It's Time to End ''Physics for Poets''

Science for non-majors offers an important chance to reach out to students outside the sciences, and try to give them some appreciation for scientific inquiry. This is critically important, as we live in a time where science itself is under political assault from both the left and right. People with political agendas are constantly peddling distorted views of science, from conspiracy theories regarding pharmaceutical companies and drug development, to industry-backed attempts to challenge the scientific findings regarding global climate change, to the well-documented attempts to force religion into science curricula under the guise of “intelligent design.” It’s more important than ever for our students to be able to understand and critically evaluate competing claims about science.

I worry, however, that our approach to teaching science as a part of a liberal education is undermining the goals we have set for our classes. —Edward MorleyIt’s Time to End ”Physics for Poets” (Inside Higher Ed)

I took “Physics as a Liberal Art,” which did include equations and formulas, but which was more like watching an episode of Cosmos, in that the instructor (James Trefil) focused on the cultural backdrop that indicated why this particular discovery or refinement was important to civilization and the advancement of knowledge. A lesson that has had lasting impact involved the professor giving you a phase of the moon, and requiring you to correctly place the moon, earth, and sun on a diagram. (I mentally give myself that test question whenever I look up at the moon.)

The course that I took was definitely softball science, but it was heavy on humanities content, so I did find it intellectually challenging. (Trefil co-authored The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, with E.D. Hirsch, Jr.) So the course I took does not sound like the trendy “ripped from the headlines” course that Morley criticizes here. To quote Morley,

Science is more than just a collection of difficult facts to be learned. It’s a way of looking at the universe, a systematic approach to studying the world around us, and understanding how things work. As such, it’s as fundamental a part of human civilization as anything to be found in art or literature. The skills needed to do science are the same skills needed to excel in most other fields: careful observation, critical thinking, and an ability to support arguments with evidence.

I never took a college science lab. In fact, about a year ago I took my molecule-obsessed son to our school’s science labs for a tour with one of the faculty (John Cramer), and that was the first time I’d ever been in a college science lab.

Of course, at the time I had no idea that I would end up teaching technical writing to engineering students, or that my first full-time job would be a technical writing instructor. I’m not sure that taking a science lab would have automatically made me a better tech writing teacher.

At any rate, since these last few years I’ve taught an American Lit survey course that includes many gen-ed students, I can certainly understand what’s at stake when an instructor is faced with the question of stoking the fear and wrath of students who don’t want to be in the class in the first place, or simplifying and lowering your expectations, thus robbing the committed students from a truly challenging classroom experience.