Learning anything is an exercise in language development. From the first letters and numbers a child learns as a toddler to the abstract mathematical notation of the Ising Model or the nature of the Holy Trinity learned at the upper echelon of academia, the challenge in learning anything is retention and articulation of symbols for thought. The fundamental challenge that I have faced in my educational walk through religion and science has been connecting the inner experience of my subjective consciousness to language that allows me to come into relationship with others. I infer from deep conversation with others and experience with teaching and co-learning that the same is true for other people. In areas of “successful learning,” I can creatively construct new knowledge and insights that have never been thought before by another person. In a state of “failure,” I barely grasp hold of the basic fragments that allow me to understand what others have discovered and constructed in their own minds. In either state, the true measure of success is my ability to use this new learning to enter into a conversation with another about the nature of reality.
In my time in academia, I have gravitated to an area of science that prioritizes the aesthetic over the mathematically rigorous, structural biology. The true breakthroughs in structural biology do not come from the mathematical elegance of a particular methodological approach. Rather, they come from the manner by which a discovery can express and capture the inner workings of the cell. This is an aesthetic endeavor, that while relying on a scientist’s technical grasp of such disparate fields as spin physics or X-ray optics, center on a scientist’s mental capacity to capture and express in word and image the dance of atoms in a living being. Some might say it is a spiritual endeavour. At the very least, it is a deeply human endeavor filled with the ecstasy and agony of discovery. Indeed, capturing and expressing the inner workings of the cells requires one to develop an emotional bond with his or her system of interest. You have to “feel” the atoms in your soul before you can place into language what they are doing. The traditional pedagogical approaches to teaching people how to engage with this molecular world are sorely lacking. Large segments of the population are excluded from this area of learning due to a system of education that only encourages creativity at the highest elite levels. One is told that one has to pass through seemingly countless gates of exams and tests to achieve the honor of even having one taste of creating something fundamentally new out of what is learned. This needs to change.
While the performance of laboratory experiments costs money, with the advent of the Internet, young people are able to access real data from actual structural biology investigations on the frontline of academic and industrial research virtually for free due to the nearly universal accessibility of computers. Indeed today in the 21st century, it is not the access to data that is the real barrier to empowering minds to enter into the molecular spaces of the cell, it is how to understand and construct language to share in a dialog about what is seen, heard, and felt in the data. Some people are catching onto this idea in extremely creative and innovative ways. Take professor Christopher Emdin of Columbia Teacher’s College. He is working with urban schools in New York City to engage youth in creative engagement with science content. His approach is to have young men and women engage in the writing of poetic verse with the language fragments necessary to capture and express scientific understanding. I would like to start a small pilot program in Minneapolis, Minnesota that builds in professor Emdin’s approach that focuses young minds on the analysis of the Protein Data Bank. What do you think young minds will find in this database? Perhaps they will discover that God already placed the alphabet there for us to uncover. 🙂 On a more serious note, it my hope to engage the Baha’i community in Minneapolis on this. There are some very creative people in the area that are engaged in building social structures that transcend the ordinary limits of American life. When I drove up to Minneapolis from Atlanta at the end of April I resolved to find people with the inner capacity and vision to execute a community effort to liberate youth in the chains of an educational system that excludes them from the joy of creation on new knowledge. Perhaps it is designed as such? What would you get if urban youth could compete with the likes of Zuckerberg and Gates from the halls of elite private school like Andover and Exeter? I postulate you might not see the fires of Ferguson. You might just see a Golden Age of Athens there. While I support protest in the streets if it is on a path to healing, as I believe it is, we need a new structure for learning in the shell of the old. We need to get kids analyzing the Protein Data Bank with verse. Get kids writing poems and reciting them for fun. This is a challenge! I look forward to attempting it for fun!
InnerLight Enlightenment by Dr. William Kaya Erbil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.