This post was published as part of an assignment in CLASS 108 in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.
What is the sun? Who was the first person? How did everything begin? Throughout history people in all societies have invented stories to answer profound questions such as these. In ancient Greece the sun was believed do be driven across the firmament by the god Helius in a golden chariot. Among the Norse people of Scandinavia the god Odin created the first humans out of two tree trunks. In the Judea-Christian mythology the universe was brought into being by a god in the space of six days. What all these stories have in common is that they were all created by humans in an attempt to explain natural phenomena that at the time were beyond the reach of the society’s knowledge. Acknowledging myths as stories invented to explain aspects of the world around us that defy rational and evidence-based explanations creates a dilemma when it comes to disseminating the myth, in particular when the myth is presented as a truth to young children. Children learn about the natural world largely from adults they view as authorities, e.g. parents, extended family and teachers, and are limited in their ability to critically evaluate stories they are told and to discern truth from fiction. In light of this, should we be telling myths to children and if we do, how should they be told?
Already Socrates, almost 2500 years ago, acknowledged that myths can be harmful, in particular when told to children that are more impressionable,
For a child cannot discriminate between what is allegory and what is not; and whatever at that age is adopted as a matter of belief, has a tendency to become fixed and indelible;.(Plato, Republic. 379a.)
For Socrates the objection to certain myths is not based on whether they are told as truths or fiction, but rather whether they portray gods or heroes in an unflattering light. Socrates uses the story of Uranus’ mistreatment of his children with Gaia and the subsequent revenge by castration at the hands of his son Kronos in Hesiod’s Theogony as an example of an “ugly story” (Plato, Republic. 377e.) not appropriate for children. Another example of an inappropriate myth in which gods appear in an unflattering light is the chaining of Hera by her son and Hephaestus being cast down from the heavens when trying to save his mother from being beaten (Plato, Republic. 378d). The main reason Socrates believed myths need to be censored for children is to ensure a proper education for the future guardians of the state (Plato, Republic. 376d.). In the Republic, Socrates advocates a totalitarian state ruled by an elite class by exploring what makes a society and its individuals well-balanced. To defend the state and expand its territories the state must possess a strong well-trained army, the so called guardians. According to Socrates, myths play a central role in the education of the guardians and are supposed instill fearlessness and discipline (Plato, Republic. 361).
Did the ancients truly believe the myths of their time? Although the historical records describing life in societies such as ancient Greece are incomplete there are good reasons to assume that people actually did believe in the gods of their time and the myths they were being told. One compelling reason for this is the existence of myths held to be true in virtually all contemporary societies, industrialized or otherwise, that often are remarkably similar to the myths of other societies. This brings us to a paradoxical question. Why is it that many people today in the Western industrialized world have no trouble dismissing ancient Greek myths as fictional while at the same time have no qualms about a literal belief in the Judea-Christian myth of man being created in an image of God and women created from one of Adam’s ribs? The answer is of course that which set of myths you happens to believe in depends on when and where you were born. If you would have been born in ancient Greece you would have quite likely believed in Zeus while if you were born in 20th century North America you are most likely to believe in a Judea-Christian God. As a result, while myths cannot explain the natural world around us they can provide insight into human experiences, social norms, rituals, ceremonies, cultural practices, art and language. In other words, it is how we interpret and use myths that determine their usefulness. The British ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins makes the argument that myths can never offer a true explanation of reality and have the potential to inhibit rational and evidence based reasoning;
To say something happened supernaturally is not just to say 'We don't understand it' but to say 'We will never understand it, so don't even try'. (Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality (New York: Free Press, 2011), 23.)
In other words, when trying to understand the true nature of reality, myths interpreted as actual truths can inhibit our ability to even ask the right questions.
While most modern societies are very different from Socrates’ ideals, myths remain an important aspect in the upbringing of children. Typically myths in modern societies are either imposed on children as belief systems presented as being the truth, e.g. religious myths or the myths about Santa Claus, or as fictional myths having an entertainment or educational value, e.g. The Brothers Grimm, Disney and Harry Potter. What can we learn from Socrates’ ideas about the role of these different types of myths in the education of children in modern societies? Following Dawkins’ line of argument, presenting myths to children as truths is analogous to Socrates’ “ugly story” concept with the key difference being that rather than gods and heroes being portrayed in an unfavourable light it is the world around us that is being explained by invoking arbitrary supernatural explanation.
While the invention of myths may appear as natural in societies lacking an evidence-based scientific method, such as among the Norse people of Scandinavia, the persistence of established myths in societies having an evidence-based scientific method is somewhat of a paradox. For example, while science has made great advances in the last 150 years since the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. (London: John Murray, 1859).) in providing robust and sound explanations for the origin of biological diversity, including humans, a strong believe in creation myths abound in many societies throughout the world. In U.S.A., for example, there are politically powerful movements lobbying to include the teaching of the Judea-Christian myth of divine creation (usually referred to as Intelligent Design or Creationism) as part of the biological sciences curriculum in public education (National Centre for Science Education. http://www.ncse.com). Similarly, the central role myths played throughout the existence of ancient Greek civilization stands in contrast to the great advances achieved in science, philosophy and mathematics during this period. For example, the myth of Helius and Aristotle’s geocentric model of the world both explain the daily movement of the sun across the sky with the key difference that the former relies on a supernatural explanation and the latter on evidence-based reasoning. For Socrates this distinction would not have been relevant and since the myth of Helius is not an “ugly story” this myth would have been allowed to be told to children.
Although myths cannot provide an explanation of the natural world they nevertheless play an important role in all human societies. Having a broad general knowledge about myths from different societies, past and present, is important for our understanding and appreciation of the history, traditions and rituals of various societies through times. For example, in order to understand the significance of coins often being found in ancient Greek tombs we need to not only understand the burial practices of the time but also the myths associated with death and the afterlife. In ancient Greece placing a coin with the deceased was considered an important social responsibility of the family as it would allow the soul of the deceased to enter the world of the dead. According to the myth the coin was a payment to the ferryman Charon for ferrying the soul across the river Styx. Those that were not able to pay (i.e. were buried without a coin) would wander on the shores of the river and could come back to the world of the living as ghosts to haunt people. Similar burial practices and myths of death and the afterlife are found in other cultures through history and illustrate the importance of myth for understanding cultures and traditions. As a result, instead of telling certain myths to children as being truths while censoring other myths (the way Socrates proposes) we should teach myths to children using a comparative and inclusive approach. For example, while many children from a very young age in the modern western world are familiar with the myth of the Biblical flood very few would be familiar with the other flood themed myths that exist in a wide range of societies, e.g. the flood conjured up by Zeus to punish the wicked mortals in ancient Greek mythology. Teaching children about myths from a diverse set of mythological traditions, e.g. the various flood themed myths, would allow them to explore the connections between the myths and societies enabling them, as they grow older, to gain an intuitive understanding of the central role myths have played throughout the history of the world.
At what age should one start telling myths to children? Similarly to the commonly accepted wisdom that children benefit from being read too as early as possible there is no age that is to young to start telling children stories that describe our world, whether they describe the realities of the natural world or myths explaining social phenomena or cultural traditions. The benefit of early exposure to the facts and fictions of our world is something many religious traditions have successfully been exploring ever since the dawn of civilization. For example, many Sunday schools in the greater Edmonton area accept children from the age of three with the aim of “introducing our children to the stories the Bible” (Anglican Church of Canada in the Diocese of Edmonton. URL: http://www.christchurchedmonton.org/?page_id=19). Obviously a three year old child is much too young to understand these stories and their messages. The aim of starting at an early age is to establish the stories (myths and facts) as a natural and integral part of child’s upbringing so that once they grow up they will be able to appreciate the significance of myths in our society and be able to discern supernatural explanations of the world from factual explanation.
Science classrooms are unique learning environments unlike any other classrooms. As a matter of fact, some things only happen in science classrooms. Here is a collection of event that happened in my own science classroom over the last school year. It's a growing list, so check back for updates.
Report from yours truly live-tweeting and navigating the melee at GETCA 2015 (Annual Greater Edmonton Teachers' Conference).
Can a pencil be more than just your average run of the mill pencil? The legendary Palomino Blackwing Pearl can take a student or teacher's writing to new heights. We have taken a batch of the Pearls for a spin and are blown away by how much writing and sketching can be transformed by this unassuming pencil.
Dr. Pineda's Classroom is going YouTube with the release of its first screencast on the exciting topic of calculating percents. Only time will tell if this is the start of something big and shiny or just a passing fad.
After several weeks working on setting up habitats for new classroom animals the big day finally arrived. The newest addition to our classroom include aquatic denizens in our new aquarium and a teenage bearded dragon with lots of attitude and no table manners.