Anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity and Presidential Politics

Today is the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. I’m sure somewhere today I will read, see on TV, or hear on the radio (public radio anyway) about this and also about the importance of science education. They will probably use the acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math).

In a previous blog post I asked the question whether our current, standardized-test-based education system could produce another Einstein. Looking at it now with a little distance, I think that is the wrong question. The first Einstein theory was not a product of the education system. Famously, Einstein was not a stellar student. This is a common theme among the kinds of genius such as Einstein.

I think the more importance question is this: Can the current education system produce a generation that can understand and apply Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? And I’m not talking about the next generation of scientists. I’m talking about the next generation of citizens. Does the current generation? Doubtful. Let’s begin with a simple summary of the Theory of General Relativity’s impact on our understanding of the fabric of the universe. We’ll start small.

Imagine a world…or in movie trailer lingo, “In a world…” that the universe is the 2-dimensional surface of a balloon covered with little dots. Each dot representing a galaxy, star, or planetary body. In this model the universe is the surface of the balloon, not above it or inside of it. That is empty space. It doesn’t exist. Or at least it doesn’t exist to us residing in the surface of the balloon. As the balloon expands, and before we veer into a philosophical discussion about who is blowing up the balloon, let’s nip that in the bud—it’s an elephant. Hey, it’s my visualization and I don’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. As the surface of the balloon expands all of the objects move away from each other. What is the center? Well from the perspective of every “Flat Stanley” stationed on one of those dots they are all at the center because everything is moving away from them. Now let’s zoom in on one of those dots. For the sake of the analogy we have to adjust a little and see that one of the dots is actually the earth. Imagine that where the earth sits on the surface of the balloon it causes a depression on the rubber surface. The rubber surface of the balloon represents the fabric of space and time. General RelativityThe mass of the earth bends the fabric of space. The larger the mass, the bigger the depression in the fabric of space and time. Now imagine a small comet (the red line on the illustration) is moving through the solar system. As it passes near the earth it follows the contour of the bent fabric of space which changes its trajectory. If far enough away it would not be affected. If too close or moving too slowly the comet would get “caught” in the gravity well created by the earth and crash into its surface. This understanding allows engineers to build and put into orbit satellites. By knowing their mass (exactly) and then putting them outside the drag of earth’s atmosphere, and then giving them a push at exactly the right speed they will stay in orbit around the earth. Too fast and the head off into space. Too slow and they burn up in the atmosphere.

My experience as an educator is that most people do not actually understand the force of gravity or the structure of the universe at even this most basic of levels. This bothers me. It tells me that we have failed somewhere. It’s important to understand the world in which we live. We don’t all have to understand the math behind it, or be able to apply it to be able to ourselves engineer and launch the satellite, but we should all understand why it is possible. Here is why I think it is important to know this, and also to know what we don’t know.

How many of those that want to be the next leader of our nation understand this very simplistic version of a complex scientific theory? This is the type of question I want to see asked in the next presidential debate. It would be okay if the candidates actually were stumped by the answer, as long as they could then express who they would seek advice from and if they would actually believe that advice. When I think of the GOP front-runners, Trump and Carson, answering this question during a debate the hair stands up on the back of my neck. These two especially seem to be unwittingly embracing a concept from Einstein’s other half of the Theory of Relativity (Special Relativity). A component of this theory is that gravity can affect the path of light and the passage of time and that while the laws of physics are constant, how you perceive them is relative to your own location and motion through space and time.

Donald Trump appears to live in a world where he can invent past news events such as mass celebration by Muslims in New Jersey on 9/11—though this has been absolutely discredited, and still press on with his version of reality. Not to be left behind in the lunacy, Ben Carson suddenly recalls seeing the same thing. Trump also lives in a world where it is acceptable to beat a protester at a campaign event who disagrees with him. It’s one thing to ask security to remove a disruption from a speech and event. It’s quite another to condone the action by saying, “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” he said. “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing…” (November 23rd, 2015 This kind of attitude should terrify all of us. This is plain and simple fascism, partly defined by someone who should know, Benito Mussolini, as “any type of questioning the government is not to be tolerated. If you do not see things our way, you are wrong. If you do not agree with the government, you cannot be allowed to live and taint the minds of the rest of the good citizens.” Ironically, I got this from a website using the same definition to denounce Barack Obama. To each his or her own Special Relativity I guess.

It is clear that Donald Trump, and an inconceivable number of individuals in my opinion, that think he is qualified to be president and therefore agree with the sentiment that one deserves to be physically oppressed from disagreeing with him. This is apparently how he instructs his private security. He has gone on to say “Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would—in a heartbeat…And I would approve more than that. Don’t kid yourself, folks. It works, okay? Only a stupid person would say it doesn’t work…And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing. It works.” (November 23rd, Washington Post). How much further would it be for Donald Trump as Commander in Chief to use the military to shut down protests of those that disagree with his policies?

I get that recent increased terrorism by ISIS has the world running scared right now. These latest events on top of concern over police violence in this country, concern over economic issues of loss of the middle class…I could go on, maybe have created a tipping point of anger and fear. Clearly these issues are a constant in the back of my mind because I started writing about the anniversary of Einstein’s theory somehow ended up in presidential politics. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If we operate from a position of anger and fear in choosing leaders who choose which news accounts, (or even scientific evidence) to believe or ignore—or apparently invent in the case of Trump and Carson—we very well could end up looking back and wondering how and when we as a people agreed to suspend our civil liberties and if it was worth it.

The Epistemological Ecosystem and the Great Lie in Education

The Epistemological Ecosystem and the Great Lie in Education

There is a great lie that has become accepted as “truth” in modern education. Educators and public school systems require a set of standards in order to know what they are to teach and when to teach it. Within the span of my career, the politics and profession of education has moved from local decision-making about curriculum to accepted state-sponsored, mandated-by-law curriculum in the form of standards measured by standardized tests. While we argue politically from left to right about the content of state-mandated standards and standardized tests, we are no longer even debating the validity of their very existence, or any unintended consequences of such mandates. This is Mother Culture at its finest, quietly whispering in our ears, telling us that this is the way it has been and shall be.

To explore the potential impact of this let’s conduct a thought experiment to use what we know about the evolution of biological systems to examine the evolution of the collected knowledge (what I will call the epistemological ecosystem) of a society to be passed on from one generation to the next. Living systems evolve as the genes of a population are modified in response to changing environments. The epistemological ecosystem of our collected knowledge also evolves as a response to changing stimuli and environmental pressure. Where nature selects traits to be passed on, society selects ideas to be passed on. Richard Dawkins called them memes, a term which has now been co-opted by internet kittens.

So here are some questions to drive our thought experiment. Can a democracy survive if the natural evolution of the epistemological ecosystem is interrupted? Will the next great leaps of knowledge which might allow the epistemological ecosystem to respond to changes in the environment (both social and natural) occur if the end goal of the discovery of the process of learning is written into law? Why have we accepted this truth that what is to be known about a given subject can be properly written into law and then properly transmitted to the next generation?

This is the great lie in education. What does history tell us about the stability of social systems or biological systems when the system itself is not allowed to evolve and respond to change? Can a society be stable if the very essence of that society’s story is allowed to be controlled by a select few? Continuing with our comparison of the epistemological ecosystem to a biological system, in the case of education and the implementation of standards, this creates a situation analogous to a biological system in which the genome is artificially manipulated and engineered. In the biological systems this can work (to a point), but you have to know what the end goal is for which you are artificially selecting traits. Therefore, this does not allow for adaptation to the unknown. In fact, artificially selected sub-species, such as the domesticated dog, are no ill-equipped for survival in the ecosystems from which they originally evolved. Might the same be true for our “artificially selected” epistemological ecosystem?

My colleague calls the implementation of standards and the engineering of the landscape of ideas and knowledge through the legalization of education standards as the “eminent domain of ideas.” Can an education system such as we have today—when the answer to the very questions we are charged to pose and investigate are written into statute eventually produce the next Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Shakespeare, Plato, Gates or Steve Jobs? Would the very state and democratic system of freedom to pursue happiness envisioned by minds such as Franklin and Jefferson come to pass from today’s education system? I’m almost afraid to ask the question because the answer might undermine everything I do professionally.

This could be the crisis of perception we face in education. This question is of course asked from my perception of an educator who has spent an entire career (so far) within the system I now question. The conversation of what to teach and what knowledge to transfer from one generation to the next has been a constant in education and certainly in American education, but I believe (though not completely confident) that it is within the span of my career that it has become a state-sponsored, mandated set of ideas. Prior to that, the content of what was taught was subject to the “natural selection” of those ideas within the ecosystem of the greater story we told as a society. This of course meant that the story could change and evolve as the ideas changed and evolved. Just as life on earth changes and evolves on the earth in response to the earth and in turn the earth itself changes and evolves, so too is the relationship between the story a society enacts and the memes that make up that society’s story evolve together. And it is that co-evolution that has produced the amazing achievements of our species—and also the catastrophic achievements of our species.

But having a predetermined set of state-sponsored ideas removes the possible organic evolution of those ideas within the epistemological ecosystem in which they reside. This is the same as removing the pressures of natural selection from a biological population, which then results in stagnation of that genome and species.

And what does the natural system of this planet tell us happens to a species that lacks the genetic capability to adapt and evolve? Can a species survive with a fixed genome? Can a society survive with a fixed “memome” (as gene is to genome, meme is to memome)? We may still produce better widgets in this predetermined education system, better workers, better citizens at compliance, but if the story we enact no longer is evolving, are we just building a better mousetrap within which we will be continually caught and then stagnate?

Seriously, I’m asking. I don’t know, but I think we need to purposefully engage in this question before we pass one more state-mandated standard and write one more state-sponsored test.

Here is what I do know. I am glad we live in a society where I can safely ask these questions, and that it even occurs to me to ask the question. At what point will it come to pass where it isn’t safe to (legally or simply for career security) ask these questions? Or worse yet, at what point do we become so fixed in what we know and teach, that it would never even occur to me to ask the questions. At that point we would have truly halted the evolution of knowledge and ideas. And then, at that point the epistemological ecosystem collapses.

The Education Crisis of Perception

Some years ago Fritjof Capra wrote about the environmental crisis we face in the book The Web of Life and the movie Mindwalk, saying that we faced a “crisis of perception.” In the movie, upon hearing this, a character protested, “that’s great, you tell me the world is ending and it’s a crisis of perception. I’m sorry that’s a little too abstract for me.” The point of the movie, in particular, is to describe a new way of perceiving the interconnections between living systems as foundational thinking and the first step toward addressing environmental issues.

I believe the same can be said about the education crisis we are (seemingly perpetually) facing in the United States. We are in a “crisis of perception.” Let’s consider some history by focusing in on the teaching of science—though the story of education reform (or lack thereof) can be applied across the subject areas. In the early 20th century, John Dewey criticized science teaching as simply an accumulation of facts, and recommended an emphasis on the process of inquiry. In the 1950s, Schwab criticized science education for being taught as empirical, literal, and as irrevocable truths and recommended teaching through laboratory experiences where students were left to ask questions, gather evidence and propose explanations based on evidence. In other words—inquiry. In the 1960s, with the country shaken by the late 50s Soviet Union launch of Sputnik, and noticing that we still faced a crisis in science education, Rutherford was critical of science educators for not representing science as inquiry and added that science teachers must understand the history and philosophy of sciences they teach in order to teach it as inquiry. In the 1980s, project 2061 was a long-term initiative by the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences, which provided a framework of science teaching. Want to take a guess at what they recommended? Start with questions, collect evidence, stop separating knowing from finding out, and deemphasize the memorization of technical vocabulary. This led to the National Science Education Standards in 1996 with a heavy emphasis on inquiry. The National Research Council weighed in in 2000 and told the same story. The Next Generation Science Standards were released a decade later with a heavy emphasis on inquiry. Nearly a full century of critiques of the profession has yielded the same critiques over and over again.

Hear we sit in 2015, 15 years after the latest major push in education in this country to finally fix education, the last truly bi-partisan act in American politics, the passing of No Child Left Behind. We now recognize that it was a failure. Since the The Nation at Risk report in the early 1980s, more and more standards to define what facts are to be learned, more and more testing to reward those schools that test well (and punish those that do not), more school choices, and ironically more and more racial and economic segregation have been implemented. And the result. Very little change and/or improvement in graduation rates, test scores, public satisfaction, and student achievement (at least based on the measures we are using).

So what is the problem? We have a crisis of perception. Through all of those changes we haven’t significantly changed how we teach. We have continued to address the education woes of this country from the same paradigm over and over again. With each new critique and set of bad news about student achievement we dig deeper into the machinery of education and begin replacing parts. We are operating from a failed perceptual model of reductionism. Students aren’t keeping up in science—so we invent an acronym called STEM—but honestly don’t really change much of how we teach science. Test scores are flat so we rewrite tougher standards—but use the same methods of teaching. We push the system harder and harder, replacing a gear here and a piston there but the machine can only turn so fast. What we are failing to recognize is that, just like when we tug at one of the strands of a living system with all of its interconnections all of that system is affected, the mechanizations of the education system are all also connected. And they are not just connected to one another, they are also connected to the rest of the social systems in which that machinery operates.

So how do we address this crisis of perception? How does a society change a perceptual model, and can a society change a perceptual model fast enough? How do you fix a system the seemingly requires changing everything at once? Consider this example. The indigenous peoples of New Guinea had their first contact with outsiders in 1931. For them it was as world shifting as if aliens from outer space were to land in Times Square tomorrow. The New Guineans were living a stone-age lifestyle. Within the lifetime of many of those individuals who witnessed their first non-New Guinean, the islands have been divided up into political states, and they have learned to use computers, money, new agriculture, modern medicine, as well as begun to suffer all of the same ills that seem to come with modern society. My point isn’t to highlight the ills of modern society—though they are connected to the same crisis, but instead to illustrate that paradigms for a society can shift rather quickly given the right circumstance.

So how do you change a paradigm? One student at a time. The paradigm shift begins with training ourselves and the next generation to think differently. Simplistic answers may get a politician to the top of the polls (see Donald Trump), but simplistic answers will not fix what ails us. One cannot fix a system without understanding the system. The best he or she can do is treat some symptoms. We need to retrain ourselves to see the systems before we take them apart to replace the mechanisms within those systems. Currently, we train our children to live in the world by breaking the world into tiny bits and feeding it to them one at a time. We then expect that they will naturally put those tiny bits together, seeing the connections between the bits when they complete their education. But how can they when they are never taught to even see the connections, let alone understand the positive and negative feedback mechanisms that are foundational to systems theory. We need to flip this methodology of reducing the whole into small disconnected bits and hope that someday students can understand the whole 180 degrees. Instead, show the systems, the connections and the interrelationships first, and then help them to pull those systems apart and understand the “gears” and “pulleys” of that system in context of the larger system.

If we can accomplish this, then just maybe, we can have a populace that isn’t reliant upon a select few to engineer our way out of the next crisis—be it environmental, political, educational, or economic. Maybe, just maybe, we can have a populace that chooses political leaders who offer solutions resulting from discussion and debate over their merits and impact on the collective good for generations to come instead of the goal a “political win” and regaining political power by one party over the other, often at the expense of the collective good.

A colleague has challenged me to answer the question, “Is holistic thinking possible within this century?” I have to believe so. Maybe. Just maybe.

Enacting Patriotism

This morning’s bike ride was as beautiful as they come in the North woods. It was cool, but warming fast, the sun was rising and piercing its way through the morning haze that will soon be afternoon humidity and then probably evening showers. About half way through my ride I passed the big red, white, and blue tent set up in the convention center parking lot. Ah, 4th of July week. The stark primary red and blue colors separated by the white, where in contrast to the orange reflection of the sun on the lake against the backdrop of forest green.

4th of July is always a time of reflection for me. Actually confusion, is more appropriate. During my time as a politically astute person—beginning during the 1980s, it appears to me that patriotism is a concept to be taken hold of by different groups with different viewpoints, and then used to divide, exclude and preclude. During this time, the right (and moving further to the right each year maybe) of the political spectrum aligned itself with Christianity and then took sole ownership of the concept of Patriotism (with a capital P). And then any challenge to the actions of government is then labeled as unpatriotic (and un-Christian). This is where I struggle. The Declaration of Independence states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

We are a nation built on dissent. I am amazed that the American experiment has worked as well as it has. Creating a community out of a shared purpose of being dissatisfied with something else is certainly not a strong foundation upon which to build a community. Yet here we are in a country that, despite many faults and misdeeds, still continues to be a country where the three branches of government do balance the power—even if at times from one’s political vantage point the decisions are not favorable—there is still balance of power. This is a country where heads of state are not overthrown or forced to flee the country after a changeover of leadership. This is still a country where I can write this and have no fear that I will suffer persecution because of the content of my thoughts and ideas expressed. This is still a country, where, with the march of time equal rights are increased—even if there are detours, roadblocks, and setbacks that curtail these rights for stretches. It may not be a perfect union, but does become more perfect (generally) with the march of time. Maybe it survives because there is a single core belief upon which we continue to return. Notice the founding fathers said “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” They did not say with the, our, or my Creator. Therefore, it is against the wishes of the founding fathers to use my own vision of the Creator to deny Life, Liberty or the pursuit of Happiness.

So yes, I’m proud to live in this country even when I am critical of what it might be doing, or ashamed of what it has done in the past. But still, maybe because of the stranglehold on Patriotism by the ideological right during my formative years, I correlate the bright bold combination of the red, white, and blue colors with blind faith in a government. I’m uncomfortable with this as this is often enacted as unquestioned belief in American exceptionalism and even imperialism. But, let’s look at the next sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

I translate “The government shall not be changed for light and transient causes” to mean that when you don’t like a Supreme Court decision, to call for resistance using violent images and to openly ignore the legal standing of the court, or call for scrapping the court and starting over by some of our political leaders as dangerous and reckless because it can (and I believe has and will) incite and foment revolt and violence. Dare I say this seems unpatriotic to me as it contradicts the Declaration of Independence. Now am I claiming ownership of Patriotism? Well, this is the way it goes, doesn’t it. A nation evolves, opinions change, and powers shift with the march of time. It seems that instead, patriotism should be a concept to unite, include, and permit us to enact a story in which “We the People of the United States, [work] to form a more perfect Union.” I leave you then with the question I wrestle with during this time: How do we enact patriotism?

Trust and Gratitude, Teaching, and Church Shootings

Trust and gratitude go together. When you have gratitude toward someone or something then you also have trust in it. It is worth asking ourselves on a regular basis what we are grateful for. In what do we trust? I write this (the first draft anyway) while in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota. The wind is blowing hard enough that we are essentially bound to the campsite for the afternoon. This has given me time to read about the interplay between trust and gratitude in “Active Hope” by Chris Johnstone and Joanna Macy. One campmate, Rollie, is chopping wood for tonight’s fire. I’m grateful for his efforts. Another is in his hammock reading my book. I’m grateful for his attentiveness. My ego thanks him as well. I’m grateful for the wind.

Gratitude and trust. Two sides of the same coin possibly. How do these two concepts inform who I am as a spouse, father, son, teacher, and citizen and member of society? How do these become chapters in the story that we each enact? When I was teaching at a private school I was initially taken aback by students who would thank me at the end of a class. It could be that they were thankful the lesson was finally over. Or maybe it was rote learned politeness and respect for an elder. I’ll choose to think it was genuine. And expressing this gratitude was an expression that then demonstrated that there was trust in me as a teacher. I can at least hope this was the case. It is easy to think of this as a one-way street from student to teacher, but the act of teaching requires tremendous trust on the part of the teacher in his or her student. Inspired teaching requires the teacher to make himself or herself vulnerable to the student. This is an act of trust. Maybe it is for that that my students were expressing their gratitude. I must have had gratitude toward them as well if I trusted them to put their trust in me.

Two nights ago, a young man walked spent an hour in a bible study group and then pulled out a gun and opened fire killing nine. His motive was purely racial and has admitted he wanted to kill black people. Trust and gratitude. The political left and right immediately take sides and the story morphs depending on who is analyzing and recounting. I listen to some pundits and talking heads expertly contort themselves and their viewpoint to find any other motive than race to explain this act. Is this an attempt to avoid a difficult conversation, a difficult truth and conversation or a need to turn the conversation back on to something they can relate too such as their own Christianity? Trust and gratitude. In these conversations I am finding none expressed. Counterintuitive as it might seem, maybe this is where the conversation about race, intolerance, and violence should begin. In what ways can we as a nation find that we have gratitude to one another—and therefore, can begin to build trust?

PATIENCE!!!! (lessons learned from young dad—not me)

It’s early Sunday morning and I am sitting in a coffee shop in Ely, MN, getting the last of some work done before 6 days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The motel wifi was too slow to load the online learning platform I need for the summer course I am teaching—and need to get work done for before I unplug for a week. With my coffee, I get a password for 60 minutes of wifi. Must be a lot of wifi squatters in Ely? Time is ticking. I’m reading research proposals as best I can while others come and go. Others are heading to their cabin, taking a break from getting work done in the office, building a corral for his wife’s horse they got from Wisconsin. Bred for cold climates. Some horse won some race yesterday. Focus. Time is ticking.

In walks a young dad with his twin sons between the age of four and five. I’m old enough now that the dad looked no more than eighteen, but I suspect that isn’t correct. When you hit a certain age, everyone under thirty can pass for twenty. Focus. Time is ticking.

He orders his coffee and some scones. The boys notice the kids table with the different colored chairs. “We’re not staying,” I hear the dad say. “where are the scones?” asks the boy with the glasses. So cute.

More about some race. Focus! Tick tock.

“We’re eating them in the car.”


“I want the red one” says the other boy pointing to the chairs stacked on the table.

The dad takes down the red and yellow chair despite the fact they aren’t staying. “Which do you want?” he asks the other boy. So cute as well. Apparently there are springs in the cushions because they are back up in less than ten seconds. They stand up and move on to something else. No need to engage in a discussion about why not to get the chair down. He could see the “springs.”

The scones and coffee are ready. The dad is adding cream to his coffee and the boys are now exploring the packaged foods on the counter. How can you resist the tactile pleasure of handling the little bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans? Well you can’t.

“Put those back” says the dad as he stirs his coffee and replaces the lid. “We have scones for the car.”

“What are these?” asks the boy holding the little package of shortbread highlanders.

The men in the couches near me are discussing the weight of clouds (prompted by the trivia question on the chalk board). Focus already. Tick tick tick.

I notice the dad only told him one time to put it back, then continued what he was doing. The boy replaces the shortbread after a minute of careful inspection. He moves on to looking at the lindor truffles. Those look interesting as well. Perfectly round. He doesn’t pick one up. The bespectacled twin is looking closely at the coffee urn.

“That’s the coffee” dad says, “Don’t pull that or coffee will come out.” The boy withdraws his hand. Pulls a straw out of the canister on the counter. Sort of like a little telescope if you look through it he discovers.

“Okay, let’s go” and the dad and one of the boys heads out the door. The other is looking at something distant through his tiny telescope, until he looks up and rushes off to catch up to his dad and brother.

Through this bustle of activity, the dad first appeared to be in full “prevent defense” mode. But he but never raised his voice, never showed frustration, and in the end all was fine. The boys explored the area around the counter disturbing no-one really—except me and I welcomed the distraction. Masterful mix of giving giving freedom with form. Tick tock.

I’m pretty sure I would not have had the patience and trust that I didn’t need to have a tighter “grip” on their behavior. And If I did, would I have been doing so to teach them proper behavior and how to “be” in the world, out of respect for the gray-bearded guy typing on the laptop in the corner, or my own vanity as a “good” father? I shudder to think, so we’ll stop the reflection there and I’ll let my wife quietly mouth the answer so as to spare my feelings.

Back to work. Just one more document to upload.

“Your session has timed out” is the message on the screen.

Guess I’ll have another coffee. Decaf. A week of paddling a canoe sounds nice.

Are We Sacrificing The Liberal Arts at the Altar of The All Mighty STEM?

I’ve never been a fan of the acronym STEM. It is used a lot but I’m not sure it actually amounts to anything new. Science is a content-based and skill-based discipline. Technology is simply the tools humans use, nothing more, nothing less. Engineering is a problem-solving process used to make new products and math is the method of quantifying what was learned through the scientific process and the tool to then apply that to engineered solutions. So STEM is really just really good, applicable, hands-on, real-world science. But it is treated as an interdisciplinary revolution.

To develop better thinkers who can then use the knowledge and skills expressed by the acronym STEM we need students as equally versed in all of the humanities. Language arts, social studies, math, and the arts all contain content and skills necessary for the thinkers capable of the requisite skills needed by a society. By integrating these subjects together, giving each a valuable seat at the table of learning, students are provided a proper framework to place the science content and skills, and then effectively and appropriately engineer the world in which we really will want to live. One that is rich in culture and sustainable. Not just a world of ever-increasing, smaller widgets—as nice as better music players and cell phones are.

The atom bomb was developed by those who were masters at STEM before STEM was a thing. But it wasn’t the scientists who decided to use it—right or wrong as that decision may have been.

If we rely simply on STEM to train our future leaders, thinkers, and scientists at the same time we continue to de-emphasize the importance of the humanities we could be setting ourselves for a lot of “Oh crap!” moments in future’s history. Instead, we should be building an interdisciplinary exploration of content to explore what it means to be human and how it is we ought to be living in this world. Therefore, Science and the Humanities should be Integrated Together—or SHIT—so in the future, students will be learning about the world in a holistic manner, placing the STEM content we value as a society in a context of meaningful questions about what it means to be human and live in this world. Then we might hear them say “Shit, that finally makes sense!”

Okay, so maybe the new acronym should be SLAASSM—Science, Language Arts, Arts, Social Studies and Math.

The Story We Enact

We are always enacting a story. It is more than just living a life. To say one is enacting a story implies a sense of purpose. To enact a story means that what came before on the journey is connected to the now of the journey, as well as the next footsteps on the journey. It implies connection between past, present, and future. But this is not just a journey of self. This is a collective journey. I enact my story, but in no way is the story that I enact isolated from those around me. We enact our stories.

We make the road by walking. This is the title of a recent book by Brian McLaren about finding, and making one’s spiritual journey. Prior to that, Myles Horton and Paulo Freire published a book consisting of their conversations about education and social change with the same title. “We make the road by walking” is actually an adaptation of Spanish proverb by poet Antonio Machado that reads, “se hace camino al andar,” or “you make the way as you go.”

I began walking the road of my career in education with a simple aspiration. I wanted to teach biology because I understood the world through that lens. I wanted to coach because I (thought at the time) it was through the collective battle of competition I made connection to my fellow athletes. Quickly, my road forked and the path I walked no longer involved coaching athletes. Soon I found myself leading discussions about changing the way we educate. I found myself leading other educators. And then I found my footsteps slowing. More education. More writing. New characters to the story. And then new doors opened.

I came to my current location on my road because it was the door that opened. I was excited to enter a new education ecosystem of higher education. I would be the immigrant into a new ecology of thought and observe and learn and find my niche. With new colleagues, and new students, I would explore what it means to be a teacher. What it means to be educated. What it means to teach science.

We make our roads by walking them. But we never are walking them alone. This is our community. As we enact our story, we learn with and from the other characters in our story. And it is within a learning community that our most profound discoveries are made. So, what is the story that you are enacting? How will you enact that story—the story that is your story and no one else’s? And who will walk the road with you?

The Need to Create

What I’ve always found most energizing about teaching are two things. First, is that moment when a student “gets it.” Their face lights up with recognition and understanding when they finally achieve a goal—that first “A” on a paper, or maybe simply finally understanding a difficult concept. The second part of teaching that most energizes me is the creativity involved in creating curriculum. Thinking of and then creating new experiences for students, and then seeing them play out and work, which then leads back to the first most energizing thing for me in teaching. When I am in a teaching situation in which I don’t get to create new ideas, activities, assignments, and so on, quite simply, I get bored.

I was at a conference this weekend with many other educators and at one point the conversation shifted to talk about the impact standardization of curriculum and standardized testing has had on teaching. In short, it is killing the creativity. However, as much as I want to blame bad policy and ill-informed policy-makers (which certainly is not hard to do mind you), I want to also point a finger back at us teachers.

Having recently done some work to align a biology curriculum to Minnesota state standards and the Next Generation Science Standards (created by the National Science Teachers Association) it dawned on me that as much as we teachers want to complain about not having enough time to do more project-based learning, more innovative teaching in our classroom because of the standards, much of this argument doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Before we proceed. Make no mistake, I still strongly believe that the standardization of curriculum and standardized testing are having disastrous effects on education in this country. Now to continue. After reviewing these standards, what I found was that the content in the standards is the same biology I learned in school, which was pre-standards and largely dictated by what was in the textbook being used at the time. So here’s my challenge to the teachers. Yes the standardized testing is having very negative unintended consequences on education. But set that aside and quite operating out of a fear of failure and instead operate out of an anticipation of success. Set the standards aside when planning curriculum (they just say what we’ve always agreed upon as important information to be taught) and create. Create challenging questions for your students to answer. Create engaging presentations to excite their curiosity. Create fascinating project ideas for them to pursue. Create opportunities for them to ask their own questions. If you do this, they will learn, and they will pass the standardized tests.

When I get in this mode in my teaching and start creating, not only does my teaching improve but I have also found that when I am in a teaching situation that requires a great deal of effort and creativity this then spills into other areas of my life–writing, music, art, and the like. It must have been quite a challenging and creative year for me. Now for the shameless plug. I have recently recorded a CD of original music, and will publish my first book this spring. I hope you will check them out by going to my website,

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