Friday, August 5, 2016

Science, dogma, and the American Way

I posted this about 8 years ago.
I needed the reminder.

The bishop has often compared our churches to a herd of horses grazing in a pasture. It is a beautiful picture to see them all grazing together contentedly. Everything seems to be going fine. But then there are always those who try to reach across the fence and get something they shouldn't have. These have to be brought back into the group. If they aren't, they will soon break down the fence, and then there is trouble. Not only will they slip out of the field, but they will open the way for the rest to get out as well.
From The Amish in Their Own Words, compiled by Brad Igou, Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa 1999

If you want to explain science as a process, you are going to run into questions about faith  or religion or natural  or some other vague word spouted off by an adolescent whose vocabulary does not yet include the (very useful) word "dogma."

I can play it safe:
This is science class. Science deals with the observable universe, and it has limits. Religion seeks other kinds of truths and uses different rules. Science and religion are separate disciplines that serve independent functions. (Go ask your mother)

That usually quiets the truly curious, though the thoroughly evangelical child may still be a bit pesky when evolution is the topic (which is pretty much always in biology).

I hesitate to give the science/religion dichotomy speech, though, because it's not true, and lying to kids in a class designed to teach them a way to discern what's true about our universe should earn me a trip to hell in a purple handbasket.

Science does lead to questions about origins and meaning, and we fail as teachers if we do not distinguish scientific reasoning from dogma.

Now, I am not about to challenge specific acts of dogma in science class, not directly (Holy See, Báb, Mohammad, Enki, Jesus, Abraham, Tlaloc, An, the Holy Ghost, Shangd, Moses, the Protogenoi, Bhagavan, many authorities, so little time), nor am I going to question any child's acceptance of whatever dogma happens to rule her clan.

I am not going to pretend, however, that science does not challenge what most students believe.

And I am taking it one step further this year.

I am explicitly telling them there are going to be times when what
what we know through science contradicts what they know through dogma. Which brings me to the parable. It is told by a bishop. It is a tale designed to help the parish stay true to dogma.

You could apply the same parable to public education. Students are a lot safer if they stick with the herd and keep away from the edges. They are more likely to earn good grades. They will, on average, earn more money than those students who do poorly in school. They certainly aren't going to break any fences.

If you're looking for Socrates, for Galileo, for Newton, for Einstein, for Feynman, you may as well find the hole in the fence and start walking.

I'm not trying to create any Einsteins in my class. I'm just trying to get them through one more year believing there might be something outside this particular pasture.

Top photo is one room schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,
the bottom photo is little girl at a horse farm, both from the 
National Archives collection


Kate T said...

I was at an unusually interesting PD many years ago (not so interesting however that I remember the name of the presenter) and he (for I do remember that it was a man) said that in our classes a generous statistic is that 10% of the students there will follow you into your field - a branch o the sciences, mathematics, literature study, language - we don't teach to them. We teach to the 90% (conservative number) who may see no use for the things that we love. So we want them to understand how a particular field of study is a part of their day. How fiction can help them stand in the footsteps of anyone in this world or in an imagined world. How good writing is never a bad thing. And so when a student comes into my classroom and asks aloud to no one in particular, "Why is it raining?" (I have two walls of windows) I reply, "Do you want a metaphoric answer or a physical science answer?"
"Then to quote Jimi Hendrix, 'The sky is crying.'" and then I explained about warm wet and cold dry air pressure cells and condensation particulate.
"How do you know all that?"
"It's interesting, don't you think? I remember interesting things."
Keep making it real, Dr. Doyle. The 90% thank you.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

It's why we love what we do, and why we do it. We've both been blessed--and we're both lucky to know this.

Thanks, as always, for the words. =)