Friday, February 16, 2007

Why isn't science part of a liberal education?

I know lots of engineers who've gone and added some liberal education into their lives. mainly it is just going back and reading some of the great works of literature. I found an example of this in my alumni magazine which I read yesterday.

Becoming Generally Educated
A phone call a few years into my BYU career changed all that. The call was from Thomas F. Rogers, then a professor in Germanic and Slavic languages. “We need a scientist,” he said. He explained that he was leading a faculty team of three who would conduct a year long honors colloquium on Western civilization.

“What will I need to do?”

“You’ll provide the scientific perspective as we go along. The texts are already ordered. I’ll send you the reading list. Will you join us?”

I agreed to. After all, I was a PhD scientist.

I took this course when I was a freshman, not with him but that is no big deal. We had a Jungian psychologist, a particle physicist and a married English professor couple.

I'll tell you that it was one of the most fun classes I've ever taken. We argued over whether the number 3 or 4 was a "better" number. We went on a field trip to see fossils embedded in the sides of bbuildings, and discussed varous books at length. The students were eager and excited. Generally it was a great class.

Exceot when it was the physicists' turn to lead: virtually all the students didn't have the science background to really grasp what was going on, and it showed. He really just stayed with fairly basic stuff.

We were talking about cellular mass and he threw up a slide with the masses of different cells and one was almost but not quite half of all the others and asked us what they might be. I correctly answered that those must be eggs or sperm cells since they were only half the mass. Other students started argueing that since they weren't exactly half they couldn't be since they were slightly more then half the mass.

When we got to relativity things got really interesting. The standard explaination of relativity and how gravity bends space -time is to imagine a rubber sheet and place a heavy ball on it then roll a ping-pong ball around and see how it changed direction as it passes near the heavy ball. Well, a student complained, "Don't use gravity to explain gravity!" "Do you know calculus?" "No," with a look of revulsion. "Then you won't understand the answer." Which is quite true as I found out when I got to that physics class much later after taking quite a bit of advanced calculus. A lot of the class were not all that happy with the scientist as a teacher, but I thought he was great.

I can't say that I've ever met someone with a liberal arts degree that said something along the lines of, "I need a better understanding of math and science in my life."

A modern liberal arts degree seems to completely ignore the sciences, even though it has it roots from the educational system founded by the Greeks who layed the foundation of science as we know it today.

My school had a general education requirement that, if you were not in a science major, you needed one science class. I helped a few people that were taking that class and they simplified things to the point of incorrectness.

A lot of people pound the pulpit saying that math and science are important, but math and science education doesn't seem to be improving to any great degree.

Hardly anyone knows how a radio works much less a computer, even though the same principles still apply. But then few people know much about the pencil.

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