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Tilting at Windmills - Educational Misadventures in the Big Ten (Draft 02-10-06)
David L. Nanney
17. Science, Technology and Society
By the mid 80s, when I returned from my Humboldt Fellowship in Germany to find my Department of Genetics and Development destroyed, I despaired of programmatic developments within the School of Life Sciences. Fortunately I received a lifeline from an unexpected quarter. Daniel Alpert, one time Dean of the Graduate College, Professor of Physics, and veteran of radar developments at Westinghouse in WWII, became Director of the Center for Advanced Studies at UIUC. He had previously been Dean of the Graduate College, and impressed me as a kind of Hamlet figure, wringing his hands about difficult problems, but making little effort to find solutions. I am uncertain of the sources of his eventual understanding and inspiration and I do not know the details of his dream for the campus, but he clearly was dedicated to developing a center to an ever more fragmented campus. I was aware mainly of the converted home on Illinois Street where the Center was established and of the unconventional ideas that floated in its rooms.
Dan Alpert obtained funds to support younger campus scholars in time-off from formal duties as associates of the Center. He developed a mechanism for gilding local scholars as permanent members of the Center for Advanced Studies, and also gathering support for his communal agendas. These dignitaries tended to be the nationally recognized scholars members of national academies and named professors but they gave credibility to the more unconventional activities taking place.
The Center was, among other things, the home of the Miller Lecture Committee, funded by a bequest from a parsimonious mathematician who parlayed his modest retirement salary into a fund for campus speakers. The Miller Committee was established with members from many campus units. The Committee was challenged to select distinguished scholars and public figures to address the central problems of the university and the nation. I served on the Miller Committee, and welcomed the appointment as chair of the Miller Committee when Dan retired. I would have enjoyed supporting centripetal interests on the campus for several years, but my health began to deteriorate under the stresses in my local research and academic environment, and I soon had to withdraw.
Alpert recruited individuals from across the campus to serve in discussion groups focussed on issues of broader educational and research interest. He deliberately mixed together physical and social scientists, humanists, artists and technologists, who were interested in unresolved issues and in the perspectives of colleagues with different backgrounds. A program in Science, Technology and Society emerged from these informal gatherings, and this became my home away from the School of Life Sciences, which seemed no longer to welcome input from this faculty member.
One of the major educational issues that was considered by the STS faculty was the problem of “general education”. C. P. Snow’s perception of the gap between the cultures of the sciences and the humanities was already decades in the past, but the gap seemed to be growing wider. The university attempted to build a bridge by requiring a certain number of cross-disciplinary courses for all undergraduates. Unfortunately, the courses being offered were not doing a very good job, mainly perhaps department offerings in general education were far from the departments’ foci of interest. The faculty members most engaged at the frontiers of understanding were not those engaged in the undergraduate bridge courses.