Laboratory The Program

The unique value of the “archaic” Lab program at St. John’s

The Lab element of the St. John’s Program is a bit of an oddball. It involves defunct experiments and flawed source texts. It asks students to revert to a child-like naivete so they can relearn biology, physics, and chemistry. In that sense, Lab asks the most of Johnnies: we cannot rely on past science classes to inform our pursuits of curiosity. It’s frustrating to behold the digestive system of a cat and know that it would be fruitless to simply label the parts as what we already knew.

In the spirit of this complexity, the Student Committee on Instruction (SCI) hosted a Lab Panel on Wednesday, October 6. The tutors — Mr. Poppele, Mr. Franks, and Mr. Slover — all emphasized that curiosity inherent in Lab, as well as the need to join rather than juxtapose the sciences and the humanities. Mr. Poppele quoted George Box, saying, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” He then explained how, despite the errors of archaic scientists, we as students were retracing those old models to discover which ones worked. This quote sticks with me. Box gives me a purpose to pursue that curiosity, as well as a reason to read anything flawed in the first place. For I cannot know what works and what doesn’t if I do not attempt it for myself. -Author: Ben (bdbartlett21)

St. John’s College Lab Equipment

Not only is it frustrating to attempt to think alongside Aristotle and Goethe as their speculation culminates in the very beginnings of scientific thought, but it is also challenging to keep modern critique on the back-burner. In fact, trying to take a naive approach that seeks to understand and examine rather than merely refute is fairly difficult. Given the challenge freshmen face in approaching scientific knowledge with this unconventional approach, the Tutor Panel addressed how conversations that happen around Lab texts are distinct from conversations around Seminar texts. Though we follow the structure of the Socratic Seminar in our dialogue in Lab much as we do in Seminar, as Mr. Poppelle described, Lab does not require the charitable reading of the author that Seminar does. One does not need to operate from the framework of the author’s world and instead it is possible, in Lab, to more rigorously examine the text for the truth of its claims.

A more rigorous examination on the basis of truth also calls for a different kind of engagement with the texts — a kind of engagement that involves physical labor alongside the intellectual. We use our hands and eyes in a laboratory where discoveries, surprises, and novel understandings are the results of physical interaction with the subject of the texts. In this way, the Lab Practica places us at the precarious balance beam of knowledge where our experience is understood and organized by our intellectual faculties to establish scientific claims.

This panel was a fantastic foray into the value of the lab program best captured by Mr. Slover’s precise words on how the Lab program is unique because it facilitates the development of “intellectual resources” that allow us to make better and more discerning judgments. These intellectual capabilities put Johnnies in a uniquely advantageous position when it comes to approaching scientific knowledge, especially since it is crucial that the scientific field address critical questions about the motivations and purposes of its endeavors. –Author: Sanyum (sanyumdalal5)

St. John’s College Lab Equipment

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