What should people know about your discipline?

Tennie Videler (1 March 2012)

I've been following a discussion on Daphnet about the question: ‘What should an educated person be expected to know about science?’.  Daphnet is a women in science mailing list, hence the emphasis on science. But I thought it would worth exploring it in all disciplines, If you’re up for it.

The debate is nothing new, in 1959 Sir Charles Snow said, in effect, that nonscientists’ lack of knowledge of the second law of thermodynamics was equivalent to scientists not ever reading a work of Shakespeare.  Should and does everyone know the ins and out of said law? And would anyone admit to not having read any Shakespeare?

Should educated people be able to answer these questions..?

Should educated people be able to answer these questions, for example?:

  • Why do we have a leap day every four years?
  • Which novel was written first, Brave New World or 1984?
  • What is PCR?
  • What defines a recession?
  • What is the evidence for atomic theory?
  • How do plants gain energy from sun light?
  • Why, in most places in the world, are there two high tides a day?
  • When someone tells you that their result has p<0.01, what is p?

What can we expect an educated person to know? Where would they find out? What role should we play in letting people know?

What would be your list?  (and does my list display my ignorance?)

It will be interesting to see if the discussion here reflects that on Daphnet…. (hoping there is one!)


Blanka Sengerová
> (and does my list display my ignorance?)
I think your list shows that you are a scientist by training and I might have put together a similar list, but it would probably differ from lists put together by researchers in other fields. I would agree that the questions you ask are those that should be answered by an educated person, or at least they should be able to have a good idea of what you're talking about (I, for instance, didn't know the publication dates of 1984 and Brave New World, but have read both books and could tell you what they're about), but this in addition to questions from other fields.

So yes, being familiar at least with some of Shakespeare is probably part of general education. As is the ability to place countries named in the news bulletin at least in the right continent, preferably in the right part of a continent. And the ability to understand a quote in a foreign language in a novel from the context and some basic language training.

I do strongly think that we should be expected to have at least some basic knowledge about fields away from our own discipline, and feel that the British A-Level system where you are able to specialise in your own subjects to the exlusion of all others at the age of 16 goes against this sentiment. It means that people overspecialise far too early in their education. It leads to too many scientifically illiterate arts/humanities specialists, but also to scientists/engineers who are rubbish at expressing their argument because they simply cannot write a coherent piece of text (despite being a non-native English speaker, I have often been surprised at the appalling grammar and spelling in texts written by native speakers), and to a country full of people who are unable to communicate in a language other than their native one.

As an example, I was horrified to be asked by someone in the year above me, when in the Sixth Form (so this is someone who is 18) whether I left the Czech Republic because of the war there. This bloke, very intelligent and about to go and study engineering at university, immediately fell in my estimation for confusing Yugoslavia with Czechoslovakia.

So I guess in addition to your fairly sciencey questions, a list of things that an educated person should be expected to know might include many of the following:

- Was Juliet a Montagu or Capulet? Or which Shakespeare is "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse..." from...
- Ability to communicate in at least one language other than your native tongue.
- Ability to identify the basic meadow flowers and plants, at least in the environment where you grew up.
- Being able to name most of the European countries that are part of the EU, or at least able to exclude the ones that aren't. Likewise, being able to list at least half to 2/3 of the US states.
- Being aware of the approximate meanings and dates of Versaille, Munich, Pearl Harbour, Vietnam War, Falkland War, Hiroshima, and other important dates in recent history.

I am sure others will be able to come up with some more, but the point is trying to bring across is that we ought to be able to have an intelligent conversation about things that are not in our specialist field.

Simon Smith
Oh dear, you make a sociologist feel very insecure when you pose questions like these! We have a troubling tendency to produce the kind of knowledge that a/ is difficult to reduce to factoids, and b/ relates to the everyday social world that we all feel expert about because we live and breathe it. So a good example of a 'hot' sociological research question might be: what caused last summer's English riots? The trouble is, just about everybody will have a strong opinion on that, so the problem is not ignorance, as in your examples above, but more like a lack of reflexive or empirically-grounded (evidence-based) knowledge. In fact I'm almost tempted to say that the sign of an educated person's respect for sociology as a field would be that he or she was willing to admit that they don't know the answer to a question like that, but they're interested in listening and talking to someone who's either done some research on it or has a some expert comparative or theoretical knowledge to offer;-)

Peter Taylor
@ Blanka Sengorova I agree with many of your points, however, feel that I should correct one pont that you made There is no Brittish A-level system. It is prevelant (ubiquitous?) in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, but Scotland has a different education system and always has had. We do other qualifications, have a more general education to the age of 18, usually pursuing 6 or more subjects (including Maths and English) to that age. It is possible to do A levels at school here, but it is very unusual for a pupil to make that choice.

Blanka Sengerová
>>There is no Brittish A-level system.
You are entirely correct. Apologies, I should stop using British and English synonymously as I am going to get bashed by some Scot soon (as my husband tells me - it is a mistake foreigners sometimes make, but since my accent is pretty native by now, he reckons this excuse might not be so obvious!).

Sandrine Berges
I do like Blanka's list. It reminds me of a quotation I came across somewhere:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet...

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

Whereas I don't quite think we ought to know that many things, I like the idea that a competent human being should have skills, as well as knowledge of facts. Maybe I'd add to Blanka's list, playing a musical instrument or singing, knowing how to cook, knowing how to fix a plug, or a tap, or put up a shelf. Knowing the lyrics of Sinatra songs, being able to discuss some 'classic' films, as well as books. Having some idea of what was on the charts in each decade since the sixties. And - there's no longer any excuse for skipping that one - knowing the names and accomplishments of some women scientists, philosophers, historians from the past.

But also, I'd add that no one should be held to such a list. Remember how Sherlock Holmes refused to learn anything about the solar system, because it was taking headspace he could use for something else!

Blanka Sengerová
I really like some of your additions, Sandrine! I'd be the first one to put my hand up and admit that I don't know or know how to do everything in either Tennie's or Sandrine's lists but what their posts and mine amount to is that we all think you should have a reasonably wide range of general knowledge and not only of your specialist subject.