What if Teaching Is a Science? A Bit of Conceptual Fiddling

I see the formulation all the time,  but I rarely give it much thought.

“Teaching isn’t a science.  It’s an art.”

“Teaching isn’t a science.  It’s a craft.”

“Teaching isn’t a science.  It’s a calling.”

I’m sure there are other variations on the second half of the couplet, but the first half almost always denies that teaching is a science.  Usually, when I read it, I move along to the inevitable paean to the aesthetic, the liberal arts, or otherwise to things with which I can groove.  And when I hear it, assuming that the speaker is in the room with me (and folks don’t often say this to me over the phone), I nod politely and listen to the inevitable complaint about teacher evaluations, requirements imposed by administrators of various ranks, and so on.

But I’m not one who can nod politely for very long without wondering about things, and my contrarian streak has gotten the best of me lately, so I’ve been asking myself precisely what one would lose if one started thinking of teaching as a science.  And since I’ve got some smart readers who will put me in my place as soon as I write this, I figured I’d fiddle with a claim that occurred to me: thinking about teaching as a science stands to correct some of the worst habits that we teachers sometimes develop, so long as we maintain a robust notion of what counts as science.

“Science” doesn’t mean any one, static thing, of course.  When medieval universities regarded theology the “Queen of the Sciences,” there weren’t any theology labs, in which one had to wear angel-resistant goggles, any more than theology had a crown to wear.  The metaphor indicates that theology, as the disciplined inquiry into ultimate things (for Christians, the revelation of God in the persons of Father, Son, and Spirit), situates all the other modes of knowing (dialectic, law, medicine, rhetoric, and such) by naming their chief end.  As the term comes more narrowly to mean traditions of inquiry into observable physical phenomena exclusively, the term doesn’t even stay there but comes to incorporate those practices that bring scientific observation and experimentation to bear on human life.  Thus “science” comes to mean not only inquiry but also technology, sometimes mechanical and other times electronic and other times still the strange phenomena that get called “social engineering.”

That last label, I have a hunch, is what makes people almost reflexively deny that teaching is a “science.”  Folks rightly object to notions that people should or maybe even could manipulate human existence in some behavioristic manner, treating the souls in a classroom like so many machines or, even worse, as parts of a machine that we call “the economy” or something likewise sub-human.  As far as that goes, I share those concerns, which is why I’ve been a steady and vocal critic of many of the politicians’ attempts to dictate the practice of education from capital cities, as far removed from the classroom as they are from doing a day’s real work.  Likewise, when corporate lobbyists, intent on making a fat profit from their “school reform” initiatives, try to turn neighborhood schools, one of the cornerstones of in-town life, into yet another consumer choice to be exercised by the parents with the least to lose, I’m almost always in the corner of the public schools over against the privatizers, separatists, and other folks who would make the schools one more place where the well-off can avoid coming in contact with the poor.

My fear, though, is that we give up too much when we make “science” functionally equivalent to “mechanistic behaviorism” or “technocratic manipulation.”  My hunch (and this little essay is an attempt to explore that hunch) is that several of the things that characterize the actual practice of science, as opposed to the popular technocratic notion of “science” as easy electronic fixes, might be precisely what we teachers could most use:

  • Observation, Experimentation, Documentation: One thing that my science-professor colleagues always insist on from their students is that their explorations of material reality come with careful, detailed, truthful records of the same.  I know that, in my own practice, the bad ideas that I don’t write down as bad ideas tend to come back in future semesters, and on occasion, I find myself wishing I could remember a good idea.  I’m not sure that I have the chops to teach a course of any complexity and record what happens therein with anything approaching ethnographic detail, but I still regard this as a scientific practice that could benefit my teaching if I could just do more of it.
  • A Body of Theory that Drives Further Practice: “I understand that most chemists have moved beyond it, but I’m actually very good at phlogiston theory.”  Unfortunately I could imagine a scenario where an academic says something like that, but my hunch is that the academic in question would be in a humanities department, not a science department.  Certainly there’s room, in theory, for sciences to rehabilitate old practices, but they must have some darn good reasons to, and there have to be some intelligible theoretical goods to show for them.  Simply saying that this or that mode of investigation is “how I learned to do it” or that folks have been “doing it this way forever” doesn’t hold as much weight as demonstrations that a given practice yields more adequate theoretical results.  (I have a hunch I’m underplaying Thomas Kuhn here, but again, this is mainly a thought experiment, so let me know what you think.)
  • A Community of Inquiry: Scientists publish their results.  And the aim isn’t what humanities scholarship too often becomes, the quest to take down the current “big dogs” in the field, but to craft, over time, a public record of what observations and experiments disclose.  Certainly we humanities-types publish our essays and books and blogs, but I wonder what might happen if we spent more time and resources developing some more robust apparatus to compare what happens when we try certain “moves” in core-curriculum, in upper-division, and other contexts.  I know that journals do in fact publish the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, but I also know that, in my own circles, few read them and fewer, if they know what’s good for them professionally, dedicate any effort to that rather than more traditional scholarship.
  • Equipment that Does Particular Jobs: This one is a bit more of a stretch, since I know science professors who make the same unreflective use of presentation software, online class environments, and other educational “technology” that we humanities-types do, but I sometimes wonder what I could do if I had as strong a notion of what the equipment (in a Heideggerian sense) of my classroom environment was for as, say, a chemist does when handling titration rigs or an astronomer does when choosing which sort of telescope to use for a given observation.  As far as I can tell, the impulse just to “do some particle acceleration,” divorced from a sense of what a particle accelerator does best, is somewhat less of a temptation than “making a powerpoint” seems to be for some of us.  (I could be wrong about that–science folks, let me know.)
  • Institutional Support: Have you ever wondered whether the suits who call the shots in the 21st-century academy might be the biggest fans of “teaching is not a science”?  I have.  After all, science gets funding.  Those who do science well get facilities and time dedicated to getting science right.  And even granting that every line of work in the academy has administrative hoops through which one must jump, the sense I get is that those who are the best among science-practitioners are relatively less likely to “do science” on the side while they devote most of their time to “academic work” which will more likely result in promotion.  As long as teaching is “not a science,” those who call the shots can treat it as a mystical and mysterious charism that some mortals receive and others don’t but certainly doesn’t merit the hiring of all that many salaried practitioners who have the time to do academic research not in order to escape teaching but in order to enhance it.  (That used to be one of the stated ideals of the research university, right?)  So long as “teaching is a craft,” institutions can treat it has a hobby.  So long as “teaching is a calling,” institutions can saddle it with a vow of poverty.  So long as “teaching is an art,” those who do it best can remain “starving artists.”  But if it’s a science?  The shift won’t happen like magic (because science isn’t magic), but I imagine that the priorities of an institution might just have some reason to re-align.

To bring all of those threads together, I wonder whether denying that “teaching” falls into the same rubric of “science” has the political fallout, whether we intend that or not, of continuing to relegate it to the status of a hobby or a religious vocation, something that eccentric personalities fiddle with, rather than a complex practice best pursued in community,with the support of institutions, ideally never with fixed dogmas or even with fixed aims but always accountable to each other as practitioners.  Or, to put it another way, I’ve seen more than a few essays bemoaning the privileged place of “science” in popular and academic discourse, to the detriment of other ways of academic existence.  Might a better strategy be appropriation rather than Jeremiad?

Obviously none of this is a rigorous philosophical treatment of the category “science” or a programmatic call for a new kind of education.  But I am curious to know, readers: do you share my sense that we raise deflector shields too quickly on the term?

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