Impacts and Consequences of the Core Curriculum 

Reflections for the 50th Reunion of the Class of 1964

Jere Northrop

 I came to Amherst College planning be a scientist and found that I loved Science 1-2 and the Chem–Bio sequence.  But I loved English 1-2 even more.  It was my favorite course.  Ask a question relevant to your own experience, something that you did.  What does it mean, what do you know about this, how do you know it.   No one knows the answers they said.  But of course I knew that the scientists really did.

 When I hit the biology part it occurred to me that they, the biologists, didn’t actually know the answers.  Biology was not a science, at least not in the sense that physics was.  So I became a biologist, what a great opportunity.  I did grad school, post doc, all the while still asking the questions, what does it mean, what do I know.  What do they know.  And it began to look like maybe none of them, not even the physicists, really knew all the answers.

 I remembered Professor Gordon of the physics department, in an informal panel discussion with the freshman class, explaining that physics was just a model. Constructed from carefully stated hypotheses, experimental tests and observations.  It is a model that may or may not be useful.  You had to work with it to see what it could do, what you could do with it.  But the physics model, often called reductionism and viewed as a belief that physics will eventually explain all of biology, all of life, even ourselves, was generally accepted as true by society.   

 From the perspective of English 1-2 the reductionist model did not contain the words that could talk to me about the conscious, linguistic, and emotional experiences that constituted my life.  My personal experiences did not fit in the model.  Despite the fact that physics was enormously successful in many areas, I began to wonder if any of biology really fit in the model.

So at the end of 1969 I dropped out, started writing, started looking for a new paradigm, something, some model that would include me as well.  English 1-2 included my experience, meaning, and knowing, but it did not do anything.  Science 1-2 had lots of doing, lots of capability and success, but I and my emotional and linguistic nature were not part of the model. How could these two seemingly separate world views be integrated.  What could I do to bring these together.

 In 1971 I joined Jon Ray Hamann and his Relational Systems Working Group at the Center for Theoretical Biology at SUNY Buffalo.  Part of what that group did was to participate in College E, one of the experimental colleges that was started to provide new educational alternatives in the SUNY system.  College E was set up as a cooperative consensus decision making organization in which students and teachers interactively created and taught courses that were defined relative to student interests.  It was almost a complete opposite of the Amherst College Core Curriculum. 

 The operation of College E was heavily influenced by the decision model of Relational Systems Theory and its use of the Maximum Entropy Principle.  The focus was on foundational presumptions and how these related to decisions and cooperative action.  The integration of this perspective with that of English 1-2 was beginning to form the basis of how to move beyond reductionism.

 During this time I continued to work with experimental biology since I had become very fond of “doing” it in graduate school.  DNA looked sort of like language, so did the songs of birds.  Could all this fit together in highly interconnected ecosystems that integrated me, English 1-2, and experimental science?  Was this the new model?

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Here was my lab in 1973. That’s me in the middle.

Eventually I had to get a job, in the real world what you do probably should relate to what you think and what you know. So after much searching for a next step I started working at a large advanced biological wastewater treatment plant.  By now I was thinking that consciousness and language had to be the primaries of the model and so this looked like a job that had some interesting possibilities.  The large microbial biomass, and the human staff that observed, analyzed, and directed (talked to?) it, had to function to achieve an objective.

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Here was my lab in 1981.  I’m down there in one of the buildings.

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By 1986 I was raising fish in wastewater effluent

After ten years I moved into manure management for large animal agriculture. My brother (Amherst 1965) and I, two core curriculum survivors, formed Bion Technologies.  By now English 1-2 had evolved into a program for creating languages.  The languages had to subsume mathematics and science, thereby integrating English 1-2 and Science 1-2. In parallel with this the “lab” that might validate this new model turned into a business.  The applications in environmental biotechnology had to be integrated into even more real world tests than before.  

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Here is a hog farm in 1998.  That Amherst purple color is from anaerobic photosynthetic purple sulfur bacteria in the manure management system.

 I began to conceptualize these systems as semiotic pragmatic bio-computers.  The microbes were not only alive, they were conscious, they could communicate with each other, have memories and emotions, good days and bad days.  Looking at them from an information theory perspective I could see that the microbial genomes were statements, hypotheses, what the microbes “knew”.  They replicated rapidly, mutated often, continually testing their evolving and ever changing hypotheses with or against a complex environment.  Process control became a dialogue.

 Bion Technologies still exists (www.biontech.com), and it still has a chance to do great things for our environment, but overall it has been a disappointment. New management came in in 1999 and business and financial realities forced the vision and application to narrow.  An increased reliance on standard engineering brought with it a greater use of the reductionist paradigm.  No one wanted to hear about semiotic pragmatic bio-computers any more.  So during the period from 2002 through 2008 I transitioned out of Bion altogether.

 The dream did not die however.  By 2002 the language creation direction had evolved into an approach to a Universal Language and coalesced into a stable format that derived from consciousness, relation, and language.  So I put it up on the internet.  See www.ododu.com  It is very much a work in progress, but the non reductionist cosmology that it represents has been instrumental in guiding a new series of applications.  These initially focused on several “Advanced Ecological English 1-2 labs”, which in turn led to the incorporation of another company that I cofounded in 2008, TimberFish Technologies, (see www.timberfishtech.com)

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This is one of the initial TimberFish Proof of Concept Systems in Westfield, NY

2009  

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TimberFish Field Trial at the Freshwater Institute in Shepherdstown, WV, 2010

 The TimberFish Technology uses non-contaminated  plant material and nutrients as food for  microbes, which are then eaten by invertebrates which are in turn eaten by fish in a closed re-circulating aquaculture system.  Waste products from one level are foods for other levels.  If the Bion systems can be viewed as bio-computers, the TimberFish systems look like ecological minds.  Multiple levels of conscious communicating organisms interacting in a synergistic and selfsustaining ecosystem.

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The power of this integrated multitrophic ecosystem approach, which I see as being a technology that incorporates the power of English 1-2, “knits knowing and communicating into its very being” if you will, has guided TimberFish to the point where it could start to provide real world, large scale and economically viable resolutions to many of our most urgent problems.  These are problems that the reductionist paradigm has created and doesn’t seem to be able to resolve, at least not in an economic and ecologically sound manner. It isn’t getting done. In contrast, a TimberFish technology system projects to integrate all of the following features in a profitable business operating in today’s marketplace;

            Sustainable local contaminant-free food production

            Renewable energy

            Water purification and preservation

            Economic incentives for reforestation and deforestation avoidance

            Climate change reversal

            Enhanced biodiversity and ecosystem stability

 We expect that by June of 2014, our first commercial prototype, the TimberFish Wine-Fish Project at the Mazza distilleries operation in Westfield, NY, will have been constructed, and that it will become operational during the summer. This application should produce 25,000 pounds per year of high quality fish such as Speckled Trout, Artic Char, or Atlantic Salmon.  From there it’s on to 2+ million pounds per year facilities next to all significant population centers.

 I realize that to challenge any well established societal paradigm, particularly one as strong and established as the reductionist paradigm is today, is to risk being viewed as a crank, crackpot or heretic.  Yet the company of that group is not all bad.  I still remember Theodore Baird, writing about the “experience of understanding just what it was like to have lived in the past” saying “Yet in looking back it is plain how dreadfully wrong nearly everyone was about nearly everything” page 4 of “The Most of It” Theodore Baird, Amherst College Press, 1999.

 So lets listen to that other great voice that permeated English 1-2, Robert Frost

 “I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away

(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):

I sha’n’t be gone long.- You come too.”

 Robert Frost, “The Pasture”  North of Boston  1915.

 

The repeated references to English 1-2 may be difficult to understand for those who did not actually take the course at Amherst College during the years 1938 – 1966.  An excellent description of this course is available in “Fencing with Words, A History of Writing Instruction at Amherst College during the Era of Theodore Baird, 1938-1966” by Robin Varnum, National Council of Teachers of English, Urbana, Illinois, 1996.

 

November 15, 2013

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