Friday, April 16, 2010


With all the news about the eruption at Eyjafjallajökull, and its impact on air travel in Europe, there are a number of tropes that keep coming up as reporters working independently keep coming up with the same "new" angles that others have already covered hundreds of times. One of those is the Laki eruption of 1783. For all that I most often find these repetitive, and more often than not, already know most if not all of the information presented, every now and then there's a little gem that makes me gasp. From BBC,
Today children learn about the Laki in school and because of the frequent volcanic eruptions, geology and the study of lava is a compulsory part of the education curriculum.
Now that's very interesting. Geology and the earth sciences are largely neglected in US schools. At the K-12 level (with a few exceptions; I think New York requires a high school level earth science class), geology is watered down and relegated to 7th or 8th grade. I have analyzed a number of those mid-level curricula, dating from the 60's to the mid 90's, and for the most part they're simply awful (again, with a few exceptions). At the college level, other than degree tracks, geology is often presented as "rocks for jocks," that is, with the assumption that the students are uninterested meatheads, unable and unwilling to make broad connections from the curricula to societal concerns. Not only is this unfair to the science and society, it unfairly reinforces the stereotype that athletes are idiots.

I feel strongly that at least part of our culture's inability to cope with natural disasters of all sorts- though floods and mass movement are the ones that catch my attention most often- is due to the fact that we do not expect citizens to have the least bit of understanding of fundamental earth processes. Thus, at a societal level, we foster a view of the planet as a static entity. And we are shocked, shocked, I tell you, when the planet reminds us otherwise.

I would love to pry apart some of the Icelandic curricular materials and see how they stack up. And I would love to spend enough time in that culture to develop a sense of how they view their relationship with the earth.

Alas, constraints of geography and language suggests neither will ever happen. But if you don't have a grasp how profoundly the planet can influence an entire culture, please read the article linked above. If you're not familiar with the Laki eruption, it's a very good introduction to an event that will both horrify and amaze you.

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