This article is adapted from remarks that were delivered at the 2016 Annual Weissbourd Conference “Does Liberal Education Need Saving?” which took place at the University of Chicago on May 19th and 20th. Organized by Aviva Rothman and Aaron Tugendhaft of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, the conference brought together historians, theorists, administrators and educators to discuss the meaning of liberal education, the roles it has played through history, and its purposes and prospects for the future.
Lorraine Daston is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and a visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
Some of you may be mentally re-parsing my title to something more like “Can Liberal Education Be Saved from the Sciences?” For today’s embattled humanities, the sciences have come to stand for the antithesis of what is now understood to constitute the content and values of a liberal education, namely: the cultivation of the intellectual and artistic traditions of diverse cultures past and present, the assertion of the generalist’s prerogatives over those of the specialist, and the defense of non-utilitarian values as preparation for civic engagement in the cause of the commonweal. In contrast, what are currently known as the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—stand for knowledge that is presumed universal and uniform, for narrow specialization and, above all, for applications that are useful and often lucrative. A comparative glance at the budgets for the sciences and for the disciplines that constitute the core of the Core seems to tell it all: it’s not the sciences that need saving, most certainly not by the likes of liberal education, a minnow—a starving minnow, at that—sent out to rescue a fat and sassy whale.
Nonetheless, I’m sticking to my original title. In the scant time allotted, I’m going to gallop through the history of the place of the sciences and mathematics in the liberal education curriculum, from the medieval university through the present. This is a history that packs some surprises. I’ll then draw some lessons for the place of the sciences in a liberal education for the here and now.
The term “liberal education” derives from the seven medieval artes liberales (rhetoric, grammar, logic, astronomy, music, geometry and arithmetic), the knowledge necessary to a free man, by which was usually meant an adult, property-owning male who exercised the rights of citizen in the polity and pater familias in the household. The liberal arts were opposed to the “mechanical arts,” which were skills needed to earn a living, a condition of unfreedom in late Antiquity and indeed well through the eighteenth century in Europe. Under the influence of Renaissance humanism, new reform curricula took root in early modern Europe, emphasizing Greek as well as Latin, history rather than logic, but preserving instruction in the mathematical disciplines, now enlarged to include physics. This was true especially in the Jesuit colleges that trained the intellectual elite of the Enlightenment, from Descartes to Voltaire to David Hume.
When the term “liberal education” came into wide use in English in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, these associations were preserved: the curriculum consisted largely of Greek and Latin “classics,” especially Horace, Plutarch, Livy and Tacitus, and mathematics, especially Euclidean geometry. However much authors of treatises on the ideals of liberal education might have diverged on particulars, they were unanimous that “liberal” meant “free,” and “free” meant not being a slave to monetary considerations.
This is why, when William Whewell—physicist, mathematician and Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge—proposed at the 1833 meeting of the fledgling British Association for the Advancement of Science (est. 1831) that people who pursued the sciences be called “scientists,” on the analogy of “artists,” even his best friends objected that the name sounded too technical, too vocational, too much like a skilled tradesman. They preferred the older term “natural philosopher,” which licensed its bearer to roam through the sciences, philosophy and even theology and literature at will. It was not that the ethos of the sciences was anti-utilitarian: on the contrary, Whewell and his colleagues were eager to prove that science and mathematics could improve life in every sphere, from helping to avert shipwrecks to inventing new musical instruments. Ideally, their science would serve the public good. But their science was neither specialized nor commercial; so much so that, outside the few university chairs in the subject, it was almost impossible to make a living by pursuing science as a career.
All this changed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the natural sciences for the first time cashed out Francis Bacon’s IOU that knowledge of nature was power over nature—which meant that science became both publicly useful and also privately lucrative. Science-based industries like the extraction of textile dyes from coal tar derivatives, globe-spanning telegraph networks, and the infinitely varied uses of electricity turned the physical sciences into a source of wealth and military might as well as prestige among rival nations. These developments fueled campaigns to modernize secondary and tertiary education by adding modern languages and the natural sciences to the curriculum in Europe and North America. But once again, the most prominent scientists, for example the great German physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz, insisted that future scientists still be given a liberal education in the classics, as preparation for life beyond the laboratory.
In the American context, it was the rise of the social sciences in the 1920s and 1930s that created the still reigning models of liberal education, as well as the current divisions among the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. In the context of debates over Darwinism, both the natural and social sciences hoisted the banner of freedom of inquiry unimpeded by religious dogmatism, but it was the social sciences that insisted that this skeptical attitude also be instilled in the classroom. Joining forces with the biologists, the social scientists of the progressive age developed survey courses like the University of Chicago’s “Man in Society” and “The Nature of the World and Man,” which concluded with a survey of contemporary problems facing humanity. In response, literary scholars, philosophers and historians, alarmed to see their monopoly on ethical instruction threatened by the sciences, banded together into the “New Humanities” movement in the first decades of the twentieth century: they claimed that whereas Renaissance humanists had fought the tyranny of the church, the modern humanists (a new designation for this motley alliance of disciplines) now fought the naturalism of the sciences, both natural and social. Only the newly christened “humanities” disciplines, they argued, could provide spiritual insight into the human condition and prepare free citizens of a free nation.
After World War II and the bellicose triumphs of modern physics—demonstrated all too convincingly by the successful detonations of atomic bombs—science once again entered the liberal education, this time in the guise of the history of science. Chemist and Harvard president James Bryant Conant, one of the administrators of the Manhattan Project, worried that democracy would turn into technocracy if citizens relinquished decision-making about atomic weapons, vaccination programs and other technology-saturated policy decisions to experts. But immersing students in the highly specialized research needed to understand the relevant science seemed impracticable. Instead, students would learn about how scientists thought through a series of historical case studies that would also teach them at least the rudiments of contemporary science. The natural science surveys of Harvard’s postwar General Education requirements became the prototype of “physics/biology/math for poets” courses at universities all over the country.
What does this condensed history of the place of sciences and mathematics in liberal education teach us? First, that classifications of knowledge change, and that the content of a liberal education changes along with them: from the Middle Ages through the early twentieth century, mathematics was an essential part of the curriculum but not the empirical sciences, which, like modern languages and social sciences, are latecomers. Second, that the meaning of freedom—the liberty a liberal education strives for—has been substantially shaped by the modern sciences. Freedom of inquiry and instruction, especially in the context of the secularization of the classroom, were principles driven by the sciences. Third, the increasing specialization and technicality of scientific knowledge has made it difficult to reconcile with the generalist vision that animates contemporary liberal education (the same goes, mutatis mutandis, for specialized technical knowledge in other fields, such as philology and sociology).
For this reason, science and liberal education have become estranged. The scientists favor research over teaching and channel their teaching energies into the specialized training of graduate students, a tendency strongly reinforced by the economics of both laboratory and field research, which require lots of dedicated, technically competent but cheap labor. Has the time come to accept the inevitable, and let liberal education and science go their separate ways?
From the side of liberal education, the answer is mixed: on the one hand, it seems to falsify the nature of modern science to force it into the generalist, human-centered mold of what has come to constitute the liberal education curriculum; on the other, one need only murmur the words “climate change” to understand why it is more urgent than ever that free citizens be educated to grasp scientific issues and modes of reasoning. From the side of the scientists, aside from a few gifted and dedicated undergraduate teachers, the answer would seem to be more unequivocal: the demands of any kind of undergraduate teaching, especially the sort demanded by a liberal education curriculum, are in undeniable tension with the aims of specialized, technical, assertively value-neutral research. Moreover, unlike the genteelly impoverished humanities, the science departments are not dependent on undergraduate enrollments to finance faculty and research; the enormous rise in government and corporate funding for at least some sciences has freed them from these constraints.
But it has enslaved them in other respects. From the side of the scientists, there are at least three good reasons why they should continue to participate in liberal education. First, both government and corporate funding have come with strings attached. These strings have not only encumbered scientific research with bureaucracy and distorted incentives (was the war against cancer really a reasonable scientific, as opposed to a political, goal?); they have also denatured the rhythms and internal ethos of research. The relentless three- to five-year tempo of grant proposals; the pressure to choose solid safe bets rather than more venturesome topics of investigation; the mentality of public accountability that has led to ever greater reliance on mechanical, quantitative indicators of quality such as citation indices—all of this results in a system that can and has been gamed. The dangers of research driven by commercial agendas are even more obvious: bans on the open publication of data; outright manipulation of results; and, at least in the case of pharmaceutical companies, ghostwriting of articles in scientific journals. In both the biomedical sciences and social sciences, the number of published results than can be replicated has plummeted; the incidence of fraud has skyrocketed. No amount of external professional policing can replace an internalized ethos of inquiry—not the ethics of science’s responsibility to society but that of science’s responsibility to itself. Science needs liberal education and its counterweight to the values of the market for its own sake.
Second, science needs liberal education for recruitment purposes. In a survey conducted by the Norwegian Relevance of Science Education (ROSE) project, the interest of high school students in science and mathematics is lowest in the advanced industrialized nations, including the United States (of the countries surveyed, interest is keenest in Uganda, lowest in Norway). This is not news to leading American universities, who fill at least half their science graduate programs with foreign students, a tendency that is only climbing. If the correlation between grades and test scores and post-college choices is any indication, it is not only the great mass of students but also, more alarmingly for the scientists, the best and the brightest who no longer wish to become scientists. All the public drumbeating for the STEM disciplines has not changed this. What science courses taught in the liberal education curriculum and in the liberal education mode might do is to make science as a way of life—not just a body of knowledge to be mastered—once again attractive to talented students who might otherwise never have imagined themselves pulled in that direction.
Finally, the necessity of explaining the why as well as the how and the what of a discipline’s pursuit of knowledge is as essential for the sciences as it is for all fields— perhaps more essential, given the splintering tendencies and breakneck tempo of current scientific research. There is no time, either for working scientists or for students doing advanced coursework, to step back and orient themselves in a wider field of research within their own specialties, to take stock of the trajectory of research that led up to this point and, even more important, to assess which of the branching paths of possible future research might prove the most promising. In times past, this function was fulfilled by survey articles written by a recognized master—a James Clerk Maxwell in physics or a David Hilbert in mathematics, who surveyed their fields from an Olympian perspective and marked out the problems worthy of the most intensive attention for the decades to come. No one pretends to such a mountaintop overview these days. But this function also used to be fulfilled by having the doyens of the field teach introductory courses, which forced them to answer the “so what?” question for unpersuaded undergraduates. Sometimes this was a nuisance, sometimes a challenge, and sometimes a fertile provocation—as when teaching calculus to the first classes of the École Polytechnique in Paris in the early nineteenth century forced France’s leading mathematicians to rethink the foundations of that field.
These are the reasons why the sciences need to remain part of liberal education—not only to promote the civic freedom that has always been the driving force behind a liberal education, but also to promote—and perhaps save—the freedom and values internal to science itself.