The modern education of everyman - Journal of Chemical Education

The role of science education in a comprehensive liberal arts education is the subject of this editorial. Keywords (Audience):. General Public. Keywor...
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The Modern Education of Everyman Present-day Everyman living in a modern democratic, technologically based society stands in sharp contrast with his 15th century cousin. Fifteenth-century Everyman was not considered very. important in the scheme of things. His . " counterpart in modem democracies, however, is indirectly the source of all power. Given this fact. the liberal education of Modern ~ v e b a isn a national scandal. Classically, a liberal education was desiened to develon literate minds versed in the achievements ormankind. o lidera1 education in the Middle Ages involved the seven branches of learning: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In modern times, a liheral education generally involves languages, sciences, philosophy, and history. Regardless of the specific subjects studied, a liheral education


and, perhaps, to the future of the world. hec concept of liberal educationis flawed if it does not provide students with an understanding of the kinds of questions science can answer as well as those with which it cannot cope. A truly liberal education would help Btudents understand the nature of physical laws, that is, how we arrive at them and in what sense are they true. I t is important for students to know what physical laws are and what they are not, what they can tell us about the ohvsical world and what the" . ~" cannot. Only when students comprehend this point of view can they understand the advantaees the sciences eive to mankind. as expressed through technology for example, as well as ;he limitations of science. It is essential that students recoenize u that reliable conclusions can be drawn from scientific arguments in spite of-or perhaps because of-our knowledge of the limitations of science. The science component of a liberal education should also provide students with some basic ideas about the laws of probability and chance. Students need to understand the reality of statistical fluctuations and recognize that accidental coincidences of unrelated events happen constantly. In a complex physical world it is often difficult to form a basis for judgement especiallywhere our interest in technology involves the leading edge of science. For example, consider the difficult



questions that must be addressed rationally in areas such as genetic engineering and nuclear energy where little experience is available from which to extrapolate. In such highly complex areas, the difference between attributing or not attributing the apparent relationship of two events to a statistical fluctuation or an accidental coincidence is very important, and the basis for decisions in these areas needs to be understood and appreciated by a liberallv educated person. ~ o d &~ v e r y & nneeds understand that science is not merely a collection of isolated facts like the listings in a telephone directory, i.e., to be memorized or looked-up and used on-demand. Students need to see science as a unified and consistent view of our world, a view that is not quite as focused at the edges as it is at the central core. Uncertainty concerninr peripheral details should not detract from logically constructed arguments derived from the core ideas. A modern liberal education should provide a basis for recognizing valid arguments and distinguishing them from patent nonsense. Most chemistry teachers are so involved with preparing students for the "next chemistry course" that they tend to concentrate on the oresentation of factual information which will subsequently be developed into new theoretical points of view or variations of older theories. In this situation it is not surprising that instructors, even in advanced courses, often e m ~ l o va teachine stvle that emohasizes recognition of infori%ion rather tiandevelopmeni of mental skills in analysis andlor svnthesis. The commonlv held oerceotion that there is "too much to cover" is o f t e n i n excuse f i r not becoming involved with the niceties of a liheral education. Evaluation techniques, especially in teaching situations involving large numbers of students, degenerate to methods that tend toreinforce the lower levels i f cognitive achievement. It's easier to evaluate students' newly acquainted factual knowledre than it is to worry about the quality of their a1~uments.1 grasp of facts, formulas, etc. is much easier to evaluate than is a student's ability to employ ideas involving an important body of information in a meaningful way. These are the basic elements that our colleagues in the humanities face in the language vs literature problem. Somehow they have addressed the orohlem of evaluatine a student's nerformance in. for example, literature withok hecoming overly involved with the details of language and grammar. We who teach in the sciences need to he able to do the same if we are to contribute to the liberal education of Everyman. JJL

Volume 60 Number 1 January 1983