Recap of Gary Hardcastle’s Talk

Gary Hardcastle

Gary Hardcastle, Associate Professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University, came to Bucknell University on November 20th to give a talk entitled “(Really) Recovering Understanding: James B. Conant’s Theory of Understanding and its Contemporary Relevance.”

James Bryant Conant

Professor Hardcastle’s talk focused on Conant’s theory of understanding, as well as the social, political, and pedagogical projects he associated with it. At the center of these projects is On Understanding Science: An Historical Approach, published in 1947 and based on his 1946 Terry Lectures. At this point, Conant (1893–1978) had been President of Harvard University for ten years; he had served as the Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee during WWII, overseeing the Manhattan Project; he had, with Vannevar Bush, laid the foundation for what would be America’s National Science Foundation; and he had brought into being a model of post-war university education, a vision distilled in 1945’s General Education in a Free Society, aka the Harvard “Red Book.” These achievements brought Conant to regard public understanding of how science works as vitally important to human survival, spurring him to articulate a theory of the understanding of science and its transmission, a project he would continue for the rest of his life. Though Conant’s thinking about understanding was acutely tuned to WWII and the ensuing Cold War, Professor Hardcastle argued that his questions are just those that have motivated a resurgence of interest in understanding in the (heretofore somewhat insulated) fields of epistemology and philosophy of science: “Why,” Conant asks, “should any but a relatively few experts need to understand science,” and what, for that matter, does it mean, to “understand science?”

The most notable feature of Conant’s view, as Professor Hardcastle presented it, is that general science education should focus primarily on helping students understand the history of science rather than transmitting contemporary scientific knowledge. By examining case studies from the past, students learn about what it’s like to be a scientist. In this way, we can learn how scientists think and so how science makes progress—which, according to Conant, is not just by  collecting more data, but by developing new concepts. For the student, the result is not a gloss on current knowledge; it is a respect for—and understanding of—how science works. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that contemporary science education falls seriously short in this respect, and that we could learn a good deal from Conant’s vision. Thank you, Professor Hardcastle, for bringing it to our attention!