I just wanted to share a series of experiences I have had as a science educator. You may never find yourself in a position to do this. I did not seek this opportunity, but have been satisfied that it came.
For almost a decade, I have been exchanging occasional letters with a prisoner in California. He apparently read a book review that I wrote for the National Center for Science Education. I wrote about him a couple of years ago in this blog. I just wanted to mention again that if you have an opportunity to help someone in this way, do it. There are too many prisoners in the world to seek any out, but if one of them writes to you, you may find it rewarding to help them.
A couple of years ago I sent this man a paperback biology textbook that I had received unsolicited from a publisher, back when publishers sent out review copies to professors. He has been studying this book more closely than, I believe, any of my students ever have. He wrote, “The book is challenging. I did the [multiple choice questions] and I missed four out of eight. I grade myself at a C-. I never give myself an F or sometimes a D. Because I figure like this, the only time I should fail is when I do not even try.” Isn’t this an encouraging attitude?
I never asked him what he was in for; none of my business. He’s been in a long time. But how could I say no to someone who has such a desire to learn? He gets no encouragement from his fellow prisoners or from the prison officials, as far as I can tell. We call our prisons penitentiaries, as if they are supposed to make prisoners penitent, and we like to think we are reforming the prisoners. But prison officials have their hands full just keeping themselves alive and, sometimes, keeping the prisoners alive too. The only hope some of them have is to get some encouragement from people like us.
In his most recent letter, this man said he was making flash cards for studying biology. He noted that some other prisoners were taking college courses and earning degrees, but in talking with them he discovered they did not remember what they had learned. He noted that they have “towering egos.” “I feel that it is better to know a little about something, than to think you know a lot about everything, when in actuality you find that you do not know as much as your inflated ego has led you to believe. For me, it is an honor to say I do not know something when I really do not know.”
I just wrote back to encourage him.
“I am happy that you wrote to me again. We have been in contact a long time. I am glad that you are still studying biology and have not given up. It is a difficult subject and I commend you for sticking with it.
“And it is a rapidly changing subject. The pace of biological knowledge is moving faster and faster. I certainly can’t keep up with it, and maybe nobody can. The technical knowledge is racing ahead faster than our ethical thoughts can handle it. This is especially true of recent advances in genetic engineering (altering the genes of microbes, plants, and animals, but not yet people). It is now easy and cheap to do genetic engineering. But our society has not yet thought about what we should do, and what we should not do. We don’t know. And the top scientists are the first ones to admit, openly, that there is a great deal they do not know. You said that you are happy to admit that you don’t know something. I think this is a good attitude. I and many other scientists are very aware that there is a vast number of things that we do not know. So your attitude is a good one to have. If we don’t admit our own ignorance, we simply stride forward into making mistakes.
“Keep thinking and reading. You probably keep a notebook for yourself too. And feel free to write again any time.”