That’s So Second Millennium

Episode 031 - Br. Guy Consolmagno: Teaching Science and Human Nature

October 29, 2018

Paul moves from popular books to Br. Guy's 1990s planetary science textbook, Worlds Apart which Paul switched to in 2015, despite its age, precisely because of Br. Guy's explicit acknowledgment that "students want to learn about THE PLANETS." The chapters of the book therefore start with a saga of some planet, and then focus in on some process that is well exemplified on that planet. Other textbooks try to focus on processes and lose ME, let alone my students, most of whom were headed toward high school teaching.

Br. Guy goes on from the subject of his books to talk a little about John Scalzi's take on the common advice to authors to "kill your darlings"..."the failure mode of clever is idiot." (I am not unfamiliar with John Scalzi, who is certainly a master of the craft: see my review of Old Man's War on Goodreads.)

Bill references the science & religion initiative at the McGrath Institute at Notre Dame, to which Br. Guy has contributed. The Institute tries to form high school teachers with a sense of the complementary, rather than adversary, nature of science and faith. Br. Guy goes on to talk about how hard a high school teacher's job is, and the need for enthusiasm in presentation. If you are listening to two enthusiastic people talk shop about almost any topic, however little you yourself know about it, you get drawn in. That's the goal, except most high school teachers have to do it by themselves.

A teacher that can maintain enthusiasm and also model comfort with not knowing the answer and intellectual humility..."I don't know; let's go find the answer" a great gift to insecure, "self-conscious but not self-aware" teenagers.

Paul probes Br. Guy about the modern attitude of trying to discard as much of the past as possible. Br. Guy comments how living in Italy gives you perspective on how the attitude has shifted from the medieval attitude (discussed in great depth by CS Lewis in The Discarded Image) of reverence for the past, whose achievements we could never match, to the modern one. Rome gives you the perspective that while science and engineering may have advanced, art and architecture have not. Humanity can only progress so far...we can't get away from original sin. We do things we know are wrong, destructive, etc. That's why Twelve Step programs exist. A great 20th century tragedy, as has been noted many times, is the failure of great schemes (like communism) for revising society in some theoretically perfect new form.

A chance reference to Shakespeare, and then to Star Trek VI (of course), leads us off into a discussion of language and the way it shapes our lives, from the fun people have had since Tolkien inventing whole new languages, to the difference in what Sarah cooks for Abraham's visitors in English (yuck) versus Italian. Br. Guy makes the provocative statement that one has to learn more new words in freshman biology than in freshman French. When you learn philosophy, you learn new words, and with those words (if you're really learning them) you learn new ways of thinking.

As a final note, that's why you need others to truly learn and work in a subject...or in a faith. The Ethiopian that Phillip baptized in the Acts of the Apostles had a hard row to hoe.


Books mentioned in the interview:

Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford

The Rock by T.S. Eliot

Image courtesy Robert Macke (wikimedia Commons)

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