The London Science Museum has produced its own travelling act for children called “The Energy Show,” and over my morning toast last week I watched it reported enthusiastically on BBC Breakfast. Cue clips of zany, steampunk characters, shrieking and leaping about the stage with arms flailing, conjuring up the mandatory balls of flame and obligatory explosions that, we’re endlessly told, will attract our children into science. The madcap performers and their virtual lab assistant i-nstein (get it?) take an excited young audience through a range of whacky demonstrations, many of which are the same ones rolled out by science departments across the country on Year 6 Open Evening.
The hope, I suppose, is that the young theatre-goers will be excited enough to take their study of chemical reactions further, even after they’ve returned to the classroom and been reminded that they still don’t know or even care what a mole is. Now one voice (I’ll confess to having several) in my head tells me that I should be happy about this sort of stuff; that anything aimed at “Getting Kids Into Science” has unquestionably got to be “A Good Thing,” right? But as I watched the pyrotechnics, I had a familiar sinking feeling. Surely I can’t be the only person to be bored by all this nonsense?
When I was fifteen, the film “Dead Poets Society”[i] was released, in which an inspirational professor exposes a group of smart and cynical boys to the rapture of poetry. As the protagonist says of the eponymous club, “Spirits soared, women swooned and gods were created – not a bad way to spend an evening.” The film unashamedly presents poetry and the arts as the pinnacle of human endeavour, and science comes out as one of several poor and undesirable relations. Here’s a section from a speech made by the character John Keating, the inspiring teacher in question:
“Medicine, law, business, engineering … these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love … these are what we stay alive for! To quote from Whitman, "O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?" Answer? That you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. … What will your verse be?”
The painful irony for me now when I read those lines is that the questions trembling behind them are inescapably scientific. But to my young mind it was utterly convincing that science was nothing more than a tedious necessity. The very phrase “practical experiment” made me crave fresh air and illumination.
Happily, Dawkins understands. In Unweaving the Rainbow he raises concerns about the dominance of practical science in schools, and muses on how impoverished the world would be if only those who had practised and mastered the skill of playing an instrument were interested in classical music.[ii] As a musician myself, the analogy speaks to me; the endless tedium of scales and arpeggios is enough to put anyone off, and their repetitive practice, whilst entirely necessary for success in mastering an instrument, is not for everyone: yet no-one would dream of suggesting that this should preclude a knowledge of, an interest in and even a passion for music itself. As it happens, OfQual have decided only recently to scrap the compulsory examination of practicals at A level, a decision which is currently being hailed as a “death knell” for science in our schools; yet according to OfQual, assessed practicals have become so formulaic as to render them pointless in their current form.[iii]
Back in the 1980s I did many practicals, and I suppose that my teachers tried their best to pique my scientific interest. There were ping-pong balls and life-sized models; there were even bottles of acid kicking around on the laboratory bench right next to the gas taps, which some students never tired of lighting behind the teacher’s back. But I’m afraid I simply wasn’t thrilled when a powder changed colour at the bottom of a test tube, or when my lit splint made a squeaky pop, indicating the presence of hydrogen. My teachers saw this as a bit of a failing on my part, but when they unanimously agreed that I was “not a scientist” I was overjoyed – triumphant, even. And why? Because none of those practical lessons had convinced me that science was anything other than the pursuit of the mundane.
Most children are natural philosophers. In addition, and contrary to popular belief, not all of them are better engaged by hands-on activities over abstract ideas. In my case, somewhat romantic and thrilled by artistic ideals as I was, the seemingly humdrum and practical realities of the science lab were a positive turn off. My head was bursting with the biggest questions imaginable, and much of the time I was going through the all-consuming existential crisis common to young people, an experience that should be celebrated and nurtured. By the age of 9 or 10, I was already epistemologically-minded enough to have surmised that there was no more evidence for the existence of God than there was for Father Christmas (and the family had already ‘fessed up on that one), but my views were mocked at my traditional faith school; more importantly, not one single science teacher took the opportunity to point out to me that the reasoning I had used to form my standpoint was logical and evidence-based – one might almost say scientific.
As my interest in philosophy grew, it was nurtured and guided exclusively by teachers of the arts: numerous English teachers, a couple of historians and most of all my Classics teacher, who would eventually inspire my subject of choice at university. It’s ironic that the closest I came to doubting my convictions as to the unworthiness of science came to me through literature; in being exposed to the metaphysical poets, I couldn’t escape the knowledge that these exciting, romantic and raunchy philosophers were fascinated by science. But the “real” scientists had long since abandoned me as a dreamer, and left me to discover – too late, as it happens – that my disregard for mathematics and the sciences would eventually limit my academic career. Suffice to say, my first postgraduate seminar in the philosophy of logic was one hell of a shock.
I now work in a large comprehensive, and most of the students I teach have already decided whether or not they consider themselves to be “a scientist.” Too often, it seems to me, the deep and soulful thinkers are the ones that are turned off by science. Why does this bother me? Well, there are lots of reasons. Firstly, we may be driving some of our best potential thinkers away from science – not a happy situation for the future. Secondly, I believe that an emphasis on the practical over and above the philosophical may well be part of what puts many girls off science. Thirdly, and to my mind by far the most pressing worry, is the increasing chasm that we seem to be creating between scientific thinking and “the big questions.” When science should be at the centre of philosophical reasoning and debate, it tends to get pushed to the side because so few teachers have the knowledge and skills to apply it.
If you walk down the corridor from our science labs to the RE rooms, you’re faced with a plethora of exciting philosophical challenges plastered across the walls: are some people evil? When does life begin? Why are we here? Is there such a thing as the soul? What happens when we die? These questions are terrific, but a brief glance through an RE text book will show you that “What scientists think” is generally presented in a colourful bubble alongside other colourful bubbles of equal size summarising “what Christians/Jews/Muslims/delete-as-applicable think.” The implication, to any child reading this stuff, is that scientific thinking is just one option of many; sure, you can choose to look at the world from a scientific angle, but hey, it’s okay not to, especially if it doesn’t sit comfortably with your family’s beliefs. Glance back again at those inspiring walls and you’ll find a poster of Rudolph Zallinger’s “March of Progress” pinned up next to Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam”: it’s all up for debate, it seems, and everyone’s opinion is equally valid – a tendency in schools which I am finding increasingly irksome, not to mention worrying.
A previous Head of Science once confessed to me that he sometimes exploited the popular misunderstanding of the scientific term “theory” in order to avoid causing offence to religious students when talking about evolution. I don’t mind admitting that I blew something of a gasket at him, and he seemed puzzled by my reaction – perhaps he thought he was on safe ground, talking to one of those arty types. I think that my rage was legitimate: “righteous anger” to quote Aristotle, the forefather of the scientific method and the only ancient Greek thinker to make a philosophical case for the rectitude of anger in the right context. But in truth, perhaps some of my antagonism stemmed from my own sense of betrayal. I was let down by my science teachers; they failed systematically to provoke a desire in my young mind to understand the world around me, and I regret those lost years bitterly. The young people that we teach deserve a whole lot better.
Emma C Williams is a Classicist, a secondary school teacher and freelance writer
[i] Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir, 1989.
[ii] Dawkins, R: Unweaving the Rainbow: science, delusion and the appetite for wonder, Revised edition, London, Penguin books, 2006, pg. 36.
[iii] Glenys Stacey, Chief Regulator of OfQual, has written an open letter dated April 10th 2014 in reply to Professor Robert Winston, who criticised OfQual’s decision on Radio 4 last week. The letter can be viewed on OfQual’s website.
Written By: Emma C Williams