Honors course bridges gap between the sciences and humanities

ECE News

Laurel Bollinger, ECE Illinois

Story Highlights

  • Professor Stephen Levinson's course will discuss science's affect on “the nature of mental and social reality.”
  • Levinson's interest in bridging science and humanities began in high school and continued throughout his career.
  • The honors course has students from across campus.

ECE Professor Stephen Levinson (left) is teaching a course through the Campus Honors Program entitled Scientific Discovery and the Reinvention of Identity.
ECE Professor Stephen Levinson (left) is teaching a course through the Campus Honors Program entitled Scientific Discovery and the Reinvention of Identity.

“I felt that there was a drastic misunderstanding of the sciences by the humanities,” said ECE Professor Stephen E Levinson. “And I felt that because of that, there is a real need to try to bring the two together and to try to repair the rift.”

To bring students together from both the north and south campuses at Illinois, Levinson is teaching an honors course called “Scientific Discovery and the Reinvention of Identity.“ The syllabus describes the course as “a history of ideas” that will review the origins of several decades of sciences’ impact on “the nature of mental and social reality.”

Levinson said that he has always been confused about the separation of the sciences and the humanities. “When I went to high school there were three curricula for college prep students,” he said. “There was a science track, a humanities track, and there was a language track. And since I had an interest in all directions, I never understood why there was a distinction between the sciences and humanities. I always did them all.”

In 1959 Levinson heard a lecture given by George Cassidy, a chemistry professor at Yale, on the relationship between the sciences and humanities at Connecticut College.  This experience, combined with his high school experiences, led Levinson to begin toying with the idea of this class decades before it came into existence.

“Throughout my whole career, this idea has been sort of a hobby. I’ve always had an interest in it, the philosophy of science,” said Levinson.

During his long and varied career, he spent time working at AT&T Bell Laboratories, where he found that his colleagues, also scientists, had varied interests such as his.

“There was a lot of interest in the performing arts, theater, writing, sculpture, all sorts of stuff,” said Levinson. “There was never any conflict, because everyone had similar interests, and it was remarkable how similar our thoughts were on the relationship between our careers and the humanities.”

Stephen E. Levinson
Stephen E. Levinson
When Levinson came to the University of Illinois in 1997, he discovered that the same level of harmony between the two subjects did not exist.

“I came here with the assumption that the University campus would be just like Bell Labs, “said Levinson. “That there would be free and open exchanges of ideas and that everybody had pretty much the same world view. Of course, that turned out not to be true, and very quickly I got involved in lectures and conferences outside of the ECE department in humanities and social sciences.”

He had always been interested in the philosophy of science and the humanities. He had given a few guest lecturers in history and psychology classes but still didn’t have a consistent idea for dealing with the problem. But that all changed last year when he was given an invitation from the Campus Honors Program to submit a prospectus for a course.

“I thought, wow, this is the way to do it. This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” he said.

His course offering was so successful that some students had to be turned away.

The class is easily meeting Levinson’s expectations. “I’m having an absolutely terrific time with it, and the students are fantastic,” he said. “They are eager and open minded.”

The students in the course come from both sides of the University divide. There are six science students, a couple philosophy students, and the rest are from various humanities. The class structure is more like a humanities class with a focus on an extensive and daunting reading list. Every week students lead a discussion about the reading with Levinson moderating and guiding them in how they should read the material and direct their discussions. They are also required to write an essay on what they’ve read as well as prepare a few questions to help aid them in the classroom.

One student, senior Lally Gartel is a political science and philosophy major in the honors program. She says it was the focus on the philosophy of science with the humanities that drew her to the class. Gartel says that she has really enjoyed the class and that Levinson makes sure that the students are following the history and significance of scientific discovery and that he makes it possible for them to contribute without having to be scientists.

“I think the class is wonderful,” said Gartel. “I feel that the humanities students in the class are able to be exposed to science and scientific reading in an accessible way. I think this class is a must-take for people in the humanities and social sciences.”

Levinson hopes to use the experience of teaching this course as the basis for a book. “My hope is that this course will be well-enough appreciated that I can give it maybe another two times, during which I would refine the course,” he said. “And I am in the process of writing a book that will go along with the course.”

For now, Levinson is encouraging students to have a dialog among themselves and to try to understand each other’s goals in life. He wants students to understand that there are reasons beyond technology for studying science.

“Science is a way of looking at and understanding the world,” said Levinson, “and therein lies its true value, regardless of whether or not there are any technological spin-offs.”

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