Are one or two extra science courses “too much science” for a student with an interest in social and cultural aspects of the environment to have to take? As someone who loves science, I was quite surprised when that question stirred up controversy among faculty working to develop a new major in “Environmental Studies.”
The Environmental Studies major will permit students to focus their education on human interaction with the environment, as a complement to the Environmental Sciences major that focuses on natural processes. Those objecting to additional science requirements argued that those requirements would exclude students with a legitimate interest in environmental issues but for whom science was a topic to be avoided.
Unfortunately, this objection has merit. While we talk a great deal about the need to break down the walls that divide disciplines, and while we at UConn can boast of some notable successes – the above-mentioned Environmental Sciences program, our Women’s Studies program, and our Human Rights program being just a few examples – programs that cross the boundary between science and the social sciences and humanities are very rare. It seems that, even for faculty committed to developing innovative programs not tied to the traditional disciplines, the gulf between the social sciences and humanities and the natural sciences is too wide to bridge.
We all share the responsibility for this. We’re too quick to let students off the hook rather than requiring them to engage seriously with the natural sciences. At the same time, our way of teaching science seems to kill many students’ interest in the subject, even when they have an inclination for it – the New York Times recently quoted a professor who rather grimly called the system by which we teach science the “math-science death march.”
As a society, we can’t afford this, and as a university, we should fight it. I reject the arguments that we hear these days that set the study of science above the humanities on narrow (and false) economic grounds. But I reject equally the idea that one must either study only science or else settle for a superficial dose of the subject. In the specific case of the Environmental Studies major, for example, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask students who are interested in the environment – even if their primary concern is environmental themes in literature, or human rights implications of climate change – to learn more than the minimum of the relevant science.
One goal – maybe the most important one – of a good liberal education is that it enriches one’s view of the world and heightens one’s sensitivity to its wonderful complexity. Wordsworth’s daffodils are even more beautiful when the beholder knows something about plant succession and population genetics. It may not be straightforward to convince students to cross the boundary between the scientific disciplines and the rest of the liberal arts, but we should be making the case.