Catalyst for a better world

26th September 1997 at 01:00
Science should remember itsroots in the Enlightenment, say John Richardson, Ian Buchanan and Jim Jamieson

There is a Big Scottish Idea around. Many may have had it. Few, as yet, dare articulate it. What Scotland most needs is a New Age of Enlightenment. Ridiculous, isn't it? Thomas Telford (1757-1834) wouldn't have thought so, nor would have any of his friends and contemporaries such as the poet Robert Southey, or his professional colleagues such as one James Watt. Telford wrote, of 18th-century Scottish business: "I admire commercial enterprise, it is the vigorous outgrowth of our industrial life: I admire everything that gives it free scope, as, wherever it goes, activity, energy, intelligence - all that we call civilisation - accompany it; but I hold that the aim and end of all ought not to be a mere bag of money, but something far higher and better."

Telford, Watt, the Adam brothers and countless others were products of an educational system nurtured in an Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had a profound and radical effect on 18th-century Scotland. Indeed, Scots were at the heart of this movement. It had science, in the classical sense, at its core as the route to industrial and social advancement. There was a deeply held belief that living conditions and social order could be improved by the intelligent application of the discoveries of science to agriculture, industry, medicine, architecture and all civic works.

It was also an age not characterised, like our own, by a societal isolation of science, described in more recent times and popular terms by CP Snow as "the two cultures". Artists like Raeburn or poets such as Burns were not at all uncomfortable in the company of "men of science", just as Telford was happy to have a poet for a companion. It was expected that any educated person would have an holistic interest in all things "cultural".

Culture in turn was thus liberally defined and grew to be relatively unbounded by specialisms or social status compared with now. Lads o'pairts were recognised for their worth and made huge contributions, on both sides of what may now be a cultural canyon. There were not many quines o'pairts. A major weakness of the Enlightenment was, undoubtedly, the apparent exclusion of most women from participating in any formal sense.

This cultural revolution was by no means wholly decadent or introspective, unlike much we may have witnessed this century. It had real practical and social ends as well as a fascination with intellectual means. It looked forward, with optimism and confidence, to a better age. Witness many of the contemporary paintings of the time such as those of Raeburn. Many of those at the heart of Scotland's Enlightenment were concerned to improve the spiritual, economic and social lot of all of her people. They had vision, coupled to conviction with a strong, common purpose and a definite sense of direction.

Thomas Telford, for example, started out as a time-served stonemason. He built his first Scottish bridge at Langholm in 1778 at the age of 21 and supervised the construction of the Dean Bridge in Edinburgh when he was 75. In between he had completed 1,200 others, laid 1,000 miles of roadway and built or refurbished countless churches, manses and harbours. He was not merely a workaholic nor obsessed with amassing a personal fortune (on many public projects, he waived his fees). Telford was possessed of an acute sense of what was moral and ethical.

In the aftermath of the Clearances he employed and trained many hundreds of displaced agricultural workers previously unskilled in civil works. He held with educating and training others to the highest levels of which they might be capable. He believed also in affording workers the dignity that comes with a proper appreciation of their worth.

Unfortunately for us all, the Enlightenment was but another of those big ideas that prove elusive in their practical implementation. Once the Industrial Revolution had gathered, literally, a full head of steam, things had already started to gang agley. Science, engineering and technology gradually ceased to be seen as the servants of Scottish society as a whole. Rather their pursuit and the resultant rewards were seen as the province of a privileged few. The cultural isolation of science and the public's disenchantment with many of its works, and their effects on society at large, had already begun.

If we wish to see education in general, and science and technology education in particular, contributing more meaningfully to Scotland's social, cultural, and economic well-being, we shall have to look far beyond schools to achieve it. We shall have also to re-examine our whole ethical and moral framework. We shall need to look to the quality of the Scottish body politic in its widest sense. Otherwise we in education may merely continue to compound the folly.

For example, we might heed recent mutterings and "disaggregate" environmental studies at 5-14. There is merit even at this stage, apparently, in teaching science and technology as subjects separate from the rest of the 5-14 curriculum. This may well be so. Should we do this without retaining vital links with and obvious signposts to the humanities, expressive arts or personal and social development, we shall not only disaggregate environmental studies but also take another small but significant step toward completely detaching science, technology and engineering from mainstream Scottish culture.

One of our abiding memories is of a public session in a relatively early Edinburgh International Science and Technology Festival. The meeting had been called to address "The Crisis in Science". A little old lady wandered in from the street and sat down about a third of the way down the City Chamber. She began to follow the debate quite intently. We should indicate, even if it is somewhat non PC, that this lady's attire was on the smart casual side of the Oxfam winter range. Suddenly she got up and raised her arm. The chairman, to his eternal credit, took the question. In essence, this was that the lady was growing tired of hearing all about the nasty things the government, supposedly, was or was not doing to or for science. She would like to know exactly what it was that science was doing for her.

The chairman, to his even greater credit owned up that this question lay right at the heart of the matter. He did his best to encourage suitable and credible responses both from the platform and the mainly scientific audience. He failed. The elderly lady got up, hefted her shopping bags in a near silence and left.

That is why a New Enlightenment looks like quite a good, if still big, idea. It's possibly time to take another crack at it. Scottish writers, artists, musicians and "meedjah" people seem already to have made a no bad start. Maybe it's about time the scientists, technologists and engineers joined in the fun? The thrills, spills, kicks and uplifting of the spirit may also be had from science and engineering. There is the added bonus that with the right ethical framework we scientists and engineers may help to improve the lot of everyone.

Ian Buchanan and Jim Jamieson are senior associates of the Science Technology and Safety (STS) support service at the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre. John Richardson is the centre's executive director and a member of the Scottish Science Advisory Group. They write in a personal capacity.

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