A Plato’s-Republic-Like Sketch of Higher Education: Or, should scientists go to college?

by Sam Kean

For those of us that like drastic solutions and saltational mutations, one way to fix the perpetual crises (existential, and otherwise) that colleges and universities seem to find themselves in would be this: get out the axe. Axe the business school, axe all the engineering programs, axe the professional programs, axe even (hard as it is to say) the fine arts programs. So no more accounting majors and no more civil engineering majors, no more masters of public health, and no more dance majors, or creative writing majors, or bassoonists, either.

Plato The thing most of those programs have in common is that they’re crafts—things better learned by doing than by sitting and discussing the doing. As for the business and engineering programs, old-fashioned apprenticeships seem appropriate, and for anything they can’t learn by doing (calculus, perhaps), firms should educate their workers themselves for a few years, just as they train people in other ways. Anything but that amounts to a massive subsidy that society pays to businesses to train their workers for them. (Besides, what business wouldn’t be happy to add to the assets side of the ledger an extra $30k a year in tuition from prospects?) If fine arts people need training and tuning and nurturing and aren’t quite ready to get out there and slug it out for themselves, there are better models than a university—like Julliard. The hard cases are medical schools and law schools because those professionals really do need extended exposure to the material to gain the extra skills. But you can sell the medical school to a nearby hospital, and most law firms could certainly afford to train their own or, better, jointly fund a school that would.

The other thing most of those programs have in common is that students enter them expecting not so much to learn anything as to get a job. It’s a pervasive notion nowadays, that college = employment. Aside from it not necessarily being true right now (thanks to the economy) there’s a dubious assumption there, that the point of higher education is to make cash. Because let’s be frank: most of the students who attend college—especially those (and I don’t mean to pick on them; they’re just the obvious examples) business folk and engineers who attend college looking for jobs—don’t give a crap about broadening themselves. It sounds nice to say that future business leaders of America need to read Homer, but most don’t want to, most don’t care to, most don’t benefit from doing so. The ones who do want to, who need to read Homer will find him on their own. The ones who don’t want to read Homer will either forget him immediately or remember only the resentment they feel both for having to read it—and for the people in their classes who seemed to like it.

What would a university that followed this advice be like? Much smaller for one, which is good. Far too many students attend college nowadays (partly because we denigrate manual labor) and many colleges end up having to babysit students between the time they’re eighteen and twenty-one. (As one wag put it, college is really just a way for parents to ensure that their children take drugs in suitable company.) Under this scheme, the remnants of the university, those few that really want to study there, would focus on the liberal arts—what most people think of as the humanities and the social sciences. I’ve always argued to include the sciences as well, and in fact, that’s how most schools were once organized: if you wanted to study chemical engineering, you went to one school; if you wanted to study the fine art of chemistry, however (or biology, or physics), you remained in the college of liberal arts.

But I’m not so sure any more that science, at least as practiced today, should be included as a liberal art, and therefore whether scientists should go to college at all in this Plato’s Republic vision of the university.

After all, what someone needs to do to be a successful scientist nowadays is master an arcane body of knowledge about, say, blood enzymes, or magnetic spin in rare-earth elements, and craft some equipment to investigate them. In this case, science is less an outlook on the world—a way of viewing nature and building a sturdy system of knowledge—as much as an exercise in applied problem solving, a type of engineering. There’s nothing at all wrong or indecent about this work. It’s also not a liberal art. It’s hard to imagine how you’d gain much wisdom about life from doing work of this sort, any more than you’d gain wisdom from keeping a ledger.

Would such a split—dropping science from the liberal arts—be good for science? Again, sadly, it probably wouldn’t hurt science as practiced much nowadays. To take one innocuous example, I recently came across something in Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science by Carol Kaesuk Yoon. (A thoroughly thoughtful book, by the by.) Late in the book, Yoon laid out the basis for a philosophical war still being fought between old-time taxonomists—the shoot-and-stuff branch of biology—and a younger generation of “cladists,” who used more modern techniques to update the field. Cladists were more or less obsessed with recreating the branching tree of life that showed evolutionary relationships among all creatures. A fine goal. But one things cladists insisted on doing was abandoning what they called “artificial” groupings of creatures—like fish. For the details, read Yoon, but basically cladists count a group as a natural classification only if it met the following criterion: that you could lop off a branch of life’s tree at any one point, and show that everything above that chop-off point was part of the group. For instance, mammals are a natural grouping. We mammals had a last common ancestor with fish or reptiles or whatever, and after that, no matter how far you follow the subbranches of that larger branch into the future, nothing more but mammals appears. On the other hand, if you study the branch of fish, you run into a dilemma: For various reasons, you either have to leave some things that we want to count as fish out of the fish classification (like lungfish) or you end up counting way too much as fish, including many things that have never been underwater in their lives. Cladists applied similar reasoning to blow up the idea of zebras and great apes and other beloved zoological groups. Yoon’s sympathies in the story were clearly aligned against the cladists, who were about the nastiest, most obnoxious people working in science at the time. But Yoon just as clearly felt that the cladists have logic and rigor on their side. Yoon doesn’t seem to comment, however, that despite all their (correct) technical and scientific arguments, the cladists came off as idiots. Most people, upon devising a taxonomic scheme that, whatever it had going for it, ended up getting rid of the whole idea of fish, would drop the scheme. In fact, the loss of fish is almost in and of itself a reductio ad absurdum of the entire enterprise. But the cladists seemed not to have the wisdom to see beyond their technical work. And this seems a sadly common state in some fields of science today.

To flip things around, would the same split of science from the liberal arts be good for the remaining liberal arts? Certainly the humanities would benefit from not having to “keep up” with their scientific colleagues in terms of constantly publishing new papers. Part of the reason the humanities have gotten in trouble in recent years, especially their forays into postmodernism and ideological bickering, is that there’s frankly not much new to say about Shakespeare or whomever. In fact, about the only way to do argue something new was to take a ridiculous stand or strike an unsupportable posture. Shakespeare and Homer and so many others aren’t new—that’s sort of the point—and humanities folk shouldn’t feel pressure to claim they are.

On the other hand (and there is a tension here, no doubt), the humanities do need to update themselves to take scientific findings into account. Many humanities departments at universities have adopted a bit of siege mentality toward the sciences—that is, they feel surrounded and possibly under attack. Removing the sciences from the university might allow them to withdraw even more, and remain isolated. But it’s generally a good thing when literary scholars bring in the biology of human nature to their work. It’s a good thing when linguists do statistical analyses of corpuses. It’s a good think when philosophers incorporate models of neuroscience into their understanding. Not because such things will rewrite what the humanities have taught for hundreds of years; they probably won’t. But they will add shades of meaning and help us understand why, say, Homer and Shakespeare do appeal to us. And the add-ons can help in that ultimate goal of the liberal arts—the unity of knowledge.

And ultimately, that’s why science—or at least an individual scientist or two—needs to stay attached to universities, even if colleges and universities do purge themselves and drop professional and craft programs. The sciences were not in the past and might not be in the future, but right now are indeed the most productive and prolific enterprises out there, and any liberal arts worthy of the name liberal arts cannot ignore them without sliding into stupid irrelevance. Unfortunately, the demands of learning science make it hard to have a well-rounded view, and scientists themselves, as many of the broader-minded scientists have noted, are notoriously uninterested in history or philosophy or pretty much anything unrelated to their experimental apparatus. At the same time, the truly great scientists are exactly the ones who do have wider interests. Because more than just finding things out, they tell us what those findings mean. And even if science has no place in the narrower liberal arts of the future, it will always need that.