There was an interesting moment of irony on NPR this morning, in a segment discussing Harvard’s new proposed changes to the core curriculum. The changes are, broadly speaking, intended to make core courses more relevant, and to give students a background that is not guided by the traditional disciplines alone. For example, one might not have a history requirement, but might rather have a requirement to take a course from a category known as “The U.S.”, which would contain history courses, but also economics and other courses.
I have no interest in taking a side in this particular debate, not least because I haven’t fully studied Harvard’s plans. But what struck me about the NPR piece was what happened in the tiny part where science was discussed. One professor (not from the sciences) was defending the traditional approach (and again, I have no reason to agree or disagree with him personally) and, after all the talk about the humanities and obscure courses, he said something like (not a precise quote)
You would never ask a physicist, who is a world expert in, say, string theory, to teach a broad survey course to students and have to explain the difference between friction and impact [now in a softer voice] – if there is a difference between friction and impact.
This came from one of, as described by the presenter, the world’s most brilliant academics.
What I have to say here is not about Harvard, or about this particular professor, or about what a core curriculum should look like. However, I do think that this little exchange gets at the heart of what we often mean when we talk about the public perception of and proficiency in science. This person is clearly intelligent and well educated (in some agreed upon sense), and is defending the traditional approach as adequate, but in doing so betrays his clear ignorance of extremely basic science. Almost as importantly, in realizing that he didn’t quite understand what he had just said, he casually acknowledges that he doesn’t know the difference, like it is no big thing. Although this isn’t quite as egregious as not knowing the difference between Charles Dickens and John Grisham, it is in the ballpark, and I can imagine the look on my humanities friends’ faces if I expressed such a confusion.
I don’t know if Harvard should change its core curriculum, or what it will mean for the science part if they do. But one thing is clear, it is considered just fine, even among our most highly educated, to be scientifically illiterate. This is what we battle, in an age when an increasing proportion of important decisions depend on an appreciation of scientific issues. If there are academics who don’t have the tools to properly understand debates on global warming, the energy crisis, stem cells, evolution, genetic engineering, genetically-modified foods, nuclear power, and so on, what hope can we have that the correct decisions will be made by policy-makers, or that the public will understand enough to cast informed votes?