The Educational Policy and Planning Committee’s report on Frontiers of Science, which was leaked to Spectator this summer, recommends that Frontiers’ course-wide lectures be abolished or minimized in favor of a seminar-centered format modeled on other Core courses. These seminars, free from the burden of repeating basic scientific facts from the lectures, would be able to focus more intently on the reinforcement of “scientific habits of mind.” The report is a thorough and admirable document, but I doubt that the goals and concerns it articulates can be addressed by a one-semester course, however reformed.
The report authors’ emphasis on relating Frontiers to other Core classes suggests a very basic comparative question: what is the thing that Frontiers aims to teach, and how does this thing differ from those taught by the rest of the Core? Surely it aims to teach science, just as Lit Hum aims to teach Western literature and CC to teach Western (mainly political) philosophy. This answer is not, however, quite satisfactory, even in the case of Lit Hum and CC. The banishment of secondary sources from those two classes suggests that their goal is less to teach what literary theorists or philosophers know or suspect about some group of texts, but rather to familiarize students with the texts themselves. This observation would support the elimination from Frontiers of the lectures, whose purpose is mainly to convey, with some ancillary spectacle, the facts that various scientific practitioners know. There is a wrinkle, however, insofar as scientific knowledge is usually assumed to consist not only in knowledge of scientific texts, but also in knowledge of various natural phenomena and the laws governing them. (Which is not to deny that, as the report asserts, analysis of texts can play an important pedagogical role in a reformed Frontiers.) I suspect, though, that incoming students would be rather more mystified to be directed straight to the phenomena than straight to the Iliad.
I might suggest instead that Lit Hum and CC are not foremost about the texts or what academic practitioners know about the texts, but rather about what practitioners do with the texts. Students are meant to learn, in highly simplified form, the methods of textual and perhaps conceptual analysis. The authors of the report, with their emphasis on the scientific habits of mind, would seem attentive to this comparison. And yet this focus on methodology suggests an objection to the very existence of a single course like Frontiers. On the level of everyday practice, the methods of, say, the theoretical physicist and the field biologist may have less in common than those of the literary scholar and the political theorist.
The report authors seem to appeal to one of the more distinguished attempts to corral this methodological diversity, that of philosopher of science Karl Popper. In describing the scientific habits of mind they hope the course will teach, the authors echo Popper in their emphasis on science as united by falsifiable theories and a drive toward explanations with ever-greater empirical content. Popper’s particular approach is certainly not without its critics. Any methodological summaries operating at this level of abstraction, though, will be of little use to students, nor will students be able to evaluate their adequacy, without much greater grounding in the practices of the various sciences—in mathematics, statistics, experimental design and laboratory work—than a one-semester course can plausibly offer. Perhaps this need could be filled by more robust science distribution requirements. The report’s authors, however, endorse the necessity of a “bespoke,” mandatory Core science course to stand alongside Lit Hum and CC and guarantee “equal status and prestige within the Columbia curriculum” for the sciences.
Setting aside the persuasiveness of this argument, I would simply suggest two “bespoke” courses instead of one. The division could be effected in various ways: one course on the physical sciences and one on the biological; or one on mathematics and statistics and the other an exploration of some particular scientific field; or even a linked one-year course à la CC or Lit Hum.
Or perhaps make that three, with the addition of a course in the history of science. Perhaps the most dispiriting consequence of the current lecture-based format is the impression it gives of science as concerned with awe-inspiring, but basically settled, facts. The course may take students to the “frontiers,” but only to turn around and gaze back with satisfaction at the ground already covered. Given the enormous amount of specialized knowledge that has already been accumulated in modern scientific fields, students in Frontiers may not be able to experience first-hand work on outstanding scientific problems. Perhaps, however, the next best thing—paradoxical as it may seem—might be an acquaintance with the infancy of familiar theories, when their acceptance could not yet be taken for granted. Frontiers students do not need the tidy, Whiggish narratives of textbook sidebars, nor should scientists fear such a course as an exercise in deflationary revisionism. Rather, the goal would be merely to bring all students into some proximity, however vicarious, with the experience of uncertainty that characterizes science as it is being done.
Henry Willson is a Columbia College senior majoring in philosophy and history. He is secretary general of CMUNNY 8 and a former photo editor for Spectator. Willful Meandering runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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