Cultivating Genius in the K-12 Classroom: A Job for Historians of Science

by Richard J. Oosterhoff, University of Cambridge

“Students are sparked by novelty. Think of Einstein and Edison; think of Da Vinci and Newton. The whole history of science is full of genius and ingenuity, of thinking outside the box. Our job is to help students get to that point.”

I heard this from a K-12 science teacher. In August 2014 I helped facilitate a two-week development workshop for K-12 educators in Elkhart, Indiana. I met wonderful teachers impassioned by the possibilities of science education, wrestling with the challenges of the new standards now debated throughout the US, and eager to engage hearts and minds in the study of nature. And many of these teachers believed that past examples of ingenuity should inspire how we teach science. Sometimes I am so convinced by jeremiads on the humanities’ sorry state in today’s economic landscape that statements of this sort catch me by surprise. Suspend judgment for a moment on the words “genius” and “ingenuity.” Such motivations imply a deeper point: that the history of science shows us how to teach science.

Of course this is true in the banal sense that our current teaching is made up of what the past has left us. But it is also true in a more precise sense that should matter to us, to the guild of historians of science: science teachers go to work with a long list of explicit assumptions about how science has come about. And some of them—like those I’ve paraphrased above—explicitly turn to the history of science in order to justify what they do in the classroom.

Most surprising to me was how the history of science is used to spark creativity and cultivate talent. No doubt, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The public hopes and dreams of our societies have been tied to progress in science, technology, and engineering for a long time. If there is one repeated goal of the new education standards affecting US education (pick any one), it is to encourage a generation of self-starting creative entrepreneurs, poised to adapt to challenges we cannot yet imagine. No wonder, then, that educators turn to past examples of ingenuity to prepare for the future.

But I was surprised. Why? Chiefly because for decades the history of science as a profession has turned away from hagiographies of intellectual derring-do. The first and deepest lesson we teach graduate students in the history of science is to avoid presentism and its cognate fixation on the Genius who anticipated our own enlightened view of things. In graduate school I learned an arsenal of machinery designed to erode the mystery of insight into the dust of social, material, and textual sources. Galileo’s showy originality is no longer the mysterious product of a Platonic, heroic je ne sais quoi, but a wonderful—and comprehensible—combination of skills and resources: courtly sprezzatura, the rich culture of mathematical practitioners, artist and craft communities in the Venetian Arsenal, and friends in high places. As historians, we learn to explain genius. Just as early modern textual scholars eroded the prophetic identity of Hermes Trismegistus as a Pre-Socratic sage by finely sifting his late antique language, we dissolve the very notion of genius in our rich acid of historical analysis.

My professional senses have been so finely pointed against presentism that yet another assault on the history of Great Men seems like so much mumbling of pious verities. I agree, of course; judging alchemists and Aristotelians by our own standards stops us from understanding them. But need I say it again? The thought has become so much a part of my intellectual furniture it often seems boring to repeat, let alone worthwhile. I suspect I’m not the only one.

“Just think: only five hundred years ago, we all thought the earth was flat. Then there was Copernicus.” The speaker went on to encourage teachers to create rich pedagogical environments that keep students actively searching out novelty, to think “outside the box.” The classroom should be a hothouse for genius, a seedbed for ideas from nowhere.

There’s the little myth, and then the big one. The little one is simple enough, and we spend enough time simply correcting the nineteenth-century misinformation of medieval bookmen too backwards, too deeply wedded to authority, to imagine beyond a flat earth. The big myth makes Copernicus a lone genius whose insight emerged in a complete vacuum—it comes with a partner myth, that those who disbelieved Copernicanism for the next hundred years did so because they were stupid or wicked. Not because Copernicanism came with insufficient evidence, as historians of science have come to see. And the myth of Copernicus as genius is so powerful precisely for the same reasons it is dangerous: it is the starting point for the most innovation-centered teaching in North American classrooms.

If you are a member of HSS from outside of North America, perhaps you can tell me whether science teachers elsewhere are similarly motivated by caricatures of past science. What strikes me about the US context is a curious invisibility of science history. Vast sums have been spent on new and revised science education standards. Some of those standards do assert the value of the “social context” of science and engineering, or of the links between “arts” and STEM disciplines. If you live in the US, check out the standards your state is adopting. You will find little on past science that might give vague assertions of “science in context” concrete specificity—such as historians of science might offer.

Let me make two observations. The first is that our deep contextualizing and methodologically sensitive readings of past science haven’t been read very far afield. Our hard-won account of scientific creativity has not been received. Why don’t science teachers know about it? It helps no one to blame the science teachers themselves. Could it be our fault, for keeping our insights to ourselves, within the guild? Could Steven Pinker be right to indict academics for “academese”?

The second observation is that what we have to say could matter a great deal. That is, if the cutting edge of K-12 education is based on bad histories of science, then what could good histories of science offer? The task of warning against presentism may have grown wearying. Or maybe we made a poor job of it to begin with. Either way, if false images of historical ingenuity drive our teachers, we still have a job to do.

About the Author

Richard Oosterhoff earned his PhD from the University of Notre Dame and is at Cambridge as a postdoctoral research fellow on a five-year European Research Council-funded project: Genius before Romanticism: Ingenuity in Early Art and Science

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