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

Chapter 3: Science in the Liberal Arts and Sciences

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

Eugene H. Levy

Science general education can and should play a much more important role in undergraduate education than has been the case thus far. In order to better serve the national interest, science general education should be rethought in its own special terms and reconstructed as a uniquely valuable part of college education, beyond its current status as a broadening requirement for liberal arts students not majoring in science or engineering. To achieve the broader educational goals set out in this essay, I propose that the content and presentation of science general education be restructured and the target audience expanded.

This volume focuses on the seemingly well-defined challenge of effectively teaching science in college and university liberal arts curricula. That is generally intended to mean teaching science to students who are not otherwise studying (that is, “majoring in”) science. The science courses concerned are usually categorized under the rubric of general education: that part of the curriculum or course requirements designed to bring conceptual breadth to education, complementing the narrower and more intensely focused parts of the curriculum that constitute the major. For the purposes of this essay I will construe general education as courses focused on conceptual content rather than on developing defined skills such as writing, communication, foreign language facility, quantitative reasoning, and so on. This definition may irritate some who will point out, correctly, that the so-called skills courses can also engage significant conceptual content. The distinction is not necessarily defined by sharp and bold boundaries. Moreover, nothing is lost, and possibly much is gained, if a general education science course also helps develop skills in writing or mathematics by exercising those skills under pedagogical supervision in the content-rich context of science. Nonetheless, the distinction, as I employ it, is commonly reflected in college and university curricula.

Some form of general education is more or less universal among U.S. colleges and universities. The structures of general education curricula vary from institution to institution. The two most prevalent variants of general education are (1) the distribution requirement and (2) the core curriculum. Each is framed by its own concept of the role that general education should play in college-level education. On the one hand, a distribution requirement is usually built around the idea that all students should be exposed to a variety of scholarly disciplines on the principle that variety and breadth of exposure constitute the goal of general education. Typically, the variety is defined to encompass humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. However, institutionally idiosyncratic variants exist. For example, science is sometimes, lamentably, lumped with technology or engineering. (Whatever value a course in technology qua engineering might offer to general education—and I believe a well-designed course can offer great value—it does not substitute for science.) The core curriculum, on the other hand, is built around the idea that some common core of questions, concepts, subject matter, issues, and understanding should engage all students during the course of their undergraduate education and that what they take with them from that part of their education should have lifelong value of a special sort.

Partisans defend the merits of their favored flavor of general education:distribution, core, or some hybrid variant (such as a distribution requirement in which courses must be chosen from among a defined subset of all available courses). The existence of these two distinct approaches to general education is especially useful to those who claim that change itself has inherent value. Moreover, the ability to claim credit for change can be valuable for career advancement and résumé development in university leadership positions. Thus, whichever system of general education a university employs, there is always the opportunity—and sometimes a felt imperative—to change it. In fact, I have heard it said about one university that it was past time to revise the structure of the curriculum simply because the curriculum structure had not been revised for a number of years. I have not studied the matter, but I have sometimes wondered how many colleges and universities episodically switch back and forth from a semblance of one to a semblance of the other, emulating a bi-stable oscillator, each change producing a satisfied claim that the educational experience has been improved. This is not to suggest that change itself cannot have inherent value; indeed it may, if only because it provokes reflection about the curriculum that might not otherwise take place.

For a time early in my own teaching career, I strongly favored a more or less unconstrained distribution structure for general education. My reason for favoring this approach was a common one and easy to understand: my own undergraduate general education had been structured as a distribution requirement. That structure had seemed to me fine enough at the time, and, as I reflected slightly on it at the beginning of my teaching career, it seemed an obvious and easy way to go. An unconstrained distribution structure is flexible and effective at exposing students to variety and breadth in undergraduate education; it offers a path of low resistance for faculty and departments; and its courses are relatively easy to design, implement, and staff, inasmuch as the distribution structure leaves faculty fairly free to offer their own courses, tailored to their interests, tastes, and expertise. The unrestricted structure is indeed a real advantage. We hire faculty members for their intellectual creativity and originality and expect them to focus their research and creative scholarship in self-motivated directions. Relatively unconstrained distribution curricula allow that same sense of independent creativity to extend to teaching in general education courses. This aspect has a great deal in its favor, which should induce one to think hard before proposing to give it up.

In the most extremely unconstrained systems, students are able to satisfy a distribution requirement by taking any available courses, provided they achieve the required distribution of credits over the specified areas. Relatively ambitious or gutsy students can satisfy their general education science requirement by taking regular disciplinary classes alongside students majoring in those disciplines. However, many students seek other alternatives, and most science departments respond to the large demand for general education by offering specially designed courses, sometimes even tailored—not necessarily on purpose—to attract and be accessible to the less engaged. Although many excellent courses are offered in broadly unconstrained general education systems, market forces can have the insidious potential to promote relatively low educational common denominators. In many institutions, registered student credit hours serve as a currency with which faculty positions can be justified and in some budgeting systems explicitly paid for. Departments can compete for this currency, even to the point of adjusting content and grading standards so that students will not feel disadvantaged—and perhaps even find advantage—in taking one department’s courses instead of another’s. As if to underscore the perception of diluted expectation, some courses have, over time, accreted designations like “Rocks for Jocks,” as unfair as the implied pejorative might be to many of the students—especially the jocks—taking the courses. Strong vested interests sustain this arrangement. Faculties have been built in part on the teaching hours earned in these courses. The fact that this arrangement has persisted for decades suggests a certain satisfaction with it. Indeed, it is hard to argue that the approach is flawed. But that is not to say that the job of general education cannot be done better and that we should not try to make more effective use of the important educational opportunity that general education science presents and of the educational need that it fills.

In science, the typically sequential and hierarchical structure of the subject matter, the challenge of accessing technical aspects of the material, and often the formal or mathematical sophistication in the courses designed for majors push most general education science enrollments into the courses designed specifically for that purpose. Frequently, these courses are diluted versions of the introductory courses designed for students majoring in the subject. This latter aspect, especially, represents a lost opportunity. General education requirements shaped around a distribution structure forgo the opportunity to develop a core of common interconnected understanding and ideas with which one might wish all college graduates to become conversant, a point made eloquently by the former dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, a computer scientist: “At its best, general education is about the unity of knowledge, not about distributed knowledge. Not about spreading courses around, but about making connections between different ideas. Not about the freedom to combine random ingredients, but about joining an ancient lineage of the learned and wise.”1

Early in my own teaching, I became troubled by the lost opportunity bound up in loosely structured distribution systems, with students choosing from among a variety of diluted disciplinary introductions. I came to believe that we could—and should—try to offer general education in a way structured to achieve more clearly defined and valuable ends. For me, this took the form of trying to develop, over time, a course with which I felt I could be reasonably satisfied, even if it were the only or the last science course to which a university student would be exposed. As it happened, my own development in this dimension occurred in the context of, and was enabled by, a fairly loosely structured distribution system. Had I been teaching in the context of a core curriculum, with tighter, more sharply defined curriculum objectives and structures, the opportunity to develop a course with the content—and structured in a way—that I perceived to be especially valuable might not have been as readily available. This fact engenders a cognitive dissonance to which I am particularly sensitive because I am about to advocate that general education science be structured in core-curriculum form. I assuage this personal dissonance by realizing that evolution—of ideas as well as organisms—need not be linear and completely logical. Some ideas that are pretty good in some dimensions may give way to other ideas that are better in more dimensions. After all, the dinosaurs died so that we mammals could thrive and prevail (if you will forgive the attribution of such selfless intentionality to the dinosaurs’ extinction).


In most cases, students majoring in science are exempted from the general education science requirement because the presumably more elementary treatment of the general education material is considered redundant for those who are already immersed in a specialized science curriculum. Conversely, almost all students not specifically majoring in science typically are required to take some number of those courses. Students majoring in engineering, however, are sometimes exempted from the general education science requirement, presumably for the same unjustified reasons that engineering or technology courses are sometimes conflated with, and allowed to substitute for, science.

I have long argued that exempting engineering students from the general education science requirement is a mistake (a point that has offended some engineering colleagues). Engineering students should be required to fulfill the general education science requirement just as other students not majoring in science are required to do. In my experience, this proposition stimulates a variety of reactions among engineering colleagues, generally ranging from disbelief or annoyance on the part of those who are relatively receptive to the idea, to manifest outrage from those who are more hostile. My argument about the desirability of extending the general education science requirement to engineers is not intended to disparage the engineering curriculum or engineering students. In fact, I have provoked even greater indignation from my science colleagues by proposing that students majoring in science should also fulfill a core general education science requirement. My experience has been that this evenhanded and ecumenical position does not placate my engineering colleagues nearly to the extent that it puzzles and appalls my science colleagues.

This somewhat fringy position has an obvious corollary. If we were to require science majors to fulfill a general education requirement in science by taking courses alongside the students not majoring in science, then we would be obliged to design and offer courses that would make it worth the while. Our responsibility as science educators would be to develop and offer general education science in a way that would lend credibility to such a broad-scale requirement, rendering the resultant courses a valuable, education-expanding experience for science and engineering students while at the same time ensuring that the courses are accessible and valuable to French majors, musicians, and sociologists. Even if the only outcome were to improve general education science in this way, that alone, in my view, would be worth the effort. To emphasize the distinction from the more traditional construction of the term general education science, I will refer to what is proposed here as science general education.

In thinking about a constellation of science general education offerings that could fit both typical physics majors and typical bass trombone majors, for example, one might envision offering several different kinds of courses, varying, say, in technical and mathematical intensity. However, I do not believe that would be the best approach. In fact, I think such a gerrymandered approach would undercut several of the important advantages of a universal requirement. Great educational advantage for everyone could be realized from high-quality science general education that is made accessible and valuable to all undergraduate students and designed to satisfy a universal requirement. If designed and presented well, I believe such science courses would be of value not only to the liberal arts students but to science (and engineering) students as well, especially if students from the varied backgrounds were to be mixed in the same classrooms.

A skeptic might object that such courses necessarily will have to be presented in so watered down a fashion as to be superficial and trivial for the science (and engineering) students. In the physical sciences—which, for specificity, are the disciplines I will focus on here, though similar principles apply more broadly —the designations “watered down” and “superficial” are usually code for “descriptive courses with little or no mathematics.” To be sure, science courses accessible to as broad a range of students as I am suggesting would employ mathematics of a fairly elementary and simple sort: these would not be calculus-level courses. However, the designations “watered down,” “superficial,” or “descriptive”—intended to constitute fatal criticism—need not apply. In this context, the sparse use of mathematics is not necessarily a deplorable compromise needed to pander to a mass of students, but potentially a virtue, valuable in its own right for all students, both individually and as a cohort. The goal should be not only to render the science accessible to the mathematically disinclined but also to push the mathematical adepts to confront scientific concepts and phenomena seriously without the protective cover of mathematics —that is, without having mathematics as a crutch with which to frame explanations that, while mathematically unassailable, may lack physical understanding.

Moreover, several additional values attach to science general education for the broader student body, bringing science students together with everyone else. First, this approach presents the opportunity to build the basis for ongoing productive civic dialogue about the nature, substance, and value of science. Universal science general education can help build needed bridges between the scientific and nonscientific cultures in our society and perhaps help initiate and then expand the more effective ongoing national conversation about science that is so crucial to the quality of our cultural and material life as citizens. Some national cultural debates would be well served if the scientific community and the educated laity were able to converse with a stronger base of common language and understanding. Neither science as an enterprise nor the national interest is well served if science is regarded as accessible only to initiates who share an idiosyncratic language largely beyond the ken of most others and a value system disconnected from the main. One of the shortcomings of overly descriptive courses designed for non-science majors is that the science comes across as a closed mystery for which the secrets of real understanding are available to only a small elite. Forcing ourselves to present science general education in a way that is both useful and accessible to all students would challenge us to remedy that shortcoming.

Few aspects of this idea provoke as much objection as the assertion that there is value in exposing science majors to science courses that rely on mathematical or technical tools beneath the science majors’ attained or expected level of sophistication. To illustrate my point that such exposure would indeed have value, I will take as an example a common, widely studied, yet perplexing, physical system: the spinning top. As many children learn early, a top or gyroscope spinning with its axis set at an angle to the vertical on a flat horizontal surface does not fall over in the way that naked intuition almost compels one to expect. Instead, the top holds its seemingly impossible tilt and precesses with its spin axis sweeping out a cone around the vertical direction defined by the local gravity. Physics students study the theory of spinning objects during undergraduate education, typically learning in some detail about the classical precessing top. With a little mathematical manipulation, the usual explanation is straightforward—if not entirely illuminating. Already having learned about angular momentum conservation, students are instructed to take a specified vector cross product to see that by the magic of the vector arithmetic, the top can satisfy a balance condition by precessing around the local gravitational vertical. The behavior of spinning objects is fundamental to a vast range of phenomena across both classical and quantum physics. In my experience, when asked why a tilted top does not fall over, most physics students appeal to the memory of a vector cross product or an elliptic integral. But when asked to explain the phenomenon in a more intuitively accessible way, they—along with physics graduates and more than a few physics faculty—rarely give much of an answer.

While drafting this article, I had occasion to retest this perception at a small national meeting of physics educators. The question elicited several rapid responses, including one reminding all of us that the polhode rolls without slipping on the herpolhode. But none of the responses even approached a physically or intuitively accessible account of the spinning top that does not fall over. In fact, few who could recite the incantation about polhodes and herpolhodes actually remembered the definitions. Moreover, as poetic as that invocation might be for those who remember polhodes from herpolhodes, it does not, in fact, describe a spinning top that does not fall over; it describes a body in free rotational motion in the absence of external torques. Is it any wonder that a communication gap separates the cultures?2

The purpose of this diversion to the spinning top is not to suggest it as a subject to include in a science general education course. The point is simply to underscore one of the benefits that I attribute to the kind of science general education experience I am suggesting: that asking even science students to engage their disciplines without the usual technical and mathematical armamentarium is of potentially great value. That armamentarium, requisite to the professional practice of science, is not necessarily, by itself, a path to full understanding, even for science professionals. It is certainly not a path to the kind of understanding that can foster broader, sustained intercultural intercourse about science. To further emphasize the point that nurturing intuitive understanding is a valuable enhancement to the education of scientists, I note that once having understood the precessing top in a physical way, the causes of and relationships among the various motions, such as spin, precession, and nutation, become physically evident rather than remaining a haze of often less-than-fully transparent mathematical formulae.

Nothing prevents the presentation of clear physical explanations in science classes for majors. However, it is often not done. Well-designed integrated science general education courses offer an ideal opportunity to accomplish that by necessity while other valuable educational objectives are being met. At the same time, one or two semesters of science general education will not cover the broad array of disciplinary education. But covering everything is not necessary to stimulate the habits of mind that seek deeper physically intuitive explanations and, as a valuable by-product, facilitate effective communication about and understanding of science in broadly accessible terms.

The suggestion that a science general education requirement be extended to all undergraduates has several objectives intended to provide educational value to both the traditional general education science students and the science-discipline majors, albeit in somewhat different ways. First, grappling with even their own science disciplines without the supporting structures of mathematics, jargon, and assumptions so familiar that they may become unquestioned and cloak a lack of physical understanding is a valuable experience for science majors. Engaging science in conversation with those who do not share the same background and intellectual orientation can be an effective way to hone the understanding of both experts and novices. Second, there is value in broadening the scientific education of science majors as well as students not majoring in science. Many of the challenges that our society confronts involve issues that cross disciplines, engendering the need for an educated populace capable of grasping and appreciating the science, preferably at a level that goes deeper than pure description and in ways that cross both the disciplinary and cultural gulfs that divide us. We tend to categorize students as being inside or outside of science. But science itself is a broad endeavor, and science students can also benefit from classroom exposure to disciplines outside the often-narrow confines of their majors. Third, bringing together science majors and non-science majors in a common science general education core can help improve essential intercultural communication on scientific questions that frame continuing debates in our society, as well as on social and environmental issues for which an understanding of science is crucial. Fourth, the challenge to faculty to develop and teach courses that are, at the same time, accessible and valuable to both science majors and students majoring in other fields can provide an opportunity to reconstruct the science general education experience in a way that will refresh and invest new value in undergraduate education.


Arguments for a structured core in general education are based on the proposition that a common body of ideas and understanding exists with which every educated citizen ought to be conversant. For example, it is hard to argue with the assertion that every college graduate should be conversant with the development of world civilizations, the history of ideas and events that shaped our society, and the historical and social circumstances that continue to influence world events. It is likewise hard to argue with the proposition that in our complex modern world every college graduate ought to be at least superficially familiar with the functioning of national and world economies, the armament of controls and regulations that can be brought to bear on guiding and adjusting them, and the conditions and behaviors that can drive them awry. Similarly in science, it is hard to argue with the proposition that every educated person should be conversant with a core of important understanding about the natural world, how natural phenomena work to make the world behave as it does, and how the natural laws as revealed by science are harnessed to improve the quality of our lives. This core of understanding encompasses elements of the structure and behavior of matter and the interactions of matter that generate and control the phenomena we observe in the natural world. To say that, even from a purely practical perspective, responsible citizens today need a sound basis for assimilating and taking part in the public debates that involve scientific and technological questions in such areas as environment and climate, energy, and questions involving life—ranging from such matters as genetic modification of organisms to the ultimately deleterious evolutionary implications of overuse of antibiotics—has become a platitude. Platitude or not, the proposition is true.

Another core of understanding informs and shapes a scientific worldview about the nature of our universe, our planet, and life on Earth. The involved questions range from the truly transcendent—questions about the origin of the universe and life—to more mundane but still socially vexing questions such as the time at which, and the circumstances under which, potential human life becomes, or ceases to be, actual human life. Some of these questions hover at the intersection of human values and scientific fact, infusing and confusing continuing controversies over, for example, embryonic stem-cell research and the application of medical therapies. Some of these questions and controversies have crystallized along one of the most persistent and polarized axes of discourse in our society: the divide between religious and scientific worldviews. We cannot expect to resolve all these questions in science general education, nor is it clear that we should try, but we can hope to equip our students to confront these questions with a clearer understanding of the issues than characterize much public debate.

Science general education should be designed with a seriousness of specific intent and coherence that is commensurate with the importance and significance of its highest purposes. Catching a wave or two of descriptive science in one or two disconnected general education geology, environment, physics, chemistry, or biology courses does not obviously and always fill the need. Failure to fill that educational need is not the fault of the students; it is the fault of the faculty for not shaping this most important component of education with the intent, seriousness, and specificity that it requires and merits.


I have suggested reasons to prefer a core-curriculum approach—rather than a distribution approach—to general education, an idea that is not especially contentious even if not widely implemented. I have also argued that science general education should be required of all undergraduate students and that science and engineering majors ought to commingle with non-science majors. But everything hinges on the curriculum, which leads me to consider the role of “introduction” in general education. Courses designed for general education are frequently thought of and constructed as “introductions” to their subject matter. Sometimes the courses are even specifically titled as introductions or explicitly described as such in course abstracts. These “introductions” differ from the introductory courses designed for students majoring in a scientific discipline because technical detail and mathematically oriented aspects are typically reduced or eliminated. What remains tends to be a stripped-down version of the introduction designed for majors, simplified and presumably made more accessible to a broad cross-section of students. What is frequently not stripped out is a wide array of detailed factual information and explanations of phenomena that are largely descriptive. Students are often left as confused and unknowing as before the course, except for the temporarily retained combinations of words and images memorized in anticipation of the examinations.

This outcome challenges us to rethink science general education. “Introduction,” for me, carries the sense of a beginning, an entrée to a continuing relationship. An introduction is preparation in anticipation of what is expected to follow. For most students, their science general education courses are not introductions at all. These courses are, in fact, the last one or two times, probably in their entire life, that most will be exposed to a formal course in science. An introductory course for an astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, or physics major is an opportunity to introduce students to the concepts, techniques, and manipulations that will form the foundation of their further conceptual work in the courses that follow and perhaps throughout their professional lives. It anticipates a continuing engaged and intimate relationship with the subject matter. In this sense, general education is not an introduction at all; it is a final exposure, a farewell of sorts. As a faculty member teaching a general education course, my goals for a class that I expect to be my students’ last formal and organized exposure to science are not similar to the goals that I would set in an introductory class intended to be the start of an ongoing, open-ended formal relationship with the subject.

Astronomy courses, or courses on astronomy-related subjects such as planetary science, are widely enrolled among general education science courses at many universities and colleges. As an example of how best to use—or not use—the time in a last formal exposure to science (as opposed to in an introduction), consider that many such courses and associated textbooks cover, near the beginning, methods for locating astronomical objects in a celestial coordinate system and the associated methods for pointing telescopes to observe celestial objects. This is a somewhat complicated business. Although, for this purpose, the stars and galaxies can be considered relatively fixed on the sky, objects in the solar system move rapidly. But what truly complicates the subject is that Earth-based telescopes must be pointed from the approximately spherical surface of a planet that is itself rotating at the rate of a turn per day and orbiting the sun at a turn per year. Celestial coordinate and time-keeping systems, as well as clever telescope mounts, have been devised to make finding, pointing, and tracking tractable, even automatable. Rare is the general education student who truly absorbs the time-dependent, three-dimensional reasoning necessary to assimilate and use this knowledge. Even a practicum exercise at a telescope, guided with step-by-step instructions and fill-in-the-blank questions, is unlikely to bring many students to a useful grasp of such material, to say nothing of a sustained understanding. For a student majoring in astronomy, by contrast, telescope pointing is an essential element of the curriculum and reasonable to include in an introductory course. Indeed, for that student, a first course truly is an introduction, and pointing telescopes is an essential skill soon to be deployed in actual practice; the earlier such concepts are introduced the better. However, for many, if not most, general education students, an encounter with celestial coordinates, with the relationship between solar and sidereal times, and with the arcana of telescope pointing systems has little long-term value, except perhaps for the ethereal advantage of having glimpsed the paraphernalia and complexity of the astronomical priesthood. It is unlikely to leave, for most such students, much in the way of persistent perception beyond the sense that the subject is hard to penetrate and that they once worked through some exercises vaguely remembered.

My purpose is not to pick on astronomy—a subject I am close to and for which I have great affection—but rather to stimulate discussion about how we might most effectively spend the precious few minutes we have at our disposal to devote to the science education of our nation’s next generation of citizens and leaders. I could have made a similar point about the value of dwelling on Newton’s laws of motion in general education. Detailed understanding of Newton’s laws is of irreducible importance to physicists as well as to scientists and engineers in numerous other specialties. A significant fraction of a physicist’s educational time is spent elaborating the consequences of Newton’s laws. As important as that is, it does not necessarily translate into value in making a substantial issue of Newton’s laws in science general education.

I am, of course, not oblivious to the good arguments that might be offered in support of teaching about telescope pointing to general education students even if the exercise develops only limited, specific, and evanescent understanding. After all, science is an empirical subject. One of the objectives we might want to achieve is to bring our students into at least cultural contact with the realities and challenges of empirical science by teaching about the careful discipline and significant effort that underlie serious science. Fomenting contact with any aspect of real science is surely a good and valuable contribution to education. But, as teachers of science general education, it behooves us to look beyond what is merely good and valuable and to ask what might be the best and most valuable use of the limited time we have for general education. Essential skills for beginning astronomy majors are not necessarily of commensurate value for science general education students exposed to the same subject in a more superficial manner.


What should students be learning in science general education? Any attempt to answer this question must take into account the science education that occurs before college. That conversation is further freighted by what are perceived to be broad-scale deficiencies—or at least the extreme unevenness—in pre-college science education in schools across the nation.

The fact that science general education in college comes on the heels of a dozen years of pre-college science education induces, in my experience, two antipodal reactions among faculty. On the one hand, some seem so demoralized by what they perceive as the deficiencies in so much of pre-college science education that they argue for a ground-up approach in college science general education, including, by accentuating laboratory work, heavy emphasis on the empirical aspects of science. This can translate into a desire to try to make up in one or two semesters of college science for a half-dozen years of perceived preceding deficiencies. Others argue that general education has been taken care of in high school—and if it has not, it should have been. These partisans sometimes argue that college general education should be done away with so that students can devote all their time and energy to the major track for which they are in college in the first place—more or less the way things are done in parts of Europe.

Given such a range of views even among those who hold, as I do, that science general education is a crucial component of college education, the lack of consensus as to the most appropriate content is not surprising. In my own approach to developing a science general education course, I punted on the question of prior science education. Recognizing that students come to the class with a wide range of backgrounds and preparation, I sought to develop a course that would stand on its own, sufficiently different in approach that it would complement what science background even most well-prepared students would bring. But, at the same time, I sought to develop a course sufficiently self-contained that a student with deficient prior background in science could be expected to be able to master the material. Although I have never had the opportunity to teach in the kind of educational environment I advocate in this paper—one in which all students would take science general education together—I found that the occasional science major who did take the course without needing it to satisfy a requirement found it to be of value (at least that was the opinion of those who talked to me about the experience). Inasmuch as I never bought into the proposition that college-level science general education should necessarily require a laboratory component, I did not combine my course with any kind of laboratory or practicum sequence. In that, I was implicitly assuming that most, if not all, students had gained some appreciation of the empirical nature of science in their prior education and that, even if they had not, little additional value would be gained by a subsequent cookbook laboratory experience in college.

I sought to braid three main strings through the course. The first tries to develop students’ understanding of the rational mechanical nature of the world: the constitution of matter, the ways that the constituent parts interact through the forces of nature, and how those interactions give rise to the properties and behavior of matter and to the interaction of matter and light, which informs so much of our understanding. This string entails quite a bit of physics, which is then recast and re-presented elsewhere throughout the course in the context of the phenomena of chemistry, astronomy, and planetary and earth science. The second string develops the relationship between the basic properties and behavior of matter and observable phenomena, thus sustaining a sense of connection between phenomena and the origin of phenomena in basic physics. The intent is to help students develop a sense of confidence that the world— or much of it, that part short of highly complex systems displaying emergent behavior—is comprehensible in simple terms and that they have access to that comprehension. I have found that this approach helps assure students that even if explanation eludes them, rational explanation is, in principle, accessible —an outcome that seems to me among the most desirable effects of science general education. The third string narrates a history of the universe through to the development of life on Earth and is built from the physics thread as well as observations. The third string has two motivations. The first is to weave the physics, chemistry, earth and planetary science, and biology into a memorable story that imbues the material with a sense of impact and importance. The second motivation is to leave students with a deeper scientific understanding of questions, and some answers, that have a long and persistent history of human preoccupation and significance and occupy a prominent place in contemporary public discourse and controversy. In my view, this “story” constitutes an essential cultural narrative with which all students should become conversant. The course I developed was most recently given the following description:

This course explores the origin and evolution of the universe, planets, and life, from the beginning of time—as we now understand that concept—to the living Earth. We will explore the implications of our modern knowledge of the universe and of our scientific understanding of matter and the laws of nature to see what those tell us about answers to deep and long-standing questions about our world, about its connection with the wider cosmos, and about its origin and evolution. These questions have occupied human thought and speculation throughout all of recorded history, threading through parts of myth, religion, philosophy, and science. We live in a remarkable time: Firm scientific knowledge, developed mainly during the past several hundred years, provides a basis for finding definitive answers to some of these age-old human questions. Basic principles and ideas will be emphasized. Among the purposes of this course is to show that many aspects of the world around us can be understood in simple ways, and to explore the boundaries between that which is confidently known and that about which firm knowledge still eludes us.

The general list and sequence of topics is not especially remarkable and overlaps with or, more commonly, can be extracted from any number of textbooks written for general education science courses. The syllabus for the most recent incarnation of the course listed its topics as:

Matter, Force, and Energy—Composition of matter: molecules, atoms, nuclei, and particles. Structure and behavior of matter. Forces of nature. Energy and light. Interaction of light and matter.

The Sky—Major objects in the universe. What is the universe made of: the composition of distant objects. The nature of stars and galaxies. Distances to distant objects and the cosmic distance scale. Expansion of the universe.

The Origin and Development of the Universe—The principles of cosmology. Possible universes: the expanding universe and the “Big Bang.” The origin and evolution of matter. Continuing evolution of the universe.

Galaxies and Stars—Formation of galaxies. The nature of stars; their birth and evolution. Sources of stellar energy and the synthesis of the chemical elements. Deaths of stars: white dwarfs, supernovae, neutron stars, and black holes. The life of the sun.

Formation of the Solar System: Sun and Planets—Solar system structure and regularities. Characters of the planets; comets and asteroids; planetary satellite systems. Solar system matter, the origin of the solar system, and the formation of planets.

Planets and their Atmospheres—Primary and secondary atmospheres. Planetary differentiation, evolution, and structures. The early Earth. Planetary environments: nature and evolution of terrestrial planet environments—Venus, Earth, and Mars.

The State of the Earth—Earth structure, continental drift, global tectonics, and the physical evolution of Earth. Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. Earth’s biological environment: the organic evolution of Earth.

Nature and Origin of Life—The definition of life. Basic life processes. Replication: the structure of replicating molecules —DNA. Protein synthesis and the structures of terrestrial organisms. Diversity of life: mutation and evolution. Origin of life: Chemical evolution. Cells. Evolution to “higher” species. The emergence of the human species and cultural evolution.

Implications and Questions—What is the likely prevalence and character of other planetary systems? How likely are there to be other planets similar to Earth? How likely is it that life existed/exists/will exist on other planets?

This list of topics contains little that is unusual for such a course. More remarkable perhaps would be a list of material and detail not covered. The course was purposely constructed to be spare of elaborate detail, defined as much by what was not covered as by what was covered. My approach has been to try to include only details that are essential to the core of understanding I seek to develop, to eschew comprehensiveness in favor of comprehension, and to cover nothing that I could not at least aspire to have the students remember several years afterward. I found over a number of years of teaching this course that the early urge to add material and topics, to tend toward the encyclopedic, eventually gave way to the elimination of material and topics, allowing deeper treatment of fewer topics. A second characteristic of the course is continual emphasis, where possible and where it can be made reasonably transparent, on relating phenomena back to basic physics. The purpose is to emphasize the connectedness of phenomena; the nature and robustness of our understanding, where it can be considered robust; and the possibility and importance of building knowledge on deep, simple, and general ideas—that is, to try to delineate the boundaries that separate strong scientific understanding from speculation, ignorance, and less systematic ad hoc approaches to knowing.


The national interest calls for a citizenry that has a grasp of science sufficient to engender realistic confidence in the nature, efficacy, limits, and importance of science as a modality of understanding and engaging reality. Science provides the foundation of knowledge and understanding on which our technology, prosperity, and material well-being are built. Moreover, science provides the most penetrating framework for seeking answers to questions that have occupied human beings for longer than recorded history. These questions cover matters ranging from proximate ideas about the nature of life and living systems needed to inform ethical debates and decisions to transcendent existential questions about the nature of the universe and the emergence of the human environment—and human beings themselves—from the universe. Some of these questions touch on issues that are also the subjects of religious and other belief systems that societies developed over millennia to try to grapple with the truly transcendent (and the once-seemingly transcendent) mysteries of existence. The fact that science and religion impinge on some of the same questions only underscores the persistence of these questions as subjects of human preoccupation and their importance in shaping the human self-concept.

Science general education is the only opportunity for colleges and universities to contribute broadly to meeting the national need for a citizenry appropriately conversant with science. A sustained, fluent, and effective conversation across the cultural gap that currently divides the scientific community from society at large is required to maintain such a citizenry. Reconstruction of science general education to bring all students together in a well-designed common core may offer the most effective approach. As much as students not majoring in science can benefit from suitable breadth of science appropriately presented, science majors can benefit from a carefully constructed broad presentation of science—complementary to what they experience in their major courses—without the protective cover of formalism and jargon that can, in any event, mask a lack of understanding. Meeting this need will not be easy; it will require institutional flexibility and willingness to reconsider current assumptions, practices, and educational structures in the small part of the curriculum that is involved, and it will require a significant investment of time and energy on the part of science educators for whom marginal time and energy are already in short supply. However, the need is real. The very existence of this volume testifies to the widespread perception that current educational practice falls short in equipping our students with the knowledge to effectively negotiate the increasingly scientific and technological social terrain of the twenty-first century. The investment of flexibility and effort would be justified.


1. H. Lewis, Letter from Former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis, n.d.,

2. The physical explanation of why the top does not fall over requires some slightly subtle reasoning and spatial visioning of the complicated three-dimensional motions of the top, for which a clearly drawn diagram can be helpful. Instead of rehearsing an explanation here, I refer the reader to the lucid treatment in the first volume of The Feynman Lectures on Physics; see Richard Phillips Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, vol. 1 (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1970).