Two Brains: A Non-Brainer
by Alvin M. Saperstein
There has been much popular discussion, in recent years, of a two-brain basis for human intelligence: a left-brain and a right-brain, one responsible for analytical behavior, the other for holistic and language activity. I am in no position to comment on the usefulness or validity of this basis set. But, as a result of many years of teaching physics and astronomy at the introductory college levels, I am convinced of an alternative two-brain basis for student behavior: an “in-school brain”, and an “out-of-school life brain”, with very little, if any, connection between the two.
The scientific knowledge so expensively obtained and imparted “in-school”, apparently plays very little role in the foundations of our individual and social lives. As a result, contemporary private and public policy shows very little evidence of application of the constraints of the thermodynamic laws, or the finiteness of resources and environment; in spite of the fact that –as measured formally by certificates and degrees- we are the most educated population the wor ld has ever seen.
Too often we physicists teach science as if the two components of this orthogonal basis set did not exist. We teach to one axis and ignore the strong transition to the other, which occurs soon after the student leaves our classrooms. Consequently, our society pays a heavy price: decaying cities; snail’s space transportation systems: air, water and land which are challenges to our health rather than supports for our well-being; and –increasingly- competition, and even battle, over shrinking resources and space.
As an example, consider a bright young drama student I had in my Introductory Astronomy class last year. Earnest and hard-working, she struggled with the material (especially its minor quantitative aspects) and eked out an A grade. At the end of the semester, after the final exam, she came up to me, respectively and seriously, with a question: What was she to do : her upbringing and personal commitment led her to believe that our world was only 5000 years old, yet she had listened to me over the semester explaining to the class why they should believe our solar system to be a 4 1/2 billion year old unit of a 13 billion year old universe? She was bright enough, serious enough, concerned enough, and trusting enough, to raise the question. What about the students in that class –or in many, many other such classes, who don’t have such trust in their teachers or betray any such concern?
Similar, though more concrete, dichotomies in student minds are well known. The physics pedagogy research group at the University of Washington has amply documented, through post-teaching interviews with students, that they have will reply to questions about aspects of the physical world with: “How would you like me to answer-- as I’ve been taught, or as I really believe?”
At an earlier stage of our modern scientific world, men of science contemplated the rational cosmos while other men perused and tortured witches. But these others had not been under the extensive tutelage of the scientist! There is no reason to believe that either of these two groups had other than a unitary brain. Now we scientists have had ample access to the minds of our people, creating the presently dominant dual mind of the “common man”. If there is another frenzy of witch hunting (or its equivalent) we have no one to blame but ourselves.
I have no simple paradigm to address this orthogonal, strongly coupled, two-state basis of our students’ minds. I do know that we ignore the large decay rate from the higher (educated) state to the lower state at our peril. I believe that many of us act as if oblivious to the dichotomy or its importance. Certainly, none of my close colleagues have ever raised or discussed this issue with me.
We continue to withdraw tangible and intangible resources from our environment as if they were infinite. We continue to eject pollutants into that environment as if it could disperse them limitlessly. I have no desire to overthrow the young student’s faith, but what good is our science education system if we cannot produce a “school brain” that influences life “after school”?
Alvin M. Saperstein
Dept. of Physics and Astronomy and
Center for Peace and Conflict Studies
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48207