Science, humanities, and education

On this day before Thanksgiving, my brain simmers as I think about the importance of a well-rounded education for human society, creative innovation, and even curious individuals.

In the last few days, David Kroll has cross-posted on his blogs about this move and one prominent response. I’ve already commented briefly on his blog, but the topic is still nagging at me.

Here’s the background. Nearly two months ago, the George Philip, the president of SUNY Albany announced that he was eliminating several humanities programs from that campus. No more French, Russian and Italian. Bye-bye, classics and theater.

Enter Greg Petsko, a Brandeis professor who has written a scathing (and spot-on) critique of the move. Kroll’s post lauds him as “a cool dude.”

As a science writer, it’s probably no surprise that my brain is perched somewhere between the science and humanities most of the time. But that’s not something that happened after being solely immersed in science for years. I think I surprised myself, my family, and even some of my friends when I became a chemist. I read, I wrote, I loved history and travel, and I learned to speak a foreign language. In college, I double-majored in chemistry and German. But German could have just as easily been English or history. Those interests balanced my “how things work” push that led me to science. Though I’ve always had a bit of the engineer’s desire to deconstruct, those details were meaningless to me outside the context of what they mean to society. I’m not objective in valuing a well-rounded education.

Clearly this passion is personal for Petsko, too. He writes:

Perhaps my own background will interest you. I started out as a classics major. I’m now Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry. Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, the ones that have benefited me the most in my career as a scientist are the courses in classics, art history, sociology, and English literature. These courses didn’t just give me a much better appreciation for my own culture; they taught me how to think, to analyze, and to write clearly. None of my sciences courses did any of that.

Philip’s justification for the cuts at Albany are all about money. Yes, money is tight everywhere. At the same time, this issue touches deeper societal questions. What is a university education? And should it be a prerequisite for getting a good job?

The problem is that an education isn’t job training. It’s an immersion of ideas, critical thinking and creativity. Classes in French, Russian or classics belong at a university. Those classes probably aren’t going to lead directly to a job, but that isn’t their purpose. Not everyone will want to take them, and– for many people– that’s okay. But an educational institution should support and nurture scholarship and give students the benefits of a broad education.

Job training, well, that’s a whole separate issue. An education is only one piece of that puzzle, and I’d like to see more opportunities that allow individuals be able to choose programs that fit their interests and needs: vocational programs that will prepare them for a specific job or a degree with broader educational goals. My point is that institutions need to be honest in what they call themselves. If you’re in the business of education, you need to live up to that promise.


Almost Saturday Science Videos and more: Playing with the periodic table

Somehow Facebook, Twitter and my ongoing addiction to NPR have all pointed to fun chemistry science media today. This morning, I was just about to get out of bed when I heard this segment on NPR’s Morning Edition: Planet Money: Why Gold? Planet Money and a Columbia University chemical engineer play bingo with the periodic table to cleverly explain the origin of gold as the metallic basis of wealth.

Then there’s chemistry at a party: a fun little promotional video for science career put together by Marie Curie Actions at the European Commission Research (Hat tip: The Scientist‘s Naturally Selected blog). My favorite segue:  Hydrogen and Neon have  “No Attraction,” but Carbon enters the room to attract four happy Hydrogens. Those poor noble gases are just destined to die alone.

Finally, I picked this up via Facebook: your periodic table tie-in to Harry Potter mania this weekend. Enjoy “The Elements” courtesy of Daniel Radcliffe. Awesome.


Wondering like an Egyptian

Fascinating pendant from King Tut's tomb from the Egypt Archive via Wikimedia Commons

Just over a week ago, I finally fulfilled my inner 9-year-old’s wish: to see artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. In this case, it was a relatively short journey, to Times Square rather than Egypt. One of these days, I’ll actually see the pyramids and the Sphinx.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs Hairston, introduced me to both science and the wonders of King Tut. After learning about ancient Egypt in class, I came home and dug through my parents’ back issues of National Geographic that included the layered cellophane images of nested sarcophagi all the way down to Tut’s shriveled mummy.

I was too young to see Tut when he last came to the United States, so I decided to visit while the artifacts were in my backyard, at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. I’m guessing that the 1970s show was a bit less commercialized. The kicker for me came in the amusement park style photos taken as we arrived that we could buy for a cool $20 at the end complete with digital Egyptian backgrounds– so tacky that they crossed the barrier to amusing. And, yes, it’s overpriced.

But the artifacts are still stunning– the artistic detail, the materials. And I was struck by some of the old photographs of the tomb when Howard Carter opened it: these priceless items were piled up like old furniture and knickknacks in a storage unit. And the exhibit space has done a 21st century upgrade of my old National Geographic magazine, using light and projection and space to show how the nested sarcophagi fit together, even without the coffins themselves.

Considering the wealth of history and culture in Ancient Egypt, the attention lavished on the decade of Tutankhamen is out of balance with the thousands of years of Egyptian history. And I live in a city with two wonderful Egyptian collections: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. But the Tutankhamen artifacts hold a kind of magic: they inspire wonder, curiosity, and creativity. Partly, they carry the illusion of being shiny, new and untouched despite their age. I walked out a little awe-struck.

As my husband noted as we left, “we’d know a lot less about the Ancient Egyptians if they’d believed in cremation.” The 9-year-old me is glad they didn’t.