The Ivory Lab



MOST of the excitement about “higher education” in the last three years has been about the teaching of history, languages, and “great books.” But the most serious and pressing need in colleges today seems to me to be the teaching of science. It may appear paradoxical that I speak of a “need” which everyone believes to be adequately met, but paradox disappears when the point of view changes. From one point of view, science is taught in every American college; from another point of view, it is taught in none, or very few. Looked at in a certain light, science teaching today is the most efficient, up-to-date, and worldly-wise. In another light, it is backward, wasteful, and “escapist.” Let me explain these contrasts.

Sixty or seventy years ago, science was a new academic subject. People mistrusted its power to educate, and many of its proponents seemed as if they could never be educated themselves. The tradition of liberal studies had always included mathematics, because mathematics was supposed to train the mind; but the new physical sciences were first seen as manual arts, messy and expensive, and with no more “discipline” to them than a pair of elastic-sided boots. At the time of the fight for adding science to the curriculum, the defensive position was held by Greek and Latin, which unfortunately adopted a “ scorched earth ”policy. I mean that they allowed themselves to be invaded by the “scientific spirit” and, in trying to compete with it, reduced their field to a wasteland of verbal criticism, grammar, and philology. Literature was relegated to a second place, and studying the classics came to mean research into the uses of utor, fruor, and fungor.

Naturally the classics were exterminated, for science could beat them at their own game. A young man trained in science could on graduation get any of a hundred desirable jobs in industry. A young “scientific” classicist could only hope to teach his own subject to a dwindling number of students. That is what invariably comes of trying to put belles-lettres into utilitarian envelopes. As Dean Briggs of Harvard said when the Bachelor of Science degree was established: “It does not guarantee that the holder knows any science, but it does guarantee that he does not know any Latin.” When the study of classical literature in translation was reintroduced for freshmen at Columbia College a few years ago, the undergraduate department of classics was surprised to find its enrollment in beginning Greek increased 150 per cent: they now had ten students.

But the bitter joke is not on the classics alone. Having stepped into Greek’s vacated place, science now occupies its position, not with respect to size of enrollment, but with respect to educational attitude. It is now in power and it is disdainful, holierthan-thou, and prudish. Someone once asked, “ What is it that our men of science are guarding like a threatened virginity?” “Oh,” was the answer, “they have a Vestal interest in their subject.”

Considered — somewhat unfairly—in the mass, science teachers may be said to contribute the greatest proportion of backward-looking, anti-intellectual, mechanic-minded members to the faculty. Characteristically, single departments of physical science have in certain institutions tried to set up separate schools, where only their one science would be taught for four years and rewarded with some kind of Bachelor’s degree. The intention was to monopolize the student’s time, cram him full of “practical” knowledge, and sell him to the highest bidder the moment he had clutched his diploma and redeemed his ten-dollar deposit for apparatus.

Doubtless there is a demand for such prefabricated industrial robots, and I see no reason why such schools should not function in a manner useful to the commonwealth — off the campus. But departments that once clamored for admission to university stat us and have had it for fifty years are unwilling to give up all the douceurs of the association. They would still like to profit from the university connection, to color their degree with a faint tincture of liberal teaching, — perhaps they would require a year of English and a year of history and economics, — and to boast that their own subject, be it chemistry or geology, is also one of the “humanities.” They want to eat their cake as many times over as a cow does her cud.


A CROWD of evils springs from this ambiguous mood in the present college curriculum. There is an undignified scramble for the student’s time, with broad hints on the part of the scientist that the rest of the program is folderol. Repressed antagonisms divide teachers of the humanities (vague, pointless, unpractical subjects—except economics) from teachers of the real stuff represented by science. Moreover, departments of physics and chemistry require mathematical preparation in strict amount and order of time, with the result that all scheduling revolves around their claims. Since most young Americans discover their vocational bent while undergraduates, the wish to qualify for a profession is a powerful lever to make everyone study science for one or two years under these barbaric conditions. The doctor, the engineer, the research man in any science must gobble up as many courses as he can; and the man uninterested in science must “fulfill the requirement.” Both are often judged on their science record, in the belief that it unmistakably reveals “real brains” or the lack of them.

The worst of all this is that neither group of students learns much about science but goes to swell the ranks of the two great classes of modern men — the single-track expert and the scientific ignoramus. Could anything more plainly demonstrate the failure of science to become a subject fit for college teaching? What makes a subject fit for the higher curriculum is surely no novelty: it is that it shall enlighten all the corners of the mind and teach its own uses. The humble three R’s begin in strict utility and end up in poetry, science, and the search for the Infinite. They can and should therefore be taught indefinitely. Men have known for three thousand years that other matters of knowledge naturally divide themselves into special and general, that both are needful, but that whereas the special add to one’s powers, the general enhance the quality of all of them.

At a recent educational conference, the dean of a Midwestern university complained humorously that he was always being asked to give credits for impossible subjects — subjects that, he said, deserved to be called in-credible. A transfer student, for example, wanted “points” for seven hours of saw filing. Undeniably saw filing is a necessary art, but its merits as a general enhancer of power and personality stop accruing so soon after study is begun that it is not properly a branch of academic learning. The same is true of still more complex matters like shorthand, typewriting, and dress designing. Farther on in the series, it becomes harder to draw the line: stamp collecting is sub-educational, but numismatics is a province of history.

Fortunately there is no doubt whatever about, the place of the sciences: they are humanities and they belong in the college curriculum. Accordingly, they should be introduced into it as humanities, at the earliest possible moment. How? I have some tentative suggestions to make, but first I want to stress the danger of further delay and of the continuance of our present, malpractice.

The worst danger is the creat ion of a large, powerful, and complacent class of college-trained uneducated men at the very heart of our industrial and political system. We may be too near to judge, but it strikes me that one of the conditions that made possible the present folly in Germany was the split among three groups: the technicians, the citizens, and the rabble. This becomes persuasively plain if you consider the professional army caste as a group of unthinking technicians. The rabble together with the technicians can cow the citizenry; the technicians — wedded solely to their workbench — will work for any group that hires; and the rabble, worshiping “science” to the exclusion of less tangible necessaries, is perfectly willing to sacrifice the citizen. They probably think that, if necessary, “science” could manufacture German citizens — out of wolfram.

Such principles will hardly give long life and happiness to a democracy. The only hope for a democratic state is to have more citizens than anything else. Hence technicians must not be allowed to hibernate between experiments, but must become conscious, responsible, polit ically and morally active men. Otherwise they will find not only that representative government has slipped out of their fingers, but that they have also lost their commanding position. They will be paid slaves in the service of some rabble, high or low. Meanwhile our present stock of citizens must not simply gape at the wonders of science, but must understand enough of its principles to criticize and admire the results. As for the rabble, it must be transmuted as fast as it forms, by science and morals both.

All this clearly depends on teaching our easygoing, rather credulous college boys and girls what science is. If they leave college thinking, as they usually do, that science offers a full, accurate, and literal description of man and nature; if they think scientific research by itself yields final answers to social problems; if they think scientists are the only honest, patient, and careful workers in the world; if they think that Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, and Faraday were unimaginative plodders like their own instructors; if they think theories spring from facts and that scientific authority at any time is infallible; if they think that the ability to write down symbols and read monometers is fair ground for superiority and pride; and if they think that science steadily and automatically makes for a better world — then they have wasted their time in the science lecture room; they live in an Ivory Laboratory more isolated than the poet’s tower1 and they are a plain menace to the society they belong to. They are a menace whether they believe all this by virtue of being engaged in scientific work themselves or of being disqualified from it by felt or fancied incapacity.


I RETURN to what might perhaps be done preventively and constructively. To begin with, a change of direction must be imparted to the teaching of science. The fact must be recognized that most students still do not make science their profession.2 Consequently, for future lay citizens the compulsory science requirement in force nearly everywhere must be justified by a course explicitly designed for them. Such a course must not play at making physicists or biologists, but at explaining the principles of the physical sciences in a coherent manner. A “survey” of all the sciences is out of the question. It would be at once superficial and bewildering. But an intelligent introduction to principles can be given. The assumptions that connect and that differentiate the sciences of matter, of living beings, and of logical relation can be taught; the meaning and the grounds of great unifying theories can be explained, and significant demonstrations and experiments can be shown to and made by the students.

Out of such a course there would surely come a changed attitude on the part of teachers and indeed a change in teaching personnel. At present, side by side with wise men and ripe teachers in the sciences, one finds many highly trained and absolutely uneducated practitioners. One also finds fanatics of the order that Dickens described in Professor Dingo, who, being caught defacing houses with his geological hammer, replied that “he knew of no building save the Temple of Science.” Many university scientists openly scorn teaching and use their appointment to boil the pot of individual research. Now a life of research is a wort by one, but no amount of worthy mot ive justifies false pretenses and fraudulent impersonation — in this case the pretense of imparting knowledge and the impersonation of a teacher.

In the classroom, such men usually are neither civil, nor literate, nor even scientific, for their knowledge of science is purely from inside — a limitation equally bad but more misleading than the limitation of knowing it purely from outside. “What do they know of science who only science know?” They teach it as a set of rules, and speak of the profession as a “game.” Drill in manual dexterity they entrust, to laboratory assistants, who are only younger editions of themselves, and for whom a good notebook or speed in performing repetitious experiments is the passport to approval. There is seldom any consideration of the students as thinking minds, of the proper allocation of effort among the many interests legitimate at their time of life, or of the philosophical implications which the words, the history, and the processes of the particular science disclose.

To offset this lamentable state of things, it must be said that two of the professions most concerned with scientific training— engineering and medicine — have lately amended their outlook and made overtures to the humanities. The medical schools have declared that cramming the student with science in college is a poor thing. He had better study other, less “practical,” more formative subjects and postpone advanced chemistry and biology until medical school, where they will be taught him again in a fashion better tailored to his needs. This new policy is excellent, but it is not yet sufficiently enforced. The lesser medical schools — and some others — do not trust their own belief in the principles; they still appeal to “practical" views and judge applicants by A’s in science.

Similarly, the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education has passed splendid resolutions approving what they call the “social-humanistic stem,” by which they mean a few branches of nonengineering study—more accurately, then, the “social-humanistic fagots.” But here again, engineering thought is ahead of the engineer’s emotions. When it comes to the test, student or program is pushed around to suit engineering subject matter.

If you add to this the important fact that many young Americans choose “engineering” in the belief that this means a career of research in pure science, you may form some notion of the present anarchical mess. The would-be engineer of seventeen finds that what he really wants to work at is pure research in electricity — that is, to be a physicist. He must therefore back water, change his course, and take some new prerequisites. Meanwhile his upbringing as a man and citizen goes by the board. He is caught between two grindstones, each indifferent to the effect of its motion, just as if the boy being put through this mill were not a human being, a student of the university, and a future citizen of the nation. (Who is being “practical” now?)

Some would probably still maintain that the professional schools in contact with “the World” know best what is the practical view, and that the college is as ever utopian. But there is one curious fact to be added. It is that the scientific professional schools have a way of relaxing their jaws into a smile whenever the market demand for their product decreases: it is a reflex action. They fall in love with the humanities all over again and raise the amount they require for admission, until outside pressure once again lowers the floodgates and the frown succeeds the smile. This self-regulating action is a feat of engineering in itself—or shall I say of doctoring the supply for public consumption?

The question is not whether this is the easy way to go about marketing young men, but whether it is a responsible, grown-up way of replenishing the professional class of society. Granted that practice is the test of all schemes and ideals, is this the most practical scheme that American ingenuity can devise? I concede that, in the present state of mind of the American public, desire for vocational training takes the lead over anything else. But are the directing members of the university world to follow other people’s untutored impulses or to guide and redirect them? We may well ask when we reflect that the first victims of the system are the children of the unthinking public and the public itself.

For it is the oldest fallacy about schooling to suppose that it can train a man for “practical” life. Inevitably, while the plan of study is being taught, “practical life” has moved on. “They did it this way three months ago; now they do it this way.” No employer who knows anything about men will value a beginner because he knows the ropes of a particular changeable routine. It would be as sensible to require that newcomers know the floor plan of the factory ahead of time.3

The corporations employing the largest numbers of engineers and scientific research men are on this matter ‘way ahead of the colleges. One such firm conducted a survey last year to find out where and how its first-rate executives had been prepared. They came from the most unexpected places — including small liberal arts colleges, the teaching profession, the stage, and the Baptist ministry. It was found that the engineering schools — particularly those sensible ones that make no pretense at intellectual cachet — turned out a good average product but few leaders. The company’s own institutes and night courses raised the chance of foremen and district managers — but only up to a point. The survey concluded that what it wanted as material to shape future executives was graduates of liberal arts colleges, trained in history and economics, in philosophy and in good English, and likewise possessed of an intelligent interest in science and technology. Gentlemen, the path lies open.


MY FRIEND Dean Finch, of the Columbia University School of Engineering, might not agree with all I have just said, but I think he would approve of one element in my suggestions which I casually threw in. I mean the utility of history in the teaching of science. He himself is an historian of technology and offers in Columbia College a valuable course in the subject for the use of “lay” students. What is surprising is that similar courses, accompanied by others in the history of pure science, are not given — indeed required — on every American campus.

The very idea, it must be said, is shrouded in the smoke of battle. When I mention it, some of my scientific colleagues slap me on the back and say, “More power to you.” They may express doubts about persuading their fellows, or finding good instructors, but they want to see it tried. Moreover, they do not feel robbed when in my own teaching of nineteenth-century history I discuss Dalton and Darwin, Liebig and Faraday, Mayer and Clerk Maxwell. Though scientists, these colleagues of mine can see that to complain of general ignorance about the role of science in modern history and to prevent historians from mentioning it is to love monopoly above riches.

Others take the view that science has no history because every new achievement supersedes previous ones. The history of science, they feel, is nothing but biographical chitchat about scientists. Or else they admit that it is useful to find out what the Middle Ages thought of natural science, but only in order to point the lesson of freedom from church authority and fight anew the old battle of science against religion.

This angry confusion about the history of science is dense but not impenetrable. Three things may be distinguished. First there is historical research into the beginnings of science—Greek or Arabic or Medieval. This goes on as advanced study and concerns undergraduates only in the form of broad tested conclusions. Then there is the biography of scientists, which is of immense educational importance — whatever laboratory men may say. Biography does not mean recounting Newton’s imaginary embroilments with women or Lavoisier’s perfectly real ones with public finance. It means finding out from the lives of great scientific creators what they worked at and how their minds functioned. How tiresome it is to hear nothing from our scientific departments but Sunday School homilies on the gameness of Galileo, the patience of Pasteur, and the carefulness of Madame Curie. And how uninstructive! Any man who accomplishes anything in any field is as patient as he has to be, and even little boys know that glass being breakable you have to be careful.

What would be far more significant and novel — though true — would be to teach that Copernicus gambled on insufficient evidence; that Kepler was chiefly a horoscope-caster; that Faraday probably believed more wrong theories than any man alive, and turned them to good use in experiment; that Darwin, on his own admission, made awful blunders and admired the art of wriggling out of them; that T. H. Morgan’s laboratory was rather messy; that Newton could not see how his own astronomy contradicted the Bible; that scientific men have suppressed and persecuted opponents of their theories, and that the best scientific truth can end in a rigid and mistaken orthodoxy— as happened after Newton and Darwin. The point is that science is made by man, in the light of interests, errors, and hopes, just like poetry, philosophy, and human history itself.


TO SAY this is not to degrade science, as naive persons might think; it is on the contrary to enhance its achievements by showing that they sprang not from patience on a monument but from genius t oiling in the mud. I leave unexplained here all that accrues from studying how we came to use atoms or devise absolute zero or to state the law of conservation of energy (including the reasons why “energy” is a better word than the earlier “force”) or what steps led first to the abandonment and then to the later salvaging of Avogadro’s hypothesis. A good scientist-historian would exhibit the assumptions and habits which affected scientific opinion at important turning points. He would unite science to other thought by discussing the nature of its evidence at various periods. And he would show the role of pure imagination in all great scientific work.

I know Bacon promised that science would level all the minds of its devotees to average size, and he is right in so far as drilling can make ordinary men into patient, careful laboratory workers. But science has not yet managed to get along without ideas, and these come only from men of special, powerful, and irreducible aptitudes. The chronological study of these men and ideas is the proper subject matter for an undergraduate course in the history of science.

I know the common objection offered to all this — to an historical and a synoptic account of scientific principles in place of the “regular” science courses: it is that the substitutes would be merely talk about science and not science itself. Grant this for argument’s sake. The objectors miss the point if they do not see that talk about science has a place in the curriculum and that such talk may be good or bad, quite all right or all quite wrong, exactly like talk about art.

If science is one of the humanities, it must be capable of being looked at and thought about apart from direct doing — at least until we require every concert goer to write a symphony before being allowed to take his seat at Carnegie Hall, Besides, the synoptic course I have in view would include laboratory work, and it would rest with the scientists themselves whether the students mastered enough of the operative side of true science to keep them from irresponsible talk about it. If science teachers think that a year’s drudgery in physics as now given prevents silly notions in those who take it in college, they are either unobservant or illogical.

Doubtless it is bad logic they suffer from — the usual weakness of scientists, and of the rest of mankind, who generally want to have things both ways. Take as an example a comment made on the relation of science and history in the excellent study of Lavoisier by J. A. Cochrane. The author complains that “although Lavoisier was at the time of his death and for at least fifteen years before it one of the most eminent men in France, the general historian does not think it worth while to make any mention of him. . . . Science has undoubtedly changed the face of the world, and yet practically the only credit given to it by the historian is the Industrial Revolution . . . and even then the facts are not always accurate.”

This is very sound criticism, but the scientist at once reasserts his monopoly: “No doubt the historian, having no qualifications to discuss the progress of science, feels that he had best leave it severely alone, but he can scarcely claim to trace the evolution of the modern world if he omits one of the most important factors in that evolution.” Which will the author have — treatment with inevitable errors or leaving the sacred objects “severely alone" ? So long as we act like watchdogs over our little plots, it is obvious that we cannot have the comprehensive views that all profess to desire. Somebody has to take the first step — and suffer for his pains.


BUT it would be unfair if I gave the impression that the opposition to teaching the history of science to college students was universal or came only from certain scientists. At one great university near New York there was a thriving enterprise of this sort, popular with students and science departments alike. It was given by a young man, equally gifted in the humanities and in his chosen physical science — a budding uomo universale, whom fellow scientists were willing to aid, guide, and correct — if need be — on the remoter details of their science. After a few years this course built up a tradition, exerted an influence, reached a kind of perfection in the fulfillment of its aim.

With the war, changes came in staff and direction; the instructor left and the opposition rallied to abolish the course. It will scarcely be believed when I say that the prime mover in this putsch was a philosopher. What inspired him, the Absolute only knows. The science course did not teach any philosophy contrary to his own; it only taught the historical fact that great men of science have employed varying philosophical assumptions to gain their ends. It taught, besides, that the several sciences do not look at the world all in the same way and that, so far as science has a unified point of view, it is not exclusive of others — the ways, namely, of art, philosophy, religion, and common sense. Lastly, the course imparted a fair amount of matters of fact and showed how wrong was the man who said: “You don’t have to teach the history of science to make a man understand that water is H2O.” That is precisely what you have to teach, unless you are willing to barter understanding for mere voodoo formulas.

What more could any philosophy department want? Their students were lucky enough to be taught to think. Is there any other use to make of the four years of college? The world being full of a number of things, it takes practice to think easily about the chief ones. Does philosophy pretend to monopolize cogitation because Descartes said, “Don’t doubt I’m thinking!”?

The fact is that philosophy has suffered emotionally, like Greek and Latin, from the triumph of science. Philosophy was a minor partner in the defeat of the classics, and that has left it laboring under the same sense of wrong, the same fancied need to be haughty — and even hoity-toity. In the eighties science said: “We bring you the answers. Philosophy will gradually be pushed out as we extend our certainty.” Many philosophers agreed and looked for their retirement at the first out rush of some naked Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” Other philosophers, courageously holding their ground, fought as critics of science’s faulty logic or extreme arrogance, just as a few classicists kept saying, “Poison gas marks a great step forward but have you taken in the meaning of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War?”

The time has now come for the three-cornered duel on the campus to cease. The classics, philosophy, and science are at once overlapping and complementary disciplines. No need even to adjust boundary differences. The students are well able to take care of seeming conflicts, and in truth profit from them, since opposition reinforces attention by heightening the drama of human thought. Science must be taught, and historically, too, or the people will perish.

(To be continued)

  1. To judge by results, it would seem that the poet climbs to the top of his tower to look out at the world and write about it. Why cavil at the building material: at once durable and attractive and requiring no upkeep?
  2. Statistics for the Middle West, based on large freshman enrollments, show that 50 per cent of those taking Chemistry 1, 60 per cent of those taking Geology 1,73 per cent of those taking Physics 1, 75 per cent of those taking Biology 1, and 82 per cent of those taking Botany 1 never go further into the science.
  3. The engineering educators say: “From its very nature, engineering education operates under changing conditions which constantly challenge its processes and test its results ... so as to adapt itself to changing needs.” This is fine and good, but it holds true of every other professional subject and most academic ones. The old belief that only a few schools are in touch with the “real world” is untrue, even if the newer belief should prove true that it is best for the world to have the school conform to every change outside.