Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What Is/Ought To Be the Purpose of Science Education?

I've been reading classic texts in alchemy the last few days. Interesting stuff. It's for the textbook in the history and philosophy of science that I am working on and the central idea is to have students pick the science of their interest and look at its historical development through the lens of classic readings in the history of the philosophy of science. That way one can see whether it is the scientific method itself that has evolved, our understanding of it, or both.

What really strikes me in doing this project is how little connected science teaching is with the history of science. We don't teach in science classes so much as we train in science classes. As such, the historical narrative is eliminated. I think that this is unfortunate because it would allow students to see science more as a process than as a monolithic set of facts and connecting bridge theories to remember. It would also humanize the field, showing how scientific beliefs do not arise out of nothing, but from social and historical influences that would truly show science as embedded within culture and therefore demonstrate why it is crucial to understand.

Why this disconnect of science education and the history of science? One answer is socio-political. Our contemporary means of educating science students comes from the Cold War with its push to develop as many young scientists and engineers as possible. You train rather than teach to fill a cultural imperative. We needed technical professionals at a high rate to keep from being overrun by the Soviet menace and so the history was seen as something we couldn't afford. Crank out those scientists.

Another take comes from philosophers like Paul Feyerabend and sociologists like Steve Fuller who argue that the dissociation of science from its history is intentional. the purpose is to hide the embarrassing elements and construct an artificial sense that science is perfectly rational and therefore is superior to all other social institutions. Scientists, therefore, place themselves in a star chamber, where they and they alone are the holders of Truth.

Is there a good reason to teach history of science? Should we change the way we teach science that is less geared towards training? The how follows from the why. If we want to rethink science education, we first need to determine the purpose that education is designed to achieve. So why should we teach science?