Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Well Rounded Chemist

The movie "Wit" starring Emma Thompson is an extraordinary narrative of the journey that an English professor takes from diagnosis of cancer to her death. It reveals deep insights into both the medical and academic professions. I happen to have seen it again this weekend and was struck by a small scene early in the movie. The portion of note happens at the 3:00 - 4:00 minute mark from this clip ...

What strikes me about this is the idea that a scientist is admired for taking optional advanced humanities courses where you rarely see humanities students in introductory science courses and only if they are filling a science requirement for their degree. You would never expect to see a humanities student in an advanced science course.

Indeed, as an undergraduate in Honours Chemistry, I opted to take an advanced course in Shakespeare simply because I was interested, on top of my required courses. I would argue that the liberal arts ideal is typically fully realized only in Science students that are allowed to explore their interest in non-Science subjects. The sheer fact that humanities students do not have the language of Science means that they cannot simply show up in advanced courses and get anywhere and in this way they typically fail to meet the ideal of a well rounded academic worldview. I have worked with any number of scientists that could speak with deep personal knowledge on their favorite philosopher, musician or artist but have rarely spoken with an academic from the humanities that had anything more than a superficial knowledge of Einstein or Hawking let alone Hoffmann.

For this reason our community will fail to educate the one sector of society that most needs insight into what we do. Unless we seek to find ways of bringing senior undergraduate humanities students into our advanced courses we cannot expect them to understand science policy issues when they enter society, business or politics. I think this is something we have to think about. I mean how many of our universities pay lip service to the humanities science credit by creating science courses for humanities students called "Science and Society"?

We cannot complain that society does not understand us when we have the instrument of that communication in our hands generation after generation and fail to exploit the opportunity.

It's what I am thinking about. The first thing that I think I am going to do it try to start a movement to change the policy in my University that allows humanities students to complete their Science requirement with one course of Intro Stats. I am going to push for it to be a Natural Science and if possible a lab course. Or, maybe I will just sleep on it.

"Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.
" Shakespeare, Macbeth

1 comment:

Chemgeek said...

I nearly completed a music minor. As a chemistry major, I enjoyed taking "easier" courses every now and then.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.