Field of Science

Biological significance of political boundaries

About a dozen years ago after returning from a couple of months of tropical field work I though wouldn't it be a really great idea to get some of our students out of the familiar agro-urban environments of Lincolnland and teach them about tropical rain forest first hand. This has been a most successful endeavor, although not without having been a gigantic pain at times in terms of logistics, red tape, and other non-educational factors.

Although things had gone along well enough, it was long since past time to have this highly successful education endeavor recognized as a formal course offering. Now any good academic knows what a huge amount of hassle is involved with proposing a new course, even one that has been taught annually, successfully, via a loophole. But still the arguments were strong, and the track record good. So you can imagine my surprise to receive the following question posed by a curriculum committee whose collective intelligence is now exposed as a inconceiveably low.

"How can you justify to the tax payers of Lincolnland your use of limited resources to take students on a tour of tropical rain forest in some Central American country?"

Wow! Such a sheer naked exposition of ignorance has a way of taking my breath away. But the chair of the committee assured me this was a serious question and approval could hang in the balance depending upon the eloquence of my response.

I did my best. I cannot for the life of me think of one single way in which the arbitrary political boundaries of our particular tribe have any bearing upon the biology of organisms, the interrelated web of life, the truly global knowledge that is biology. True, political boundaries do play a great role in making the study of biology and the travel of biologists and their students a trying and more difficult task, what with all their rules and regulations. You see there just isn't a Lincolnland biology, or a 'Mercan" biology, either. There is one biology. The effects of tropical deforestation will not have to apply for a visa or seek papers from the Lincolnland bureaucracy.

I cannot help but wonder what the questioners might think are justifiable topics to teach students in our particular kingdom? Do members of this committee who have approved all manner of "tours" and study abroad courses think rain forest biology less relevant to biology majors than European history or foreign language is to humanities majors? Can well-educated academics actually be so ignorant, so scientifically illiterate? So I am dealing with people who only know human cultural artifacts as matters of significance. Imagine what this committee demands of astronomers! What do you mean our state isn't the exact center of the Universe?

And we take our students on a field trip, during which I am an instructor, an educator. There is a single destination, the class goes there and learns tropical biology through instruction and investigation. I'm not a tour guide and the class is not on a tour. While I know this type of superficial travel is the norm in the humanities, it isn't how we do business in biology. Of course, some institutions do take their biology students on tours, and some have stopped by the particular field station where our field trip takes place. They come, they go, and still my class investigates, studies, and learns. And while the "tour guides" rush around with all the logistics, us instructors, provide direction, send our troops out to learn, while we sit on the veranda drinking excellent coffee and watch the tours pack their gear. The difference between a field trip and a tour are very profound. Want to bet which participants learn more?

Of course our official purpose is to "train people for the work force of Lincolnland". So just by educating students, I'm failing to fulfill my duty to the taxpayers "train". Sit up! Speak! What's one more transgression?

Then there is the truly amazing fact that the students themselves pay for this educational experience in the tropics. The taxpayers aren't supporting this in any direct, substantive means at all. I'd better get a junior colleague to write the response because I'm not sure I can do it without tearing their heads off!

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