Parts is parts but the whole truth is something greater

I built my first two dulcimers from scratch. When my granddaughter wanted to build one, too, I bought a kit. I mean, she expected hers to actually work and look good. Anyway, that whole process has led me to consider science education.

There is a significant difference between someone who makes something and someone who makes the parts that one uses to make something. Both kinds of people may be quite skilled and talented. Both can take pride in their work. To distinguish between the two, I will call them “makers” and “makers-of-parts.”

Now, the maker-of-parts always develop their own methods and skills that surround the parts they make. However, their culture may be very different from those of the final makers. The maker-of-parts are almost always less connected to the final product than the maker of the product. In fact, often the makers-of-parts come to think that the making of parts is the final goal.

Of course, there is a third group of people who don’t make anything. We call them academics, and they usually don’t even make sense. You can tell this is true because I am an academic, and this column seldom makes any sense.

Look what has happened to higher education. The purpose of a higher education has never been decisively determined. Is higher education for enlightenment or vocational training? Is it for the masses or just the elite? Is it a place to explore and learn about oneself or to prepare oneself for an active role in society? No one really knows what the university is supposed to “make” anymore.  I’m not sure we ever did.

I suppose an education, funded by the public and claiming to benefit human society, ought to be about producing sociable humans. However, that may be an oxymoron. If that has been our goal, I think we can conclude — from some of the political campaigns — that we have failed miserably.

Anyway, since we don’t know what the final product of a university education is supposed to be, we have turned over the task to the maker-of-parts (de part ments). In practice, universities are now makers of people who know something about a specific part of human knowledge to their own self-benefit and employment. (It is not clear why the public should pay for personal advancement, but that is another topic.)

Consequently, the various departments: science, business, the arts, etc., are now busily making parts instead of human beings. Because the emphasis is on the parts, students come out of our universities with indoctrination into a specific field instead of enlightenment. They graduate with specialties instead of general wisdom.

For example, socially important issues are determined by the department, or major, not issues that are actually socially important. A class in biology might discuss stem cell research, abortion, contraception or cloning. But do they discuss the wisdom of cloning a better milk cow when there is already a surplus of milk? Will they discuss the wisdom of inserting hybrid genes that embed pesticides into plant genomes that will, in turn, kill bees needed to pollinate the plants?

The needs of the world do not drive the curriculum. Unifying concepts are determined that aid the topic of study (“de part” being studied). In biology we often think change over time is a unifying concept. Society is not particularly, or directly, benefitted by this preoccupation. How and why living things are distributed over space is studied less, but has a far more direct impact on humans.

Words like “should,” “ought,” “proper” and “wrong” are all concepts of judgment. Science routinely disclaims its ability to deal with values and judgment, yet at the same time routinely inserts itself into these discussions. The world seems to desperately need people who can make distinctions between right and wrong, should and should not.

Not how to make the parts of the whole. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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