Opening New Doors in Science Education

Article excerpt

Science teaching must be rethought from primary school to post-graduate level

In the twenty-first century, humanity will have an opportunity to achieve an ambition that has moral as well as technical implications: it will be able to attain an all-encompassing view of planet earth. Modern communication technology, modern means of transport and satellite-based observation are already bringing the various parts of the world closer together, and there are good grounds for believing that, as a result, there will be far fewer remaining pockets of political and cultural isolation.

The planet-wide view thus made possible by scientific and technological progress nonetheless raises a problem of principle, indeed almost a philosophical problem: unless a very lofty purpose is assigned to science, unless the science we produce is more than merely utilitarian, there will be no means of surmounting a major cultural conflict that we have seen developing at the end of this century, one that is in fact much more serious than is generally realized.

Decompartmentalizing science

The benefits of science and technology no longer seem so obvious as they did in the last century. Before the major conflicts of our own times, science was expected to solve most of humankind's individual and general problems. War has demonstrated that science has not succeeded in changing mentalities and that barbarism still lurks beneath the surface of civilization. Current debates over environmental issues and bioethics also reflect a certain "culture gap" between science and society. The ecological movement has not only put science in an awkward position, it has put it on trial. In order to overcome the disenchantment now felt towards it, science needs to be set within a far wider cultural context.

One of the main dangers threatening science teaching comes from overspecialization. Although specialization is undoubtedly a necessary condition for the improved training of engineers and technicians, overspecialization is in danger of alienating science from the general public because it makes communication more difficult and raises a serious problem of social "acceptability". It is already becoming evident, for instance, that research in biology is likely to be held back more by ethical and cultural considerations than by economic ones.

Overspecialization may also lead to a lack of "culture". Scientists must learn to respect and practise other forms of language and communication, while conversely, it would be extremely dangerous to reject science on the pretext of getting back to humanitarian values. Science is part and parcel of culture, and the practice of science should lead naturally on to the idea of international solidarity and tolerance.

Science teaching is at present in a rut and needs to be re-examined. This applies particularly to textbooks. Physics is taught from books on physics, and biology from works on biology, whereas science teaching should be much more cross-disciplinary. Why not refer to the underlying problems of physics when teaching molecular biology or, when teaching biology, to the ethical questions that are soon sure to come up?

The problem needs to be tackled both in general and in specific terms. Due regard must be shown both for the different cultures of different countries and for the universality of science. This is the only way to avoid fragmentation of knowledge, which is harmful in every way. Science education will also have to be integrated with other forms of education - literary, artistic, political or even economic - in order that the citizens of the twenty-first century may see science primarily as an ally in achieving what they want done for the good of their country or of civilization as a whole.

More open, more diverse higher education

After going through a period of crisis, in Europe especially, universities can now aspire to provide both a general culture and a practical training for various occupations. …