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Briggs collage

Dean's Corner

By Elizabeth H. Simmons, October 8, 2015

Lyman Briggs College was founded in 1967 by Michigan State University in order to bridge the perceived widening gap between the sciences and humanities. It was intended to serve as a center for cultural exchange between what C.P. Snow termed the “Two Cultures,” educating students in science considered within humanistic and social contexts. Nearly 50 years later, we can see how this mission naturally supports the university’s broader intellectual aims for MSU students.

The Lyman Briggs web page about the Briggs Experience describes how some of our interdisciplinary efforts to bridge the sciences and humanities are implemented. In particular:

    A hallmark of the LBC experience is that students learn about the historical, philosophical, and sociological (HPS) dynamics of science while they are performing real science in their inquiry-based science lab courses. Our HPS courses help students learn about the complex reality of science, which extends far beyond the rather simplistic picture portrayed in many science textbooks. Among other things, our HPS courses focus on the historical trajectory of different scientific disciplines and their associated rules of evidence and preferred methods; the logic of theory creation and hypothesis testing; and the interrelationships between science and other major institutions in society (e.g., religion, the economy, the government). Even more important, our introductory biology, chemistry and physics courses utilize inquiry-based labs that emphasize the development of research and scientific reasoning skills rather than merely confirming pre-existing "right" answers.

When one is studying complex situations where there are no “right” answers, and doing so in the company of students from many different backgrounds, it is inevitable that one will encounter a reading or hear a statement during a class discussion that does not align with one’s pre-conceptions or current beliefs. Indeed, to judge by students’ comments on course evaluations, this happens regularly in our college. But what the students typically go on to say is that, regardless of whether engaging with a broader set of ideas changes their minds about an issue, they find it immensely valuable to examine the evidence and think through its implications in the company of their peers and instructors.

As it happens, I recently read a 2006 statement from the Association of American Colleges and Universities regarding Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility. A few key paragraphs state:

    Academic freedom is necessary not just so faculty members can conduct their individual research and teach their own courses, but so they can enable students - through whole college programs of study - to acquire the learning they need to contribute to society.

    As faculty carry out this mission, it is inevitable that students will encounter ideas, books, and people that challenge their preconceived ideas and beliefs. The resulting tension between the faculty’s freedom to teach - individually and collectively - and the students’ freedom to form independent judgments opens an additional dimension of academic freedom and educational responsibility that deserves further discussion, both with the public and with students themselves.

    The clash of competing ideas is an important catalyst, not only for the expansion of knowledge but also in students’ development of independent critical judgment.

This clearly underscores the importance of the work we do here in Lyman Briggs. Not only is helping students appreciate science as a human endeavor important in and of itself, but the process of cultivating that appreciation also necessarily helps them develop critical thinking skills that will serve them well later in life.

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September 2015