Educational Practice

‘Earth Sciences’

Simon’s post about Henri Bortoft has brought me back to an old question of mine: why is ‘Goethean’ science so important to education?

Now my first experience of Goethean science was as a rebellious teenager under the stern tuition of Margaret Colquhoun, founder of the Pishwanton Project. Her lessons were strict, and the first time around I didn’t really understand the whole thing. It came across as an overcomplicated form of meditation. The following year I was backup in Scotland for another short stay at Pishwanton, and this time was slightly better. I began to understand that the science was a model for observation, and it was designed to bring your object of study closer. The work in the fields and the woodlands was enjoyable, and my view of Goethean science changed once again. At this point it seemed like a nice, homely and mellow way of conducting research, and little else.

Some of my other studies at the time were revolving around ‘earth sciences’. These were essentially modules of applied science, run in a ‘Goethean’ manner- that is to say, practical, reverential and engaged. From skinning deer to purifying clay, building cameras to smelting iron, the sciences were placed in the perspective of human capability. Although at the time I did not understand the educational theory behind the curriculum, these sciences were immensely enjoyable. A key point, that I will return to later, was that each of the science tutors were working professionals, not trained teachers.

Several years later I am enrolled at Schumacher College, and the visiting tutors for the first two weeks are both definitive voices on Goethean Science: Henri Bortoft and Margaret Colquhoun. Apprehensive though I was about another week with Margaret, this time I would be prepared with the theory beforehand. As Henri spoke that first week he covered the history of phenomenology and outlined the central dynamism of perception that moderates the way we observe ourselves observing. Heady, abstract and mind-bending only begins to describe this week, but Henri carefully guided us through the quagmire of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, until eventually we returned to the most renaissance of them all: Goethe.

Margaret’s week stood in stark contrast- a week of experience and sense-exploring. Yet this time, I began to understand the need for the structure in Goethean Science. For the process to work, you as the observer have to fully commit, to become self-similar to the observed. In essence, it is the ultimate act of empathy.

So to return to its place in secondary education there are many immediate benefits. Firstly, the process demands active listening and active participation, both with the class and the other-than-human world. Whilst working directly on a student’s emotional intelligence, this is also a group-skills class in listening and deep democracy. The work of Humane Education has clearly demonstrated the importance of facilitating exchanges between the ‘natural’ world and students, and Goethean Science continues and deepens that process in an academic manner.

Secondly, teaching earth sciences such as smelting, leatherworking, building and soap making instills a wonderful sense of empowerment in students. Not only are they fulfilling their innate creative drive, they are creating products of genuine value. On the whole, Goethean Science costs far less than standard lab experiments, and takes your students out into the world and their community rather than cooping them up in a classroom.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most subtle, is the reframing of perspective that happens when you work with natural materials in this way. The everyday treadmill of consumerism is not stopped, but it is recognised a little more clearly. Appreciation of hand-crafts is an important testament to human potential (see this lovely manifesto for a quick intro). After spending a month building a forge, smelting, forging and hammering iron to make a small butter knife, even things like a full cutlery drawer become more meaningful! This subtle sense of recognising quality and hard work in the world acts as an invitation to students to make the best for themselves, and to dream of what it is they really want.

All this is far more than one finds in your everyday science classroom. If students can tackle philosophy then a classes in applied phenomenology aren’t that far away, and I think our science education would be all the better for it.


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