Chapter 2

The Social Contract of Science: Implications for Teaching Science

Glen Aikenhead

In his 1939 book, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum, Harold Benjamin sketched a parable of stagnate curriculum reform. Let me quote a synopsis:

Three fundamentals marked the first educational curriculum: (1) catching fish with the bare hands, (2) clubbing tiny horses to death, and (3) frightening saber-toothed tigers with torches.

By studying those three subjects in their "schools" the stone-age people got along fairly well until there came a changed condition caused by the movement of ice from the north, the forerunner of the ice age.

The streams became muddied and fish could not be seen to catch with the bare hands, so someone invented the net, made of vines. The tiny horses fled and the antelope replaced them. The stone-agers invented antelope snares. The saber-toothed tigers died of pneumonia, but the big ice bear replaced them, and the stone-age men dug pits to trap them. So net-making, twisting antelope snares and digging bear pits became the three essentials of life.

But the schools continued to teach fish-catching with the hands, horse-clubbing, and tiger-scaring because they had taught them for years. Some "liberal" wanted to teach net-making, snare-making, and pit-digging but he was met with opposition. Some even wanted to do away entirely with the old subjects, but they aroused a storm and were called radicals.

The old subjects must be retained for their "cultural value," the school people contended. The proposed new subjects had no place in the curriculum.

The conservatives said: "Training to catch non-existent fish with bare hands is the best way to achieve muscular coordination and agility; training in clubbing horses that do not exist is an education in stealth and ingenuity; practising to frighten tigers that do not exist develops courage. Some things are fundamental and sacred in education and must not be changed." (Benjamin, 1948, pp. 53-54)

This chapter develops the argument that the high school science curriculum, as normally taught today, is a saber-tooth curriculum. Because the curriculum was established in the 19th century, and although times have changed dramatically, the fundamental and sacred aspects of the 19th century science curriculum remain with us today.

The argument proceeds in two interconnected parts. The first part traces the evolution of science from its status as "natural philosophy" in renaissance society to its modern status in the 1990s. The evolution of science demonstrates how social events have shaped the very nature of science itself. This historical analysis establishes a framework for the second part of the argument which demonstrates how social events over the last three decades will likely reshape the high school science curriculum. The argument concludes that a science-technology-society (STS) science curriculum will replace the saber-tooth curriculum, for the same reason that over a hundred years ago science replaced natural philosophy.

The historical analysis explaining the evolution of science draws heavily upon a series of lectures given by Everett Mendelsohn (1975a, b, c, 1976), professor of history of science at Harvard University. This historical analysis of science provides new insights into today's high school science curriculum. The analysis gives a context for understanding why science teachers tend to teach as they do, why educators are calling for a change in this teaching, and why an STS curriculum is the natural focus for such a change.

The Evolution of Science

Over the past five hundred years, historical events have helped to shape the very nature of science itself (Cohen, 1960; Dampier, 1948; Elkana & Mendelsohn, 1981; Mendelsohn, 1975a, b, c, 1976; Middleton, 1963). Three instances will be examined:

1. How the social context of 17th century Europe, dominated by the Counter- Reformation, gave birth to the institutionalization of natural philosophy (the "science" at that time);

2. How the social context of 19th century Europe, dominated by the Industrial Revolution, precipitated the professionalization of science (when the term "science" came into common use);

3. How the social context of the 20th century, dominated by World War II, molded the socialization of science (the "science" of our everyday world today).

These three episodes caused mutations to science's fundamental characteristics. These critical episodes will be examined, one at a time, to see how they guided the evolution of science and how they profoundly altered science's social contract with society.

Our story begins with the Renaissance, a time when Aristotle's philosophy of the world governed people's conceptions of matter, motion, and the heavens. Some scholars added incrementally to Aristotle's intellectual heritage; for example, Bernard Sylvester (12th century), Roger Bacon (13th century), Nicole Oresme (14th century), Leonardo da Vinci (15th century), Copernicus (16th century), and finally, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei (early 17th century). Their individual efforts began to define a new type of philosophy -- natural philosophy. Natural philosophy rejected authority based on scripture and old philosophers, in favor of authority based on one's empirical experience with nature.

The renaissance explorers of nature (da Vinci, Kepler, Copernicus, etc.) were unimpeded by any social contract with their society. They were only hobbyists enjoying intellectual diversion. Their musings were not seen initially as interfering with traditional philosophy. As the 17th century approached, however, the political climate changed. The Reformation led to the Counter-Reformation. A social contract would have to be negotiated between natural philosophy and society.

The Institutionalization of "Science"

During the first half of the 17th century, a number of natural philosophers worked towards organizing themselves into a politically acceptable public enterprise. Leaders in this effort included Mersenne, Descartes, Bacon, Huygens, Boyle, and Hooke. In 1662, British natural philosophers were formally incorporated into The Royal Society. They were followed in 1666 by the French natural philosophers who formed the Academie de Science in Paris. What content did they include in their new type of knowledge? What content did they leave out? What were the social forces at the time? How did these forces determine what would be included, and what would be excluded?

First, let us examine the social forces. Seventeenth century Europe was a time of insecurity and anxiety. People were coping with the Counter-Reformation, wars, fires, and epidemics. It was a period of instability -- social, intellectual, and political instability. Traditional sources of authority had been undermined. Natural philosophers of earlier generations had contributed to this revolution. Some had been condemned. Some had even been burned.

In 1660, however, a new social order was in place. Cromwell's rule had ended in England. The church and crown were reestablished. World exploration and colonialization had given rise to a new mercantile middle class.

What did natural philosophers offer this new society in return for allowing the natural philosophers to institutionalize their new way of thinking? What compromises did the natural philosophers have to make?

The promise that natural philosophy offered society is best summarized by Francis Bacon when he wrote about three kinds of ambition. The third and most noble ambition was for man "to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race over the universe. ... We cannot command nature except by obeying her and understanding her" (quoted in Mendelsohn, 1975c, p. 9). In short, knowledge is power! "Scientia est potentia." Not only is knowledge power, but within the domain of Christendom, with its Judao-Christian ethic, you could exploit nature with a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects. Therefore, natural philosophers offered 17th century society three gifts: (1) a new way of knowing characterized by a new type of authority, an authority based on observation and rationalism, and not on scriptures and social position; (2) the goal and ability to achieve power and dominion over nature, and (3) a mood of indifference towards any responsibility to nature or to those who might be affected by the new rational knowledge.

But there was a compromise. In order to establish a niche in society, natural philosophers had to make peace with the newly established religious and secular authorities. The compromise was clear. Natural philosophers would avoid discussing religion, politics, and morals. These topics would be excluded, along with subjectivity and arational thinking. The public face of The Royal Society was therefore established. The social contract of natural philosophy was finalized: natural philosophy would deal only with objective rational knowledge acquired through direct experience with nature, and in return, natural philosophy would provide other social institutions with power and dominion over nature. Mendelsohn (1975b) calls it the positivist compromise.

Natural philosophy, as a social institution, was established across Europe. Its social contract with 17th century society kept natural philosophy out of trouble with the new authorities. Moreover, natural philosophy provided a new middle class with useful, practical knowledge which carried no moral responsibility. To be sure, discussions about moral responsibility were defined by the social contract to be beyond the scope of natural philosophy. In short, the precursor to science had been declared objective and value free, because its political survival depended on it.

The social and historical events of the 17th century helped to shape the characteristics and limitations of what we call science today. In the meantime, other historical events would reshape the nature of science.


The Professionalization of "Science"

The 17th and 18th centuries saw natural philosophers gain power and dominion over nature. By the end of the 18th century, their successful techniques and knowledge were redirected by others -- technologists -- towards power and dominion over human productivity itself. This gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and gave new power to the social institution of technology. Technology became so successful that it challenged the social niche that natural philosophy had gained 200 years earlier. Industrialists saw natural philosophy as the handmaiden of technology. Natural philosophers would have none of it.

They reacted to the attempted subordination in several ways: by retreating into the cloisters of the universities, by calling themselves "scientists" (to distinguish themselves from natural philosophers), by creating a public face of "pure science," by isolating themselves from the "vulgarities of practical knowledge," and by establishing a tight rein over who would have access to becoming a scientist and what standards would apply. Natural philosophy had evolved into a profession.

The Industrial Revolution caused natural philosophy to redefine its boundaries and to renegotiate its mission in society. By redefining its boundaries, what did science include? What did it exclude?

Science focused its efforts on intellectual curiosity and knowledge for knowledge sake, a marked departure from its Baconian tradition of practical knowledge. Moreover, science distanced itself further from value-laden discourse, from the consumers of its knowledge, and from social responsibility. Science eschewed its technological and social connections.

Scientists established a self-serving hierarchical position by defining technology as "applied science." The misconception continues to plague technology and science education today (Collingridge, 1989; Fleming, 1989; McGinn, 1991; Snow, 1987).

By 1860, a reshaped domain of knowledge had been constituted. Biology, chemistry, geology, and physics were enshrined as disciplines when they became new administrative units within the university. Natural philosophy had become professionalized science.

Coincidentally, the high school science curriculum was being introduced into public schools for the first time. The university's administrative model for science was copied by the high schools. Biology, chemistry, geology, and physics became the only valid ways to view nature. Like 19th century science, high school science eschewed practical knowledge and ignored values and social relevance.

A conclusion seems warranted. Similar to science itself, the high school science curriculum was shaped by the social forces that existed at the time of its inception. This happened to the high school curriculum when science was retreating into the universities to protect itself from a take-over bid by technology. As a consequence, the legitimacy of school science was defined by the 19th century professionalization of university science, and the purpose of school science was to prepare students for university science.

The Socialization of Science

The 20th century brought a host of new social forces. World War II likely reshaped science more than any other single historical event. World War II ensured the marriage of aloof scientific expertise with life-or-death practical problems of technology. This unlikely marriage irrevocably bound science and technology into a strong social unit called research and development (R & D). This marriage necessitated a new social contract between science and society.

The transformation of science during World War II is epitomized by one of the most dramatic events that occurred: the production and deployment of the atomic bomb. It was a corner around which humanity turned. Science constructed the corner and guided humanity around it. The splendid isolation, which scientists by and large enjoyed since the 19th century, was evaporated by a mushroom shaped cloud.

By the end of World War II, "small science" had become "big science" (Price, 1963). Big science had profound implications. It meant big budgets; large partnerships with government, industry, and the military; and a narrowed gap between "pure" and "applied" science. Big science meant the creation of national wealth and military superiority. As a result, scientific knowledge today has political currency on two levels: (1) internationally where it is traded in the diplomatic halls of foreign policy (Dickson, 1984), and (2) nationally where it sustains the dominant socio-economic intrastructure of that society (McGinn, 1991). For instance, governments support R & D in order to maintain that country's competitive edge in the world market place (Ziman, 1984).

Government, industry, and the military have become the dominant patrons of scientific activity. Science of the 1990s occurs in an interactive world of politics, economics, and war. Only a small minority of academic scientists undertake pure research. Even these scientists are mindful, however, of the political lobbying required to obtain funds. One conclusion seems inescapable: the social significance of scientific knowledge now takes on a new 20th century reality.

While World War II was having an impact on the interactions between science and society, a new academic discipline emerged -- the sociology of science (Layton, chapter 4; Ziman, 1984). Anthropological studies into the social construction of scientific knowledge (for example, Latour and Woolgar, 1979) described two types of science: "public science" and "private science" (Holton, 1978). Public science is the science reported in journals, at conferences, and in textbooks. Private science, on the other hand, is what actually occurs in labs. It is recorded in personal notebooks, conversations, e-mail, and letters. What did the anthropologists discover about scientists? In contrast to the public face of science -- that objective, rational, open-minded, free communication, and honest face, which we recall was established in response to the social demands of a 17th century Europe -- private science was found to harbor subjectivity, arational thought, closed-mindedness, secrecy, and behavior less than honest (Gauld, 1982).

Today we recognize two social contexts of science; an external context in which science interacts with technology, economics, politics, law, ethics, and other facets of society; and an internal context in which historical and social dynamics mediate the production of knowledge (Rosenthall, 1989; Ziman, 1984).

Science still strives for power and dominion over nature, but in the new context of research and development where technology, values, and social responsibility play an increasingly important role (Mendelsohn, 1976). Thus, a new social contract between science and society seeks a balance between, on the one hand, power and dominion over nature, including economic well being, and on the other hand, stewardship of the earth and quality of life.


Science today differs dramatically from the "science" of 1660 and 1860. Each stage in the evolution of science has been shaped and reshaped by social forces, both external and internal to science. This is schematically represented in Figure 2.1 by the arrows between "social forces" and "science." The social forces of 1600 gave birth to the institutionalization of science (box I). The social forces of 1800 precipitated the professionalization of science (box P). And lastly, the social forces of the 20th century molded the socialization of science (box S).

figure 2.1


Figure 2.1 serves as a framework for the next section. The argument turns to the social forces of the last three decades, and the consequence of those social forces in reshaping the high school science curriculum.

The High School Science Curriculum

As described above, the social context of 17th century Europe shaped the institutionalization of science. Similarly the social context of the 19th century shaped the fundamental tenets of the high school science curriculum. Figure 2.1 depicts this influence by the arrow from box P (the professionalization of science) to triangle I/P (the institutionalization and professionalization of the high school science curriculum). Figure 2.1 provides a framework with which we can understand current practices and anticipate future changes.

What can we understand about the science curriculum given its 19th century origins? We can now recognize why today's curriculum includes pure abstractions that demonstrate the aesthetic unity of the disciplines, and why practical knowledge and social concerns are all but excluded. We can now see why the curriculum portrays science as a purely rational and objective inquiry into absolute knowledge. We can now recognize this portrayal as the public facade of 19th century science. We can also appreciate how the social upheavals of the 17th and 19th centuries shaped this facade.

Moreover, we can now recognize that this facade of school science -- 19th century academic idealism -- is inconsistent with the realities of post World War II science. In other words, school science is seriously out of date. Like the saber-tooth curriculum, the school science curriculum embraces outmoded content and values. No wonder we hear the criticism that school science is sterile, false and boring (Science Council of Canada, 1984).

Several serious attempts have been made to modify the high school curriculum in North America over the past 50 years (Hurd, 1986). Educators have tried to replace the curriculum's 19th century academic isolationism with a 20th century authenticity that reflects the humanization/socialization that science itself has undergone. But every attempt has failed (Hurd, 1986). Those "conservatives" (as Benjamin called them) with vested interests in the saber-tooth curriculum possessed greater political power than the "liberals" who tried to implement an up-to-date curriculum.

Nevertheless we have reason to be optimistic about the latest struggle to modify the science curriculum. During the past three decades a number of new social forces have become evident. Synergetically they may cause the extinction of the saber-tooth curriculum.

John Ziman explains in chapter 3 that student motivation in the sciences has decreased, as evidenced by a depletion in enrollment and an apparent attrition in academic achievement. Research tends to show that school science actually discourages imaginative and creative students, particularly women and minorities, from entering the profession (Bondi, 1985; Majumdar, Rosenfeld, Rubba, Miller and Schmalz, 1991; Oxford University, 1989). School science, therefore, undermines the development of future scientists and engineers. This is evident in the United States with its nation-at-risk crisis, in which the decline in both enrollment and student capabilities threatens to compromise that nation's place in the competitive market of our global village (Hurd, 1989; Majumdar et al., 1991). Industry and labor support science and technology education in order to maintain a sound economy (Bondi, 1985; De Vore, 1992).

The environmental movement has raised the public's consciousness concerning the stewardship of the earth. In ubiquitous conflicts between corporate profits and environmental agendas, scientists have been seen to participate on all sides of an issue (Globe & Mail, 1983; Jacobson, 1983). As a consequence, the attentive public has changed its perception of science from an image of objective isolation to one with social agendas.

Furthermore, two new academic fields have articulated the social nature of science. The social studies of science field explores the internal sociology of science, while the science policy studies field concentrates on social issues external, but related to science (Spiegel-Rösing, 1977). For instance, David Layton in chapter 4 discusses the social studies of science and how the "Social Responsibility in Science" movement activated STS programs at universities and colleges. In chapter 5, I show how the two fields help define STS teaching.

Concomitantly, a "science-for-all" education movement has surfaced in many countries (Fensham, 1992). The science-for-all impetus in Canada, for instance, took the unusual form of a national science education policy calling for a socially relevant science curriculum (Science Council of Canada, 1984). A science-for-all education contrasts with an elitist view of education -- science for the few. Joan Solomon traced the historical roots of this contrast in chapter 1. "The few" refers to students who prepare for, and survive, the university screening mechanism that artificially selects students who look very similar to the very academic scientists who sustain that screening mechanism (Tobias, 1990).

Practical capability (Harrison, 1980; Layton, 1991) is the most recent social issue to challenge science education, as described by David Layton in chapter 4. Today's pressure to synthesize science and technology education is not unlike the earlier 20th century pressure that merged science and technology into the institution we call research and development (R & D).

In summary, the past three decades have witnessed the emergence of substantial social forces: (1) a pervasive decline in the interest and understanding of science; (2) an awakening recognition of science as a human, social, and technological endeavor; (3) an egalitarian movement in public education; and (4) a proposal to synthesize science and technology education. Each country has its own unique set of social forces that impinge upon its 19th century school science curriculum. Many countries are beginning to change their traditional science curriculum.

When designing a new curriculum, countries share a common trend towards teaching science embedded in technological and social contexts familiar to students (Bybee, 1985a; Eijkelhof and Kortland, 1988; Fensham, 1992; Hofstein, Aikenhead and Riquarts, 1988; National Science Teachers Association, 1982; Piel, 1981; Ziman, 1980). This new curriculum movement advocates teaching science in a science-technology-society (STS) approach. An STS science curriculum conveys to students an image of science that honestly reflects science's social character -- the 20th century socialization of science.

This new curriculum is depicted in Figure 2.1 by the "STS" triangle. The socialization of science (box S) constitutes a pervasive pressure on today's school science curriculum. The arrow between box S and triangle STS represents this pressure. The triangle has broken lines, indicating a tentative status. Will the social forces of the past three decades, including the social nature of science itself, establish a "socialized" science curriculum -- an STS science curriculum? How much longer can 19th century school science masquerade as legitimate science?

Reform has already begun as evidenced by the successful initiatives discussed throughout this book. STS science educators are closing the gap between 19th century school science and 20th century authentic science.






















FIGURE 2.1: The Influence of Social Forces on Science and the Science Curriculum