"Imagining Teaching and Learning at a Jesuit, Liberal Arts College in the 21st Century"
September 13, 2012
Remarks by Robert Bellin, associate professor of biology
I reflected on this speech while I was at this summer's Collegium event, which was an ideal venue for considering ideas that would be meaningful to discuss during the celebration of the inauguration of the newest president at Holy Cross, Fr. Phil Boroughs. For those who do not know, Collegium is an event held each summer that calls together faculty from colleges and universities across the nation to reflect on the goals and purposes of Catholic higher education and to discuss the missions of these institutions---basically, why they exist. The inauguration and installation of a new college president is an important time in defining the mission, identity and purpose of any institution, as well as an important time to think about the future of that institution, which made my frame of mind at Collegium a fine match for planning my words for today.
I'm a biochemist by training, and teach in the biology department here at Holy Cross. As such, much of my viewpoint is from that of the natural sciences. And it is from that viewpoint that I want to speak about the importance of the natural sciences to a liberal arts institution, and also the importance of the liberal arts to the study of the natural sciences. In our modern world filled with both huge advances in medical science as well as important issues like global climate change, the natural sciences are in no way separate from the mainstream of the world. As such, it is essential that liberal arts students, regardless of their major, are taught to understand the natural sciences and the scientific method as part of their education so that they can engage with advancements in science and scientific concepts in an intelligent way, and not be like some people of the world these days who see science as something that is inherently wrong, dangerous or not to be trusted. I find it quite worrisome when I hear of laws and policies being formed in Washington, and in state and local governments, that purposely ignore data that has been collected using scientific approaches. Often this seems to happen because that data would lead to loss of profits by corporations, or force an inconvenient change of lifestyle for some people. The scientific approach does not allow us to pick and choose just the data we want to use to support the ideas and concepts we like. Instead, when applied properly, the scientific method provides an unbiased and non-opinionated way to make fact-based decisions. As such, when students outside the natural sciences are educated to truly engage with scientific principles as well as the methodology of the natural sciences, they actually understand what the scientific school of thought has to offer the world, especially as a way of approaching and making rational decisions about how to solve problems. This empowers them to become effective lawmakers, economists, and business people, who when faced with scientific data in their day-to-day work will not shun it because they feel that they cannot understand it or the methods used to collect it.
In a similar way, a liberal arts college is an ideal place for students in the natural sciences to be educated as an undergraduate. Here they are taught to be thinkers in the natural science fields, but also thinkers who can engage with more than just science, and who can be eloquent in the spoken and written word—an essential ability as they move into the world and have an increased responsibility to engage not only with other scientists, but more importantly with those not trained in the natural sciences.
Part of the challenge that we face in the world right now relates to what seems to be an ever increasing divide between those who look towards scientific information to help us solve problems in the world and others who want to ignore a scientific approach, or only pick and choose scientific findings that support the ideas they already hold. In addition, people of some religious backgrounds, as well as some scientists, continue to push forward the idea that religion and science are inherently opposed to each other. As a Jesuit, Catholic, liberal arts college, Holy Cross is well positioned to work towards mending these divides. Well-trained natural scientists with an ability to understand schools of thought outside the sciences, such as philosophy, ethics and religion, have the unique ability to bring together the people of the world who tend to cling to a singular branch of thought or reasoning as having all of the answers, whether these one-track thinkers are from the religious or science persuasion. Catholic, Jesuit liberal arts institutions like Holy Cross are some of the only settings where this type of academic education is obtainable. The degrees our natural science students work for and earn allow them to enter the work world as well-trained scientists, or to be excellent candidates for graduate or professional schools. In these roles after graduation, they can work as well-respected scientists, while also carrying forward the broad and interconnected education they engaged in while students of the liberal arts. It is our students who can move on to bridge the divides that exist both because of scientists that reject all other modes of thought, and because of those outside of the sciences that reject and even fear science. Unfortunately, individuals who reject other modes of thought are also people who will not openly listen to anyone outside of their own educational background---for example; there are scientists in the world who plainly will only seriously listen to other scientists. Our students have the potential to be scientists who are respected in their field and thereby listened to and understood, but who also understand theology, ethics and philosophy and can bring those schools of thought to the discussion as well.
In truth the natural sciences are intertwined in the daily life of all of us, and integrated study of the natural sciences is an essential part of a liberal arts education, both for the future chemist and for the future economist, as we all move forward to face the challenges in the world. With these ideas in mind, I make a call for a continued commitment to educating students majoring in the natural sciences as liberal arts students, even as medical schools and other science-related professional organizations make calls for additional specific courses that could make us consider eroding the traditional liberal arts core. In addition, and potentially more importantly, I call for increased efforts to ensure that our non-science major students partake in a rigorous education in the natural sciences, including the development of an understanding of the practice of science. As educators at Holy Cross, we cannot allow students to graduate from this fine College without a deep understanding of both scientific principles as well as the methodology of the natural sciences---we need to ensure that no student with a Holy Cross degree feels that science is outside of their grasp, or that properly conducted scientific studies can be ignored if it makes things more convenient by doing so.
I conclude my comments here, and very much thank The College of the Holy Cross for giving me this chance to reflect on these ideas as we welcome Fr. Boroughs to our campus community and celebrate his inauguration as the 32nd president of our College.