Illiterate

I was a history major in college, which is a great major if
you want to be interested in your subject and do well in trivia games for the rest of your life.  It’s not a good major for actually working in
your field.  After graduating, I went off
in the world and was astounded at the amount of Americans I encountered who don’t
know basic US History, let alone European History, let alone World
History.  I’ll never forget the time some
coworkers and I were listening to the song “All That Jazz” from the musical Chicago.  There’s a line in the song where the singer
says, “I bet you Lucky Lindy never flew so high.”  This flummoxed my coworkers.
“Who the heck is Lucky Lindy?” one of them asked the
other.  She shrugged.
“Charles Lindbergh.” I called over.
“Who?” they both said in chorus.
“Charles Lindbergh.” I repeated, to confused stares.  “You know, the guy who was the first man to
fly a plane solo across the Atlantic?” 
Nothing.  I switched to tabloid
media history.  “The guy whose son was
kidnapped from his bedroom, was missing for a while and eventually found
dead?”  Nothing.  I could have gone on about his support for
fascism during WWII, or his wife the poet, but clearly they had never heard of
the man.
Encounters like this are not rare in our country.  In fact, about every five years, someone
publishes a newspaper article and or book about the massive gaps, or complete illiteracy in
the historical realm.  I find American’s
disinterest in history odd as I see history as made up of interesting stories
and stories are the things that we consume in the form of TV shows and movies,
but that’s a topic for another day.
Because lately, I’ve been getting the creeping sensation
that I too, am illiterate. 
It started with the Vlogbrothers Crash Course.  The Vlogbrothers make weekly videos about
whatever interests them.  Last fall, they
started a new series of ten-minute videos with John taking Western Civ and Hank
teaching Biology.  I was ready to watch,
glad to review Western Civ—a course I took in high school and college—and shore
up my biology, a class I avoided both for the dissection of frog and for the
finger prick blood type lesson.
It was interesting to note my differing reactions to each
subject.  With the history course I nodded along. “Yep.  Yep. Oh,
interesting, I had no idea. Yep.”  If the
history course was a review, the biology course was wandering far into the
unknown.  “Huh?  What? 
Wait, what was that word? ” Aside
from the “historic scientist” segments, I didn’t follow much. I’d like to say
that I buckled down,  watched the videos
again, memorized the vocabulary and finally learned all that biology I’d
missed.  But I didn’t.  I just stopped watching.  Without the base of knowledge, I couldn’t
find the topic interesting.  And since
there was no grade attached to the outcome, I didn’t bother to acquire the
basic knowledge to know if I enjoyed the subject.
My realization about illiteracy continued with a letter to
the editor about composting.  Portland
had recently adopted a residential composting system which delighted me and
made a lot of people very angry.  One of
the reasons cited by the city for the adoption of the food composting system is that food
waste thrown away with other trash makes methane.  A letter writer pointed out that the food
waste either made methane with the regular garbage or while being composted, so why do we
have to go through trouble of composting? 
I think that he’s wrong, that food waste composted makes something other
than methane, but I don’t have any idea of going about finding the answer.  Except perhaps the handy google search:  “Does food composting make methane?” [post first draft note:  I googled that phrase and found this article.  It did not answer my question. Ask Ashley had a better answer.]
So I’m a bit dumb in science.  I see this as a bad thing, because it has
closed off careers to me. For instance, there was a brief period of interest in becoming a
civil engineer, but a quick look at the coursework squelched that.  There is a lot of soil science involved with
being a civil engineer.  But this lack of knowledge means I walk through the world not understanding things.  I’ve arranged my life so science is not a
part of it, but am I missing something? 
Do smart science people pity me the way I do people who don’t know the
great stories of history?
I feel like I was exposed to science as a child.  There was a period of intense interest in
Chemistry, mostly fueled by the coveting of a chemistry set I was too young to
have.  When I came of age, (10) I did perform
experiments with the set, but my enthusiasm waned in proportion to how dirty
the test tubes became (there was no test tube brush included with the set*) and
I wandered off. I also checked out books from the library of the “kids explore
science” variety and I did some exploring. 
But it didn’t seem to translate into interest in science as a
subject.  I preferred reading about young
scientists in my biography series about great young Americans.
The other thing that has happened to me is that science seems a
bit made up.  Because I don’t understand
it, I survived my five science classes in Junior High and High School by
memorizing things, nodding along as teachers explained things the same way I do when crazy people are talking to me.  Then they were
promptly forgotten.  So when I encounter
science today it seems rather magical.  I
can see why some people who did understand science back in the day used their knowledge to
perform “magic” for the masses.  I would
be nearly as amazed.
I will say that the subject of Geology seems very real to
me, as I can see it around me. But the science subject that does seem real to me is
also the topic I find the most incredibly boring topic in the universe.  I would rather look at actuary tables than
discuss Geology.  Except for a brief
visit to Yellowstone with someone who had taken a course in the Geology of
Yellowstone, any time someone brings up Geology I get a trapped, panicked
feeling and pray for them to stop talking quickly.
So what will happen with my science illiteracy?  I’m guessing not much will change.  I’m an adult and adults are good at paying
bills and saving for the future and having a better idea of who they are then
when they were 15, but learning new things from scratch is not a big thing
about being an adult.  Plus, most grown
up desire to learn about new things comes from interest, like say, learning to
play the stand-up bass at 50 when you’ve been thinking about it since you were
13, or taking riding lessons so you can finally have that pony.  Because science doesn’t interest me, I doubt
the status quo will change for me.  I
find this troubling, but not enough to do anything about it.
*The lack of a test tube brush frustrated me.  The instructions referred to one, but I was
supposed to procure one for myself. 
Where the heck is a ten-year-old supposed to find a test tube
brush?  And how is she to afford one once
she finds them?  The lack of access to a
test tube brush made the object grow in my mind to something rather fantastic.
When I took chemistry in high school** and encountered my first test tube brush
I felt a great letdown.  This little thing
was all it was?  And why did I never have
one?
**Admittedly, the whole of high school science may have
gotten off on the wrong foot simply because I refused to take Biology as a
sophomore as all sophomores did at my school and vaulted myself straight into
Junior-level Chemistry.  As a sophomore,
I was still developing high school study skills, which most of my classmates
had already probably mastered.  So when
we had to memorize the entire periodic table early on, I flailed and faltered
and it was downhill from there.

One thought on “Illiterate”

  1. Very interesting. I have always liked science, but felt a little challenged by some of the mathematical components of it. I wouldn't say that I have a scientific mind, really. But it was always fun for me. And I LOVE to teach it (which has been stinky as of late because my grade level must focus on history (which I LOVE) because of standardized testing). I do think to myself on occasion, that (whichever that I'm encountering) would be a very cool research topic. I feel like there is some science in that… I did take biology, with Mr. Anderson (funny to now say in Matrix style). We didn't have to dissect a frog, wonder why. He had these taxidermied animals that creeped me out. The bird were the worst, of course. Jen and I had that class together and I remember a lot more jokes and notes passing than I do the classification system! I have lots of other illiteracies (some classic novels I have never read, history I loved but can't remember, and my personal nemesis, your own favorite subject, I can't even put it in print…). Nice, essay! I seem to have a lot to say! 🙂

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