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.


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.

_____

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



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.



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

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

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



Looking Forward to Spring

So, long time no freaking update. November and December were absolutely crazy, and it’s been wonderful to be back home in California for the holidays to rest up and recharge before the plunge back into the spring. Looking back on the fall months, I can’t believe how much has happened. In some things, my core beliefs, particularly related to what I am doing, have been strengthened. In others, it seems that my perspective on things has changed and grown.

Foremost things on my mind:

1. Passing my Gateway.

I didn’t quite make full proficiency on my Fall Teaching Gateway, which is a difficult thing to deal with. The up side is, I got concrete, specific, and actionable feedback on aspects of where I was that were getting in the way of becoming the best educator I can be. It’s amazing what you don’t even notice about yourself except with careful self-analysis and feedback from others. I’ve been getting a lot of support in working on these things, and I already feel as if I have improved.  So, this is a good process, despite the increased stress level.

2. Philosophy of Education

The final paper prompt for our Language, Power, and Democracy class reads as follows:

In our positional authority, teachers consciously (or not) make a myriad of curricular, procedural and moral decisions that have significant implications for our students’ learning. These decisions are deeply informed by our educational philosophy, which is strongly shaped by our (fluid and often shifting) social location, life experiences and our political analysis of these.

For this assignment I invite you to clearly state your philosophy of education and analyze, through a
personal, intellectual and political lens, how your social location influences your beliefs around schooling and your role as a professional teacher in addressing systemic inequity.

This written work provides the space for you to continue articulating your philosophy of education
particularly as it pertains to questions of inquiry, equity, language, power, and democracy. You will also conduct an intellectual, political and personal analysis of your philosophy of education. Grounded in a clear reading of the historical forces, structural context and institutional practices that have contributed to the current status of public schooling, you will continue unpacking your personal histories to identify your own social location, how it fits in the larger context, and how your social location shapes your philosophy of education.

Finally, the assignment aspires to help you draw explicit connections between a teacher’s philosophy of education and social location on the one hand, and classroom practice, student learning, and knowledge construction on the other to ultimately shed light on the possibilities of creating, sustaining and nurturing democratic classrooms that contribute to delivering the promise of quality education for all.

Yeah, no pressure right? It sounds imposing, but actually, doing the readings and preparatory writings for this assignment has been one of the best experiences in BTR for me (at least on the academic end of things). I’ve been exposed to very powerful writings by intellectuals such as Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol, and Sonia Nieto which have built on my per-existing core beliefs while profoundly changing how I view those beliefs in the context of my life. I am now in the process of connecting these new thinkers with the ideas already in my personal canon — from my own thinking and also informed by my exposure to John Dewey, the Dalai Lama, Carl Sagan, Immanuel Kant, John F. Kennedy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nelson Mandela, and my own grandfather to name a few.

Condensing all of that into something concise and coherent to say about what I believe about education, particularly science education, is a daunting challenge — but one in which I am gladly immersing myself right now.

Maybe I’ll post some draft excerpts from that paper as I start getting my thoughts more solidified.



Why Learn Physics?

MinutePhysics posted this video, entitled “Open Letter to the President: Physics Education”, to their YouTube stream.

Summary: The content of high school physics curricula generally stop at around the year 1865, which is an interesting observation. At first it seems quite logical that students should follow the prescribed path from kinematics to dynamics to electromagnetism and from there on to more complex topics if there is time (which of course there never is, so we never get to anything further).

But from another perspective, does one really need an understanding of dynamics as a prerequisite to an introduction to relativity and quantum? I actually don’t think so. The physics discoveries of the 21st century so profoundly changed our fundamental view of the universe and how we relate to it, that most of what came before seems absurdly limited in scope. Quantum Mechanics, for example, starts from very different conceptual foundations than does Newtonian Mechanics; thus, even though one came before the other chronologically, they really have nothing to do with each other conceptually.

I think it would be awesome to teach an introduction to contemporary scientific issues and understanding in high school. The inevitable counterpoint question will of course be, “but when will they use that?” I certainly admit that Newtonian Mechanics and classical electromagnetic theory, though limited in scope and not even technically correct by modern standards,  are far more likely to be “relevant to students’ lives” than quantum, relativity, particle theory, or cosmology. (In other words, Newtonian Mechanics are more readily applicable to every day situations even though their underlying assumptions and framework do not actually describe physical reality as we now know it.)

However, my (opinionated) rebuttal to this counterpoint is that it is, like so much of education policy, shortsighted and focused on the wrong things. What is the purpose of education? More specifically, what is the purpose of high school science education? What should my students be learning in my physics classroom? Though I certainly encourage STEM careers and want to prepare my students for college, the fact of the matter is that very few of them — even under ideal circumstances — will go on to choose further study and careers in science and engineering. If and when they do, they will receive specialized content instruction and training for it. So, yes they should have some introductory content knowledge, but ultimately what is more important for all of my students, including the STEM-bound ones, to come away with in their formative years as they emerge as adult citizens of the nation and world?

I would argue that the best answer to this question is: a sense of place. 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 lives. 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 was 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.

Very little of this perspective, by the way, is captured in the present Massachusetts high school physics curriculum [PDF] or standardized accountability tests such as the MCAS. From what I have read, the Next Generation Science Standards are much, much better than what we have now and certainly a huge step in the right direction. But even these standards, on the cutting edge of what American K-12 science education policy is working on, remain far from the mark in my opinion. They remain somewhat impeded by the inertia of 150 years of “this is what we’ve always taught”.

It is only in the context of physics as the true “natural philosophy” — testing whether our human ideas hold traction with reality — that (properly) introducing the most contemporary physical understanding of the universe (alongside those which came before) to our high school students makes sense. Barring that framework for what physics education is ultimately for, I really doubt that our students will learn physics past 1865 until and unless they choose to do so in college — by which point it may be too late to engage them with it anyway. Which means of course, that it may be too late for the study of physics to contribute to the scientific literacy of the overwhelming majority of our citizens.

Keep fighting the good fight, MinutePhysics.



So one fundamental attitude shared by Buddhism and science is the commitment to keep searching for reality by empirical means and to be willing to discard accepted or long-held positions if our search finds that the truth is different

The Dalai Lama — The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality  (via ikenbot)




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