Teaching the ‘Errors of the Past’

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Matthew Sargent, History

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2006

How do you deal with a group of students who know that everything that you teach them is wrong? I had a room full of science majors for whom History 30A, The History of Science from Antiquity to Newton, was their first — and probably their last — foray into the social sciences. To my students, as to many scientists, the past was merely a “repository of error,” and the history of science was only the chronicle of humankind’s gradual purging of mysticism and error from their thoughts as they discovered modern, scientific laws. My goal was to convince them that the ideas long since discarded from the canon of science could teach them something worthwhile about science itself.

I quickly discovered that many of my students saw the past only in relation to modern achievements, and when writing, their analyses separated ancient ideas from their historical context and judged them against a modern set of criteria. A line from one student’s paper reflected this common approach: “Democritus (c. 460BC) was an important figure in ancient science because he laid the foundations of modern chemistry.” I struggled to find a way to make them think historically, to understand how and why ancient theories were thought to work, and, ultimately, to ask why people chose to believe what they did. I needed to find a way to make them consider these scientists and ideas on their own terms, while racing through a fixed reading list that covered 2200 years in fourteen weeks.

To make them come to terms with ancient ideas, I pressed the students to work through the very same problems that faced the early scientists and naturalists. Rather than trying to explain the conclusions that historians have reached, I presented my students with copies of ancient materials and asked them to solve the ancient problems on their own using only the information available at the time. To encourage discussion and save class time, I selected primarily visual materials which everyone could look at together at the beginning of class.

We discussed the blend of naturalism and metaphor in medieval bestiaries, and attempted to find our way across Europe with sets of ancient maps. They examined the drawings of the microscopic world that took seventeenth-century London by storm, solved the experimental problems of renaissance alchemists, and to tried to separate fact from fiction as they looked through a stack of sixteenth-century German pamphlets recording plagues of snakes, heavenly omens, strange animals, and reports from the newly-discovered Americas.

As the weeks went by, the tone of the discussions changed. Rather than pointing out earlier scholars’ failures to arrive at the right answers, my students begin to remark on their ingenuity. Their papers were dramatically improved as well, posing more complex questions — discussing why some ideas resisted change for so long, and asking how and why earlier worldviews were overturned and how our current theories became established. By the time we arrived at the Scientific Revolution, my students were more excited to discuss the modes of behavior, mannerisms, and writing styles that became associated with the new, experimental methods than the content of the science itself. As one of my students commented, she was becoming more interested in how and why science was done than the results it arrived at. These were things that her science classes had never taught her.