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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Three Inch Spider Indiana Electric Kill

It's been a while since I caught up with my favorite blog, Monkeysquirrel. Check it out, especially if you happen to be an arachnologist and can help. [Note to the perplexed: "Look at this Cool Spider" was top o' the blog when I wrote this.]

For a taste, here's Mr. Hill on science and math education:

...Narrative is where it's at. We humans can't put it down; it's simply not possible.

Why don't we do this in science and math class in school? I bet if I learned a little bit about the personalities and adventures of the minds behind the theories, I would have been riveted to the hard science of chemistry and whatever other science I took in school. Math, too. Mathemeticians are freaks. Why didn't my math teachers sell me on the freakiness of the people who came up with these ideas? Instead, it was all thrown at us as though math text books were these bibles of numbers that had been around since the beginning of time. If we'd been caught up in the drama of their creation, I bet we would have taken math more seriously, we kids.

Funny (or maybe synchronistic) that he should come up with this just now. I've just been reading a book about the origin of humankind (titled, in fact, The Origin of Humankind) by Richard Leakey, famous son of even more famous parents, and thinking a lot about Mrs. [Beth] Sieckmann, my 7th- and 8th-grade science teacher. I'm not a scientist, never have been, and I wouldn't have named Mrs. Sieckmann as one of my top-three all-time teachers at age 15, or 25. But the older I get, the more I credit her with providing me with the foundations of my worldview, my rationalism, my metaphysics; she gave me a really good deep-core understanding of the scientific enterprise. I liked English and art better, but I needed the science I got.

I mention her because she certainly taught paleontology the way Scott Hill suggests: I and my friends practically lived the story of the Leakeys and Olduvai Gorge, the unfolding of the fossil evidence and the fierce battles between scholars over competing theories, the great drama of the narrative. I remember crawling all over the breakwater by Lake Michigan hacking trilobite fossils out of the rocks, and staying in the classroom till dusk with my nose stuck in a shark corpse that reeked of formaldehyde just to make sure I'd gotten my drawings right. (Maybe that was Oceanography, in 7th grade.) It all came back to me reading Richard Leakey's excellent book.

I had teachers I was more fond of (and some who were more fond of me), but none who affected my life quite the way she did. Looking back (especially now, with the popularity of irrationality positively exploding) I find I'm very grateful to have had her as a teacher. Mrs. Sieckmann was a great—an inspired—teacher. I wish I could thank her, but I think she died some years back.

I'll bet Mr. Hill is leaving some impressions, too. I think I may have posted this once before, but, if so, here he is again (well, part of him, anyway) with his daughter. Here's to teachers that get the narrative.



Anonymous Max said...

I do remember about a great math teacher I had in college. When in a calculus class he used to jump three or four steps while solving very complicated equations. When we asked him to do it in several simple steps he would start and make several stupid mistakes and scratch his head and say "sorry, I get all mixed up going like this". and he had the hair and the face of the mad professor, and it made it all so very interesting!
And he was not acting, the guy was extremely intelligent. Those stupid blunders and the way he innocently made clear he got lost when he got out of his usual speed made it interesting, it was only missing the "genius at work" sign. Like watching Wiley E. Coyote!

8:11 PM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

"...with the popularity of irrationality positively exploding."

Personally, I find the increasingly "demon-haunted world", as the late Carl Sagan termed this phenomenon, to be both extremely bewildering and extremely discouraging. Bewildering because it's hard to imagine how we individually spend more of our lives (and wealth) in education while becoming inarguably less educated. Discouraging because irrational beliefs seem to be increasingly used to salve social fears and form public opinion.

I cannot attribute my appreciation for science to any single teacher. Most of them approached their jobs very dogmatically, probably because that was all that the limits of their own knowledge and interests permitted. I believe it was books, magazines, even some television programs that caught my own interest and imagination in both the arts and sciences.

11:54 PM  
Blogger T-Seabs said...

I loved having Mr. Hill as a student teacher in 8th grade. I wished I'd have had him in high school too. Narrative is where it's at.

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Tariq Deenah said...

So very true Mike ... I think it's because of tangents like these that earn you respect with me and make me come back to this blog on a daily basis, besides your own unique outlook on photography.

Just one thought to ponder, ever wondered how much respect and compensation the ones responsible for the next generation get nowadays, specially when you think about the value of what they give as compared to the lawyers, doctors, engineers and other professionals. It's depressing how misplaced our priorities seem to be as a society these days.

4:59 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

A teacher (Scott Hill on monkeysquirrel) who uses Totoro as his avatar has to be OK.


5:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mike: Very interesting post, which dovetailed nicely with my breakfast reading of a review in the TLS entitled "Fear of Fact" about a book of essays by Frederick Crews, called Follies of the Wise. From the review: "This is a collection about epistemology, and one that should be read by anyone still harbouring the delusion that Freud was an important thinker, that psychoanalysis is an important cure, that intelligent design is a credible aternative to Darwinism, or that religion and science can coexist happily."

Sounds like a good antidote to all the irrational beliefs out there.

Cheers, Yvonne

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But Yvonne, it seems in some way after all this, we need irrational beliefs as some kind of conductor. As described in this post about context in which tuition is administred, it seems the irrational part of it is the one that genuinely relates to our affections and desires to drive us into learning about the rational concepts. Well, this is only a wild guess, but it sounds plausible to me.

8:19 PM  

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