms their educational projects from the all too common power-over paradigm to a power-with experience” (p 19).

The educator is the linchpin, the key link, the daily human contact that mediates ideas about the extent, limits, and legitimacy of power between the greater society and the students’ own growing understanding of themselves and the world. The secret to doing so well, according to De los Reyes and Gozemba (and with whom I agree), is for teachers to deliberately share the power of their unique position with their students in the service of developing their distinctive individual capacities as human beings.

Towards what end is this liberating power shared and applied? This question requires an exploration of the importance of expecting a social return from all in a stable democracy. A fair expectation of reasoned and moral civic engagement by all citizens is certainly predicated upon equity of access to the development of individual agency. But without explicit cultivation of the sense of moral purpose and duty to the common weal, democracy devolves into a mere collection of individual bubbles of social-libertarian, consumerist nihilism — in which short-term interests and instant personal gratification rule and any issue which does not directly affect an individual may be dismissed in a socially legitimized way. Such a condition leads to the worst possible manifestation of democracy, a state which Benjamin Franklin wryly described as “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” But, not to leave our general system of government without redemption, he went on to add: “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” I think that this distinction is important, especially in an age for which democracy and liberty often seem to be used synonymously. Democracy does not explicitly require liberty – but it is a hollow democracy indeed without liberty.

Here I am forced to make a rather abstract chain of connections in order to maintain the logical integrity of my primary argument. I will attempt to connect the necessity of liberty in a democracy to the necessity of a proper scientific education in the individual, a task for which I am at a loss as to how it may be accomplished without resort to metaphysics. I assert, without detailed explication, that I believe Immanuel Kant’s Third Conflict of Transcendental Ideas solidly establishes that freedom of mind is the only form in which the idea of liberty meets the minimum criteria of ontological self-consistency (Kant 2007). Thus, in order to continue in the vein of pursuing that which ensures liberty as the tempering ingredient of democracy, I must accept that the kind of freedom which would best serve the aims that I have accepted for education and democratic classrooms is freedom of mind. Bloom (1987) points the way to what this means existentially:

“Freedom of mind requires not only, not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside” (p 249).

And how to promote the proliferation of alternate possibilities for explaining what is outside of us? As the final step in this metaphysical bridge, I posit that the primary means by which we as humans have explored and tested the viability of alternative ideas and new possibilities about the world and our place in it is, in fact, science. Science, in forcing us to constantly evaluate and reevaluate our existential position as human beings, is a constant reminder that there is an “outside”, a beyond, an unknown in which we are immersed and towards which we are bound. In other words, science, properly wielded, is freedom of mind. And with that step, hopefully, I find myself on firmer academic footing, now in the realm of exploring what the role of science education should be in the context of my goal of establishing a democratic classroom.

In a modern republic – in which nearly all aspects of ideas and power are governed by, transmitted through, mediated with, and built on science and technology – there can be no true agency without scientific literacy. Even over a century ago, Dewey foresaw this role for science in the broader context of democratic education when he wrote that “the function which science has to perform in the curriculum is that which it has performed for the race – emancipation” (Dewey 2004, p 221). Science is both a system of knowledge production and a mindset, a perspective on the world. It is the idea that the universe is knowable, and that our lives can be made better through the deliberate construction of a world that is friendly our shared needs and aspirations. It is the idea that the general may be deduced from the particular – and conversely that specific phenomena are the result of universal and coherent structures which we can both comprehend and extend. Certainly, our perception as human beings is limited, and the social consequences of scientific discoveries are subject to social and political influences. But this only reinforces the idea that science needs to not only be taught as a means of empowerment, but also that the social and moral questions that surround the use and abuse of scientific argument are made clear to students, who are, after all, the developing citizens of our shared democracy.

This desired end state, in which the developing citizen graduates from high school with knowledge of both scientific content and context, is what I mean by the term scientific literacy.  Because many of the respected, high-demand, and skilled professions of the modern world reside in science, engineering, and technology, inequity in opportunity to pursue these professions results in a much wider social disparity beyond just who does or does not do well in a science classroom.  Further, while science is always ostensibly used to help people, it is a tool that can also be wielded for harmful, destructive, or manipulative purposes. Science which is politicized suffers from accusations of manipulative agendas, and the science which touches on contemporary social issues is often labeled as “controversial” or “disputed” by those whose world-view or livelihood is threatened. It is easy to see how the science classroom is politically vulnerable to interests that would reduce it to a safe (and nicely quantifiable) diet of equations, proofs, and rote memorization – all of which symbolize what Freire (2000) called the banking model of education, and which run counter to a democratic and liberating concept of scientific literacy.

The uncomfortable truth is that science cannot ever be de-politicized or de-socialized. Science is always conducted toward some end, and these ends are driven (and funded) based on socio-political objectives and needs. To isolate science from the other disciplines and focus purely on its quantitative aspects is to strip science of its essential humanity, and relegate it to the safe sterility of some abstract laboratory in the public imagination. This dehumanization of the field in effect denies students the civic empowerment of being scientifically literate citizens, regardless of whether or not they go on to become scientists or engineers in their careers. And further, we must recall that there is a faction within society that would be quite happy if equitable access to this form of civic empowerment were denied.

Though scientific literacy is the key to the development of certain important distinctive capacities (and thus the acquisition of agency), it is not enough to simply arm students with the content of science. Bloom (1987) puts it bluntly: “In general, [science] increases man’s power without increasing his virtue, hence increasing his power to do both good and evil” (p 298). If given the power of scientific reasoning, students must also be given the moral tools to make community-based judgments about their own scientific conclusions and that of others in a social context; otherwise, as Dewey warned, the result will be just as fatal to democracy as an ignorant and undeveloped citizenry.

Fortunately, Bloom also points us to the missing link: “Science has broken off from the self-consciousness about science that was the core of ancient science. This loss of self-consciousness is somehow connected with the banishment of poetry” (p 298).  What Bloom laments throughout most of The Closing of the American Mind is the decay of holistic interconnectedness between the academic disciplines – the loss of what he calls the unity of knowledge, the idea that all disciplines, including literature and art, point us in the same direction (toward a metaphysical understanding of the self and humanity), each from its own perspective and domain of inquiry. In light of this observation, I conclude that the manner in which scientific literacy can best be taught in the service of establishing democratic classrooms is one that treats science as it once was: as natural philosophy, the branch of metaphysics – the study of the self as it relates to what is – that can be empirically tested against nature.

Restoring the exploration of science in its original context as natural philosophy reintroduces the element most precious to Freire’s (2000) problem-posing model of education back into science: the quest for an individual sense of place. A problem-posing science classroom, a liberated science classroom, a democratic science classroom can provide: a perspective that the universe is a beautiful and endlessly fascinating arena full of challenge and discovery — and that therefore, on that principle alone, it is worthy of study and exploration; an understanding of the rigorous tools of scientific analysis and inquiry that have allowed us as a species to discard illusions and improve our standard of living; further, a realization that they must use these tools daily as citizens in the modern world as a defense against manipulation by interests who would misrepresent science for self-serving ends; and lastly, a cohesive story of our human quest for truth — the part that has been grounded in empiricism and fueled by curiosity — which has brought us to our present understanding of what we are, where we came from, and where we are going. This perspective is that which can provide the moral and social context needed to bridge the content of science with the social return that we must expect from citizens in a true democracy.

The train of logic has been thus: Firstly, democracy depends on both the development of distinctive capacities in all people and the cultivation of their moral context in providing a social return to the common good. It is manifestly the role of the public education system to ensure that these aims are met in all students as developing participants in a true and just democracy. The educator, as the interface between the student and the matrices of power in society, has the moral imperative to act toward the liberation of each and every student through the implementation of problem-posing education, resulting in the sharing of power and the acquisition of agency by students. It is observed that, owning to the pervasive role of science and technology in the present condition of the species, it is impossible to have true human agency in a modern context without scientific literacy. Further, the scientific mindset itself is one that inherently promotes intellectual emancipation. Thus, the method by which science in the curriculum can be pressed into the service of establishing democratic classrooms (in the sense of Dewey and Freire) is through deliberate action by the public science educator to ensure the acquisition of moral scientific literacy by all students.

The above philosophic argument has at its base a certain idea of what democracy is and what our relationship to each other and the world should be as humans in the context of a democracy. This idea is rooted in my social location as the child of South Asian immigrants, as well my individual reaction to the dissonance of identity resulting from recognition of the consequences of my social location.  In an increasingly secularized and post-modernist world, a moral argument for how and why I believe science should be taught runs the risk of being perceived as archaic or academically illegitimate. But as Nieto (2003) reminds us, teaching in any holistic sense is inseparable from who we are as people. What I have chosen to believe about the moral nature of the world and human action within it, including the ontological place of the scientific perspective in promoting freedom of mind, leads me inexorably towards placing my philosophy of education in the service of emancipation and in the framework of natural philosophy.

That eminent prophet of science, Carl Sagan, wrote in The Demon-Haunted World:

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual” (Sagan 2006, p 29).

I can think of no better intention for a science educator than to instill Sagan’s sense of awe before the universe in every student – indeed, I believe it is the key to unlocking their self-actualization, and a necessary component of their acquisition of agency as the rising citizens of an enlightened democracy.

 

WORKS CITED

Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind: How High Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and Education. New York: Dover. (Originally published in 1916).

De los Reyes, E. and Gozemba, P.A. (2002). Introduction: Education as the Practice of Freedom. In Pockets of Hope: How Students and Teachers Change the World. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Ch 2, pp 71-86. (Originally published in 1967).

Garcia-Lopez, S. P. (2002). Swimming against the Mainstream: Examining Cultural Assumptions in the Classroom. In Learning to teach for social justice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. pp 22-29.

Giroux, H. (2008). Rethinking the Promise of Critical Education under an Obama Regime. Interview. December 2008.

Harro, B. (2008). The Cycle of Socialization. In M. Adams, W. Blumenfeld, C. Castañeda, H. Hackman, M. Peters and X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. 2nd ed. (2010), New York: Routledge. pp 45-51.

Kant, I. (2007). Antithetic of Pure Reason. In M. Weigelt (Translator), Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Penguin Classics. Second division, book II, chapter II, section II, pp 378-484. (First published in Prussia, 1781).

Lee, S.J. (2008).  Model Minorities and Perpetual Foreigners: The Impact of Stereotyping on Asian American Students.  In M. Sadowski (Ed.), Adolescents at school: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press.  Ch 4, pp 74-83.

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Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine.

Suarez-Orozco, C., Quin, D.B., & Amthor, R.F. (2008).  Adolescents from Immigrant Families: Relationships and Adaptations at School.  In M. Sadowski (Ed.), Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press. Ch 3.



Preach.

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.

[…]

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Science may be hard to understand. It may challenge cherished beliefs. When its products are placed at the disposal of politicians or industrialists, it may lead to weapons of mass destruction and grave threats to the environment. But one thing you have to say about it: it delivers the goods.

Not every branch of science can foretell the future – palaeontology can’t – but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin Bl2. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability – precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed sceptics – to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.

Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine.



Students: Take Advantage of the BSO

IMG_20130115_193645If you’re a student in Boston and not taking advantage of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s College Card program, you are missing out on  one of the best deals in town.

Here’s the deal: you pay $25 once to buy a College Card for the season. Once registered, at the beginning of every performance week you can check via web or automatic email/txt what shows still have tickets remaining. You then stop by the Box Office and pick up whatever tickets remain on a first-come, first-served basis.

The experience has been incredible. My seats have ranged from the nosebleeds to the balconies, and just this week all the way up to the 7th row in the orchestra section where I could even see the facial expressions and gestures of the musicians (and thus exacerbating my nerdcrush on Assistant Concertmaster Elita Kang).

The programs are detailed and interesting, giving me an insight into not only the music, but the composers and the nations, political structures, times, and cultures in which they lived. This season has been heavy on Russian music in particular — in the strains of Shostakovitch, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff I’ve gotten a glimpse into the clash of cultural influences and political ideologies that have shaped Russian art from the Tsar through the Soviet era. In the classics by Haydn, Brahms, and Beethoven, I am reminded of the classical roots of western thought. And more personally unfamiliar composers like Sibelius have intrigued me with their struggle for individual and national identity (Finnish identity, in the case of Sibelius) — a struggle that makes me reflect on my own identity and history.

Especially given the stress of the BTR graduate program, as well as the heavy nature of the moral and social questions we are asked to face each day in the residency/practicum, the chance to lose myself in the beauty of music has been a wonderful (and I repeat, outrageously affordable) recharge for the mind and soul.

Fellow Bostonians: take advantage of this engine of beauty in our city.



Nothing like a nerdy pick-me-up on a Friday night…

Speaks for itself. I mean… it really really does.

“But the Germans are disputing it! Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics, Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination, and Marx is claiming it was offside…”




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