George Pyle: Every class is, or should be, a history class

A separate opinion, concurring as to the result:

Last week, the Utah State School Board made the right decision in adopting a new set of science standards for elementary and high schools in the state. (The middle school standards were updated in 2015.)

This is remarkable only because the board had to first suffer through several public hearings and one final meeting with five hours of additional — though not new — comments. Many of those comments were from good Utahns with precious little understanding of what science is, and therefor little grasp of how it should be taught.

The objections, as they have been since Huxley stood up to Bishop Wilberforce, were mostly from those who are made uncomfortable by such ideas as evolution, climate change and other bits of knowledge that, in their view, unjustly diminish the centrality of God, humans or the earth.

A popular argument against teaching scientific knowledge as it now exists is that it didn’t always exist that way. So it might change again, maybe to be more in keeping with creationism or climate denial. So don’t get locked into anything.

Board member Linda Hansen was among the 11-4 majority that voted to approve the standards. She noted that old views of life, the universe and everything were history, not science. And the business before the board was science, not history.

Well. Kind of.

Hansen’s focus was the proper goal of the board. But, in a truly humane, liberal system of education, every class is, or at least in part should be, history class.

Anything anyone might want to understand — science, government, economics, poetry, language, music, art, even math — just makes more sense if you know the history of it. Not just what is, but what was, and how and why that became this, and might yet become some other thing.

Why do we have the different branches and levels of government that we have? Who thought it was a good idea? And why? How should we read, for example, the First and Second amendments? Even if we come to the conclusion that we don’t want them to mean exactly what they meant 250 years ago, grasping where they came from can only help.

What moods and habits, boldness and cowardice, have our drama, fiction, poetry, art and music moved through to get to where they are today?

Facing up to the fact that what Darwin and Einstein have to teach us is different from what Aristotle and Newton held should only strengthen the case that the newer thinkers are right. Because they, like the good taker of a math test, showed their work.

Even those of us whose eyes glaze over when the long equations come out can better grasp the core meaning of just about everything if it is presented as a human story, with heroes and villains and turning points and breakthroughs.

Before the church shut him down, Galileo explained his new version of the solar system by writing a detailed dialog — basically a three-character play — in which one curious, open-minded character questioned both an advocate of Galileo’s new heliocentric model and a defender of the then-standard Earth-at-the-center-of-everything.

Spoiler alert: Galileo named the character defending the ancient status quo “Simplicio.” As in simple. As in simpleton. Nobody said he was unbiased in explaining his own breakthrough.

More recently, some of the best science education has come in the form of popular books and TV series from Carl Sagan (“Cosmos”), Neil deGrasse Tyson (“Cosmos” again), James Burke (“Connections” and “The Day the Universe Changed”) and Jacob Bronowski (“The Ascent of Man”). Each views science through the lens of human history, our drive to question and thirst to understand. And our capacity for misunderstanding and evil.

Video: Jacob Bronowski from the episode “Knowledge or Certainty” of the BBC series, “The Ascent of Man.”

You can’t know where you are unless you know where you’ve been.

Photo by Jeff Miller | James Burke autographing my copy of "Connections," at Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas, in 1988.


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