Does an education in science need history?

Isis, 99(2)In the latest issue of Isis, 99(2), Graeme Gooday, John M. Lynch, Kenneth G. Wilson, and Constance K. Barsky ask an important question: “Does science education need the history of science?” Generalized to address recent questions about the place of “the History of psychology” in “the discipline of Psychology,” their discussion seems particularly timely.

Perhaps predictably, given what is likely my own bias in sharing their article with the readers of AHP, Gooday and his colleagues answer such questions in the affirmative: “science education can gain from close engagement with the history of science both in the training of prospective vocational scientists and in educating the broader public about the nature of science” (p. 322). Their essay makes this case in two parts, with a third suggesting some ways in which historians could further increase the value they offer to science:

First it shows how historicizing science in the classroom can improve the pedagogical experience of science students and might even help them turn into more effective professional practitioners of science [pp. 323-327]. Then it examines how historians of science can support the scientific education of the general public at a time when debates over “intelligent design” are raising major questions over the kind of science that ought to be available to children in their school curricula [pp. 327-329]. It concludes by considering further work that might be undertaken to show how history of science could be of more general educational interest and utility, well beyond the closed academic domains in which historians of science typically operate.

Of the three, the third part of their essay seems most likely to generate the kind of discussion that would help historians of psychology secure the future of History in Psychology. Regrettably, this final section is the least well-developed. The essay simply ends, offering only a few pithy lines in conclusion:

We need to produce harder and more extensive evidence of the educational efficacy of historical thinking about science. We also need to work more closely with scientists to fend off irresponsible uses of history that might infiltrate the science curriculum. Of themselves, these twin projects could keep historians of science busy for decades, but we welcome debate not only on further initiatives along these lines, but also on other ways in which our discipline can critically benefit science education in the twenty-first century. (p. 330)

Yet it seems clear that these projects (especially the first) are still too limited in scope. There is a role for history not only in teaching, but also in discovery. Rather than simply demonstrating the value of the “educational efficacy” of “historical thinking” in teaching students, we therefore also need to show the scientific efficacy of historical knowledge in making discoveries.  However, the authors apparently dismissed this out of hand: “Have any Nobel Prize winners declared that history of science was the secret of their creative success?” (p. 322).

In the history of psychology, this dismissal can be taken as a challenge.  Hence: Whose research was improved/catalyzed/enabled/guided by their historical knowledge?  My own work suggests that such a list might begin with James Mark Baldwin, Pierre Janet and Jean Piaget, but (because this initial list may just be a product of my own bias) there are presumably many others.

Unfortunately, we are led in this to a conflict: the kind of intellectual history argued-for by Gooday and his colleagues is of a kind not currently en vogue in history departments. Rather, it is “doing history for science.” Yet since this is what would be useful in psychology departments, it seems clear that — generalizing from Gooday’s discussion to address problems in our own discipline — room ought to be made in psychology for history.

Comments and criticisms are welcome below.  The article discussed is available free from the University of Chicago Press website (PDF).

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About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

8 thoughts on “Does an education in science need history?

  1. “However, the authors apparently dismissed this out of hand: “Have any Nobel Prize winners declared that history of science was the secret of their creative success?””

    Wasn’t it Isaac Newton who commented that “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”? He seemed duly appreciative of his predecessors. All science is cumulative, some fields are just better at acknowledging that.

  2. The “shoulders of giants” comment is often attributed to Newton, who once used it in a letter to Hooke, but he seems to have lifted it from Benard of Chartres, who used it in the 12th century. You don’t think he lifted the calculus too, do you? :-)

  3. “All science is cumulative, some fields are just better at acknowledging that.”

    Well said. With that, it can be seen that some history of science has always been incidentally taught. The important theories and concepts formulated by these “giants” are generally presented with reference to their names and lives. The question then should not be whether history should be taught but whether more history should be taught.

    I think it would also have a positive effect on how science is perceived. The personal element would be central to teaching the history. Science, then, would not be seen as something simply existing in large textbooks, but as a type of dialectic and struggle between people and the world. I think the resultant rise in motivation would be quite noticeable.

  4. My eye was caught by this sentence: “We also need to work more closely with scientists to fend off irresponsible uses of history that might infiltrate the science curriculum.” This seems to be a recommendation uninformed by the history of the history of science. Most of the “irresponsible uses of history” that has “infiltrated the science curriculum” has been because the historical task has because of “working closely with scientists.” I’m sure I don’t have to rehearse for this audience the tedious story of “textbook” histories of science meant to prove the correctness of current scientific views.

    In the postwar era, as the history of science came into its own as a discipline, scientists tended to be aghast (think of Stephen Brush’s notorious “Should the History of Science be Rated X?”) and many historians have not missed their former close alliance with scientists (think of Paul Forman’s notorious “Independence, not Transcendence for the History of Science”).

    So, I guess my position is: historians should write their histories without regard to the idea that history is useful for science. If scientists find them useful (and I think they should), well and good. But producing histories meant to serve scientific, rather than historical agendas is a mistake.

  5. “…producing histories meant to serve scientific, rather than historical agendas is a mistake.”

    This goes directly to the heart of the issue I had hoped to discuss in sharing this article: histories remarking on the importance of history for scientific discovery (rather than just for science education, as the authors suggest) could be written so as to serve the historical agenda and science. That’s different from doing celebratory textbook histories that show “the inevitable path of progress.” And it might help to secure a stronger position for the role of historians in science departments….

  6. I’m not sure I see a big distinction between the kind of history you are describing and celebratory history. “Discovery” is a success term. Writing a history of “discovery” is to write a celebratory account, is it not?

    But you are writing of “history FOR scientific discovery” Is that different than a history OF scientific discovery?

  7. I actually never intended to “make an argument.” Rather, my purpose was to explore the implications of Gooday’s conclusion.

    It seems to me — on the basis of my own research on James Mark Baldwin, Pierre Janet, and Jean Piaget — that “doing history” can have implications for later “scientific discovery.” (All three of these people did historical work in support of their theoretical and empirical work.) Following Gooday’s first project, it then seemed that this ought to be discussed.

    I personally never intended to promote celebratory history; my comments should not be interpreted as tending in that direction.

    To rephrase my question: Is there anything in Gooday’s conclusions that we could use to help secure the position of History in Psychology?

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