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How Big Is the Universe?

by Dan Lukiv

the school year: 1962/63. I was in grade four, attending Sir Wilfred Grenfell Elementary School in East-side Vancouver, BC. That formal-sounding name perfectly juxtaposed the formalistic schooling I had already experienced there for over three years. I relate perfectly to Neil Sutherland in his "The Triumph of "Formalism": Elementary Schooling in Vancouver from the 1920s to the 1960s." On school days, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., I lived in a world of precision, of upper case versus lower case, of names of capitals and provinces, of reading comprehension questions, of phonics reviews, of math drills, of multiplication facts, and of fact-based quizzes, quizzes, quizzes. Sutherland says, "Teachers would lead the class in chanting a "drill" for the spelling, or the times table, or the number facts, or the capitals of provinces."1 And what made a good teacher? "If a teacher, so parents believed, "drills incessantly on the formal parts of grammar and arithmetic or the facts of history and geography, he is...a good teacher.""1, 2

I knew no other schooling system, so those hours at school actually seemed normal. "It was a [normal] system based on teachers talking and pupils listening, a system that discouraged independent thought, a system that provided no opportunity to be creative".1 But one day in grade four, in 1962/63 still in the clutches of a century of formalism, learning briefly changed for me. Our usually-stern, aloof, precisely-accurate teacher surprisingly said, "We're going to do something different today. We're going to talk about the universe. I'm going to ask you a question, but there is no right or wrong answer. Now then: How big is the universe? Does it go on forever, or does it stop? And if it does stop, how does it stop? Remember, now, there are no wrong answers."

Our teacher worked hard to encourage us to allow our imaginations no limits. I (and my fellow classmates) slowly recovered from the shock of being invited to participate in such an unorthodox assignment. I believe I felt my brain turning on. Perhaps new-found numbers of neurotransmitters had jumped to life. My brain seemed to soar across a chasm filled with 5 x 4 = 20 and other apparently-for-the-moment, unimportant facts to an expanse, a landscape, on which any thinking would do.

What a day! Fifteen years later I learned in UBC3-teacher-training classes that my fellow students and I were brainstorming, creatively dreaming up ideas, and about ten years after that I learned that some people call it lateral thinking. Comments leapt from our grade four-mouths:

"Maybe it never ends" / "How can something never end?" / "Maybe it starts all over again" / "Maybe it ends at a brick wall" / "Could the universe be a circle? So wherever you go, like in a spaceship, you end up back where you started?"

Our teacher, who I remember looked delighted, continued encouraging us to dream up as many possible answers to her "How big is the universe?"-question, until we literally ran out of ideas. How different from lessons I had digested daily at school - lessons for which "teachers conducted individual or group drills of number facts or the times tables [or arithmetic-races that determined winners and losers]". 1 I thought about those possible, and according to our teacher, anything-will-do "universe" answers for hours after that class, in which no one, that I can recall, won or lost or raced. Each time I ran those answers through my mind, I felt exhilarated.

Thereafter, and unfortunately, the daily program of formalistic schooling didn't often offer the luxury of brainstorming - brainstorming within a framework of open-ended discussions (another term I learned about during my UBC-teacher training). Such discussions, for me the food of lateral-thinking ecstasy, or call it sublime creative thought, killed the boredom that Sutherland aptly describes in his sarcastically-named, aforementioned article called (in short) "The Triumph of Formalism":

"Pupils freed themselves from the bonds of [tedious] routine as best they could. Some learned to talk to neighbours in such a way that they were rarely seen or heard, or to throw balls or wads of paper when the teacher was not looking. Some "mastered the skill of copying...without ever needing to comprehend" and were thus able "to dream outdoor matters while rarely missing a word." Others travelled to the pencil sharpener as frequently as they felt they could get away with the practice. This activity was especially popular in classrooms where the sharpener was on the bookcase under a window; then one "could have a look out of the window."" 1

Through the remainder of my public education, I longed for any creative outlet school had to offer, but essentially found none. Granted, art was creative, but I found my limited ability in this subject too frustrating.

In college and university, however, open-ended class discussions of poems, stories, and novels abounded and delighted me. Writing essays, with all the necessary creative thought, the brainstorming, the lateral thinking, fascinated me. These weren't the mind-numbing "essays" I had been asked to write in elementary and high school, such as: "Write an essay about what you did last summer?" That isn't even an essay theme. No argument. No pro/con conflict. No interesting imagery or creativity (usually). Blaaghh! These essays I wrote in college and university, rather, usually engaged my thinking in the complete sense that I had experienced on that grade four "universe" day. For example: "Does Milton Employ Religious Myth or Truth or Both in Paradise Lost? " I loved that assignment! It made me wonder: What is truth? - as opposed to what is not. There was conflict. Creativity. Energy. Yes!

I even had the opportunity to study creative writing at UBC with masters who lived to exercise the creative process. Their influence further taught me that formalism needed extinction. Certainly formalism might serve an emotionless Vulcan on the 1960s "Star Trek"-TV series, but who of us are emotionless pits that serve best as repositories for facts, facts, facts?

Too often, public schooling treated me and my fellow students like such repositories. I am thankful I never experienced what I would call extreme formalism--the British utilitarianism of the 1800s that Dickens dramatically attacks in Hard Times, which, one might say, places Mr. Gradgrind's4 school squarely in a fact-processing nightmare. The formalism I experienced was bad enough.


1 Taken come from Neil Sutherland's "The Triumph of "Formalism": Elementary Schooling in Vancouver from the 1920s to the 1960s", as found in Children, Teachers & Schools: In the History of British Columbia, Detselig Enterprises Ltd., Calgary, Canada, 1995. Note: quotes within quotes come from, in Sutherland's words, "the memories of many anonymous interviewees [who attended public schools from the 1920s to the 1960s]".

2 BC's formalism certainly had public support, and used many essentialist theories on how knowledge should be transmitted from teacher to student. William Chandler Bagley, an influential American professor and essentialist who taught education at the University of Illinois (1908 to 1917), "supported discipline as a factor in teaching method [namely, a traditional teaching method: for example, arithmetic taught by a disciplinarian using the following formula: review, drill, test or review, teach new concept, drill, test], as opposed to pupil initiative and interest. Bagley...favoured a curriculum built around a logical sequence of subject matter...." (1999 World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia: Deluxe Edition, World Book Inc. and IBM Corp., San Diego, California, USA) Sutherland's "Triumph of Formalism..." shows us that BC's educational system favoured the same teaching method and curriculum.

3 The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

4 Dickens satirizes and epitomizes utilitarian education ("[Utilitarianism captured the] spirit of [British] Victorian materialism."--Coles Notes: Hard Times, Coles Publishing Co., Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1992, page 71) in a school-scene in Book I, Chapter II of Hard Times: [Mr. Gradgrind ("Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales and the multiplication table always in his pocket…ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.") asked Sissy Jupe, a free-spirited, new student who had been raised by fun-loving, creative circus people:]

"Give me your definition of a horse."

"(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

"Girl number twenty [Sissy Jupe] unable to define a horse!" said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. "Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours."…

"[Bitzer, a utilitarian prodigy, answered:] "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely, twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth."…

"Now girl number twenty, said Mr. Gradgrind. "You know what a horse is."

"She curtseyed…and would have blushed deeper if she could have blushed deeper than she had blushed all this time."

--Hard Times, A Bantam Book, New York, New York, USA, 1981.

Dan Lukiv is a poet, novelist, short story writer, and article writer. He and his wife are raising three girls in Quesnel, BC, where he teaches creative writing at McNaughton Centre. He also edits a literary journal, CHALLENGER international, which focuses attention on young, up-and-coming Canadian poets.

read his book The Germans From Dortmund online.

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