Teaching geology

This morning I put that title into Google and hit the button. A typical response followed: a zillion things to sort through. Adding one more to the zillion does not seem significant, one way or the other.

I started in the Fall of 1963, the term wherein JFK got shot. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley followed the next year, and we were off and running through the 60’s. The question hung over my head for many years: In the face of all that was going on, what was the relevance of teaching geology? Was there any significance beyond being a decent way to make a reasonable living for my family. The answer to that question emerged slowly over the decades. But that’s not my path this morning.

My first teaching assignment was in two courses: Introductory Geology and Physical Science. The latter course was basically physics, for which I was only marginally qualified to teach. Oddly enough, it was that course that was easier for me to handle than the Geology course, for which I was highly “qualified”.  The unfolding of physics from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein follows an historical narrative path that can be followed with only a little algebra. But the geology course just seemed to be a hodge-podge of assorted facts about the Earth, in spite of the then-new Gilluly text. Modern texts have Plate Tectonics commonly as an organizing theme, but I found that only marginally better. The texts present the answer without asking the question!

The physical science  course, and textbook, presented the material along an historical line, the way it was learned in the first place. The pedagogy followed the phyllogeny, so the ontogeny of the individual student unfolded in the same way. Or at least it seemed so to me as I was both learning and teaching the subject. Paradoxically, we don’t teach geology that way. Paradoxically because we ignore our own history when introducing the first historical science. “The mind grows giddy…” said Playfair. Giddy, and perhaps more than a little afraid of the abyss of time.


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