Thursday, February 3, 2022

Yes, I Would Teach Flat-Earth Theory ....

    About 1970 or so I taught a course at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana) in the Rhetoric 108 program: theme-based college comp courses for students who did well on the incoming-frosh writing sample but not well enough to place out of introductory. writing entirely or who wanted (or whose major department wanted them) to take a writing course. The course's theme was "The Rhetoric of the Life Sciences," and we looked at the debate over evolution (of course), but also "spontaneous generation," the structure of DNA, and a bit at related matters: plate tectonics for one, and another on a bit of weirdness with Immanuel Velikovsky, author of Worlds in Collision (1950), which presented a theory of the catastrophism variety, which got us into the catastrophism vs. uniformitarianism debate.

(My first published essay was, "Catastrophism and Coition: Universal and Individual Development in [D. H.] Lawrence's Women in Love" [1967] — which got me on the mailing lists of some serious whack-jobs.)

Velikovsky was worth studying:
    • Why he was popular, and convinced even two of my pretty prestigious senior colleagues in English.
    • The fact that however much Velikovsky was a charlatan and nut, Catastrophism vs. Uniformitarianism had been a serious debate, which had gotten resolved in favor of Uniformitarianism — until catastrophes made a comeback.
    • That Velikovsky was wrong about the comet, but had some good points to make on the political implications of Uniformitarianism: a theory that served, however unconsciously, conservatives and moderates (though Catastrophism was, I'd think, ambiguous for radicals and revolutionaries). 

    Relevant here: The question, "Well, would you teach flat-Earth theory?!" should be a real question, not just rhetorical. And yes, I would, starting with what is meant by "teach." Jews can refer to "Our teacher Moses," where the teaching (Torah) includes a good deal of laying down the law. "Our teacher Socrates" refers to a pain-in-the-ass who raised questions. For most of us, most of there time, our senses indicate Earth as lumpy but basically flat. Why did large numbers of educated people quite early on come to believe that Earth was a ball? What's the evidence that they did come to that belief? What's the evidence without complicated instruments that Earth is round? How was it that a literally ancient scientist or two could get Earth not only spherical but could estimate the circumference? And why believe the planet a perfect sphere when it's an oblate spheroid? 

    That gets you into art history, history of science, how science actually operates, and how semi-conscious or explicit philosophical ideas can condition scientific ideas (spheres as a perfect form, appropriate for heavenly bodies — not some deflating ball from kids' games).

    And then there's the psychology of Flat-Earthers. Anyway, actually "teaching the debate" can help critical thinking a whole lot more than laying down the law — how to fill in the "bubbles" on Scantron exams — with the right answers to questions of little immediate relevance for most of us most of the time.

* * *

    A graffito in a stall in a men's room in the Business school at Miami University (Oxford, OH [the older Miami]) gave as "The Secret of Success: Find out who Big Brother is; / Find out what Big Brother wants; / Do it." Under that in a different handwriting, "Marry Big Brother's daughter," but that's not relevant here. What is relevant is the meta-lesson behind Big Brother's laying down the law on whether Earth is round or flat, whether species evolved or were created, Uniformitarianism vs. Catastrophism, whether or not life can arise in our world spontaneously. That lesson: Part of The Secret of Success is filling in the bubbles — or even responding to essay exam "prompts" — to reflect Big Brother's doctrines. And Leftist teachers who lay down the law in their classrooms help drive home the meta-lesson, which will be of use to Right-wing little brothers in the business world, who control a lot more of what makes for Success than do folks on the Left.

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