Romantic Transfer: From Science to Social Ideologies
CitationChen, Chen. 2017. Romantic Transfer: From Science to Social Ideologies. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
AbstractThe transfer of learning is arguably the most enduring goal of education. The history of science reveals that numerous theories transfer from natural-science to the socio-political realm, but educational practitioners often deem such transfers romantic and rhetorical, ignoring the opportunities and challenges such transfers may hold. In terms of opportunities, romantic transfer encourages students to relate science to events in social life and further to discover new ways to understand social issues and propose social hypotheses. In terms of challenge, romantic transfers are often based on superficial and even imprecise understandings of science and depend on oversimplified labels and metaphors. In many cases, the romantic transfers are imaginative. Although logically romantic transfers are based on analogical resonance, empirically they are hardly proven to be valid. Nevertheless, when students imagine social and ideological implications of the hard science terminologies and theorems, they are at risk for considering the emergent ideologies as proven by hard sciences that are often considered authoritative, objective, and universal. Literal understanding of science-inspired by still unexamined ideologies can lead to maladaptive and even dangerous social actions. Because many of the romantic transfers are interdisciplinary and controversial, teachers may avoid explicit discussion about romantic transfer with students, and do not wish to assume responsibility of doing so. However, the question remains whether avoiding explicit discussion and debates about romantic transfer would inhibit students from spontaneously romanticize science concepts. This dissertation presents four studies that systematically investigate questions of romantic transfer—informal, emergent, and metaphorical boundary transections from natural science to social ideologies that often occur unexpectedly.
My first study shows that participants who scored high in transferential thinking style also scored high in scientism beliefs and that participants who scored high on both tend to give literal interpretations to (religious) text. Following, my second study shows that students who reviewed the conservation of energy in physics are more likely to believe that luck is conserved, a naïve karmic religious idea. My third study shows that students are able to transfer spontaneously from theories in physics to more politically charged contexts. Specifically, students who learned the theory of entropy are more likely to prefer tightened social control, whereas students who learned self-organization theory are more likely to prefer stronger individual agency and relaxed social control. Study-4 involved interviews with the participants from Study-3 and shows that students’ narratives about social control are largely consistent with the thermodynamic concepts they have learned. Occasionally, students can critically evaluate the plausibility of their romantic transferences.
This dissertation shows that science instruction implicitly empowers students to make social hypotheses and to engage in moral-civic-political discourse. To consider pedagogies that respond to such an opportunity without falling victim to hasty generalizations, we need both science and civic educations to equip students with the methods to examine self-generated social hypothesis. We also need pedagogies that promote the awareness and tolerance of metaphors to offset the dangers of literalism.
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