It was a fossil skull and some latex that provided my first exposure to experiential learning in school, in which information and experience merge into creative ideas, values are probed and transformed, character molded, and motivation to contribute to a better world inspired.
The skull was a 50 million year-old fossil from Wyoming and its discoverer was Leonard Radinsky, a paleontology professor at the University of Chicago where I spent two years as an undergraduate student beginning in 1968. Embodied within that time in Chicago is much of what is wrong, and could be right, about how we teach.
It was a curious choice to spend most of my freshman year carefully scraping the sand and dirt from a fossil skull rather than attend classes. The University of Chicago was and still is considered one of the world’s most distinguished universities, renowned for its “Life of the Mind” curriculum, exposing students to the entire history of human thought in science, arts, literature, history, and politics.
While the university attempted to immerse we students in the great minds, the city outside was close to a state of war, convulsed with protests against the war in Vietnam, recent police brutality at the Democratic National Convention, and the horrific poverty and crime spilling over from the adjacent black ghetto on the south side of Chicago.
The curriculum suffered from being “the best of,” a survey of what a team of distinguished academics considered necessary to become educated. We grazed at history, literature, science, and art, reading The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, plays by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, and Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.
We saw innumerable slides of classic sculpture and painting from cave days through the Greeks and on to Picasso, and recited poems to each other by Walt Whitman and Robert Frost. We learned to write obtuse academic essays, and to nod sagely at each other’s witty insights without admitting that most of what we were writing and our discussions were lifeless.
It wasn’t the fault of the great books or art, which of course have much to offer. Rather, we were bouncing too quickly through the best of human thought, intellects trying to fire but without passion or life experience to provide context.
The flip side of my University of Chicago education was happening outside the classroom, at protests against the war in Vietnam and the university’s ownership of a three-block zone of abandoned buildings that buffered the campus from the surrounding ghetto. I sat in at the administration building, marched to end poverty and racism, and chanted clever slogans to show my solidarity with the oppressed.
These social and political experiences were engaging, considerably more so than the classroom. They provided the passion we students craved, but lacked the structured reflection that should be the bread and butter of a university education. We were enthused in the streets to change the world, a good thing in young and restless minds, but had no tools or skills to apply towards our good intentions.
Our professors missed the potential teachable moments, had little inkling that community and university could interact, and overlooked opportunities to connect academia with contemporary real-world events.
Lingering outside these two disconnected worlds of town and gown was a compelling personal reality: I needed to earn some money if I was to stay in school and maintain my student exemption from the U.S. military draft, which loomed as a heavy consequence of dropping out.
My salvation came in the form of an advertisement for a research assistant in the Department of Anatomy. Professor Leonard Radinsky was seeking an undergraduate student to assist in a project studying brain evolution in carnivores. I had no interest in brains, or carnivores, but it was a job, and since I was the only applicant, my lack of experience or any interest in the field were not barriers.
His project involved a narrow, highly academic topic of interest to but a few specialists, and no apparent relevance to the street protests that were engaging most of my enthusiasm. Radinsky studied the Tertiary era, especially 45-56 million year-old fossils from Wyoming, a time and place when the ancestors of current carnivores thrived while other then-populous lines of carnivores declined and disappeared.
His window into the information retained in fossils was to pour liquid latex into ancient skulls to create casts. He then examined the impressions on the solidified latex to deduce the size and fold structures of the long-ago brains. His work tested a theory rampaging at the time through the tiny community of brain paleontologists, that successful carnivores evolved larger brains and essentially out-thought the evolutionary losers.
Radinsky was deeply engaged in this esoteric line of work, yet also was politically and socially committed to social justice in the world beyond his laboratory. He moved effortlessly between expounding with great enthusiasm on an enlarged fold in the neocortex of an ancient mammal’s brain to why the university should provide free tuition to residents of the south-side Chicago ghetto that surrounded us.
My first fossil to clean and cast was from a line of carnivores that didn’t make it out of the Tertiary. Radinsky handed it to me casually, with no apparent concern that I would fumble and destroy this irreplaceable relic from an extraordinarily distant past. He put a higher priority on my learning than he did on the history that I might destroy in the process.
It didn’t look like much, covered by a concretion of sand and pebbles. I gingerly began to chip away and emerge the fossil within, feeling a responsibility for preserving the information embedded in the skull, focus and interest enhanced by the real consequences if my hand slipped or my attention wandered, infused with that sense of wonder and engagement that had eluded me in the classroom.
Slowly the fossil was revealed, after many weeks of meticulously slow and painstaking work, until I could pour in the latex and pop out the cast holding impressions made by the brain on its surrounding skull. It was a poignant moment, seeing the folds and valleys of an animal that not only was long dead itself, but whose descendants had gone extinct through the crucible of natural selection.
Radinsky brought the same qualities to politics that he lived in the laboratory. We went back and forth from brain evolution to what was happening in the streets outside, subjects not connected by topic but through a style of thinking based at the balance point between wonder and fact, emotion and information, passion and analysis.
Fossils and the Vietnam War held little in common, but the attitudes learned at the fossil trays through the tedium of slow, careful work on the specimens spilled over into dialogue about the tumult outside the laboratory walls.
Radinsky drilled down hard on developing ideas about the effective tools for political transformation, much as he probed the mechanisms of evolutionary change. Would taking over the administration building really advance the end of the war? Did we protesting students actually know anyone from the surrounding ghetto, or were we just as isolated as the official university from the community around us?
For Radinsky, revealing the secrets of ancient, now-extinct organisms was consistent with his political activism. He connected how science could and should serve humanity through systematic, rigorous probing and the wondrous information science reveals about how we evolved and our position in the contemporary world around us.
We need to find the equivalent of fossil skulls and latex for every student, connecting the rarefied intellectual discourse of the classroom and the emotional, issue-challenged world outside.
Our challenge is to expand learning beyond narrow disciplinary boundaries to inspire students to improve the world around them and provide the expertise and motivation to do just that.