I have listened to a lecture tonight from Fora.tv given by Dr. Allan Chapman, Professor of Wadham College University of Oxford, at Gresham College. His lecture is titled History, Science and Religion: Capturing the Public Imagination. Largely it is about how scientific history is portrayed and delivered to the general public, but the part that really caught my interest was his discussion of amateurs. As he notes, amateur is a person who loves the science or pursuit they are engaging in, while having no recognized credentials in that science or pursuit. “They loved whatever they were amat at”, as Dr. Chapman puts it.
He provides a number of notary figures, such as Henry Kater, an amateur physicist who, after the Napeolonic Wars, spent his leisure time critiquing telescopes of his time, and eventually publishing several manuscripts on physics. One of his most influential creations was the Kater’s pendulum, which he created in 1817, which measured the local acceleration of gravity (sources are Wikipedia articles and here). There is more to his story, but you can read that on the website. This is just one fascinating person in a plethora of them who contributed greatly to their respective fields, and to humanity in general. When I think about examples such as these, I have hope.
Like in England at the time Kater was around, information gathering and seeking knowledge in our modern world is encouraged. Yes, we have a good deal of a leg up over Kater, in that we can get our lectures online, or entire books, and so, don’t have to make the considerable investments in time, energy, and resources to get to the sources of knowledge. That said, we have the disadvantage in that we have to develop a very keen critical edge to what we do or do not accept, and that requires either a good guide or a decent knowledge of basic information on the subject being researched. Wikipedia articles, for instance, can be changed by anyone, are not subjected to the rigorous peer reviews that journals of science are, and, depending on the information, may be left biased for a religious, political, or personal reason as decided by the user who last edited the page. Personal web pages have no screening process unless the user subjects hirself to them, and many an organization’s information may have selective data used to suit its purposes (although one could argue many books and articles in journals do this as well). That said, we can still gain a lot of information on a large number of subjects in a short amount of time. One can pursue his or her passion quite relentlessly with the amount of information available online.
Part of the problem I find, even as I am writing right now, is that it is kind of an information overload. I have three tabs open, and had four, floating between checking email and a site or two, and writing this. Yet, I can write without having to bog down my computer with another open window while I look for information and links, which is damned nice. There’s just so much digital space to get lost in that it takes some effort to stay focused. I’m trying to write about something I am an amateur at, and it proves difficult with the sheer amount of information each new page I open, to simply concentrate. I’m even clicking on links to help formulate the next bit of what I am going to write; my mind is going faster than my fingers are able to type my thoughts before I open another tab or two to find the direction my words will be going. I have to actually slow down and write; I never used to have to do this. The time was, prior to the Internet, that I would slow down to find reference material. Now I look it up as I am formulating sentences as a matter of course, Control + Tab-bing to float between tabs, hands typing, then back to the other tab, then back to the WordPress page.
In a lot of ways, it was easier for an 1800s Englishman to bring his passions to fruition: he had hard-copy resources, had to focus on a few hand-oriented tasks at a time or one at a time, as he could do manage it, and had to work with the resources he had. Many of the English amateurs had access to a good deal more wealth, in comparison, than I do. If they did not have it, in many cases, their wives did. The leisure time that these men had was pretty sizeable; Kater did his work after he served in the military, leaving as a Captain in 1814 and devoting the rest of his life to his pursuit of science (same sources as before). By comparison, Americans have relatively little, if any leisure time. This is even true when compared with our European contemporaries today. In France, there are paid vacations, as required by law. The vacation rates of other developed countries are higher than America. After-school programs are being drastically cut in today’s budget crises, and many of the opportunities for kids to gain deeper knowledge or appreciation of the arts, sciences, and humanities dwindles with these budget cuts. In my own former elementary school, many of the arts programs were entirely cut so that teachers would teach to the test, and recess was eliminated in many of the elementary grades. There is no real focus beyond ‘the test’, and so, innovation, creativity, and passion that marked many amateurs is crushed beneath the standardized requirements of ‘the test’. I left high school just as “No Child Left Behind” became implemented, and it devastated many students who were exploring a variety of subjects they loved, which were either suddenly tossed aside or made to conform to ridiculous testing standards that neither developed understanding, or ingenuity in relation to the test’s subject.
I consider myself an amateur theologian and an amateur counselor; I am not a professional in either subject and have only taken a few lectures about either subject. I love these subjects. I love picking apart the varied lore, and trying to figure out the various myths, what it tells us about this or that God or Goddess, and how we may relate to that God or Goddess, how He or She or It may think or why it does what He/She/It does. I find it fascinating, even as I sometimes struggle to understand why my Gods do what They do, why They ask the things They do of me, etc. I find thinking, debating, and doing research on the nature of the Divine, and the conversations I have about the subject cut to ideas and concepts at the core of many cultures’ ways of doing things, and how people develop their understanding of reality to be fun.
In terms of an amateur counselor, I have often found myself having to adopt the role more often than not, and some times with random strangers. I do not encourage people to go out and randomly talking to strangers and pronounce “do this” or “that”. To me, that’s dangerous and in the realm of professionals. As an amateur counselor I look up ways to do the job of a counselor better, such as developing listening skills, looking at different methods of counseling, and when someone comes to me for advice, recognizing where my ability to help ends, and where to refer them to. Pastoral counseling, to me, is a different story altogether, because although therapeutic or professional counseling may do things very similar to it, their perspectives and respective procedures for helping a person may vary significantly. The lines have blurred as time has gone on, such as to be found in the works of Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, and others who use spiritual counseling alongside medicinal, psychological, and other forms of counseling. That said, Dr. Mehl-Madrona has a Ph.D. and an M.D., and is qualified in a number of areas to speak, whereas a person with an M.A. in Counseling might not be. To be honest, most of the time when I have the ‘amateur counselor’ hat on, I’m just listening and asking the occasional probing question, and letting the person figure hirself out. Many people take this hat on, from close friends to family members listening to a loved one as they go through a personal crisis, or deal with everyday stress.
I hope that as time goes on we will see more amateurs, more people willing to invest their time, money, and drive into pursuits to better themselves, and humanity. If anything helped make this country to powerhouse it is in our modern age, it is the willingness to fail time and again, and keep pursuing the end goal, whatever it may be. Ingenuity, and a willingness to experiment, and to do empowered this generation with the dawn of the computer and Internet age. Amateurs and visionaries opened up both fields to the public, transforming small experiments into massive engines of innovation, information, and entertainment. I can’t wait to see what the amateurs and visionaries of my generation can do.