I love the essay as a means of expressing ideas and feelings with literary grace. My favorite essay is by Thomas H. Huxley written in 1868. It is called “A liberal education and how to get it.” Huxley reacted against the trend then to educate young students by forcing them to learn classical Latin and Greek, not so much for the ideas of those civilizations, which he applauded, but to learn grammar and parse every sentence in ancient texts. He drew an analogy to a game of chess. If the careers and lives of our children depended on their ability to play chess, we would spend sums of money for tutors to make them experts. There is, he claimed, a game of life. It is called science. If you are good at it a knowledge of science can enrich your life, provide new careers, and even save your life. Remember that in 1868, while there was an industrial revolution in full swing, but the germ theory was still 20 years away. If you are ignorant of it or if you play it poorly, you might lack control over your life and short-change your career. Huxley singled out the new field of evolution as a key component of this knowledge which every child should learn, because without it they are vulnerable to becoming losers in the game of life. For Huxley the liberal arts included knowledge of world history, literature, philosophy, culture, the world’s geography, and an understanding of the universe through science.
Almost 150 years later we have few public schools that provide the type of liberal education that Huxley proposed. A majority of K-12 students in the United States do not learn about evolution or find it labeled as a controversial theory. Many private schools teach Creationism and those public schools that are in “Bible Belt” states (especially the south and Midwest) avoid the topic of evolution in their biology courses to prevent angry parents from complaining and threatening their employment. What science teaches will collide often with one religion or another. Christian scientists do not like their students in public school to learn that there is a germ theory of infectious diseases and oppose compulsory vaccination for highly lethal diseases. Jehovah’s Witnesses will object if their students lean blood typing and how blood transfusions have saved millions of lives. Those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis will argue that geologists have some error in method in dating ancient rocks, whether they use radioactive decay, numbers of layers in a sedimentary rock formation, ratios of elements, or tree rings. They will argue that the red shift used by astronomers does not apply to dating a source of light if it gives answers of more than 10,000 years. Even worse, some teachers are intimidated in how they teach politically controversial positions of science, including climate changes from global warming, regulation of industries to prevent pollution, regulation of the chemicals placed in our foods, regulation of medicines (prescription and over the counter) for carcinogenic and mutagenic effects. Those with money and power can effectively obscure issues yet act in good faith because they unknowingly accept self-deception or wishful thinking as reality. I wonder what type of science was taught to those legislators who deny evolution, the germ theory, global warming, the need for regulating industrial pollutants, practicing conservation of natural resources, radiation protection, or the importance of family planning. A liberal education is intended to equip young people with the knowledge to be informed and effective citizens as well as to be constructive critics of society’s failings. Is it not time we provide it?