The Nat Sci Dilemma
George Wald's imaginative and challenging proposal for a unified introductory courses in biology means both the final rejection of much of the Bruner report and the opening of a new approach to teaching elementary science courses.
The Bruner report's concrete proposal, that a student may fulfill his Natural Sciences requirement by taking either one science course not normally open to freshmen or two other science courses, went into effect this fall. But the real significance of the report lies in its two suggestions on teaching: that permanent appointments consider teaching ability, and that new courses be established to investigate one or two subjects in depth, and then generalize towards some of the principles and limitations of natural science.
Unfortunately, the General Education Committee can only reject or accept whatever courses individual professors choose to offer. It does not have the authority to dictate individual courses, and since no one seems interested in teaching courses which the Bruner committee originally envisioned, they will probably never be given.
Moreover, despite the report, it is unlikely that teaching ability will become a significant consideration in appointments. With the increasing national emphasis on science, men with creative ability in the sciences will seldom be pasesd over in favor of inspired and devoted teachers.
Because of this, Wald's course has great significance for both the General Education program and for the teaching of all introductory science courses. One of the fundamental these of the original General Education program and the Bruner report, that a course for concentrators was not General Education, will apparently be supplanted in biology as it has been in geology.
Instead of adopting a General Education course for an introductory offering, however, as the geology department has done with Nat Sci 10, Wald has started out by attempting a genuine synthesis. He is proposing a General Education course, not a biology course, to fill the General Education requirement.
The real question is whether his idea is intrinsically limited to biology, and, more specfically, to biology taught by George Wald. It is no secret that the General Education Committee would be reluctant to accept the course Wald has put forth if Wald himself were not teaching it.
There is little chance of combining Nat Sci 2, Physics 1 and Physics 12 into one or even two courses, and even less for any union between Nat Sci 4 and Chemistry 1. But Wald's own words are significant: "An introductory course for concentrators might not make the best General Education, but the best thing for General Education would be the best thing for the concentrator."
Because it is unlikely that Bruner's suggestions will be put in to practice, Wald's course will prove extremely important in determining whether the non-scientist can understand undiluted science. As an experiment, it is invaluable.
Wald, in fact, is the first important scientist in years to take an active interest in teaching his own Nat Sci course. His interest, in addition to that of Professor Purcell, is an encouraging sign that General Education may become the concern of the department rather than that of a few dedicated individuals.
In general, combining introductory and General Education courses for Humanities or Social Sciences would be a disaster; departmental use of Gen Ed weakens its standing as an independent program. If the Committee can do no more than supervise a series of introductory courses, it will continue to lose prestige with an already apathetic Faculty.
In Natural Sciences, however, the situation is so critical, and solution seems so remote that almost any experiment seems justified. Wald has created a course which reflects his personal philosophy, and it is likely that it will succeed through his teaching ability. But the course must be measured against a more objective standard--it is the crucial test of whether General Education in the sciences can be made meaningful for the nonscientist as well as scientist.
But even success will only solve this problem for biology. The rest of Natural Science, which demands a background in mathematics and an extremely special set of talents, remains General Education's greatest headache.