Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lorraine Daston - Can Liberal Education Save the Sciences?

The dangers of research driven by commercial agendas are obvious: bans on the open publication of data; outright manipulation of results; and, at least in the case of pharmaceutical companies, ghostwriting of articles in scientific journals. In both the biomedical sciences and social sciences, the number of published results than can be replicated has plummeted; the incidence of fraud has skyrocketed. No amount of external professional policing can replace an internalized ethos of inquiry—not the ethics of science’s responsibility to society but that of science’s responsibility to itself. Science needs liberal education and its counterweight to the values of the market for its own sake.

The term “liberal education” derives from the seven medieval artes liberales (rhetoric, grammar, logic, astronomy, music, geometry and arithmetic), the knowledge necessary to a free man, by which was usually meant an adult, property-owning male who exercised the rights of citizen in the polity and pater familias in the household. The liberal arts were opposed to the “mechanical arts,” which were skills needed to earn a living, a condition of unfreedom in late Antiquity and indeed well through the eighteenth century in Europe. Under the influence of Renaissance humanism, new reform curricula took root in early modern Europe, emphasizing Greek as well as Latin, history rather than logic, but preserving instruction in the mathematical disciplines, now enlarged to include physics. This was true especially in the Jesuit colleges that trained the intellectual elite of the Enlightenment, from Descartes to Voltaire to David Hume.

When the term “liberal education” came into wide use in English in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these associations were preserved: the curriculum consisted largely of Greek and Latin “classics,” especially Horace, Plutarch, Livy and Tacitus, and mathematics, especially Euclidean geometry. However much authors of treatises on the ideals of liberal education might have diverged on particulars, they were unanimous that “liberal” meant “free,” and “free” meant not being a slave to monetary considerations.

This is why, when William Whewell—physicist, mathematician and Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge—proposed at the 1833 meeting of the fledgling British Association for the Advancement of Science (est. 1831) that people who pursued the sciences be called “scientists,” on the analogy of “artists,” even his best friends objected that the name sounded too technical, too vocational, too much like a skilled tradesman. They preferred the older term “natural philosopher,” which licensed its bearer to roam through the sciences, philosophy and even theology and literature at will. It was not that the ethos of the sciences was anti-utilitarian: on the contrary, Whewell and his colleagues were eager to prove that science and mathematics could improve life in every sphere, from helping to avert shipwrecks to inventing new musical instruments. Ideally, their science would serve the public good. But their science was neither specialized nor commercial; so much so that, outside the few university chairs in the subject, it was almost impossible to make a living by pursuing science as a career.

All this changed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the natural sciences for the first time cashed out Francis Bacon’s IOU that knowledge of nature was power over nature—which meant that science became both publicly useful and also privately lucrative. Science-based industries like the extraction of textile dyes from coal tar derivatives, globe-spanning telegraph networks, and the infinitely varied uses of electricity turned the physical sciences into a source of wealth and military might as well as prestige among rival nations. These developments fueled campaigns to modernize secondary and tertiary education by adding modern languages and the natural sciences to the curriculum in Europe and North America. But once again, the most prominent scientists, for example the great German physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz, insisted that future scientists still be given a liberal education in the classics, as preparation for life beyond the laboratory.

In the American context, it was the rise of the social sciences in the 1920s and 1930s that created the still reigning models of liberal education, as well as the current divisions among the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. In the context of debates over Darwinism, both the natural and social sciences hoisted the banner of freedom of inquiry unimpeded by religious dogmatism, but it was the social sciences that insisted that this skeptical attitude also be instilled in the classroom. 

Joining forces with the biologists, the social scientists of the progressive age developed survey courses like the University of Chicago’s “Man in Society” and “The Nature of the World and Man,” which concluded with a survey of contemporary problems facing humanity. In response, literary scholars, philosophers and historians, alarmed to see their monopoly on ethical instruction threatened by the sciences, banded together into the “New Humanities” movement in the first decades of the twentieth century: they claimed that whereas Renaissance humanists had fought the tyranny of the church, the modern humanists (a new designation for this motley alliance of disciplines) now fought the naturalism of the sciences, both natural and social. Only the newly christened “humanities” disciplines, they argued, could provide spiritual insight into the human condition and prepare free citizens of a free nation.

After World War II and the bellicose triumphs of modern physics—demonstrated all too convincingly by the successful detonations of atomic bombs—science once again entered the liberal education, this time in the guise of the history of science. Chemist and Harvard president James Bryant Conant, one of the administrators of the Manhattan Project, worried that democracy would turn into technocracy if citizens relinquished decision-making about atomic weapons, vaccination programs and other technology-saturated policy decisions to experts. But immersing students in the highly specialized research needed to understand the relevant science seemed impracticable. Instead, students would learn about how scientists thought through a series of historical case studies that would also teach them at least the rudiments of contemporary science. The natural science surveys of Harvard’s postwar General Education requirements became the prototype of “physics/biology/math for poets” courses at universities all over the country.

What does this condensed history of the place of sciences and mathematics in liberal education teach us?.. read more: