By President Lyle D. Roelofs
In beginning construction on the Margaret A. Cargill Natural Sciences and Health Building, Berea College has embarked on one of the most challenging and important capital projects in its history. his exciting moment is a great opportunity for reflection on the sciences as a key element of Berea’s educational and outreach missions. Mathematics and the health and physical sciences are key to our basic mission of service to students who would otherwise not be able to attend college. In the course of planning and promoting this project, it has been a wonderful privilege to meet so many Berea College alumni, of all ages, who have been able to succeed and become leaders in these disciplines, and to a person, they credit the high-quality education they received at Berea for the start they needed; their talent and ambition did the rest.
At Berea we are committed to a liberal arts framework as the best means for providing transformative opportunity. As a scientist, I have become persuaded throughout my career how synergistic is the place of sciences within a liberal arts education. Often thinking about the sciences in the context of the liberal arts begins with the classical foundation of the liberal arts, the trivium and the quadrivium, where mathematics and the first scientific discipline, astronomy, were key elements of the latter, as ordained by none other than Plato!
Through the years, other well-known humanists and thinkers have made the same point. For example, consider this appreciation for science from Walt Whitman. “I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.” Whitman gets the inquiring character of the sciences exactly right, and this level of appreciation for science is surely a necessary component of a liberal arts education.
In fact, at Berea College we are strongly of the view that all students, whether majoring in sciences or not, and whatever their career interests, need to achieve a number of objectives when it comes to mathematical and scientific knowledge: understanding of the role of science in society and our economy; confidence in their capacity to understand scientific pronouncements, analytical and mathematical arguments and interpretations, ability to discriminate between valid scientific work and bogus or even fraudulent claims; and more. Students may arrive at Berea with an aversion to or a fear of mathematics and science, but they should not graduate that way.
This is why our new science facilities will be beneficial for all students. Facilities designed to welcome students and facilitate the best instructional techniques not only benefit the science majors, but also serve to attract greater interest by all students.
I have been involved in developing new science facilities at both institutions I served before coming to Berea, and an observation from the first of those projects (Haverford College) illustrates this point. The Berea faculty who planned our new facilities incorporated a generous number of spaces for informal interactions, places where all students are welcomed to study together, meet with faculty, and assist and learn from one another. Much engaged learning will happen in those spaces, which serve as an extension to the laboratories and classrooms. We did the same thing at Haverford, and shortly after we opened those facilities, I noticed that a group of young women was frequently using an informal space near my office. A little later they introduced themselves to me as the women’s soccer team—they gathered in that space regularly to support one another in all their courses, my office if they had a question for me.
So, in addition to an approximate 25 percent increase in the number of majors in the sciences, we found that all students were drawn to the new facilities. Both patterns repeated themselves at Colgate University, the second project I was involved with, and other institutions report those enhancements as well.
What about the rest of our Great Commitments? At Berea we are also committed to the values of our Christian founding, and from time to time there are challenges in integrating faith and science. These are neither necessary nor insurmountable. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered an insight into how science and religion are not in conflict, but rather are complementary, when he said, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.” Scientists, ever eager in their pursuit of knowledge about the world, however, do not eschew wisdom, either. Einstein, perhaps foremost among them, said, “Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to topping by acquire it,” and certainly we agree at Berea College that education does not end at graduation—a liberal arts college degree should be a preamble to a long life of continuing learning. And why should a Christian be interested in science? Christian Psychologists David Myers and Malcolm Jeeves may have said it best, “…whatever God found worth creating we can find worth studying.”
What about science and labor? The learning and doing of science has never seemed like work to me, but I don’t know any successful scientists or science students who do not in fact work very hard. We expect that the lights will be on in our new building every day until late at night!
Our Fifth and Sixth Commitments empower the participation of all students in an interracial and coeducational community. Some of the science disciplines have struggled to achieve gender and ethnic parity and equity, so that this is truly another area that Berea College has much to offer to the disciplines and fields of math and science.
And then, what about mindful and sustainable living? For me, caring about the earth and our environment starts with appreciation based on understanding, and promoting wellness depends on full knowledge of our bodies and minds.
Our Eighth Commitment is to the Appalachian region. Berea College is known for its strong contributions to education and health care in Appalachia over the years. I am told that there were times in our history when the majority of doctors, nurses, and teachers in Eastern Kentucky had obtained their education at Berea College. While that is no longer the case, we are very proud of the contributions still being made by many Berea College graduates to the region. Moreover, the challenges faced by Appalachia such as, environmental restoration, sustainable business development, drug abuse, improving educational systems, will all require highly trained and committed professionals in the health and technical disciplines. Our new building will ensure that Berea College continues to be a key resource for Appalachia.
In conclusion, I have not been able to shake the feeling as I am writing this little essay, that I am preaching to a choir. There does not seem to be any doubt among Berea’s cohort of friends and alumni of the need for and value of continuing our strong commitment to science education at the highest level. Our fundraising plans for this project seemed ambitious to all of us at the start, but the response of alumni and friends has been, in a word, astounding. While we still have work to do, it is not too soon to be saying a hearty bravo to this amazing choir of supporters.