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Less Faith, More Reason

By Steven Pinker

There is much to praise in the new Report of the Committee on General Education. It is original, thoughtful, and well-written, and reflects considerable work on the part of our colleagues on the Task Force on General Education. The entire Harvard community should be grateful for the progress they have made and the issues they have asked us to address.

I have two reservations, however. The final report will attract wide attention in academia and in the press, where it will be read not for its specific recommendations, but as a once-in-a-generation statement on the nature of higher education from the world’s most prominent university. As such, we should be mindful of the way the report frames the goals of general education, and not just its suggested menu of courses. This means affirming the goal of the university as the institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and reason. (There is certainly no shortage of forces in the world pushing toward ignorance and irrationality.)

My first reservation pertains to the framing of the “Science and Technology” requirement, which aims too low. I think the problem lurks in some of the other sections, but I will leave it to my colleagues in other departments to comment on those.

The report introduces scientific knowledge as follows: “Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative: they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they also have shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdropping, and damage to the environment.”

Well, yes, and I suppose one could say that architecture has produced both museums and gas chambers, that opera has both uplifted audiences and inspired the Nazis, and so on. It makes it sound as if the choice between science and technology on the one hand, and superstition and ignorance on the other, is a moral toss-up! Of course students should know about both the bad and good effects of technology. But this hardly seems like the best way for a great university to justify the teaching of science.

The report goes on to emphasize the relevance of science to current concerns like global warming and stem-cell research. It even mandates that courses which fulfill the Science and Technology requirement “frame this material in the context of social issues” (a stipulation that is absent from other requirements). But surely there is more to being knowledgeable in science than being able to follow the news. And surely our general science courses should aim to be more than semester-long versions of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Missing from the report is a sensitivity to the ennobling nature of knowledge: to the inherent value, with consequences too far-reaching to enumerate, of understanding how the world works. For one thing, it is a remarkable fact that we have come to understand as much as we do about the natural world: the history of the universe and our planet, the forces that make it tick, the stuff we’re made of, the origin of living things, and the machinery of life, including our own mental life.

I believe we have a responsibility to nurture and perpetuate this knowledge for the same reason that we have a responsibility to perpetuate an appreciation of great accomplishments in the arts. A failure to do so would be a display of disrespect for our ancestors and heirs, and a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements that the human mind is capable of.

Also, the picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.

I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. And I think that some acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge should be a goal of the general education requirement and a stated value of a university.

My second major reservation concerns the “Reason and Faith” requirement.

First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion.” An egregious example is the current administration’s “faith-based initiatives,” so-named because it is more palatable than “religion-based initiatives.” A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.

Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing, and we have to help students navigate between them. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology” or “Psychology and Parapsychology.” It may be true that more people are knowledgeable about astrology than about astronomy, and it may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry.

Third, if this is meant to educate students about the role of religion in history and current affairs, why isn’t it just a part of the “U.S. and the World” requirement? Religion is an important force, to be sure, but so are nationalism, ethnicity, socialism, markets, nepotism, class, and globalization. Why single religion out among all the major forces in history?

There is also considerable disagreement over whether religion really is the driving force behind the conflicts that are commonly attributed to it. Many people in Ireland insist that the Ulster conflict is about British rule versus Irish unification, not about Protestantism versus Catholicism. And among the Islam-aligned forces with which our country is currently entangled, Saddam Hussein’s Baathism is more secular and nationalist than it is religious. Whether or not religion is a major force is a question best left to our colleagues in history, government, and area studies, in the context of the broadest possible study of world affairs. This empirical issue should not be prejudged in the categories of a general education requirement.

Fourth, if the requirement is supposed to be about the clash in the history of ideas between religion and reason in Western thought, here again it seems far too arbitrary and specific a choice for a general education requirement. Why not rationalism and empiricism, or idealism and materialism, or the subjective and the objective?

Finally, if the requirement is meant to be the union of all or any of these (some students concentrate on Islamic jihad, others on the Reformation, still others on the argument from design or the ontological argument for God’s existence, still others on biblical history), it just doesn’t hang together as a coherent requirement.

Again, we have to keep in mind that the requirement will attract attention from far and wide, and for a long time. For us to magnify the significance of religion as a topic equivalent in scope to all of science, all of culture, or all of world history and current affairs, is to give it far too much prominence. It is an American anachronism, I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.

These reservations should not be seen as a dismissal of the report, which has many excellent analyses and recommendations, but as a contribution to the discussion of where to go from here.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone professor of psychology. He served on the Harvard College Curricular Review Committee on General Education that produced a previous general education report. This op-ed is adapted from remarks shared with the Task Force on General Education at a meeting with faculty.

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