The Right Answer

I start Natural Science I each year with the question “What is science?” The result is generally a lively debate in which students start by giving me one-sentence answers.

“Science is the study of nature”, Joe says.

“What do you mean by ‘nature’?”  I ask.

There is consternation, silence, and eventually another attempt.   “Nature is the created world,” Joe says.

“What do you mean by ‘world’?”

It’s the reverse of the game every three-year-old plays with his parents.  Every answer Joe puts forward merely raises more questions about the meaning and  limits of the terms he uses.  He keeps trying to find the easy-to-memorize one sentence answer that I’ll accept.  I keep pushing back, trying to get him to think about what he is actually trying to say.  Over the next ninety minutes, we’ll push into what objects really are susceptible to scientific method, what scientific method is, how we know what we know, what proof is, and why we should bother to “study” any of it.

At the end of the session, I ask my students to write down their definitions of science based on our discussion, and post them to our bulletin board so the other students can see and comment on them.  Occasionally Joe will post two sentences where he only offered one in class, in tacit recognition of some aspect he had not originally considered.  Once in a while, I get a longer, more thoughtful paragraph that actually tries to summarize both trends of thought.  But inevitably, just as we are running out of time, Joe asks me what the “right” answer is.

I’m always stumped on how to deal with this. We just spent ninety minutes exploring the most obvious factors that feed into the human race’s attempt to understand  the universe in which it exists. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the all of the aspects of this complex endeavor, and if Joe had actually looked at the course syllabus, he would would realize that we are going to spend two years looking at how people have done whatever it is they thought of as  “science” for the last 3000 years — and that’s just in the Western tradition. (We don’t get into Chinese or Japanese or Indian efforts at all — there just isn’t enough time!)  Why should Joe have any illusions that I can state a right answer that everyone would accept, let alone one that is complete, in the remaining thirty seconds of chat available?

I recognize Joe’s anxiety has a real basis.  He wants to know my answer, since  I will be the one to give him credit for his bulletin board posting, and he wants to get a passing grade, preferably a high one, which is, after all, what others will look at and use to evaluate him when he attempts to go on to college and then on to a good job.   He is so concerned with the grading aspect of our educational process that he doesn’t stop to think about whether the string of words I might give him is really a correct definition of science, he doesn’t realize that he has no way yet to determine its correctness, and he never questions whether I should have the authority to dictate that definition.

This is only one symptom of a common but mistaken approach to education, where the grade is the goal, not the heart and soul of the subject.  In his book The Celebration of Discipline,  Richard Foster addresses the fundamental root of the problem (which affects much more than education in our society) when he says, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”

We live in a rapidly changing world, where cultures are clashing, resources for survival seem limited, competition is endless, and compassion in short supply.  We make technical advances, but we have no way to answer the question of whether we should do something, simply because we can do it.   We need people who can think critically, as did the philosophers, scientists, and poets who produced the classic works that we have turned back to for centuries.  We need people who can think charitably and humbly about the effects of their actions on others, as Christ would have us do.  But how do we be those people?  How do we help our children develop into the discerning, charitable human beings we want and need them to become, if they are to serve as Christ’s ministers to a broken world?

One of the exercises any good teacher uses to help students recognize and move beyond superficiality simply forces the student to reconsider every term in the answer.  Joe’s first attempt at an answer to an open question like “What is science” is a usually superficial response.  It may not be factually wrong, but it is almost always incomplete, involving assumptions and generalities Joe hasn’t considered, and may not even consciously recognize that he’s made.

Suppose that we look again at Joe’s answer, “Science is the study of nature”.  “Science” is what we are trying to define, so we’ll leave it alone for the moment,  but what *do* we mean by nature, really? Is it only the created universe?  Are angels part of nature?  Are triangles? Are people part of nature?  Is poetry?  Are the thought processes and electrical signals and nerve cells that produce the poetry (at least in mechanical terms) nature and subject, by our first attempt at a definition, to scientific investigation?

When we start to examine our assumptions, we realize that a more precise definition of our abstract concept is intimately tied up with the application of that definition to specific cases.  How do we do whatever it is that we define as scientific investigation?  Is the only valid scientific method experimentation done in a lab with controls under repeatable conditions with machines objectively measuring factors?  Some scientists — especially physicists — would say yes.   Can field observations and the notes of a naturalist be a legitimate form of scientific investigation?  Most biologists would defend field observation as a legitimate form of scientific investigation.  Can we really claim how hot the photosphere of the sun must be based solely on spectral line measurements from the light-emitting layer of the sun, or must we put a thermometer of some kind in the plasma itself?  Astronomers recognize the futility of direct observation, and would defend their deductions as accurate based on analogies to phenomena we can observe directly.  Can we use computer models of weather patterns to predict the path of a hurricane?  The federal government evacuates thousands of people on the basis of a mathematical abstraction of a storm as a legitimate application of science — amid huge controversies over the costs of the evacuation and the accuracies of the predictions.  How much of this is “the study of nature”?

When the “right” answer depends on whom you ask, you are really forced to start thinking of good reasons for any answer you propose.  Everyone has seminal moments, watershed moments they can point to and say “that experience taught me this”.  I can think of two in my freshman year at college which shaped the way I teach…maybe in another blog entry I’ll tell you about the second.  But the first one addresses our “right answer” problem directly.  Every freshman at Scripps College took a humanities course on the ancient world.  It met four times a week, and the entire staff rotated responsibility for giving lectures on literature, historical events, religion, philosophy, art, architecture, science, and technology.  A crucial component were the additional seminar meetings once a week for two hours in the evening, where we studied one work or concept in depth for eight weeks.  At the end of the first semester, the two professors who had presented the literature lectures agreed to do a joint lecture and clear up a discrepancy we had noticed in their separate presentations on The Iliad.  We sighed with relief: we were finally going to get the right answer.  Dr. Palmer and Dr. Howe stood on the stage in the lecture hall, but they didn’t present the common interpretation we’d hoped for, something snappy, easy to remember, and safe to use in our exam.  Instead, they presented, and debated heatedly, two completely opposing interpretations of The Iliad. At the end of their presentation, there was no “winner” with the right interpretation.  Then they announced that the only literature question on the exam would be the one they had just debated, and that one or the other would grade our exam, but we wouldn’t know which one.  We couldn’t write the answer we knew the teacher thought was correct.  The only thing we could do was champion some position as best we could — Howe’s, Palmer’s, or our own, if we disagreed with both of them.

And that, of course, was the point.  They weren’t at all interested in our simply flinging back at them some “right” answer, some clipping from one of their lectures.  That would only demonstrate that we could take notes and do rote memorization.   What they really wanted was for us to think deeply about a work of literature that has touched millions of people for two thousand years, reach a conclusion, and  make a point – our own point, not theirs — succinctly, based on solid reasoning and factually accurate references.

We should seek no less for our students.

One Response to “The Right Answer”

  1. Virginia Cruse says:

    Thank you for respecting your students’ ideas and being humble enough to discuss them without the constant need to assert yourself as the superior thinker in the group that has all the answers. I’m currently reading McCullough’s biography of John Adams and thought this Adam’s quote fitting… “I believe there is no one principle which predominates in human nature so much in every stage of life, from the cradle to the grave, in males and females, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, high and low, as this passion for superiority.”

    My daughter is very involved in music. She plays in the youth symphony, where there are chair competitions, all-state chairs, concerto competitions, and the list goes on and on. The director raves over those that compete and do well. My daughter was one of those last year, going to nationals in MTNA and winning a prestigious camp scholarship. We learned a valuable lesson through those supposed successes. To win those seats and competitions, you are usually playing for judges who think there is a “right answer.” After hearing far more “right answer” performances than “inspired” performances at these events, my daughter and I both felt we were pursuing a superficial end. Just as you said there is not one correct definition for science, there is not one correct way to play a piece of music. Interpretation and expression, not mechanical replicas, are what warm souls. Sadly, I feel like the bubble test mentality of one correct answer also dominates in music education. It feels so good to be named number one! It makes the teacher look so good to announce student achievements! The “passion for superiority” wins again, but at what cost?

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