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This Isn't Just MY Problem, Friend

Some thoughts on science education, education, American culture, and what to do about it





(610) 526-5098

21 August 1991

Sometimes it pays to let off steam a little bit. Even in public. Sometimes it turns out that everyone is bothered by something, and no one is exactly sure what it is, and everyone thinks it must be something wrong with themselves. Then someone says something about it, and it turns out its sort of the same something that has been bothering everybody else, and everybody feels a little better, and maybe even something gets done about it. So let me tell you a couple of stories, and lets see whether it sounds like anything you know anything about.

I teach biology in a college, a pretty good one that costs students a lot of money and that lots of people have heard of. Yeah, I know, you've been hearing that people like me sit around drawing big paychecks for doing practically nothing. Well, let me tell you a little bit about what I do, and why it matters to you, and why its maybe not so different from what you do. I LIKE teaching. I LIKE talking to students, and showing them things, and having them tell me things back that they see differently because we talked together. What I REALLY like is the light that comes into students' eyes when they suddenly realize that something we're talking about makes a lot of sense, to them, and not only about whatever it is we're talking about, but also about a lot of other things they've wondered about and never quite understood. One reason I like that light so much is that I identify with it: I really get a kick out of that feeling when it happens to me, and sometimes it does because something I've said to a student makes the student think of something I've never thought of before. A bigger reason, though, why I like that light is that it means those students are THINKING. And I trust people who can think. I feel safer when there are people around me who can think. I'll bet you feel that way too, and maybe, whatever it is you do, part of what's fun about it is seeing other people learn from you about it...

Well, anyway, I like people who think, and its my job to help them learn to think. That's not so easy, it turns out. Last year some of us decided that the introductory biology course we were teaching wasn't as good as it could be. The problem was that scientists have learned so many things about biology that it was all you could do just to tell people what all they had learned. There wasn't any time to think, much less to let students do some thinking, so they could learn more about how to do it themselves. So we decided to stop trying to teach the students everything we (and everyone else) could think of that maybe they should know, and to try instead to show students how biologists think about things, and get them to think about how and why that was different from the way they had been thinking about things when they came into the course. It takes a lot of time to reorganize and rethink a course that way, but it was a fun time, thinking time, and we thought it was a good idea. The students would be much better off (and be much better citizens, and make me feel safer, and so on and so on).

So we tried it out, and you can probably guess what our biggest problem was. Many of the students, not all of them but a lot of them, were unhappy with the course. Some of them hated it, and hated us for doing it the way we'd done it. They felt cheated. They were sure there were things they were supposed to KNOW, and we hadn't told them what they were SUPPOSED to know, much less taught them those things. Some of the others didn't hate the course, but they didn't like it very much either. It made them uncomfortable, confused. It wasn't like any course they had ever taken, and they couldn't figure out what they were supposed to be doing. So they just sort of sat, and felt uncomfortable, and didn't know what to do. One of the things you learn when you teach is that you're not going to please all the people all the time. Lots of students liked the course, and talked about how different it was from whatever they had had before and how it had helped them in ways that went way beyond learning biology, and that's fine. But what bothers me is how many didn't like it, and what that means, and why its so. Because what I think it means is that there are a lot of students who don't like to think, or don't think they like to think, or who don't know how to go about trying to think, and that scares me, and I'd like to change whatever it is that makes things that way.

What's funny about the whole thing is that lots of people know about the problem, and lots of people complain about it, and practically nobody does anything about it, and by not doing anything about it they make it worse. I remember when I was a young teacher at a different college, an older teacher took me aside one day to give me some friendly advice. He'd noticed that I liked to think, and liked to try and get other people to think too. What he thought I ought to know was that you couldn't teach people to think, and furthermore that if I spent too much time thinking myself I'd end up losing my job, because that was not what the job was all about. What the job was all about was looking at what was being done around me, learning to do what everybody else around me was doing, and trying to do it better than them, so that I could be more important, and they could try and be more important by trying to be better than me. I couldn't honestly believe that was what the job was, but he was right in one sense at least. I did keep trying to think, and did keep trying to get other people to think, and I did lose that job. What's even funnier is that I don't think the older teacher got any satisfaction out of that. I think, in fact, he was a little sorry about the whole thing, because he liked to have someone around to think with, but he was too afraid to admit that he liked it, to do anything about it.

Anyhow, I had to find a new job, and there's a story there too. That first college was a big, well-known place where everyone was worried about what other people thought of the college instead of worrying about how good a job they were doing and whether THEY felt good about it. I thought maybe a different college where people had a little better touch with reality might understand more about how important it is to be able to think. So I talked to people at a college where lots of students came from pretty poor families and it really mattered how good the college was and what the students got taught. And I was right, it really did matter. And I was wrong, they didn't want to teach people to think either. A teacher there listened to me talk about what I thought was important, and then quietly explained to me what would happen and why teaching people to think wasn't such a good idea. As he explained it, if you did that, the students might start feeling free to question anything they wanted to and the whole place would fall apart and go down the tubes. There was, he thought, no way you could possibly teach people what they NEEDED to know if you taught them to think. It wasn't efficient. That's different from the guy who was afraid to admit he liked to think. This one just flat out didn't think it was a good idea to have people thinking. It made it too hard to maintain order.

It took me quite a while to find the job I have (and which I like a lot), which is not really the point but is part of it. It turns out that there are lots and lots of colleges which are not entirely happy with the idea that what they are about is giving people a chance to think. And that's pretty scary in its own right, if you think about it. I mean, its not exactly the case that there are lots of other places in our country (or any other, for that matter) that are supposed to be in the business of giving people the chance to think, and get better at thinking. If most of the colleges don't think its their job, then whose is it exactly? Once you start thinking this way (if you are, at least sort of, by now), things get worse instead of better. You can't help wondering, for example, how come the colleges are the way they are, and how come the students coming to them, a lot of them at least, don't want to think anyhow? Well, I've got two kids, who've just finished first grade, and that made me do some thinking too. My kids like to think; their eyes light up wonderfully, at the drop of a hat. There's nothing special about that, as far as I can tell. I've never seen a kid who didn't get the greatest kick out of figuring things out for themselves and showing other people the new things they had made. If people don't like thinking, or are afraid of liking it, it isn't something they're born with, it happens later. And I think I'm beginning to get a sense of how it happens. My kids are doing fine in school; they even like it. But you know what they come home showing me? Worksheets where they got everything right. That's what they think they're SUPPOSED to be proud of. That they can sit, and concentrate, and finish what they're doing (they don't get to go out to recess unless they do), and get everything right. Well, dammit, THAT's not thinking. That's learning to be efficient and get the answers you're supposed to get. Thinking is something else entirely. Its being curious, and being wrong most of the time, and maybe, just maybe coming up with something you've made that you're proud of and pleased with, something all your own (even if it turns out later that someone else had thought of it too).

It took me years and years to realize that, because nobody taught it to me when I was in school. And that, I think, goes a long way towards explaining how come most of the colleges are the way they are (you've got to remember that the people teaching in them were themselves students once), and how come most of the schools are the way they are, and how come lots of the students who show up in my classes are the way they are. It may go a long way towards explaining a bunch of other things too: like how come the American automobile industry went bust and why there's a MacDonald's instead of a diner on every street corner and why its so hard to find anybody to fix something, and why all the movies seem the same, and how come life just isn't so interesting anymore (and that, you know, might have a lot to do with why its possible to make so much money selling drugs these days). After all, you can't really expect people to make better cars, or better food, or ANYTHING very interesting if they don't like to think, or don't think they're supposed to think, or don't know how to think.

See what I mean about how it gets worse, the more you think about it? I mean you can't really blame the students, because nobody taught them that it was OK to enjoy thinking, and you can't really blame the teachers, because nobody taught them that it was OK to teach thinking, and who the hell CAN you blame? Your sure as hell can't blame MacDonald's or the auto industry or the movie industry. It isn't THEIR business to teach people to think, and they're right anyhow: if people were actually thinking it would make it a hell of a lot harder for them to do what they're doing. Can you imagine people who think enjoying standing around in little orange hats saying "One big Mac. And would you like fries with that?" over and over and over again? Or being happy that the food on this corner of this town is exactly like the food on that corner of that one? Same problem, you know, holds for politicians and the government. Its a lot easier to run a political party or a government if you can count on people behaving in a particular, more or less predictable, ways. So you can't exactly blame politicians if they're not encouraging people to think, or the government either.

Got the picture? Recognize it? Look like anything that bothers you too? Something isn't right, and everybody KNOWS it isn't right, and it seems like that's just the way it has to be, and we'd better learn to live with it. What's wrong is that there aren't enough people THINKING around here, and there are reasons for that, and it all makes sense. Sort of. At least you can kind of see why its happening, and why everybody thinks it must be somebody else's business to do something about it. It sure as hell isn't theirs, because their job is different and would be harder if people were thinking. You know what the real problem is though? It isn't the schools or McDonald's or the government. Its US, you and me, all of us. Somewhere, somehow, we all got it into our heads that thinking isn't a good idea. Some people don't trust it at all, because they think if other people did it, it would make their own jobs harder, and other people sort of like it, but are a little embarrassed about that and think its a luxury, something you should do privately in a corner and then only if you've gotten your real work done first. Almost everybody believes that its dangerous, and risky, and things might go wrong if other people think too much, and maybe even if they think too much.

And you know what? They're right. Thinking IS dangerous, and risky, and lots of the time what you come up with won't be better than what you have already. But that's not the point, unless you're so happy with what you have that you can't imagine it ever being better, and so certain it will never change that you don't even worry about it. And that sure as hell isn't the way I feel, and I'll bet it isn't the way you feel either (I don't think its the way ANYBODY feels, no matter what they have or HOW they act). The point is that thinking, and being able to think, is the only way to make anything BETTER than it is, and sure there's a risk in that but its a hell of a lot better then sitting in one place and trying to hold everything together, particularly when it isn't really quite what you want and you know damned well that its all going to come apart one way or another anyhow. Thinking IS fun, and the only way we have to make anything better, but its ALSO the best way anyone has ever come up with to REDUCE risk. The world wasn't made for people, you know, and we don't understand all about it, and we never will, and there will always be things happening that we didn't expect, and the only way to deal with that is to have people around who know how to think, instead of just doing their particular job the way they were told to do it.

Never thought about that, huh? Makes sense though, doesn't it? So what should we do about it? Well, I know what I'm going to do about it. I'm going to spend less time worrying about whether other people think I'm doing my job right, and more time thinking. And I'm going to tell my students that that's what they should be doing too, whether or not they or anybody else think that's what I'm supposed to be telling them. And I'm going to tell my kids to stop trying to get everything right on their worksheets, and instead every once in a while to try something different, to do something differently, just for the hell of it and to see what happens. Yeah, life will be a little more chaotic, and sometimes things will go wrong because of something I did instead of because of things I hadn't yet somehow managed to get under control. And maybe, if it spreads, I might have to work harder to persuade people to do what I want them to do, and walk farther to get a quick lunch. I'm pretty sure though that I'll feel a lot safer, and I'm damned sure life will be a lot more fun. Want to come along?

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