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.
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...