Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Self-Taught Individual

Ninth grade is the year for biology. This fact has caused me a deal of stress, because I have at least one ninth grader who thrives as an autodidact. I have no doubt that he will learn biology; it's just that it most likely will not be in a neat, sequential format like the one laid out in the expensive textbook I purchased. When I lifted that textbook out of the mailbox last month, my heart felt almost as heavy as the book. I knew I had purchased it because a college-bound high school student needs to be able to write "biology" on his transcript. As far as textbooks go, it is no doubt a good one ~~~Exploring Creation with Biology written by Jay Wile. But in my heart I knew that it was a compromise.

But how do you learn biology without a textbook?

We've already used the microscope, kept nature notebooks, studied insects somewhat in-depth, dissected a cow eyeball. But mostly we've read. Currently, we're reading the fascinating story of smallpox in a book called Dr. Jenner and the Speckled Monster. A person effortlessly comes away with some understanding of viruses and T cells and immunity after reading a book like that.

I know that all learning cannot be effortless, but somehow that big, fat, biology textbook makes me tired. I need courage to continue learning as we've been doing, without fear that my children will fail to measure up to the standards required by college. I have a feeling that they will be able to put their randomized bits of knowledge in order on their own once they decide they have the need to do it.

Interestingly, I came across a truly lyrical biology book, a series of essays by Lewis Thomas entitled The Lives of a Cell. Thank you, William K. Zinsser for suggesting him! Now this is a man who can write about biology in a way that delights. For example, this paragraph on pheromones:

" 'At home, 4 p.m. today', says the female moth, and releases a brief explosion of bombykol, a single molecule of which will tremble the hairs of any male within miles and send him driving upwind in a confusion of ardor. But it is doubtful if he has an awareness of being caught in an aerosol of chemical attractant. On the contrary, he probably finds suddenly that it has become an excellent day, the weather remarkably bracing, the time appropriate for a bit of exercise of the old wings, a brisk turn upwind. En route, traveling the gradient of bombykol, he notes the presence of other males, heading in the same direction, all in a good mood, inclined to race for the sheer sport of it. Then, when he reaches his destination, it may seem to him that most extraordinary of coincidences, the greatest piece of luck: 'Bless my soul, what have we here!'"

I love the way this man personifies the moth, don't you? And look how effortless it was to figure out that "bombykol" was a powerful pheromone released by a female moth to attract a mate. A curious individual would proceed to find out a little more about this chemical. He might go on to study pheromones in other species and even how/if they effect us as humans.

In contrast, a biology textbook would probably say something like this:

"Bombykol is a chemical substance called a pheromone. It is released by female silkworms in order to attract a mate. Named after the moth's Latin name Bombyx mori, it was discovered in 1959 by Adolph Butenandt."

Somehow, those words do not give me a taste for further investigation.

I was somewhat comforted by an article I came across this evening by John W. Osborne, called Thoughts on Autodidacticism:

" .....unscheduled reading made the child father to the man. It led to [my career] in academe. It was self-education rather than twelve years in a public school which allowed me to complete the college work that prepared me for graduate school. The mature Cobbett boasted that 'books and literature have been my delight.' His intensive personal reading helped to develop that direct, vigorous style of writing which still holds a reader's attention. Knowledge imparted in classrooms‑-what Ben Jonson called 'schoolcraft'--would have smoothed our way early in life, but might have cramped our individuality and led us along other paths."

THAT sums up my dilemma: smooth the way OR provide for individuality?

No pheromone receptors have yet been found in humans; perhaps our gift of language negates the need for pheromones and the messages they transmit. I'm banking on that gift of language to transmit the mysteries of biology to my children.

Meanwhile, fat biology books make great flower presses!

1 comment:

Joyful Days said...

Knowing that I'm going to have to face this same thing in a few years, I had to read and nod and sigh. It's a balancing act, is it not? Really is it so neat and pretty in a classroom setting?