Philosophizing Science: A Different Approach to American Higher Education
The nearly 400-year history of the American university system has been marked by important and dramatic changes. The most obvious difference is the movement toward universal accessibility — for women, people of color, and other minorities. Other developments have occurred as well, especially with respect to academics: the curriculum, how the material is taught, and what students being taught are asked to do with the information they are given. In some respects, the organization and methodology of university academics have become more efficient, due in part to advancements in technology. But other shifts have occurred in the context of actual educational approaches — shifts that are changing the face of education in a way that ought to be a concern for both professors and their pupils. Since the mid-twentieth century, American universities have increasingly opted to scaled back on humanistic intellectualism in favor of vocational careerism as a general curriculum strategy. There is a general sense that the technical must take precedent over the metaphysical, and the resulting environment is one that skews opportunity in favor of those who pursue what is perceived as “practical.”
When educators lament the triumph of the vocational approach over the former humanistic one, the common retort is that a liberal-arts education is simply not useful anymore. Here, “useful” is being used in the context of the increasingly cutthroat employment environment that students of our generation face when the time comes for us to leave college and venture out into the real world. Philosophy, literature, history — these fields are nice things to have around and acceptable to dabble in for some distributional credit. But ultimately, the focus has to be on math, economics, engineering, pre-law, biology, pre-med — or any of the other majors and career specializations deemed “practical” by students and, more importantly, their worried parents.
I understand their sentiments. And I don’t think it’s fair — or even remotely realistic — to ask everyone to become a philosopher or historian. Instead, I’d like for us to rethink what our foundational approach to higher education should look like. In twenty-first century America, the answer is neither the vocational nor the philosophical —but the intermediary.
When I say the intermediary, I don’t mean something like a double major in Bioengineering and Art History. Instead, I’m asking for the fields that we label “pragmatic”—engineering, the natural sciences, and usually the social sciences—to be “philosophized.”
There was a time when science and philosophy were considered inseparable disciplines. In a 2002 interview with the Harvard Journal of Philosophy, Noam Chomsky notes:
“The status of philosophy as distinct from the sciences or history is artificial. Until the nineteenth century there was no such distinction. You can’t answer the question of whether Hume or Kant were scientists or philosophers—they were both.”
The philosophy Chomsky is talking about focuses its energies on trying to make sense of the world in a way that extended beyond what is merely mechanical. The moral, ethical, and metaphysical questions that Kant, Hume, and others asked — and the answers they tried to give as a corollary — have implications not only for history and literature, but also for the sciences.
The sciences devote themselves to solving real-world issues in a myriad of ways: healthcare, urban planning, cancer research, demography studies, public policy, and so on. But in separating these disciplines from the philosophical implications that surround them, the future doctors, lawyers, scientists, policymakers, teachers, and scholars of our generation lose out on an essential part of their discipline — the part that asks them not to solve an equation or explain the nuts and bolts of something, but rather that pushes them to explore the nature of the work itself.
The pre-med track, for example, should require coursework that builds on the moral, ethical, and historical implications of the discipline. Rice offers several courses that explore some of these implications: Literature and Medicine, for example, or Medicine and Media, two seminars offered through the English department. These courses are beneficial and engaging for aspiring physicians, but they cover a subject range that is too narrow to truly philosophize the discipline. Instead of starting with applied medicine and incorporating the humanities, we might consider doing the reverse: taking classes from the philosophy department (for example, PHIL 100, Problems of Philosophy, or PHIL 101, Contemporary Moral Issues) and incorporating medicine into their curricula. Pre-med versions of PHIL 100 and PHIL 101 would ask and examine moral, ethical, and metaphysical dilemmas about the medical field: Is healthcare a human right? Do animals have rights with respect to animal testing? What role should hospitals play in communities, and how can healthcare organize itself to benefit both the patient and the practitioner? How can I approach my field in a way that helps me grow not only as a medical expert, but also as a person?
There are courses offered at Rice and its peer schools that touch on these subjects. But they are usually specialized, not broad, and exist as suggestions, not requirements. In our rush to professionalize, we’ve lost the art of interdisciplinary science, as well as our ability to think, not chemically or economically, but reflectively and compassionately.
I’m the first to attest to how great it feels to solve a tricky math problem. And I can empathize with the notion that specializing in contemplation sounds a bit lofty. But by striking a balance between the two — emphasizing and exploring the moral, ethical, and metaphysical sides of the practical professions we are studying for — we can emerge not only as experts in our chosen field, but as empathetic people with an ability to think critically and understand the people we are trying to help. In this day and age, the human dimension we acquire from philosophizing our studies can make all the difference.