Science and the Educated American: A Core Component of Liberal Education

Chapter 1: Science in the Liberal Arts Curriculum

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Jerrold Meinwald and John G. Hildebrand
Science in the Liberal Arts Curriculum

Don M. Randel

No proper definition of the liberal arts omits science and mathematics. This has been true for as long as the concept has been around. Yet we have good reasons to worry that when we speak about the liberal arts curriculum, many people imagine a curriculum in which science and mathematics have only a modest presence. The term liberal arts seems to refer principally to the humanistic side of that curriculum, and, in practice, specialization within the liberal arts curriculum tends to undermine the very notion of an education that broadly prepares students and stands in opposition to vocational or professional education. Yet more than ever, our times call for students who are broadly prepared and who have genuine curiosity about and some fluency in the whole range of disciplines that the liberal arts curriculum, properly so called, should be thought to embrace.

Part of the problem derives from the public’s increasing inclination to see all education as at least preprofessional or prevocational. Many students and their parents believe that every education, especially a very expensive one, should prepare for some way of earning a living. Thus, even proponents of a liberal arts education may be tempted to represent it as oriented toward something other than itself and the values that underlie it. The curriculum gives rise to two cultures that drift farther apart as each tries to make its own appeal to the desire for practical outcomes.

If we wish to put Humpty Dumpty back together again and assert the value of a citizenry that possesses the mental equipment to grapple with complex problems in both nature and society and to contemplate seriously what it means to be a human being and how one might want to live one’s life, then we might start by examining the terms that have been used in the last half-century or so to describe the perceived separation between the sciences and the humanities as well as how the sciences and the humanities have been tempted to represent themselves in the debate. We cannot understand the place of the sciences in the liberal arts curriculum without giving some attention to both the sciences and the humanities and their proper relationship to one another in this context.

Fifty years have elapsed since C. P. Snow, in 1959, delivered the Rede Lecture at Cambridge University with the title “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” 1 The published title of the lecture, The Two Cultures, has become shorthand for the difference between the sciences and the humanities, and the phrase is often used by people who have long since forgotten, or perhaps never knew, exactly what Snow had to say. The idea of such a difference continues to have a powerful hold on our thinking, and much that is said about the sciences and the humanities at present not only assumes some sort of difference but acts to reinforce it. This often takes the form of a kind of rivalry, sometimes set about with jealousies small and large, in which one culture or the other feels underappreciated in relation to the other or simply underappreciated altogether. More often, both feel undervalued, even if for somewhat different reasons.

When we think about the importance of science in the liberal arts curriculum, we inevitably confront some of what has been at issue in discussions of the two cultures. If we take for granted the existence of two separate cultures, then the best that we can hope for is a kind of “two-state” solution in which the two cultures coexist peacefully, each secure within its own borders and engaging perhaps in some amount of trade. We should try instead, however, to loosen the grip this construct has on our thinking. By this I do not mean to suggest only that the terrain of the social sciences should be taken as a third culture, as Snow himself came to think possible and as Jerome Kagan (2009) argues in a recent book. Indeed, the colloquial distinction between the “hard” sciences and the “soft” social sciences provides further evidence of the power of the notion of two cultures. Snow’s principal concern was the disparity between the world’s rich and its poor. (He originally thought of calling the lecture “The Rich and the Poor” and later wished that he had not changed his mind.) This was not a matter of idle speculation. Snow was certain that the poor had observed the gulf that separated them from the rich and that they would not long tolerate that gulf before resorting to violence. Of the disparity between rich and poor he asserted, “Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t.” Further, he wrote:

Since the gap between the rich countries and the poor can be removed, it will be. If we are shortsighted, inept, incapable either of good-will or enlightened self-interest, then it may be removed to the accompaniment of war and starvation: but removed it will be. The questions are, how, and by whom.

The solution to this problem would require first a vast outlay of capital by the industrialized world.

The second requirement, after capital, as important as capital, is men. That is, trained scientists and engineers adaptable enough to devote themselves to a foreign country’s industrialization for at least ten years out of their lives.

[. . .] These men, whom we don’t yet possess, need to be trained not only in scientific but in human terms. They could not do their job if they did not shrug off every trace of paternalism [which characterized the work of “plenty of Europeans, from St. Francis Xavier to Schweitzer”]. . . . [Asians and Africans] want men who will muck in as colleagues, who will pass on what they know, do an honest technical job, and get out. Fortunately, this is an attitude which comes easily to scientists. They are freer than most people from racial feeling; their own culture is in its human relations a democratic one. In their own internal climate, the breeze of the equality of man hits you in the face, sometimes rather roughly, just as it does in Norway.

After expressing his doubts about how such a massive undertaking might be brought about, Snow begins his penultimate paragraph thus:

Meanwhile, there are steps to be taken which aren’t outside the powers of reflective people. Education isn’t the total solution to this problem: but without education the West can’t even begin to cope. All the arrows point the same way. Closing the gap between our cultures is a necessity in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical. When those two senses have grown apart, then no society is going to be able to think with wisdom. For the sake of the intellectual life, for the sake of this country’s special danger, for the sake of the western society living precariously rich among the poor, for the sake of the poor who needn’t be poor if there is intelligence in the world, it is obligatory for us and the Americans and the whole West to look at our education with fresh eyes.

A few years later, Snow characterized the relations between the two cultures: “Between these two groups—the scientists and the literary intellectuals— there is little communication and, instead of fellow-feeling, something like hostility.”

To put the matter starkly, his was not only an assertion of the importance of the “scientific revolution” as the solution to all the world’s problems, especially the problem of the disparity between the rich and poor; it was also an attack on “literary intellectuals” for standing in the way of what scientists and applied scientists could accomplish. That the two cultures did not communicate with one another was a terribly serious problem, but this outcome was principally because the literary culture and its “Luddites” (as exemplified in Britain’s civil service) stood in the way of the ability of the scientific culture to cure the world’s ills. In later comments Snow asserted, “[S]cientists in a divided culture provide a knowledge of some potentialities which is theirs alone.”

One must admire the passion with which Snow viewed the need to improve substantially the condition of the world’s poor, who still greatly outnumber the well-to-do of Western developed countries. But the disparity between rich and poor has now lasted well beyond the year 2000, and we cannot reasonably assert that this is because scientists and engineers have been held back from the effort by humanists.

The polemic that erupted was hardly surprising, except perhaps in the vitriol it elicited from “literary intellectuals.” Nevertheless, Snow had made clear who the enemy was. Among many other things, to say that scientists are freer from “racial feeling” than are humanists can hardly have been much less outrageous then than it would be today. Hence, the enemy responded with all the literary gifts at its disposal. Snow’s own rejoinder to this response was at moments even more pointed. After a critique of modernist literature, he wrote, “The question is this: how far is it possible to share the hopes of the scientific revolution, the modest difficult hopes for other human lives, and at the same time participate without qualification in the kind of literature which has just been defined?” He professed genuinely not to know the answer.

How are relations between the two cultures fifty years after Snow’s Rede Lecture? Kagan writes:

C. P. Snow would not have to alter the essential claims in his 1959 essay and would not have been surprised by the even broader gulf that exists between natural scientists and humanists. However, he might not have anticipated the strident rejection of evolutionary theory by advocates of creation ideology and a public less willing to regard the rationally based conclusions of natural scientists as the soundest bases for all decisions. (Kagan, 2009; 245)

I doubt that the gulf really is broader. But however broad, I believe it to be different in character from the one that Snow described; setting aside, at least for the moment, whether his description was entirely accurate even then. For a start, surely no one could reasonably claim that “literary intellectuals” could be responsible for holding back the progress of science in solving the world’s problems. Regardless of what many scientists may believe about such people, at least in the United States, there have not been enough of them, or their students, in public office to do any harm or good.

Scientists have mostly been too busy and too well funded to worry much about humanists, except perhaps to make fun of one or another fad typically affecting only a small part of the humanities. For their part, humanists have mostly learned to live with the fact that scientists are busy pursuing their own work and require substantial resources to support that work. Some humanists fear that the disparity in resources, and the institutional energy devoted to pursuing them, distorts some of the basic values of universities and can even lead to their corruption by commercial or governmental interests. But except perhaps in times of university budget cuts, when all constituencies in the university are competing for the same dwindling resources, most humanists will be reasonably content knowing that they cannot do much about the matter.

Two questions then remain: (1) If not the humanists, what has prevented the “scientific revolution” from curing the world’s problems? (2) What is science capable of accomplishing in the world, and why should we want to study it in any case?

The answer to the first question lies in Kagan’s remark about what might indeed surprise Snow about “the rejection of evolutionary theory by advocates of creation ideology and a public less willing to regard the rationally based conclusions of natural scientists as the soundest bases for all decisions.” I hope that not all scientists regard science as the soundest basis for all decisions. But apart from that, the people being referred to here are certainly not the humanists properly so called. Indeed, most scientists and humanists properly so called would be on precisely the same side with respect to this question. Two cultures are here arrayed against one another, but they are not the sciences and the humanities. The conflict is more accurately described as thoughtful people versus anti-intellectuals.

This suggests the answer to the second question. What has held back the application of science to the solution of many of the world’s problems and has even used science to create a good many of those problems is the large population of outright anti-intellectuals. To these must be added the not insignificant group of people whom one might call either scientists or humanists but who are not able to think carefully enough about what science might be good for, about the responsibilities it entails, and about the most important reasons for studying it.

The real anti-scientists in our midst are every bit as much anti-humanist by any reasonable definition. In this sense, the real enemy in the struggle to improve the quality (both physical and intellectual) of the lives of the world’s peoples is an enemy that scientists and humanists have in common. But the problem is still more complicated, because even if we could sweep away that common enemy we would not be likely to solve the world’s problems. That is because the community of scientists and humanists itself includes people who are not sufficiently thoughtful. Some of them are even evil.

Unfortunately, science can be put to both good and evil purposes, as we all know. It can also produce terrible effects when it is used by even well-meaning scientists and engineers without a sufficient concern for possible longer-term consequences. For example, the destruction of the environment is made possible by science and engineering as deployed by scientists and engineers. Some humanists might be tempted to say that this all would be avoided if scientists and engineers studied more humanities. Clearly this is no truer than Snow’s claim that all would be better if humanists simply got out of scientists’ way. Some people with deep knowledge of the humanities and indeed some of the world’s greatest artists and writers have been despicable people. Alas, training more scientists and engineers and training more humanists and obliging them all to study with one another will not by itself deliver the results that Snow imagined. Realizing that the problem is more complicated than it has sometimes been said to be, however, might just be the beginning of working toward at least partial solutions. In the present context, this entails realizing that both the sciences and the humanities as formal courses of study have often been oversold as cures for our ills.

If we wish to enhance the place of the sciences in the liberal arts curriculum, we will need to take a harder look at what we can honestly claim to have as goals. We might even ask some very good scientists why they study science and care about it so deeply. This is likely to lead us away from the instrumental arguments that are so often advanced. The curriculum might then begin to take on a different look and feel. Then we might begin to see what the sciences and the humanities hold in common and how important it is that they work closely together.

The instrumental arguments for teaching science follow from the instrumental arguments for science itself, and the latter are closely related to Snow’s arguments. Science solves the world’s problems; it raises the standard of living by creating economic prosperity and curing disease. In national contexts, its darker virtue, which is cited almost as often as any other, is its contribution to national defense or, all too often, its contribution to the ability to make war. In the present American context, given the national practical turn of mind, these are the arguments most likely to work. Indeed, some in the scientific community have been willing to make cynical use of the national defense argument to justify the allocation of resources to science that ought to be justified in other terms, only they have less appeal to the general public and its elected representatives.

These instrumental arguments are not wrong or unimportant. Science and engineering are at the heart of what has made the United States the most prosperous country the world has ever known, and the somewhat frail public commitment to continued and enhanced investment in science and engineering puts the nation’s future prosperity at grave risk. Unfortunately, this frailty is not merely the function of a general public that is ignorant of science and technology. The private sector, including some corporations led by scientists and engineers, has as steadily disinvested in research as has the government. One has only to recall the disappearance of corporate research laboratories that were among the most distinguished scientific enterprises in the modern world.

Despite the level of prosperity in the United States, not all its people have benefited from the fruits of science and engineering. The nation could afford to feed, clothe, house, and keep much healthier all its people with the science and technology now available. That we choose not to suggests that science and technology, though necessary for the solution of the nation’s and the world’s problems, are not sufficient.

The national defense argument has its proper role as well. The world is a dangerous place, and human beings have throughout history been quite willing to use whatever technology was available to slaughter one another. We cannot prudently neglect the kind of strong national defense that science and technology make possible. We might reasonably ask, however, whether the fraction of the nation’s resources devoted to military uses of science and technology is not now and has not long been much greater than strictly necessary. And we might ask whether the active and vigorous sale of these technologies to other countries, including quite poor countries, constitutes a responsible use of our scientific and engineering prowess. Yet many scientists and engineers are among the advocates of using the products of science and engineering for these purposes. This suggests yet again that the training of scientists and engineers does not alone solve the world’s problems.

Nevertheless, the United States does need more scientists and engineers. In order to have more, the country will need to start by wanting more. That desire will need to come from both the public and private sectors. Rebuilding great corporate laboratories would be a clear sign of improved priorities. If we are to have more scientists and engineers, we will need to get them both at home and abroad. This will entail an attempt to understand why more American young people do not want to become scientists and engineers. Such lack of interest is as great a problem as the failure of much of the general public to understand and appreciate science and engineering. Too many young people who have the ability and who are not in any real sense opposed to science and engineering simply decide that they would rather do something else. In the absence of more American scientists and engineers, we will need to welcome people from other countries who want to be educated here and to become part of America’s workforce. Recent years have seen the creation of altogether too many barriers to this effort.

Beyond these instrumental arguments for the training of more science and engineering professionals lie the arguments for greater education of the general public in these disciplines. These arguments, too, have their instrumental character. More education in science would enable more people to make the right decisions about scientific issues, the argument goes. Depending on the issue, this overstates the case. Even several pretty good courses in science and mathematics in college will not be likely to give the English major enough real knowledge to make real decisions about the uses of science in society. Furthermore, the particulars of that knowledge are not likely to be retained all that long if not put to use in the daily life of the non-scientist.

Some scientific issues are the subject of substantial disagreement and debate within the scientific community, and the layperson may find it difficult to form a reasoned assessment of these issues even if he or she is capable of describing, say, nuclear energy in lay terms. Other issues that might be less controversial in purely scientific terms, such as whether the nation should have devoted substantial resources and persevered in building the superconducting super collider, are perhaps even less likely to be decidable on the basis of a general education in science. The best we can hope for from the general public who might study science in a liberal arts curriculum is some sense of how scientists go about their work, some enthusiasm for that work, and some respect for the people who do that work and in whom the general public will ultimately need to put its trust. This approach offers an important clue to how science should be taught in a liberal arts curriculum.

Other arguments often made for teaching more science to non-scientists move away from the narrowly instrumental and toward what might be a more appropriate goal. Advocates claim that teaching science to non-scientists helps them better understand the world we live in. Teaching them how scientists think also teaches them about the importance of evidence and fact as the basis for drawing conclusions and making decisions. This model will in turn enable them to make better decisions in their own lives about a wide range of matters outside the realm of science. Courses in the sciences also teach the importance of free inquiry and the freedom of expression, especially the right to question received opinion. Non-scientists thus learn not only the underlying principles of scientific progress but the underlying principles of democracy, making them better citizens in a democratic society.

All of this is true up to a point. Locating that point is important for the sake of designing our pedagogy and also for the sake of honesty. Science helps us understand only certain aspects of the world we live in—namely, the natural world—and there is much that we will not soon understand even about that.Indeed, the way in which science proceeds is by demonstrating that some previously agreed-upon understanding was simply wrong. At a minimum, this practice calls for a certain modesty with respect to acting on what science claims to understand at any given moment. Furthermore, the scientific method embodies only one—though powerful—method of knowing, and many of the things that we might like to know and that might aid us in going about the world are simply not amenable to the scientific method. John Maynard Keynes, in his General Theory (1936), gives a nice illustration: “the statement that Queen Victoria was a better queen but not a happier woman than Queen Elizabeth [is] a proposition not without meaning and not without interest, but unsuitable as material for the differential calculus” (40).

Finally, not even scientists decide everything, even in their work, on the basis of the facts in evidence. Important decisions in science can be taken on the basis of passion, instinct, and what are essentially aesthetic principles. And what is allowed to count as a fact may depend on how well it fits a particular theory. In going about the world, we make life’s most significant decisions in ways that have absolutely nothing to do with the way scientists think as scientists. For a start, whether and how science is applied in society is not a decision arising from the scientific method. Otherwise, science would need to take credit for war and a good many other evils. This is to say nothing of decisions such as whether to get married or have a child or, I would wager, whether to do science.

The teaching of science, then, to both scientists and non-scientists, needs to be clear about the limits of science, about the dangers of misapplying it, and about why the best scientists do it in the first place. To be sure, many scientists will be glad if their discoveries cure disease or create jobs or lead to some kind of improvement in the lives of others. But underneath it all, they do science because they cannot help it. They do it for the love of it and for the beauty they find and make there. They do it for the same reasons that artists make art. And just as this impulse is the starting point in the life of the scientist, it must be the starting point in the teaching of science in the liberal arts or any other curriculum.

Because I am a humanist, some may suppose that I am now about to launch into an assertion of the importance of the humanities in a liberal arts curriculum that should be imposed on scientists. Such an assertion, of which there have been many, likely would rely, however, on a justification of the humanities that is as incomplete as the typical instrumental arguments so often advanced to promote the sciences. It would merely throw us back into the clutches of the current uneasy peace, with its occasional border skirmishes between the alleged two cultures. In order to avoid this outcome, we must consider some aspects of the humanities and their place in society.

Humanists long believed that the study of the humanities required essentially no justification. The importance of the humanities was self-evident in this view, and school curricula embodied it. To study the humanities was to acquire culture, and, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “Culture is to know the best that has been said and thought in the world.” In the English-speaking world, the definition of “the best” remained rather narrow for quite a long time. A number of things conspired to undermine this view, however.

In the United States this view was perhaps always somewhat at odds with a practical spirit oriented toward discovery and creation of the new. Then, in the latter part of the twentieth century, a great diversity of cultural voices demanded admission to “the best,” which encouraged the view in some quarters that all was relative in the humanities. In the worst of cases, this alleged relativism meant that the humanities had lost their claim to the national attention at anything like the level of the sciences, which had experienced since at least World War II an enormous rise in prestige and resources. All of this continued the line of C. P. Snow.

This development engendered a kind of envy within the humanities as well as the arts, with resulting calls for increased resources and, perhaps more than anything, for signs of attention and respect. Envy was most apparent on university and college campuses, but to a limited degree it made itself felt in the public sphere as well. Universities created centers for the humanities, and government created a National Endowment for the Humanities and numerous state councils for the humanities. By comparison with the sciences, however, the resources allocated to these activities were still trivial.

In pursuing these objectives, humanists were increasingly drawn to advancing the kinds of arguments that seemed to work so well for the sciences. These were instrumental arguments. Although demonstrating the contributions of the humanities to the gross domestic product or the national defense was not so easy, these were the kinds of arguments that seemed to be required. Thus, even while wistfully recalling an earlier era in which it had been sufficient to advocate the humanities for the humanities’ sake and while objecting to society’s seeming insistence on justifying everything only in material terms,many in the humanities gave in to the need to justify their enterprise in precisely such terms.

For example, Stan Katz (2009), writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, remarked, “The more important point is that the humanities community has not developed a plausible case for enhanced public support. If we are to make our case to the nation, the community has to articulate its goals and capacities much more clearly than it has done thus far.” Andrew Delbanco (2009), also writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, referred to the traditional view but went on to say, “There is a certain prideful purity in such a view, but if educators hope for renewed public trust in the value of liberal as opposed to practical or vocational education, we have to come to terms with the utility question one way or another.” Soon after, the topic even made itonto the front page of the Arts section of The New York Times, where an article largely stimulated by Delbanco’s piece was headlined, “In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth” (Cohen, 2009).

As in the case of the sciences, the instrumental arguments are in large degree quite sound and should be taken seriously. The danger is that in the attempt to gain public trust for liberal as opposed to practical or vocational education, we resort to making liberal education seem more practical or vocational. Sometimes the claims are for the generalized intellectual skills that will be useful in any profession: the ability to write and communicate effectively or the ability to think critically (though just what this means is not always clear). At other times the humanities are seen as a preparation for life under globalization, in which knowledge of foreign languages and cultures can prove valuable. One might even say, under the heading of contributions to the national defense, that knowledge of history could spare one the need to repeat it. The humanities are also said to develop morals and values.

The trouble is that none of this can be guaranteed. Many high-ranking Nazis were highly “cultured” and had a deep knowledge of the literature, philosophy, and art of the Western tradition. Closer to home, many American undergraduates fulfill their distribution requirements at distinguished institutions without seeming to have developed the intellectual equipment that the humanities claim in these terms to develop. Some of these students even go on to hold the highest political offices in spite of that, as if to prove the point. Of course, many students do have thrilling experiences in their study of the humanities, as do many in the sciences—both will have sat in classes alongside those that did not.

We can now begin to see the many things that the sciences and humanities have in common. Thoughtful scientists and humanists are equally dismayed at the quality of the nation’s intellectual life, and for the same reasons. Science, in which much more money has been invested and where the economic outcomes are expected to be much greater, has pressed the matter harder. But what scientists and humanists both lament is the scarcity in society of a certain quality of mind. The issue is not how many people can recite the second law of thermodynamics or describe what happened in 1789. To be sure, scientists and humanists have different tools that are suitable for studying different kinds of things. But both are driven by curiosity and a passion to know and understand more. They cannot imagine being bored, and they do not know the difference between work and fun.

Truly thoughtful scientists and humanists may know different things and employ different methods in the effort to learn still more. But neither would (or should) claim that theirs are the only things worth knowing and theirs the only tools worth applying. Their common aim is to develop ways to think about whatever needs thinking about, taking care not to allow their own tools to blind them to the utility of others. Above all they revel in the life of the mind, and this habit is what they seek to develop in others. This inclination suggests that their most fundamental goals in educating students and the general public really are the same. And this in turn calls for a much deeper collaboration between them.

The question then becomes when and how do we develop that quality of mind irrespective of the particular field of study. For a good many students, college may already be too late. The same would need to be said of many in the general public. Once an openness to new ideas has been sealed off, once the imagination has atrophied, and once curiosity has shriveled, little hope remains for reversing course toward the quality of mind that we would like to cultivate. This can happen at different times in the lives of different people. Unfortunately, it can happen very early. And this possibility requires a massive assault by all who care across all the stages of life, beginning in the cradle. College and university professors cannot assume the responsibility for the whole of life, though they may participate at times in the education of the very young. But they are utterly reliant on others to deliver to them minds that are at least favorably disposed and can be further stimulated.

As for how to develop that quality of mind, we ought to begin by recognizing it as the goal. With the goal clearly in mind, we will be better able to create the curriculum in both the sciences and the humanities that might reach it. The goal of teaching the sciences in the liberal arts curriculum should be to enable students to appreciate more deeply the beauty of, and think more intelligently about, the natural world rather than to enable them to do problem sets, however useful doing problem sets might be for some purposes. Indeed, if we are honest about our goal, we are bound to admit that we cannot reasonably expect the non-scientists in the general public to remember for all of their lives how to do the problem sets that they might have completed as undergraduates. But we can expect them to retain the sense of wonder at science’s ability to formulate problems that describe the natural world in exquisite and beautiful detail.

As a humanist by profession, I offer up a modest bit of autobiography.I clearly remember simultaneously studying physics and calculus as an undergraduate. My physics teacher was a young assistant professor who subsequently became a Nobel laureate. I revere him to this day because, among other reasons, in his class I learned to solve problems embodying Coulomb’s Law. It was as if the scales had fallen from my eyes. That experience and others remain with me and doubtless have much to do with how I think about how science is done and how thrilling it is to be able to describe and understand the natural world with such precision. Yet I could not begin to solve such equations today. The quality of my experience in college with James Cronin was undoubtedly prepared for much earlier in my life by my father, a man without higher education but who was a ham radio operator when I was a child and ho seemed to me to know a lot about airplanes and cars and clouds and minerals and who could, while requiring my assistance even then, fix lots of things around the house.

Science belongs in the liberal arts curriculum for the good of both scientists and non-scientists. The primary goal of teaching science to anyone and everyone is to enrich their lives and their experience of going about the world; it is not to teach them to become scientists, though we hope many will choose to do that in consequence. Similarly, we do not teach literature principally in hopes of producing more professors of literature. This primary goal calls for substantial changes in the way that science is often taught both to those who will major in science and those who will not.

The first-year course for the prospective major in some branch of science should not be the same as the first and perhaps only course for the student who will not major in science. But for both types of student, that first course must convey something of the excitement of doing science for its own sake,and it needs to convey something of what scientists actually do today. A whole semester of Newtonian mechanics will not likely satisfy that condition, however interesting and important the subject may be. The danger that science will come to seem like an endless grind requiring the memorization of very many things must be avoided for the sake of both prospective scientists and non-scientists.

On the other hand, nothing about this should encourage a belief that science for the non-scientist should be made easy so as not to scare them off. This, too, distorts the nature of science. To leave out the serious application of mathematics, for example, is to leave out something important about the very nature of science. Students should also be given some sense that mathematics, too, is beautiful in its own right. Calculus should be taught as a useful tool but also as one of the most beautiful and powerful ideas the mind of humankind ever conceived. The latter is what must stick with students for the rest of their lives, long after they have ceased to be able to do the problem sets.

Part of what afflicts the place of science in education (and afflicts a great deal else in our society) is the culture of professional athletics, with its small number of big winners and many losers and its insistence on being able to rank the top ten in every activity. Because ranking students from best to worst in science and mathematics is relatively easier in early education, we too often create a great many losers who will conclude much too soon that they do not have the ability to pursue science and mathematics and will therefore cease to allow it any space in their thinking. In the worst of cases, we let a facility with science and mathematics serve as the measure of who is smart and who is not. This tendency is not good for anyone. It may be part of what lends science a certain kind of prestige among the general public, but it is the enemy of educating a general public to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of science. To be sure, doing good science takes talent and hard work. But this is as true in philosophy and history as it is in physics and chemistry.

We might hope, then, that scientists and humanists would get together in thinking about the liberal arts curriculum and look for the common ground that they might cultivate together rather than simply assembling in the name of general education the list of prerequisites for the majors in their own disciplines. The study of history might be one place to look for common ground, because science is too often felt to be detached from any historical circumstance—as if, because the laws of nature are eternally true, it makes no difference when and under what circumstances any one of them was discovered. Similarly, some sense of the state of science could contribute a great deal to the understanding of a given period of history and its literature or philosophy.

Ultimately, an effort to raise the quality of intellectual life incorporating both science and the humanities will require a recognition that curricula do not change people. People change people. Those who teach either the sciences or the humanities, whether earlier or later in the lives of their students, must aspire to be that transforming individual in the life of a student. It will not be sufficient simply to transmit a vast and complicated body of knowledge and leave it to the student to figure out that it might be interesting and even exciting to accumulate that knowledge. Students will learn best if they believe someone cares that they learn, and putting this principle into practice may require all of us, whatever part of the liberal arts curriculum we principally cultivate, to adjust our priorities in our own daily lives.


1. All quotations are from the 1998 edition published by Cambridge University Press. This edition includes a valuable introduction by Stefan Collini as well as Snow’s The Two Cultures: A Second Look, from 1963.


Cohen, P. 2009. In tough times, the humanities must justify their worth. The New York Times, February 24.

Delbanco, A. 2009. A new day for intellectuals. The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 13.

Kagan, J. 2009. The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century: Revisiting C. P. Snow. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Katz, S. 2009. The bottom line for the NEH. The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 18. -NEH/6672/.

Keynes, J. M. 1936. The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Snow, C. P. 1998. The Two Cultures. New York: Cambridge University Press.