Opinion | Columns

Science has an important place in larger human questions of the Core

Last September, the formation of a committee overseeing a wholesale revision of the Frontiers of Science formula was met with applause from students. But it remains to be seen whether or not this new pedagogical experiment can resolve underlying issues between science and the Core.

The current proposal to reformulate Frontiers as a dialogue-based, seminar-style affair—geared toward propagating the general discussion of science instead of prodding students with a dabbler’s-digest of topical progress—is a step in the right direction. It has been made painfully clear that quarter-semester injections of concentrated knowledge do more harm than good. Science delivered in that form simply won’t stick. Instead, it creates in students a staggering sense of pointlessness and a bolstered apathy toward information that already seems to be irrelevant. 

The key word here is irrelevant. Students ask, “What’s the point?” and “Why should this stuff matter to me?”

Why indeed did the shaky Frontiers of Science science experiment, over the course of its dubious 10-year lease, appear to fail so completely in generating a sentiment of urgency and saliency toward its source material? One possibility is that complications result from inserting empirical disciplines into a historically nonempirical—arguably anti-empirical—system of instruction.

But the essential problem looks something like this: As it stands, the Core treats the world of descriptive science (its discoveries, its process) as discrete from the traditionally prescriptive discussions which ground all liberal arts education—discussions on identity, on social universals, on where our ethics come from, on goodness and justice, on (dare I say it?) human nature. 

Yet here sits the science requirement, with its packaged factoids and ground-level acumen, and over there goes the collective mass of everything else that matters in a humanities-centric curriculum. It is trivially easy to see how courses like Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities press students to grapple with the bigger questions of human experience. The same cannot be said with regard to existing implementations of science in the Core, which do little in the way of contributing to the reflective mission. 

Author, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris, drawing from David Hume, describes this partition, which prevails in both academic and decidedly non-academic discourse, as “the facts-values divide.” While science can tell us what “is,” it has nothing to say with regard to how we “ought” to behave. So long as the false dichotomy is upheld, no reiteration of the Frontiers manifesto will be taken seriously enough to survive the decade.

What the Core desperately needs is a space in which science and philosophy can experience some sort of give and take, and where insights afforded by scientific progress can be used to inform, update, or revitalize the very old and very tired conversations traditionally presided over by philosophers. The necessity for this kind of discourse will only grow more pressing as the science of human experience becomes increasingly robust. Biology, psychology, and philosophy are converging rapidly in a growing cluster of hybrid disciplines—collectively touted as the new sciences of human nature—poised to provide elegant and experimentally reproducible answers to questions that used to be outside the reach of empirical understanding. 

That said, the first strides in formulating a scientifically enriched Core—or, at the very least, a Core that acknowledges and engages with the sciences—need to be taken in classrooms where the identity, project, and mission of the traditional curriculum are already fully realized. Our token philosophy course, Contemporary Civilization, presents itself as a good starting point.

There are inklings, here, of what could be. After the more celebrated members of the Contemporary Civilization old guard throw themselves at the question of human nature—with solutions ranging from cartoonishly optimistic (Locke) to deliciously perverse (every mustachioed German)—we reach Charles Darwin, who gently lays down the suggestion that social traits and ethical sentiments might be the product of the same natural forces that gave us opposable thumbs and big craniums.

The respectful retention of “The Descent of Man” and “The Origin of Species” on the hallowed CC shortlist is a pleasant gesture and a reason for a measured optimism. But by no means does it signify a successful integration of our discourse on ethics and human nature with our discourse on human biology. I recall my section spending many an hour dissecting the weird mysticisms of Hegel, the warped and suspicious psycho-pornography of Freud, the comical unpleasantness of Nietzsche, and then proceeding to skip Darwin entirely. Obviously this omission was the consequence of a very crammed syllabus, not a conscious effort on the part of my instructor to disenfranchise the wisdoms of scientifically informed naturalism, but there’s a sad point to be taken here all the same. Biological (and, more broadly, scientific) perspectives are still cursory, if not outright expendable, in the existing discourse on larger human questions.

This is, in effect, the root of the problem. Unless the new Frontiers manages to traverse the divide between descriptive and prescriptive realms of dialogue, the committees in charge of its construction might just be digging a deeper ditch for the dying prospect of a scientifically engaged Core Curriculum.

Kevin Bi is a Columbia College junior majoring in biochemistry. He serves as an executive board member of the Columbia University Wind Ensemble. Primate’s Per-spec-tive runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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Anonymous posted on

Requiring many things - many more than at any other college - would be beneficial if the teaching and the learning were serious, purposeful, and effective. But, it would make no difference if the teaching and the learning is stupid, as is happening at Columbia. And, for crying out loud, spare me this talk about how difficult academically Columbia is. The other side of that coin is that the place has too many losers.

Food for thought: think about Brown University, which takes a completely opposite approach. I am not saying they do things perfectly either. But out of their small number of requirements, they try - at least they say that they do - to work with students to help them to reflect over the courses that they choose, and always to try to connect the dots. (To be fair, that too would serve no purpose if done by amateurs.)

But the Brown approach is winning the argument, at least until they come up with their own version of the professorial strip tease.

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Anonymous posted on

Columbia gets 25% more applicants than Brown.

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Anonymous posted on

So is that supposed to prove that the strip tease worked at Columbia, or that it is desirable at Columbia?

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Anonymous posted on

eh, figured this was written by a freshman. junior? come on.

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Joe Brown posted on

Kevin,

Thanks for a thoughtful contribution. I have often lamented the lack of science in the curriculum at columbia. You are speaking about a dichotomy - between humanities and science - that has existed since science began challenging religious dogma. Usually, it is the scientists (like yourself) who offer to compromise by explaining that science is not out to destroy dogma. However, dogma does a fine job of destroying itself as science advances. It continually invents new reasons for its legitimacy because that is necessary if you don't deal with facts. It is a shame that at columbia science is considered a frontier - a strange, unexplored and possibly dangerous place. They should look at those who find full comfort in science and don't fear the unexplored.

Love and Peace

Joe Brown

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"Author, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris –"

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