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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Transcendence & education

I am in the thick of midterm madness and have temporarily abandoned my post as speculative philosophical muser, gardening enthusiast and poet.

However, I maintain my efforts to stay in mindfulness whenever I can. In the car, on my way to work. In the phlebotomist’s chair, waiting for a blood test. At a staff meeting, or with a student–trying to be aware of what I say, and who the person in front of me is, rather than zone out and get anxious about the next thing I have to accomplish before bedtime. The practice, however badly I manage it, rewards me with moments of clarity and observation that help get me through a day and complement the practice of writing poetry.

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Mindfulness does not come naturally to me; I am a daydreamer by temperament, a tuner-outer. It is far too easy for me to get carried out of the now by thoughts of “what if” or “what’s next,” and if I function in that way, I am not living my life in the present moment. Poets may start out as daydreamers, but if imagining never turns to the practice of writing and revising and reading the work–the daydreamer stays a dreamer, and does not mature into poetry-writing.

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Among many other things, I am a teacher. I tell my students that English and Philosophy are “friends,” that they share many concepts, and that philosophy and English classes should educate people about The Big Picture. About life. I did not come to mindfulness or a consciousness of the value of the present moment in church or in school or on my own, though. People taught me. I came upon these concepts through philosophy–first, Western philosophy and later, Eastern philosophy.

Here are professors John Kaag and Clancy Martin presenting some of philosophy’s timeless questions (under the lens of Faust, for starters):

Faust knows everything worth knowing. And still, after all his careful bookwork, he arrives at the unsettling realization that none of it has really mattered. His scholarship has done pitifully little to unlock the mystery of human life.

Are we and our students in that same situation? Are we teaching them everything without teaching them anything regarding the big questions that matter most? Is there a curriculum that addresses why we are here? And why we live only to suffer and die?

Good questions.

In their article, Kaag and Martin take the question of life in the present, with its present meaning–if there is one–and propose an even deeper inquiry, one that I sometimes discuss with my colleagues in The Morbid Book Group. The authors write that

[w]hen dying finally delivers us to our inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. But that reason cannot, unfortunately, be articulated by many of the academic disciplines that have gained ascendance in our modern colleges. Why not? Why shouldn’t an undergraduate education prepare students not only for a rich life but for a meaningful death?

Then they compose a nice thumbnail sketch outlining some major definitions and explorations in Western thought and then suggest that higher education’s typical intellectual approach to The Big Questions has, to our students’ loss, lacked fullness of the lived experience as a part of its inquiries.

The need to have authentically lived and also to know what to do about dying are knotted together in a way that none of our usual intellectual approaches can adequately untangle. It is related to the strange way that experience is both wholly one’s own and never fully in one’s possession. Experience is, by its very nature, transcendent — it points beyond itself, and it is had and undergone with others.

The authors write, “Who needs transcendence? We suspect that human beings do.” I am certainly in agreement there; exactly how to convey transcendence to students is probably beyond the scope of most college professors, but we can encourage them toward inquisitiveness. We can be mindful about where they are now, and where we are now:

The meaning of life and death is not something we will ever know. They are rather places we are willing or unwilling to go. To feel them, moment by moment, to the end, authentically, thoughtfully, passionately — that is an answer in itself. And for us as educators, to show our students the importance of trying to go to those places — that may be one of the best things we can teach them.

What are we teaching our students about experience and the fullness of the present moment?

“…he not busy being born is busy dying” (“It’s Alright, Ma” Bob Dylan).

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And even those being born are already dying. What have we got but the moment? I try to be mindful of that.

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Read the article here.

Leading the witness

Please forgive me if my recent posts are devoted more to teaching than to poetry, gardening, and speculative philosophical thinking–the semester end approaches, and I am endeavoring to ascertain whether my students have acquired any new knowledge about poetry and literary analysis. There are these supposedly-evaluative items known as “grades” which I must register for the college administration.

Spring and AllSo, exactly what, if anything, have they learned thus far? Considering that for the first few weeks of class I practically had to apply forceps to their vocal chords to get them to speak in class at all, let alone express a thought concerning poetry, most of them have progressed. Only a few students volunteer to answer a question I pose or offer an opinion in response, but when I look one of them in the eye and ask “What do you say?” I now get an answer instead of an embarrassed shrug.

This is headway indeed. Granted, the method I have used to initiate response might more accurately be called “leading the witness,” as opposed to Socratic inquiry. Most college sophomores I’ve met are so stymied by the whole genre of poetry that the classic method of advancing knowledge through inquiry results in nothing but puzzled silence and guessing, most of the time. I soften the approach by suggestions that, I hope, will lead to inference on the student’s side but that do not give away exactly what I am looking for. Because I do not always know, myself, what I am seeking. Because I want, once in awhile, to be surprised and delighted by a student’s inference–usually a point of view I have not previously considered (because I am not 19 and not a literature novice).

One of the things I love most about good poetry is the opportunity to be surprised, and perspective shifts offer the unexpected. I can lead the witness, perhaps, but I cannot lead all 30 witnesses (or whatever number of them happen to be paying enough attention to be led). The student I call on will respond directly and then inspire other, slightly variant, responses from classmates.

A discussion may actually ensue! Oh, joy!

I try to take note of which students seem to be engaging most actively so I can somehow calculate that into the evaluation, but I have not really developed an effective way to indicate the hoped-for “a-ha!” moment into a grade.

Theoretically, grades are objectively based upon a carefully-constructed rubric that reflects what the student knows about the discipline or subject area. I have therefore invented criteria, percentages, and the like for assessment as required by academic best practices–or at least by academic protocol. Having been always a student at seminar-style, narrative-evaluation-based higher education institutions, I admit that I find the typical grading methods disheartening and arbitrary.

Meanwhile, I continue leading the witnesses until the end of the semester.

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By the way: It is April, and once again National Poetry Month. Please, go out and purchase a book of poetry. Or borrow one from the local library. Shout your barbaric yawps into the springtime air!

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Defending the poetry major

Photo by Annie Abdalla

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Pity the poor poetry major, long treated with snotty sarcasm as a head-in-the-clouds idealist. “What will you do with that degree?” people ask, shaking their heads at the scholar’s naivete.

Okay, few people dispute that the economy is tough right now. Tough for experienced employees, tough for many small business owners, tough for newly-minted college graduates. I know this first-hand, and I deal most often with the youngest age group I’ve mentioned—undergraduates.

There are hundreds of articles, blogs, and opinion pieces offering tips to students or bemoaning the price of a college degree (and I grant you, the cost is appalling) or telling undergraduates that they need to specialize in certain career areas. The New York Times, for example, ran this article, which warns students away from majoring in such coursework as history, philosophy, and poetry.

Another pop-journalism site suggests that graduates learn “to put your useless degree to use.” Although there are some reasonable, general ideas here, these brief tip-sheets operate under the unlikely premise that we can tell today’s 18-year-old what he or she will need to know in order to be securely employed in, say, 2045.

Mild contrarian that I am, I defend the poetry major. Students have to be diligent to achieve good grades in the poetry track, diligence being just as necessary there as in the so-called hard sciences, which also require analysis (they use more math but require similarly solid logic chops). Poetry is difficult to study; the subject requires keen reading comprehension skills, a good foundation in rhetoric, the ability to analyze, to communicate, and to connect diverse disciplines, cultures, and texts. The same goes for history and philosophy: these are truly challenging areas of study, not good choices for the slacker or the faint of heart.

The people who choose the humanities majors are often accused of living in ivory towers, but that’s a stereotype. Most of them don’t end up in academia. Some of them are entrepreneurs, some are lawyers, some are doctors. Poetry major Ross Martin became a Viacom executive; though that is probably not a terribly common career outcome for poetry folk, humanities majors in general end up in some form of management position 20% of the time, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

For a look at the career outcomes, percent employed full-time or part-time, and job earnings for humanities majors, see:

(Link to GU’s CEW on Humanities degree earners)

Yes, it is true that in terms of earnings, the poetry major or history major is unlikely to outperform the person who has a Petroleum Engineering degree. I have to ask, however, given the limited supply of petroleum we’re told exists on earth, where those petroleum engineers will find work in 2045. And job satisfaction—earning enough to get by and feeling satisfied with one’s work and contributions to society—is, while less easily measurable, a byproduct of an excellent education that keeps minds sharp, hearts engaged, and communities intact over the long haul—including during tough times.

The world and technology move rapidly. I typed my undergraduate papers on a manual typewriter and, graduating during the hideous recession of 1979, got jobs that paid like menial labor but allowed me to sit at desks and utilize my spelling, vocabulary, and arts analysis skills, which led to jobs in typesetting that taught me computer skills back in…well, let’s just say “8-inch floppy disk” and leave it at that. Did I have any idea I would be blogging on the cloud using a PC in 2012? No. Have I been able to learn new things by using logic, persistence, research, and creative thinking? Why, yes. Thank you, humanities coursework.

Critics of many stripes claim colleges need to focus more on career development through the creation of specialist tracks. Careerism is a fine concept for a capitalist society, and I have no problem with offering better certification programs for specialists of all kinds; but careerism per se is not what a college education is “for.” A college education serves, when it is effective, to broaden a person’s experiences, deepen a person’s thoughts, and to develop in that person a versatile range of essential critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Those skills are applicable to many jobs. An excellent gaming programmer I’m acquainted with says his two years of intensive philosophy and literature study helped him enormously when he switched to the technology track: it’s all logic and analysis, and creative thinking is what allows a programmer to excel beyond data-managing. Here’s an article that explains a bit more about the usefulness of the liberal arts education as it pertains to business.

When the job market is tight, we need problem solvers and creative, critical thinkers. It will not matter what these people majored in as undergraduates; what will matter is how flexible they are at responding to the changes around them…or at instituting changes themselves.

Poetry majors can do that for us.

Really.