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06/10/2016

Small Minds


I have
recently read an opinion piece published in the Chronicle of Higher Education
by John Kaag and David O’Hara entitled Big Brains, Small Minds
. In this article Kaag and O’Hara
boldly assert that “W
e are on the verge of becoming the
best trained, and least educated, society since the Romans”. In the ensuing explanation
we learn that education is science is what he refers to as “trained” while
education in the humanities is what he refers to as “educated”. Apparently I
have been trained and he has been educated. What a crock. Because I have been
trained and not educated it is probably important to clarify that I mean crock
not in the sense of an earthenware jar but rather in the sense of something
which is complete nonsense.


Kaag and
O’Hara
appear to believe that one of the primary roles of the
humanities is to critique science. That is fine; everybody should critique
science, it is much too important to not be evaluated in the context of all
types of human knowledge and understanding. It is also fine that they suggest
that humanities should not be judged by the metrics of hard science. Of note,
however, is I have never heard anyone suggest that humanities should be judged
by the metrics of hard science. But I think it is probably important to note,
however, that if it is the job of humanities to critique science perhaps those
doing the critiquing should also know some science. It should also be kept in
mind that scientists are pretty good at critiquing the sciences and, in fact, we
usually spend quite a bit of time and energy critiquing each other. Just for
the record, Kaag and O’Hara write that Plato teaches us that part of the
liberal arts enduring mission is to critique the objectives of science. Science
was rather different in the time of Plato. Perhaps he should have a more recent
reference. He should also remember that at the time of Plato there was really
no distinct boundary between science and philosophy. The authors cite the story
of Herodicus as told by Socrates as an example of a disordered mind having
“been trained in the STEM fields of his time”. 
Really! This took place in the fifth century BC. Again, I think we may
well need a newer reference. Parenthetically Herodicus showed great insight in
advocating the value of exercise in preserving health.


The job of a
professional scientist is to learn what has previously been unknown. They must
be able to understand and appreciate the state of knowledge in their field,
identify the boundaries of knowledge, and formulate hypotheses that if proven
produce new knowledge. For a scientist to be successful they assume the burden
of proving or disproving that hypothesis. They must have the communications
skills to present their ideas in an adequately compelling manner to be awarded
resources to engage these scientific pursuits. They must communicate their
findings to the world. None of these are endeavors of the small mind.


The authors
of this essay state “
If you’re interested in learning
about justice, you don’t go to the chemistry laboratory. You go to philosophy
class and travel to Plato’s
Republic. Perhaps so but I am
unconvinced. If the justice one seeks has to do with environmental
preservation, species extinction, and biomedical innovation perhaps this is
positively contributed to by those who have had their minds expanded by an
education which includes science.

 

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