Friday, 20 July 2007

Science as a general education

*Since writing this piece my understanding has changed and I now believe it contains fundamental flaws. Anyone who would like further clarification is welcome to e-mail me at hklaxnessat-*

Science as a general education: Conceptual science should constitute the compulsory core of multi-disciplinary undergraduate degrees

Bruce G. Charlton

Medical Hypotheses 2006; 66: 451-453


It is plausible to assume that in the future science will form the compulsory core element both of school curricula and multi-disciplinary undergraduate degrees. But for this to happen entails a shift in the emphasis and methods of science teaching, away from the traditional concern with educating specialists and professionals. Traditional science teaching was essentially vocational, designed to provide precise and comprehensive scientific knowledge for practical application. By contrast, future science teaching will be a general education, hence primarily conceptual. Its aim should be to provide an education in flexible rationality. Vocational science teaching was focused on a single-discipline undergraduate degree, but a general education in abstract systematic thinking is best inculcated by studying several scientific disciplines. In this sense, ‘science’ is understood as mathematics and the natural sciences, but also the abstract and systematic aspects of disciplines such as economics, linguistics, music theory, history, sociology, political science and management science. Such a wide variety of science options in a multi-disciplinary degree will increase the possibility of student motivation and aptitude. Specialist vocational science education will progressively be shifted to post-graduate level, in Masters and Doctoral programs. A multi-disciplinary and conceptually-based science core curriculum should provide an appropriate preparation for dealing with the demands of modern societies; their complex and rapidly changing social systems; and the need for individual social and professional mobility. Training in rational conceptual thinking also has potential benefits to human health and happiness, since it allows people to over-ride inappropriate instincts, integrate conflicting desires and pursue long-term goals.


Higher education at universities and colleges is expanding in all developed countries to include an ever-higher proportion of the general population, currently around 50% in many countries. Along with this, the first undergraduate degree is increasingly functioning as a multi-disciplinary general education with vocational specialization proceeding only after graduation [1].

At present, the UK is in the midst of a science education ‘crisis’, in which inadequate numbers of students study science at school or university, and consequently there is a shortage of science teachers in schools, which then creates a vicious cycle. But these problems are probably transitional. Because of the individual and social benefits, I think it likely that the future school curriculum and the undergraduate degree will probably include a significant proportion of compulsory science, so that ‘everyone’ will study a reasonable amount of science up into their early twenties.

The decline of single discipline science degrees is merely part of the delay in vocational specialization characteristic of modernizing societies [1]. All around the world, first degrees are progressively evolving towards US-style modular multi-disciplinarity. Multi-disciplinary study implicitly aims to develop flexibility of cognitive styles, and to prepare the student for a wide range of potential later specializations either in the workplace or at post-graduate level. Students with an appropriate multi-disciplinary undergraduate education are able to achieve rapid subsequent vocational specialization [1].

But the most useful content of multi-disciplinary degree remains controversial. At present, many students graduate from college without studying any scientific (i.e. systematic or quantitative) subjects. My contention is that the sciences, which are by definition the most systematic forms of abstract human knowledge, will progressively become the compulsory core of multi-disciplinary degrees for a greater proportion of students, and the proportion of science in the curriculum will also tend to increase. Multi-disciplinary science will eventually be the major component of general education at secondary school and college.

The precise proportion of science as the compulsory element in future undergraduate degrees will vary. But, all else being equal, the larger the curriculum percentage of science, the higher will be the status of the educational qualification.

Science as a general education

This trend toward an ever-more scientific educational system is part of a very long term movement going back to the medieval logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142), who successfully applied rigorous logic to theology – but the trend has accelerated in recent decades.

Modern universities have been increasingly concerned with ‘science’ and decreasingly concerned with ‘culture’. Indeed the current brand leading international university research ‘league table’ – from the Shanghai Jiao Tong University – ranks universities almost exclusively on the basis of their scientific performance. It seems probable that ‘socialization’ functions will increasingly be accomplished outside of the formal education system, especially via the family and the mass media. Both schools and universities will tend to specialize in more abstract and systematic studies. Science will become the basis of general education.

This represents a change of emphasis. Traditionally, science was vocational, with early specialization. Science was mainly either taught to aspiring professional scientists and science teachers, or else as an essential knowledge base for professions such as medicine or engineering. In other words, science provided a basis for future specific and practical application. This meant that science teaching needed to concentrate on comprehensive coverage and factual precision – even when this made the curriculum less systematic and coherent. The consequent emphasis on facts and memorization made science teaching relatively un-enjoyable, but high academic selectivity and the vocational drive of students compensated for these deficiencies.

Teaching science conceptually in a mass educational system is different. Since the great majority of students will never professionally practice the specific sciences they study (and those who do practice them will first experience extra specific disciplinary education at a post-graduate level) the educational imperative is that sciences which serve as the subject-matter for general education should have the formal conceptual characteristics of abstraction and system. Future science will be taught conceptually, not practically. This frees the curriculum from vocational constraints of comprehensive coverage and factual precision.

Of course there will continue to be a considerable need for professional scientists and specialist scientific knowledge. In a system based on multi-disciplinary undergraduate degrees, specialist vocational science will progressively move to the post-graduate level [1]. This may entail that educational systems re-organize along US lines. For instance, a future school science teacher might top-up their compulsory undergraduate science education with a Masters degree in their chosen subject, before proceeding to teacher training. Intended doctors and engineers would (as ever) have the necessary scientific knowledge included in their professional qualifications (which would be at post-graduate level). And future specialist scientists would proceed from the multi-disciplinary undergraduate degree to Masters and Doctoral degrees including an advanced taught curriculum.

It will be difficult to make science understandable to the broad group of future science students, whose motivation and ability are lower than the vocational science students of the past. However, a conceptual focus allows scientific material to be selected and simplified, and presented in a more systematic – hence comprehensible and memorable-way. Furthermore, a wide variety of choice between many science options in a multi-disciplinary degree will increase the possibility of student motivation and aptitude. More system and more choice should both tend to increase the potential for science to be taught more widely than ever before.

The key is for science to be simplified without being diluted. In other words, science needs to be made easier when teaching those of lower ability and motivation, but it should not be any less ‘scientific’.

How mass conceptual science teaching might be achieved is demonstrated by the recent expansion in popular science books. The popularity of such titles indicates a broad public appetite for science. Writers such as Richard Dawkins and Matt Ridley have precisely the conceptual emphasis required for science as a general education. The same applies to Bill Bryson’s recent ‘A short history of nearly everything’ which (in its best parts) extended conceptual science writing to an even wider audience and across the whole of science.

The benefits of science

Although conceptual multi-disciplinarity brings considerable advantages, the difficulties of ‘science for all’ should not be underestimated. The transition to mass compulsory science as a general education constitutes the major educational challenge of the future. However, there are great potential rewards for those societies which can solve the problems of mass education in science.

There has been a marked decline in the cultural, artistic and moral aspects of university education, such as the ‘osmotic’ absorption of characteristic ‘ruling class’ style, manners, accent, and behaviour which occurred in a residential college environment [2]. Such factors used-to dominate elite minority educational systems, which were often anti-academic (and certainly anti-science) in their ethos. But most modern universities are much larger and less selective, more diverse and more utilitarian than traditional colleges; and they lack the intense and immersive environment required for cultural transformation.

Nonetheless, modern mass universities continue to offer large benefits to their graduates – for instance in terms of employability, salary, health, mobility and happiness [2]. These benefits are seen especially with mathematics, but the probable implication is that similarly systematic and abstract disciplines would offer similar advantages. Indeed, surveying a wide range of data on educational outcomes, there seems a strong suggestion that it is the element of abstract systematic study which forms the essential core benefit of ‘mass’ formal education in modernizing societies [1]. So, Abelard was indeed the first ‘modern’ Professor, which (partially) explains the hostility he encountered.

There is considerable potential value to be derived from increasing the proportion of the population who have experienced a scientific education. A multi-disciplinary science curriculum provides the most appropriate preparation for dealing with the demands of modern societies. These demands include the need to cope with the increasingly abstract, quantitative and systematic nature of society; the increasing complexity and rapidly changing nature of social systems such as the economy, the legal system, education and health care; and the need for individual flexibility imposed by social and professional mobility [1] and [2].

Our whole societal conception of culture and morality entails that individuals be capable of ‘rational cognition’, which is not a spontaneous human attribute but mainly a consequence of formal education [2]. Lacking a trained capacity for rationality, individuals are influenced mainly by emotionally-compelling motivations and evaluations deriving from instincts which evolved to optimize reproduction in an ancestral nomadic tribal environment [3]. For modern individuals effectively to pursue their long-term interests, to integrate their numerous social goals, and to participate in the artificial environment of contemporary society requires advanced formal education – especially in abstract systematic disciplines.

Promoting a universal general education based-around conceptual science therefore offers scope for broad cultural and personal benefits [2]. Those who are fortunate enough already to have a science education, and to have experienced its worth, may find this a worthwhile social goal.


[1] Charlton BG, Andras P. The educational function and implications for teaching of multi-disciplinary modular (MDM) undergraduate degrees. OxCHEPS Occasional Paper No. 12.; 2003 [accessed 2.12.2005].

[2] B.G. Charlton and P. Andras, Universities and social progress in modernizing societies: how educational expansion has replaced socialism as an instrument of political reform, Crit Quart 47 (2005), pp. 30–39. Full Text via CrossRef

[3] E.S. Keith, The robot’s rebellion: finding meaning in the age of Darwin, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (2004).