No. 5, April 1983


Book reviews


The sciences versus the humanities

Since the publication of the HSRS's report on Education (the De Lange report) many a historian, or human scientist has raised his voice in protest. In a previous editorial we also critisized the lack of a balanced curriculum propagated by the report. In a very readable publication an curriculum design by J P White the author reiterates the necessity for the humanities (amongst others history) to have a central place in a worthwhile curriculum. He continues:

"Now several contemporary curriculum theories do not include any hierarchy of curriculum activities: they insist on an initiation into a number of different 'realms of meaning' (Phenix 1964) or 'forms of knowledge' (Hirst, 1965) - including, for instance, things like physical science, mathematics, the arts, philosophy, the human sciences, even moral knowledge- but are neutral about their relative importance. The theories themselves give no reason for thinking, for instance, that the sciences, natural and social, are any less important than the humanities. But, in fact, they are. Let us first compare the natural sciences with the humanities. This is to return to the 'two cultures' debate of some years ago. An important decision which one ought to make here is whether one is debating the intrinsic worth of these pursuits or their educational worth. On the first issue, there do not seem any reasons, apart from subjective preferences, to rate the natural sciences any lower than the humanities. But educationally speaking they are in one way less important. Suppose we take two secondary age pupils who, after a broad primary education, specialize for a few years, one in physics, chemistry and mathematics, the other in literature, history and, later, philosophy. Suppose, too, that they never study anything except their specialisms. The humanist would be inadequately educated. He could well have a good appreciation of the larger bearings of his life - of a variety of different ways of life open to him, of the moral considerations in these choices, of the need to integrate his life into a meaningful whole; he would also have some understanding of some particular activities he could pursue for intrinsic or extrinsic reasons; but he would lack an understanding of mathematics and physics and other activities dependent on these, and to this extent his options would be limited. But the scientist would not even be inadequately educated: he could scarcely be said to be educated at all. He would be a man without any general orientation to his life, apart from what he might pick up unreflecting1y from his environment- at best, a specialist of genius but trapped within his discipline; at worst, a sophisticated serf.

The humanities have a more central role in the curriculum than the natural sciences, therefore, because they alone enable one to weave together a human life. They are also more important than the social sciences ... A young specialist in this area would, again, not be inadequately educated but not educated at all. He might hove a good knowledge of different institutions, of means to ends of different kinds -legal, financial , political, psychological - but he would have little understanding of ends themselves - not even how those connected with natural science - except in so far as his study of means itself became an end. He could well learn things about different ways of life, of contemporary societies: he could not contemplate those unreal forms of life which a Shakespeare could construct from his imagination, or those real yet ideal forms which a Burckhardt (1860) could reconstruct from his sources." (Towards a Compulsory Curriculum. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p62-63).

Hopefully the essence of what White emphasizes will not be ignored by those in authority. Of course we have our contribution to make to ensure that history is indeed a dialogue between past and present and not just one "damned thing after another".

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