Put a Little Science in Your Life, Extended
Brian Greene in the June 1, 2008 NYTimes makes some very important points about science education. Those in turn have some important implications for thinking about science and how scientists present it to the world, some of which Greene makes explicit and others of which warrant some amplification.
"Its striking that science is still widely viewed as merely a subject one studies in the classroom or an isolated body of largely esoteric knowledge that somtime shows up in the "real" world in the form of technological or medical advances. In reality, science is a language of hope and inspiration, providing discoveries that fire the imagination and instill a sense of connection to our lives and our world."
"As every parent knows, children begin life as uninhibited, unabashed explorers of the unknown. From the time we can walk and talk, we want to know what things are and how they work - we begin life as little scientists. But most of us quickly lose our intrinsic scientific passion. And its a profound loss."
"an overarching systemic issue: in teaching our students, we continually fail to activate rich opportunities for revealing the breathtaking vistas opened up by science, and instead focus on the need to gain competency with science's underlying technical details."
"At the root of this pedagogical approach is a firm belief in the vertical nature of science: you must master A before moving on to B. When A happened a few hundred years ago, its a long climb to the modern era. Certainly, when it comes to teaching the technicalities ... the verticality of science is unassailable."
"But science is much more than its technical details ... And with careful attention to presentation, cutting-edge insights and discoveries can be clearly and faithfully communicated to students independent of those details ... We rob science educatiom of life when we focus solely on results and seek to train students to solve problems without a commensurate emphasis on transporting them out beyond the stars."
"Science is the greatest of all adventure stories, one that's been unfolding for thousands of years as we have sought to understand ourselves and our surroundings. Science needs to be taught to the young and communicated to the mature in a manner that captures this drama. We must embark on a cultural shift that places science in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living."
"Its the birthright of every child, its a necessity for every adult, to look out on the world ... and see that the wonder of the cosmos transcends everything that divides us."
Yes, indeed, science "has the potential to be what we all collectively need as we evolve into a world wide community: a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth, an evolution in which all human beings are involved and take pride." And it would certainly help if one paid more attention in the teaching of science to "cutting-edge insights and discoveries" and "breath taking vistas," if we portrayed science "in its rightful place alongside music, art, and literature as an indispensable part of what makes life worth living."
My sense though is that Greene understates both the problems and the needs to achieve such a "cultural shift." And that at least some of what has to change to address those problems and needs requires a cultural shift within science itself. Not all scientists would be comfortable presenting science "alongside music, art, and literature." Many regard science not as a complement to other ways of making sense of and appreciating the world but rather as an alternative, a path to "objective" truth in contrast to the subjectivities inherent in other human activities. In presenting science in this way (and encouraging others to see it this way), scientists not only encourage unrealistic expectations of science but also set it undesirably and unnecessarily in conflict with other claimants to "Truth". If science is to be successfully portrayed in terms of breath taking vistas for all humans, there is going to have to be a greater appreciation among scientists themselves of science as an opening to as yet unconceived understandings rather than an unerring and progressive approach to a description of "reality."
Scientists also tend to presume that science is something that is done only by those who have been annointed by a professional community and, his appropriate remarks about "little scientists" notwithstanding, Greene seems to encourage this perspective. To sustain the engagement with science that everyone is indeed born with, it will not be enough to supplement science classes with "cutting edge insights and discoveries". What is needed is instead encouragement for ongoing and continuing inquiry by all individuals, students and otherwise. Classrooms need to be structured not to teach what is known, no matter how old or current but rather to engage students honestly and actively with the processes of discovery in their own terms. And professional scientists need, in general, to encourage everyone, in their own ways, to contribute to the ongoing development of the current stories that science uses to conceive new futures.