The Necessity of Breadth in a Modern University Education

22 May

Based on a presentation on 21/05/13 by:
Greg Petsko (Prof of Biochemistry and Chemistry, Brandeis University & Member of the US National Academy of Sciences)

Happy Wednesday, everyone! I went to an absolutely fantastic seminar yesterday – one that was funny, insightful, informative and quite moving at points. It concerned the current state of university education and how it influences wider society. I’ll attempt to convey some of the passion that Professor Petsko injected into his talk as I explain his views, as well as offering up some of my own. Enjoy!

English: EPA Assistant Administrator for Resea...

Teaching science is important, but is it all that scientists should consider? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday’s speaker, Prof. Greg Petsko, was in Oklahoma the day before (for those of you reading this sometime in the future, that was the day a significant part of Oklahoma was decimated by a Category 5 tornado). He was 3 miles away from the tornado and had to travel for 24 hours to get to us in time, but he gave one of the most engaging talks I’ve ever attended. I strongly recommend reading his monthly column on Science and Society in the journal Genome Biology. Most of these columns are free to read and you can find a list of them here.

Prof. Petsko started by making a very interesting point. These days, we consider the arts and sciences to be very different beasts. I regularly blame my logical and analytical way of thinking, borne of a scientific education, for making me consider most modern art to be complete twaddle! Yet, many years ago, the famous scientist Galileo took great interest in the arts, whilst renowned artist Michelangelo was a keen follower of the sciences. How have the cross-disciplinary ideals exercised by two of, arguably, the greatest minds ever known disappeared over time?

The professor told us of an event that he believes to have been key in establishing this divide. In 1959, the British politician and chemist Charles Percy Snow delivered a controversial lecture entitled ‘The Two Cultures’. He claimed that followers of the sciences and the humanities had split apart, forming two distinct cultures between which communication was failing. He also declared the British education system to be on the decline. Petsko believes that the way Snow reported his views made the general public, both in the UK and the US, accept that that was the way society now worked and that it took hold from that moment.

I have to say, I don’t fully agree with Petsko on this point. Whilst I don’t deny that there is a clear divide between the sciences and the arts, I’d argue that the divide must have already existed for Snow to have observed it. His reporting of the matter doubtless increased public awareness of the fact, but I’d hardly label him as the single cause of modern day problems in university-level education. The chances are that, if it was possible for one lecture to make people notice the divide and largely accept it en masse, it was already well-established and known by people other than Snow.

Moving past the contentious issue of how we got here though, I have to admit that Petsko coined an excellent phrase during his lecture. He said that the idea that art and science should be separate is a “zombie idea” – that is, “an idea that should have died a long time ago but keeps coming back to eat our brains”. Brilliant!

This fantastic term applies to many different ideas, including the ridiculous, yet worryingly widely believed, thought that “only subjects of practical value have value”. As Petsko pointed out, in the 1970s almost nobody in America was interesting in studying viruses – vaccines existed for all the major viral diseases so it was seen as a pointless occupation to continue studying them. This blinkered attitude meant that when HIV started spreading through the population few were prepared for it.

This is a compelling demonstration of the fact that we cannot know what will be important to us in the future. As such, it can be argued that universities should be offering students the broadest education possible, whilst still maintaining quality, of course. Cutting edge science will almost always become outdated and intimate knowledge of its workings will become obsolete. Yet languages and politics, for example, remain useful for far longer than any of us will be around and may enrich our later lives in ways we can’t possibly conceive of yet.

Prof. Petsko wrote a hilarious, yet persuasive, open letter to the President of the State University of New York at Albany, regarding this matter. The President had recently announced that several of his arts departments were to be closed, essentially for cost-cutting measures to allow the sciences to continue and flourish. I bet he wished he hadn’t.

As Petsko summarised for us, assuming that a piece of information is correct, it is worth something – it has a value – regardless of the subject into which it can be categorised. The value of information from one academic field can, in fact, impact upon another subject. For example, in 1865, the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé reported the correct structure of the compound benzene for the first time. Chemists had known which atoms made

up a benzene molecule but couldn’t work out how they fitted together. Kekulé realised that the atoms must be arranged in a ring, rather than being linear as everyone had supposed. His understanding came as a result of a dream in which he saw the ancient Ouroboros symbol of a snake eating its own tail, but made up of carbon atoms. Without an appreciation of the arts, it is possible that Kekulé would never have discovered benzene’s structure.

English: east German stamp of Kekulé, discover...

Kekulé and the cyclic structure of Benzene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Religious symbolism

The religious symbol, Ouroboros (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

During the later stages in his talk, Prof. Petsko attempted to sum up his beliefs with two major reasons why breadth of education is important. I felt that this was the weakest part of the professor’s argument as it seemed odd to try and pick just two reasons for suggesting such an important shakeup in education; plus I didn’t necessarily agree with the reasons he chose.

His first reason was that, without studying the humanities and critical thinking, people would be more easily manipulated by others and taken in by those with authority. It was a fair point that science cannot teach us everything we need to know about the way the world works, though I didn’t feel it was his strongest argument.

Petsko’s second main reason for not separating the sciences from the arts was that, without an appreciation of both, one would risk becoming coldly scientific and the expense of one’s humanity. He illustrated this point by describing atrocities committed in the name of science such as the US Army spraying toxic chemicals over 6 US and Canadian cities to test dispersal patterns of chemical weapons during the Cold War.

I have to strongly disagree with the professor on this point. That suggests to me that he believes scientists lose all sense of morality and conscience by devoting themselves to science. I would argue that the examples he put forward dated no later than the Cold War and that they were merely products of their time and of desperate governments willing to exploit science’s darkest potentials for ‘the greater good’. I thought his was a rather odd statement to make, given the compelling arguments and undeniable benefits that he had previously put forward in an otherwise stellar presentation.

Whilst I may not have fully agreed with everything he said, I hope that, in this post, I’ve conveyed some of the enjoyment I gained from listening to Prof. Petsko talk. I am completely supportive of his overriding view that scope and breadth are essential in modern education and, for the most part, his points were made charismatically and eloquently. Despite my misgivings regarding some of his comments, I think you’d have to agree that he’s clearly struck a chord with me regarding this important modern debate. And I hope that I’ve passed some of that enthusiasm on to you. Whether you agree or disagree, this is a topic that needs to be discussed. For my part, I agree with Prof. Petsko that “the purpose of an education…is to make your life richer”.

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Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Non-science posts


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