Saturday, May 15, 2010

At the blackboard

In my post the other day on science literacy, I mentioned that the journal Science had recently dedicated a special section to the subject. Here is the cover of that issue. The inside caption reads: "Children learning science, like these 7-year-olds tackling chemistry in 1948, must work through their mistakes and misconceptions. The route to science literacy involves reading, debate, presentation, and writing. Photo: Nina Leen/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images." Click to enlarge.

Seven-year-olds studying some sort of science in 1948, I can just about believe. But chemistry? And all those equations on the blackboard? Someone is pulling my leg.

The kid in the center could have been me a few years earlier, 1944 maybe. Same tee shirt. Same jacket. Same haircut. A conscientious student at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Elementary School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Taught by Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Iowa, many of them of Irish extraction. Holy women. Good teachers. Strict disciplinarians. A very Catholic education. Literature consisted of the likes of Joyce Kilmer ("A tree whose hungry mouth is prest/ Against the sweet earth's flowing breast...") and Alfred Noyes ("The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees..."), good Catholics all. We learned our multiplication tables. Our Palmer penmanship. And the Catechism. Chemistry? Never heard of it.

I don't recall any science until high school. I don't blame the good BVMs; they probably had never studied science either.

Even in high school -- Notre Dame High School, Chattanooga -- my science education was sketchy. Chemistry was taught by the basketball coach, as I recall. We had one lab/classroom, which was nicely fitted out. We managed to make our share of smoke and sizzle.

Sister Dominica (Gobel), of the Nashville Dominicans, gave me a superb grounding in English, and Sister Jane Francis (Beck) left nothing to be desired as a math teacher. With that background, and the seed of scientific curiosity planted by my father, it was easy to do science catch-up when I got to university. When I wrote When God Is Gone a few years ago, I tracked down the birth names of Sisters Dominica and Jane Francis, now departed. I thank them for their inspiring and free-ranging intellects. Even had they known they were equipping me to leave the fold I doubt they would have done anything differently. If my contemporary experience of Dominican women is anything to go by, I am confident that science -- real consensus science -- is now an early part of their schools' curricula. May their community prosper.

I mention all this because primary, secondary, and even tertiary education in great swaths of fundamentalist America keep science in the straitjacket of religious orthodoxy. Throughout the Muslim world Koran-based madrasah schools presumably don't mention science at all. China, apparently, has no religious constraints on science education. We'll see who dominates -- technologically and economically -- the second half of the 21st century.