This Saturday, a memorial service will be held for longtime Boston University faculty member, chair, and dean Robert S. Cohen, who died last June. Bob Cohen, who was a philosopher, a physicist, a renowned editor, and an academic administrator, epitomized rigorous education in the arts and the sciences. A member of both the physics and the philosophy departments, he came to BU initially as a physics professor in 1957 after teaching for eight years at his alma mater, Wesleyan University, and soon was asked to chair the physics department when most of its members left en masse to join an optics company. Bob spent 12 years building up that department, and one year as the acting dean of the College of Liberal Arts (as the College of Arts & Sciences was then known). Along with his philosophy colleague, Marx Wartofsky, he started the Boston University Center for Philosophy and History of Science, and with it an influential book series, the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. He later also served as chair of the philosophy department. Bob studied the logical foundations of physics and the social determinants of science and technology. He saw the natural sciences as intricately linked with the humanities and social sciences, and taught his students to appreciate a broad range of disciplinary approaches to understanding the human creation that is physical science.
Physics and philosophy have naturally grown apart at Boston University since Bob Cohen’s (and likewise jointly appointed physics and philosophy professor Abner Shimony’s) retirement, but both fields continue to provide essential ingredients in arts and sciences education. As dean, I hear from faculty in all of our disciplines how critical it is for students today to be educated in their fields. The urgency of addressing anthropogenic climate change, of understanding diverse cultures in this age of globalization, of ethical lapses in the protection of data privacy, of continuing racial segregation and growing economic inequality, of an appreciation of past cultures that have succeeded or catastrophically failed: each speaks to the need for global citizens to be educated in one or more of our disciplinary and interdisciplinary majors. Likewise, the opportunities that scientific and digital technology offer to solve these problems cry out for more education in the natural and computational sciences. Equally, the need for developing critical distance from which to interpret and judge the apparent achievements of the present underscores the demand for our citizens to be curious and critical readers of texts of all kinds. All of our disciplines stake a strong claim on the attention of our CAS students.
Yet students have limited time and must complete their undergraduate studies and move on in their lives. Most of them will not go on to become academic researchers in the fields of their majors, and it behooves us to remember this. As a college of arts and sciences within an elite research university, CAS provides an importantly multi-disciplinary perspective on the world for our students. In contrast to professional schools, we offer to temper technical skills with the humanistic study of people, art, and culture. In contrast to an all-consuming studio arts education, we offer students a deep enough dive into the social, natural, and computational sciences to enable lifelong engagement with data-driven and experimental scientific achievement and discovery. Our niche and mission as the arts and sciences school of a research university is to educate citizens for leadership and lifelong learning. We will know that we are successful if our English majors can become doctors and our chemistry majors can run businesses, while a few enter the best graduate schools and become professors in the fields of their majors. We must avoid the temptation to replicate in our undergraduate students the single-minded pursuit of an academic discipline that is appropriate for the research faculty member. While graduate education must remain highly technical within disciplines, undergraduate education is best kept broad; we should encourage curiosity and exploration, while supplying students with the basic tools of diverse disciplines.
It has been over half a century since C.P. Snow penned his provocative essay, “The Two Cultures,” expressing his concern that English higher education at that time was dangerously narrow. The students majoring in the humanities learned no science, while scientists lacked any knowledge of or appreciation for the arts and the history, struggles, and achievements of the past. While we may not be in as dire a situation today as that, I think that it can be said that scientists and humanists misunderstand each other and undervalue each other’s achievements and contributions to contemporary life. Public confidence and student enrollment in the humanities are shrinking, and it is tempting to suggest that students need not spend so much of their time on esoteric thought. Yet the importance of humanistic disciplines to understanding and improving human cultures can be seen daily in intelligent commentary on contemporary events, public art, and cultural institutions. Knowledge of technical scientific and mathematical theory has led to technology that has transformed our everyday lives, but policy makers and the public throw their hands up instead of trying to understand the science and math that undergirds the technology we all use. This tempts humanists to suggest that there is no point for the non-scientist to learn even the most basic theory and techniques. Yet we need to stand together in common cause by applauding each others’ contributions to education and culture. As faculty in a college of arts and sciences, it is important for us to see that we all face challenges in motivating students to do the hard work to learn our disciplines and convincing the public to support basic research. By supporting the vision of rigorous liberal education in the arts and sciences, and by appreciating and valuing the broad diversity of approaches, we are best positioned to champion our own disciplines in the eyes of students and the public.
As a college of arts and sciences that aims to train future leaders, it is incumbent on us to make sure that our students have a serious and deep appreciation for the arts and the sciences, for social and natural science, for the tools of data science and humanistic interpretation. We must not replicate the technical degrees of engineering schools at the expense of humanistic education, and we must not allow our humanities majors to graduate without serious study of contemporary natural and computational sciences. The advent of the BU Hub and our ongoing discussion of the BA-specific degree requirements for CAS have provided us the opportunity to think anew about the meaning of a CAS degree. As part of this exercise, we must examine our majors and make sure that we do not overemphasize depth at the cost of rigorous breadth in disciplines across our college. As we remember Bob Cohen, physicist and philosopher, I encourage all of us to think about how our disciplines fit into the vision of a world in which well-educated students understand and appreciate the arts and the sciences, and in which leaders can readily apply their many lessons.