Seeing History

There was a natural conservatory on the campus of the school I went to when I was on the east coast.  The grounds were closed at night, probably in an effort to avoid vandalism and drunken shenanigans along with the ensuing party-litter.  On a late night walk through campus one fall evening a group of my friends and I, with the kind of excitement that can only be mustered by the young and all too innocent, slipped through a hole in the fence and explored a place we never bothered to see during the day.  The darkness blurred the trees, dirt path, and plants into one shadowy, patternless whole through which we loudly traipsed, thrilled by our furtiveness.

Eventually half of the group split off and returned to the lighted portion of campus, leaving three of us by a brook, which whispered more effectively than we had managed night.  We stared at the stars and philosophized like the young college students we were.  The only remaining male started talking astronomy, perception and history.  In retrospect he was clearly well-informed and knew exactly what he was talking about, but the night was aging rapidly and the cool breeze tousled our hair and clothes playfully and all I knew at the time was that, although what he said was sweet to think about, it did not feel true.

He explained how when we look at the stars we are literally looking into the past because it takes the light so long to traverse across the universe to grace our night sky.  The stars we are looking at are probably dead and gone, he told us.  The other girl, an intelligent young woman who was a linguist major, took everything he said as truth.  She had probably heard it all before.  I am sure I had, too, but I argued back.

I told him that the time and place from whence this light originated was irrelevant, because by that logic we never see anything in the present.  We are always lagging by microseconds (at the very least), regardless of how close the object of our perception is to us.  If everything we perceive is already in the past, and we are, therefore, incapable of experiencing the present, what use is it to look into the night sky, awed by the fact that we are experiencing something old?  I argued that it made much more sense to recognize that this light, although far away from its origins, existed in a new present, our present.  Because the light from the stars was for the first time entering our perception, it was new again.  My argument was very individualistic, experiential and maybe a little human-centric, but it made sense.  I am really proud of my 19 year old self for holding a rational argument against a peer she did not realize was, at the moment, embodying modern science.

This story makes me ache for the days when education was a forum for discussion instead of a lecture hall that frowns on interaction.  Even though I know now that most of the world thinks that looking at a planet or a star glowing in the ebony sky is a literal glimpse into the past (and even I will admit that it is beautiful idea and the science behind it makes sense), the truth is that I raised some solid arguments when the person I was speaking to was a peer instead of an authority figure.  We are conditioned to believe what our authority figures tell us, regardless of what they are teaching, because we know we will be tested on the material later, so challenging something that does not ring true is counterproductive to success.  Unfortunately, this success is short term (grades in school) instead of long term (learning to think creatively and challenging what we learn, to ensure that we are growing as people instead of just accruing other people’s research and opinions and labeling them as our own.)

Maybe one day we’ll find our way away from the regurgitation system of education and find a way to inspire students to think and prepare them for the real world at the same time.