Science Texts in the Classroom: The Human Odyssey Science-Humanities Sequence at Auburn University

by

Carol F. Daron
Assistant Provost for Undergraduate Studies
Auburn University

One of the ways of satisfying the history requirement in Auburn University's core curriculum is a three-quarter interdisciplinary science-humanities sequence now called the Human Odyssey. This chronologically organized series of courses is designed to prompt students to think about the human condition through examining shifts in perception caused by discovery or invention. It is fundamentally a series of courses about how human beings have learned, how reliable the methods of learning have proven to be, and how we have used the knowledge so acquired.

The Human Odyssey, like the classic epic for which it is named, is an analogy suggesting that we can look at the human condition as though we are people on a ship sailing in search of a home. The ship implies some kind of control: we can steer, we can usefthe natural forces of wind and current, we can attempt to learn the shapes of shores and the depths of different places in the sea, we can pray for guidance. Much of this control depends on knowledge, but we are still subject to stronger forces: storms, waves, lack of wind, our own weakness, the possibilities of being tempted or distracted away from our goals, fighting among ourselves. And certainly, the biggest unknown is where we're going. In modern terms, we're like the airplane passengers in the joke who were told by the captain, "The bad news is that we're lost, but the good news is that we're making excellent time."

The Human Odyssey courses focus on the various means by which humanity has attempted to gain control over our lives, individually and collectively. We ask students not only to become familiar with these various attempts in our history but also to evaluate them. Inevitably, that means learning history on the way to learning something else, and we always stress Jacob Bronowski's philosophy: "It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known but to question it." We insist on questions from the students, hoping to get something like "By what criteria can we as students judge the events of human history?" The teachers are exhorted to make it clear that "practical success" and "being more like us" may not be acceptable criteria, and in the summer workshops our faculty strive to devise ways to prevent the courses from presenting scientific discoveries or historical events as, in Lynn White, Jr.'s words, "an uninterrupted record of triumph."

We do, however, acknowledge that our culture has already judged one of these attempts -- the acquisition of knowledge -- as central. Certainly the culture of a university values knowledge, and we want our students to realize that they cannot achieve various highly touted skills in a vacuum of ignorance. Thinking--critical and plain--requires a furnished mind. So when we look at human history as the acquisition of greater knowledge, we are indeed pressing for a particular value, but the courses inevitably show that as knowledge increases, so does the awareness of ignorance. It is no accident that those who have read more than one book are less certain that they alone have been blessed with the single, correct answer.

History and Description

The Human Odyssey courses at Auburn have been evolving for 18 years. The series began in 1978, after visits by Jacob Bronowski and C. P. Snow, as an attempt to bridge the celebrated gap between the two cultures. At that time it was based on Bronowski's Ascent of Man television series and book and was called the Ascent of Man program. From the beginning the aim was to examine the fundamental connections between science and humanities in order to encourage students to think critically. The series has always undergone quarterly revision, but in 1991, with help from a grant from the National Endowment for the Hununities, there was substantial revision and a change in name. That fall year the courses became one of three options satisfying the history requirement in the new core curriculum.

Each section is taught by two professors, one from the humanities and one from the sciences, who are in the classroom at the same time to engage the students
-- and each other -- in discussion. These partnerships provide students with the experience of watching a dialogue, sometimes even disagreement, between the two cultures. The courses are set up so that all students enrolled (usually about 150) in the five classes assemble on Monday afternoon to see a film or to hear a lecture. Then, twice more during the week, individual classes of about 30 students meet with their two professors to discuss the film or lecture and the assigned auxiliary reading. The films we show include those made by Bronowski, James Burke, Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, Richard Leakey, and Robert Hughes. In addition, we receive support from the Franklin Foundation, a local endowrnent which funds some of our outside speakers; these have included Stephen Jay Gould, E. O. Wilson, and Richard Dawkins. Also, many current and former Human Odyssey faculty have spoken to our students during the Monday afternoon hour. Reading assignments are varied, from original texts in the humanities to recent (though not usually highly technical) scientific articles.

There are weekly faculty meetings, wherein the coming week's material is discussed and debated, and there is a summer workshop for new faculty, who are borrowed from their home departments to teach in the program for a year or two. Here faculty members become students again and teach each other, with scientists learing the basics of philosophy and English professors learning something of quantum physics.

Content

As we have said, the aim of the courses is to encourage students to think critically and responsibly about the acquisition and uses of knowledge. Although there is heavy emphasis on both science and chronology, we are more concerned with an evaluation of the effects of discovery on the underlying assumptions of Western culture. For example, in our study of the origins of agriculture, we assign an article which argues that the shift to agriculture was not necessarily the cause for celebration it is often said to be, that it produced such societal evils as sexual inequality, warfare, a reduction in the variety of food, and serious environmental damage -- problems that plague us still. We assign this article partly to jar the students into examining their own assumptions, partly to stimulate them to examine the arguments put forth in the article, and partly to prod them into considering that no "progress" comes without some price.

The courses move chronologically: in the fall we treat ancient narratives in myth and religious writings, the origins of humanity as revealed through paleoanthropology, the invention of agriculture and government, the emergence of reason through the discovery of mathematics and the development of Greek philosophy, and the synthesis of reason and faith in medieval Christianity and Islam. In the winter we examine the invention of perspective in painting and explore the various changes in perception made possible or necessary by the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the Industrial Revolution. In the spring, we concentrate on the scientific discoveries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries--the atomic theory, Freudian psychology, quantum mechanics, biological evolution, genetics, and biotechnology. We also look at the ways in which these scientific discoveries have been used and misused; and we consider the potential ethical dilemmas in the use of new knowledge and technology. We do not avoid controversial topics, but we try to ensure that when they are discussed, they help us achieve our real aim, which is to uncover underlying assumptions in our culture that prevent clear thinking. We remind students often to consider the question "How do we know what we know?" and in the classroom we constantly emphasize questions, not answers. In the process, students acquire a working definition of science as a way of knowing and come to understand both its tentativeness and the reasons for its astounding success. We have seen that these efforts encourage students to grow intellectually so that many of them emerge from the courses with the confidence not to demand absolutely certainty.

Texts

The first version of the sequence used Bronowski's Ascent of Man text as well as his films. For a number of years assignments were from Bronowski supplemented with readings from a variety of sources on reserve in the library. Suggested assignments are discussed in the weekly meetings of faculty; new readings come from the energetic reading habits of current and former faculty, who send the Director copies of articles and references to books. (A Human Odyssey director gets the weirdest mail in the University.) Most of these copies end up in the summer workshop folders for new faculty, and if they are suitable for students, they are incorporated into the reading assignments. We tell whether or not articles are suitable for our freshmen by asking faculty members not in the field to read the article for accessibility. We no longer use the Bronowski text, though we show two or three of the films. Instead, we assemble and have our printing services secure copyright permission and produce a compilation of articles and book chapters.

Although there continues to be some interest in writing a text for the course, one of the advantages of not having one is that students are introduced to several of today's excellent science and general interest magazines, including Natural History , Smithsonian , Atlantic Monthly , The Sciences , and Science News . Another is that without an official textbook, it is easier to insist that our students read with care. We tell them that not all of the readings we assign are necessarily "true," and that we expect them to notice logical flaws and factual error. For some, this is the first time they have ever had a course in which it was possible to question the text. At first it is frightening, but for most students it eventually becomes liberating.

Several of the assignments have remained pivotal for years, and although it is not altogether clear to me that any of our assignments are legitimately "science" texts, I can say that they have enlightened our students about what science is. One of these is a late fall-quarter reading. It is assigned during the unit devoted to medieval philosophy, and it looks at the attitude of the medieval Christian church toward the acquisition of knowledge. It was written by Lynn White, Jr., and published in April of 1947 in the American Historical Review .

The thesis of 'Natural Science and Naturalistic Art in the Middle Ages" is that a change during the thirteenth century in artistic representation of natural objects such as leaves, especially in the West, reflects a new way of seeing natural objects and represents a fundamental attitude toward nature that encouraged modern empirical science. We know from other sources that modern science had its beginning early in the twelfth century. White notes that artistic representation of physical objects also underwent a change beginning about the year 1140: "The transition from Romanesque to Gothic charts the passage from an age indifferent to the investigation of nature to one deeply concerned with it." (P. 267) Most of us learned in history that medieval Christianity treated earthly life as "a vale of tears" and discouraged an interest in the physical except as symbolic of the spiritual. To the medieval mind, the important thing about every physical object and event was its representation of some spiritual or Platonic meaning; the world existed only as symbol. The point of learning was to understand the underlying spiritual Idea of Bird or Flower, but no one at that time would have considered protracted observation of individual birds or flowers. The change occurring around the middle of the twelfth century is best observed in decorative art. The abstract, generalized foliage of earlier years gradually became more realistic. The Platonic Leaf became an identifiable eglantine. By 1230, sculptors were clearly shaping their leaves from real life. White's point is that this new interest in the physical also became a part of the Christian church's new insistence on the physical. As he explains:

Indeed, at the end of the twelfth century Catholic piety suddenly concentrated itself upon an effort to bring God down to earth and to see and touch him. It was as though Europe has become populated with doubting Thomases eager to thrust their fingers into the very wounds of Christ. To an extraordinary degree the new eucharistic cult was empirical in temper, permitting the constant seeing and handling of God. The elevation of the consecrated host first appeared at Paris between 1196 and 1208; . . . the dogma of transubstantiation was defined in 1215. (P. 272)

Clearly, the value to Western science was an insistence on the value of the physical in ironic contrast to the Christian church's earlier insistence on symbol; Lynn White's article points out this contrast and adds the notion of empiricism to our students' budding definition of science. At this early stage, science as a way of knowing begins with observation, and it has connections with art which we develop later on in Jacob Bronowski's essays on science and art and the creativity common to them both. It also has connections to religion, which we develop in our discussions of Islam and Christianity during the fall quarter.

Lynn White's article hints to students that the methods of reason invented by the Greeks are inadequate without firm observation grounded in the physical. By the middle of the winter quarter, we have seen that observation alone is also inadequate. During the winter quarter, when we take up the Scientific Revolution, one of the readings is from Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers . The chapter's first sentence is telling: "Nothing could be more obvious than that the earth is stable and unmoving, and that we are the center of the universe." ( p. 294) Observation and reasonable common sense are necessary but not sufficient bases for modern science.

And yet again, a fundamental similarity between art and science returns us to the theme of perception: the rediscovery of perspective in art during the fifteenth century allowed painters to capture what they saw rather than what they knew to be there. Human Odyssey courses stress the irony here: the realism in a painting depends on representing what is seen from a particular point of view, and that means distorting actual known angles and dimensions. As Bronowski points out, the techniques of perspective allows painters to represent "not so much a place as a moment" (Ascent of Man , p. 180) A shift in point of view changes what can be seen and can lead as well to a change in understanding. When Copernicus stood in his imagination on the surface of the sun, he changed the real world for us all.

The Human Odyssey is very much about perception and the way it both makes knowledge possible and colors that knowledge. Lynn White's article is one of many provocative reading assignments which help our students achieve a personal understanding of what science is and how it has come to such prominence in our own lives.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.