Looking to the future, much depends on the quality of education. The aim must be to ensure that existing and future technological advances are applied for the benefit of society, and that decisions are based on objective facts, uninfluenced by any political or psychological factors.
We are now faced by a wholly new situation. For the whole of human history up to the nineteenth century technology developed as an empirical craft. The skills needed to work wood and metal were passed on from generation to generation, often achieving a very high level. There was no input whatever from the natural philosophers who tried to understand why things behave as they do. Likewise there was no contribution from the universities to the growth of technology, and very little to natural philosophy. Most natural philosophers carried out their work independently of the universities even if, like Newton, they had a university position. For centuries the curriculum of university studies was based on the Greek and Roman classics, and the physics taught was that of Aristotle, even long after he had been completely discredited. In 1868 T.H. Huxley asked a group of very distinguished university men whether it was possible for a student to have taken the highest honours in the university, and yet might never have heard that the earth goes round the sun. Everyone present replied 'yes'. The universities were thus in no position to contribute to the solution of the problems raised by technology.
Now the situation is entirely different. The pace of technological change is so great that new machines are obsolete almost as soon as they appear. Industries grow, flourish and decay like so many mushrooms as their products meet a real need, sell in large numbers and are then superseded. How should education prepare the next generation for this situation?
First of all, there is no need for instruction on how to use the new devices. It is a familiar experience that young children master the use of personal computers and cell phones much more easily than their seniors. The problem with children is the time they spend surfing the internet and what they see there, but such problems are not considered here. Education at the school level can provide guidance, but already many children spend more time with their computers than in the classroom.
Training in the basic engineering, electrical and electronic skills is an essential requirement. This may be provided in technical colleges. The lack of such colleges was the primary reason why Britain gradually lost the technological lead after the great success of the Exhibition of 1851. Germany established institutions like the Charlottenburg Institute of Technology and the USA the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the lead passed to them. Since then Britain established many Colleges of Technology and of Science and Technology combined, such as Imperial College in London, and the Manchester College of Technology (Ashby 1996). Many new universities were founded in London and the Midland and northern manufacturing cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, well equipped with science departments (Ashby 1966).
During the last hundred years the number and size of universities have increased greatly, so that an appreciable fraction of young people aspire to a university education, and even consider it as a right. This has inevitably changed the universities in many ways. In the past there were rather few undergraduates, and the universities subsisted on their fees and endowments. This is no longer sufficient and so the contribution of the State has steadily increased until it now provides the bulk of the funding. Together with the funding comes the danger of political interference. Some politicians are concerned that the proportions of admissions from various social classes are unequal. In particular, the numbers of students admitted to Oxford and Cambridge from public
(i.e. private) schools are rather similar to that from State schools, although the numbers educated in these schools are in the ratio of about one to twenty. This is seen as a great injustice and it is suggested that social criteria should be used to redress the balance. The universities point out that they admit strictly on academic merit, and rightly maintain that it would be unjust to act otherwise. The reason for the difference is the excellence of the public schools, and the solution to the problem is to raise the State schools to the same level. This is easier said than done.
Politicians are also under continued pressure to increase the quality of education, and this has resulted in the phenomenon known as 'grade inflation'. Every year the average grades of schoolchildren in the A-levels that control university entrance continue to rise. This is hailed with enthusiasm by the politicians, but everyone knows that this has been achieved by lowering the standards. The result is to give young people an inflated opinion of their abilities, and to make it more difficult for the universities to make a fair selection. The increasing tendency of students to object if they are not chosen, and the possibility of wide and damaging publicity, has also made the task of those responsible for university entrance far more difficult. Another problem is that universities have expanded beyond the numbers of qualified candidates in some subjects. The university is then faced with a difficult decision: either to admit sub-standard candidates to fill the quota or to maintain the standards and face the consequences of reduced numbers. The fact is that already there are far too many students in universities who have no vocation to scholarship but who think that a university degree is a ticket to a lucrative job or a pleasant way of spending a few years while they decide what to do with their lives. This is another way the universities have changed since the nineteenth century.
During the twentieth century the older British universities gradually shook off the legacy of centuries, expanded their science departments and invested more and more heavily in research. The rewards have been prodigious and the new understanding of matter that has been obtained has made possible the new technological advances. One need only mention the discovery in Britain of the electron, of nuclear fission and of the cavity magnetron to show the magnitude of the changes. In the USA the advances have been no less spectacular; the laser, the maser and the transistor provide three examples.
In addition to these scientific triumphs one of the most important contributions made by science to universities is a radical change to the whole process of attaining truth. No longer is truth unquestionably what Aristotle or the Professor says. Evidence must be put forward to support any proposition and it must be defended against attacks. Everyone is equally entitled to join the discussion, and their social standing, qualifications and religion are entirely irrelevant. If it survives this discussion, the proposition may be accepted provisionally until perhaps further considerations are brought forward. This mode of learning may and should now seem obvious, but it was not always so.
Another important contribution of science to the universities is the partial restoration of the universality of learning. During the Middle Ages students moved freely from one university to another to study under the most popular teachers. They spoke the same language and held the same faith and so wherever they went they soon felt at home. Tragically this was shattered at the Reformation: both language and religion became barriers. This situation persisted for several hundred years until science once again unified students and researchers all over the world. Most scientists understand English and are immediately at home among friends and colleagues whether they are in Tokyo or San Francisco, Oslo or Cape Town. In their particular research area, they are familiar with the same publications, carry out research on similar problems with similar methods, and frequently meet each other at international conferences. This invisible college, as it is sometimes called, is geographically wider than in medieval times, and involves far more people, but is restricted to the sciences and subdivided into specialities. In the humanities, which should provide their own unification, the situation is entirely different. Philosophers of different schools will vehemently deny even that they share the same concept of truth.
This universality of science had an important application at the height of the cold war. At that time there was a real danger that some misunderstanding might trigger an all-out nuclear war. This was a general anxiety, but scientists realised that there was a vital contribution that only they could make. Irrespective of political convictions and national alignments, they could agree about certain basic scientific and technical facts such as the dangers of radioactive pollution, the practicability of detecting underground nuclear tests and so on. A meeting between top-level Soviet, American and British scientists was therefore held in the small Canadian village of Pugwash. The costs were underwritten by Mr Cyrus Eaton, a financier. The scientists, many of whom knew each other already, soon established a social rapport. Language was no problem, as many of the Soviet scientists spoke English, and many of the Allied scientists spoke Russian. They discussed only objective scientific facts, and were able to establish a consensus, which they duly transmitted to their Governments on their return. Many such meetings were held over the years, and it is very probable that they injected some scientific realism into the subsequent political decisions.
There are two other respects in which science has made a vital contribution, although they remain far from being understood. The first is to emphasise the importance of numerical evaluation. Many examples in the previous chapters have shown that the truth about many important and contentious matters lies in the numbers. Without the numbers, arguments can go on forever without ever reaching a conclusion; with the numbers, the conclusion is frequently obvious. The second contribution is to show that there comes a time when it is generally recognised that fapp (John Bell's useful abbreviation of the phrase 'for all practical purposes') a particular discussion is settled. Frequently this is the result of increasingly accurate numerical data. After this point, further discussion is just a waste of time. As the previous chapters have shown, endless repetition of the same old arguments, long after they have been refuted a thousand times, continues to bedevil discussions on energy and the environment. Scientists understand this very well, so the major problem is to convey this to students of other disciplines. This is of vital importance because it is predominantly the students of the classics, history and the law that enter public service or Parliament and so are responsible for future policy.
In recent years there has been increasing pressure in several countries to teach science students only the applications of science, not the principles of the science itself. The increase in knowledge is so great, it is argued that time can be saved by concentrating on what is really useful to students. Such a proposal can be made only by someone who lacks even the slightest understanding of the relationship between science and technology. If such a proposal were adopted, the students would doubtless emerge with a comprehensive understanding of how to manipulate the latest gadgets, but they would have no knowledge of the fundamental principles underlying their operation and would be unable to improve or adapt them to changing conditions. Faced with a new gadget, they would be at a loss. The faster the pace of change, the more rapidly would their knowledge be rendered obsolete. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that research into the nature of matter at the most fundamental level and the transmission of this knowledge to students is the primary duty of the university. This is clearly understood by university teachers, and they will not allow this duty to be removed.
In some countries most research is carried out in Research Institutes, and the universities are primarily teaching institutions. This is a perfectly acceptable model, because the university teaching is done by scientists who are often themselves carrying out research in an Institute. If it is argued that all this is still consistent with the students at the undergraduate level being taught only things that are of direct utility, then it may be replied that in that case none of them will be qualified subsequently to undertake research. Furthermore, there is no objection to such courses being given in technical colleges where students are being prepared for practical work in a range of trades, not to undertake research.
In the universities themselves, once it is granted that their primary duty is the teaching of fundamentals and the prosecution of pure research, it may be admitted that the present situation is not always satisfactory, and that possible improvements should be discussed. The main problem is to convey to students of the humanities the need to make a quantitative study of whatever aspects admit of numerical evaluation. The first step is to convince the lecturers of the importance of this, and then it could be illustrated by examples in their lectures. This may not be too difficult for history, but in other subjects it is not so easy. An important contribution could be made by philosophers, who need to leave their preoccupation with logic chopping and sterile absurdities and return to their primary vocation, which is to seek the truth.
The situation in technical colleges offers opportunities for great improvement. It is recognised that these colleges exist to prepare students to apply technical knowledge to the needs of society. For this, they need not only have technical knowledge but an understanding of the wider implications of their work. Thus, in an example quoted by Eric Ashby, those who build a new road in Africa need to realise that this will have implications for the ecology, economy and social structure of the region. People living in what previously were isolated villages can now easily travel to visit each other, to buy and sell produce and to share in a whole range of activities that previously were not possible. Diseases may spread more easily, but medical care is more readily available. A course in road-building technology can then be supplemented by a range of shorter auxiliary courses designed to sensitise students to the likely effects of their activities. The same could be done for the other technical courses.
At the present time there are such powerful commercial forces at work that it is not easy to convince them that there are other considerations apart from their own profit. Even if it is clear that a proposed logging programme or a new dam will devastate the ecology of the region, as well as destroying the lives of the indigenous population it is not easy to get them to modify their plans. This suggests that students at technical college should also have courses to teach them how to fight such companies, backed by the essential legal knowledge.
It is easy to make such proposals, but to implement them in the present political climate in Britain would be practically impossible. The institutions where this might have been done are the old polytechnics. They undertook no research and performed very well the tasks of technical education and training. Then the Government, in response to pressure to increase the access to higher education, decided to transform these polytechnics into universities. This can be done by a stroke of the pen, and the politicians can boast how many new universities they have created. Needless to say, the underlying reality is unchanged. The staff are not equipped for research, although aspirations in that direction have been created. More seriously, there is now a lack of institutions able to carry out the humble but very necessary task of teaching basic technical skills.
The campaign against nuclear power affects the way people think from their earliest years. Children are readily influenced by the mass media, and their teachers may have a political agenda. A survey showed that 58% of 10-year-olds were against nuclear power, but less than half could give a reason. Many children think that nuclear power causes acid rain, that most of the radiation we receive comes from nuclear power stations, and that most children with leukaemia live near nuclear power stations. With this mindset established at an early age, it is not surprising that they continue to oppose nuclear power throughout their lives (Speakers' Corner No. 11. November 1988).
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