The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
11.2 (Spring 2011)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
Botany and Astronomy: The Perfect Home-Grown Science Curriculum
One of the most cited reasons for why home-education “can’t work” is science. The teaching of biology, chemistry, and physics in a state-of-the-art manner is not something that ordinary moms and dads–even those who majored in a science–can handle from the house. There are microscopes to be bought, and Bunsen burners, and hazardous chemicals, and computers, and animal cadavers, and unusual glassware. Then there are the safe and sterile conditions which can only be procured by constructing an environment dedicated to daily experimentation. The kitchen sink just won’t do. Some home-educators send their children to the local public school for science alone, aware of the virtual impossibility of tackling all the problems involved on their own. Others quite frankly do not want their children any closer to science than is absolutely necessary, most often for religious reasons, so the difficulties outlined above are nothing to them.
Of course, this latter position is wholly unsatisfactory. Not only does it deprive young people of the foundation they need to carve out a career in one of several burgeoning fields; it also capitulates the metaphysical battle to the barbarians without any show of resistance whatever. If the religious life must be lived with blinders tightly fixed, denying any sort of scientific knowledge admittance, then the believer becomes very hard to distinguish from a child who plugs her ears with her fingers because she doesn’t want to be tormented by an invincible argument. There is no need for this kind of polarization. Physicists, in fact, number a great many believers in some supersensible reality among their brotherhood. It is academic biologists who are rigidly and notoriously atheistic–it is they who plug their ears, stomp their feet, and shout whenever anyone attempts to question an inflexible Darwinist orthodoxy (see John G. West, “Darwin, Scientism, and Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism,” in The Intercollegiate Review [Fall 2010]: 34-43). Scientific thinking in general, therefore, should be conceived of as hostile to faith only by those whose faith equates material evidence with truth: for science is indeed required to explain material effects with material causes.
But our own discussion is digressing–for the issue here is whether or not home-schoolers who wish to may adequately teach science with their own humble resources. The answer clearly must be “yes”, if only because our royally funded public schools are doing such a miserable job of teaching science, by any measure. All the expensive tubes and burners and cadavers and computers don’t seem to be helping much. The reason for this failure, obviously, is that just being in the presence of scientific-looking equipment doesn’t make one a scientist any more than hanging around airplanes makes one a pilot. Publicly schooled children for the most part do not read enough, do not understand what they read well enough, and do not have teachers who explain new matter plainly enough. These are all deficiencies that a home-school situation is perfectly designed to rectify. Colleges don’t need entering freshmen who recall with varying degrees of delight and horror the day their lab partner cut out a squid’s eye and smuggled it into the lunch room, or the day another lab partner made cyanide gas to send a fly to its maker. Colleges need young people who understand the principles of science. Ample reading and ample explanation are vastly more important in the early stages than exposure to guts and gadgetry.
In our last issue, we began an ongoing discussion of what the ideal private school (ideal within realistic parameters) might offer and possess. Good science teachers would sit near the top of the list. But the kind of science taught should itself be carefully weighed: we should not assume that the public school default-curriculum has the best blend. To be honest, none of us on this staff knows if the biology-chemistry-physics sequence is de rigueur in all states for the granting of a high school diploma… but our uninformed consensus holds that some curricular latitude must surely exist. There is probably no insurmountable reason, for example, why botany and astronomy could not be the focus of instruction. Here is our case for both.
For the study of plants, arguments span a generous range from the bluntly practical to the hazily theoretical. A program of this kind would be inexpensive and would lend itself wonderfully to such “lab work” as tending a garden in the back yard. Young people desperately need to understand the vegetal world better. Our food resources may soon be in very short supply, either because of a global economic crisis or because of ecological disasters like the spread of killer bees or of pollen from infertile strains of genetically engineered crops. (An essay in this issue of Praesidium, “Livable Spaces,” describes how uncomfortably close big business and big government can grow: agribusiness based on GE crops is one of the most effective yet least discussed [in public] ways of manipulating the populace.) The inimitable Glenn Beck has lately been urging his listeners to buy freeze-dried food from an Internet source in order to “be prepared”. Would not growing some of the family’s food in the back yard be an even better way to prepare?
It would certainly keep kids occupied with something involved and fascinating. It would teach young minds far more respect for the environment’s intricacy than a nebulous and occasionally mawkish (also shamelessly political, for a few days of the year) unit on “earth science”. It would help to inspire a good work ethic, since tending the garden would require regular labor (what used to be called “chores”). It would bring the children outdoors and give them some exercise. And it would be, as we began by saying, cheap. At most, the family might consider purchasing a microscope to examine seeds, cross-sections of stems, etc.–and a good microscope can be had for a very reasonable price these days.
Frankly, it is a small scandal that our public schools do not have such programs up and running… but only a small scandal. There are too many much greater absurdities and outrages being perpetrated at the taxpayer’s expense for this one to make much of a splash.
And astronomy? We recommend it because a good reflector telescope is also affordable today for just a few thousand dollars–the kind of tool that even a typical college could only dream of possessing just thirty or forty years ago. Also, and primarily (If we can set the budget aside for a moment), the night heavens are absolutely fascinating. The only feature of our world that might rival them in capturing the young imagination would be the undersea world; but skin-diving is somewhat dangerous for any but the experienced adult, and most of our kids don’t live near the crystalline waters of a tropical reef. Astronomy broadens the mind in the way that travel is said to–more than travel by foot, perhaps. The exhilaration of seeing the bright Pleiades or the tiny moons of Jupiter or the surface of our own Moon (actually too bright to be viewed through a strong telescope without a filter) would send ripples through a child’s mind that would carry over into creative writing, for instance: poetry and short stories. Naturally, another ripple would also lead into physics; and physics would carry us into the sometimes dreadful world of mathematics with as little menace as possible, if we were still thinking of planetary orbits as we studied parabolas. Astronomy, as has already been suggested, also tempts the curious mind to speculate about metaphysics, and could thus open some very fertile discussions about how we all got here and where we are all going.
Which is one reason why public schools will probably never teach it. Students must keep expensively dissecting their earthworms and squids. Heart, lungs, nerve ganglion… you see, child? That’s all there is to it. We’re all just a bag of guts. Now do what the state says, because an orderly hive is a happy hive. ~ Staff