Saturday, December 11, 2004

"Great Men" History and Science Education

There is an interesting thread here:

about "faith" in science and the way science is taught. Why no science textbook is a "Bible" of a field. Here are some of my musings....

So much science teaching, not just in high school but also in college, is rote learning. Memorize Latin names for body parts, Krebs cycle, taxonomy of worms… Taught that way it does seem like that is all there is.

I got excited about my area of research BECAUSE of the way the course was taught on it. Every topic started with "the first guy" who thought about it, then went through the history, stopping to analyze the key experiments and how they were interpreted by the authors and readers at the time (and why - the importance of context), and ended with the current knowledge, including some "hot off the presses" stuff. There was no way anyone could have taken the class without leaving with an impression that everything is tentative, that new research can change stuff really fast, and how much still there is to learn. That feeling that the field is wide open, feeling I got due to the way this was taught, made me want to jump into the discipline and do my own research.

A couple of years ago I taught an intro bio "speed-class" to adults at a local community college. The school insisted I follow the syllabus to the ‘t’ and, of course, the two chapters that were explicitely on evolution were not included. Yet I found a couple of paragraphs on evolution in the Introduction (which the students were asigned to read) and used that as an excuse to spend the very first two hours of the very first class meeting talking about evolution. I covered EVERYTHING in those two hours, frothing at the mouth, frantically drawing red and green "animals" on the board, dividing them by new rivers and mountain ranges - the whole shpiel. I was dead scared - there were 20 or so people in front of me, in their 40s and 50s, mostly African Americans, trying to get a business degree so they could get a promotion at work. And they were staring at me with poker faces all along. Like Darwin in the "Origin" the one and only time I used the word "evolution" was at the very end: "And everything I told you in the past two hours is called evolution!". Silence….lasting about two minutes (endless). Finally, a lady in the back row raised her hand: "Thank you, sir, for explaining this. I thought evolution had something to do with monkeys turning into humans. But what you just explained purely makes sense!". Oh was I relieved.

Publius has an interesting post, with a great thread of comments, using Sistani as an example of possible validity of the "Great Men" way of understanding history:

My quick thoughts:

The "Great Person" history is usually scorned by professional historians. One would understand that historians of art would stick to it - Beethoven, Leonardo and Dickens were one of a kind: if they did not produce their works of art, nobody ever would.

Interestingly, in history of science, in which abandonment of the "Great Men" approach would be most expected as discoveries would be made sooner or later no matter who did it, there is instead quite a layering of contingency and personality. The social environment shapes the person, but person also has to be unique in some way in order to produce the revolutionary scientific discovery.

For instance, evolution by natural selection would have been postulated anyway, and probably at about the same time, as the social conditions and the state of biology at the time were ripe for this discovery. However, some historians believe that, if it was not for Darwin, the theory would have been discovered in a piece-meal fashion, by a number of people over a period of time, producing a number of "warring factions" and generally requiring much more time for the whole theory of evolution to crystallize.

Darwin is considered by some professional historians of science to be a "genius" in the "great person" sense, as he put the entire theory out all at once, in an ubelievably tight and well-thought-through argument that, almost in its entirety, is still valid today. He also did it in a clear prose quite uncharacteristic for the Victorian times, making the "Origin" an instant besteseller and a great hit with the crowds. If anyone else did it, the book may have just been un-noticed at the time and forgotten soon after.

As for "Great Men" as leaders of revolutionary movements, it appears that they are not always neccessary. The great movements of the past used to be associated with great men - Valessa, Mandela, Gandhi. Today, the movements PURPOSEFULLY avoid this. Removal of dictators by popular demand in Serbia, Belarus and Ukraine was not associated by great men. We may remember that Milosevic was deposed, or Kuchma, but who but the locals even knows the names of the leaders of the movements - Kostunica anyone? Yushchenko's name will be forgotten when the Ukrainian election is all over with. The movements do it on purpose. First three attempts to remove Milosevic were not successful mainly because the movements were associated with charismatic leaders (e.g., Vuk Draskovic in Serbia) who had a large but not universal following. When "Otpor" in Serbia organized for the final push they consciously decided not to rally around a popular leader in order to get all the leaders of the opposition to join in. They also came up with great marketing strategies. It worked. Now the "Otpor" organizers sell their experience on the market - they have organized the demonstrations in Belaruss and Ukraine. Sometimes a "Great Leader" is a hindrance.

How about the Progressive movement in the USA today? Was the Deniac revolution wrong in putting so much stake into a "Great Person", i.e., Dean, who in the end did not turn out to be so great? The Kerry movement was most definitely not a "Great Person" movement. The closest to a movement defined by the Man and not the troups was the Edwards primaries cohort - people abandoned their policy qualms and, ranging from conservative Republicans to uber-liberals, rallied around the guy they loved on a visceral level. Should the Progressive movement of the next few years be defined by a Great Leader? Perhaps it depends on the perception of the gravity of the situation and the level of earthshaking that the movement intends to trigger. Perhaps, righting some mid-size political wrongs via elections is better done without a charismatic leader, while a large overhaul of societal norms requires a Lightning Rod, someone like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, or Lech Valessa. Does it depend on the culture itself? Perhaps in the intellectual Eastern Europe ideas are more important than personalities, while here in the Third World of America, personality trumps ideas. Any thoughts?

posted by Bora Zivkovic @ 1:46 AM | permalink | (3 comments) | Post a Comment | permalink