The Very Spring and Root

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

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Idealism, Society, and Ranting

Moving to Jackson

Stairway from the T tracks up to Jackson Square. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.
Stairway from the T tracks up to Jackson Square. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.

“I’m moving to Jackson Square,” I said in the break room.

“Oh my word, why?” my colleague replied.

Jackson Square doesn’t have the best reputation. Finding itself directly in the path of a proposed new freeway in the 1970’s, the intersection of Columbus Ave and Centre St suffered demolitions that tore a barren strip down lower Boston, parallel to the T tracks. Though neighborhood advocates successfully fought off the freeway, the neighborhood was largely neglected for the next four decades. During that time, the area has become associated primarily with the nearby BHA Bromley-Heath low-income ousing projects and a rash of violent crime, often in the same breath.

Now a $250 million effort at redevelopment is well underway. The new fine residential building at 225 Centre St is the first of a planned 14 new developments. While a big step up in the standard of housing for the area, the building has also maintained one-third of its units as affordable housing. Subsequent developments are slated to add many more affordable units as well.

The T station sits between 225 and the Bromley-Heath. The station is a microcosm of the larger forces around it. Jackson Square itself is the bridge between the rapidly gentrifying (and mostly affluent white) pond-side of Jamaica Plain to the west and the generally lower-income (and mostly black) neighborhood of Roxbury to the east of Columbus Ave. In between is what some are trying to brand as “Boston’s Latin Quarter”, a diverse neighborhood that includes many locally-owned Latin American restaurants and businesses of Cuban, Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Mexican origin.

Change is coming to Jackson Square, along economic, social, and ethnic lines.

Will the community steer itself in a direction that preserves the neighborhood’s character while advancing quality of life and economic opportunity for all? Or is Jackson Square doomed to be another chapter in the ongoing gentrification of urban America, pushing the working class out to make room for the luxury condos of the rich?

225 Centre St and the Jackson Square T station, taken from Lamartine and Centre. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.
225 Centre St and the Jackson Square T station, taken from Lamartine and Centre. | Photo: Nalin A. Ratnayake, February 16, 2014.

Jackson Square has a chance to become the model of new urban living: community-driven, environmentally responsible, diverse, and, most importantly, mixed-income residences — built around public transit and strengthened by an array of nearby local small businesses.  Boston has a chance to show the country what urban development done right looks like.

The next few years will be telling.

This blog post is the first in a year-long series that aims to explore the Hyde Jackson neighborhood and the issues surrounding it. My friend (and soon-to-be roommate) Larissa agreed to join me on this project, and together we will be posting photography and essays from and about Hyde-Jackson.

We invite comments, questions, and feedback on the series as we go. The most direct way of joining the discussion is by leaving a reply on a relevant blog post. You can also comment on a specific photo in the gallery or send us a general message from the Hyde-Jackson project page.



In Defense of Progress

I am, in general, quite the fan of Ken Liu and his (prolific) string of beautifully written and diverse science fiction. Yesterday, however, he tweeted two statements to which I take strong exception:

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 12h9:26 PM – 2 Jul 13
I don’t write scifi that tries to imagine a “better” future because I fundamentally don’t think human nature changes. There’s no “progress”.

Ken Liu ‏@kyliu99 9:27 PM – 2 Jul 13
The future is both better and worse because technology just magnifies our existing tendencies.

I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by many people, including friends and colleagues, in recent times. I’m not sure if its the hangover from post-modernism or just an extension of the disaffection of the times. I suspect it is a combination of both, perhaps mixed in with a little neo-liberal angst about the fact that the civil rights movement, while a momentous step forward, hasn’t yet actually solved the problems against which it arose.

Whatever the cause, I think the belief that we never make progress (moral, social, political, or technological) is not only ideologically self-defeatist, but also simply wrong on the facts.

Here were my responses to Liu:

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:52 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 I respectfully disagree. We have a long way to go yet, but think of what we have accomplished with civil rights, disease, & war.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:53 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 For example see: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/books/review/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-by-steven-pinker-book-review.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. I am often saddened by the world, but believe in humanity and scifi’s role in shaping it.

N.A. Ratnayake ‏@QuantumCowboy 9:54 PM – 2 Jul 13
@kyliu99 Discrimination, segregation, & misogyny remain rampant, but few would say that we are worse off than 1960. Visionary writers help.

I am a teacher in an urban public school. I will be among the last to say that we are even close to solving the problems of structural racism, ethnic/class/sex/gender segregation and discrimination, and economic and social exploitation. And anyone paying even marginal attention to the news around the world today may find little that is heartening.

But to claim that we make no progress denies the hard-won successes on so many fronts by brave people that brought us closer, step by painful step, to the day when we actually live up to our stated ideals.

The article I linked to in my reply tweet to Liu is about Stephen Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. It makes several points that many disaffected contemporary citizens might find surprising. Chief among them is this one:

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

The trend holds true even accounting for the advancement of destructive technology:

Against the background of Europe’s relatively peaceful period after 1815, the first half of the 20th century seems like a sharp drop into an unprecedented moral abyss. But in the 13th century, the brutal Mongol conquests caused the deaths of an estimated 40 million people — not so far from the 55 million who died in the Second World War — in a world with only one-seventh the population of the mid-20th century. The Mongols rounded up and massacred their victims in cold blood, just as the Nazis did, though they had only battle-axes instead of guns and gas chambers. A longer perspective enables us to see that the crimes of Hitler and Stalin were, sadly, less novel than we thought.

Further, with respect to human rights:

The final trend Pinker discusses is the “rights revolution,” the revulsion against violence inflicted on ethnic minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals that has developed over the past half-century. Pinker is not, of course, arguing that these movements have achieved their goals, but he reminds us how far we have come in a relatively short time from the days when lynchings were commonplace in the South; domestic violence was tolerated to such a degree that a 1950s ad could show a husband with his wife over his knees, spanking her for failing to buy the right brand of coffee; and Pinker, then a young research assistant working under the direction of a professor in an animal behavior lab, tortured a rat to death. (Pinker now considers this “the worst thing I have ever done.” In 1975 it wasn’t uncommon.)

I won’t rehash all of Pinker’s arguments and supporting points here. Read the article (and really, the book) if you are curious.

My point is threefold.

  • The advancement of scientific ideas has saved or improved the lives of hundreds of millions if not billions of people through medicine and medical technology, agriculture, sanitation, informatics and data, structural engineering, civil infrastructure, and countless other applied fields, all of which rely on advancements in the pure sciences as their foundation. Science has also opened up our eyes to the big picture of who and where we are in the universe, and helped us to see ourselves as one species on a pale blue dot. It has also proven 19th century philosophers wrong by showing that human nature is essentially collaborative, not brutishly selfish1.
  • The advancement of moral, philosophic, and socio-political ideas2 has liberated countless people from slavery, bondage, discrimination, persecution, superstition, and prejudice through the spread of humanism and rational thought.
  • And last but certainly not least, the advancement of cultural ideas through the production and dissemination of art has repeatedly forced people, societies, and governments to face and analyze both the beautiful and ugly sides of our nature, and served as the catalyst for change in modes of thinking, living, and treating each other.

Of course these battles are not yet won, of course we’ve sometimes taken two steps back for every one forward, and of course many of the leading people and ideas in these movements were flawed3. But to focus on these narrow aspects with the smug satisfaction of neo-liberal hindsight is missing the forest for the mushrooms at the base of the trees.

These liberating forces (Science, Philosophy, Art) are not about individuals, but ideas — of grand movements that span generations, in which the contributions of individuals join like droplets forming a river.

Let’s bring it back around. Where is science fiction in all this? I don’t mean to unfairly single out Liu, as I think this goes well beyond any individual. And as I said before, I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for Liu, his writing, and what he has done for science fiction. He just happened to tweet something which irked me and now here I am on an idealistic rant.

Liu is a prominent writer, and deservedly so, in the field of science fiction. As a consequence, I think his remarks, even off-the-cuff ones, can do much harm. These remarks can propagate the myth that science is somehow “equally good and bad” (or worse) in affecting human condition (see above, I think it has been unequivocally an overall force for good4. These remarks can entrench the contemporary negative trends of looking inward, to what is about ME, rather than outward, to what is about US and what we could accomplish together if we tried. And these remarks can encourage other science fiction writers to abdicate their responsibility to further social, technological, and ethical discourse about both the present and our shared future.

There is progress. Science fiction is a genre that has both the power and, I would opine, the moral obligation to help shape that progress. To quote a progressive warrior from decades past, I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it.

And I think Liu welcomes it too, whether he consciously admits it or not — his fiction has arguably done more to increase diverse and progressive thought in science fiction than that of perhaps any other writer of which I am aware, at least in the past couple of years. Those are welcome drops in the river.

Eyes on the prize. March on.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Though I would say certain economic structures can definitely promote selfish behavior.
  2. For the western world, this means most particularly the Enlightenment. However, there are analogs of this idealogical reformation in the history of many cultures around the globe.
  3. Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and was by many measures a hypocrite; he also helped craft the very documents and ideas that the civil rights movement used to justify emancipation and desegregation, and the inspiration for other progressive movements around the globe. Yes, Hemingway was a chauvinist; that doesn’t erase his damn fine prose and insight into the human struggle for meaning. Have we become so polarized even in thought that we can no longer handle these gray superpositions?
  4. See also my philosophy of science education for further discussion.


Obama administration defends collecting phone records – The Boston Globe

via Obama administration defends collecting phone records – Nation – The Boston Globe:

The document shows for the first time that under the Obama administration, the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether the people are suspected of any wrongdoing.

The fact that this type of activity is going on and is perfectly legal should be no surprise to anyone  of course. But it is the hypocrisy of the Democratic administration — one that ran on the promise of restoring integrity, transparency, and justice to the federal government — that really disappoints. Combine these latest revelations with the explosion of drone strikes under the Obama administration, the wiretapping of the press, the expansion of NCLB standardized testing in education under the Race to the Top program, the massive privatization of health care reform before it was passed, and the utter failure of the administration to bring justice to banks and corporations after raping the U.S. economy (yet again), and I basically now fail to see the difference between the two major parties on much of anything.

As the NYT editorial board has put it, “The administration has now lost all credibility. Mr. Obama is proving the truism that the executive will use any power it is given and very likely abuse it.”

That said, at least the Democrats aren’t offering chilling statements like this (back in the Globe article):

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he had no problem with the court order and the practice, declaring, ‘‘If we don’t do it, we’re crazy.’’

‘‘If you’re not getting a call from a terrorist organization, you’ve got nothing to worry about,’’ he said.

Maybe I am just being my usual idealistic self again, but it seems to be that I’d rather take the “crazy” option that Graham seems to offer in his (false) dichotomy. Isn’t that the point of the Bill of Rights? That we are willing to trade security for liberty? Unless I am sorely mistaken, everything about a just democracy is supposed to be about this trade-off.

We intentionally make law enforcement less efficient and effective by curtailing their powers of search, seizure, arrest, and surveillance, because we believe that the individual liberty and less-centralized power is worth it. That means that we accept increased risk of crime in exchange for certain freedoms. We could always have prevented another crime or tragedy, and that is the argument that those in power will always make.

In the same vein, we intentionally make government less efficient than it could be, in order to ensure that the deliberative process and the scrutiny of the public have time to examine the workings of government as they progress. We could always make things more expedient and results-driven, and that is the argument those in power will always make. But the most efficient form of government is a dictatorship.

We certainly shouldn’t leave glaring holes in our intelligence, nor should we neglect to provide for pragmatic defense of the nation — but surely it is not so difficult to swallow that we are not ever going to actually be safe? How many trillions do we want to spend for that extra sliver of the illusion of safety in a dark and dangerous world, instead of investing it in the things we know make the world less dark and dangerous?

Though I am loath to say I agree with Ron Paul on much of anything, it is awfully hard to contest the basic premise of his point in a recent controversial OpEd about the extreme and uncontested measures taken by law enforcement following the Boston Marathon bombings:

Three people were killed in Boston and that is tragic. But what of the fact that over 40 persons are killed in the United States each day, and sometimes ten persons can be killed in one city on any given weekend? These cities are not locked-down by paramilitary police riding in tanks and pointing automatic weapons at innocent citizens.

Sure, Tsarnaev has allegedly done some terrible things and if he is proven guilty in a fair trial in a civil court of law, then he certainly deserves justice. But have we really questioned why his act was terrorism — which supposedly justifies such a response — and not simply murder, which would be a civilian investigation?

No one shut down Boston with tanks to capture Whitey Bulger, and how many people is he supposed to have killed? Nineteen charges of homicide, and he actually apparently claims to have personally killed forty people in addition to a host of other illegal activity that has terrorized (in the classic sense) whole swaths of this city for decades. Has anyone heard of any serious protests against a civil trial for him, or objecting to his having been read Miranda Rights? Will cemeteries deny his body burial when he dies? Not likely.

Apparently fear of terrorism is enough for the people of America to ignore, and often even advocate for, the disintegration of the very ideals they claim to hold most dear. The fact that Obama is a Democrat, and not a Republican like his predecessor, serves only to veil the underlying erosion of basic liberties on his watch.



The Role of the Science Classroom in an Enlightened Democracy, Revisited

Below is a revision of my Philosophy of Education paper, which I posted earlier. Many thanks to Dr. Yamila Hussein (Boston Teacher Residency), Dr. Christian Gelzer (NASA Dryden Flight Research Center), and my colleagues in BTR Cohort X for their extensive feedback and suggestions for revision. 

Comments welcome. This document will likely be revised repeatedly over time.

________

The purpose of formulating my philosophy of education is to articulate and thereby organize the core principles around which I will center  my pedagogy. My efforts are toward the establishment of a democratic classroom in which my students acquire scientific literacy. I should state at the outset  that I do not pretend to be objective, only logical — which is not the same thing. In this paper, I begin with personal, core beliefs about the nature of humanity, justice, and democracy. These principles are a product of my social location, and starting from them I then attempt to logically derive what my philosophy of education must be.

This goal is difficult to address without clearly defining what I mean by democracy and scientific literacy1. The latter term I will address later in this paper. For my conceptualization of democracy I will defer to John Dewey, who both 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-sustaining2, nor is the health of a democracy separable from the moral and ideological character of its citizens. To the contrary, Dewey 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 it follows that fulfilling the promise of a free, just, and enlightened state depends on the existence of an independent, intellectually critical, and socially conscious electorate made up equitably of all peoples within the state’s domain. Further, 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 beings3.

Once it is agreed that the social contract of democracy requires the development of individual capacity in exchange for an obligation to the common weal (developing common social capacity), I can then assert my view of the purpose of public education: that it is explicitly the function and proper aim of the public education system within a democracy to cultivate these very two qualities in its citizens. Thus,firstly, such a system is contractually bound to develop the distinctive capabilities of every individual who is expected to participate in the democracy; secondly, it must instill a sense of social awareness and impetus for 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, maliciously or not4, 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 suspicion of subversion 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 paradox, 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 – indeed, 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 is 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).

From this perspective, it is easily to see how 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 beings5.

Towards what end is this liberating power shared and applied? The answer to this question lies in the second aim of public education: 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 way6.

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.” He did not, however, leave our general system of government without redemption. Speaking of the importance of minority rights as a co-equal partner to the principle of majority rule, Franklin 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 neither requires nor demands liberty7 – but the claims of the former ring quite hollow indeed without the latter.

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 both epistemology and metaphysics. I assert, without detailed explication, that I believe Immanuel Kant’s Third Conflict of Transcendental Ideas8 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. This is a very particular form of freedom, one existentially separate from the conventional use of the word. Bloom (1987) phrases it well, and points to what I mean:

“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).

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 logical 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 literacy9. 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 those 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 the universe), 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. It connects science education to social justice, becoming a means to a larger end, rather than an end in itself.

The train of logic has been thus: Firstly, democracy depends on the development of distinctive capacities in every participant individual, and the cultivation of the  moral context for providing a social return to the common good. It is manifestly the role of the public education system to ensure that these two 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 institutional power, 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 contemporary 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 foundation 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.   In an increasingly nihilistic 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.

 

DISPLAY REFERENCES.

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.

Nieto, Sonia. (2003). Teaching as Autobiography. In What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press. Ch 2, pp 22-36.

Tatum, B.D. (2000). The Complexity of Identity: Who Am I? 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 8-14.

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.

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Footnotes:

Show 9 footnotes

  1. Strictly, I would have to go further and establish what I believe to be democracy’s legitimacy and role in human life, but we have to start with some givens and anyway that would be an alarmingly long paper.
  2. I would go further and say that nor is it stable, particularly when coupled with neo-liberal capitalism.
  3. The ethical basis for why people should be exhorted to some degree of altruism at all is a philosophical matter on which I have many strong opinions. However, again, establishing an adequate basis for this belief in this paper would distract from the main point.
  4. Indeed, even consciously or not.
  5. Sharing power does not have to mean giving them complete control over the classroom. Students, as developing adults, need a fair amount of structure and guidance. The real question is, in what ways can we give students a sense of ownership and agency in their education that are meaningful and productive?
  6. By all evidence, we are actually already here. The society we have created and currently live in is straight out of a 1970s cyberpunk dystopia, mingled with everything Nietzsche feared and despised in a consumerist bourgeoisie. As much as I share a measure of Nietzsche’s contempt, I find it hard to blame the general population for disaffection when our society has given them no reason whatsoever to believe in the social contract. However, I have to believe that there is always hope and that it is worth fighting for; because, after all, that is kind of the point of this paper.
  7. Witness, as but one example, the horrifying (but quite democratic) erosions of our civil liberties in the name of security.
  8. One of my millions of pending projects is to see if there is a way to mesh the intellectual philosophy of Kant with a contemporary interpretation of the social philosophy of Buddhism, thus strengthening this connection.
  9. In order to focus on science education, I am largely ignoring for the moment the role of the arts and humanities in ensuring a holistic sense of self. That scientific literacy is necessary for individual emancipation does not make it sufficient, a criticism of early drafts to which I readily concede. If we want to get all Kantian, I would say that scientific literacy is the key to agency about what is knowable about the world, external to the self, or empirical. The arts and humanities provide the co-equal component of agency through knowledge of the self, or the exploration of what is knowable a priori.


Buddhism and the Social Justice Problem

Something I’ve been struggling with personally as well as in my writing has been trying to tie Buddhism (particularly Theravada), which is at the core of my heritage as a Sinhalese American, to my general sense of practical secular ethics. A major hurdle in this process has been the apparent indifference of doctrinal Buddhism to the issues of contemporary social justice.

Sungtaek Cho at SUNY Stony Brook, in Selflessness: Toward a Buddhist Vision of Social Justice, discusses this notable lack from the historical perspective of cultural imperialism:

Almost all of the ancient philosophies and religions paid scant attention to issues of social justice in the modern sense. […]  it is only from the eighteenth century that social justice emerged as an important issue in political thought and social philosophy in the West. The last three centuries have thus seen the maturation of such key concepts as citizenship, political equality, and the fair distribution of economic resources.

However, the process of modernization that drove the development of social philosophy in the West paradoxically retarded it in the East. Belatedly experiencing modernization as Westernization  initiated by military and economic contact with Western colonial powers, Eastern intellectuals lost confidence in their native traditions, coming to see them as relics of the past without relevance to contemporary problems. As a result, indigenous philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, were neglected in favor of the study of Western thought.

This stunted growth in sociopolitical awareness may not be as acute in majority-Buddhist regions of the world, particularly those in which serious moral and existential questions have been put to the test — say, through civil war. Sri Lanka obviously comes to mind, though I can’t say I am in the loop as to its religious discourse. However I do know that contemporary South Asians of Buddhist heritage but Westernized cultural attitudes (who, by and large, do not speak the academic language of their ancestral nations) run into a huge stumbling block in attempting to access any deeper call to social activism within Buddhist doctrine. Cho again:

The difficulty of developing a theoretical framework for Buddhism in engagement with contemporary social issues is rooted in the very nature of Buddhism as an ontological discourse aiming at individual salvation through inner transformation.

Among the core tenants of Buddhism is that this world of Samsara is illusory and permeated with evil (indeed, the First Noble Truth is that the material world is in fact defined as a state of dhukka, or suffering). In a nutshell, one’s objective is to escape the cycle of rebirth into this suffering by learning to practice nonattachment from the sensual cravings that bind us to this prison of bodily existence — thus liberating the mind and opening the door to achieving Nibbana.

If one accepts this view, then to any socio-politically minded person it begs the questions: Why work to repair a broken world that is to be accepted prima facie, metaphysically and existentially, as broken?  Why try to save a world that is only an illusion from which we are trying to escape? Why take an active role in political, civil, or social advocacy if such matters are seen as petty distractions from the real task at hand?

Francis Story* states the problem this way:

The Buddha did not essay to lay down laws for the conduct of human affairs in any but a strictly personal sense. He gave advice to rulers, as He did to ordinary householders, but did not attempt to formulate principles of state policy, as some religious teachers, with varying success, have attempted to do. His Teaching was for those who wish to liberate themselves from Samsara, not those who desire to improve its conditions.

Story seems to perceive that contemporary western readers will find this lacking, and attempts to follow with an indirect argument:

Nivana may be an individual, not a collective goal, but the Path to it, followed by the individual for his own highest good, has beneficial repercussions on the whole of society. Every man or woman who observes the Five Precepts and conscientiously tries to follow the Noble Eightfold Path, makes it easier for someone else to do the same. One who works for his own highest good confers blessings on all mankind.

This pithy redirection strikes me as hollow at best and dangerously libertarian at worst. I don’t buy it, particularly since this seems to be at odds with the idea of selflessness (or the illusion of a Self that is separate from everything else). Cho, on the other hand, seems to be on a more innovative tack, one that tries to make a doctrinal argument for social action based on the logical consequence of taking the extended view of selfhood in Buddhism to its existential ends.

The Buddhist theory of selflessness, when considered in terms of the individual and his/her place in the community, really becomes something of great social power: an extended interpretation of selfhood. […] namely, the idea that I am everybody in the community.

To put it another way: […] the doctrine of selflessness requires that Buddhists view themselves as being in fact everyone in society. The social implications of this viewpoint are of course powerful: her poverty becomes my poverty; his tragedy, my tragedy. And when combined with the model of active engagement offered by the bodhisattva ideal, in which personal health is achieved by helping others, we suddenly find ourselves with a solid rationale for social action.

A contemporary interpretation of Buddhism based on this principle being the central tenant (rather than the nature of the world sic as suffering) is much more palatable to me, though it would be quite a bit of work indeed to go back through the innumerable pages of the Theravada Canon and produce insightful, clear, and relevant commentary to this effect.

The Copernican revolution, of course, would be that the Four Noble Truths would need to be de-throned from their central “Buddhism 101” position and relegated to a side note, interpreted in light of the new central tenant of Selflessness (or universally-encompassing selfhood). This move might seem like doctrinal heresy. But I would argue that the importance of the Four Noble Truths, at least from what I have read, is mostly found in commentary on Buddhism… not the scriptures themselves. I have read the whole Dhammapada and am about halfway through the Digha Nikaya, and so far I cannot recall any specific mention of the Four Noble Truths. If I am mistaken and indeed there is a doctrinal basis in Buddhist scripture for their centrality from the words of Siddhartha Guatama, then please, as it were, enlighten me.

As radically different from the prevailing discourse as this idea is, I think it is a start, and I think it is foundational to any attempt to articulate a cohesive vision for have Sinhalese American identity is and/or could be. As part of a novel I am working on that explores issues of Sri Lankan American identity in the contemporary United States, I have begun doing some background reading on Buddhism, including a new translation of the Digha Nikaya. The Lakkhana Sutta in particular (The 32 Marks of a Great Man) seems to have some good fodder for thinking about social justice. More later when I finish reading it and digesting.

In the meanwhile, thoughts and comments welcome.

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* Story, Francis. (1985). Buddhist Lay Ethics. In: Dimensions of Buddhist Thought, Vol III. Buddhist Publication Society, Sri Lanka.



A Sense of Perspective

Every now and then, usually when something like politics or racism or injustice or terrorism or whatever else gets nasty, I find it helpful to get a dose of perspective. Thanks to ESO’s VISTA telescope, we have THIS:

It may not look like much at first, until you realize that those points of light are not stars, but whole galaxies. Process that for a minute: you’re looking at over 200,000 galaxies, each one with anywhere from 100,000,000,000 to 300,000,000,000 stars.

Oh, and according to BadAstronomer’s post about this deep-field image, this is only a 1.2 x 1.5 degree patch of sky. That means those 60,000,000,000,000,000 (sixty quadrillion) suns are in just approximately 0.004% of the observable area of the sky. And that’s just what we can see with our current instruments and given where we are in the universe. (You can get the full image from ESO.)

Yep.

Feeling humble yet? This is really why we do science and exploration.

By expanding the frontiers of what is possible, we move beyond present constraints to worldly solutions. By exploring, we discover more about ourselves, where we came from, and where we could be going. In doing the hardest things imaginable, we develop systems and methods and materials and technologies that rain down into all areas of human life.

And by always striving to look upward at the immensity of the beauty around us, we are constantly humbled into looking inward at how we can make our speck of the universe a better place for our fellow human beings.

If I ever find myself caught up in the mundane, wound up about something petty, or angry at someone or something else, despairing for humanity, or wondering why I should keep striving against something difficult… this is among the set of pictures I look at.

It’s good to keep a sense of perspective.



Madaktari

It’s spring break and I am with my parents visiting some close family friends in Virginia. Among them is Dr. Dilantha Ellegala, a neurosurgeon who is pretty much  literally saving the world. Check out his work with Madaktari, in Tanzania:

I just love what he and this organization are doing.  Their vision:

In a globalized world, with ever increasing demands and challenges, Madaktari is investing in the knowledge infrastructure of Africa, creating a more permanent and sustainable form of health care.  The goal is to break the cycle of conventional dependence on outside aid organizations and to increase self-sufficiency and sustainability.  Based on the results so far, these are achievable goals. By reaching over-worked and underserved physicians and their patients, Madaktari spans all healthcare sectors: rural and urban hospitals, academic centers, governmental agencies and educational certifying organizations.   The Madaktari model, with its mission of sharing specialty medical knowledge at a grass roots level, can lead to developing countries becoming more autonomous.  It’s a model that can also work in developed countries with pockets of geographically or culturally isolated communities with poor or no access to health care.

Can’t say more at the moment, but I can say that they happen to be needing support with an educational endeavor and a theatrical adventure soon… And gosh, just what will I be doing with all these summers free…



Boston a Big City? Maybe Too Much So in Some Ways

Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game Of ‘Big City’” runs the headline for a recent article in The Onion. The beloved king of nothing-is-sacred, satirical journalism was hilarious of course. Boston.com ran a good-natured satirical post in response. Not surprisingly, the “Pretty Cute” article also raised some hackles around what is, apparently for some, a sore subject around here.

The satirical back and forth is all in good fun of course, but Tom Keane’s Op-Ed Column in the Globe smacks of something worse than taking a joke too seriously: rose-tinted glasses that see right past serious social problems.

Keane rattles off a number of ways in which Boston just can’t be a truly big city, all of which help paint the lovely image of the progressive “Athens of America”  that Boston projects with such pride. While I have very little doubt that his statements are technically true, they are also maddeningly selective in the story they tell.

You can see Boston’s shortcomings in its wealth and demographics. At over $62,000, Boston’s median household income is above that of New York, LA, and Chicago.

The median is a tricky statistical value; there are so many different income distributions that can arrive at a particular median value that the number in itself doesn’t really tell you much. But what about Radio Boston’s report just over a year ago on WBUR that Boston’s income inequality is among the worst in the United States? Which income indicator is a better measure of how we live up to our stated ideals?

Boston is better educated — as a percentage of the population, more of us have high school, college, and advanced degrees. Again, Boston loses: Real cities should be older, stodgy and a little bit dumb.

Who gets that great Boston education? Lee and Orfield in their 2005 paper “Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality from the Harvard Civil Rights Project reads

“Our study of metro Boston shows a strong relationship between segregation by race and poverty and teacher quality, test scores and dropout rates. In the entire metro region, 97 percent of the schools with less than a tenth white students face concentrated poverty compared to 1 percent of the schools with less than a tenth minority students” (p 6).

So as not to start a rant specifically on education (though that may come later), I’ll move on. Back to Keane:

Real cities should also be maelstroms of despair and anxiety, filled with poverty and unemployment. Yet with a startlingly low unemployment rate of 5.9 percent, Boston is getting close to the level economists think of as full employment (4.5 percent).

Poverty and employment are related, but not the same thing. People can be underemployed, which means they don’t count toward the unemployment rate but still make less than enough to live on or less than their education should permit — thereby pushing lower-skilled workers to leave the workforce entirely. Or they could be among the rapidly rising tide of the legally disabled, who also don’t count toward unofficial unemployment numbers. Even if Keane had looked at Boston’s poverty rates (which are actually lower on average for US cities), looking at the overall rate misses the stark geographic segregation and ethnic disparities of just who is in poverty here in Boston.

And if being poor weren’t hard enough — the classism in recently exposed exploitation and corruption in the Boston taxi system, with city officials complicit, is but one example of social injustice is systemic, not isolated and extraordinary.

Ok ok, I’ll stop ranting. Look, don’t get me wrong, I love my new city. But it is a love formed (and really, still forming) based on the work I do to help make it, and by extension our shared future as world citizens, better.

If Keane wanted to fire back on the joke with a serious point, I think that he could have at least been balanced about it. There’s no harm in city pride, and I’m sure Keane is well aware of the caveats himself. But there’s a lot of people outside (and let’s admit it, inside) this city that would rather pretend that we live in an affluent yuppie paradise that is the bastion and example of the Democratic Party way.

Columns like Keane’s can give credence to those who’d rather not open their eyes to the ways in which we, unfortunately, are very much like other big US cities. And that’s a comparison we have yet to face down successfully — as a city and as a nation.



The Role of the Science Classroom in an Enlightened Democracy

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

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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.

Nieto, Sonia. (2003). Teaching as Autobiography. In What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press. Ch 2, pp 22-36.

Tatum, B.D. (2000). The Complexity of Identity: Who Am I? 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 8-14.

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.



What is 21st Century Education?

In PD last week, we watched this video as a precursor to a discussion on how to incorporate more leadership skills into our school curricula and activities:

I love this; it’s a great visual montage of data is continuing to change.  To me this is among the best arguments for designing curricula that go well beyond what we simply want students to know. Because knowledge itself is changing so quickly (and so instantly and comprehensively searchable now to boot), the value of content knowledge for it’s own sake has become necessarily rather dilute.

My only complaint with this video is that it makes it seem like the disconnect between rote content instruction and more authentic learning is some recent deficiency in how we approach education, brought on by the sudden techno-boom of the 21st century. This is not a recent problem which we have been merely a little slow in recognizing.

While the contemporary world certainly comes with unique challenges that we cannot ignore, great minds in education have long railed against the futility of teaching nothing but facts and expecting the process to result in authentically well-educated individuals.

In 1968, Paulo Freire wrote in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Education this becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. […] [The students] do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers [sic] of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart of inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. [pg 72]

In 1916, John Dewey wrote in his collection of essays, Democracy and Education:

Why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, that they are still so entrenched in practice? That education is not an act of “telling” and being told, but an active and constructive process, is a principle almost as generally violated in practice as conceded in theory. [pg 38, III. “Education as Direction”]

That science may be taught as a set of formal and technical exercises is only too true. This happens whenever information about the world is made an end in itself. The failure of such instruction to procure culture is not, however, evidence of the antithesis of natural knowledge to humanistic concern, but evidence of a wrong educational attitude. [pg 219, XVII. “Science in the Course of Study”]

So even without cellphones, YouTube, and Google, these educators (writing 45 and 97 years ago, respectively) understood that a good education (and particularly for Dewey, a good science education) cannot be measured in units of facts-retained.

So why hasn’t anything changed in at least a hundred years or so? What Freire calls the “banking” model of education continues to be the bread and butter of mainline K-12 pedagogy — driven not by teachers, but by the archaic curriculum standards to which they are beholden. Of what value is the ability to regurgitate Newton’s Laws on an exam if the student’s curiosity and ability to engage with humanity’s understanding of the world is left underdeveloped? To be sure, content and curiosity are not mutually exclusive. But in the presence of so much negative pressure from quantitative standards and positive pressure from the ease of rote instruction, where is the weighting of that balance going to inevitably lean?

With the onset of the kind of change highlighted in the video, the imperative for “21st century education” does not become any different, though it certainly becomes all the more emphatic. When Dewey set up his University of Chicago Schools near the end of the 19th century, I think it likely that he made many of the same kinds of arguments that we are making in the early years of the 21st. That means that at least several generations of the status quo have passed by since this idea was proposed. What shall we do now, in the times we have been given?




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