Science in the university

In response to Harvard releasing its internal report on their educational objectives, Steven Pinker discusses some reservations, more with the high-level phrasing than the specific steps to be taken, it seems [via Arts & Letters Daily]. Of particular interest – even at Harvard the debates about requiring science, how much science, and of what types for what reason take place. Pinker laments that the current argument for science education seems to have a greater requirement that the applicability to social issues be made the focus than other fields find required of themselves. While it isn’t a full argument, I thought his counterclaim for the relevancy of pure science education was nicely phrased:

Also, the picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.
I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. And I think that some acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge should be a goal of the general education requirement and a stated value of a university.

One thought on “Science in the university

  1. Pinker’s “counterclaim for the relevancy of pure science education” is fabulous. And beautifully written.
    His list of items which should be common knowledge are great. I believe the importance of basic science knowlege for all of us (and I’m not a scientist) cannot be overstated.
    I especially like last one on the list: “that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.”
    This reminds me of Biologist Richard Dawkins’ latest book – “The God Delusion” – which I just finished reading. It is fabulous. Stunning.

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