Friday, May 3, 2013

The Perils of Unsanctioned Thought in School

Kiera Wilmot
By now, you probably know Kiera Wilmot’s story. This past Monday, Wilmot, 16, and an unnamed peer combined aluminum foil and toilet bowl cleaner in a closed bottle to see what happens. This is called a “works bomb,” for obvious reasons, and when the bomb worked, Wilmot got escorted off school grounds in handcuffs. Now the former straight-A student has been expelled, though her expulsion remains eligible for appeal.

Mere days later, Wilmot has become a cause célèbre, attracting attention especially for the way schools treat seemingly minor infractions from minority students. A well-liked student at a middle class Southern high school, Wilmot was treated like a criminal for reproducing a chemical reaction so simple that it’s often used as demonstration fodder in classrooms. But the racial aspect may be this story’s least interesting implication.

Nobody should deny that Wilmot’s experiment was dangerous. Garage scientists have been grievously harmed building similar devices. But all learning carries inherent risk. I once sloppily took the push block off a sheet of plywood I’d just cut in shop class, letting the wood kick backward across the circular blade, right into my groin. Half an inch to the right, and my dreams of starting a family would have ended before they began.

I care more about the attitude some, including the school, show regarding this incident’s pedagogical value. Where I see a classic teachable moment, when teachers and administrators could discuss the value of safety management and personal protection, many jump straight to seeing this as a crime. One Facebook friend commented: “Her blowing up a water bottle had nothing to do with any class she was in. To blow stuff up at school, out of curiosity, that's ok?”

I find the presumption in this comment telling. To this person, “science” happens in Science Class, under credentialed supervision. “Experiments” should not be undertaken unless outcomes are predictable. “Curiosity” has nothing to do with learning, unless teachers can channel it into approved curriculum. Students should essentially sit down, shut up, and receive information from on high.

Thank God this killjoy didn’t govern the schools I attended. I attempted many experiments that, under today’s Zero Tolerance regime, could have gotten me jailed. I remember multiple occasions, under teachers’ watchful gaze, when I literally mixed two chemicals grabbed at random in a corked test tube over a Bunsen burner. I only quit my childhood dream of becoming a scientist when I realized it’s damned hard to explode a test tube.

America today suffers an epidemic of Magical Thinking. Far from a mere buzzword, Magical Thinking is a technical term describing what happens when people see events as essentially disconnected, happening without cause. They refuse, for instance, to acknowledge links between cigarettes and cancer, or between burning hydrocarbons and climate change. We project our thoughts onto the world, rather than subjecting thoughts to evidence.

This manifests most prominently in a form of religious conservatism that rejects empirical evidence which does not accord with beliefs. Some Christians, for instance, wholly discount evolutionary biology, because it differs from the Genesis creation. To bolster these positions, Magical Thinkers mine scientific texts for evidence of any contradiction whatsoever. For such people, science is not a process, but the words which dribble from scientists’ mouths, or pens.

Richard  Feynman
Scientists, by definition, doubt. That does not mean they disbelieve, but they want someone, possibly themselves, to subject any position to tests before accepting it. While about half of American scientists say they subscribe to some religious creed, they do not receive beliefs passively; they examine texts, evidence, and lived experience to the point where, as Richard Feynman puts it, they reduce doubt to the smallest possible level.

Feynman made his name on the Manhattan Project. While there, he determined—against majority opinion—that nuclear flash blindness was manageable, not necessarily permanent. To prove it, though his evidence was not absolute, he sat in the cab of a pickup truck, shielded only by the tinted windscreen, to watch Operation Trinity, the first nuclear explosion. He thus became the only person to look directly at a nuclear fireball without going blind.

Kiera Wilmot, like Richard Feynman, wanted to know. So, though her evidence was incomplete, she made an effort. And for such unsanctioned curiosity, she may have a permanent black mark on her record. But American education has something far worse. It now has an open confession, on the public record, that mandatory schooling isn’t about learning, it’s about obedience. Learn without permission at your own risk.

On a related topic:
Gatto's School of Immeasurable Meaning


  1. I had a curious friend in high school who constructed some kind of similar device, I don't know the details, and wedged it between blocks in the family home foundation.

  2. The WEIRD is WEIRDING badly in this!