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Monday, July 24, 2006

Oh, Xanadu

Mamacita wrote a very interesting post, in part on the link between mysticism and science:
Tonight I am obsessed with science and mysticism. Madeleine L'Engle writes that most scientists are in one way or another, mystics. The modern mystics. People think of scientists as logical and unimaginative, if not the stereotypical 'absent-minded.' I suppose some of them are. I've met all kinds of people who have no imagination and who are logical to the point of absurdity. But unlike many of the teachers I've known and worked with for many years people who live this bland-yet-chosen life, I think scientists are different. The good ones, that is. I think the good scientists not only have a streak of mysticism, but a goodly streak of poetry in them, as well.
I exist only to point out that others might be saying something worth a listen, so
A) Kubla Khan as written by Coleridge, beginning:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
B) The Cassini probe has been taking radar images of Xanadu on Titan, one of Saturn's satellites (note the alliteration!):
These radar images, from a strip more than 4,500 kilometers (2,796 miles) long, show Xanadu is surrounded by darker terrain, reminiscent of a free-standing landmass. At the region's western edge, dark sand dunes give way to land cut by river networks, hills and valleys. These narrow river networks flow onto darker areas, which may be lakes. A crater formed by the impact of an asteroid or by water volcanism is also visible. More channels snake through the eastern part of Xanadu, ending on a dark plain where dunes, abundant elsewhere, seem absent. Appalachian-sized mountains crisscross the region.
The scientists can't restrain themselves in discussing the images:
"Although Titan gets far less sunlight and is much smaller and colder than Earth, Xanadu is no longer just a mere bright spot, but a land where rivers flow down to a sunless sea," Lunine said.
...
On Xanadu, liquid methane might fall as rain or trickle from springs. Rivers of methane might carve the channels and carry off grains of material to accumulate as sand dunes elsewhere on Titan.

"This land is heavily tortured, convoluted and filled with hills and mountains," said Steve Wall, the Cassini radar team's deputy leader at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "There appear to be faults, deeply cut channels and valleys. Also, it appears to be the only vast area not covered by organic dirt. Xanadu has been washed clean. What is left underneath looks like very porous water ice, maybe filled with caverns."
The article is fascinating. Why does this area on Titan exist? Is it truly methane that's the shaper? Methane is known to be a greenhouse gas, but it would be a liquid, not a gas at Titan's temperatures. Could other conditions have existed on Titan at one time? Read it and have some mental fun. There are links to the images at NASA.

I think that scientists (good ones) have furnished minds that range widely. And I am worried, like Mamacita, that we have not provided those mental furnishings to a generation of students. I began with Mamacita. and now Mamacita pops up again in a second post discussing education:
In the 'smart class' (you will find no PC here; it cheapens us all) you will find a group of kids who all have a background of poems, songs, nursery rhymes, and 'experiences.' In the slow class, you will find a group of kids who all have no background in anything at all, for the most part.

I used to give assessment tests at the start of each year. It would blow your mind to bits if you all realized how little some families do for their children, before sending them to school, beyond setting them in front of the tv and walking away.
...
Educated people are as much superior to uneducated people, as the living are to the dead. ---Aristotle.

I know I say that all the time, but it's absolutely true.
Mamacita writes about the difficulty that schools are experiencing in coping with kids who are basically unacculturated. My mother noticed the difference when women mostly went back to work. They started to get children in who could barely talk, because, well, no one had ever spent much time talking to them. The kids had spent most of their time in front of a TV. They were a new variant of closet children, deprived of the basic adult-child interaction that furnishes and expands young human minds. Young children are learning machines, but they need fuel for their engines, and that fuel is the company of not just children, but adults. Only adults can give them the window into the wide range of human culture.

Last week one of the kids came by with Chief No-Nag's oldest grandson. He will enter seventh grade next year. He's a lovely boy. Lovely in every way. Poised, confident but not arrogant, gentle, well-spoken, well-mannered, loving, curious and very, very comfortable in the society of adults. You can tell that he has spent a great deal of time interacting with adults. He likes school, because of his friends, and he also does well in school. He likes sports. He is an old-fashioned kid who has been raised not with great wealth, but with a great deal of family. He's a delightful kid.

Chief No-Nag loves music. He has now assembled a vast collection of music - classical and popular. There are at least a truckload of cassettes, CDs and records in our house. When Chief No-Nag he was a child in South America, not only did they not always have the basics - food, medical care, clothing - but they had no music. Poverty does mean things like the weekend Chief No-Nag spent, when he was eight, lying in a shed nearly dying from flu in back of the school eight miles from home. He was too weak to walk home, and no one knew where he was. So there he lay, to live or die alone, with no water. Eight years old.

Poverty also means no music. Nobody had records, or even a radio. The first radio in their area showed up in the next town when he was about 12, and everyone used to walk to that town (as much as 10 or 12 miles!) on Saturdays after work to listen to it. When he was fifteen, someone got a recordplayer, and a few records. They ran it off a battery, and everyone went there to listen to it. These people who had so little loved music. They also believed in education. There were weekly contests at the school, and parents would walk miles and miles to listen to the kids answer questions posed by the teachers. Chief No-Nag was a bad student until he realized that he could win those contests - and, if you won, you got a few cents. That was the prize, and that was the first money Chief No-Nag earned for using his mind instead of his muscles.

The striking contrast between the life Chief No-Nag's grandson has lived, and Chief No-Nag's, bothers me much less than the perception that we have somehow managed to produce poverty-stricken lives for many of our children in the midst of real prosperity. Don't set your children out to sail on this sunless sea. They don't need wealth to have a good life and a brilliant future. They do need you, and they do need learning.. They need you to value what is truly important and to reflect those values to them. They need to hear you discuss politics, and watch you listen to music, and to see you reading books, and to hear you express curiosity about science. They need to watch you at your hobbies. They need to help you with the family chores. They need to watch you being an adult, and they need to be allowed to participate in life as a family.

Update: Last year Chicago Boyz posted on the way that educators want to change the science curriculum in the UK to teach about science rather than science:
Instead of learning science, pupils will "learn about the way science and scientists work within society". They will "develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others' decisions about lifestyles", the QCA said. They will be taught to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the "social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions".

They will learn to "question scientific information or ideas" and be taught that "uncertainties in scientific knowledge and ideas change over time", and "there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address". Science content of the curriculum will be kept "lite". Under "energy and electricity", pupils will be taught that "energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use".
As David remarked on the post:
Failure to learn anything at all about science while in high school will significantly foreclose one's career options. Evidently, the educational authorities in Britain must think that future biochemists and electrical engineers will come from China or India...but even if one is not pursuing a scientific or engineering career path per se, one needs some scientific context. How likely is it that a person will become, say, a biotech CEO if they have no idea about how science actually works...if their total exposure to science consists of "social science" platitudes like those stated in the excerpt above?
There are other links in the comments of great use, and an interesting tie-in to C. S. Lewis.


Comments:
It's disturbing that even *science* classes, which should feed curiosity and the sense of wonder, are often turning in to extensions of "social studies," which feed nothing but smugness and a sense of resentment. See here, for example.
 
Oh, ugh. I almost wish I hadn't clicked on that link. Everyone else should. Here's an excerpt of the type of science curriculum that's considered "relevant" to UK students:
"Instead of learning science, pupils will "learn about the way science and scientists work within society". They will "develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others' decisions about lifestyles", the QCA said. They will be taught to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the "social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions"."
AND
"Science content of the curriculum will be kept "lite". Under "energy and electricity", pupils will be taught that "energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use"."

In other words, we are preparing students to be scientifically illiterate. I can't think of a way to make fascinating subjects more deadly.
 
Apparently, Dolores Umbridge is in charge of the curriculum at more schools than one. How very. . . .safe.

"Umbridge is the first Hogwarts instructor to deny students their right to a proper education. The students of Hogwarts rely heavily on their teachers for edification and instruction, and while they may grow frustrated with their homework and lessons, they are nonetheless grateful for the opportunity to learn. Given the importance of the upcoming O.W.L. exams, the pressure to learn and excel is higher than ever. Umbridge’s insistence that the students simply read their textbooks in silence, with their wands put away, indicates her lack of ability as an instructor and her desire to keep her students from actually learning how to use a Defense spell, which, presumably, mirrors the Ministry of Magic’s desire. Once again, adults are denying children information under the guise of keeping the children “safe.” In reality, Umbridge’s refusal to teach her students how to defend themselves again the Dark Arts makes them considerably more vulnerable."
 
The 'Umble Umbridge with her 'Umble Haspirations. Sometimes I feel as if I've woken up in Wonderland.
 
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