Back once again to Sidney Hook’s Education For Modern Man, which may be the focus of several posts here. In many ways, this thought-provoking book stands as the perfect postwar counterpart to Hannah Arendt’s magisterial essay The Crisis In Education (which should be required reading in every tertiary education course).
One of Hook’s contentions is that in “scientific” areas, the study of the great historical figures and especially their works can be usefully superseded by a methodical, more-or-less ahistorical approach, dealing only with the accumulated scientific knowledge of the present day. He argues:
The historical classics in mathematics and science are often written in an outmoded notation. Works of genius as they are, they are also full of false starts, irrelevant bypaths, and blind alleys. The science of our day has already extricated the rich ore and put it in a form which facilitates more rapid comprehension and further progress.
It is hard to disagree with such a conclusion, at least in reference to the physical sciences. And it is interesting to note that Hook saw this as an argument against an overly conservative approach to education, in which the figures of the past were accorded undue reverence. Yet, ironically, vacuous activities which constitute something of a throwback to this approach (“pretend you were Leonardo Da Vinci/Marie Curie working on your theory”, etc.) are now promoted most often by educational progressivists. There is probably an element of the model figure fixation inherent in these activities as well.
To support his point, Hook adduces some comments by…Albert Einstein, with whom he had corresponded. But there’s nothing about the sacredness of the intuitive mind here, or some nonsense about fishes and trees, or even about everybody being a genius. What we have here instead is the plainest of good sense:
In my opinion there should be no compulsory reading of classical authors in the field of science. I believe also that the laboratory studies should be selected from a purely pedagogical and not historical point of view.
Very similar to Hook’s attitude as explained above, as you can see. And yet there is a small kicker: Einstein was too cultured and sophisticated a person to subscribe to a purely instrumentalist approach to the teaching of science and technical subjects. He goes on to state (emphasis mine):
On the other side, I am convinced that lectures concerning the historical development of ideas in different fields are of great value for intelligent students, for such studies are furthering very effectively the independence of judgment and independence from blind belief in temporarily accepted views. I believe that such lectures should be treated as a kind of beautiful luxury…
In other words: such stories add spice, interest and occasionally moral heft to the study of technical subjects. This is a decidedly humanist approach, and one which was described very well by Benjamin Evans in a recent blog:
Teaching is similar – to make one’s subject come alive for children (at any level), one needs a massive ‘backstory’. We need anecdotes, historical context; weird, wonderful and forgotten stories; the people behind the discoveries, the lost manuscripts, the failures before the success and an ability to extend topics and stories in multiple directions.
For teachers, anecdotes are the salt in the soup, the parmesan cheese on the bolognese sauce. Whether it is a historical curiosity concerning a Newton or a Pascal (maths/science), a funny incident from the teacher’s own travels in a foreign country (languages), a relevant pun or tongue-twister (English) or a dozen other things, these small effusions from the teacher’s deep store of subject knowledge and enthusiasm are the things which distinguish dry instrumentalism from real humanism.