Why the Exploratorium Ethos of Empowering People to Think for Themselves Holds More Relevance Now than Ever
by Shannon Eliot • August 22, 2016
Current Exploratorium staff members reflect on Frank Oppenheimer’s life with Hilde Hein (right), Frank’s cousin and former Exploratorium employee, on Sunday, August 14 in the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery. (Photo Chris Hirano)
Last Sunday, Exploratorium friends and fans gathered in the Fisher Bay Observatory Gallery to celebrate what would have been founder Frank Oppenheimer’s 104th birthday. As attendees mingled, watched old behind-the-scenes films, and sipped celebratory mimosas, veteran staff reflected on what it was like to personally work with one of the most forward-thinking minds in education and informal learning.
“He was constantly exploring why people follow rules and conventions that don’t make sense,” said Lynn Rankin, Director of the Institute for Inquiry. “There was never a moment when I wasn’t challenged to learn something new about the world or myself.”
When the Exploratorium opened in 1969, it was commonly accepted (and even expected) for those living in the famously liberal city of San Francisco to resist rules and conventions in the pursuit of truth. In a tumultuous period of national political discord and distrust, many thought that openly questioning and expressing disagreement was essential to moving forward as a society.
But those views have never been universal, and few have felt the negative effects of publicly questioning the status quo as strongly as Frank. A brilliant physicist whose career was derailed by the mass paranoia of the McCarthy era, Frank was marginalized, demonized, and displaced because he aligned himself with a political philosophy outside the mainstream. While Frank had always enjoyed pursuing a deeper personal understanding of the physical world, it was this painful chapter of his life — one born of society’s ignorance and fear — that inspired his creation of an inclusive space where all are encouraged to interact, think critically, and ask questions about the world around them.
And although society has changed in profound ways since Frank opened his experimental museum to the public nearly 50 years ago, I would argue that the Exploratorium’s core ideals and educational philosophy have never held greater importance.
While teaching high school science in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, Frank noticed that society was “information-rich, but experience-poor.” If that was true mid-Century, it is even more true now. With the development of the Internet and abundance of media, we currently live in the most information-rich, electronically connected, and technologically advanced era in human history. The amount and quality of data we have at our fingertips is unprecedented. We get our answers faster and with less engagement. We live in a world of shortcuts, quick fixes, and instant gratification. We can seemingly get away with thinking less.
But what happens when we avoid the hard stuff and accelerate to the end goal? What happens when we are more concerned with the outcome than the process? What happens when someone tells us something is true but we never stop to validate, verify, or ask how they reached their conclusion?
We become a society where facts are optional. We distrust those who don’t look, sound, or act like us because we don’t know how to extract facts and draw our own conclusions. We accept the first answer we see on our browser screens or from the person who most resembles us. We reject that which is different because we don’t know how to think critically. We refuse to ask questions about things of which we are unsure, uninformed, or insecure, leading to fear, stereotypes, and mass generalizations with the potential to forever alter the course of history.
The Exploratorium will always be known for its natural phenomena. And while Frank loved to tinker and help people discover how the world works, the Exploratorium has never just been about science. It’s so much more than that.
It’s about empowering and giving people the confidence to think for themselves, whether that’s a kid from an underserved community working through a science fair project, an informed patient advocating for optimal health outcomes, or well-heeled professional casting a vote for president.
Frank himself said it perfectly:
“The whole point of the Exploratorium is to make it possible for people to believe they can understand the world around them. I think a lot of people have given up trying to comprehend things, and when they give up with the physical world they give up with the social and political world as well. If we stop trying to understand things, I think we’re all sunk.”