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  • Science by Poetry, Fiction by Geometry:Interdisciplinary Reading and Writing
  • Ruth D. Weston

As we face a world growing smaller, the humanities must interface with other disciplines, not only to avoid being left behind in an increasingly technological world but also to help ensure that—together with the scientists, engineers, and technical designers of our world—we achieve a more humane community. But reasons even more basic than such intracultural dialogue exist for an interdisciplinary approach to undergraduate education in reading and writing. Beyond the common denominator of language itself is the fact that all true knowledge is interdisciplinary. Thus, a primary educational objective should be the proliferation of interdisciplinary courses in teaching students how to think. Creativity in both science and the humanities partakes of the same cognitive learning processes, a fact that has been obscured by increasing divisions of learning into disciplines. One of the most alarming measures of this institutionalization is the disproportionately low percentage of professors of science who see themselves as teachers of critical thinking skills; most leave that basic chore to English teachers, who in turn may be ill-equipped to connect with what the non-humanities majors in their classes already know.1

English teachers, with students from all disciplines, have a unique opportunity to prepare them for the future by emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of genuine education. Two avenues for achieving such emphasis are already open: (1) "literature and science" courses taught by interdisciplinary faculty teams and (2) English composition courses that bear the rubric "reading and writing across the disciplines." A recent panel on literature and science courses was sponsored by the Society for Literature and Science, which concentrates on the history of ideas, and which was founded in 1985 under the aegis of the Modern Language Association. Leading the panel were Lance Schachterle of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Frank Durham, a professor of physics at Tulane University. Although Durham designs his course to interest students in what the universe is like, he and his colleague Valerie Greenberg, professor of German, believe that instructors must "transcend expertise" to help students see the connections between disciplines in the history of ideas. Not every college or university offers literature and science courses, but all offer English courses in expository writing, which, I believe, can properly employ a similar pedagogy. Surely, more meaningful learning will take [End Page 295] place if we who most often teach critical thinking take the initiative in making connections among the fragmented disciplines in the history of ideas instead of leaving it up to students to find connections as best they can. The two subtopics of my essay focus on ways of perceiving these connections.

"Science by Poetry" refers to the use of metaphor as a common tool of scientific reasoning and to the fact that metaphoric writing such as poetry should not be alien to the thought processes of students of any scientific or technological field. The basis for my thinking here is a lecture by Robert Frost at Amherst College in 1930, reprinted in the Norton Reader as "Education by Poetry," in which Frost argues that the most profound thinking begins in the use of metaphors. He discusses scientific thinking, beginning with Pythagoras's comparison of the universe with numbers, including the analogous concepts of evolution and growing plants extended to the idea of the universe as a growing thing. Frost demonstrates how scientists use metaphors to discuss the unknown in terms of the known, a method leading to the establishment of hypotheses. He asserts that metaphors (analogies) work well for a while but ultimately fail, and thus whoever depends on them had better be "at ease with figurative values…, that is, [had better] know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness… [to know] when it may break down…" (1030).

That scientists think in metaphoric terms is easily demonstrated in writings that lay readers can understand. One of the best I've found is too long for use in English composition courses, but it would be effective in a literature and science course; its title alone illustrates the idea. I mean Robert Jastrow's The Enchanted Loom , an excellent and very readable book on the development...


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