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Great Ideas in Science is Liberal Arts as Hell

September 30, 2009

by Wyatt MacKenzie
Great Ideas in Science is Liberal Arts as Hell

Don't let certain downers give you the wrong impression.  Monday's Debate Night at the Ath was awesome. Five stars.  Two thumbs up.  A triumph of technology over knowledge and the wisdom of crowds over the droning of elites.  Letting the audience text their ideas onto the projector was inspired and really made the night.  Without the texts, it would have been yet another snoozeworthy "debate" for me to sleep through while listening to people whose views I already know.  With the texts, it was a dynamic event that forced the (good) speakers to engage with the audience.  As almost any post on the Forum demonstrates, anonymity brings out people's real (sometimes ill-considered) opinions and the texting system translated this to a real life venue. More than a few minutes of the debate were devoted to a discussion of science's place in a liberal arts curriculum.  Although nobody mentioned that the only science to make it into the traditional liberal arts was astronomy, it was a subject that hit close to home for me.  Ilan Wurman (supported by other members of our campus's conservative cabal) argued that if CMC grads are to be truly well-rounded in the liberal arts tradition, then they should actually study actual science, rather than watered down "theme" courses.  What Ilan said was that we shouldn't be studying Energy and the Environment or the Living Sea.  He went on to say that we should not be studying East Asian Feminist Cultures or the Experiences of Slave Women.  What Ilan was trying to say is "we shouldn't be studying bullshit."  I won't attempt to judge the merits of feminist, ethnic, or any other niche history course, but his suggestion that they do not jibe with the goals of a liberal arts education is well taken.

Ilan's attack on the bullshit sciences established a false dichotomy between science courses for majors and pointless thematic courses for nonmajors.  The fact of the matter is that five years from now, I will not remember how to model a chemical reaction if I take O Chem.  Liberal arts is not about the specific facts you learn.  What Ilan was advocating was a multidisciplinary technical education.

Now back to that anonymous texts thing: I sent something like 30 texts (and at least half of them made it past Peaslee's exacting censor), one of which was "great ideas in science is liberal arts as hell." Regrettably, none of our debaters understood me or took me seriously.  There is one Joint Sciences class which is in fact "liberal arts as hell"-- PHYS 77L, Great Ideas in Science.  The course introduces students to the type of scientific issues they read about in books and magazines: quantum physics, genetics, global warming, and the like.  It does so as a means of teaching them how to think like a scientist.  The course yields skills that will last long after I forget the basic Newtonian math it taught me, namely how to read and parse scientific papers and discourse with scientists on their own territory if not on an even footing.

The Living Sea is not a science in the liberal arts tradition, but neither is Introductory Physics.  Great Ideas in Science captures the essence of a liberal arts college and translates it into science.  Were every CMC student taught it as a freshman alongside their Freshmen Humanities Seminar (FHS), perhaps we would have a greater appreciation of the sciences' role in the liberal arts.

I hear there's already change afloat on this matter-- we got a grant to have better science for nonscience major courses.  Switching gears from Debate Night and the liberal arts, I'll be covering the changes in science courses next week.

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