Sunday, August 17, 2008

True Education

Lasagna facilitates true education.**

The high school physics textbook from which I will be teaching next year begins with a philosophical treatise on the nature of science and its relation to religion, the arts, and technology.

Were I teaching a worldview class, this chapter would provide me with weeks of material. A pure physics course could probably skip the chapter without missing a beat. Fortunately, the philosophy of my school allows the former to supplement the latter.

Among many thought-provoking quotes, I find:
A truly educated person is knowledgeable in both the arts and the sciences.
I believe this summarizes the philosophy behind liberal arts education. Penn's College of Arts and Sciences, the school from which I have my degree, still practices this idea in theory: In addition to 18.5 courses in my major (physics), I had to take courses from seven varied sectors, in addition to language, writing, and quantitative data analysis requirements. In this way, no student gets out of the College without being exposed to the full spectrum of arts and sciences.

In theory.

It doesn't surprise me that the above quote would come from a physicist. Most physicists I've encountered are also students of the liberal arts. Many consider themselves philosophers, or so their actions indicate (like the writing of this chapter), and many have deep love for literature. Indeed, I feel I could have almost as easily majored in English or history as physics or biology, and I treasured the excursions into these other subjects which my requirements permitted me.

However, I can't help but feel that the reverse is considerably less true for most students of the liberal arts. While most of my colleagues in physics enjoy studies in music or philosophy or religious studies, friends majoring in liberal arts disciplines are likely to take the easiest and fewest courses in science and math possible.

Geology is a favorite because it fulfills two requirements simultaneously. So instead of plumbing the wonders of creation with the time permitted them, students suffer through a semester of rocks and plate tectonics (interesting, to be sure, but hardly at the top of the list) and learn very little.

I think this highlights a real failure. A popular excuse is that these students simply can't handle real science courses, but I'm skeptical. Students at Penn have demonstrated considerable aptitude in math and science before being admitted.

Instead, I think there is very little popular appreciation for the sciences. And it is quite possible that introductory courses for non-majors go about things the wrong way.

Perhaps physics courses for non-majors should include conceptual overviews of the great staggering truths of physics: To describe light as either a particle or a wave, or even as both, is inadequate. Time moves slower when you move faster. It is literally impossible to know exactly where something is at a specific time.

I could go on. Having an inkling of these ideas changes fundamentally one's conception of reality, something which undoubtedly deserves expression in the arts. Intro courses should make them clear.

However, I think the core problem is that our culture somehow devalues science. Science is for geeks and mad professors, but only technology has relevance for the general public. It doesn't have nearly as much to teach about the human condition than literature or history. Or so the assumptions go.

Bunk, I say. As a science teacher, I hope to instill otherwise.

As for you who haven't filled your science requirements, do yourselves a favor. Don't take the boring way out.

*My old housemate Carlos is a notable exception. An English major, Carlos wishes he had done physics. Now there's a man with his head on straight.
**Gosh, by year's end two of these people will be married, and the other two likely aren't very far behind. Growing up is weird...


Matt Aquiline said...

"It is literally impossible to know exactly where something is at a specific time."

would one way to go be some sort of Philosophy of Physics course? It seems statements like the above would present philosophical quandries which humanities majors could spend a course pondering and learn things about physics without having to master the Shrodinger equation.

That said, I think I'm the only music major who's used things like "CBE 231: Thermodynamics 3" to fulfill Collegee requirements.

l e i g h c i a said...

I sometimes wish I had done chemistry. I thought the periodic table was amazing. Unforutnately, later in high school, poor chemistry teachers destroyed any appreciation for the subjects. I ended up cramming for 2 weeks to take the chemistry AP test, passed it, and then never opened a textbook again.

anne-cara said...

Students at Penn have demonstrated considerable aptitude in math and science before being admitted.

I'm not entirely sure that's true - students with considerable aptitude in "arts" (however you define them) might demonstrate considerably less aptitude in math/science. Case in point: my verbal was a full 300 points above my math on the SAT. I'm sure it also works the other way around.

That said, I picked "easy" courses because I knew I couldn't deal with the harder ones; I hated chemistry with a passion and had never even had much of physics. I didn't take a math course because I'd have had to take MATH-103 before I could even get to 104, and (if I recall correctly) only 104 actually filled a requirement. But taking my [not-so-]easy bio course was how I met Staci; taking music theory instead of a real math proved useful and rewarding in multiple ways. In "easy-A" Oceanography, I burst into tears when trying to tackle homework requiring some simple sixth grade geometry, because I hadn't grasped it in sixth grade in the first place.

You say easy? I say survival.

Nicholas said...

leighcia - Perhaps you should stop by my class this year. :-)

AC - I wouldn't necessarily call the courses you took easy. Even if they were, so what? There's nothing wrong with studying something interesting, easy or hard. I actually wish I could have taken music theory, and another bio course would have been good too.

My qualm is when students have to take boring courses they hate in order to fulfill requirements, and I think this happens more often to people majoring in liberal arts. Oceanography? Who takes that out of interest?

I think if (a) departments were more creative in designing introductory courses accessible to non-majors and (b) students went into course selection believing more that math and science courses held exciting knowledge, this kind of thing wouldn't occur nearly as often, and the idea of the liberal arts education would be a lot stronger.

Jonathan said...

I sometimes wish I had studied science or gone into engineering. That was the hardest decision of my life.

I really can't understand how people don't love science. For me, curiosity was the motivating impulse of my childhood. I think that sometimes we adults lose that when we grow up; it's sad.

RXH said...

I was right in between the arts and sciences and wish I had gone more into arts than sciences...but when I cook and want to cook something faster so I add salt or trying to fix my car with my dad...I go back to Chem 101. Haha call me a nerd but every time I get off the highway (yes I drive now!), I can't help but chirp "love you, centripetal force!"

Josh said...

While I agree with your assessment that disappointingly few liberal artists pursue anything beyond an elementary grasp of mathematics and the natural sciences, it can hardly be said that they consider such studies as themselves irrelevant.* Indeed, it has been the constant reassurances of natural scientists that have given postmodern social scientists the "freedom" to construct the moral universes in which they imagine themselves to be living.

*At the very least, they must acknowledge themselves indebted to the natural sciences for the plausibility of their philosophical system, even if they might wish to eventually do away with empiricism all together.