Bailyn: In defense of the science requirement

This September marks my 42nd shopping period at Yale, and I’m beginning to see some patterns. There’s the ambitious freshman who wants to take seven-and-a-half credits; there’s the mad dash to find 10 more TFs for a modest lecture course that suddenly has 300 students; and of course, that hardy perennial, complaints about the science requirement.

Dara Lind’s recent contribution to the latter genre (in “Self-defeating academia,” 9/8) takes the form of a meditation on what “Yale” intends the science requirement to accomplish, and the ways these intentions are thwarted by the existence of “science guts.” As the chair of the working group that concocted the current Sc and QR requirements, and as DUS of a department whose undergraduate enrollment depends almost entirely on those “guts” (one of which I teach myself), perhaps I can respond on Yale’s behalf.

There seems to be a general assumption, shared by students and faculty alike, that if non-scientists could somehow take the same introductory courses as the science majors and pre-meds, all would be well. With just a few changes in grading policy and attitude, everyone could take “real” science courses, just as future world-renowned medievalists and freshman engineering majors apparently happily co-exist in introductory humanities courses.

But that’s the wrong analogy. Science is cumulative, and a large part of the goal of the standard intro courses is to enable majors to successfully take upper level courses. A better analogy is to intro language courses, which aim to help students acquire a skill that can be put to use in other contexts.

But a student interested in Homer should not be required to study ancient Greek for six semesters before encountering the Iliad. Clearly someone who can read the original text will appreciate nuances unavailable to the rest of us. But just as the Yale curriculum has a place for literature in translation, surely there is also a place for what might be called “science in translation,” in which key scientific results and procedures can be presented without requiring extensive technical preparation.

Another way to put this is that intro science courses for majors are designed to be the FIRST course a student takes in the subject, whereas courses for non-scientists are likely to be the LAST course a student takes in that subject, so the content is necessarily different. It’s OK if physics majors don’t encounter quantum mechanics or relativity (the two pillars of modern theoretical physics) until after they take four other preparatory courses, but it’s not ideal for a student who is going to take only a single physics course to never even hear that these topics exist.

Nevertheless, Lind has a point. There is a problem with “science in translation,” namely the occasionally weak motivation of students and faculty alike (although including 100 Cr/D/Fail students in Physics 200 might be even more off-putting). In fact, at Yale both faculty and students make much more of an effort than is common at other colleges. But it seems hard to shake the persistent attitude that these courses are somehow not “real science.”

But they are. What is “real science”? It’s not a set of vocabulary words or mathematical algorithms. It’s a way of exploring the world around us that has yielded results of great philosphical profundity and remarkable practical applications. In what way is a course on environmental studies or cosmology that brings in a wide range of scientific ideas but skips over some technical details less “real” than a series of exercises in Newtonian mechanics? The wider-ranging courses are certainly harder to teach, but I think at least some of my colleagues would agree that they might be our most important classes, given the frightening rate at which Yale produces leaders in business, politics and culture (generally not from the science majors, alas). The material can also be hard for non-scientists to learn, given that it exercises somewhat different mental muscles than other disciplines — but that, after all, is the whole point of the distributional requirements.

So let’s hear no more about whether courses designed specifically for non-majors are “real” science or not. These courses may not be right for everyone (and other kinds of courses that satisfy the requirements are also available) but they are certainly science courses. And when students and faculty treat them with the seriousness they deserve, they may be the best way to serve the high purpose for which the distribution requirements were devised.