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.


  • Yale 10

    I got more out of actual science courses to fill my requirement than I did when I took one gut science course, which turned out to be a mistake. Many Yalies have had a balance of both science and humanities, and taking an intro biology class is not the equivalent of studying the Iliad in Greek.

  • Yale '09

    He's not saying that intro bio = Iliad in Greek. It's more like intro bio = intro to Greek lit, while taking a bio class that reads all primary papers would be like studying the Iliad in Greek. Either way, you get a broad overview of the subject, then you can take more in-depth classes later if you are really interested.

    I agree with your first point though: many "real" science classes turn out to be better for fulfilling the Sc requirement than "classes for non-science majors." Students also shouldn't be afraid to look a little further beyond the basic sciences, e.g. some classes in psychology and anthropology can also be counted toward the science requirement.

  • English major

    I thought Dara's article was well-put, and I think this article is well-put, too.

    From what I hear, Professor Bailyn has a pretty solid reputation for making his material available to and interesting for us humanities people.

    Ironically, it may be for this reason that he remains unaware of the general degeneration that characterizes the majority of other non-specialist science courses.

  • Alum

    Although I was not a science major, one of the courses I enjoyed most at Yale was Cell Biology, which was a semi-grad level course and extremely challenging. It had a lot to do with the teaching and the way the material was presented (great textbook), but also the other students: my classmates were motivated to learn and excited about the material. A class of 100 people who aren't particularly interested in a subject doesn't sound like a great idea, which means that a new approach is probably warranted. If science concepts are so universal how about combining them more often with humanities offerings? My history of art class, for example, could have benefited from discussions of preservation issues affected by chemical compositions. A poetry class I took could have had an awesome two day session on linguistics research as related to poetry and mirror neurons.

  • Anonymous

    well put, Prof. Bailyn!

  • yale06

    i took local flora a few years ago and learned a lot more and actually retained much of what i learned for a lot longer than i did from many classes, including a "real" computer science class i took

  • 8Y5 Mathematics

    As a Yale mathematics major from a long time ago, I must say I find the notion of survey courses disquieting. I think that the analogy to the Iliad misdirected. What one learns in science is not necessary a volume, rather it is a mode of thinking, just as what one learns and retains as an English major is not ultimately a mass of material, but more centrally a mode of thinking of reading and analyzing literature (think for example of the technique of close reading.) The success of survey courses, for example, Scully's rightly famous HYA survey is not that you get exposed to a mass of material (that class for example lacks any treatment of Modernism, Art since 1945, etc.) but what it does is it gives the engaged student access to the ,ode of analytic thinking that provides one the tools to look at that which is beyond the syllabus. Thus, material driven science survey courses may ell not give a flavor of how scientists think in the way those Intro science courses may. Intro science courses are rich sociological constructs because there has to be a large amount of simplification, totalization in fact of the material because beginning science student don't have the tools (P-Chem, Physics, and Mathematics) to really understand what's being taught. They offer a fascinating window, therefore into what scientists think is important to have an idea of, and what can be handwaved or simplified yet still provide a valuable introduction to future scientists. This says much very very deep about both what and how scientists think. Moreover, there is an aspect of playing music to all science -- one could listen to all he music one wants, but playing and practicing gives one a very different perspective. Scientists, of course, participate, "play" in science. The detail work of Intro courses is like beginning to play, the problem sets and tests and often tedious material is part of the shared experience of the scientist. Of course there is much more. My mathematics experience tells me that, unfortunately, there is a whole lot of beauty one could never transmit to lay people, even those intelligent and well-educated and open minded because that beauty is only bought, in part, by hours, days, weeks, semesters, and years of work in the field. And some Intro courses, again Mathematics is a good example with such classes as calculus teach nothing of what mathematicians do -- the analogy here would be learning the alphabet to studying literature. But a well designed course think Math 450, or whatever Intro to Mathematical Logic is called now gives a great feeling for what mathematicians do. What I'm trying to say in this roundabout fashion is that it's not the bulk of the content, but that there should be exposure to how scientists think -- this requires a level of engagement of commitment that may be more palpable in an "real" Intro course (where one sits shoulder to shoulder with actual science majors) than a survey tailored for no-majors (where the scientists are on display in front of you rather than sharing your experience).

  • Anonymous

    #7, you've got it exactly right.

  • Jason Green-Lowe (TC '06)

    #7, I think you've got it almost right, but not exactly right. Yes, to a certain extent, Yalies need to *do* science if they're going to reap the benefits of a scientific education. Virtually all Yalies should be putting in time in a laboratory and crunching some numbers.

    But, in my opinion, you seriously overstate the case for years of committment to technical study. To intellectually appreciate what it means to be a scientist, all one has to do is learn about science's key techniques and findings and then practice applying those techniques in a halfway plausible experimental setting. The kind of practice that Yale can realistically offer its non-science majors may not convey *all* of the psychic rewards of a lifetime spent in the lab, but, then, that's not the goal of basic science education.

    The goal is to open people's minds to an important mode of thinking, to impress them with respect for a noble endeavor, and to orient them within an otherwise incomprehensible set of policy debates. In my opinion, that goal can be readily achieved by anyone who honors it, using the resources and requirements that Yale currently provides.