Karthinking About Education

Universities must make scientific education more accessible


Come May 24—barring an act of God—I’m due to be one of the last students to graduate from the Core Curriculum.  Lamentably, I will only have been exposed to the various “ways of knowing,” whereas my compatriots currently enrolled in the Program in General Education will have successfully prepared to “connect in an explicit way what students learn in Harvard classrooms to life outside the ivied walls and beyond the college years.”

Hey, that’s not fair! Only seven of the seven courses I’ve used to satisfy my Core requirements have since been relisted as Gen Eds. What’s more, it’s already apparent that my more forward-thinking classmates’ newfound pragmatism escapes me. For instance, Tuesday afternoon I paid five dollars for J.P. Licks ice cream (thanks to my Core requirement in Moral Reasoning) even though it was Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry’s (which I believe would be the ethical choice, as per the Gen Ed program’s Ethical Reasoning requirement).

Despite myobvious disadvantages, I do think I’ve nonetheless stumbled upon an important failing that plagues Harvard College and perhaps the liberal arts more generally. It’s one that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences also seem to have identifiedgiven their stated goals for the Gen Ed program: If Harvard wants to stay in the business ofmass-producing graduates prone to unusual levels of prominent societal impact (or employment in financial services), it must prioritize universal,practical, and in-depth education in the natural and physical sciences.

Putting aside for a moment its laughably poor execution, the Gen Ed program definitely has more congruentintentions than the old Core. In theory, since 2009 the College has sought to expose all its students to an interdisciplinary and even vaguely technical program that “links the arts and sciences with the 21st century world that students will face.”

The 21st century. Even now, the term still implies a mystical place where technology, science, and globalization are the defining aspects of society. It’s already true that participating intelligently in contemporary civil and social discourse requires an increasing facility with science and technology—one that would have been superfluous just a few decades ago. It’s a trend that will only accelerate over our lifetimes as we rely increasingly upon science to justify universal solutions to immediate and complex global problems such as climate change, informationflow, energy, and health.

As such, it’s particularly disconcerting that the departments that can best provide an education in thechemical, biological, and physical principles that underpin these essential issues retain concentrations and secondary fields that seem almost purpose-built to be inaccessible. Introductory classes penalize and weed out the less dedicated and the less diligent, let alonethose committed—God forbid—more to the liberal arts ideal of free inquiry than to intense competition. With such huge disincentivesbarring enrollment inprerequisite courses, higher-level courses—the ones that might actually allow graduates to make their own informed and objective decisions about society’s hot-button scientific issues—are out of the question. Going forward, the best college in the universe would be doing its students and this nation a huge disservice if it doesn’t find a way to enhance deeper scientific literacy among all its graduates.

Perhaps Gen Ed courses are meant to do this, but they aretoo superficial to satiate undergraduate intellectual curiosity. Students who take themoften go on to search for courses that would help further develop their scientific understanding, butthey run into a horde of intense pre-med students and aspiring Ph.Ds.with whom they must compete. The ability to spend 25 hours a week in Lamont memorizing slides and mastering arbitrary problem types might help you ace the MCAT, but it shouldn’t be a precondition for meaningfully engaging with as much science as one wants to without sacrificing a pristine grade point average.

The fact that a huge percentage of eager first years who do take Life Sciences 1a and similar introductory science courses are so turned-off by their experience as to give up on science altogether is indicative of the same problem. Students across disciplines who have an interest in the natural sciences—those who want and, indeed, need to know more—should be given a pathway to explore them. Within reason, a historian ought to be able to walk into a higher-level chemistry class just as easily as a chemist might walk into a history class.

This is especially essential in an era when politicians and commentators either willfully mislead the public or are themselves bewilderedby complex scientific issues. Increasingly, ignorance in the political sphere is becoming a virtue. Places like Harvard are meant to shine a beacon of veritas through the darkness. Unfortunately, truth is only too easy to conceal when the public believes it exists beyond an impenetrable layer of science that must be interpreted by an expert. Though true science always strives for objectivity, in practice, it isn’t communicated that way.

The media’s equivocation on whether climate change exists at all is an apt example. One or two voices out of a few hundred can still sound pretty loud, especially if they happen to be backed by well-funded interests. Even the best-intentioned citizens who lack reasonable expertise are thusforced to rely on biased, secondhand voices rather than draw their own conclusions from empirical evidence. This problem will only change once higher-level science has been made more accessible.

Karthik R. Kasaraneni ’12, a former Crimson editorial executive, is a chemistry concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.