Part of an on-going series from BASIS Independent Silicon Valley Teacher Mentors
By Bryan Meyerowitz, Teacher Mentor and Subject Expert Teacher
My foremost task as an upper-school teacher at BASIS (and particularly as a teacher in the social sciences) is to help students create webs between their subjects and to their own historical moment, so that they can analyze the ways in which imperial ideologies continue to play a role in our culture wars or recognize how 19th-century white nationalism helped fuel the telephone war between President Trump and Australian Prime Minister Turnbull over the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
Rather than learn exclusively what may be considered resume assets to our students when they apply for the workforce, my quest is to help students understand and analyze the phenomena that constitute the matrix of political, economic, social, and cultural forces surrounding them so that they can both detect the limitations and implications of their present set of circumstances and seek long-term solutions.
When Charles Darwin embarked from Plymouth Sound for his five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, he journeyed along many of the same seaways that earlier explorers had set before him. Earlier seafarers, such as Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake worked in the employ of emerging empires to discover new lands not only in the name of “God, gold, and glory,” but also in the name of country. As European nationalism became increasingly prominent in the global and domestic conflicts of the 18th century, globetrotting assumed new political as well as cultural importance. The Enlightenment encouraged seafarers, including Captain James Cook, to illuminate the contours of the world through cartography as well as natural and sociological cataloging, in order to elevate the British in the fields of science and commerce. While most of the world’s frontiers had been explored by the time Darwin took to the sea in the 1830s, he was operating in the same vein as his conquering and colonizing forebears—generating knowledge about habitats and organisms as a young adventurer, extending his theories to human nature, bodies, and behaviors, and contributing to the project of British Empire by tracing the lines of descent not only between organisms but also between motherland and colonies.
While the development of nationalism and the sciences have most certainly been explored by authors for centuries, my interest is chiefly in the evolution of epistemology—why we seek particular sets of knowledge or set a premium on particular disciplines in different generations. Over the course of the twentieth century, as the “Darwinian” struggles in the west have shifted from imperial competition (and its attendant science, anthropology) to total warfare (and its attendant military and nuclear sciences) to the conflicts between globalism and nationalism (and its attendant sciences in communication and Smart technology), students have been taught to prioritize their subjects in ways that ostensibly match contemporary realities. Unfortunately, rather than tracing previous developments and the origin of all things—as historians and Darwinians do—academic programs have often conditioned students to develop skills without their appropriate contexts, so that they struggle to make connections between the content in the classroom and their own material, political, and cultural reality.
As a teacher, I look for opportunities to present our students with interdisciplinary and relevant tasks that require them not simply to learn facts, read maps, or draw conclusions from data, but to find the connective tissue between artistic movements and political developments, social revolutions and economic changes, as well as the power of the word (whether Biblical, commercial, or Marxist) on the decisions of leaders and the actions of individuals. My students read a play or novel in AP World and AP European History courses so that they can determine and articulate why the author wrote the work—the conditions of her era, the problems she perceived, and the solutions she proposed. In the same class, my students write a historical allegory, in which they take a movement or moment in history and fictionalize and hyperbolize it to show the impact of this event on its participants and their environment.
In AP Seminar and Post-AP workshops that BASIS has allowed me to teach, students have not only read fictional works and related them to their contexts, but also evaluated the credibility of the author’s narrative elements, constructed interdisciplinary and multi-lensed presentations, and developed real-world arguments about the relationships between individuals and institutions, which have been inspired by fiction. When students map themes in their own experiences onto books and themes in books onto their own experiences, they generate a type of knowledge from which they can postulate their own ideas. In turn, students who present novel ideas and analyses to their instructors set themselves up for far more meaningful relationships with their faculty and content than their ability to learn material passively or parrot the definitions within a subject. In doing so, students set themselves apart as independent scholars and active contributors to the environment at school and within their community.
Academic programs too often rely on student “expertise” of a single type of skill—whether listening, recording, speaking, or computing—and not on the range of products that a student might generate through engagement with diverse materials. While the barometer of student success is often measured by the grades and GPA they have achieved, which ostensibly reflect the degree to which they have mastered specific content units, some academic programs, including at the collegiate level and in prestigious international programs, have moved away from traditional discipline-by-discipline categorical learning to learning outcomes that students produce over an extended period of time. These programs often focus on solving contemporary problems through interdisciplinary diagnostics and analytics, such as water shortages at the local level, institutional racism in federal housing or state utilities, or combating global climate change.
Post-AP courses and AP Capstone that we offer are often outcome-based, so that students receive accolades not merely on the basis of multiple choice or formulaic essay writing but on the basis of presenting arguments from a range of perspectives that may deal (as in the case of my own AP Seminar students) with the vaccine debate, regulations on pharmaceutical corporations, or the feasibility of interplanetary commerce and habitation. Students who are given opportunities to articulate their own research interests, develop their own methodologies, execute their plans, and explore conclusions and solutions are far more prepared not only for meaningful task-driven collaborative or independent research in the future but also for stepping strong-footedly into significant academic or policy debates. Interdisciplinarity in classroom simulations help students perform more competently in lab work and internships as well as the tools to seek appropriate journals and publish their reports.
Among the types of interdisciplinary activities that most benefit our students is the guided field trip, especially to states outside of our own. This year, several faculty from a variety of disciplines, including myself, will travel with nearly 30 students to the Galapagos Islands which Darwin made famous through his significant work on finches. Students will fly from San Francisco to Quito and then to the islands where their guides and faculty will show them not only the field work that Darwin compiled but also the implications of his results for society, for the church, and for popular culture. Darwin’s theories of natural selection and common descent not only debunked the prevailing notions of Intelligent Design but also created generations of young naturalists and imperialists who sought to travel the world and study the physical features of various lands and peoples.
Darwinian notions of the struggle for survival were picked up by Herbert Spencer, who sought to prove that individuals and cultures evolve socially, create competitive economic and political environments, develop complex institutions and hierarchies, just as single organisms develop into heterogeneous arrays of organisms through migration and natural selection. In addition, students will learn about some of the Victorian adventure and fantasy literature, including works by Rudyard Kipling and H.G. Wells, both of whom were inspired by Darwin’s travels.
Opportunities for students to travel, to experience the history and culture of remote (or nearby) locations not only enables students to think about the broader world and to relate their own cultural trends to their neighbors, but also makes them reasoned global thinkers and citizens when they return to the classroom. Students who have experienced what Darwin experienced, just as Darwin traveled many of the same contours of the world as Magellan, Drake, and Cook, can build upon what Darwin theorized, can synthesize his ideas with other concepts they have studied, and can adapt what they know to features in our physical world that await discovery. What a privilege it is for our students not only to be living in a world when global travel is relatively easy but also to be entering significant conversations about humanity, the earth, and the universe that have such a rich and nuanced history. By recognizing patterns in our behavior, our landscape, and our policies both locally and globally, our students will be more equipped to tackle the challenges of the world and chart the next phase of human knowledge and existence from an informed vantage and in transformative new directions.