Interview #3 with Prof. Arthur Zajonc
On Science Education
is the third in a series of interviews with Arthur Zajonc,
physics at Amherst College. Note: for the sake of
this interview Arthur and I occasionally restricted ourselves to some
and thinking, for instance about “experience,” which we
to refine in later discussions.}
Steven: thanks for agreeing to do another interview, Arthur. There are many things that I would like to discuss, but if it's all right with you, perhaps it would be best this time to concentrate on the subject of science education. Our last interview dealt with issues concerning education in general... could we turn our attention a little more towards a focus on science education in particular?
Arthur: yes, I would be happy to.
ST: Again, this would involve taking into account the sorts of issues we have discussed in our previous two interviews. So to start with a two-part question: first, what do you see the state of science education to be now? I don’t mean with respect to the special concerns that we've been discussing, but just in general. Second, does it look healthy to you? Or does it seem to be in trouble?
AZ: I guess we would have to consider the different levels at which science education takes place: elementary school, high school, University-level... and I think each of those needs a different approach. In each case, there are some positive signs in our educational system, broadly conceived, and there are certain “problem signs”.
Starting with middle school and upper elementary grades, where science education often begins... my own feeling is that especially in those periods, science education should be extremely experiential in its orientation, very "hands-on". Students should be engaged in close observation, where they are allowed to get excited about what they are seeing, whether it is with physics education, the inanimate part of nature that surrounds you, or the more agricultural and biological sciences, where they are working with gardens they may have on-site, or going out in exploring in nature, studying animals. Schools could be building up resources, and taking advantage of resources that they have in their communities, that would allow the students to get out of the classrooms or to bring into the classrooms an experiential component of the natural world.
This would allow them to engage deeply, observe closely, begin to see patterns, but all very much at the hand of lived experience. For many teachers nowadays, that's a bit of a scary thing, because it's not a preprogrammed, canned set of materials that they are moving through. The teachers feel out of their depth, and understandably so. But we must somehow find ways of recruiting experts from the community, or just allowing students to have an exploration which is guided through a series of appropriate questions, without the teacher having to pretend to be the expert.
So there's a
whole curriculum one could develop
based on such things... and there are places in our standard
system, like the traditional Waldorf educational system, but also in
places, where you begin to see an appreciation for that. Often this is
associated with hands-on exhibits in science museums. Like the
ST: it grounds ethical insights and responses, yes. A good point.
AZ: so all that I think is important, and applies to the general area of elementary grades. Then in the high schools, there I think you're in a kind of transition region, where you're moving from that experiential and imaginative engagement with the natural world... by the seventh and eighth grade in high school, you're starting to develop more systematic and increasingly abstract relationships. Your skills in mathematics etc., are developing. Again, I think often one finds in the high school curriculum we currently have, an overemphasis on chalkboard or pre-canned programmatic learning, as opposed to original exploration.
ST: you don’t mean to say you’re opposed to the movement towards the development of more abstract skills?
AZ: no, of course not. But this theme of the creative and experiential engagement with nature has a role to play not only in the elementary grades, but in a new way in the upper grades and in high school... those components are still important. You know, my own familiarity and work with Goethe's ideas on science has provided a source of inspiration regarding possible approaches to a systematic observation in many areas, whether it's the world of biology in botany, or the world of color and other scientific physical systems, approached scientifically... each of those can be handled in a way that is more phenomenologically driven than just driven through abstract representation alone. By the time you enter the university, you've typically got a thousand- or two-thousand page textbook you've got to get through in a semester or two. The pace is ferocious, the expectation is high that you're going to cover a lot of material in very short order. It's essentially a script that we've been reading from high school all the way through the first couple of years of college science education. And it's singularly unimaginative. It's an amazingly dry curriculum.
ST: you don't mind my including that comment in the interview?
AZ: no, it's all right... I think most people would admit it. And any attempts to work outside of that script are usually rebuffed by publishers. I've had a number of colleagues who have attempted to develop much more engaged, student-oriented, conversational styles of teaching, that work with lots of data and experiential approaches... or with conversationally-based problem-solving. And they've even developed textbook materials for this approach, etc. And still it’s very tough to find a publisher who will risk it. The main stream has decided what the market wants, and then continues to turn out what amount to clones of the best-selling science textbooks in chemistry, physics, and biology. There's very little variation. So it's singularly unimaginative. The politics of the situation are tough.
So, what's missing? What sorts of strategies might be added in, without going to any extreme?
ST: so your concern is to offer a better, more effective education, rather than just being different in some radical way, or merely on philosophical grounds? To help the students’ minds development more fully …
AZ: right, of course. One strategy is that you can supplement the materials that you're getting, through your own lectures and assignments. So you take the givens, the expectations in the textbooks that you inherit from your field, then you bring in ample experiments, demonstrations, biography, stories of discovery... you try to lead students themselves to those moments of discovery through a kind of miniature reenactment of what the historical context and situation was. In this way they come to not only a memorization and application of certain formulas and procedures, but they actually begin to see through the experiments and equations, to something which is, after all, the animating idea or law that they are investigating.
My philosophy of education is that it's a seamless reenactment or reliving of all the key moments of discovery that you've undertaken in Western science. So if you're going to try to understand projectile motion, with Galileo for example, it's not enough to write down the equation for parabola on the blackboard, and then say “write this down, this is an equation governing projectile motion, and then we are going to have to do a certain application to demonstrate that it's true, and you will learn how to plug in the appropriate parameters and numbers and initial conditions, and you get the predicted result.”
The questions should be: “how is it that you come to see or to witness or perceive the parabola in projectile motion? What does it feel like in some sense, to be Galileo all over again? And to see what he saw?” Which was not just stones flying through the air, but seeing that this is a generalized behavior, which can be expressed mathematically, but also can be actually witnessed directly. And the same can be said all the way through, for the laws of electricity and magnetism, even the laws of more modern science... you can work your way through the phenomena, and then also as students become more adept and familiar with the mathematical representations of these things, even through the mathematics one begins to see that this is a language... the phenomena are a language, the mathematics is a language, behind which there is a kind of meaning. It's the meaning that we are trying to get the students to appreciate, and to experience. And if they haven't made that transition, then the teaching hasn't been complete.
ST: excuse me, what you just said was that the phenomena and the mathematics are a language... were you actually try to say that the phenomena themselves are a language of some sort?
AZ: yes, I think you could say that phenomena come in types... there's just a flood of phenomenal experience, which may be inchoate and confusing and inarticulate to us. But as one steeps oneself in a domain of inquiry, where you begin to recognize that certain phenomena in particular belong together, that they form a whole—whereas certain other pieces are extraneous, or just small players in the whole field of inquiry. Then somewhere else, by contrast, there's a central set that are all knit together. And as I vary certain conditions of appearance—the conditions under which certain phenomena arise—then the phenomena themselves more often change... and they do so in systematic ways. Then you begin to feel your way into what is a lawful and systematic set of relationships that cohere and exist between these different parts of this domain. The phenomena are expressions of those conditions. It's all part of an organic whole.
So it becomes a bit of a language, through which you are looking and beginning to see that pattern or wholeness. It begins to become increasingly articulate. To me, that's important—you're on the threshold of a discovery! You're on the threshold of this experience of apercu that Goethe talks about, of actually seeing into the world. You could say the same thing... let's say you think of a language that you do not know, and you need to decipher it... you can work your way into it, into the patterns and structures of that language, so that you can begin to get hints as to what must be going on. Gradually you can decode that language and come to understand for the first time what might otherwise be impenetrable. But it takes a long engagement with the phenomena themselves.
Mathematics, in its own strange way, in a kind of special form, is also a particular kind of language. It takes away from the world of experience and phenomena, it factors out the direct, sensorial and you might say even emotional, dimension of what it is that's before you, and highlights more its structural elements. And the structural elements become far more lucid and clear, at some cost, because we feel ourselves a bit more distant from the actual lived experience; nevertheless, through that lucidity we’re able to be closer, in one dimension at least, to the phenomena themselves. So the mathematics also, for certain students, can be a window into a meaningful relationship to a domain of experience. So both of these, to me, are completely legitimate ways of engaging, and even related ways of engaging, the world of nature scientifically.
Now we tend to give short shrift to the experiential dimension, even in the universities. We do outline occasional experiments and demonstrations to illustrate something we already know from equations we've written down and studied, but there is very little of the discovery process involved, which I think is a shame. And as a consequence the mathematics becomes a bit inert—you know, it's on the blackboard, the students write it down dutifully and memorize or crank out the equations, but they don't have a way of seeing in the equations a relationship back to the phenomenal world. One of my best professors, back when I was a student … when he was through presenting Maxwell's equations, basically required us in our final exam to say what were the phenomena that stood behind each one of these four equations. They are compact differential equations to capture the whole of electromagnetism. But behind each of them there is either one or a small set of experiments, which you could say are like what Goethe called the archetypal experiments—they are the same thing, really, as the equation, but in phenomenal form. He appreciated that, and felt you had to live that connection, that these were not inert, they were not just be played with mathematically, they were to be seen through to a level of phenomenal experience.
ST: interesting. I would have to chat more to fully see your point about experiments being the same as the equations, but I agree completely with the basic point I think you’re really making here. I always felt something very similar about mathematics itself... it seemed to me that even for mathematics in general, not just applied math, it would be far better to train people to see the world, the forms and dynamics of the phenomenal world, in terms of the mathematics. Invite them to see the vast range of phenomena that all this abstract math, the formalisms, etc., actually might correspond to, and exactly why or how.
AZ: yeah, I think that for most students especially... of course for a few it’s really possible to live in a completely abstract domain, but for most students, to learn to move seamlessly back and forth between the mathematics and some kind of relationship to the phenomenal world, is really helpful, even if it's only by way of analogy, and not completely direct. It provides a scaffolding which then becomes a real springboard for the imagination. I think this is true for both the phenomenal side and also the biographical aspect—i.e., the story behind each of the discoveries, the people—these are missing too. So we give too much emphasis to an abstract set of rules and laws which we learn to manipulate. This doesn’t lead to being a good scientist. And we dehumanize the whole scientific enterprise, with one or two exceptions like an Einstein, so it becomes a colorless domain of inquiry, without the richness of the phenomenal world. I think for many students, it then becomes a sad business. They can't put themselves into it, it has become depersonalized. And it's not filled with experience and engagement. So from that standpoint, we could be doing so much better.
ST: yes. So summarizing again, I think the main point here, beyond just the motivation issues that affect students these days, is that you are arguing for a type of education that would actually make peoples' sensibilities, their perceptiveness and rational capacities be more fully developed than they would be otherwise.
AZ: yes, the way I see it, there are a couple of benefits to what we are talking about. By keeping things close to phenomena, by bringing in the human dimension, okay we make it interesting for students, but how does one move, as you say, beyond just the motivational side? There are a couple of points here. One has to realize that the concepts that we bring to the world around us, are really born out of a very intimate dialogue with that world.
ST: a very good point. One has to go back to that analysis of how cognition works in general, and how it works best, in order to appreciate the importance of this.
AZ: yes. Somehow, because they're given in a textbook, one comes to feel these concepts we apply in science are simply there, just laying about in the world like artifacts. Actually they are the fruit of an extraordinary engagement, often a debate amongst a group or community of scientists, concerning what are the most powerful ideas to bring to bear... so things like energy or momentum, were once seen as God-given forces in the universe that somehow were conserved because God was eternal. There is a whole rich background story to everything involved. You begin to realize the human dimension of this thing we call natural science. And the languages (plural) that we use to describe... in physics for example, one particular range of phenomena may be quite varied. So we may use Newtonian mechanics or Lagrangian mechanics or Hamiltonian mechanics or Jacobian theory, the calculus of variations, limit principles... all of those will describe exactly the same phenomena, but in different languages, each one of which involves a set of concepts that it brings to bear, and by allowing us to realize the richness of that range of conceptual framing, it frees us from a myopic view that, for example, everything has to be framed according to Newton's way of thinking, for instance. So we become freer in our conceptual framing. We don't overly reify or concretize our concepts. We realize that these are dialogically given, and if they're not useful, they will disappear and a new method of framing will be taken up, that may be even better for a particular application.
ST: are you arguing that this freedom, this felt freedom to move from one language to another, comes from this development of our faculties?
AZ: I think it's a particular kind of development of our faculties. There's one stage where you're just trying to see anything, so to speak. But then what happens is that you make one discovery, and this happens all the time—and it becomes a tyrant. Because you've made one discovery, you think you can generalize that one discovery or insight, and you totalize it. “This is the truth, and it applies to all circumstances.” So then you've created a form of reductionism. A more fertile form of perception, is one which realizes that any form of representation of this activity which we call the natural world—
ST: is less rich than the perception, yeah.
AZ: right. It runs the risk of becoming a myopic projection. And so by multiplying your viewpoints, and the languages of discourse and analysis, you begin to realize that the fecundity of the natural world is such that any set of questions you pose will in some sense, implicitly if not explicitly, frame things up for a particular type of answer. The language will be particularized. If you come at it differently, from a different orientation and a different set of presuppositions, where the questions raised are slightly different, then a new language is required. And so forth around the circle. I feel like very often, if we are doing our work in the best way, we are actually circling a domain, which can express itself in multiple languages. In fact we begin to realize that maybe there's an infinite variety of ways of discerning aspects of this particular domain of inquiry, the domain of phenomena.
ST: yes. You're raising a very important set of issues here. If I may step back for a moment, looking at our previous collaborations and our interests in the relevance of contemplative traditions, there the issue is to develop a kind of insight that is far richer than any—
AZ: particular ideology.
ST: exactly. And any narrow explication of it, or explicit statement of it. And that notion, the notion that that is even possible, is pretty much lost now in our culture. In other words, it's not understood that that can even happen.
ST: … that there could be an insight that is richer than an explicit or formal statement of it. This has many consequences, one of which is—reverberating back in the other direction—that we become incapable of having insights which are anything other than a poor cousin to a formal statement of some sort. We end up thinking rather narrowly, and don't really give ourselves a chance to do anything more—we can't easily imagine such a thing. So then disciplines like contemplation are seen to be spacey or esoteric or dubious, precisely because of the flawed analysis that's implicit here. People don't... because their faculties become collapsed or truncated in some ways, everything they can imagine to be going on in contemplation would be irrelevant to rational discourse, scientific inquiry, etc.
AZ: right. People think it's just about emptying your mind, not thinking, not knowing, not seeing.
ST: yes, that whole picture is wrong. It misframes the whole dialogue about what contemplation could contribute to other rational arts or disciplines.
AZ: yes. So when one speaks about education, it seems to me that because we are so tightly scripted in some ways, the ideology of science, this myopia, is enforced and strengthened. If you can tell multiple stories with multiple players—and you have to tell all the stories, which are many—all of a sudden there is a break in the grip of a particular ideology. And you think “well which is true?” And then you think “well wait a minute, maybe they're both true from their respective vantage points.” Each has its own distinct way of speaking and thinking, and they look to be contradictory, but they're not. They round out and enrich our perspectives, and provide fresh ways of gaining insight, which in some ways ultimately will transcend any particular one of these frameworks and ideological expressions. And then you begin to loosen up. It doesn't become a relativism—that's one of the great mistakes that typically arises in these sorts of conversations, people think that because there's more than one way of framing up a discussion, that it's arbitrary.
ST: yeah, it might actually show that certain uses or choices of language that are in vogue, are actually inadequate to the phenomenon.
ST: so far from being fluffy or relative in the sense of being insipid—
AZ: it becomes far more nuanced, yes. More subtle and mobile in your analysis and thinking. It's quite liberating then to realize that you are neither in a completely objectivized world, where there's a single truth in a single language, nor a completely relativized world, where nothing makes any difference and it's all just socially constructed. Rather, you are in this dynamic interplay between world and self, where representations and formal expressions are always going to be individuated, but that doesn't that the world isn't also speaking. So that's one piece that I think gets lost in this diminished form of science education that we have now. The other, that I think is equally important, and comes from another quarter, has to do with the ethical or moral dimensions of our engagements with the natural world and with each other. If one strips out the sensual or direct engagement with the natural world, in some ways you make an intimate or compassionate or participatory engagement with that world very difficult.
ST: yeah, it's basically impossible … certainly not apparently meaningful or relevant.
AZ: yeah, so now you are dealing with some sort of third-hand version. Galileo saw something centuries ago, it gets reported, annotated, made into a textbook, is canned into a little scripted presentation that the teacher gives, and so you end up way down the line with the situation I’ve described. And then the student is supposed to have some kind of engagement or relation with the natural world, via this method? Very tough.
So as a consequence, you become alienated or separated out from the natural world and from our fellow human beings, and the more powerful the scientific paradigm, not only do we become separated but a kind of construct is developed of what nature actually is—that construct is instantiated into the world as if it were "reality"—
ST: when you say “instantiated”, you mean something like “inserted”?
AZ: yes. Then you act toward that construct of reality with the moral behavior or compassionate relationship? Impossible. Because it's an artifact. So all your moral decisions or your ethical quandaries are in relationship to a fabrication, as opposed to a direct engagement. So this way of diminishing our direct experience and creating these ideological frameworks, just a single one usually, is also a program for an ethical disaster. You have no direct, compassionate way of connecting to things like the environmental crises we now have, problems in cities and urban areas, human crises and health issues—everything is kept at arms length, and we end up dealing with artifacts and constructs, as opposed to reality.
ST: yes. Speaking as a teacher of contemplative traditions, I would say this point needs to be made very extensively, and along several different lines with respect to different kinds of perceptions and sensibilities that are now atrophied or unknown … or precluded by our current ways of thinking.
AZ: so not just in talking about things like wavelengths of light, but in actually seeing colors—it goes all the way down to the most basic issues in science. Even in such matters, there are ethical consequences. Depriving somebody of the experience of real color mixing, or real work with the plant world, it's not just a matter of thinking “it's too bad we don't have time to do that little experiment,” but it actually has moral consequences downstream.
ST: of course I'm in total agreement with you here. But just for fun, let me play devil's advocate for a moment. Both with respect to this latter issue you just raised, and our previous points as well, let's say that I or some of our readers take the position that the whole point of something like physics is to deal with the fact that reality—Nature—if you want to call it that, goes far beyond the human sphere. So according to this view, human notions and sensibilities become increasingly irrelevant to the reality that can be inferred through experiment and a lot of mathematical fiddling, etc. Thus it seems it’s not our job to emphasize a sort of middle-level (human) orientation when in fact reality is a lot more depth to it than that and can’t be held accountable for going beyond human perspectives (perception, intuition, faculties that can be developed by relating more fully to Nature in the way that you have described). So someone might argue that maybe it's lamentable but just as a matter of fact, reality has this extra scope to it and our job is scientists is to follow it, and in the process drop tools—including cognitive tools—that are simply inadequate to the task or are irrelevant. Of course this bears on the ethical issues we raised as well, since that's another middle-tier thing. How would you respond to that?
AZ: right. Well I think that that is a tough and important question, and here is how I think about it. There is a middle sphere of what we might call "scale", a mesoscopic level, where objects are more or less on our size- and time-scale. And we can extend that a little bit through the use of instrumentation like microscopes and telescopes and a variety of techniques, but basically there is a way in which we can "live into" this domain of phenomena... the color world, the world of movement and mechanics and animals, and even microbes under the microscope, where ... like Barbara McClintock investigated genes and chromosomes for her corn and maize studies. So that's one domain.
But then there comes a time where we reach a threshold, you cross over, as you say, beyond anything we have a direct cognitive access to in any form at all. So there you are relying on inference. So it's not that you don't have experimental results, you do. But they're just streams of numbers coming out of computers or whatever, and there is no way you can extend your cognitive faculties, in any meaningful sense, down to that level -- the level of quarks, gluons, all the stuff of elementary particle physics. And much of the stuff of molecular biology etc. is beyond that threshold. Also, just at those thresholds, we find extraordinary power... one thinks of the atomic bomb in nuclear physics. One has crossed over the threshold, past the atom and into the nucleus, which is completely remote. So one is working very expertly and due to great technical sophistication, at a level where one cannot really cognitively connect in a way that somebody like Goethe would have us connect.
The same thing could happen with molecular biology and genetics—yielding all the moral dilemmas that arise because of this very powerful new technology... they arise because we crossed over this threshold. And you could say that what we are being asked to do now is... frankly it's a matter of developing new capacities of moral judgment and moral intuition which can operate in a space that is, at first, separated off from the natural world around us, the world that we have been genetically equipped to deal with (the world of the senses and the cognitions that connect to it). So this poses a very powerful, and I think decisive, kind of moral dilemma for us. Is the human being, in the absence of a kind of natural participation and compassion, still equipped to deal with the forces of nature and the technological developments that arise on the other side of that threshold?
ST: well, we are certainly equipped to deal with the way they impact us. That doesn't involve any new thinking, or addition to the points you and I have already raised.
AZ: that's true. So certainly when something like a bomb goes off, it affects us on our level. It's not just something that happens down there on a molecular level. But in some sense you could say the thought structures of the quality of engagement that we have with that subatomic or molecular world, seems to me to be fundamentally different than the one we have at this mesoscopic level. And whether that means that you need another development of moral sensibilities or not, I think this is a gray area. I think at the level where the consequences play out, you can make your judgments based on the compassionate engagement and participation one has in the world ... whether it's health and biotech, or politics and war, etc. But I admit I don't have a deeply considered response to you on that point. I think that's a good question.
ST: well, I think that's very fair (laughs). It's not clear that anyone ever will.
AZ: I think it's a great question. The piece that seems clear to me is something that Bas van Fraassen and you and I once talked about: ... in some ways, I think Bas is “anti-atomism”, a consequence of his “anti-realist” position. When you lose contact with the sensual dimensions of existence, you are in a new domain. It's then purely conceptual, there is no felt reality. And as a consequence, what you might call the aesthetic and moral dimensions of that molecular or subatomic world, are unclear. It's a new kind of territory. And I think the anti-realist in Bob wants to say “well, it's no longer ‘real’. What's ‘real’ is what you can make contact with. So yes, you can extend it a bit through using instrumentation like a microscope, but at a certain point you lose that connection. And then it is no longer 'real' in any proper sense of the word.”
Now, what I think he means by the word “real” is that you can't make a moral or true aesthetic relationship to it, you can only have an abstract relationship with it. So it doesn't have the full-bodied significance of the real world around us. I think that's an important distinction. But then let's say that your technology has developed out of that subterranean world, out of that “unreal” world... and it shows back up on the planet—as biotechnology, etc.. Okay. Even though we had dipped down below our competences, cognitively, in a certain way, to a kind of “irreality” or “unreality” in Bas's view, we ended up coming back with something fierce and large. Are we now competent to deal with the ethical implications of our, in substance, partially blind exploration? And that is unclear to me. We seem to be barely managing.
It feels to me like the technologies that are born through that excursion are ones we are only barely competent to manage in any way, shape or form. We've somehow managed to survive in the face of all that, but we are now on the verge of massive changes with regards to biotech and genetic manipulations. I don't know whether we will be equally fortunate there. So it seems to me that there is a new level, through those excursions, where a new level of challenge has been raised... are the moral capacities that we have, adequate to manage those? What does it take to really imagine a great, large-scale disaster? Are we really capable of that? Or is it just fantasy for us, just statistics? The same thing with germ-line therapy etc. It's a kind of failure of imagination that's at issue here. Whereas if you are dealing at the mesoscopic scale, you can encompass it, more or less. But since we are in this large, global, interconnected system, we lost the ability of direct participation going into a small hidden scales and then there's a kind of failure of ethical imagination when we come to these extremely large, powerful technologies that result.
ST: well, in regards to my original question, there are several different things going on here, of course. For instance, one is our lack of direct connection to the phenomena themselves at very small scales. Another is our lack of familiarity with the capabilities and power that are derived from tapping into that scale.
AZ: yeah, I wonder if those are connected somehow.
ST: your intuition here seems to hinge on the notion that they are connected.
AZ: yeah, I admit that it's only a kind of intuition... but we tend to plunge blindly into a domain where if we had a true relationship to that domain, we'd realize the awesomeness present there, and perhaps would back off a bit. But because we are just going along blithely with our intellect alone, we just churn it all up. Then we come out and are astonished at what we have on our hands. And then we race to keep up, ethically, with the implications of our new technical and intellectual developments.
ST: I think to discuss this thoroughly, would involve bringing in more of what we have discussed concerning what’s vaguely referred to as “spirituality” and contemplative disciplines in general. Those have a lot more scope than just dealing with the ordinary perceived physical world, and ordinary scale. I don't mean to claim, of course, that one can use contemplation to see what an electron microscope sees, only that it helps us in maturing our relationship to some subtle domains, dynamics, and issues, which might then help prepare us for the consequences of our explorations in physical science. This isn't the subject of our present chat, but probably should be included in a longer treatment of the issues you raise.
AZ: yes, I agree with you. If we were going to really tackle this in-depth, we would need to tackle those themes more fully as well.
ST: just doubling back for a second, before we close... one aspect of my earlier question that was raising for you, was what does it say about your sense of what science education needs to be? Because, if for instance the job of 21st-century physics education is to prepare students to deal with increasingly more subtle or opaque levels of reality that are quite beyond the middle-tier that we hobbit-like humans inhabit, does it really make sense to continue emphasizing this hands-on approach you've described? Might that actually blunt peoples’ more abstract capacities, which are particularly valued, and properly valued (!), now in cutting-edge theoretical physics? I don't mean to say that I believe this “blunting” thesis, I just feel obliged to ask: is this really the right way to go, or is it already outdated or quant notion in some sense?
AZ: (laughs) yeah. I still think in order to handle the things we were just discussing, like the ethical implications of modern technology, we need all the practice we can get at this middle-tier level.
ST: but for the sake of argument, let's say what were not concerned anymore about the ethics issue, just about learning and advancing the cutting-edge science... might the capacities that are optimal for developing our ethical sensibilities be suboptimal or even stunt the development of the abstract rational faculties that are needed to do new physics?
AZ: yes, well I'd say there are two sides to that. One side is that there are ways in which you could try to make shortcuts. You narrow down what you think of as physics, and you optimize your instruction so that you get narrow achievement. I think what that leads to is a very high level of technical competency, and sometimes you see that in the educational systems of some other countries... where students are extremely well-educated, but in a very narrow way. They come into your lab and or your project group, and you realize they have had, for instance, a remarkably fine mathematical and physics-based training; but they see “neither right nor left”. And as a consequence you very often feel that they're going to do a very competent but pretty pedestrian job of actually pushing the frontiers forward. By contrast, it feels to me that an education that’s broad in the way that we've been discussing, really might cultivate capacities, as we've been saying, for new insights, for true discovery.
ST: yes, I think so too. It's just a question of accounting for how that can happen, and why the “stunting” worry isn’t so serious.
AZ: I see this as a creativity issue... you can't shortcut it. It's going to be experiential, and direct, and you've got to know it when it shows up. You have to reach into domains of “not knowing”, rather than just knowing everything that's in the textbook.
ST: so you're saying you have to be acclimated to “not knowing” in order to set the stage for accessing—
AZ: yes, for areas that cannot be known in the old ways, you have to be able to sustain ambiguity for long periods of time... the things that you hear about, regarding the most creative folks, is that they were or are working on unsolved problem, sometimes for years at a time, they're not just working on equations which have well-known solutions. They're working on things for which equations don't even exist yet. So how do you navigate that, when there's no textbook or standard approach available? That requires a different mentality... how do you train for that kind of mentality? I think you school it through this more experiential, "multiple framings" approach we were talking about. So you can loosen up the grip of standard ideological frameworks... things that look more messy, but it creates the openness in the system that allows true insight or genius to emerge.
ST: I think it's very important to consider this approach. Otherwise, it's very likely that people will say that the type of education you and I would prefer is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the future of science, which trends toward the more abstract. I think that they forget that what we are talking about is the education of people! And that science is done by people. If the question is, "is this the wrong way to go?", then my answer is "compared to what?!" If the alternative is the narrow, very abstract and "bound to today's knowledge"-type of education, you are condemning the human beings, the students, to being undeveloped... so then the argument becomes restated as "are undeveloped people more likely to do 21st-century science than are developed people?" I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say the answer is “no!” So it depends on how people look at what education is about, and also at what science itself is. It all still comes back to us, in a certain way.
ST: it's an interesting fact you were bringing up, that this type of robust, engaged education, not only makes us better-equipped to deal with the world we can study in a more general level of natural science, but it also equips us better to free ourselves, where necessary, of the middle-tier thinking... as paradoxical as that sounds. If we have any way of freeing ourselves from what in some cases at least might be true limitations there, it may still be this experiential approach.