Information Age Education
   Issue Number 44
June, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See http://iae-pedia.org/ and the end of this newsletter.

Two Stimulating Books for Summer Reading

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” (Charles W. Eliot; American educator and long time president of Harvard; 1834–1926.)

The authors of this newsletter find that reading is one of our great pleasures in life. Another great pleasure is sharing our insights into and understanding of what we read. This newsletter issue briefly describes two books that you might enjoy, and suggests some educational implications of the ideas expressed in the books.


Introduction

I (Bob) now realize that the French entomologist Henri Fabre (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Henri_Fabre) was a primary influence in directing me into behavioral biology. My adolescent mind was transfixed by Fabre's wonderful observations of the life cycles of dung beetles, hunting wasps, grasshoppers and other insects and spiders. His fascinating colloquial writing style introduced me to the narrative literature of natural science. How wonderful to discover that biology is more than incomprehensible terms, and that the insect narrative can be as fascinating as the human narrative.

Fabre led me to Henry Thoreau, Loren Eisley, Rachel Carson, William Calvin, Diane Ackerman, Lewis Thomas, Oliver Sacks, Carl Sagan, and others who made intriguing biological connections that I couldn't have imagined during my younger years. At one point, I resolved to try my hand at the enterprise, and that's how narrative entered into and enhanced my teaching, presentations, and writing.

My fascination with natural science writing has continued throughout my life, and two excellent current examples of natural science writing sparked this commentary.

Anthill (A Novel)

E. O. Wilson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._O._Wilson) has focused on ants during his long distinguished scientific career, to the point at which he is now considered the world's leading authority on ants. His studies have convinced him that ants aren't really unique, but rather are simply a part of the overarching construct of life. I recall being simply overwhelmed 12 years ago when I read his sweeping Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998, Knopf). Not only are organisms bound by the universality of the concept of genetics, but also by the interrelatedness of knowledge, one of its products.

In Anthill: A Novel (2010, Norton), Wilson reaches out to a general audience in his continuing desire to convince readers that although we are bigger than ants, we're not more biologically important than they are. We may be paying off the mortgage on a piece of land, but the ants and other organisms that also inhabit it have an equal claim to ownership. Wilson uses a non-technical fictional narrative format to argue his case—and Anthill is natural science writing at its best. Wilson tells the story of Raff Cody, a lad who was fascinated by the ecology of South Alabama (where Wilson grew up). The story takes Raff from his mid-adolescence into his upper twenties—from a dawning awareness of complex ecological issues to the adult legal and cultural challenges of how best to resolve them. The natural beauty of the region is a magnet for tourists and retirees whose increased presence could potentially destroy the very things that brought them there.

The same region is currently experiencing a real life version of the basic ecological issues that Anthill explores — albeit with marine life and oil.

Although it’s Wilson’s first (and at times a somewhat stumbling) attempt at fiction, it's a wonderful book overall, and especially the 75-page section that describes the organization and life cycles of several adjoining ant colonies. At one point Wilson will convince you that the book is as much about ecological resource competition among human societies as among ant colonies. A much abridged version of this section was published in the January 25 New Yorker magazine and is online at http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/01/25/100125fi_fiction_wilson.

101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist's Quest for Memory

Terry McDermott's observed anthill is located at 101 Theory Drive at the University of California, Irvine. Mc Dermott is a journalist who spent several years on and off observing the activities of Gary Lynch (http://www.faculty.uci.edu/profile.cfm?faculty_id=2658) and his memory research laboratory for a LA Times series of articles on memory, and also for an excellent book, 101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for Memory (2010, Pantheon). The book is more technical than Anthill, but readers with a basic understanding of brain and memory systems should have no trouble following the biological elements of the narrative—and will likely develop a better understanding of memory in the process. After all, our instructor (Gary Lynch) is a renowned neuroscientist who has made many very important discoveries about the underlying neurobiology of long-term memory.

Perhaps most fascinating for general readers is the inside look into the operation and culture of high stakes biological research — the continuous highly competitive need to secure grant funding and publish discoveries, to select competent staff and to manage the laboratory. Gary Lynch is widely-known as an imaginative but aggressive researcher who is more interested in getting results than in getting along with colleagues — so his personality provides an interesting element to a fascinating look inside the mind of a renowned scientist and the laboratory and culture in which he works.

Another excellent and somewhat related book on memory research is Eric Kandel’s autobiography, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (2006). Kandel won the Nobel Prize in 2000 for his pioneering work on the basic neurobiology of memory, and Lynch’s discoveries extend that work.

Educational Implications

We suspect that the Gulf area oil spill problems will continue into the fall term. Those of you who read Wilson’s Anthill will discover much in the book that will enhance discussions of the nature of ecology and its societal issues, whether you teach elementary students, inservice educators, and anyone in between.

Think about life in an anthill and life as a researcher. An ant lives and works in a very complex society. A mature ant’s knowledge and skills are “wired” in without a long period of informal and formal education.

A researcher lives and works in a still more complex society. Indeed, the researcher lives in the overall society of humans, and in the narrower, more specialized society of researchers in a specific discipline. It takes years of informal and formal education for an infant to become a responsible and productive adult member of our general human society. Many more years of study and hard work are required to become a productive member of the society of researchers in a particular discipline.

The previous issue of the IAE Newsletter included the T. H Huxley (1825–1895) comment: "Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." This comment fits well with the idea of the informal and formal education needed to become both a responsible and productive adult member of our general human society and a successful researcher.

This “two societies” type of education takes a long time and much effort. Those who have the gifts and drive to become successful researchers need to move strongly in that direction well before they finish high school. This need provides a strong argument for Talented and Gifted Education.

It is not surprising that those who live in an “ivory tower” sometimes have trouble coming back “down to earth.” It is difficult enough to be competent in just one type of human society — much less two.

References

Kandel, E. (2006) In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. W.W. Norton & Company.

McDermott, Terry (2010). 101 Theory Drive: A Neuroscientist's Quest for Memory. Pantheon Books.

Wilson, E.O. (2010). Anthill. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


About Information Age Education, Inc.

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