With all the fuss and media attention going on around Emlyn Hughes this week, frustrated Frontiersman Alexander Pines thought he deserved to be defended. Here’s the result:
I’ll be frank, Frontiers of Science is a bullshit course. Instead of providing an in-depth exploration of one or two key topics in modern scientific study, it seeks to instead condense incredibly complex subjects (quantum mechanics, particle physics, special relativity, neurobiology, to name a few) into easy to swallow one and a half hour lectures that act as little more than cocktail party fodder. Instead of giving all undergraduates a basic background in science and bridging the “divide between science and humanities in the minds” of College students, Frontiers strips complicated ideas of their nuance and asks students to swallow and regurgitate information instead of considering it critically. It is the anti-Lit Hum, a class of reduction of critical thought instead of expansion. For this reason, it’s one of the most controversial pieces of the Core and is continually being considered for review.
Unsurprisingly, Frontiers is ill attended and students who do show up rarely pay attention–hell, I’m sitting in Frontiers as I write this now. A cursory glance of the crowd will show rows of MacBooks open to Facebook, the New York Times, Oscar night fashion recaps, and shoe shopping on Zappos (and that’s just what I can see from my seat). A friend of mine who had the class last semester told me she sat in the back with her headphones in and watched porn every week. When I tell upperclassmen that I’m off to a Frontiers lecture, they laugh and tell me to take a nap instead.
Yet I’m sitting here today, alongside what looks like most of the rest of the class. A few minutes ago I had to show CUID to several members of Public Safety and give a woman with an official class roster my name before I was allowed to enter the lecture hall. I can’t claim to completely understand what Professor Hughes meant by showing images from World War II and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center to open his lecture on quantum mechanics last week. But it got our attention (and the attention of a lot of other people) and has most of the class here right now.
The point of the Core is, ostensibly, to help Columbia students “understand the civilization of their own day and to participate effectively in it.” Yet how are we to “participate effectively” in modern scientific discourse when our understanding of science is so dramatically stunted? We have taken scientific inquiry and discovery out of context, much the way Hughes’ video has been taken out of context in the media coverage of the lecture–the video showed five minutes of a seventy minute lecture (and the seventy minute lecture explained a small fraction of over eighty years of research and debate about quantum mechanical theories).
Immediately after the video ended, Professor Hughes explained that to understand quantum mechanics, we have to let go of everything else we’ve learned about physics. If Richard Feynman in years of research and work didn’t get quantum mechanics, how are we supposed to understand it after one lecture? At its core, like the course itself, the video was absurd.
As Columbia students, it’s not unreasonable to assume that our classmates and peers (or even scarier, ourselves) will someday be in the position to influence the future–I hear we have some pretty important alums. It’s one thing to be completely ignorant of a topic, but the mishandling of the Frontiers curriculum does something much worse. We have been lulled into a sense of false comprehension that I’d argue is much more dangerous than pure ignorance. Frontiers gives us just enough information about a subject to think we understand it, yet without any of the specific details or complexity each topic demands. Knowing enough science to get jokes on the Big Bang Theory does not mean that we have been educated. By getting our attention and baffling most of us with the video, Professor Hughes is drawing attention to these issues and showing the world at large that our flimsy excuse for a science requirement is dramatically flawed.