Why science must be reductive AND holistic


Scott D. Sampson, in his book How to Raise a Wild Child, suggests that science education has taken a wrong turn:

One of the most prevalent ideas in science is that nature consists of objects.... We objectify nature to measure it, test it, and study it, with the ultimate goal of revealing its secrets.

In order to heal the Nature Deficit Disorder that plagues children, Sampson suggests we need to give kids EMU: experience, mentoring, and understanding. But, he argues, traditional science education (and traditional science) has hyperfocused on one aspect of understanding and ignored the rest.

As Wordsworth put it: "We murder to dissect." In breaking apart the things around us to see what makes them tick, we end up losing the dynamic wholes that fascinated us in the first place.

Sampson points out that this desire to "break down" complexities lies at the heart of the modern scientific disciplines:

Science subdivides nature into chunks or "-ologies": geology is the study of rocks, entomology the study of insects, and so forth. Within each discipline, scientists further dissect their object of study into an ever-smaller array of parts. Zoologists, for example, think of animals in terms of species, organisms, cells, genes, and the like.

There's a certain breed of thinker that thinks this reductive science is bad, bad, bad — that a healthy science must repent of this "reductionism" and do the opposite!

I don't think Sampson is among this group. That he is card-carrying member of a "traditional" scientific discipline (paleontology) seems to imply that he sees the value of breaking down complex phenomena to understand how they work. (Dr. Sampson, if you're reading, feel free to set the record straight!)

Rather, I think, Sampson is arguing that this reductive approach must be combined with an emergentist approach, that looks for connections and wholes.

We need both sorts of science.

How can we bring this emergentist approach — this holistic approach — into schools?

Sampson gives four suggestions: subjectification, place-based learning, food science, and green schools.

I'll be explaining his vision for the last three in future posts. For the moment, I'd like to gush about how Sampson suggests we bring "subjectication" into the school. 

Sampson invites us to imagine walking through a forest. What do we see? An evergreen tree, perhaps. A squirrel. A crow. A butterfly. A beetle. A stream. And so on.

But this answer focuses on parts, and misses the complex relationships between them:

If we could put on Mother Nature's goggles, the revealed world would be a kaleidoscope of flowing relationships. A fir tree soaking up solar energy while siphoning water from the soil below. A beetle chewing on an oak leaf, gorging itself on green sunlight. A butterfly dancing atop a flower, finding food while helping the flower make more flowers. A spider wrapping up some winged creature for a later meal. A rotting log giving sustenance to a bevy of decomposing critters.

Nature is chockablock with subjects, with agents trying to flourish. To do this, they've negotiated complex relationships with the agents around them.

Science class can be, in part, an exploration of these agents, and of these relationships.

Ultimately, science education, in concert with other areas of learning, could go a long way toward achieving the "Great Work" described by cultural historian Thomas Berry — transforming the perceived world from a "collection of objects" to a "communion of subjects."

I've written elsewhere about how our new kind of school might do this — might help re-enchant the world. We can do that, I argued, by drawing from an indigenous American cosmology (a view that world is full of subjects, rather than objects) and engaging this through the teaching philosophy of Imaginative Education (which holds that everything is interesting, and that even complexity can be explored through stories, emotions, mysteries, and metaphors).

I'm happy to say that this seems deeply consonant with what Dr. Sampson recommends!

He gives us a simple suggestion, however, as to how to start: get kids outside, and

ask children to find as many examples of nature's interrelationships as they can.

The long journey toward rebooting school can start with such simple steps.