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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 256-259

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Gerald Graff at the Museum of Natural History

Robin Valenza

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I first read Gerald Graff's (1987) Professing Literature on an airplane from San Francisco to New York in 1999. Perhaps suffering from a lack of oxygen, I also suffered from a lack of imagination: I could not picture what Graff's recommendations for "teaching the conflicts" would look like in a classroom.

Filing Graff away, I visited New York's Museum of Natural History, a place I remembered from my childhood as a series of fusty Victorian caves where one went to see nineteenth-century reconstructions of tyrannosaurs and triceratops, duly labeled with kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, with little more explanation or inspiration.

But when I arrived at the museum, I discovered that in the mid-1990s it had been not only physically but conceptually remodeled. The exhibits now describe how scientists theorize about dinosaurs: what their paradigms are and how their founding premises have changed over time. There are several displays where competing hypotheses are shown side by side. Their captions explain that paleontology is often in flux because scientists disagree on how [End Page 256] to account for particular phenomena. These exhibits give the broad outlines of what the rival paradigms are and why their proponents value them.

This museum is aimed at a fifth-grade level. I realized that if theoretical frameworks could be set against one another and anatomized so that a ten-year-old could understand them, surely such a thing would be possible in a college literature classroom.

Before I tried to project onto my teaching of literature what I had learned from Graff at the natural history museum, I looked at the early reviews of the remodeled dinosaur exhibits. Some of the critics complain in a curmudgeonly manner about the "Disneyfication" of the museum. They argue that the updated hall of vertebrates has lost its scientific integrity because it makes the technical too accessible. 1 They suggest that the previous, bare, Victorian way was better, because it refused to simplify merely for the sake of entertainment. They accuse the museum of being more interested in determining what will make its exhibits popular than in underscoring what makes the material the specialized preserve of professional paleontologists.

In going over these critiques, I realized that while I admire the museum's valiant reconception of public science, the naysayers do have a point. No matter how much remodeling a science museum undergoes, it will never offer visitors the opportunity to participate in the creation of new scientific knowledge—too much technical training is required. The museum reports on science and scientists; visitors learn about science at a remove. They do not do science. This is a side effect of the high degree of specialization in contemporary science. In even the best museums, members of the public are spectators, not true participants.

The same is often true of science students. In science classrooms from elementary school through most of college, students are generally taught to reproduce experiments done many times before. They do experiments whose outcomes are predetermined and will not contribute original knowledge to the scientific world. Science education often, necessarily, keeps the student and the spectator in a subordinate role.

The broad outlines of this debate over teaching science to the public and to the student probably seem familiar to the literary scholar. This controversy raises questions about the necessity of erecting or maintaining barriers to technical knowledge and about the appropriateness of simplifying or restating information for the sake of education. It falls to us as teachers of literature to ask how far this parallel goes: Do the same limitations on how much an audience can understand or contribute to a discipline also apply in a literature classroom? Does teaching the conflicts between literary scholars, as between [End Page 257] scientists, mean teaching about them or, at best, teaching students to reproduce them? If so, is this enough? Are we trying to produce entertainment? Appreciation? Knowledge?

After experimenting with a pedagogy infused with some combination...


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