Education in Two Cultures

A team-taught course leaves Linda Brigham considering the inadequate interactions between the humanities and the sciences.

February 7, 2006

On December 20, 2005, U.S. District Judge John Jones ordered the Dover Pennsylvania Area School Board to put science back in its place -- protected from intelligent design and other religious ideas. In Kansas, where we have had no such luck, I participated last semester in a new interdisciplinary college course also designed to put science in its place -- separate not only from religion, but from the humanities in general.

DAS 333 (the numerological implications are coincidental but amusing) -- Human Life and the Universe -- was the work of faculty in physics, geology, the life sciences, philosophy, and English, affiliated with the new Center for the Understanding of Origins at Kansas State University. The course was explicitly developed in the context of the evolution controversy to educate students about the fundamental constitution of science as a discipline. As the sole representative of the non-sciences in the course (the philosopher was a hard-nosed philosopher of science, no fuzzy humanist), I did not expect my contribution to come off as particularly consequential; I was merely there as a reminder of the Other to science, providing a sketch of non-scientific disciplinary thinking. All the action would take place in science's bailiwick. But, by the end of the course, I realized that I had not anticipated the dramatic though inchoate demand for what science cannot deliver. In a twist on C.P. Snow's classic criticism of the emerging chasm between science and the humanities, DAS 333 demonstrated both the necessity of their distinction and the urgent need for both.

A rigorous and reflexive approach to science education is the best way to manage the evolution controversy. The recent Fordham Institute report, "The State of State Science Standards," indirectly but forcefully underscores the wisdom of such an approach; Paul Gross et al in the introduction to the report conclude that the state of science in public schools does not so much reflect the impact of religiously-driven anti-science or intelligent design so much as a demonstrate a correlation between the weak handling of evolution and a general weakness in disciplinary content for science across the board. It follows that the most powerful redress to the resurgence of creationism is a strengthening of disciplinary content in the sciences. Anticipating this connection, DAS 333 provided serious although introductory college-level academic content in its  science disciplines. Students calculated luminosities, grappled with the data responsible for the emergence of plate tectonics, and managed some of the microbiology involved in gene suppression. The philosopher of science then used this science content as a source of examples for demonstrating the interaction between theories, their auxiliary hypotheses, and observations, both clarifying the boundary between science and non-science and making the definition of a scientific "theory" clear -- and distinct from mere "opinion."

However, it became increasingly evident to students that the constraints on science, enabling progress in understanding nature, are disabling in other areas. Science cannot, for example, pronounce on the truth or falsehood of propositions like intelligent design. Essentially, the products of science are predictions of new observations consistent with the explanation of existing data. The product of science is not meaning. This set up my work; science: prediction; literature: meaning. I tried to counterpoint the science units with topical fictions, for example, H.G. Wells' "The Star," Burroughs' The Land that Time Forgot, and Crichton's Jurassic Park, in order to demonstrate how the use of language, including figures of speech and fabricated scenarios, elicits feelings and desires in order to construct meaning -- in contrast to what scientific accounts do in response to the same world. This was, more or less, fine. But it was not enough. I discovered at the end that these forays into the literary formation of meaning sidestepped the real force of the humanities in a course like this.

It was during a final class on the implications of the limits of science in the Terri Schiavo case that the greatest challenge to the non-sciences emerged. All students saw the controversy over Schiavo's care as a dispute in which the person whose wishes should have been paramount, Schiavo herself, had no reliable input. They had no idea of how we might achieve greater consensus and resolution on this life-issue as a society. Nor do most of us. The problem with that case, for college students, the general public -- and most of us -- is that, like the issue of abortion, it requires navigating waters murky with emergent technologies, religious tenets, strong feelings, and massive distrust.

Yet this is precisely the miasma into which students must plunge as citizens and decision-makers, and it is for these eventualities they need better and more intelligent preparation. The humanities cannot be content with just developing and promoting the ethical imagination for private use; they must also do much more to connect minds so enriched (all minds, not just those of future lawyers and bioethicists) to complex situations that demand such resources be put into action. The humanities must do more to offset the temptation to either authoritarian or excessively personal solutions for solving complex problems that science often creates, but whose solution is beyond the its reach.

One of the most revealing features of the evolution controversy, as well as so many of the controversies that, properly or improperly, connect religion to public life, is the degree to which it subtly relegates non-science to the personal and the private, to a space beyond the pale of public education. And so it is with the text of the now-infamous statement that Dover, Pennsylvania Area School District science teachers were required to read to students in ninth grade biology. The statement portrays the difference between science and non-science as a distinction between publicly-acknowledged fact and private opinion. Essentially, the creationist strategy is to eliminate the teaching of evolution by privatizing it. "Because Darwin's Theory is a theory," the statement reads, students should be encouraged to explore other views--specifically, "Intelligent Design ... an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view."

As a result of the mere theory-status of Darwinism, "students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families." In other words, given that evolution, as theory, does not have the form of other scientific propositions constituting or based on laws (gravitation, thermodynamics, and so forth), determination of the origin of species is left to the individual and family, that is, to those realms beyond the institution and beyond the state and its laws. In essence, according to this line of reasoning, scientific "fact" is law, in contrast to mere theory. In the absence of scientific law, the formulation of beliefs about the world is essentially beyond education. Ironically, perhaps, it is now against the law in Dover, Pennsylvania, to exempt evolution from the authority of science that the anti-evolution forces narrowly equate with scientific law.

In any case, for creationists and their teach-the-controversy fellow travelers, "theory" on the one hand, and "authority," "fact," and "law" on the other, exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Furthermore, where authority, fact, and law end is precisely where "each individual must decide for him or herself" begins; there is no controversy, no public arena in which private individuals, informed by science, by traditions religious and secular, by rational ethics and embodied sentiment and compassion can use their wisdom and knowledge to work out a course of action, and it appears that even the possibility of such deliberation is an alien concept to our students -- as it is to the Dover Area School Board. It was clear to Judge Jones, moreover, that the appeal to individual opinion on the part of the Dover Area School Board was a thinly-disguised effort to support religious authoritarianism; he opined that by reminding school children they can maintain beliefs taught by their parents, critical thinking is stifled, not promoted.

While it is conceivable, even likely, that science will succeed in reasserting methodological naturalism as its fundamental feature, and so reduce the inroads of creationism into science curricula to occasional nuisances easily parried by existing institutions, this is not enough to restore the integrity of public education generally. Just as the weakness of science education accompanies avoidance of evolution, the weakness of humanities education emerges as an avoidance of a host of issues that polarize American social and political life. It is hard to calculate the greater omission.


Linda Brigham is head of the English department and a member of the Center for the Understanding of Origins at Kansas State University.


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