Science & philosophy

The small, religiously-affiliated university at which I work graduates, percentage-wise, a large number of baccalaureates in the sciences although it offers a liberal arts-based core curriculum. How does that affect what coursework students must do? For starters, two Theology courses and one Philosophy course are required for graduation.

Three critical-thinking method, scholarly courses ought not to be more than a student in the sciences–or any other discipline–can handle; but I hear a bit of resentment among the undergrads. They question the necessity of abstract ethics classwork, wondering how such material will be applicable to a fast-paced, technologically-advanced, science-oriented career or life. Philosophy doesn’t seem to be a skill set to them.

SocratesWhile I fundamentally disagree, I take their point. With so much new information coming at them, info-savvy young people might well feel skeptical about what they can gain from reading texts by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas.

Philosophy has been around for millennia, though; empirical science as we know it–with electron microscopes, satellite-mounted telescopes, petri dishes and x-rays–is brand-spanking new by comparison. The techniques we use today seem concrete and tool-like rather than theoretical; yet as every real scientist knows, the only way developments occur is through hypothesis–theory–claim–assertion–question–pushing the envelope of the known.

Which is what philosophers have been doing for thousands of years.

The budding scientists and medical-studies researchers I encounter seldom realize that without philosophy, science would not exist. Philosophers asked the “why” questions, came up with theories and categories, tried to see into a future that might someday have the technology to confirm or refute the theories they came to solely through human observation and deduction. Problem-solving skills. They were the scientists of their day, and the methods of thinking they came up with are those that contemporary scientists in all disciplines continue to employ.

http://www.isys.ucl.ac.be/descartes/images/Descartes.gif Descartes

Descartes, 1640s

A wonderful book on the way philosophy developed into biology (to take just one of the scientific disciplines) is Marjorie Grene and David Depew’s The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History.

The authors–a philosophy professor and a rhetoric professor–provide a history lesson in science, taking us by steps and by leaps into the development of a scientific (empirical) skill set as derived from insightful cognitive understandings of those Dead White Guys on whose thinking Western philosophy is based.

finch beaks

Darwin’s finches, 1840s

Now, I am not an advocate for a strict return to the Western Civ canon; I think university education should diversify into exploring (and questioning) other modes of cognition, culture, and philosophical approaches. Yet it seems to me imperative that students continue to study, and learn to value, the history of human thought. You can be a nurse without a thorough background in Aristotle’s categorical concepts; you can learn the drill about washing hands, donning gloves, and inserting catheters–all practical, concrete skills. You can understand the rationale for all of those skills; that’s true, and practical.

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Cajal’s drawing of a pyramidal neural cell, 1913

Nurses today, however, should have the thinking skills to solve unexpected problems rapidly and rationally, which is how things play out “in real life,” to deduce that something’s going wrong even when the readouts look stable, to recognize that the hurried intern added an extra zero to the number of milligrams of medicine prescribed. They need enough background in the history of medical care-giving to question a doctor or administrator when the ethics of a patient’s care seem to be at risk. These problem-solving skills are not only crucial, they are philosophically-based.

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I will dismount from my high horse now. With all the disorienting information being bombarded at me these days, I need a poem to reorient myself. Here’s one by Mary Oliver.

Snowy Egret (by Mary Oliver)

A late summer night and the snowy egret
has come again to the shallows in front of my house

as he has for forty years.
Don’t think he is a casual part of my life,

that white stroke in the dark.

==

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

 

Here we are

I frequently tell my composition students to break the task of academic essay writing into steps that work for them–very Aristotelian of me. Many educated persons were “taught to think” using this method, basically by bundling concepts together into categories. I tell my students that each person may develop a different approach. Sometimes traditional categories don’t work for a particular kind of thoughtful mind.

My own, for example. I have had to study to get to the “rational,” and it intrigues me (science mind! philosophy mind!). But the mythic and the discombobulated and the circuitous: my default consciousness heads into those places when left to wander without a focused task.

A student in my class asked me why I decided to teach college. The funny thing is that it did not feel as though it were a decision on my part. It was a series of steps that seemed unrelated at the time.

One perspective–I graduated with a Philosophy and English bachelor’s degree at the moment of the worst economic period since the Great Depression (the late 1970s). I was a good speller. I got a job proofreading. From there, a series of jobs, and periods without jobs, and marriage and children and a graduate degree and wanting to do a little part time work and teaching poetry workshops in schools…

grassesA

Another perspective–I became entranced with poetry as a young adult. I read and read, and I also wrote; joined a writing critique group when David Dunn shyly invited me to the informal weekly sessions in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was not fashionable then. I had a job that paid my rent, barely. I wrote constantly, and David encouraged me to read aloud. Ariel Dawson encouraged me to submit my work to magazines. Ploddingly, and without much confidence, I followed my friends’ advice. I learned to speak in public, to groups of people who might not always be open to what I had to say. Later, I raised two children. How like teaching these things are…

I was invited to teach. I tried it. There are tasks at which I am more competent, but I get by. Some of my students thank me.

I still prefer tutoring and coaching, working one-to-one with a student, side by side in the task of urging thoughts into clarity in the form of written text. Here I am. The semester has started. Wrench those random ideas into curriculum, work on word order and concise expression. Be with the student where he or she is. Start there. Be confident. The next step will evolve.

A series of seemingly unrelated events, careers, moves, ideas, loves–those are our human foundations.

And here we are.

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Work vs. work

Untitled-writerOutside Academia: The Writer…

 

Lately, I have felt overly-occupied with my so-called day job. The work I do at the college is personally rewarding and pays my bills; I love the challenges it offers and the people with whom I work, but I am not what one would term career-driven. Even though I am employed by a university, and even though I teach (just one class a semester), in many ways–as far as scholarship, research, and poetry go–I remain “outside academia.” An interesting paradox. But if I over-extend at my office, I find less to say at my writing desk at home.

Poets Mary Oliver and Kay Ryan also spent most of their careers working at colleges without climbing the spiral stairway of academia’s ivory tower. Well-received, excellent writers–and Oliver even sells quite well for a poet–they aren’t “academics.” It is heartening to know that such poetry luminaries are, like me, not academics. I often wonder how they managed to balance teaching with writing poetry.

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What I do “at work” where I earn a salary, and what I do when I “work” on poetry, seem quite separate to me, and I question whether one informs the other. I feel that being a poet does influence, though subtly, the way I approach teaching and tutoring. (It does not seem to have any influence on the way I do record-keeping, spreadsheets, or paperwork.)

By contrast, my day job at the college seems not to have much sway over my poetry; I write prose about teaching and tutoring, but my career work does not often appear as topic or substance in my poems. I notice, too, that Oliver and Ryan do not often write poems about their day jobs (both of them have retired by now–but still). In fact, I would venture that the way my day job affects my poetry is mostly as a time and energy drain.

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I have challenged myself to write at least two poems a month that in some respect relate to my work with students. That prompt forces me to remember that I am not two separate beings, one at the college desk and one, pen in hand, on the back porch at home. I remain my whole self, and I place my whole self into both endeavors. I can work with that.

Safety

I work, and sometimes teach, at a college campus–a small, quiet, safe university surrounded by cornfields and lightly-wooded slopes. The institution has a manual of protocols to ensure the safety of staff and students: lockdown procedures, early alerts, advising on harassment, threat, and signs of various types of needs along with preventive measures, communication protocol, background screening, and referrals. The administration has taken pains to assure the safety of students, faculty, and staff.

It seems that one of the most urgent desires of U.S. citizens is to be safe. We spend millions of hours and dollars on the quest to protect ourselves and our communities. We argue over whose responsibility that should be, though most of us recognize the responsibility–as in any social group–must be a shared one. After last week’s mass shooting tragedy, one Oregon college professor posted an open letter to her legislators (click here for story). Her situation parallels my own except that I have been at my college for many years and am aware of the protocols. But those procedures would be just as useless in my classroom as she envisions they would be in hers.

From a June 2015 New York Times article reporting on the Texas campus-carry legislation: “Opponents say the notion that armed students would make a campus safer is an illusion that will have a chilling effect on campus life. Professors said they worry about inviting a student into their offices to talk about a failing grade if they think that student is armed.” Most lawmakers have never been teachers. I think it unlikely they are aware of the stress and apprehension most of us feel in addition to our interest, concern, and compassion when dealing with a “difficult,” angry, or excessively anxious student. Yet we do not let our fears keep us from doing the jobs we love, disseminating what we have learned through study and experience to others and (usually) actively seeking their engagement in the discipline. That means taking intellectual risks. Occasionally, it means making oneself vulnerable to physical risks as well.

I am not suggesting there is something wrong-headed about wanting to feel secure; certainly that need is basic among human beings, keeping us in groups banded together for safety. But I do wonder whether the craving for safety distracts people from exploring and implementing other, perhaps more helpful, methods of operating as a society. To do so would require rejecting the norm, stepping away from the way we generally tend to do things (the way they’ve “always been done”) and endeavoring to create new approaches to our social maladies.

What might that look like, from the professor’s point of view? Or from the politician’s perspective, or a parental viewpoint? And are we, collectively, ready to take those risks?

photo by Patrick Target

photo, Patrick Target. Mary Mother of God statue above the campus.

9th as new

Last week, I tutored a student on a music appreciation paper in which she was asked to review a concert-going experience. Her family background is culturally rich–but not rich in terms of the Western cultural canon. She had heard the name Beethoven; but until this class, as a sophomore in college, she had never listened to his music. She attended a concert that featured a Liszt sonata, two brief Schubert pieces (StĂ€ndchen and one other), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Because I cannot remember not knowing Beethoven’s music, I kind of envy this young woman’s revelations in the concert hall; what must it be like to hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony, for the first time, as a 19-year-old? I may not be familiar with all of the master’s works, but my parents had some of the symphonies on vinyl back in the 1960s. We listened to classical music on the radio and in church; even commercial television featured famous musical phrases. My sister and I liked dancing around the living room every weeknight to The Huntley-Brinkley Report’s closing theme (2nd movement Beethoven’s 9th).

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

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Initially, she and I went over the structure of a review and how it resembles an analysis paper. She had used musical terminology reasonably well, and we had grammar and mechanics to work on. What she liked best, she said, was the part with the singers. She found the third movement “a bit boring. I kept wondering if this was the end.” But the fourth movement excited her: “It was really like a celebration or something, and you could see the expressions on the faces of the singers and the musicians, that they were so into it. Like, you kind of wanted to stand up for it, you know?”

Yes, I know–that’s how I have felt when I have heard the piece in concert.

~

Our discussion went on after our work on the paper’s mechanics had ended, though, because she asked me why courses like this one are required for college. Her major is early childhood education, and she says her parents asked her how a course on classical music has anything to do with teaching 4-year-olds.

It turns out I had more to say on that than I realized. Bless her heart, this student was eager to listen. [I have to admit that isn’t as common a response as one might wish.] Many of my friends, I said, are teachers or former teachers; they are among the smartest, most open-minded and curious people I know. They pay attention to contemporary culture and they read about history. They get allusions and references and make clever jokes and know all kinds of things and also, they admit what they do not know and are eager to learn about. They’d play Beethoven for kindergarteners and let them dance to the fast movements and ask them how it feels to hear the slower, sadder late quartets. They might have the children finger-paint to BeyoncĂ© or twirl like leaves to Vivaldi’s “Autumn” or use round colored stickers to make their own “Starry Night” pictures or recite a poem that’s fun to say out loud. Culture is education.

And there’s more, I told her, that has to do with you as a person who understands the culture you are part of. You have to know about politics, especially local and state politics, because teachers need to understand how legislation and budgets can affect income and careers. You might feel uncomfortable in your job if you don’t get your colleagues’ allusions or feel you cannot participate equally in their conversations when the subject turns to culture, history, museums, music, art, policies and fiscal issues. It is fine to admit what you do not know or have not yet been exposed to–but it helps to know where you stand and to show you want to learn.

You’ll learn from your students, too. If you really want to be a good teacher, I said, you will never want to stop learning. Maybe you will reach a point where you don’t need to know a whole lot more about Beethoven, but you will want to explore other subjects. So when you take the required fine arts courses, the required literature courses, the courses in philosophy and math and all that other stuff, realize how all of it will get into your brain somehow, maybe touch a nerve here or there, and help you become a terrific teacher.

Besides, isn’t it beautiful? Even the boring parts…have you ever experienced anything like that before?

“No, honestly,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I was up for it, but it was worth it.”

Preparation

As I prepare for the upcoming semester, my thoughts turn from weather, the garden, and philosophical readings to the gnarly process of educating the young adult. In fact, I just spent four days with a group of 46 incoming freshmen who were involved with an intensive college preparatory orientation. So much potential there. So many high hopes.

What tends to be lacking is “grit.” Most young adults have not yet developed the mindset that accepts the unavoidable need for hard work, for mastering skills that are tedious, for thoroughly and correctly finishing assignments that bore them–all in order to attain the seemingly far-off goals they have set for themselves. I don’t blame them for this attitude, since I shared it when I was their age.

And growth is as hard as it is rewarding. I like what blogger Danny Anderson says:

“Education is growth, and like all growth (think of your shins at night when you were a teenager) it is painful and requires struggle. At its most basic level, education is the twofold act of acknowledging a shortcoming in one’s self and working to improve in that area. This is simple, but, if taken seriously, brutal.”

Acknowledgment of this kind takes reflection, and effective reflection takes analysis; and few 18-year-olds in the USA are spectacularly skilled at analysis (of self or of any other kind). They know precious little about themselves, the job market, adult society’s expectations, college expectations, debt load, and back-breaking personal responsibility.

And that’s ok, as long as they learn these things in good time, which most of them will.

I agree with Professor Anderson’s assessment that many students arrive at college thinking that four years of grind and partying will get them a diploma and a magical job offer, and that such assumptions are woefully in error. He writes, “Education is not a product you purchase and consume. You are not a blank slate waiting for me to write something marketable on you. On the contrary, Education is something that consumes you.”

That’s one thing I always understood about education, even when I was as irresponsible and callow and un-grounded and enthusiastic as the students I’ll be teaching later this month. Even now, I am preparing for my Education (continuing, always) to consume me.

If you’d like to read the rest of Anderson’s post, it is here.