Friday, April 15, 2011

Proust in the classroom

I love cherry blossoms, and we live a stone's throw away from Branch Brook Park. At dusk I got my nose dusted yellow from sniffing hundreds, maybe thousands, of flowers.

Photo by Cathy Elliott-Shaw

As I sniffed one tree's flowers, then the next, hundreds of people were taking photos in the ethereal light, the sun sitting snug just below the horizon, a bulging moon high up in the east.

We are (mostly) visual creatures. We analyze light, look for patterns, capture it digitally so we can show others what we think we saw. We have art shows comparing our various abilities to capture light, to hold the world in a frame. We can discern a good photograph from a mediocre one, talk about contrast and angles and resolution.

Me and my nose live in a different world, a world of sinuous curves instead of angles, smudges instead of contrast, a world where time and distances dissolve into layers of fog swirling into each other. The cameras capture the sensuous, pleasing the cortex, blending thought and analysis and the beauty of order; my nose triggers the sensual, flaring up the olfactory lobe, part of our more primitive brain, visceral, without language.

The art of observing, the crucial first step of science, requires all of our senses. Schooling focuses on the visual. For all the talk of various learning styles, our standardized tests focus on what can be seen, what can be analyzed, what can be fairly assessed.

Photo by Colin Archer

I encourage my lambs to use their noses in class--we sniff basil, gingko ("vomit" fruit), dirt, sea water, elodea--and by the end of the year, I see students routinely using their noses when examining something new in class.

This is not something they are ever likely to face on a standardized exam in public schools. Not everything worth learning is easily assessed. When we reduce our classes to laboratories of the easily assessable, we reduce the natural world. When we reduce the natural world, we reduce science.

Alas, odors can be a problem-ever smell a rotten starfish?

First Branch Brook photo NJ photo courtesy of Cathy Elliott-Shaw via; 
Second photo  by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey via NJ Monthly

If you live within driving distance, it's worth the hike--
more flowering Japanese cherry trees than anywhere in the States--take that, D.C.! 

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