In short, each side in the current education debate is half right. As human affairs become increasingly complex and morally exigent, future generations will need both scientific and humanistic learning — and they will need them more than ever.
Fortunately, promising new models for making education more coherent and capacious are emerging. Yale University and the National University of Singapore have worked together to establish Yale-NUS, Singapore’s first liberal arts college. Led by a literary academic and an astronomer, this new residential college aims to break down interdisciplinary boundaries and enable students to learn from one another.
Likewise, Quest University in Canada encourages students to bring both scientific and humanistic knowledge to bear on today’s most pressing problems.
Similar efforts have been underway for years in the US. For example, North Carolina State University’s Benjamin Franklin Scholars program — a collaboration between the College of Engineering and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences — aims “to produce well-rounded professionals who are analytical problem-solvers, ethical decisionmakers and effective communicators.” Unfortunately, such programs largely lack the visibility and influence needed to shape educational reform.
It is time to abandon the “either/or” discourse that pits science against humanities — which the British chemist and novelist C.P. Snow identified more than a half-century ago as an obstacle to human progress. It is time to seek out best practices that bridge this putative divide and scale them up.
In the important work of adapting educational institutions for the future, we must not lose sight of their core mission as articulated in the past. No one has expressed that mission better than Benjamin Franklin, a man of letters and a scientific innovator, who defined education as the quest for “true merit.”
“True merit,” Franklin wrote, consists in “an inclination joined with an ability to serve mankind, one’s country, friends, and family; which ability is ... to be acquired or greatly increased by true learning; and should, indeed, be the great aim and end of all learning.”
This is an aspiration that should be renewed for every generation.
Andrew Delbanco is director of American Studies at Columbia University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate