As people who have been following the issue are well aware, there is a crisis of scientific literacy in the United States. Unscientific America may have had a poor explanation for why the problem exists, but it effectively announced the severity of the problem to a wide audience. To combat this problem it will take a a great diversity of tactics including education, popular culture, involved parenting, economics and political will. Everyone who cares about this issue should use the skills they have to both draw attention to the crisis of scientific literacy and seek positive solutions.
One problem I see is in the often rigid division between the humanities and the sciences on university campuses. While only about 25% of the US population graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree, nearly all primary and secondary school students will be taught by someone with such a degree. The vast majority of teachers receive their degrees in education or humanities and are only required to take the minimum university requirements in math or science (81% of teachers in primary school and 74% in secondary major in one of those two areas). While this is bad enough for science education, less than 30% of math or science teachers in secondary education even majored in the very topic that they are now teaching to students. This means that the area of focus should be in the humanities, not the sciences, if we hope to address this problem at the academic level.
The trouble is that there are very few courses available that teach science as a humanity. Every science course I’ve taken has been geared towards majors in that field and emphasizes the skills they’ll need to work in a lab. However, teachers don’t need laboratory skills to teach science effectively, they need a conceptual framework of science in the same way they would about politics, economics or history. In thinking about this question I have designed the outline for a course and I would appreciate your feedback on how useful you think it might be for helping to bridge the “two cultures” in the modern university.
Evolutionary History would be a course cross-listed in history and biology and would emphasize the science of evolutionary biology as well as the social and political context in which these discoveries were made. As we all know, science is never static and historical factors have influenced how a scientific theory was framed during a given time. The course would be organized chronologically based on important geological epochs (probably starting with the Cambrian explosion). Each major epoch would include the historiography of science emphasizing the researchers in different time periods and show the changing social/political factors that influenced their research. While the general trend has been greater precision in scientific results and more knowledge about the time period in question, historical factors have also played their role in why a certain idea arose at a specific time. By teaching the course in this way the evidence of evolutionary history would be framed within the history of evolution as a theory.
I envision three major assignments for this course:
- A review of a professional scientific journal article from one of the major geological epochs.
- A review of a historical work on the science and/or scientists of one geological epoch.
- A final paper placing the scientific research of a given epoch within a social or political context.
In this way the course would be designed so that the evidence of evolution occurs alongside the history of science. This helps to make the findings of biology come alive as students learn about what drove specific scientists to ask a certain question at a given time. It would also allow room for bringing an analysis of gender into the discussion of science, especially when discussing the 19th and early 20th century, as primarily male evolutionary scientists imposed their gender biases onto their own research (and, of course, both male and female scientists are guilty of that today in imposing a strictly heterosexual bias).
I also see this as a way to bring together academics between disciplines. I continue to experience great tension between the sciences and humanities. As my circle has long existed between the two I regularly hear denunciations of the other on a fairly regular basis (one colleague of mine, I won’t say which discipline, recently told me that the other side needs to be “treated like children” because they just don’t get it). As long as this intransigence exists between academics I don’t see how we can expect to effectively train our future educators. What I’ve presented is a first draft at creating a synthesis between two different approaches to understanding our world. My hope is to begin a conversation so that, at least on the academic front, we can fashion effective strategies that can build off of strategies in other areas.