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A science degree course for the 21st century:

some implications of postmodernism

for the teaching and learning of Chemistry

David Packham

Department of Materials Science & Engineering,

University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY.


There is at present a sense of crisis in universities, especially in science departments. It is argued here that the crisis is fundamentally an intellectual one. It is associated with a move away from the confidence inherited from the Enlightenment towards the uncertainties of the postmodern condition. This has implications for the way in which we educate students. These are discussed. It is argued that students should be helped to see a broad vision of their subject and its relation to other disciplines. Further, by encouraging them to enter into controversy, to and to form opinions, they will develop capabilities needed in their personal and professional lives. Examples are given of how these ideas might be implemented in a chemistry degree course.



This paper explores some of the reasons behind the present sense of pessimism in universities, in particular in science and engineering departments, and discussed some of the consequences for university teaching.

The argument developed is that the crisis is fundamentally intellectual, concerned with a shift from the concrete "certainties" inherited from the eighteenth century Enlightenment to the subtleties and uncertainties of contemporary society which are encapsulated in the term "postmodern". This shift has undermined the concept of a university as an institution which taught universally accepted knowledge, firmly based on reason.

It is further argued that the shift to postmodernism demands major changes in university undergraduate teaching in order to help our students come to terms with the postmodern culture in which they will live their personal and professional lives. To achieve this, students need a broad perception of their subject area and its relation to other disciplines. In this way they may appreciate how, in a variety of areas of human activity, different modes of reasoning and methods of proof may operate, and different concepts of "truth" may be acceptable. Exposure to controversy and the practice of debate should encourage students and to reach (tentative) conclusions in the face of incomplete and uncertain data. I give examples of the application how this might be applied in practice within a chemistry degree course.

A crisis in university physical sciences?

The '50s and '60s were times of optimism in British universities. Not only were university departments themselves well-resourced, with their undergraduate places in great demand and their graduates keenly sought after, but science, especially physical science, was highly regarded in society as a whole. It was seen by many as being the key to future prosperity and happiness.

While this brief sketch is surely an over-simplification, I would argue that there has been a changed atmosphere in many contemporary university departments of physical sciences or of engineering: there is much less optimism, even a sense of crisis. There are many reasons for this. Some are to do with the numbers and quality of student intake and with the keenness and motivation of students themselves. The British university system has expanded, but there has been a relative, sometimes absolute, contraction in science and mathematics candidates at "A" level. In addition, there was a 50% reduction in unit resource in the U.K. between 1979 and 1996 (1-3).

In coming to an understanding of the situation, it is important for university scientists and engineers to recognise that the crisis in higher education extends beyond their own disciplines. It is not primarily a question of resources: it is seen by many commentators as essentially an intellectual crisis.

An intellectual crisis in higher education?

A major element in the contemporary intellectual crisis in academia is the cultural shift in intellectual life from the confidence inherited from the eighteenth century Enlightenment to what has been called the "postmodern condition" - the uncertainty and lack of confidence of the late twentieth century.

The Enlightenment (Age of Reason) gave rise to a nexus of related ideas, which emphasised the primacy of reason over authority and tradition. "Rational justification was to appeal to principles undeniable by any rational person and therefore independent of all ... social and cultural peculiarities" (4). Application of these principles was confidently expected to lead to objective science and universal morality and law (5). This is sometimes referred to as the "Enlightenment project" (4-7). Integral to it was a belief that the supremacy of reason would lead to human emancipation and progress.

The Enlightenment gave rise to a number of "grand narratives" (métarécits) (7) which claimed to provide a framework of universal validity for achieving the emancipation of humanity, which was promised by the Enlightenment. Typically these endorsed certain modes of thought and ethical positions characteristic of the particular grand narrative, and gave legitimacy to distinctive social and political institutions and practices. Examples include Marxism, free market economics and some formulations of Christianity.

During the twentieth century, however, confidence in the ideas of the Enlightenment has been progressively eroded to the extent that there is now a profound mistrust of the Enlightenment "certainties" and of grand narratives built upon them. As Jean-François Lyotard (7) commented: "le projet moderne de réalisation de l'universalité n'a pas été abandonné, ... mais detruit"!

This shift from confident optimism to the uncertainty of what is known as postmodernism has come about because the basis the Enlightenment project has been undermined, and its promise has not been realised. Lyotard expresses this pungently in one word: "Auschwitz" (7). While Alasdair Macintyre pointed out that "both thinkers of the Enlightenment and their successors proved unable to agree what precisely those principles [undeniable by any rational person] were" (4)

With the abandonment of the Enlightenment project have gone the certainties that rested on it. This has had a profound affect on academic discourse. For example, many would agree with Mary Hawkesworth when she argues that "the conceptions of neutral knowledge and value-free methodology .... are markedly defective"(8). John Gray describes the postmodern condition as one "of plural and provisional perspectives, lacking any rational or transcendental ground or unifying world view" (9).

The position of science

Science is, in some formulations at least, the grand narrative par excellence, and has been profoundly influenced by postmodernism. Although it would not be appropriate to term philosophers like Popper (10) and Kuhn (11) "postmodernist", their work and that of the sociology of scientific knowledge school (12, 13) has pointed to the provisional nature of scientific knowledge and to the influence of society in constructing it.

In recent years, a number of scientists(14-21) have expressed dissatisfaction with such concepts as a rigorous determinism, reductionism and an exclusively mechanical world view played a part in the formation of Enlightenment thinking. Others have shown an increasing interest in chaos theory and holistic ideas such as ecology and the Gaia concept (21). These trends resonate with the culture of the postmodern age.

Many of these ideas are the subject of heated controversy, and other scientists have defended with vigour the 19th century concepts of the objectivity and immutability of science (22-24) which they see as fundamental tenets of their world view.

Whatever position an individual might hold on this controversy, it would seem clear that for better or for worse contemporary science has no option but to operate in a world influenced by postmodern ideas. The loss of confidence in grand narratives is now permeating our culture and affecting even those (including potential science recruits) who may know nothing of postmodernism in any formal sense. A reduced public regard for the authority of science is manifested in the scepticism which commonly greets scientific pronouncements on such matters as the safety of food. From the point of view of university science departments, we must recognise that such is the world from which our students come and in which our graduates will work.

Consequences for the university

Thus postmodern ideas have not only undermined the foundations of traditional academic disciplines, they have called into question the very purpose of a university. The traditional university was widely seen through Enlightenment eyes as a realm where reason triumphed over superstition and dogma. In the university students received a liberal education, meaning one which aimed to free the mind. It should be clear now why the deep effect that postmodernism is having on the intellectual life of a university has been termed a crisis.

This crisis has caused much radical rethinking of the purposes of university education. I shall first examine the work of three writers who have made significant contributions to this debate, and then consider in a concrete way the implications of their ideas for the way we teach our students. The writers I have chosen are Ronald Barnett, Professor of Higher Education at the London Institute of Education, Marjorie Reeves, a historian and former Vice-Principal of St Anne's College, Oxford and David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, Ohio.

A response to the crisis

Ronald Barnett (25) recognises the undermining of the traditional concepts of a liberal education by postmodernity, but seeks ways in which the historic promise of "freeing the mind" of "bringing about a new level of self-empowerment in the individual student" might still be realised in the contemporary university.

To achieve this promise an education must break out of the rigid subject disciplinary framework of many traditional degree schemes, and help students to see beneath the surface appearance of their core discipline. The types of questions to be addressed include: What is the dominant mode of knowledge within the discipline? To what extent is the knowledge corpus "objective"? What are its relationships to other ways of knowing? What are the tacit presuppositions of the discipline? What are its modes of reasoning? What are the rival viewpoints within the discipline? Do they reflect wider social interests? These should help to bring into the open the values and presuppositions of the discipline and enable students to realise that it could be wedded to different values.

Barnett argues that critical thinking on its own is insufficient and needs to be fused with critical self-reflection and critical action (26). Students should actively participate in what they learn and exert some influence over the way their studies develop. Such an education should help students to cope with the inherent uncertainties and conflicting ideologies of the post-modern condition.

Marjorie Reeves(27) addresses the crisis from the view of its effect on the students' experience of higher education. She offers an implicit challenge to any university teacher when she talks about "education for delight". In her diagnosis of the present malaise, she maintains that for many students today the experience of the "power of curiosity and the power of letters" has largely been replaced by the "tyranny of learning". Much of her analysis is of direct relevance to us as scientists. We all recognise narrow, overloaded syllabuses and over-specialisation which constitute "pre-packaged information" and has, in many instances, replaced knowledge gained by students from their own personal endeavour. An exaggerated emphasis on analysis leads to a fragmentation of knowledge and an alienation from academic studies and does not achieve an "apprehension in wholeness" - an over-arching view of a subject and its relation to other disciplines. She argues that "the school of thought which makes competence in the market place the top priority envisages only half a person". For her, the way forward must take seriously the idea that knowledge is not only for "competence in doing" but also for human understanding, for enjoyment, for contemplation and is an important tool in the search for truth. Higher education should touch the whole person, assisting students to develop emotionally as well as intellectually. It should help them to clarify their personal philosophy and their values.

David Orr sees Western capitalism and communism as Enlightenment grand narratives, both of which have failed. They have produced a world in environmental crisis, dependent upon limited, non-renewable energy and material resources. Social and racial inequalities are increasing. Yet we are providing the young with the same kind of education that helped to create these problems in the first place(28). We need to rethink education in terms of an agenda for human survival, a project that will involve changing much in our present practice. For example, higher education fragments the world, leaving graduates "without any broad integrated sense of things". There is a "dominance of analytical mind over that part given to creativity, humour and wholeness." There is little sense that knowledge carries responsibility to see that it is well used. (29)

Orr urges us to make explicit the "hidden curriculum" and to challenge its implicit assumptions - that human domination of nature is good, that the growth economy is natural, that all knowledge, regardless of its consequences, is equally valuable, that material progress is our right (30).

Orr is insistent that a genuinely liberal education must aim to develop the full range of human capacities, not just the intellectual, but also the practical. (30) This means students' getting first hand knowledge, not just in the laboratory, but also in the "field". This insistence on action extends to the institution which must embody the ideals taught wholly and completely in all its operations, and to the staff who must "provide rôle models of integrity, care and thoughtfulness" (29).

Implications for university teaching

Despite a difference of emphasis, the arguments of these authors have much in common. What would be the implications for a university education, in particular in science, if it took seriously the ideas of Barnett, Reeves and Orr? It could well be argued that traditional features, such as discipline-based subjects and departments and highly structured curricula and examinations, should be replaced by much looser and more versatile arrangements. However this paper is concerned to explore something less ambitious, but of more immediately applicability - what might a group of university teachers, or even an individual, do to address some of our present problems within the structures that presently exist? So I shall rephrase the question: What features would a science degree course have if it took seriously the ideas of Barnett, Reeves and Orr? Such a course might be of the joint honours type, such as Physics and Chemistry or Physics with Philosophy, but if it were based on a single subject, for example Chemistry, there would have to be some breakdown of subject boundaries. This would not so much constitute a dissolution, as a softening of the boundaries allowing interdiffusion. But the interdiffusion would have to be over wide distances, for example as far as sociology, politics and ethics, not just into adjacent disciplines like physics and biology.

It is important to recognise a fundamental point: what is being suggested is not so much a change in what is taught, but in how it is taught. The tendency to treat subject areas within a discipline as isolated boxes should be resisted and a determined effort should be made to make connections between different parts of chemistry, and indeed between chemistry and other disciplines. It may well be necessary to sacrifice some detailed treatment of subject areas in order to emphasise an integrating vision.

In our overcrowded courses it is inevitable that much is taught on authority. Although the results of important experiments from the past may be referred to, they are usually presented in a grossly simplified form, so that they constitute little more than a rhetorical flourish. In some of these cases sufficient details of the experiment and its context must be provided to enable students to examine critically the detailed evidence, so that they can be aware of ambiguities and differing interpretations, and see the range of factors, scientific and non-scientific which may have led to the emergence of a scientific consensus. This will help students to see what is implied by "truth" in their discipline and to understand the presuppositions and latent ideologies that underlie it, and the extent to which it may be regarded as probabilistic and provisional. They can be encouraged to apply these considerations to the interpretation of their own project work.

There will be many topics in any discipline which have wide implications outside the discipline. This is certainly true in such an applicable science as chemistry. Rather than ignore these or dismiss them as "not chemistry", students should be encouraged to engage with politics, economics, psychology, ethics, æsthetics and so on, as may be appropriate. There are usually a multitude of such dimensions which, along with science and technology, bear on most decision making in real life. Of course we cannot expect our students to be polymaths, but we can encourage them to strive for the level of understanding of other important areas of knowledge which might be expected of "educated laity". This will help them to see how in various areas of human activity, different modes of reasoning and methods of proof may operate, and different concepts of "truth" be current.

Students need to be actively involved in their learning. Projects, seminar work and tutorials should be adapted to stimulate curiosity and develop interest. To achieve this some student choice of subject matter will probably be necessary. The outcome of some at least of the projects should be action, not simply a written report or oral presentation. Students should be introduced to controversy and practise debate, recognising (and respecting) different points of view. We should give encouragement to students expressing their feelings and giving some free rein to their emotions. Humans - even scientists - are not coldly rational creatures! They should get some experience of committing themselves to positions - even if only provisionally- on the strength of uncertain and incomplete data.

How might these ideas be practically applied to a degree course in a subject such as chemistry?

The argument of this paper so far has been that the erosion of the old certainties of Enlightenment thinking has produced a crisis which invalidates many of the traditional concepts of university education and renders ineffective many long-established methods of pedagogy. In addressing this crisis various writers have urged developments in the approach to teaching which have been briefly surveyed above. Suppose that we accept the arguments of this paper, are there ways in which these ideas can be applied in the practical context of everyday undergraduate teaching in a science subject such as chemistry? A thorough implementation of the fundamental change implicit in the arguments given would require the creative work of many people over a considerable period. I wish simply to sketch a few illustrations of what their implementation might imply in some areas of chemistry.

I shall consider these under three headings, starting with the teaching of quantum theory which can be used to challenge students to consider what they understand by a "theory" in science and gives a perfect context for discussing paradigm shift. Some areas of chemistry are then considered where, rather than one theory replacing another, several "rival" theories are in contemporary use. The final section suggests how the ubiquitous environmental dimension can be a vehicle for stimulating students to make broad connections between chemistry and major issues in the world around them.


Quantum theory and wave mechanics

The "failure of classical physics" (31) and the development of quantum theory and wave mechanics provide an excellent opportunity to discuss scientific revolutions and paradigm shift (11). A wide range of important questions almost inevitably arise about the nature of science and the status of theories in science. Instead of these being left as unexplored implications, students should be challenged to think about them.

There is deep controversy here. For example, do we see the change from classical to modern physics as the development of science resulting from individual acts of reasoning, bringing it ever closer to a correspondence with a reality it describes? (32) Do we regard the theories of science as really proved by the experiments that support them, e.g. the quantisation of energy by the black body emission spectrum and the photoelectric effect? Alternatively, would we agree with Popper that "science is not a system of certain or well-established statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances towards a state of finality", that scientific theories can never be proved, but may be falsified (disproved)? (10, 33) Do our theories as they develop give an ever-increasing correspondence to an underlying reality or are they just models that work for the time being and which will (if the past is any guide to the future) be discarded in due course? The Enlightenment rationalist and the postmodernist would give different answers to these questions. Wherever we personally stand, we should expose our students different points of view, and encourage them to move towards a personal position which they can articulate and defend.

The Schrödinger equation gives us an opportunity to discuss some ideas associated with derivation and proof. Some books (e.g. ref 34) "prove" the time-independent Schrödinger equation by taking the classical standing wave equation and inserting the de Broglie relationship. But is this a proof or even a derivation? Coulson certainly did not think so (35). His view was that "... there is no derivation, any more than there is a derivation of Newton's equations of motion". For him the "proof", if demanded, was correspondence between theoretical predictions (e.g. for the binding energy of the hydrogen molecule (36) and experimental measurement. But logicians would object that such correspondence can never "prove" a theory, because as there an infinite number of curves can be drawn through any finite number of points, so in principle there are an infinite number of theories that are consistent with any finite number of experimental observations. What was the origin of the Schrödinger equation? A simple answer is that it came out of Schrödinger's head. Of course the sources of inspiration of scientists, as of poets and musicians, may be many and varied. Some have speculated as to the rôle of the Lady of Arosa in the emergence of the famous equation! (37)

Quantum theory carries with it some very startling ideas. We should use them to stimulate our students' imagination and interest. What do they make of indeterminacy, uncertainty, wave-particle duality, the influence of the act of observation on the outcome of the experiment? Have they really faced the dilemma put so starkly by Schrödinger's cat? (37-8) We should not be reluctant to recommend "popular" accounts of quantum theory which often bring some of these ideas into clearer focus than do more academic treatments rushing towards a theory of the covalent bond. John Gribbin (38) describing the effect of intermittent covering of one of the slits in the two slit interference experiment brings out very vividly what he calls "The central mystery of the quantum world": the electron passing through slit B behaves as if it knows whether slit A is open. Does this shock our students? If not, what will? What are we and our students to make of these ideas? Can we come to terms with them, fitting them into our world view?

I would argue that it does not matter that many of these questions are ones over which philosophers have disputed for years: we should take the opportunity to expose our students to some of the issues in the debate, and to some of the contrasting positions that have been taken. We should encourage them to form their opinions, albeit provisional ones. In their personal and professional lives they will frequently have to take a stand on questions where authorities differ to no lesser an extent.

The coexistence of rival theories

After a moment's recollection, a practising scientist would recognise areas where science makes use of rival theories, which sometimes are ultimately compatible, but which may be incommensurable or even incompatible. The situation may well be confusing to students and clarification can help them better to understand the nature of theories in science.

A simple example of the coexistence of incompatible theories is in the realm of the Ideal Gas and the various other gas equations (which of course represent different idealisations) used to improve the representation of the behaviour of gasses under particular circumstances. It is not difficult for students to appreciate the difference between the scientific (and philosophical) use of the word "ideal" and the popular use. They can be challenged to consider whether any real gas is "ideal", and, if not, where an ideal gas actually exists - only in their heads?

The rival theories of bonding can easily seem to students to be incompatible. The formalism, whether at the level of diagrams or of implicit or explicit wavefunctions, of valence bond, molecular orbital and band theories appears very different. Taking some trouble to show their fundamental compatibility will improve the students' understanding at two levels. They will have a better grasp of the basic chemistry and will also come to understand the difference between an abstract theoretical model and those implications of that model which are, in principle, capable of experimental observation.

Very much the same applies to the distinctions we sometimes make between covalent, ionic and metallic bonding, and indeed between primary and secondary bonding. The appreciation that distinctions are often artificial conveniences - mental constructs - rather than fundamental entities is surely an important lesson, not just for science, but for us as members of society. It can teach us to question distinctions which may prove to be false dichotomies and to be aware of specious polarities: both of these can distort our vision, sometimes with terrible consequences.

We teach our students about the "failure of classical physics" (31) and the emergence of quantum theory to replace it, but does quantum mechanics apply universally? does it apply to macroscopic bodies? We can adopt the "Yes, but" approach. Yes it does and we can use the de Broglie relationship to calculate the wavelength of a 'bus moving at 30 m.p.h. But the wavelength is so small that the 'bus would have to pass through a grid with lines orders of magnitude finer than an atomic nucleus in order to be able to observe any diffraction effects. Alternatively we can say "No" and argue that quantum theory usually only applies to small things like electrons. It is interesting to ask students which alternative they think is "right". If one wanted to be provocative one could quote Popper's criterion of falsification to the effect that "an idea .... acquires scientific status only when .... it has become possible to decide empirically between it and a rival theory" (10) and conclude that from the scientific view point, as opposed to the metaphysical, the two were saying the same thing. Whether one preferred "Yes" or "No" would be a matter of taste or perhaps philosophical or ideological commitment. It is important to insist, with Popper, that the criterion of falsification distinguishes science from non-science, certainly not science from nonsense. The question of philosophical or ideological commitment is in no sense trivial.

Despite the "failure of classical physics" (31), Newtonian mechanics is still widely taught and practised. Are we deliberately teaching error? Like the question of the universal applicability of quantum theory, I suspect that the answer again is a matter of philosophical or ideological commitment. We should not hide from our students that science uses very widely what prejudicially could be called "discredited theories". Even pure scientists use theories as models that work for the time being in the context of interest.

Quantum theory apart, it is interesting to ask in what sense was Newtonian mechanics ever "true". It is an abstract theory dealing with idealisations - point masses, straight lines perfect circles and isolated systems. In order to apply it judicious approximations - Einstein (39) called them "fictions" - have to be made. We should confront our students with the "three body problem" which cannot be solved rigorously (40). (This problem, of course, recurs when applying the Schrödinger equation to many electron atoms.)

The environmental dimension

There is widespread topical interest in "the environment" on which we can build to broaden the perceptions of our students. Quite apart from its intrinsic importance, there are many reasons for exposing the environmental implications of our subject matter. Most environmental issues are controversial. They will often have a serious scientific dimension, but it is rare for the issues to be solely a matter of science or technology. Broader considerations, such as political, economic, psychological, ethical and æsthetic, which may be at least as important as the scientific should be brought out.

An analysis of controversies like these may reveal that positions different parties adopt result from social pressure, vested interest or incommensurable value positions, rather than from the disinterested application of universal reason. Indeed we may ask students to consider whether disinterested application of universal reason is in principle possible.

Thus addressing environmental issues gives our students a chance to engage with controversies, including ones where many questions may be open and data may be incomplete and uncertain. This will prepare them for the postmodern world in which they will work. They are able to debate with passion and to develop commitment to a personal position: activities that are characteristic of so much of human endeavour, but which feature so little in traditional science degree courses! There must be hundreds of items in a chemistry degree syllabus with significant environmental dimensions. I shall describe a few in order to illustrate the sort of approach I am advocating.

Limits to growth?

The question of whether continuous growth can occur in a world of finite resources and finite capacity to absorb pollutants was given wide publicity in the '70s when the well-known book "Limits to growth" by Meadows et al. was published (41). This important question is relevant to very many parts of a chemistry degree curriculum. Unique properties of particular elements and compounds can only be exploited industrially if the necessary resource is available. An extreme example is the organic chemical industry, much of which relies on oil, coal or natural gas as a feedstock. Even more important is the reliance of the chemical industry, indeed almost all industry, on energy from non-renewable sources.

Meadows' classic has recently been updated as "Beyond the limits" (42). Other background sources include a critique of "Limits to growth"(41) and some readily available books on "environmental economics" for the general reader (44-7). An analysis which might particularly appeal to chemists, as it is expressed in terms of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, is Herman Daly's paper "The economic growth debate: what some economists have learned but many have not" (48). This is reprinted in his "Steady-state economics" along with other relevant essays(49).

This area can be explored with students either in broad terms or by limiting it to some specific elements of interest. It introduces students to some questions of fundamental importance about the economic system under which we live. Does it distinguish in principle between renewable resources (such as timber) and non-renewable resources (such as petroleum)? Are there economic motives for recycling and recovery of used materials or is it more favourable to use virgin supplies? Can the economic system discourage or prevent lakes, rivers, the sea and the air from being used as free receptacles for wastes? Is our economic and industrial system sustainable ? What would have to change to make it sustainable? What would that mean for society, for industry, for us as individuals?

Students will quickly come to see that there is wide range of perceptions of the urgency of the "limits to growth" issue. Often this correlates with political and ideological position. In U.S. terms, Republicans and big business along with ardent free market advocates tend to be dismissive of the need for significant changes that Democrats would wish to make. In the U.K. several authors associated with the Institute for Economic Affairs, a right wing think tank, have argued against the urgency for change (50-1). Much of educative value can come from examining some of the "greenlash" literature which shows how industry uses a range of tools, science included, to influence governments and the public on environmental issues. U.S.-based examples include Rowell and Beder's recent books (52-3) and Stauber and Rampton's Ecologist article(54). A European insight from within government itself has been provided by the former French environment minister, Corinne Lepage(55).

Pollution - xenoústrogens

The relevance of pollution to so many parts of a chemistry course provides many opportunities for stimulating student interest in broader implications of their subject. Here I shall give an indication of how this might be done, confining myself to ústrogens, and some related molecules.

Chemistry students encounter these compounds during a course on synthesis and reactions of steroids or through its significance in human physiology. It has long been known that other molecules can act physiologically in a somewhat similar way to ústrogen itself (56). These molecules are referred to as ústrogen mimics or xenoústrogens.

The general background to this area is the concern for decreased fertility in a wide range of wild life and the implication that chemical pollutants were the cause. Popular accounts of this area can be found in Theo Colborn's recent book Our stolen future (57) and in Deborah Cadbury's Feminisation of Nature (58). Interest has been increased as a result of newspaper and periodical articles (59-62) and television programmes (63) about a reported decrease in human sperm count and increase in male genital deformities. My professional interest arises from the suggestion that certain widely used polymer additives might have ústrogenic activity. The compounds concerned include phthalates (common plasticisers for PVC), hindered phenols such as nonylphenol (antioxidants for polyolefins and many other plastics).

Student interest in this area can be stimulated by showing a television film (63) or discussing newspaper articles. This might be followed by their working in groups doing a literature search for uses for such compounds as phthalates and nonylphenol and reports in the scientific literature of their ústrogenic activity. The views of industry and of environmental groups could be sought by direct contact and through the Internet(64-7).

In addition to encountering some interesting chemistry, such an activity should lead the students to consider broader questions relating to the nature of proof in science and to extra scientific factors which may affect the acceptance of results?. Here it is useful to keep in mind Kuhn's view that "... [the] issue of paradigm choice can never be unequivocally settled by logic and experiment alone" (68 ). Popper and the sociology of scientific knowledge school argue much the same point: "It is always possible for us to refuse, without self-contradiction, to accept the validity of an observational statement" (33)

In this work the students will find various reports of xenoústrogenic activity associated with these compounds and messages from industry to the effect "No danger" or "Not proven". Do they consider that xenoústrogenic activity has been proved? If so, does that prove it to be the cause of damage to male fertility? Is the controversy one that can be settled by more research? Can an argument like this be settled conclusively by research, or is it always possible in principle to raise objections to any experimental results?

In this context there could be a suspicion that extra-scientific factors affect the interpretation of scientific results. Which factors could students suggest? Perhaps commercial interest plays a part on one side, but do not journalists and writers of popular science books have "extra scientific" motives for making the most of exciting, even alarming, results? Could some of the research scientists themselves have an "extra scientific" commitment to their own theories and motives (perhaps more research contracts) for finding positive and interesting results?

It is easy to vilify actual or imagined vested interest. What decision would the students make if they were in the position of a plastics manufacturer or a government regulator, bearing in mind the consequences of banning these xenoústogens on jobs, on the economy and indeed on the convenience of the public?


In this paper I have examined some of the developments that challenge university teachers to reconsider the nature of a university and the teaching which takes place in it. I consider that the most poignant part of this challenge for those of us who teach in science departments is to bridge the gap between our students' experience of their degree courses and the aspiration that "education [is] for delight ..... also for human understanding, for enjoyment, for contemplation and is an important tool in the search for truth"(27).

I argue that our courses are excessively, even exclusively, concerned with "facts" and their analysis. Students need help to make syntheses to enable them to appreciate a broader vision of their subject and its relation to other disciplines. To restore student enthusiasm we must involve a wide range of their human faculties by enabling them to develop their moral and emotional capabilities, not simply their intellectual potential. This, I suggest, can be approached by getting them to enter into controversy, to form opinions and to commit themselves, albeit provisionally, to a position. There is plenty of scope for doing this within a science course, such as chemistry. In doing this we are preparing our students to meet the challenges posed by postmodernism and to live fulfilling personal and professional lives.


I am grateful to my colleague Mary Tasker for many a stimulating discussion of issues discussed in this paper.

(6232 words)


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31. Atkins, P.W. 1992 Elements of Physical Chemistry (Oxford University Press )

32. Barnes, B. 1984 Challenging the rationalist myth, Listener 19th April

33. Magee, Bryan, 1975 Popper (Fontana)

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36. ibid. p. 124.

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40 Einstein, A. 1952 in Preface p. xxxviii (I. Newton Opticks) (Dover Publications)

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49. Daly, Herman E. 1992 Steady-state economics (2nd edn. Earthscan)

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56. Fieser, L.F and Fieser, M, 1958 Organic Chemistry (3rd edn. Reinhold)

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58. Cadbury, Deborah, 1998 The feminisation of nature (Penguin)

59. Hunt, Liz 1994 The ústrogen jigsaw Independent 22nd Sept.

60. Hunt, Liz 1995 Watch out ústrogen about! Independent 26th July.

61. Allen, Robert 1996 The last generation T.H.E.S. 10th May, p. 13

62. Müller, A.M.F., Makropopoulos, V. and Bolt, H.M. 1995 Toxicological aspects of ústrogen-mimetic xenobiotics present in the environment Toxicology and Ecotoxicology News 4(3) 68.

63. Anon. 1996 Assault on man (Horizon television programme, B.B.C.) 26th Feb. (Text:

64. Allsopp, M., Costner, P. and Johnston, P. 1995 Body of evidence: the effects of chlorine on human health (London, Greenpeace International) especially p. 21-2

65. Anon. 1998 Endocrine modulating effects of phthalates (Bruxelles, European Council for Plasticisers & Intermediates)

66. Anon. 1998 Endocrine-disrupting substances in the environment: What should be done? (Environment Agency)

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