Plato developed a simple and comprehensive theory of reality which (potentially, at least) served human purposes well. In Plato's theory, the real entities, or Ideas, were mostly directly relevant to fundamental issues in human life. The preeminent Idea, the Idea-of-the-Good, polarized all the rest of reality by establishing the fundamental role, and orienting effect, of value. One step down, the four Greek virtues --- courage, temperence, justice, and wisdom --- suggested a balance for human life. Other Ideas, like beauty, Plato suggested as having fundamentally moral roles in that the pursuit of objects in appearance that "participate" in beauty is oriented by the Good and, consequently, requires a commitment and discipline that help to make the life lived a good life, if not the best. When we struggle to understand the roles of these Ideas in determining our own lives, we are led both toward the personal moral dimension and toward the collective political dimension. Both are "organic" according to Plato. Both function best when we can see the Ideals "participating" within them.
But what is our conception of reality today? Modern science, culminating as it has in contemporary physics, imagines a real world that is made up of fundamental material particles. While in the 17th Century these particles were viewed as solid objects possessing the "primary properties" of matter, Relativity and Quantum physics have eroded away even these attributes and left an indeterminant array of particles, enjoying easy mass-energy exchangeability and little permanent identity. Throughout, the "secondary properties" (attributes far more relevant to day-to-day human experience) were treated as ephemeral effects of the real objects. The status of "secondary properties" is even more in doubt today. And most important, human life itself is really a "secondary" and ephemeral aspect of the world picture.
One might ask, "Why has the scientific world view prospered in modern times?", and the answer is fairly obvious. The materialistic view of reality is essential in a world where we see our main interests in the manipulation of matter. It is the world view par excellence of technology. What gets lost in this, however, is the fact that technology is the human manipulation of the environment for human purposes. But if the overarching conceptual system fails to define "human purposes" in any significant way, we are left with a powerful technological potential that is essentially undirected, except by whim.
When we turn to ask the fundamental moral question, "How should we best live?", what concepts do we possess on which we can rely for guidance? The real world of science offers us nothing from which to interpret the nature or directions of human life. The real world of Plato is long gone. If we suggest that there are guiding concepts available through world religions, how will we rationalize the simultaneous possession of two contradictory world-reality systems, especially in those areas where they seem to predict and explain in opposition to each other? We seem to be left with the empirical sciences of human life and human society. But when we can say, with empirical exactness and confidence, that 15% (+/- 0.3%) of married men physically abuse their wives, what have we said that has moral relevance? There is nothing in such knowledge that directs us either to increase the score or to decrease it.
But without the existence of guiding concepts we can only turn to habit or accident. Ironically, it is these very features that we condemn in what we call "primitives." When we look around us in the phenomenal world of our collective creation, we see more-and-more a world of habit and accident. Perhaps it is the second coming of "primitive man."
(The following was a memo to the department of humanities and social sciences following a discussion of staffing that bore heavily on the department's objectives.)
The arguments that developed in little over 24 hours, yesterday and this morning, are fundamental arguments about what we do here and they will continue to influence our decisions in all spheres. I hope that we can continue to deal with these arguments because, if we leave them unattended, they will continue to make all our decisions difficult, if not in fact blind. I am sure that we will not resolve these differences (we never have) but perhaps we can continue to explore them until we understand them better. These are differences that will affect our choice of a search committee, that will implicitly organize and rank the candidate pool, and that will ultimately re-emerge when we interview and evaluate candidates for any position.
In my message, last night, I wrote: "The central concept of education at Harvey Mudd is, and has always been, a re-visioning of the profession and the professional. In particular, it was motivated by the great moral need of professionals in the sciences and engineering, of the 1950s, to understand their roles in society and in relation to the future course of human life. One cannot achieve this end by focusing the dialectic upon the profession itself. The very idea of HMC was the deliberate assumption that there is NO profession "in itself." We cannot discuss "leadership in the lab environment" as such; we MUST discuss leadership from a worldly point of view that sees the complete relationship of the lab to the rest of society."
I want to focus on what I called a "great moral need" because I think that pushes buttons-of-rebellion in some people (maybe in a lot of people). I think that education is a moral undertaking. There is nothing particularly different about Harvey Mudd in this regard. What we have to ask is why we learn about anything. Why do we deliberately try to know anything about the world around us? It seems to me that the answer to that question is always so that we can live well in that world. How could it be otherwise? Is it possible for us to entertain a fact, any fact, without placing a value on it? And certainly when we teach, there being so very much to teach and learn, isn't it true that we teach what we value most? Because that is what is best for life? It is a moral enterprise through and through.
Now it is a fact that many scientists and engineers were extremely disturbed by what scientists and engineers had wound up doing on both sides of WWII in the name of patriotism. And probably the Manhatten Project was the most serious threat to professional confidence; though Joe Platt (himself not a member of the Manhatten Project) has often observed that radar (his own wartime research area) was probably responsible for a larger number of civilian deaths than the two bombs and decades of nuclear fallout from atmospheric testing. The historical setting of the mid-1950s, when this college was conceived, funded, and staffed, remained in a state of tension about the relationship between science and enterprise. President Eisenhower did not warn us about the "military-industrial complex" for no reason at all. This is where the first two sentences in the long quote above come from.
Why else, one may ask, did the creators of this college decide to embrace the extravagance of so large a commitment to humanities and social sciences? Exactly one third of the curriculum! Nor was innovation present only in the humanities and social sciences. The first chair of the physics department was Dwayne Roller who brought with him a vision of physics taught from a humane point of view, out of the human history of science. The first engineers were so revolutionary in their points of view that they went beyond "science engineering" (the revolutionary movement of the '50s) to "systems" or "design, " which embraced a dynamic view of the profession with abstract boundaries. The chemists turned the curriculum upside down and taught all of chemistry through physico-chemical concepts, a revolutionary position in its own age, and shunned professional accreditation by the ACS as unnecessary.
None of this is to say that HMC was monolithic (something that I am always accused of); there have always been people who wanted their roots firmly in the past traditions. They were on the first curriculum committee; they were among the first members of the community; and they were within the Board and assemblage of generous donors. No one can deny that. But they are not the reason why Harvey Mudd became what it became. The root of Harvey Mudd is within movement --- experiment, evaluation, and re-evaluation. The question isn't really even how can we live well. The question is how can we live best. But when we say "best," criticism and imagination (movement) are implied.
Reform at HMC
The theme of my remarks in the memo of August 21st was not new; I began making suggestions of this kind during the 1993-94 academic year when the Long-Range Planning Committee was soliciting ideas relevant to the college's mission. Thus far, however, it is not a theme that has stimulated much discussion. In just over two years, Jim Rosenberg is one of the only people in the college to respond in any way. So while Jim hasn't yet responded to the present memo, I am going to continue the discussion by adding some remarks appropriate to the issues that Jim has raised in the past.
My recollection is that Jim is(was) sympathetic to the environmentalist flavor of my proposals but feels that I suggest placing the college in a position of fostering specific values. The objection, then, is that this would represent a departure from the value-neutral posture of science and, perhaps, education in general. (I hope that I'm not misrepresenting Jim.) The question that I want to address here is whether science, mathematics, engineering, and education in general have ever been "value neutral" in any real sense.
What we are dealing with is a basic distinction between "fact" and "value." In a very crude sense, a fact is something that we claim is true and a value is something that we claim is good. (This obviously becomes a little blurry when we ask whether it is true that something is good!) I assume that the allegation of value-neutral science and education is a claim to the effect that science and education deal in facts only. Of the sacred three (truth, beauty, and goodness) we are devoted only to the first.
It should already be clear that people in the arts and the humanities will disagree with this. Certainly in the arts educators consider the pursuit of beauty to be an important aspect of their profession. In the humanities there is clearly an interest in what is good as well as in what is true. That is, for example, we do not affect a value-neutral position when we read holocaust literature. The whole educational process is ripe with values, as a matter of fact. No one that I know assigns an equal number of bad books to the good ones. Everything we give the students is the best that we can offer. But that means that we are up to our necks in values! Even at the level of determining which facts students should be exposed to and in what order, we are always cutting through judgments of good and bad, better or worse.
Now, why do scientists think that they are always in a value-neutral posture? The answer, clearly, is that their main interest is determination of facts. If the coating on bronze statues is a hydrated copper carbonate of some kind, the "scientific issue" is whether that is a fact and not whether that is good or beautiful. The sculptor and the onlooker can judge about those. The problem, I believe, is that we always stop short at this example, recite our Q.E.D., and ignore the rest of who we are and what we do. First and foremost, we always confuse the scientist with science. The scientist is a human being who is thoroughly embedded in human society. Science, in the sense illustrated earlier, as securing facts, is a small part of what scientists actually do. Just to begin with, the scientists around here are also educators; and as educators, they are fully immersed in value-making judgments about curriculum, texts, and professional goals, at the very least. Perhaps science, in some ideal, is value neutral, but what scientists actually do is far away from value neutrality.
To conclude, I want to connect this with the issues I brought up in my memo of August 21st. The question here is how we should best shape an education in science, mathematics, and engineering for HMC students. So even if we want to believe that we teach only facts, leaving beauty and goodness for others, there is no doubt that our curriculum is thoroughly immersed in value assessments. As one obvious example, when I was a chemistry major at Northwestern, we were exposed to an entire year of analytical chemistry; but chemists no longer think this is good so analytical chemistry tends to be tucked into smaller slots here-and-there. As yet another example, the "generalist" design-oriented engineering curriculum at HMC is surely the expression of certain value assessments that are different from those commonly made by engineering educators in most large universities.
Granting that setting a curriculum means expressing value judgments about what to teach and when to teach it (as well as how to appraise progress and performance), we should also ask what kinds of judgments are required as background to all of this. Don't we always, in fact, make these judgments on the basis of certain beliefs about what the world is and will become and how students can best prepare for that? In fact, don't we have a vision about how best to live? In fact, that's a "moral vision."
Part of our problem in getting through this discussion lies in the fact that the last few decades have been dominated by an extraordinary, compressed, high-energy monolith of social and political values that have sustained academia, especially the technological establishment. We have so thoroughly adapted to the implicit aims and visions of the Cold War that we foolishly believe we are value neutral. In fact, everything we have done is value laden and our privilege of not bothering to think about the implicit values that we teach is anchored in the fact that these are all common to the whole military industrial complex. If it is really true that the world is changing in dramatic ways that will, at the very least, cause a significant "down-sizing" of the military industrial complex, and if it is really true that the next fifty years will require substantial alteration of our yet-un-checked liberal utilization of all resources and reserves, renewable or not, then it is clearly time to adjust some of our value-laden assumptions about what students need to know and how they are best educated to meet that future. Far from nurturing a vacuous value neutrality, we need to embrace and, indeed, foster new and appropriate values. (And beauty wouldn't be a bad idea either!)
Curriculum Reform at HMC, August
As our committee begins its second year of contemplating the curriculum at Harvey Mudd College, I trust that we will continue, along the lines established last spring, to clarify our goals and objectives and to understand how we interpret those in more specific ways as opportunities and necessities of instructional situations. However, I also hope that we will renew our discussion of more general issues and, in particular, of the overall social, economic, and political environment in which education occurs today.
California, the United States, and the world as a whole have changed enormously in just five years. But we have scarcely yet witnessed all of the changes that are implicit in the new world order following the collapse of the USSR. Certainly for Harvey Mudd, however, it already has deep implications for the future of science and engineering. Now consider the fact that the collapse of the USSR is a mere perturbation in the midst of a far more gigantic and far-reaching process called the over-population of the world. What implications does this have for Harvey Mudd students?
Futurists who study world population believe that a human population of 10 billion may be the threshold of human and ecological disaster. World population today is slightly over 5 billion. At the present rate of population growth, we expect to have the threatening 10 billion in human population by 2030-2040! Approximately forty years from now when today's HMC students are approaching sixty. The students we will be teaching over the next two decades, however, will be approaching the height of their careers during this period. What will this mean for them?
There are two central problems in the issue of over population. First, there is the issue of population growth itself. There are already portions of the earth where human population has gone far beyond an ecologically acceptable level and where, as a consequence, the quality of life has declined pitifully. In some of these regions, radical measures are being taken to control future growth; however, in most no control measures are in place at all. In addition, more affluent regions of the world where overpopulation has yet had little affect tend to ignore the problems and naively assume that their regions will be able to remain isolated from the acute problems of overpopulation when they really hit the rest of the world. Yet this is clearly a worldwide problem, one that should bring all diverse people of the world together in an attempt to keep human population under control and maintain it well within a level that the earth's resources can maintain.
The second central problem is, indeed, the issue of resource consumption. For just as out-of-control population increase is a threat to human life, out-of-control consumption of the earth's resources is also a threat to human life. When we talk about maintaining a certain number of human beings on the earth's surface, we are always talking in terms of available resources. But which of these resources are renewable and which not? Do we have a plan for sharing out the non-renewable resources and for replacement? While we may, with some justification, claim that out-of-control population growth is the fault of other countries in the world, we cannot defend our own out-of-control resource consumption in the face of the realities of the balance of renewable and non-renewable resources. Perhaps our material culture is the highest ever reached by humans on this earth, but it was not designed for long-term maintenance and that is precisely the issue that stares us in the face today. To think that we are going to spread the benefits of this material culture throughout the rest of the world is ridiculous precisely because we cannot maintain it ourselves.
Incidentally, when I talk about resource depletion, above, I am not just talking about the depletion of timber, coal, oil, and mineral reserves. The fact is that we are over-consuming our underground water reserves at a terrifying rate in support of the irrigation practices of contemporary agri-business. Also, we are losing topsoil from annual plowing and gaining salt from over-irrigation, making more and more land unsuitable for productive agriculture. Inland fishing resources have been severely damaged by acid rain and ocean fishing resources are being severely challenged by commercial demands. Some regions of formerly productive ocean fishing have been wiped out by irresponsible fishing practices. None of this even begins to consider the incredible impact that all of this is having (and has had) on the other living things that occupy (or once occupied) the earth. Perhaps the earth, in some sense, never needed the species diversity that it had; I would be prepared to admit that. But it is certain that the human species cannot exist alone on the earth with no other species of living things. So where is the critical line? How many other species will we allow to disappear into extinction because of our own thoughtless lack of control? And where is the critical point at which we will neither be able to save the remaining species nor ourselves?
My purpose, here, is to suggest that we need to do more, in the future years at Harvey Mudd, than merely to follow our well established and commendable goals and objectives of promoting bright, flexibly minded young people interested in science, mathematics, and engineering. We also need to do more than celebrate the classic, rich cultures of our past. We need to look ahead of our times and to understand the substantial barriers that stand in the path of thoughtless and habitual continuation of past practices. We would be irresponsible in the extreme, I believe, to allow our students to leave Harvey Mudd naively believing that American society can continue business as usual and that scientists, mathematicians, and engineers can continue to serve American society in the same ways as before. We are, in fact, entering a very new era in the practice of these professions; it should become a very exciting era of new thinking and new invention; but one thing is sure and that is that it must be guided by a new sense of care exercised toward all species and it must be guided by a new orientation toward long-term maintenance rather than short-term gain.
Memorandum to the Curriculum Planning Committee, April 11, 1995
Several of my teaching experiences, this year, have driven home, in my own mind, the desperate need we have, at HMC, to define a mission that addresses the future (instead of the past) and that suggests a strong collective moral vision (instead of mere self-interest and profit-taking). As I have suggested before, the original vitality of this college came out of a mission that was visionary, that really meant something important. Practitioners of engineering and science in the post-war era needed to discover good science and good engineering in the sense of identifying practices knowingly consistent with the public good. Scientists and engineers needed to stop being naively destructive.
While I agree with much that the committee has done, this year, in arguing that HMC should continue to provide strong programs in engineering, math, and the sciences as well as adequate programs in the arts, humanities, and the social sciences, I feel that we are completely lacking in the areas of vision and vitality. There is nothing firing this mission! The painful post-war era is now long gone; even the cold-war era seems to be fading. Perhaps engineering, math, and science are intrinsically worthy professions; but, "Ho, hum! Why at HMC? Why now? And for what real end that matters?"
Let me, then, once again make my case for teaching "sustainable life" as the goal of good engineering and good science. To practice anything else is irrational and foolish; yet it is precisely this point that students today seem to have little or no awareness about. No surprise! Teaching institutions seem to have even less awareness about it.
Why must we do this? The crucial point that everyone should understand is that we are not presently teaching or practicing sustainable human life; in fact, we are heading in the direction of complete disaster. Given the doubling of world population every 40 years (perhaps 10 billion by 2030) and the massive way that a selected few nations (including us, of course) are expending the world's natural resources, there is no way that we can continue in the same patterns of economic development and exploitation. The political universe and the natural world will bring this to a halt within the next century. And this, of course, means that the practices of engineering and science will be dramatically changed.
Wouldn't it be nice if we used the intelligence of which we are so proud to begin making these changes voluntarily, now. Here, in my opinion, is the real test of our intelligence. If we allow this destruction to happen without even attempting to check its course, then we will have been among the stupidest of mammals that have walked the earth, not by any means the most intelligent.
This is a thought that came to me while I was writing about futurism, earlier, and it just came back. So let me take a stab at it and see if anyone out there has anything to say about it.
I have a picture of how HMC started out. It is my own picture, of course, so not everyone present in those early years would agree with it. I suppose that you could say it is how I pictured what I was getting myself into. What interests me about this picture is that, in my mind, it did not attempt to embrace what the world was going to become; in fact, it tried to change what the world was likely to become.
In 1955-57, the world of science and engineering was still heavily conditioned by WWII, only ten years past. Scientists and engineers on all sides of the war had struggled to advance their countries' causes and rarely, it was argued, with much political understanding. Creation of nuclear weaponry was, to put it mildly, a "wakeup call" to people in the technical professions. They had fundamentally changed human warfare and the species itself had lost its innocence. Through a nuclear holocaust, the species and most other living things could actually perish. What came out of this "wakeup call" was the realization that scientists and engineers should not be allowed to become simple-minded tools of massive political regimes. They must be educated to think through the human and social ramifications of their work; they must be able to argue through their own responsibilities in newly created situations; and they must be fully ready to engage with the social and political world around them, equipped with a sense of history, with political sensitivity, and with a strong sense of human values. Thus, Harvey Mudd's curriculum, with its strong emphasis on humanities and social sciences (one third of the total courses, originally), was an attempt to change the world of science and engineeing and not to embrace what it had been or where it was inevitably going. Sometimes our vital interests lie in refusing to let something happen even when it may look inevitable.
I happen to
think that the continuing degradation of environment is another "inevitable" aspect of
the future that educated people should refuse to allow. Are science and engineering
involved in environmental degradation? They surely are! Shouldn't we be educating
young scientists and engineers to look beyond the immediate narrow definitions of their
problems to the long-term and long-range environmental aspects? I also believe that
the so-called "information superhighway" has some pretty powerful political content.
Transparent to criticism or oversight, the superhighway has a potential for massive
manipulation of popular opinion. Rather than merely looking at this as a fascinating
technical problem, shouldn't our students be preparing to understand its significance to
a free society?
On the bases of seasonal salmon runs and magnificent old-growth cedar trees, the indigenous people of the Northwest possessed one of the richest cultures in all of North America.
So what's happening in the timber business these days?
While I think this is all right minded, it remains open to specific criticism and correction. Is there a necessary relationship between what is "most basic" and the early part of any department's major? We have always acted as though this was the case, but we could/should be more skeptical about this. Furthermore, do we place students in situations where they tend to learn how to perceive change, how to adapt to new situations, and how to learn for themselves? I think the answer here is a weak yes/no. A lot of our teaching is very traditional. Even in the less traditional courses, like clinic, we try to fit everything into a more-or-less traditional "R&D Group" format.
The question, I think, is how do we really teach them how to figure out what's going on around them? How do we teach them independent learning skills? Etc. Wouldn't it be interesting to have a course in which "the name of the game" changed in subtle ways throughout the semester. Students would have to figure out when it was changing and where it was going. Also, rather than giving them the resources through Huntley, we'd place them in the position of having to decide what resources they need and finding them. We'd encourage them to work things out in groups but leave them to decide on group membership and structure.
In a very general sense, I think there's always a tension between preparing students to fit into a specific world (training) and preparing them to be participants in any world (education). It seems clear, however, that the latter is the only worthy investment.