Introductory Courses, Intellectual Breadth, and the Liberal Art of Science

by Tim McKay

For the past century and more, a balanced combination of intellectual breadth and disciplinary depth have been cornerstones of a liberal arts education. Disciplinary depth is mostly acquired through academic majors and minors. Students develop breadth by taking courses across the disciplines; exploring the social sciences, the humanities, and the natural sciences. In these courses, they engage with various and sometimes contesting epistemologies, encounter new methods of discovery and modes of discourse, and, importantly, work with students and faculty who are themselves diverse; experts in a variety of disciplines, who bring a range of backgrounds, interests, and perspectives to the learning environment.

Intellectual breadth is one of the charms of liberal arts education, and many alumni look back on transformative discoveries they made in courses taken simply to explore. But for current students, breadth presents challenges. Many students see college as primarily about preparation for a career, something they expect to be closely related to their major. Majors, in turn, are closely related to student identities, so much so that the first question a student encounters during introductions is “What’s your major?” In this context, disciplinary depth is clearly desirable.

Breadth requirements, by contrast, are often perceived as distractions; something to be taken care of as quickly as possible. In this context, it is essential for educators to think carefully about whether and how well students acquire intellectual breadth, and especially how they pursue topics o\utside their major. If we care about breadth, we need to ensure that all students have effective, attractive, and welcoming opportunities to explore the disciplines. This is not a simple task, in part because our faculty members are themselves deeply disciplined, naturally focused on the epistemologies and norms acquired in their graduate training. To deliver the kind of liberal arts education we espouse, faculty must learn how to successfully educate students with diverse backgrounds, interests, and goals. They must also be committed to doing so.

In the social sciences and humanities, students mix freely, and, for the most part, students graduating with majors in these areas draw on the full diversity of the student body. Introductory courses in fields like English, History, Sociology, and Psychology enroll students who will ultimately major in all disciplines. Most do well and are successfully introduced to these fields. The natural sciences, by contrast, are exclusive in a variety of ways. They often track students from the start, offering explicitly separate courses for ‘scientists’ and ‘non-scientists’. Meanwhile, students graduating with majors in these areas are predominantly white, male, and wealthy. This begins at the beginning.

Introductory science courses recommended for potential science majors are often designed to be exclusive. Rather than broad introductions to the history and content of contemporary fields, they focus on first steps of preparation for future majors. Students (and some faculty) believe that these courses are intended to determine who can, and who cannot, go deeper into these subjects; to ‘weed out’ the unworthy and select the elite.

This is not mere perception; these courses regularly feature the lowest grades, the highest DFW rates, and the largest equity gaps on campus. It is not uncommon for them to rely on fixed grade curves which guarantee the failure of some, and they are practically unique in their heavy reliance on high-stakes, timed examinations for the bulk of student evaluation. Many students intending a science major change directions amidst these courses, rejected by the message of incompetence they receive and driven away by a narrow view of what science entails.

Courses recommended for non-science students, by contrast, often take a broad approach, providing students with a more generous and contemplative portrait of the history and some current issues in the field. Students in these courses often receive this introduction well, and are generally successful. But they do so as outsiders, labelled as such, and carefully isolated from students who might major in science. This lesson, that science is a way of knowing accessible to some, but not others, is reinforced throughout. Students who don’t ultimately major in science are either rejected near the start or isolated from robust access to the nature and practice of these disciplines in courses that reinforce exclusivity.
What of those who do go on to major in science? Their intellectual breadth often suffers too, both inside science and beyond. Within science, requirements for majors feature long lists of prerequisite courses, often combined with heavy loads of requirements and restrictive lists of potential electives. Engagement with topics beyond technical disciplinary competence – science and technology studies, intellectual history, public engagement – are rarely encountered or encouraged. Science majors often receive a strong message that little else matters, so that they should fulfill their breadth requirements as early as possible, in the quickest, least distracting way. Rather than treating the opportunity to study broadly as a unique opportunity to augment science learning, mentors too often consider it a distraction.

What can be done about this? How can we ensure that the liberal art of science is broadly available to all college students? How must we change our conception of disciplinary science education so that science majors learn to value breadth, and see their fields as the social and cultural phenomena that they are?

Once again, this starts at the beginning. Introductory science courses have been slow to change, comfortably covering persistently poor and inequitable student outcomes with claims of rigor, and happy to isolate non-science students in courses they would not allow their majors to take. A first important move is to create introductory courses in which the failure of many students is neither expected nor guaranteed. Almost certainly, this will require changes to both our conceptions of these courses and our modes of assessment.

We must move away from fixed grade curves that explicitly ignore the overall learning of students and seek only to rank them. It is not impossible to successfully introduce all students to chemistry, physics, or calculus. We must expect them to be successful at rates comparable to those seen in other disciplines and design and deliver courses that accomplish these goals. Our students can, in a well-designed course, all accomplish the learning goals we set out for them. Rather than having an introductory course ‘weed-out’ students, we should use it to help them set down deep roots in the topic.

Which brings us to assessments. High stakes, timed examinations have no place in the practice of science, and they should not be central to science teaching. We need to ask students to engage in authentic scientific practices, to focus on core concepts rather than esoterica, and to ensure that students understand how the science they are learning emerged from and influences the society they live in. Writing must play a role in students’ demonstration of learning, and we need to abandon the notion that the superficial objectivity of a multiple choice test is better than expert judgement of authentic work.

Changes like these can make introductory science courses plainly successful, both expecting and achieving their goal of meaningfully introducing all students to our disciplines. Such courses can better prepare students to progress in our majors; widespread, persistent, inequitable failure is not a sign of rigor, but of poor design. That we have not already seen this is a sign of how our own traditional science education failed us. We heard the claim that science is only for a few and have been happy to accept it.

The future for the liberal art of science lies in a deeper exploration of the human condition and the natural world. We need to enable all students to appreciate what science can do in support of human flourishing, and that they can apply its ways of knowing to questions in their own lives. Likewise, we need to ensure that our science students understand what science cannot do, how ill-matched the sensibilities of the physical sciences can be to studying society, and what essential contributions the humanities make to life.

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