Friday, April 22, 2011

The Tao of now

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Robert Frost, "Fire and Ice"

There is some evidence, maybe enough, to conclude that life was here on Earth at least 3.7 billion years ago.

There is some evidence, maybe enough, that the sun will use up its hydrogen in 5 billion years, expanding into a red giant. At any rate, it gets hotter and hotter as it consumes its core, and Earth will be dessicated billions of years before then.

What does this mean?

Were more than halfway through our story, at least here on Earth....and that, oddly, saddens me, when sitting inside on a rainy April evening, locked into a human universe.

But when I'm outside, the breakers crashing on the beach, the wash of froth licking my chilled feet as two oystercrackers stare at me over their preposterous red bills, linear time dissolves. For most of the living, there is nothing but now.

More importantly, for all of the living, there is nothing more than now.

Worrying about how it all ends is a human conceit.

I teach about the natural world, or rather, how we think about the natural world. There are moments when the classroom is humming, particularly when students tend their fish, their wheat plants, their sow bugs, or their slugs.

Before I attempt to cram their worlds with models of what exists, they need to know what it means for life to exist. They need to be able to see it, sniff it, touch it, and follow it--for hours, for weeks, for months.

The above question, a sophomore biology classic, is not particularly difficult to answer, not particularly difficult to teach, but is not particularly science. Not even close....

If my lambs spent several weeks with fruit flies, crossing this phenotype with that, analyzing the results, and then (maybe) coming up with a reasonable approximation of Mendelian genetics, maybe a question like this makes sense.

But they don't--we don't have time. We don't have time, because we have a laundry list of things that need to be covered. So our kids learn how to do Punnett squares. They enjoy doing them--they really don't require a lot of thought, at least not at the level of mastery expected, and the kids think they are doing science.

The parents think they are doing science.
The Board of Ed thinks they are doing science.
The state thinks they're doing science.
Arne and Eli and Joel and Bill think they are doing science.

They're not. They're doing Punnett squares.

Truth be told, much of high school sucks.If it didn't, Punnett squares wouldn't be so appealing.


Every now and again I get kids caught in an existentialist trap--what is the meaning of life, the point, the goal, the end, and it's little wonder. I bet no child gets through a day without hearing someone ask what they plan to do with their lives.

I bet no child gets through a day without hearing that ""these are the best days of your life, you better enjoy them" from aging adults who have yet to start living.

We compound this with tests we pretend matter. Knowledge matters, thinking matters, but most of these tests do not (beyond their extrinsic consequences).

Let's play a thought game: if a test existed that could objectively measure happiness ten years after a child took my class, would it matter more (or less) than a test that measures my lambs' collective ability to do a Punnett square?

Ah, Dr. Doyle, you are lowering the bar! You are diluting the product! You are condemning your students to a life of poverty and ill-breeding!

No, I'm not. The current tests do not encourage me to teach science. They do not encourage my students to learn science. They will not lead to a better informed citizenry pursuing jobs or happiness.


We have a lot of life in class, which means we have a lot of death, too. I worried about this--will I trigger more existentialist angst?

I'm sure that long after I'm dead and my voice no longer a memory, a few students will remember the moment they witnessed their favorite shrimp in the world happily munching on their favorite hermit crab. These things are not planned, but are bound to happen in a classroom such as ours.

I was worried, but I needn't have been. They were enthralled. They were in the moment.

And yes, I still worry about what will happen in a few billion years. Except when I don't. Like now.

This one will likely get chopped up into a few pieces before I'm through.
The photos all taken today under a gloomy sky--the robin's egg is the same as the one seen last week. It is getting duller.


Jerrid Kruse said...

I believe teaching to be a spiritual and eternal act (in a relative and permanent sense).

The educational philosophy you weave with natural philosophy is such an important dialogue. One with which I wish more teachers engaged.

If more educators (and people in general) trolled these depths, the Arnes and Bills of the world would have no legs on which to stand.

Anonymous said...

Do all these adults not remember their school years? If so, how can they do this to others? If not, how can they pontificate on what is meaningful? I have students who cannot envision driving a car beyond their neighborhood (so why do you need a car, when you can walk?), and yet taking them to the beach is too frivolous for us to spend money on. For students with no experiences, nothing of what we offer in high school has meaning.

doyle said...

Dear Jerrid,

Thank you for your kind words.

I bet more educators would troll these depths if Arne and Bill left us alone.

When we lose tenure here in Jersey, even fewer of us will teach science. I'm old enough not to worry as much, and if worse comes to worse, I can always fall back on medicine.

So long as I can teach, really teach, I'm staying in the classroom.

Dear Anonymous,

Experiences matter, truly. Experiences created by monitors are nothing more than experiences created by monitors.

I'm not sure what these folks remember--immense wealth and power warps people. Always has.