My English is Having an Affair with My Science; or, Where Has All the Human Gone?

Here’s a confession: I hate when I hear people say “I’m more of a Math and Science kind of person than an English and Social Studies kind of person.” I cringe when I hear teachers or guidance counselors or parents buy into the statement or repeat it. I sigh when I note that Math and Science are on the third floor of my high school and Social Studies and English are across the hall from one another a level lower. (And where is World Language in all of this? I think it spans the first and second floor in its own little foreign wing; how ironic.)

The assertion drives me crazy for a number of reasons. First of all, it presents an assumption that English and Social Studies are related for a number of shallow reasons: Social Studies requires reading about people’s stories and then writing about those stories. English, coincidentally, also requires writing… and reading about made up people’s stories. CAPT preparation puts Social Studies in charge of the writing portion of the exam, while English is put in charge of the reading portion of the exam. Math and Science are always related because “you have to do math in Science class.” This, of course, does not give any nod to the vast amount of reading that can be done in Science class. Math, it’s just the annoying calculations behind the scenes in a calculator you will always use anyway.

The same origination of my secret loathing of the English/Social Studies assumption is the same thing that makes me love this video.

It’s subtitled “Anthem for Science,” but every time I hear it I want to shout, “Science? Don’t you see? It’s all the same!” It could be more aptly subtitled “Anthem for Learning,” or better yet, “Anthem for Intellect.”

What these people see in Science is the same thing we should see in all study. Listen to Carolyn Porco say “the quest for the truth, in and of itself, is a story that’s filled with insights.” Neil deGrasse Tyson says “If you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you, and that understanding empowers you.” Isn’t that what we want for our students of English? We want them to experience a way of thinking, and it is inevitable that once one experiences a way of thinking, it is impossible not to see the world differently. Being aware of how and why you are seeing the world the way you are is empowering! PZ Meyers says, “I think that science changes the way your mind works to think a little more deeply about things.” Well, yeah! That is our hope every time we talk about a character and let ourselves become wrapped up in its life within the story. We see some part of our world and if we are brave enough, we let ourselves explore it.

There’s the catch: The missing link in all of this seems to be the human element. The content in our disciplines looks different, but it’s fundamentally not; It’s all human in different forms. We learn in order to explore the various elements of being human because like Jill Tarter says, “The story of humans is the story of ideas that shine light into dark corners.” I love that! There are these dark corners in our lives that we didn’t even know existed, and then we read something and suddenly there is all this crazy light on it and we have to be brave enough to handle what we find. It’s what we do in English class, or should do in English class, but we can be reminded of it by listening to a lesson in Science.

What if we created a place where students learned how to collaborate with one another not because it is simply “a 21st Century skill” but because it is capitalizing on our scientific disposition and innate need to connect to fellow human beings… because “we are all connected; to each other biologically, to the Earth chemically, to the cosmos atomically” (deGrasse Taylor). As the English teacher and fellow human, I quietly add “to one another emotionally” and then marvel in the “complexity to really get the pleasure” (Feynman).

2 thoughts on “My English is Having an Affair with My Science; or, Where Has All the Human Gone?

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  1. Seriously! Sometimes English is a lot more like science than anything else. It's analysis of evidence to reach a conclusions. Certainly, many of your goals are quite different for that analysis, but that moment of a literary paper shares more with good science than it does with anything else: your responsibility is to proceed based on what the evidence says, not on your preconceptions or the point you thought you wanted to make before you started.Isn't one of the biggest problems in American culture today our cognitive bias towards evidence that confirms our preconceptions? That's bad science, bad politics, and bad reading. There's a poetry in the study of science, and there's a science in the study of poetry.As much as I enjoy having you as an office mate, it would probably make a lot more sense if we had interdisciplinary offices.

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  2. The two courses that helped me most as a writer were high school geometry and college physics. That was where reason and structure found each other in my mind. The two courses that helped me most as a thinker were college biology and comparative religions. That's where I realized how similar two apparently different things can be, and how useful that similarity is in understanding them. But the courses that helped me most as a human being…well, all my literature courses. That's where I got to live in someone else's experience for a time, to look through eyes other than my own, to understand the feelings in things.

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