New cultural and ethical frames of reference
Published in Prospects - Quarterly Review of Education,
Vol. 25, No. 1, 1995 (Issue 93) – Science Teaching for
Sustainable Development, UNESCO; 1995
The acquisition of a scientific and technological culture is an essential factor in the economic competitiveness and the industrial influence of a society, but it is more than just that.
The twofold increase of scientific knowledge in less than ten years and the swift development of modern technologies are tending to undermine our ethical and cultural values. The new challenges with which we are faced - the environment, AIDS and other epidemics, uncontrolled population increase, economic crisis, etc. - call for new frames of reference.
The emergence of new methods of procreation and of genetic engineering challenge us in our private or social lives. Can we do just anything? What are acceptable limits? What are the risks for the individual and for the human species? Who is to decide - the scientists, the doctors, ethical committees, the politicians or the public?
The development of communication and data-processing technologies, such as on-line information systems, computers, robotics and the application of biotechnologies, are changing our methods of production and our consumer habits. They are challenging the principles and foundations of traditional economics. The concept of work is being transformed.
These new resources are simultaneously generating increased leisure time and millions of unemployed. How do we want the situation to evolve in the future? For the benefit of whom? To do what?
Bringing scientists out of their ivory towers
With so much at stake, scientific, technological and medical knowledge cannot remain confined to the laboratories. It must be shared with the bulk of the population.
These changes are obliging us to conduct searching reviews and to call for new intellectual tools. New values and new mechanisms for the regulation of society are being envisaged.
This is the context in which a sharing of scientific and technological culture should be envisaged. Scientific culture, contributing as it does to the changing of our perception of the world, is an integral part of our culture. Destined to play a decisive role, it is becoming a source of invention and creativeness for the years ahead. In addition to the pleasure of learning, it can offer everyone opportunities for enlightened consideration of technological issues and the future development of society.
It is democracy itself which is in question. No democracy can actually work without discussion concerning the type of development desired. Until now, however, there has been no wide discussion involving the majority of the population concerning health systems and methods, the choices with regard to energy or consumption, transport, birth (contraception, procreation, etc.) or death (euthanasia), or the kinds of research to which importance should be attached.
Moreover, for want of scientific culture, no discussion makes sense now, because the questions at issue are so closely bound up with science and technology. What criteria should be adopted? How should the experts be called to account? How should the repercussions of an industry be considered? How should thought be given to the new implications of a research project? The scientists and technocrats cannot claim to speak for the general public when such social issues are at stake.
Reconciling science and society
Introducing a scientific and technological culture presupposes a fundamental change in the relations of individuals with science and technology. Although science and technology are a powerful driving force in economic and social development and are considerably altering our daily lives, the gap between science, technology and society is tending to widen.
Most people continue to think that these disciplines do not concern them and that they are the concern of specialists. Scientists, engineers and doctors, for their part, have to produce specialized knowledge faster and faster, in increasingly limited fields, to remain competitive. Their work does not incite them to wonder about the why or the how of the consequences of their studies or about the implications of what they are doing.
Science and technology are thus becoming a subject of controversy. When called to account they give rise to further questions, provoke opposition and even arouse anxiety. The development of anti-science movements and the rise of irrationality and fundamentalism, facilitated by television, are evidence of this.
The reconciling of science and society, of classical culture and scientific culture, is therefore one of the challenges of our time (1). For that, however, researchers must come out of their ivory towers.
Here, scientists, engineers and doctors bear a large measure of responsibility, since they must partake in dialogue with the public. Beyond the confines of their specializations they can no longer be content with thinking or acting in a sectoral fashion; they must set themselves the task of grasping the full complexity of the human, environmental and cultural systems within which they move.
They should be both vigilant watchers, who give the alarm and do preventive work for the society which subsidizes them, and pathfinders who discover, elucidate and assess the possibilities and risks involved.
At this level, their chief task is not to proclaim with certainty but to explain in detail the issues, the choices and the theories, and to consider the possible scenarios. In these circumstances they can provide information that will enable the decision-maker and the general public to make up their minds.
An integrated cultural policy
This transformation of relations between science and society, however, is not a matter for specialists alone. The school has its rightful place provided that it can carry out a far-reaching reform. When young people are asked if they are interested in science at school, they nearly always say no. In Europe, it is true, we have to admit that pupils are often put off by science subjects (2). Their curiosity wanes as they go on to higher classes.
Science teaching, its syllabuses and its methods frequently fail because they do not sufficiently take into consideration the pleasure young people derive from discovering. Science and technology are not subjects that arouse enthusiasm, such as sports or rock music. The sciences are frightening because they are used too much as a means of selection. In addition, current teaching methods in the sciences make them rather repellent from the outset, demanding as they do memorization, an abstruse vocabulary and endless mathematical formulae.
As long as science is taught in this way it will be impossible to give the bulk of the population as much scientific knowledge as possible and to put that knowledge into perspective. What is more, this prematurely abstract science teaching, unrelated to everyday life, jeopardizes the quality of the culture to be inculcated.
Luckily, many teachers have grappled with the problem. Many innovations are being introduced and the results are spectacular (3).
Today, however, school is no longer the only place where people learn. To establish a culture the whole community has to be mobilized. The media - the press and television in particular - have a role to play, provided they no longer confine themselves to the topical and the spectacular.
Museums and new associations for the sharing of knowledge need to be established. They too have a vital role to play. Furthermore, an integrated approach to science and technology is needed (4). These facilities are not there to take over the people’s task of understanding; what they must to do is put people in a position to ask themselves questions and to understand.
1. Philosophical and scientific knowledge remained closely bound up together for over two millennia. Only two centuries ago did those bonds begin to loosen, to the detriment of all concerned.
2. Technology is unfortunately still excluded from the curricula, except in the case of vocational education. It involves highly formative thought processes.
3. For further information, see: G. De Vecchi and A. Giordan, L’enseignement scientifique, comment faire pour que «ça marche»? [How to make scientific education work]. Nice, France, Z’Editions, 1989; A. Giordan and C. Souchon, Une éducation pour l’environnement [Environmental education], Nice, France, Z’Editions, 1991; and A. Giordan and G. De Vecchi, Les origines du savoir [The origins of knowledge], Lausanne, Delachaux, 1987.
4. Bridging the gap between science and society means giving the human and social sciences more weight by introducing the history, the teaching and the epistemology of the sciences into courses habitually dominated by ‘hard’ sciences, and making sciences subordinate to philosophical and anthropological perspectives.