Way to miss the point of science and philosophy

I sometimes wonder if people who are unfamiliar with science are afraid to learn about it. It seems ridiculous, on the surface--"I don’t know much about science, so I’m not capable of learning about it"--but I suspect it is a common attitude. (It’s even worse when it comes to philosophy, but I’ll get to that later.) Why are people afraid to learn science? I used to feel that way, and I love the subject. I spent 10 years thinking I shouldn’t go to college because I wasn’t prepared.

That misconception started with my math education. I gave up on math back in high school, in the middle of algebra. A few lousy teachers managed to convince me that I was ’bad’ at it. Looking back, I think I asked more questions than they were used to. The pure numbers and rote memorization didn’t satisfy me; I wanted other ways of looking at the formula. Instead of having a genuine curiosity about it, I came across as having struggles. I was frustrated, no doubt, but not for the reasons they assumed. By the time I graduated, that feeling had spread to the rest of my education. I felt out of place.

I won’t claim to have stopped learning. I’ve always read plenty. So, even though I wasn’t assigned anything, I sought learning materials. I started borrowing my dad’s science books, and eventually started buying my own. When I started to see a focus in my studies, and formulating my own ideas, I knew reading alone wouldn’t be enough. I would have to return to school and get my degree. But oh, I was scared. Maybe I was expecting more of the misunderstood atmosphere I’d faced in high school, maybe I thought I’d been away too long, maybe I thought I was still bad at math. Whatever it was, I barely managed to sign up for community college. When I went in to take the placement tests, I was so nervous that I was visibly shaking. I apologized to the clerk so many times that she had to sternly tell me to calm down.

Now that I’m halfway through my undergrad (a decade late, but holding a 4.0) I can’t figure why I let myself be so scared. Going through the community college, I had a chance to talk one-on-one with professors, and take small steps easing myself in. But I probably would have loved it all the same if I had dived in head first to the university of my dreams.

That’s what I’m doing now. That apprehension is gone, along with my misconceptions about my abilities in math and science. But to get to that point, I had to get over a serious fear of encountering people with a higher education than myself. I honestly thought that I couldn’t talk to an expert if I didn’t know their expertise. I created a huge divide of imagined ignorance between myself and the knowledge I wanted to obtain.

Now, I have a completely different perspective. I will never know as much as the experts I want to speak with, because it’s their specialty, not mine. I don’t need to know everything, either. No one does, no one will. But the beauty of the whole thing is that we can share what we learn. With a collective body of adapting knowledge, we’ll get closer to knowing everything.

It won’t work if we assume we cannot learn.

It’s been an ironic shock for me. I’m not bad at math, and I understand my fractals more than I’ve given myself credit for in the past. I’m a little behind, perhaps, but that’s my own fault, and not a big deal. I’m not afraid of algebra or calculus anymore. Bring it on.

I’m starting to get quite excited about starting at CU Boulder in the fall. (I’d nervously postponed my admittance for several seasons.) The environmental studies program is fascinating, and highly interdisciplinary. I’ll get to focus on a lot of geology, which I adore, while filling in the basic holes in my knowledge of physics and chemistry (holes left over from my oh-shit-I-can’t-do-math days). But that’s only the half of it. As you might know, I’m attempting a double major with philosophy. It looks like I chose a fantastic place to do that. There are other folks there bridging science and philosophy, even in the narrow niches of philosophy that fascinate me, such as metaphysics, especially in the areas of causation and the inconsistency of change. Woot!

I’ll probably write more about my CU plans as they develop. I have a day-long orientation meeting coming up in about two weeks, where I’ll learn more. For now, let me get back to how ill-prepared I thought I was, not for math and science, but for my other love, philosophy.

Some people give me funny looks when I mention metaphysics. Maybe there is just a high percentage of new-age hippies around here, but it’s enough to keep me from mentioning it. I can’t blame them, either. I outlined an entire metaphysical theory, without knowing that it was something called "metaphysics". To be honest, I didn’t know what to call it. All I’d ever been taught about philosophy in school was that some notable guys in ancient Greece did it, and it had to do with asking questions. I didn’t know what it was.

In high school, I took a class called "Logic and Semantics". The talk of logic intrigued me, and being a wordy person, the semantics part sounded cool too. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the class that seniors (mostly of the jock variety) took to fulfill their missing English elective. I’d taken extra English electives, so I was a bit out of place. The teacher was sort of nuts--she got mad at an announcement one day, and threw her shoe at the intercom--and thought "Logic and Semantics" meant vocabulary lessons. She did show us the movie, "Being There", which turned out to be an interesting movie, philosophically. Unfortunately, she never pointed any of those aspects; I saw the connections after taking a real philosophy class in college.

Philosophy used to be an important subject. What happened? Why don’t we teach it in elementary or secondary schools? How can a person get through the system being a natural in the subject, and never learn what it is? I know it’s important to teach math and reading skills, and the literacy rates in this country are abhorrant. (Any rate of illiteracy is horrible in my opinion, but what can I say? I write.) But math and reading will be irrelevant if students aren’t also provided with the right context to use them in, such as science or philosophy. Yes, at least we teach science in schools... but if it isn’t on the standardized tests, it isn’t given priority. Since those tests encourage that false "better-know-everything-as-fact-right-now-or-you-don’t-belong attitude" they aren’t doing science much justice.

It’s a shame kids can’t start in universities.

Look! A long post with no images. No credits are necessary. What’s wrong with me?


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Standardized tests are a nightmare.

I have to admit to being woefully undereducated in Philosophy. I took two psychology classes in college (one more than required), I did a minor in literature, I took two goverment classes, etc. The only philosophy course was "Philosophy in Literature," and I'm really not sure how much I got out of it. I don't remember much about it except that I thought my first paper was good, got a B- or C+, thought my second paper was dashed off, got an A-, and then realized that I simply couldn't predict what the prof was going to like. The first paper was about free will in the context of one of the ancient Greek plays; that's literally all I remember about it.

So I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to philosophy. That means that, like Horatio, there really are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy!

I've taken a fair bit of Physics, though.


Thanks, coturnix! *blush*

Rob, I tell the philosophy students I'm tutoring that they already know how to do philosophy. A big part is using common sense, and another is arguing with it. The trouble most students have is realizing that's ok to do, out loud. I would have ended up there, no matter what... my favorite activity as a child was doing all the logic problems in the crossword puzzle books. I do wish I'd taken more physics before; it's not easy in bits and pieces. And, as you might guess from my blog title, I have a bit of a fascination with thermodynamics. ;)

This is a great story, and I can definitely relate, because I was one of those students who got chased out of math and science in high school, and found my way back later in life. I didn't go as far as YOU have, i.e., returning to school. But I did manage to merge my natural curiosity about science with my love of writing...

It wasn't so bad going back to school later. It is already going fast, and I am grateful to have spent a few years at home with my son before spending all my time focusing on school. Plus, there's always another student around who is older than I am. :)

I'm a math undergrad in my early 30s. I also went to community college long after highschool. I was surprised when I tested into pre-calc, not having sat in a math class in over a decade. I loved it so much, I made math my major, and plan to go on to grad school. It's never too late. :)

A.J. Nock had an interesting thought about literacy: teaching someone to read and write without giving them analytical skills is rather like sending someone into battle unarmed. I'm still not sure if I agree with this, but it's worth some thought.

Good luck at UC Boulder. There's no need for trepidation. You're interested in the subject matter, and you understand why you're there. Go get yourself a research position when you get there if you think you can manage the time. As a classmate of mine once said, "What you learn in the lab, you remember."

I dropped out of college twice before finishing at a third at the age of 30 with a dual degree in science and philosophy, then went on to grad school in science at one of those "big" research U's. I had many of the same feelings/questions you describe. "Am I good enough?" "Am I prepared?"

Of course I got there and found out that, while there were some absolutely stellar students who had better preparation, I fit in just fine, even at my relatively advanced age. ;-) Learning my way around the business world later on was far more challenging.

I could not agree more with you. I have dedicated all my free time to trying to get kids interested in science. Thankfully you are an example of someone you got past a bad teacher. Many don't. Keep going. Very inspiring!

I could not agree more with you. I have dedicated all my free time to trying to get kids interested in science. Thankfully you are an example of someone you got past a bad teacher. Many don't. Keep going. Very inspiring!

I agree, philosophy should be taught in elementary and secondary schools. Kids are naturals at it and the benefits of understanding and taking an interest in philosophy are benefits that the whole human race can enjoy. I was in a similar position, I've always been a 'natural' but thought it was something for much smarter people to study. Eventually my fascination became too much and I started reading and haven't looked back since. I now plan on incorporating it heavily into my current studies.

I think the same can be said of politics (which is essentially philosophy anyway). People shy away from becoming involved and interested in it because they feel it's something for 'smart' people. This is really damaging the idea of a democracy, which relies on informed and active members. A long time ago I learnt to realise that everything looks much harder than it actually is when you look at it from an outside perspective. You only really start seeing how approachable and achievable it is once you jump in and start doing it.

Thanks, everyone, for coming to comment on this one. I almost didn't publish it, thinking it might be too whiny or preachy. It's very reassuring to know I'm not alone--both in having taken the tough route and in not wanting future students to get a bad deal.