Liberal Education

What Fires Should Educators Light?

As I was pondering what I wanted to say in my President's Message for this issue of Liberal Education, a colleague sent me a wonderfully compelling essay by Diane White Husic that communicates beautifully—and from the perspective of a teaching faculty member—what we at AAC&U see as a primary purpose both of the Liberal Education and America's Promise initiative and of liberal education at its best. With Professor Husic's consent, I am sharing with you some of her words about helping students engage big questions, together with my own strong enthusiasm for helping students connect their learning with larger societal challenges and needed change. Because Professor Husic's essay is long, we have abridged it to fit this space; you can find the longer version online at http://anewprosperity.blogspot.com/2014/03/what-fires-should-educators-light.html.—CAROL GEARY SCHNEIDER

William Butler Yeats famously said that "education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." Good educators really "get" the first half of this quote. Rote memorization of facts does little to inspire students. We doubt that it does much for learning either, preferring to focus instead on developing critical thinking skills and tools for lifelong independent learning. But while few would question the value of a focus on critical thinking, we do debate our role as educators in lighting fires.

Throughout my teaching career, I have been a proponent of providing opportunities for students to engage in undergraduate research—intense experiences in which students are co-creators of knowledge, rather than simply vessels to be filled with facts and ideas that others have already published. It was the transformative opportunity of doing independent research that lit my own fire as a first-generation student, so much so that I went on to graduate school to pursue a research-focused career.

As both an undergraduate and graduate student in science, I was trained to believe that the process of doing science is an objective one. But this never totally made sense to me. What makes science so exciting and so important is that it provides us with the ability to solve complex problems or to create technology that can be used to improve the quality of life. However, as we learn those secrets of nature and transform them into tools to manipulate elements of our natural world, including humans, we are faced with tremendous ethical dilemmas and a realization that the information we learn can be exploited and used in ways never intended. Knowledge comes with power, something that is rarely objective.

So, as science educators, do we stick to the facts and theories and "the" scientific method (as if it is a single linear process)? Do we continue to perpetuate the myth that science is not subjective at times or could never be used for questionable purposes? I think not. It is important to teach about the social context of science and to critically evaluate the outcomes of scientific research.

My personal career path in science and education has certainly not been a linear one. Graduate school was followed by a stint in cancer research when HIV/AIDs first emerged as a new disease within the gay community. How can you stay objective when you attend a conference in San Francisco and walk to the venue through crowds of terrified men facing an early death and begging you for information on what advances in science will help them? To this day, I show my students the film And the Band Played On so that they might know the early and ugly history of this disease—the science, the cultural context, the politics, the religious fanaticism, and the fear. I find that I can't simply stick to the facts about the biochemistry of this disease.

I now work in the areas of ecological restoration (which involves value judgments about what to "restore to") and climate change. Today, it is the scientists who are fearful—this time not about a disease, but about the fate of the planet. They find themselves caught up in a bizarre social frenzy that is fraught with controversy, public distrust, media manipulation, and politics. Today, whether it be climate change, evolution, nutrition, or genetic engineering, science has been flung onto political battlegrounds.

Should I ignore this in my teaching?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded more than twenty years ago, in The Liberal Arts of Science: Agenda for Action (Washington, DC: AAAS, 1990), that scientific goals to solve society's problems are fostered by a greater emphasis on liberal education. In other words, it is the liberal education of students that will help move science out of the laboratory and into practice for the common good.

At a time when society is faced with the tremendous challenges of poverty and growing inequality, global environmental problems, food security, new and emerging diseases, scarcity of resources, and conflict, more than ever we need not only science and technology, but also innovative thinkers, advocates, and activists. We need educated people who aren't content with simply finding a job, but are still idealistic enough to want to change the world for the better. In other words, we need higher education to lead the charge in lighting fires, to be inspiring the next generation of problem solvers who will work at the front lines of these grand challenges of the twenty-first century.

A few years ago, I participated in a march in Washington about the Keystone XL pipeline project. When I came back to campus and told my students about the experience, it was obvious that they were shocked that I would do something like this (it isn't what scientists do) and fearful that it was my expectation of them to do something similar (it wasn't). We talked about their obvious aversion to political activism. Some noted that such activity would be a black mark on their record, thus hurting their chances for securing a job in the future. Most didn't have a clue as to what the Keystone Pipeline XL project was.

Since then, I have been thinking a lot about these messy issues. My work with the United Nations on climate change has taught me that while science might get countries to the negotiating table, policy and multilateral agreements will ultimately be battles about economics, cultural differences, national priorities, and politics. Nothing about the process is objective or logical. But the process is filled with passionate people who care about the future of the planet, or at least their countries, and about protecting their people and national interests.

Over the past few years, we have brought some fascinating speakers to campus. Some were involved in the civil rights movement (Jesse Jackson and John Lewis). Winona LaDuke talked about environmental and cultural sustainability initiatives on reservations. Students wanted to know how she dealt with the label of "activist." Her response: "I don't consider myself an activist, just a responsible citizen." Perfect. Biologist and author Sandra Steingraber spoke of the need for a liberal arts education in order to understand an issue like natural gas extraction (fracking) and to be able to formulate an educated position about whether it is a good idea or not. Yes, she is an activist, but that wasn't her message on our campus. Each of these speakers illustrated to students what it means to be engaged in a cause, to care about something.

Aren't issues like inequality, the impact of the forces of capitalism, the consequences of past and present exploitations, social and environmental justice, clean energy (or energy independence), and climate change the very ones that we should be lighting fires over? If not those of us in higher education, then who? Many colleges and universities have somewhere in their mission statement a line about preparing students for "service for the common good." If we aren't tackling the big questions of our time, what "common good" are we working toward? And who decides? These aren't questions that are objective, or ones that any science I know can answer.

My role as an educator is not only to teach students about science and to give them experiences in research, but also to inspire in them a desire to be socially responsible and use their knowledge and experience to solve some of the world's most challenging problems. A lofty ambition, perhaps, but in my mind, an essential one.


Diane Husic White is professor of biology and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Moravian College.

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