23 May 2012

Thought of the day: Direct Studies for scientists?

I have heard a lot of good things about the Directed Studies program at Yale. It's an elective program for freshmen undergraduates. For their first two semester, the students take three classes covering "literature, philosophy, and historical and political thought."

My impression is that it's a survey of the foundations of Western culture. It helps people understand where many Western ideas came from, for example, democracy -- an idea we take for granted. The professors encourage a lot of discussion and deep thinking. Directed Studies teaches young people how to think. In the Boston Globe, one of the Directed Studies professors argues why the program and those like it are important:
The first is that there is more than one good answer to the question of what living is for. A second is that the number of such answers is limited, making it possible to study them in an organized way. A third is that the answers are irreconcilably different, necessitating a choice among them. A fourth is that the best way to explore these answers is to study the great works of philosophy, literature, and art in which they are presented with lasting beauty and strength. And a fifth is that their study should introduce students to the great conversation in which these works are engaged - Augustine warily admiring Plato, Hobbes reworking Aristotle, Paine condemning Burke, Eliot recalling Dante, recalling Virgil, recalling Homer - and help students find their own authentic voice as participants in the conversation.
Would it be possible to make an equivalent for science? How would you cover the history of science? What would be the book list? I'm guessing that constructing a science version of Directed Studies would be pretty difficult. Scientific ideas, especially from physics and math, are very abstract and difficult to grasp. If you don't have a good base of math, physics, chemistry, and biology, it'd be hard to have discussions. Moreover, the way that these subjects are taught in K-12 doesn't help. Students are taught to memorize and apply recipes. I don't think freshmen would have enough background. The only book I can think of that would work is Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

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