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Why arts and science are better together

MATHS AND SCIENCE EDUCATION: We’ve asked our authors about the state of maths and science education in Australia and its future direction. In our final instalment, Benjamin Miller and Fiona White examine…

Why should arts and science curricula be developed separately? Person image from www.shutterstock.com

MATHS AND SCIENCE EDUCATION: We’ve asked our authors about the state of maths and science education in Australia and its future direction. In our final instalment, Benjamin Miller and Fiona White examine the benefits of transdisciplinary skills.


The arts and science are often thought of as polar opposites. Traditionally, students and universities view them as separate entities – you pick a degree in one or the other and stick to your side of the fence.

Increasingly though, this way of doing things is not enough to prepare students for the data-drenched and volatile workplace of the twenty-first century.

Combining arts and science in the curriculum could be the answer. From science, students learn about sound methods for testing hypotheses, and about interpreting and drawing valid conclusions from data. From arts, they will also learn about developing arguments, and about understanding, moving, and changing the minds of diverse audiences.

There are double and combined degrees already on offer. But there is a great potential for them to be better – improving students' employment prospects and fostering new skills in “the space between” speciality areas.

The untapped potential of combining curricula

In their study into the popularity of double degrees, higher education researchers Wendy Russell, Sara Dolnicar and Marina Ayoub suggested that:

double degree programs have significant untapped potential in preparing graduates for employment.

The potential benefit, they argue, is that graduates develop “transdisciplinary skills” that are highly valued by employers.

Transdisciplinary thinkers take a unique approach to solving problems. They draw information from diverse sources and seek collaborations to produce “socially robust knowledge”. However, the way most combined and double degrees are established does not foster transdisciplinary learning.

This is because the combination of degrees tends to create an administrative rather than pedagogical structure. This means that an arts-science student, for example, simply has access to subjects from arts and science faculties. Upon graduation, graduates would be able to perform skills essential to both speciality areas. But they have not necessarily developed transdisciplinary thinking.

The rare double degrees that are pedagogically designed can unlock the potential of a combined curriculum. In such cases, arts-science graduates can also imaginatively develop unique research methods, or ethically interpret information systems, or persuade non-experts to change their behaviour based on scientifically informed debate.

Model degrees, modern times

Universities are increasingly considering different degree structures. The Australian National University (ANU) claims that their new flexible degrees improve graduate employability in a way that “suits your head and your heart”. Students complete any two degrees in four years from arts, social sciences, business, or science. The University of Sydney offers a similar option with a four-year Bachelor of Science and Arts.

Such degrees expedite a student’s completion. But they are administrative combinations that rarely push students to experiment with approaches and practices from both degrees.

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) has attempted to equip graduates by creating a general education program. In introducing their program, UNSW claims:

employers repeatedly point to the complex nature of the modern work environment and advise that they highly value graduates with the skills provided by a broad general education.

UNSW students must complete between two and four subjects from outside their faculty. For example, a science graduate must have completed subjects taught by non-science faculties, such as education, arts, business, built environment, or law.

Such a program appears to be more pedagogically driven than the standard double degree. Students in “GenEd” subjects draw on their existing knowledge to solve problems in unfamiliar disciplinary locations. The learning promoted here is a valuable kind of creative disciplinarity, but it is not transdisciplinary.

We coordinate a new degree at the University of Sydney which has been designed to promote transdisciplinarity. The three-year Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (BLAS) offers students the administrative freedom to study in two faculties while mandating the completion of core units in critical thinking, ethics, and communication.

BLAS students complete a major in arts or science, including up to 12 subjects in their chosen field. A further six to eight subjects are chosen from the other faculty. That is, an arts major must also complete six to eight science subjects. Finally, six liberal studies subjects must also be completed. Here in the physical and intellectual space of liberal studies subjects students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds collaborate to address problems of research, writing and ethics.

An undisciplined world

With improved learning and greater transdisciplinary skills, our experience with BLAS suggests that more innovative curricula and degree programs are needed. Why not have extended math curriculum which includes writing? Or an extended English curriculum which includes trigonometry?

A curriculum can be defined narrowly as the content of a particular class or degree. It can also be defined more broadly as the combined total experiences of a person’s lifelong learning.

Unfortunately, administrators and policy advisers often look too narrowly at the curriculum. They develop, for example, a policy for high school English, or a strategy for tertiary math instruction.

An innovative approach to curriculum design would involve experts from various fields. They would collaborate to design a curricula space where students actively connect and extend the diverse aspects of their education.

After all, while few would doubt the value of disciplined thinking, isn’t our goal also to prepare students for lifelong learning in an undisciplined world?

This is the eleventh and final part of our series Maths and Science Education.

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45 Comments sorted by

  1. Timothy Devinney

    University Leadership Chair & Professor at University of Leeds

    This is a noble article and worthy of consideration from our senior administrators. However, it is also nothing new. Anyone with experience at a US university knows that this is just what is done at most all US universities. Indeed, I have a BSc from Carnegie Mellon but it is actually in Psychology and Applied Mathematics. All CMU science majors are required to take Social Science and Humanities and the reverse is true of those in the Social Sciences. My other degrees are from the University…

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  2. Fred Pribac

    logged in via email @internode.on.net

    Interesting idea.

    Perhaps the reason that this sort of transdisciplinary pedagogy hasn't taken off is both the difficulty of finding teachers who are themselves competant to teach in a way that reinforces rather than isolates the two eductational areas and the mental resources required of a student to be able to achieve a high level outcome.

    For most folks just getting a BSc reqquires most of their intellectual and creative resources and likewise a fine arts degree. To expect somebody to a achieve a degree that not only teaches the same content as two other seperate degrees but also develops synergies with 50% less time allowed proportionally is asking a lot!

    For those subject areas that operate near the limits of typical smart human intellectual capacity (and many do) ... any additional complexity will simply lead to poor educational outcomes.

    Monkeys can ride bicycles or peel bananas - try to get them to do both at the same time and you are likely to witness a crash!

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    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      Monkeys would find the arts part the easier. There is a sorry performance record of arts people who meddle in hard Science.
      Stefan Lewandowsky, Perth to Bristol, is an example to study if not now joined at the hip to Cook of the woeful Skeptical Science blog.

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Fred Pribac

      None of them could emulate the Renaissance men like Da Vinci?
      Fine arts, science and engineering anyone?

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  3. Federico Davila

    PhD Candidate, Human Ecology Program at Australian National University

    Great article!.

    In 2010 I graduated from a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies (Sustainability) from the ANU. https://studyat.anu.edu.au/programs/3610XBISS;overview.html

    The degree endeavours to allow its students to undertake studies in other faculties, with core majors in human ecology or geography. As such, the degree trains its graduates in sustainability problems, but also equips us with holistic understandings of these problems.

    I think the USyd Idea of B.Liberal Arts and Science is a great. In today's day and age, compartamentalising our thinking and teaching will not allow us to explore thinking spaces that cannot be explore in single-discipline environments.

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    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Federico Davila

      Has a single soul graduated from any Uni lately without a salad dressing of 'environment'?
      If the admistrators of curricula who have led environmental lemmings to date are charged with blending Science & the Yarts, lord help education.

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  4. Alexander Rosser

    Philosopher

    There already exists a bridging disclipine. It called HPS (History and Philosophy of Science) though it really encompasses the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Science, Medicine and Technology.

    Regretably it is also a Cinderella discipline. At least it is at Sydney University where it is a mere Unit, not even a Department, within the Faculty of Science Nevertheless it does offer some challenging undergraduate subjects, not least Bio-Ethics.

    I sugggest that a History of Science subject would subtly inject some basic understanding of science into dedicated Arts students, and improve the ability of science students to argue a case in words.

    Which is what the authors of the above article are, I think, proposing.

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    1. Benjamin Miller

      Lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at University of Sydney

      In reply to Alexander Rosser

      Thanks for your comment Alexander. Most students take a History and Philosophy of Science subject - Bioethics - as their core ethics unit in the Liberal Studies stream of BLAS. We're finding a lot of students also take on other HPS units as well, so students are voting with their feet about the relevant 'transdisciplinary' units.

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    2. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Benjamin Miller

      Benjamin, I am perplexed why Sydney would bother created such a lame product as this 3 year BLAS. What happened to the Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree Sydney used to offer. It was 4 years long, requiring 2 majors, one from humanities, one from natural sciences. You also had to complete 2 years of a foreign language, and 2 semesters of Maths. As somebody who actually received a proper, rigorous 'iberal arts' education, it is pretty offensive to see Sydney try and tart this BA for Dummies up as…

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  5. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Great idea, though there's nothing new about this. In the mid-sixties most maths and science tripos scholars at Oxbridge were offered well-attended courses in poetry by T R Henn, based on his extraordinary book, 'The Apple and the Spectroscope' (W W Norton, NY, 1966). It was later included on every A-level Eng Lit course in the UK.... a mistake, I think, because every engineer I've known has benefited from reading it!

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  6. David Thompson

    Marketing Research

    “From arts, they will also learn about developing arguments, and about understanding, moving, and changing the minds of diverse audiences.”
    Do you really think the Arts faculty has got it all over the Science faculty when it comes to developing arguments? From my experience - I have majors in sciences, arts, and social sciences - science students are stronger at making arguments than Arts students.
    For undergrad I did a double degree. Maths was compulsory for the entire Science faculty, including…

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    1. Sam Han

      Lawyer; LLM student

      In reply to David Thompson

      I got a little curious about the GRE breakdown you mentioned. I'm familiar with the GMAT and LSAT, but hadn't heard of the GRE. For the benefit of clarity, here are the actual GRE breakdowns for the 2012/2013 exams.

      For brevity, these are mean scores by intended majors groups (excluding the "Other Fields" category) rather than specific majors. Number in brackets represent the standard deviation. Note that analytical writing has a different scoring system to the other two sections.

      It seems…

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    2. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Sam Han

      Sam, I'd say there's also a lot of self-reinforcing self-selection going on too, including native language biases. How many non-English speakers are applying to English, Education, and Social Work grad programs versus Physics, Economics, and Electrical Engineering?

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  7. Gregory Crocetti

    Science Educator at Scale Free Network

    Tragically, this discussion reads more like an advertisement for the Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (BLAS) degree at UniSyd...than a real exploration of such an important topic.

    Not long after completing my PhD at the University of QLD in 2002, I began to realise there was a serious problem with my education. At no stage during my Bachelors degree - or subsequent research-based Honours & PhD - had I been encouraged to learn about History, Philosophy or Ethics. Yet at the same time, myself…

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Gregory Crocetti

      Well said, especially in the narrow and exclusive epistemological cocoon that privileges the sciences over other ways of also knowing! A critique of the Cartesian dualism and false dichotomies (between the humanities and the sciences) is by now well advanced. Its time that philosophers had more influence on shaping the discourse of inter-disciplinarity that must underpin all genuine and effective learning. Cost considerations alone should not be allowed to stymie this, if universities are to meet the knowledge needs of society.

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    2. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Gregory Crocetti

      Your error was to assume that the work of a competent scientist needed interpretation by a lesser scientist or non-scientist - the long term problem of our ABC science programs. Several current social ills have arisen this way, like IPCC, whose charter forces this peculiar arrangement.

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    3. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      At best, Universities can instruct but a small portion of 'the knowledge needs of society'. The main load is handled by experienced people from the coal face.

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  8. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

    Boss

    Beaut idrea.
    The arty types will learn how exacting Science is, then give up commenting from ignorance to continue writing for TC.
    The science types will realise the amount of waffle in the Arts and either go into deep depressipn or reject the arty party and get on with the job.

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  9. Luke Weston

    Physicist / electronic engineer

    Arts and science are better together?

    Well, maybe.

    Except for postmodernist arts evidence-isn't-evidence my-opinion-is-just-as-good-as-your-science antiscience nonsense that pretends that it's science. But that's pretty rare these days and most arts academics distance themselves from it.

    Arts, like religion, gets itself into trouble when it pretends to be science.

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Luke Weston

      As might science and similarly extreme scientistic types, when they pretend that science has all the answers! The biggest epistemological problems we face relate to the tunnel vision of fundamentalists from all quarters. Ideally holistic viewing is achieved through a felicitous exchange from all sides.

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    2. James Hill

      Industrial Designer

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      DIVIDE ET VINCIT, Michael, DIVIDE ET VINCIT.
      An art rather than a science, I would say.
      If you can't immediately recognise the relevance to the subject of the article, don't worry, you probably never will.

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  10. Kathryn Holt

    NHMRC Research Fellow at University of Melbourne

    I agree with the other commenters who raised the importance of Philosophy. This is the fundamental bridge between science, arts, mathematics and all other flavours of developing knowledge. As an undergrad I stumbled into a BA/BSc and ended up with most of my arts component coming from a Philosophy major. That has turned out to be equally useful and important to my developing science career as the biology major was. Philosophy of science, epistemology, logic and argument, ethics... these are all of…

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    1. Benjamin Miller

      Lecturer in Writing and Rhetoric at University of Sydney

      In reply to Kathryn Holt

      Hi Kathryn, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you were one of those rare double degree graduates who sought out the connections between your degrees on your own. In some ways, such transdisciplinary learning is extra-curricular.

      When the BLAS was designed we wanted to help students get the same out of their degree as you did out of yours. Rather than hoping that students develop transdisciplinary skills simply by taking a mix of arts and science subjects, we actually built the space for students to develop such skills into the degree.

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  11. Shane Beck

    Railways

    Apart from wanting to make it compulsory for all University candidates to have a B+ in a science or maths subject before they enter University, I would like to make it compulsory to take a first year subject that would consist of logic, systems theory, complexity theory, chaos theory and philosophy. Universities tend to teach a lot of specialized subjects but they don't tend to teach thinking in general

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    1. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Shane Beck

      Shane,
      Agreed - you raise an important point. But, how long do you think it would take to make such a change, Australia-wide. We often hear of education revolutions and Gonski this and that, but it seems that the first step is to train teachers to train teachers to teach pupils and students. I see this as taking a generation, say 30 years. Do you have a different estimate?

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    2. Shane Beck

      Railways

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      It all depends upon what governments want Universities to do- produce skilled workers, academic research, applied innovation etc. Technology has changed everything. A lot of information is online- internet, iTune U, journal databases. Also plagiarism is a big issue with essays and assignments available for fee over the internet and almost good enough to outwit software used to detect them. We are seeing a lot less innovation and original thinking because many university students see university as a ticket punching exercise on their way to a mega buck career. They are not interested in thinking for themselves but regurgitating the subject well enough to satisfy the lecturer or tutor into giving them a decent pass.

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  12. Erica Jolly

    Writer about education

    The recognition of the value of cross-disciplinary engagement needs to begin before students reach university. We discouraged such engagement across the humanities and the sciences after 1945, to the disadvantage of both. Now one of the ways we can re-establish connections is by the inclusion of non-fiction related to the sciences in English. For example, Dr Robyn Arianrhod's 'Einstein's Heroes' shares her love of mathematics in such a way that those put off by the way maths is often taught in schools…

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    1. Erica Jolly

      Writer about education

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Thank you for that information. In 1994 Antonio Damasio wrote 'Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain'. A neuro-scientist he writes: 'The Cartesian idea of a disembodied mind may well have been the source, by the middle of the twentieth century, for the metaphor of mind as software program." [ p 250]. In Oxford Today, Volume 25, No 2, 2013 Professor Marcus du Sautoy, a mathematician whose area is number theory, now Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University…

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  13. John Canning

    Professor at University of Sydney

    I might note that much more similar faculties also are separated: engineering and science working together clearly have much more specialized benefits for both those faculties, for example. Subject matter often overlaps with both and they are much more interconnected than the arts and sciences (ignoring the concept that engineers don't have critical thinking). Certainly overseas, this aspect is well recognized and more generally raises the wider debate about whether our current old-fashioned divisions…

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  14. Erica Jolly

    Writer about education

    Professor Canning's suggestion that there might be a loss of human connections as robotics increases its impact on human behaviour matters. That concern has been documented in the work of Professor Sherry Turtle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT. 'Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other', published by Basic Books, New York 2011, is an investigation of the impact of electronic technology most particularly on teenagers. And, in a world reliant increasingly on electronic technology, it might also be worthwhile re-reading E. M. Forster's 'The Machine Stops'.

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Erica Jolly

      The biggest divide that I have noticed in recent years is between the literature of science and religion, something that wasn't always the case. I wonder about why this should in a sense suddenly be the case and well beyond the traditional hostility between the two discourses.

      Ordinarily this wouldn't concern me but I have noticed a marked increase in mechanistic isolationism and a withdrawal from the social amongst teenagers in this regard, contributing to a form of disinterest in the ethical…

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  15. Erica Jolly

    Writer about education

    I have just become aware of Professor Canning's concern that interdisciplinary approaches could be shallow. In the last fifty years there has been less and less academic acknowledgement of the value of one another's disciplines. Rather than share and understand we have cut ourselves off behind barriers of one kind or another. Great scientists have been aware of the impact of that denigration of one by the other. In 1995 Nobel Laureate Professor Roald Hoffmann, quantum chemist, poet and playwright…

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  16. Erica Jolly

    Writer about education

    Michael Leonard Furtado's concern about 'mechanistic isolation' is a reason to connect across the sciences and humanities. But there is another concern of which teacher educators need to be aware. Teacher educators value the moral aspect of learning and the human spirit which speaks to heart as well as head and hand. They engage across that Cartesian Divide. But in New Zealand teacher education has become 'teacher training'. In an article for 'Teaching and Teacher Education', [Issue 26 (2010) Associate…

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Erica Jolly

      A rare prophetic voice, indeed, is Erica Jolly's. I work - in social inclusion - at the periphery of teacher education, so mine is a bitter and forlorn rant by comparison.

      I can only concur with her in that some years ago I had the good fortune of a sabbatical in NZ, where I encountered Education Professor Ivan Snook of Massey University, who described in great and persuasive detail the neo-liberalisation of NZ education, cleaving its multiple (though at least two) components (of the aesthetic…

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  17. Erica Jolly

    Writer about education

    What matters most of all when we speak of education and disciplines that require our focus in the 21st century, is character. The quality of engagement matters. As human beings we have preferences, prejudices even and preferring the tools to people and just 'training' teachers so students use the 'tools' is going to be a serious concern. But even more of a concern is illustrated by the character of John von Neumann, lauded as one of the greatest pioneers in the field of computing. Scientists live…

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Erica Jolly

      Quite; and a determination of what it takes to build character neither depends on a scientific 'either' nor a humanitarian 'or', though I suspect that the humanities disciplines more often than not get the rough end of the deal. I recall a debate at the Oxford Union in the sixties on this very issue, where a fearsome scientist, called Riaz Abdullah, asked those presenting the case for banning the bomb to raise their hands if they read Politics, Philosophy and Economics, which at least half those present then cheerfully did. He then proceeded to excoriate them in terms that were more than mildly amusing, identifying them as representatives of a discipline that had produced the leaders who had sanctioned the use of the bomb.

      In general I think it unhelpful to quibble about whether scientists or politicians have been responsible for such colossal follies as Maralinga. The real issue, surely, is about how to educate for character.

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    2. Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Boss

      In reply to Michael Leonard Furtado

      Michael,
      What, precisely and in terms of harm to man and beast, do you mean by the "such colossal follies as Maralinga"?
      Do you find it easier for the filing system of you mind to have a slot for 'alleged mega disasters I have vaguely read about" that is in a different conceptual area to "the colossal mass murders of the Tutsi and the Hutu that are well recorded on film"?
      Where is your sense of perspective? Why not stick to facts instead of dreamtime stories of the magic properties of small quantities of nuclear radiation, small when compared with the weight of a machete crashing through a skull, time after time?

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    3. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Geoffrey Harold Sherrington

      Your personal remarks about the filing system of my mind aside, I've no problem with your compelling example of the Hutu and Tutsi. We clearly can't blame the inventors of the axe and the hammer, neutral technological inventions that they represent, for the Rwandan bloodbath.....though some anthropologists have linked it with the mining of gold, copper and diamonds in the region. Nor indeed, and unlike you, do I argue about the evident link between the Enola Gay and the vastly disproportionate devastation…

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  18. Erica Jolly

    Writer about education

    Replying to Michael Furtado. I had no intention of separating those in the sciences from those in the humanities. That either/or approach with its deliberate separation of one group of people from the other according to labels is the primary reason why we are in the difficult situation we are in. We made that happen with early specialization in schools and the complementary process of making assumptions about what constitutes appropriate education for girls and boys. On Sunday, July 14th Radio National, on Future Tense the gender imbalance in the sciences and technology was discussed by a neuro-scientist who has found no such male/female separation biologically in the brain. By developing that separation in schooling we fostered concern with areas of study instead of the quality of engagement in all study. That is why bringing the arts, humanities and sciences together is important in higher education but they also need to be connected at the pre-tertiary level.

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    1. Michael Leonard Furtado

      Doctor at University of Queensland

      In reply to Erica Jolly

      Thanks. I hadn't thought that the either/or dualities were as entrenched in our universal thinking until I entered this blog, Erica.

      For example, for John Henry Newman - as opposed to John von Neumann - the natural and moral sciences were one and the same and therefore indivisible thing.

      I tend for all sorts of reasons (principally to do with rejecting some of the more bizarre and overarching teleology of Aristotle and Aquinas....naturalistic fallacies....that sort of thing) to favour an…

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  19. Erica Jolly

    Writer about education

    Michael. i know the use of the word 'character' is a problem. It smacks of the kind of Victorian sanctimonious morality of so many Dickens exposed in his novels. However, it is being used by those developing a Canadian education system developing a structure for a 'resilient society capable of adapting to rapid change.' it involves a shift from 'instruction of facts to a model which focuses on competencies such as critical thinking, character, creativity, innovation as well as digital and computer literacy'. To me it suggests qualities of personal engagement in what we do in such a way that we value what each other can bring to the society of which we are a part. The quality of character I find valuable is most clearly shown in the despised Sissy Jupe' whom Gradgrind considers ineducable in 'Hard Times'.

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