Learning through Stories

As you will probably have gathered on your own by now, very few of my interests lie in the realms of science or mathematics, but this was not always the case.

I was very interested in botany and entomology in my early teens.  During the summers that I spent with my father and brothers at the hunting camp on Manitoulin Island, I used to go for long walks, taking specimens of anything that seemed interesting.  I would dissect, pin, arrange, bottle, and collect things.  I would grind them and make infusions out of them and even paint with them as  pigments.  It was amateur science mixed with some strange instinct to herbalism and alchemy, all born out of months spent in the midst of nature without much else by way of distraction.

I was also fascinated by some of the more or less philosophical questions that mathematics raises.  I can remember pondering for hours about what zero was, for example.  If it was not a number, then I wanted to know what it was precisely, and this was my first flirtation with the idea that nothingness is actually necessary to thingness, not just as a placeholder, but in essence.

Unfortunately, as I have recounted to many people over the years, these kinds of interests were soundly beaten out of me by the very people who were supposed to be teaching me about them.  One mathematics teacher, for example, came by my desk one day to ask what exactly I was doing.  I showed her my notebook and explained that I was trying to work out the nature of zero.  She told me to stop fooling around and start doing my homework.  I never did any kind of mathematics again except under compulsion, and I dropped the subject entirely as soon as I was able.

A whole semester of memorizing the parts of a cell, for reasons that were never explained to me in any way, had a similar effect on my interest in biology, and my chemistry teacher the following semester actually told me, only two weeks into the course, that I should drop it because I was most likely to fail it anyway.  I ended up taking Science in Society instead, where we baked bread and wrote poems about scientific principles and mostly did very little of anything.

Since that time, however, I have found any number of books that have appealed to the initial interest that I had in science and mathematics, as rudimentary and uninformed as that interest was.  Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings was the first such book I can remember.  Its story engaged me so thoroughly that it inspired me to read further about dopamine and to learn more about chemistry than I ever did in any class. Its attraction for me was that it situates a particular scientific problem in its narrative context.  The reader is invited to identify with the scientist and with the patients and with the story.  The science becomes meaningful because it is a part of a story, and it was this story and that caused me to go beyond Sack’s book to some of the more technical details of his work.

This is one of the reasons why I encourage my students to read Robert Adams’ The Land and Literature of England if they are interested in the history of English literature.  As opposed to most history textbooks, it employs an interested narrative rather than trying to achieve some kind of disinterested objectivity.  It revels in the anecdotal and the tangential, even when it admits that some of these things are a little suspect historically.  It makes the historical study of literature into a series of tales that could be shared over a few pints, assuming that you are the sort of person who would share literary stories of any kind over a few pints, which I must assuredly am.  I find, invariably, that this narrative of English literature not only entertains and informs the students who bother to read it, but that it also encourages them to go to the historical documents themselves.  The story not only helps them to learn the basics.  It also creates the desire to learn more deeply.

I am writing about all this now because I have just finished another of these books:  Colin Tudge’s The Secret of Trees.  The front cover of my edition proclaims that it is “a love-letter to trees,” but it is more accurately a love story about trees, a story that goes back millions of years and is by no means finished yet.  Tudge does not at all shy away from the technical details of his subject, giving introductions to plant biology, natural history, and botanical classification, among other things, but neither does he dwell on them.  They are simply included as elements of his larger narrative, and this narrative, written as only a lover can write, inspires its readers to love trees too.  More than that, it gave meaning and interest to some of the mere facts of biology that were inflicted on me in highschool.

If some teacher, any teacher, had thought to tell me the story of how mitochondria, and other organelles as well, probably originated as independent simple cells and then invaded other single cells in order to form complex cells, this would have lent a whole lot more meaning to the apparently random shapes that I was labeling in my notes.  If anybody had taken the time to explain how plants use hormones to respond to their environment, I would have had a meaningful point of entry into chemistry.  Yet everyone was so busy trying to transmit information that they failed to make the information meaningful.  Everyone was too busy, too scientific, too objective, and too educated to tell a story.

Yet stories are how we learn, certainly as children, and also, if we are willing to admit it, as adults.  I understand that scientific papers and mathematical proofs serve their purpose, and I am not suggesting that we do without them.  I am only arguing that these things remain mostly meaningless without the context of their stories, and I am also perhaps suggesting that the increasing irrelevance of academia for many people has to do with its inability to remember and recount the stories that give its work meaning. It is these stories that inspire people to learn more, inspire them to love what they learn, and so these stories need to be shared more often.

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