The Very Spring and Root

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

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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.


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.

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?



“Just” a Teacher

EdWeek recently ran an interesting article on the social status of teachers in this country vs abroad. The opening paragraphs of the article got me thinking right away:

One of the most troubling things that the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, hears about her profession can be summed up in a single observation: the idea that she and other top-performing colleagues are “just” teachers.

The word “just” serves as a reminder of a subtle mindset among some in the United States that a career in K-12 teaching, while considered noble, is nevertheless somehow seen as beneath the capacity of talented young men and women.

The response that I have received to my decision to change careers from research engineering to teaching has been mixed. Family and close friends have been overwhelmingly supportive, and I am grateful for that; I’m certainly going to need all the positive thoughts I can get. Even the colleagues here at NASA, the ones whom I will soon be leaving, have responded in large part with inspired encouragement. For example, even though I am not leaving for 4-5 more months, three coworkers have already stopped by with donations of references, materials, posters, and objects for my future science classroom.

However, NASA is itself a place full of intelligent, passionate, idealistic people, so perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised at this kind of a response from my coworkers. The general public response when the subject has been brought up is more along the lines of “Wow… that’s pretty cool. But that’s insane. Why would you do that?”

Certainly there are very practical reasons to not do what I did, but the underlying problem is an ugly one: why should it have to be such a sacrifice to teach? As much as people say they see individual teachers as noble and pursuing high calling, the same people seem on the whole opposed to putting through the reforms we need to address this.  Because simultaneously, these same people (us, we) are the voters, who are reluctant to raise salaries for a profession which as a collective is increasingly being perceived as bureaucratically bloated, ineffective, and even overpaid.

I don’t buy it. There may indeed be areas of mismanagement, wasteful bureaucracy, and antagonistic protectionism that need fixing, but on the whole I think JFK had it right:

Modern cynics and skeptics … see no harm in paying to those whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.
— John F. Kennedy

It’s half a century later… and here we still are.

How do we make it so that a qualified engineer deciding to go into teaching isn’t a big deal, isn’t seen as something crazy, but is maybe even lauded as an achievement? I don’t think all of that has to do with money, though money certainly is a factor. There’s also the concept of professionalism, which implies a sense of individual discretion in the approach to the objective. There is independence from criticism arising from external entities. There is the perceived selectivity of entry. Addressing each of these will require a hard look at training, standards, personnel practices, and how the money gets spent. Only in conjunction with this can we credibly ask for the commitment to increase spending on education overall.

Beyond all this though, is a more fundamental issue: there must be a respect for the end result of the service being provided.

I shared the above article with Dr. Christian Gelzer, a historian and former professor of history. He is also someone I count as a valued confidante and mentor. I quote his response below, with permission:

If you denigrate a pursuit, as Americans have done for teaching for generations and generations, what more can one expect? I still point to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as a pivotal work on the subject because he traced a genuine animosity toward intellectual activity from the late Colonial period on. Even better, it won the Pulitzer that year, most ironic. Think of all those who “made it” without book learnin’ and you’ve got a list of American greats, including Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, to list but three. Even Thomas Jefferson had a warm spot in his heart for people of the soil, far warmer than he ever had for those who created factories (stuff that took brains). This isn’t a recent problem in the US and it won’t be fixed in five lifetimes, I’ll wager. The culture simply does not, has not, and never will value the likes of JQ Adams or those who—and I think this is integral to the problem—would pursue a calling or career not because it gives the best income, but because it rewards the soul and contributes to the commonweal one is a part of in a nation. Those are downright impolitic things to say.

I was a teacher, albeit at a different level, and I was forever frustrated by the abject indifference my former profession held for teaching—indeed, I was warned many times not to say that I liked teaching when I went on a job interview. I was never taught how to teach, doubtlessly because my mentors could not have cared less about the act, and because they probably assumed we’d all pick up what little we needed to get by by stumbling through it the first time. I enjoyed teaching, I relished trying to figure out how to get students to understand why we keep harping on the Romans so many centuries later, or why looking for the ones who make the decisions about things can be really rewarding, even when the culprits (I say that fondly) had the peculiarities of Nikola Tesla. You could no sooner make someone a teacher in 6 weeks than you could make a carrier-qualified F-18 navy pilot in 6 weeks, and anyone who says so or thinks so is as dumb as a bag of hammers. But will we as a nation, as a people ever come around to the idea of having our children aching for the chance to become a teacher?

I have to agree in large part with Christian’s sentiments. A culture that has devolved to, for example, demand that a candidate for office mask, or even apologize for, the fact that he or she is an educated intellectual is not a culture which will be sustainable as a democracy. Yet this this happens all the time today. See if you can count how often President Obama has been characterized as an “out-of-touch liberal elitist” for his “condescending and professorial” manner. Sure, he is remarkably well-educated; but regardless of one’s politics it says something when demagogues can successfully apply those labels to him despite the fact that he grew up well outside of the elite class in a single-parent home, slept on the street in an alleyway the first night he moved to Harlem, and was working as a community organizer in the south-side projects of Chicago.

How do we turn around that culture? Is it even possible to associate status with knowledge in a country in which some educators make as little as $20,000 or so per year and our celebrities and athletes make hundreds of millions? Not that those figures need to be reversed, but the the distance between those extremes should at least be… well, less extreme.

The money issue and the rigor issue are controversial subjects full of heated debate today. What is sobering is that they seem to be only the surface expression of a much deeper problem. And I have no idea what to do about that.  All I know is I’m going to try and be the best educator I can be, and hopefully the path forward will become clearer as I go.




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