Letter to a Physics Teacher

Thanks for writing. I always enjoy getting your views.

I understand passions may run high around questions of nomenclature. I’ve seen how the Catholics fight hard to keep a foot in the door when it comes to naming celestial bodies (demoting Pluto and so on). They used to enjoy a near monopoly on such matters until Galileo made them eat crow for a few centuries. Just yesterday a skilled craftsman was bemoaning when everyone felt compelled to stop speaking of kilo-cycles and speak of kilo-hertz instead.

In many schools, the current practice in literature (say in some small private Quaker college, a Haverford or Swarthmore) is to continue reading Mein Kampf and tracing it to Eugenics on Long Island, Cold Spring Harbor, among other places. Social Darwinism did not begin with German nationalism. My own curriculum assigns writings of H.G. Wells, of The Time Machine fame, on assignment in New York between the two wars… we get to War of the Worlds later (and the Orson Welles CBS radio episode).

War Against The Weak by Edwin Black is a respected history, going deeply into all this stuff. What was that about Henry Ford Sr. being anti-Semitic? How did that go again? More assigned readings. He wised up, much to Hitler’s disappointment.

In geek world (which I frequent), I’ve been lately sitting through tutorials on blockchain etc. at OSCON, even while reviewing Triumph of the Will (a classic Third Reich puff piece) — not to spread Nazi propaganda but to remind people (including myself) how propaganda actually works. [1] Our keynote speak pleaded with us to not go over to the dark side. She helps middle Americans stay connected to the municipal water supply… (i.e. I wasn’t the only one worried about fascism).

Meanwhile, as I take the train to and from to the convention center [2], they’re talking “concentration camps” in the news media and “undocumented American” operationally means “slave” (person with no rights or freedoms) to other Americans. We don’t have to look as far back as the Civil War period to appreciate what currents led to it.

I’m glad I was consulted for input regarding physics pedagogy (and even andragogy) by a disciple of Karplus. That’s just autobiography on my part. Did you know Bob was an almost missionary who taught in Burma? I have a connection to him through that circuit as well (I’m friends with a famous Burmese person).

I’m not thereby portraying myself as a physics teacher of course, even if I do know the difference between power (E/t) and energy (hf).

But you were asking about literature.

I’m answering in terms of The Pound Era (Hugh Kenner) in which Fuller features. He helped cheer up Ezra Pound towards the end of that guy’s life. I’ve got whole Youtubes on the subject (overlapping stories from before my time), having done some homework.

From my angle, you can’t credibly call yourself a college teaching 20th Century American literature, and leave Fuller out.

Unless you kick the ball over to philosophy, which might work actually, but then it’s not either/or. A literature professor is free to pick William James.

Physics teachers have no dog in this fight that I can see. Feel free to let me know of an angle I might be missing.

In sum, I’d say your peers in the literature department have to live with the “energy slave” meme as a fact of life because we’re studying an important writer in the American Transcendentalist lineage. We also still read Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and like that. Wall-papering history with newly minted language is maybe not a high priority for us?

Kirby Urner

[1] writing sample (from OSCON)


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