Thoughts by Richard Bleil
A few days ago, one of my students paid me a couple of compliments that very well be the nicest compliment possible for me personally. First, as she was packing up to leave lab, she said that she felt like she learned more in the semester she had with me so far than she did in all three years of college prior to my course.
Wow. What an amazing thing to hear for a professor. The course to which she is referring is Thermodynamics, a course that explores the laws underlying everything that is, and happens, not just in chemistry but in the world around us. Now, a lot of courses can make this claim. Physicists will argue that the laws of physics (which does include thermodynamics) are the underpinnings of all science, and they are correct. Mathematicians will argue that everything that happens in the universe is mathematical in nature, which is also true. Philosophers will argue that they explore the realities of the universe, which, well, it’s more abstract so it’s hard to argue but I can see that as well. Still, thermodynamics underlay all of these and so much more.
To tell a professor that you’ve learned, at all, is a fabulous compliment and one that we actually don’t hear as often as you might think. If she stopped right there it would have made my week, but then she went a step further. After her comment, she followed up, almost immediately, by saying that having had my course, I have her questioning everything now.
I mean, seriously, wow. There’s a misconception (in my humble opinion) that education is about pouring facts into the heads of students, such as facts, figures, and truths, but the reality is that there are no truths. Facts are exceptionally rare as well. Philosophers would argue that reality is not even assured. After all, the only reality to us is that which we perceive in our minds, and as such, there can be no proof that anything is even real at all, so, what is the point of education?
I believe education is best when the focus is to teach critical thinking. This is the beauty of Thermodynamics. In this (senior level) course, I get to bring to light all of the weaknesses and gaps that are so lovingly glossed over in the previous three years of chemistry. How do we know, for example, that energy is conserved? Because we’ve never been able to prove it otherwise. Yup, it’s just that weak; we’ve never found an exception, so we assume it’s truth. But in science courses it’s often taught as an absolute, unquestionable truth. Oh, it’s a little bit more than that since treating it as a truth allows us to predict and understand everything else around us, and every time we make a prediction based on this law that turns out to be true, more evidence is added that we’re correct in this assumption. That doesn’t mean that, in the very first lecture, I didn’t enjoy, with every fiber of my being, taking a sledgehammer to this “truth” in the minds of my students.
In this highly charged political season, one of the issues that has come up is that of “indoctrination” in education. The foundation of this complaint lies in what appears to be an imbalance in graduates who often tend towards liberal rather than conservative values. I certainly fall into this category; my family is Republican, but I have long since diverged from that path and tend towards liberal, but the question is if this is truly “indoctrination”. I teach my students to think independently, ask questions, and have the courage to stand for their own convictions. Perhaps it’s not a question of indoctrination at all, but rather that those students who question what they are told, and who think for themselves, simply realize that they tend to align with Democrats over Republicans after all. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s the goal of education (in my opinion) to have students learn, question, and make their own conclusions.
Okay, political soap boxing is over. Politics aside, I still take these two statements, each an amazing compliment on their own as an amazing pair of compliments. Sometimes, it becomes difficult to keep the faith, as it were. You teach and explain and do your level best, but always wonder if anything is getting through to anybody. To have students able to repeat back to you some factoid is a good start (like the differences between the four levels of protein structure), but to have somebody tell you that because of you they’re questioning everything is just a whole new level. If this sounds like a prideful boast, I’ll accept that, but I’m just happy that I made a difference in this student’s life.