Thursday, July 4, 2013

Divide and conquer

In the open air the distinction between the kingdoms--mineral, vegetable, animal--seems blurred.
John Berger, Here is Where We Meet
Grown by a sophomore student, Room B362

In western culture, to understand something means to break it into its parts. This makes sense if the point of understanding something is to manipulate it, and our history the past thousand years or so is marked by the things we broke.

Science is acceptable (and only barely so in some quarters) not because it gives us a greater appreciation of the mysteries around us, but because it works. We can make predictions, we can make wonderful things, and we can break things if other cultures get in the way.

For every Feynman whose love of the universe grew as he unraveled its patterns, we have 450 LGM30 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles ready to destroy life. Just yesterday we released 4 much smaller missiles via a drone in Pakistan, killing at least 16 people in a "volatile tribal area."

The crew of the remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) sat thousands of miles away here in the States. Today they will get to watch fireworks, celebrating a document famous for this line:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

RPA crews "experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan."

Separating the pilots from the plane does not separate them from their humanity.

If we continue to teach science by treating the natural world as parts to be separated, named, and memorized, while stripping away the awe that inspires the best of our scientists, we will continue to get human drones that can separate what they do from the consequences of their actions.

Me, on a small mountain of dredge spoils somewhere in Cape May.

Here's a partial list of words 12 year old children are expected to learn in North Carolina (courtesy of Bill Ferriter--read the post, it will break any teacher's heart):
Conduction, Convection, Radiation, Heat Transfer, Mediums, Frequency, Amplitude, Pitch, Wavelength, Longitudinal Waves, Transverse Waves, Trough, Crest, Rarefaction, Compression, Electromagnetic Energy, Disturbances. Melting Point, Boiling Point, Solubility, Solute, Solvent, Saturation, Phase Changes.Density, Igneous, Sedimentary, Metamorphic, Oceanic Crust, Continental Crust, Plate Tectonics, Alfred Wegener, Convergent Boundaries, Divergent Boundaries, Transform Boundaries, Primary Waves, Secondary Waves, Surface Waves, Parent Rock, Contour Plowing.Eclipses, Phases of the Moon, Tidal Patterns, Hubble Telescope, International Space Station, Fermi-Gamma-Ray Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Gravitational Force.
Pieces are much easier to deal with than the messy whole, and a whole lot cheaper to test. Every time we reward a child for separating herself from the world--and memorizing vocabulary of concepts you cannot possibly grasp at your age falls under this--we teach her that the parts matter more than the whole.

I don't want to help train engineers (or soldiers or corporate scientists or CEOs) if what they do requires them to separate themselves from the universe.

I take "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" to heart, and I take it literally. There's no place for cynicism for those of us entrusted with children.

"In the open air the distinction between the kingdoms" becomes blurred because the distinctions are human, not universal. The distinctions matter, the distinctions allowed us to trade magic for science, but if we treat science the way we treated magic, as a tool for manipulating the world and for acquiring power, we we've made a Faustian bargain.

Pursuing knowledge of the world, for the purpose of knowing it better, for knowing a little more about the whole, can (and does) make us happier critters. We are all mortal, we will all fall apart, no magic can save us. Technology cannot save us.

But maybe happiness can....


Anonymous said...

I read your blog and I rarely find the words to reply. There is noting to add or subtract - it is such a powerful quiet invitation to reflection.
Thank you.

Cristina Milos

doyle said...

Dear Cristina,

Thank you warmly--your words come from a good, good place.