The Descent of Man

In 1973, the BBC televised The Ascent of Man, the brilliant series by Jacob Bronowski on the development of science and society. In his final episode, The Long Childhood, Bronowski sums up what he regards as special to being human, and the essence of a healthy scientific society:

If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect. We must not perish by the distance between people and government, people and power, by which Babylon, and Egypt, and Rome failed. And that distance can only be … conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits here, and not up there.

That seems a hard lesson. After all, this is a world run by specialists. Isn’t that what we mean by a scientific society? No, it isn’t. A scientific society is one in which specialists can indeed do the things like making the electric light work. But it’s you, it’s I, who have to know how nature works, how electricity is one of her expressions, in the light, and in my brain.

And we are really here on a wonderful threshold of knowledge. The ascent of man is always teetering in the balance. There’s always a sense of uncertainty as to whether, when man lifts his foot for the next step, it’s really going to come down ahead. And what is ahead of us? At last, the bringing together of all that we’ve learnt in physics and in biology, towards an understanding of where we have come, what man is.

Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, above all, of what we are as ethical creatures. You can’t possibly maintain that if you let other people run the world for you, while you yourself continue to live … out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs. That’s really crucial today. You see, it’s pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, “You must do a course in electronics or in computer programming.” Of course not. And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress, is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist.

Bronowski spoke those words forty-seven years ago. Three more years.

Feynman on Modernity

We plan to have more posts on VCAA’s ridiculous curriculum review. Unfortunately.

Now, however, we’ll take a semi-break with three related posts. The nonsensical nature of VCAA’s review stems largely from its cloaking of all discussion in a slavish devotion to “modernity”, from the self-fulfilling prediction of the inevitability of “technology”, and from the presumption that teachers will genuflect to black box authority. We’ll have a post on each of these corrupting influences.

Our first such post is on a quote by Richard Feynman. For another project, and as an antidote to VCAA poison, we’ve been reading The Character of Physical Law, Feynman’s brilliant public lectures on physical truth and its discovery. Videos of the lectures are easy to find, and the first lecture is embedded above. Feynman’s purpose in the lectures is to talk very generally about laws in physics, but in order to ground the discussion he devotes his first lecture to just one specific law. Feynman begins this lecture by discussing his possibly surprising choice:

Now I’ve chosen for my special example of physical law to tell you about the theory of gravitation, the phenomena of gravity. Why I chose gravity, I don’t know. Whatever I chose you would’ve asked the same question. Actually it was one of the first great laws to be discovered and it has an interesting history. You might say ‘Yes, but then it’s old hat. I would like to hear something about more modern science’. More recent perhaps, but not more modern. Modern science is exactly in the same tradition as the discoveries of the law of gravitation. It is only more recent discoveries that we would be talking about. And so I do not feel at all bad about telling you of the law of gravitation, because in describing its history and the methods, the character of its discovery and its quality, I am talking about modern science. Completely modern.

Newer does not mean more modern. Moreover, there can be compelling arguments for focussing upon the old rather than the new. Feynman was perfectly aware of those arguments, of course. Notwithstanding his humorous claim of ignorance, Feynman knew exactly why he chose the law of gravitation.

This could, but will not, lead us into a discussion of VCE physics. It suffices to point out the irony that the clumsy attempts to modernise this subject have shifted it towards the medieval. But the conflation of “recent” with “modern” is of course endemic in modern recent education. We shall just point out one specific effect of this disease on VCE mathematics.

Once upon a time, Victoria had a beautiful Year 12 subject called Applied Mathematics. One learned this subject from properly trained teachers and from a beautiful textbook, written by the legendary J. B. “Bernie” Fitzpatrick and the deserves-to-be-legendary Peter Galbraith. Perhaps we’ll devote some future posts on Applied and its Pure companion. It is enough to note that simply throwing out VCE’s Methods and Specialist in their entirety and replacing them with dusty old Pure and Applied would result in a vastly superior, and more modern, curriculum.

Here, we just want to mention one extended topic in that curriculum: dynamics. As it was once taught, dynamics was a deep and incredibly rich topic, a strong and natural reinforcement of calculus and trigonometry and vector algebra, and a stunning demonstration of their power. Such dynamics is “old”, however, and is thus a ready-made target for modernising zealots. And so, over the years this beautiful, coherent and cohering topic has been cut and carved and trivialised, so that in VCE’s Specialist all that remains are a few disconnected, meat-free bones.

But, whatever is bad the VCAA can strive to make worse. It is clear that, failing the unlikely event that the current curriculum structure is kept, VCAA’s review will result in dynamics disappearing from VCE mathematics entirely. Forever.

Welcome to the Dark Ages.