In an effort to fill what many consider a lacuna in undergraduate education, Bard College in New York has instituted a program it calls "Citizen Science" for all freshmen.
The course is a three-week, day-long intensive experience in the hard sciences, conducted at Bard - a school traditionally devoted to arts education - while everyone else is on winter break. Students receive no grades or credit for the course, but they are all required to take it.
Bard College President Leon Botstein began the program, The New York Times reports (January 21, 2011), because he believes that "The most terrifying problem in American university education is the profound lack of scientific literacy for the people we give diplomas to who are not scientists or engineers."
Dr. Botstein is reflecting a concern expressed by The National Academy of Sciences, which has warned that American undergraduates must receive more education in math and science if the country is to keep up with the rest of the world. A report from the Academy maintains that "the United States faced a future of economic decline if it failed to make significant investments in research in and teaching of science and mathematics."
That may well be true. I doubt, however, that the "most terrifying problem" in American higher education is the shortage of students enrolled in chemistry and calculus. More terrifying than that, it seems to me, is the continuing insistence that materialism, pragmatism, self-actualization, and social networking are the highest values in life, the measure of individual happiness and national prestige.
Will anyone ever challenge these assumptions? Will parents continue to send their kids to college - at ever-increasing expense - for the sole purpose of trying to ensure they'll get a good job? Are there no higher values worth striving and sacrificing for?
It's alarming how easily even Christian parents dial into this agenda. We spare no expense to educate our children for a career, while, at the same time, we subject them to youth programs in our churches which are big on fun and socializing and short on theological, spiritual, or moral substance. The message sent by most church education programs is that this stuff doesn't really matter and needn't be taken seriously. It's no wonder many young people jettison their faith once they get to college.
Getting into a good college, though - that matters. And taking all the right courses, becoming networked, and having a well-padded resume by the time one graduates, yes, these matter, too.
And don't forget to take a course or two in math or science, just in case it comes up in the job interview.
Americans are blinded by making money and pursuing the good life, materialistically defined. Talk of spirituality, morality, and ethics seems to most people irrelevant and even a bit oppressive. More science - yeah, that ought to do it. That ought to restore the greatness of a nation which lost its spiritual and moral bearings some time around the turn of the previous century and has been drifting into relativism, apathy, and disintegration ever since.
The belief that the lack of science education is "the most terrifying problem" in America's colleges and universities is itself a fairly terrifying problem, and one that Christians ought not abet.
Additional related texts: Matthew 6.33; Psalm 78.1-8; 2 Timothy 2.2
A conversation starter: "Do you think that more education in science and math is the greatest need in America's colleges and universities?"
T. M. Moore