Our outreach should exceed our grasp, else what’s a teacher for?

1 May 2007

And such is the guilt of both the Jewish student and the Jewish teacher: The secret knowledge that no matter how much we learn, or how much we teach, it will never, ever be enough–that our parents, our teachers, our children, and our students are watching us, and so is everyone else, that eternity is breathing over our shoulders, waiting to see if we will notice.

A student facing these expectations needs to be constantly humbled, to be reminded again and again that everything she already knows is nothing more than a tiny spark in a night full of stars.


The great secret of education is that one doesn’t learn by being smart, but by being aware of the limits of one’s own knowledge–by finding those limits and then plunging over them, as if jumping off the edge of the world. The student has to know that the edge is there, and the teacher who coaxes the student over the precipice has to catch the student when she falls. It’s a sacred trust.

-Dana Horn, “The Last Jewish American Nerd”

We in the science outreach business can be pretty self-congratulatory sometimes. I think that very often we’re doing good stuff, as any kid excited about their look through a telescope or recent tidepooling trip can tell you. But that doesn’t mean that we’re trying hard enough, or thinking critically about how and why we go about this stuff. A good friend of mine is giving an astronomy talk in a couple of weeks, and his hook is brilliant. I bet a dollar that he’s going to talk about Olber’s Paradox, a seemingly simple statement that has pretty profound implications for how we frame our questions. And that’s the part we’re not talking about.

Before we get there, though, an article at Economist.com reveals one way in which efforts to teach science often fail badly. The article discusses some of the emerging challenges to teaching evolution in Brazil, Turkey, Africa, and Russia. Many of these challenges cite the unsuccessful but still very noisy early efforts at various educational governing bodies here in the US. The take-home message here is that the evolution-denying book mentioned in the article has been translated into several languages including Urdu, and distributed throughout many places where it will be one of only a few books. When’s the last time anybody did that with Cosmos?

When we get caught in a shouting match about the thermodynamic probability of protein evolution, we miss the point that to most people (including many practicing scientists) it isn’t at all clear what kind of issues and methods science is germane to (or are germane to it, depending). Nor is it clear to many, myself included, how the tools of statistics can best be applied to planning, for emergencies or otherwise. Look for more of the same kind of obfuscation and talking past the issues as the ecstasy of recriminations about climate change increases.

“[the Anthropic Principle] has reinserted the human person into the continuing search for a total and comprehensive understanding of the universe. While certain aspects of this reinsertion may transcend the strict boundaries of what are the proper object and methods of scientific enquiry, it is not obvious that all aspects may be so excluded.”

-George Coyne, Some Theological Reflections on the Anthropic Principle, 1993

Though Fr George Coyne is no longer the Director of the Vatican Observatory, he is still saying some compelling things about the actions of science in society. And we could do worse than to part with another zinger from Dana Horn, who comes as close as I can find to offering up what to do about all this mortal coil.

Teacher love happens when you fall in love not with a person, but with what that person knows. You fall in love not because that person flatters you into thinking that you know everything, but because that person makes you realize that you know nothing–and you aren’t embarassed, but intrigued. You fall in love with what you don’t have, with what that person drives you to find, with the powerful underground spring that you have walked over all this time without knowing it was there. And you beat a path to where that person tapped the spring, and then you sit in the dust at the feet of the scholars and drink in their words.

Here endedth the lesson.


One Response to “Our outreach should exceed our grasp, else what’s a teacher for?”

  1. Baquies Says:

    Usually its my outrage that exceeds my grasp.

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