Education 12/2/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Watching a movie today, it opened up with a quote they attributed to Cliff Norgaard­.  On his social media page, it says that he passed away very recently.  From what I can gather, he held his Ph.D. (I do not know the discipline) and was a powerful sensei of Ju-jitsu.  According to the movie, Cliff­ wrote ­­­”I started questioning the collective beliefs of society and found that my reality was limited by my education…and my education was limited by the beliefs of my educators”.  This is an abbreviated version of the movie quote.  Nonetheless, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking quote which makes me think of the purpose of education.

It seems to me that there are a few purposes to education.  One is indoctrination, something that our friend Dr. Norgaard seems to be struggling with is my guess.  I’ve been a victim of indoctrination in our educational system, but not the kind that the far right conservatives fear.  My indoctrination included history and sociology classes that barely mentioned slavery at all, and when it did there were lovely drawings of “slave” houses on plantations well-stocked with food and happy moms with babies as dad was out joyously working the fields.  My indoctrination proudly professed the glories of our wars, and the great things our sacrifices made in the Revolutionary and the two wars to end all wars, while nary mentioning Korea or Vietnam except the dates that they occurred, and no mention of the war against the Native Americans at all.  I was raised in the system that has taught our nation that anything bad in our history is “revisionist history” when it’s discussed in full and accurate detail.  How can we have possibly done anything wrong?  We’re the good guys, right?

Another side of education seems to be factual.  There are professors who believe teaching includes such frivolous activities as memorizing the periodic chart so students can regurgitate back facts that will be quickly forgotten and nary necessary, if at all.  This is a very popular thing among school administrators, who can then create multiple-guess exams and do the students understand the blue light is higher energy than red?  Check, good, moving on. 

Then there is true education, the only education that I believe truly deserves to be called education.  Going back to Socrates, the purpose of higher education is to open up the minds of students and get them to question.  The last time I taught (at least the last time I felt as if I were truly teaching), I spent the entire course knocking down the pillars of science to get my students to question what they really think that they know.  It was not meant to shake their belief in science, but rather to get them to open their eyes and finally, truly, begin to question the world around them, including the “facts” that have been crammed down their throats by the teachers before me.  One of my students left the class saying that she felt like she knew less after the class than she did before taking it, which I take to be the highest compliment I could have received.  No doubt this student blasted me in the faculty evaluation, which I take as a great success.

As I’ve stated before, I do not know what Dr. Norgaard’s degree is in, but I wonder how he would have fared in my class, or how he would have received it.  When I was in high school chemistry, circa 1980, I was taught what a “hydrogen bond” is, and immediately it raised questions in my mind.  I questioned what I had just been taught, launching an investigation into the fundamental and seemingly simple phenomenon that has lasted nearly a half century.  A couple of weeks ago, I had an epiphany, and I believe that I have stumbled upon the answer, and yet the investigation continues. 

The truly educated should have open eyes.  Even with this new and deeply profound insight into the hydrogen bond, now I question my own insight and continue to hammer away at it to see if I could be wrong.  I look at what politicians say and question their motives, as actions speak louder than words.  I look at bigotry inherent in our nation and question why it should be as such.  I’ve challenged bigotry in my own family, questioning the very biases that I was taught as fact and fighting back against it.  This is what education should be about.  I don’t question the truths in chemistry.  I question everything, including the chemistry truths.

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