Independence Day and STEM Democracy

by Bob Schwartz

Thomas Jefferson with Telescope

Is the increasing hegemony of STEM education dangerous to the future of American democracy?

In Science and the Founding Fathers: Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison, Professor I. Bernard Cohen might see it otherwise. As one of the most eminent historians of science, he makes the case that the familiarity of some Founding Fathers with science inspired the new nation, and that the shape of the new democracy was directly based on scientific principles.

One review notes about Professor Cohen’s theory:

The Declaration of Independence, which he [Jefferson] wrote, reverberates with echoes of Newtonian science, as when he invokes “self-evident” truths or “laws of nature.” Benjamin Franklin, far from being a mere tinkerer or inventor, pioneered the science of electricity. Franklin also developed a demographic theory that North America would become a population center of the British world; this led to the policy according to which the British annexed Canada rather than Guadeloupe as the spoils in the war against the French (1754-63). John Adams, who studied astronomy and physics at Harvard, was a founder of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston. And James Madison, a devoted amateur scientist, drew on scientific metaphors and analogies in his Federalist articles.

Maybe. But in fact, most of those in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress from which the Declaration of Independence emerged were not scientists or even science fans. And even those whose philosophy was shaped in part by science enjoyed a much broader education, one that gave complete dimension to their thinking, what we now call liberal arts. So that while the intriguing questions that Professor Cohen raises are significant, so is the parallel question: If the Continental Congress had been mostly or entirely filled with 18th century scientists, just what kind of Declaration would have been produced, and more broadly, what kind of nation would we be?

Nowhere can the nexus of Big Science and Big Political Philosophy be better seen than in Richard Rhodes’ magnificent book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. It is sort of a fun house mirror of what Cohen claims for the American founding. Rather than world-changing political thinkers with a scientific bent, we have equally historic scientists with a worldly and philosophical bent. They had been educated in the early 20th century, many in Europe, and the standard for education then and there was broad learning beyond the laboratory. In the end, their science was driven by the realities of World War II and Hitler, but that did not stop them from philosophical ponderings and quandaries about the work they were doing and its ultimate impact.

So, yes, it may be that science did help give us what by all measures is a remarkably robust and resilient democracy, starting with the rousing rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. And we should educate scientists, to make progress and to advance the liberty, peace, and security we want. But we should also have many other thinkers, scientists or otherwise, who are capable of leading and having enlightening debates about exactly what we do need and want, and about the means we choose to get there, and about where it might lead. We do need scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians. But it is never enough, not nearly enough, at least not in this democracy.

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