Urchins in the storm

Saturday night, late, when I walked out under the stars, I was amazed yet again at how many and how bright they are. Living in a sea-side city means living with urban and industrial lighting and a wet, clouded atmosphere. I get to see some stars, but not many. The woods, on a clear autumn evening, presents a breath-taking spectacle.

I was caught, just for a moment, by the thought that if only I could get my class out there for three or four hours certain things about astronomy and physics might become clearer. This was a silly idea, of course. But it gave me cause to reflect on my own experiences, growing up in a rural setting. Background knowledge. It's the thing I keep bumping up against.

In any case, Thanksgiving in the woods provided a lovely setting for reading Stephen Jay Gould's collection of essays about biology and biologists titled An Urchin In The Storm. I'm not sure I learned much biology - a little more about evolution, a little more about classification, a little more about genetics. But they were interesting essays, and I'll read them again later and learn even more. Sadly, I can't think of anyone else who would enjoy them: certainly they demand too much prior knowledge to be accessible to my learners. (Joan S. Gottlieb remains our science guide of choice.)

These essay demand too much prior knowledge, yes, but also something else... The leisure time and reading confidence needed to read a page on Ernest Just's breakthrough work on fertilization of invertebrates and be okay with not understanding much of it. I was on vacation. I could watch the mist lift from the lake in the morning or pace painstaking along a wood trail following a set of moose tracks, before returning to work on the wharf or split some more wood. Then, I'd sit by the fire for a bit after lunch, and read another half dozen pages.


My learners don't have leisure. Even the ones who aren't on some kind of mandated timeline lack the leisure to just read and think about things, without a plan, without hurrying, without worry, without strife.

Probably, somewhere, sometime, adult learning should be an act of leisure. But I'm back in the city now.

Where things are different.

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