Choe's dismissal of science curriculum is 'dangerous and naive'

by Charles Bensinger | 11/20/95 6:00am

To the Editor:

Won Joon Choe's cavalier dismissal of science-based knowledge as blatantly irrelevant to the contemporary liberal arts education is dangerous and naive.

In Choe's column of Nov. 13, "Science Distributive has no place in Liberal Arts Education," the argument is advanced that contemporary science education results only in the making of "technicians, accountants and machinists," whereas a liberal arts education should aspire to create "free, autonomous and responsible citizens." If this were true, are we to infer that technicians, accountants and machinists are relegated to performing as irresponsible citizens?

Choe waxes poetic regarding the superior value of the "virtuous man ... free to pursue the good life" while assiduously avoiding such trivial pursuits as astronomy, biology or physics. In Choe's view, science is clearly stuff for lesser men.

I sense an arrogance here, a kind of pompous, anthropomorphic self-centeredness. Perhaps this attitude is understandable coming from one who is so obviously seduced by the rosy visions of a Platonic philosophical existence, free of the necessity to cope with a messy, unpredictable world of chronic ethnic divisiveness and potential planetary apocalypse.

If Choe truly advocates the education of responsible 21st century citizens, "whole and free," then of necessity, such citizens must be well versed in the arts as well as the sciences. We no longer have the luxury of divesting ourselves of the need to be informed of the consequences of certain uses of powerful natural forces employed for profit and domination. And there is, too, this complicated matter of the interconnectedness of all beings in a fragile web of life -- a web, unfortunately, now stretched to the breaking.

Twentieth century history demonstrates that it is exceptionally dangerous to leave science solely to the scientists. When we do, we invite such menacing intrusions into our lives as toxic chemicals, lethal radioactivity, ozone holes and atomic bombs. In our overzealous pursuit of the material, and our callous disregard for certain byproducts of human actions, we find ourselves endorsing a science without conscience. A civilization without morals.

I have learned this sad fact through personal experience. I graduated in 1967 with a liberal arts education, thinking that I had no need for scientific knowledge. After all, I struggled mightily with algebra and physics in high school. That was enough for me. My tools of discovery and expression would be pen, paper, camera, electric guitar, videotape and computer. However, I now find myself designing and administering educational curriculum for a certain population of Native American adults who desperately need technical and scientific skills in order to confront an urgent life and death situation -- not of their own making and certainly not of their own choice.

Scientific analysis has shown that air, water and soil in the area, and perhaps human genetic makeup as well, are threatened by a wide variety of environmental poisons. The impacted communities need to know the extent of the health risks they face from a variety of toxic chemicals and radionucleids. It seems the affected Native American people no longer have the option to live as free, autonomous, virtuous beings, whose aim would be solely the pursuit of the good life, rich in sacred and ancient tradition. Ironically, the pursuit of their traditional lifestyle may now expose them to considerably higher health risks than their non-Indian neighbors. In response to the crisis, the pueblo communities have decided to acquire technical and scientific knowledge as rapidly as possible in order to find ways to preserve their culture and traditions.

Choe notes that long ago, classical science was tied to human concerns. So was the ancient practice of alchemy. The alchemists of old embraced the view of humanity and all of nature as one, indivisible, inseparable whole. The indigenous mind of the Native American thinks similarly. During my 28 years since college graduation, I have experienced the profound wisdom of this way of relating to life.

It is my belief that our hope for a sane, habitable future now rests on the ability of men and women everywhere to move comfortably between the dual realistics of Science and Art. We must learn to move through both these worlds with skill, compassion and creativity. Our schools, therefore, must find better ways to educate such potential "artisan-scientist sages." Colleges, such as Dartmouth, if they would truly train exemplary 21st century leaders, must aspire to encourage the development of extraordinary kinds of human beings not known before, nor dreamed of yet by poets in the farthest reaches of their imagination. In the 21st century, nothing less will do.