A natural touch

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
School science is devoid of joy and emotional involvement; a mechanistic model divorced from nature. Kevin McCarthy on why science and spirituality need to be brought together. But, Sir, science hasn't got anything to do with na- tureI" This was - I kid you not - a real comment made to me by an intelligent, sensitive GCSE student who went on to get a double A grade in her combined science exam.

Her comment is symptomatic of a profound malaise, which is reflected in the continuing exodus of students from science both at A-level and beyond. Many reasons have been put forward to explain it, but there can few more telling indictments of science than that of the girl quoted above.

What she is saying, in effect, is that science, in losing touch with nature, has lost its soul, lost its heart and lost the interest of a whole generation of pupils.

As Rupert Sheldrake pointed out recently (TES Science Extra, May 12) and as I have argued at length elsewhere (School Science Review, March 1995), school science is deeply rooted in an observer consciousness that is outdated and mechanistic. It is deeply distrustful of first-hand experience and totally denies the validity of emotional or qualitative response. It is terrified of being seen not to have all the answers to life's mysteries and even more terrified of asking big questions.

Yet this same sclerotic science is taught by teachers who are themselves weekend lovers of nature, who experience the joy and beauty of the world and who are passionately committed to the protection of the fragile Earth.

So whose task is it to open pupils to joy, mystery and wonder? And how, in any case, do you stir young minds and hearts really to take hold of the enormity of their future task in dealing, without guilt, with the complex web of moral problems which they and we face as Western consumers? Perhaps last year's National Curriculum Council discussion paper on spiritual and moral development gives some clues: "Spiritual development is an important element of a child's educationIWithout curiosity, without the inclination to question and without the exercise of imagination and intuition, young people would lack the motivation to learnIWere they not able to be moved by feelings of awe and wonder at the beauty of the world we live inIthey would live in an inner cultural desert."

So, is the problem with science teaching essentially a spiritual problem and, if so, what is to be done about it?

The most important science teachers are in primary schools. Their first task should not be to produce mini-Descartes, forming a barrier of objectivity between themselves and nature, hypothesising, controlling variables and all the absurd paraphernalia of science attainment target 1 - "life processes".

Instead we need to restore to the primary child the direct experience of nature. Children live cut off from the world. They do not know where the sun rises in their own environment, they are not shown the changing beauty of the seasons; they miss the glory of the waxing and waning of the moon; they never watch, simply watch, say, a bee hive or an ants' nest without having to count, measure or weigh something. Our implicit message is that real science is about quantification.

There is no need to tear children prematurely from their innate sense of the goodness of the world. What should we say to an eight-year-old who asks, "I wonder when the trees discovered they could help us?" What do we make of a nine-year-old's wonderful post-Darwinian assertion: "Because the birds eat the trees, there has to be enough trees to feed the birds."

Young children live in a world qualitatively different from ours, which we need to contact not reject. For them nature is co-operative, purposeful, rich in meaning and teeming with life in flowing water, in clouds and in fire. They live through a primitive, animistic stage of oneness with the world which we should do everything in our power to enhance through first-hand experience, through re-enacting the great dramatic myths, through celebrations and rituals for each new cycle of the year, through the deliberate cultivation of all their senses.

Head and heart, science and spirituality need to be taught and brought together, not kept apart. As Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring once said, "For the child and for the adult seeking to guide him or her, it is not half so important to know as to feel."

Secondary science has an even greater problem of spiritual isolation. Has your department framed its response to the OFSTED circular yet? Have you got "an agreed approach to the way spiritual issues should be addressed" in readiness for when the bogey man comes to inspect?

It seems to me that if we look at the world of modern science, at what questions are being asked on the threshold of, say, genetics or research into consciousness or cosmology or at chaos theory or the Gaia hypothesis or, indeed, at Rupert Sheldrake's remarkable speculations, we find some deep, philosophical questions.

Are animals just machines? Are we "just a pack of neurones"? What does it mean to talk about things being alive? What is matter? Where did it all begin? Are human beings the random product of a meaningless universe or is there some significance in human consciousness?

From selfish genes to morphic resonance, from crude determination to cosmic inter-relatedness: what is so interesting about the present climate is that there is now fierce and genuine debate over these questions. It is as if science and religion are realising that their most profound questions are identical.

As Matthew Fox, the guru of the Creation Spirituality movement puts it: "We seek now a truce - and more than a truce, a common explanation for wisdom among scientists and spiritual seekers alike: the wisdom that nature can teach us and the wisdom that the religious traditions can teach us."

What we need and what I hope to articulate more fully at the Roehampton Institute conference "Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child" next month is a new relationship between science and RE departments, a new climate of exchange and dialogue which will allow some of these fundamental questions to be raised.

We need to find practical classroom materials and explore creative timetabling and curriculum strategies which will make this possible.

But this is only the beginning of what is really needed. I am not proposing some abstract course in natural philosophy. The raw material for all this work is still out there in the infinite variety and abundance of nature. First-hand experience of the world cannot end with key stage 2, nor can it be limited to science and metaphysics. Really to experience the world whole means leaving time and space to respond creatively to it.

There is an artistic dimension to all this. Only the fully active eye of the artist can uncover the richness of colour, texture and form in nature. Only the ear of the poet is sensitive to catch the fullness of experience.

Up and down the country children are still being made to write up their experiments in that curious impassive style of scientific method: "a test tube was taken" as if the human element, the children themselves, didn't exist.

To translate this into practical secondary practice, to re-integrate knowledge in the way I have hinted - even within the national curriculum - will be a long, but creative task.

But it is not impossible. Margaret Benyon at Oxford High School, for example, already uses poetry in science. Her Years 7 and 8 have written movingly; "The Plea of the Rain Forest", "The Mystical Globe" and "To the Human Race from the Four Elements".

My own Year 8 have been working on trees. We have done plenty of recognisably scientific things: the naming of parts and understanding just what all those dangly things (which even the normally stolid oak so shamelessly reveals) are actually for. We have re-examined the miracle of the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen.

At the same time, though, there was ample opportunity to draw in colour, to capture the fleeting beauty of blossom, to experience something of the primeval power of trees which has made them such an important part of many religions, to remember the joy of trees in childhood.

In a similar way, I have been developing a sixth-form modular programme, "Living Questions", in which the wholeness of our experience has been applied to some of these complex moral and spiritual issues. For instance, the impact of medical technology, a moral question, has been examined in the light of a picture of what it is to be fully human, which is ultimately a spiritual question, but one which can only be answered in full scientific awareness.

These are modest enough examples, but there are vast fields left to explore. What about a combined course called "Pattern in nature"? Begin with the mathematical Fibonacci series which gives rise to such interesting and mysterious number patterns. Then look at the Golden Ratio, which relates to proportion and symmetry, in shells, flowers, sacred buildings, the human form in Renaissance philosophy. Take life whole, and a very different curriculum emerges.

We begin to breathe life into the school curriculum as soon as (and only when) we allow the spiritual and the artistic and the scientific to inter-penetrate. This is not a call for the wholesale abandonment of scientific rigour or scientific method, rather an opening up of ourselves and our pupils to a kind of deep, questioning and loving relationship with nature. Great scientists have always had it: our children deserve it; the Earth is crying out for it.

Kevin McCarthy teaches at Our Lady of Sion School, Worthing. Details of the conference "Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child" on June 23 and 24 can be obtained from the INSET Office, Froebel College, Roehampton Lane, London, SW15 5PJ. Tel: 0181-392 3383. Further details of INSET courses and conferences on science and spirituality can be obtained from New Science Conferences, 66 Beaconsfield Villas, Brighton, BN1 6HE.

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