Teaching Smell

One of my philosophy professors in college was so enamored of the first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, that we had to memorize it:

All humans by nature desire to know, and the proof of this is the delight they take in sensation, not merely for the usefulness of it but for the delight of it in and of itself; and most of all in the sense of sight.

As a teacher, I’m of course interested in the byproducts of sight — reading and writing come to mind, but also artwork and certain kinds of mathematics, and so on.  I’m also interested in hearing, and speaking, which lead to conversation, and debate, and public speaking.  Touch is a complex subject for a lot of school teachers — we’re really not encouraged to get too close to our students at normal levels, for fear it will lead to a lot of really important no-no’s.

But smell is a different story.  It turns out that scent, and the history of scent, is kind of important, even though it doesn’t occupy as big a place on the stage of history as other subjects.  So why don’t we teach it as part of an official curriculum?

Well, for one it can set off people’s allergies.  And schools have to be rather careful about stuff like that.  We don’t want students dying or breaking out in anaphylactic shock by exposure to peanuts or cedar wood or lavender or tea tree.

But I’ve been experimenting, nonetheless.  It turns out that learning how to teach people to use their noses is enormously difficult and a lot of the techniques are proprietary — the perfumers of the world have no interest in sharing their skills or their knowledge with the common riff-raff of the schools — public or private.

However, there are quite a lot of books on aromatherapy, which include recipes for various oils and perfumes and incenses. Scent, as we’ve all been told dozens of times before, is a powerful trigger of memories.  Who can forget that scene in Ratatouille, where the critic is suddenly transported, runny nose and all, to his mother’s kitchen for a moment as he takes his first bite?

But learning to understand scent, and perfume, can’t actually be learned from books.  One has to go out and buy a bunch of herbs and essential oils, and learn to create perfumes and incenses and other sweet-smelling concoctions by smell.  It’s very much a matter of personal taste, and that makes it difficult to teach, or to learn.

For Christmas, though, I made some perfumes for my neighbors.  They got rave reviews.  Will I share my recipes with you?

Hmm.  No.

Because there’s this thing.  I’m a perfumer now. I’m a maker of scents, a combiner of ingredients, and an inventor.  OK, at the moment it’s just a dabbling… a trifle, a hobby really.  But it’s clear that it’s a complex educational process.  And there’s no point in sharing my insights just yet, except to ask the question…

Why don’t we teach kids to use their noses?  Really use their noses?

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