I do not, as a general rule, agree with Sir Bob Jones which makes me reluctant to comment on his most recent opinion piece criticising the preferential treatment science and engineering faculties receive in New Zealand over the liberal arts. He marks out Steven Joyce specifically for his comments relating the government’s shifting funding from arts and economics towards sciences and engineering.
Sir Jones argues that there has never been a greater need for liberal arts graduates, suggesting that such members of society act as an ethical rein and bridle to the bucking bronco that is technological and scientific advancement.
I am obviously a fan of the liberal arts, having spent several grand to study them on top of the biology degree and it saddens me to think that arts departments are down-sizing and that enrollments are down for those degree programs. If I had the means, I would expand the university campus to include downtown Auckland; I’d put in a flying fox to the marine lab on Princes Wharf; I would purchase The Quadrant so that biology students could grow and husband (is that the verb for ‘husbandry’?) their plants, bugs and miscellaneous life forms in different rooms; and I would shift the audiovisual library down into the IMAX centre. But I can’t. The main point that I’m trying to make here is that I want the university to have all the moneys but I realise that ‘all the moneys’ is not a real thing and that someone generally has to lose out. Having said that, I don’t know how justified the shift in funding is and I’ve already dedicated enough time to excusing myself from having an opinion about something which I don’t know enough about.
So the main reason that I wanted to comment on Jone’s opinion piece is because it propagates a problematic stereotype about the nature of sciences and scientists and distracts attention from more pressing problems with a centuries old false dichotomy and with auguries of a nigh juvenile dystopic future.
My direct response would be: liberal arts graduates are not the stewards of ‘knowledge’, ‘wisdom’ and ‘vision’ just as much as scientists are not inherently ‘single-minded’ automatons who unthinkingly facilitate the production of bigger and worser weapons and tinker with the sacred, holistic bundle of fairy dust glued together with hazy white light that is the human body. Scientists and engineers are people who go home at night (or during the day) and watch the news (or read it on their tablets) and lie awake at night thinking about death and about how their cholesterol is too high.
In addition, three further points: a) the arts and the sciences are not in some sort of turf war and b) eternal life is down the road, not on the door step, and c) there are bigger things to worry about. There have been books, lectures, everything agonising over the unbridgeable gap between the sciences and the liberal arts. The issue is second only to the gap between science and religion in my list of false dichotomies. We do not have the means to fully reject the idea that some sentient force exists somewhere beyond the universe perhaps and liberal arts and science do mix. I know because I did a course on the history of science last year and I studied a Science and literature course in my undergrad and I have a friend who studied philosophy of science. While I would argue that science education at a tertiary level could afford to provide a little more historical context to the development of the scientific process itself and there is a need for more science communicators like Dr Siouxsie Wiles, to demarcate sciences over here and humanities over there betrays a failure to understand either.
As a final note – and this is a nitpick – worrying about the difficulties in picking up ladies who look 26 but are in their 80s (oh no an old woman horrors of horrors truly there is nothing worse) is not an issue yet (indeed if it ever will be). More important right now: thugs like Montsanto. That corporation and their patented GMOs and indentured farmers are a real example of business and intellectual property savvy folks taking advantage of scientific developments while the media argues about whether GMOs are ethical at all. Regardless of whether we’re ready for GMO crops, they exist and we need science communicators who can translate jargon to the public now and we need policy makers to get science literate now. Science is a method of thinking, it’s not a fire starter – that would be greed.
And did I just get sucked into reacting to a Herald correspondent who is possibly only kept on because of his ability to divide readers with his inconsequential opinions?