[VIEWPOINT]Curiosity, the road to knowledgeDudley R. Herschbach, a chemistry professor at Harvard University, visited Korea last week. Asked whether the scholastic aptitude of newly admitted students to Harvard has declined over the years, he answered that new students are more scholarly than ever.
Korean universities that suffer from a decline in students' scholastic abilities might have been consoled by the news that the general scholastic aptitude of new students at Tokyo National University has fallen and Japanese engineering schools as a whole are experiencing a shortage of new students. But they must have been surprised by the remark by Dr. Herschbach: U.S. education seems to be on the right track.
Dr. Herschbach won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1986. He is famous for his quality lectures at Harvard. Even though he is an expert in chemistry, he does not spend much time educating senior students in the chemistry department. Instead, he has put his heart and soul into the liberal arts and basic sciences for new students.
Students at Harvard have been captivated by his lectures that connect wide scientific knowledge with diverse problems in human life. Even though Dr. Herschbach is expected to retire this year at the age of 70, excellent lectures by other distinguished professors will continue at Harvard. This is because there is a wide consensus at such prestigious universities such as Harvard that a strong undergraduate education is essential for the foundation of advanced research.
In a lecture for university and high school students at Seoul National University last week, Dr. Herschbach likened the scientist who gropes through the various aspects of nature for truth to Helen Keller. Helen Keller, who was born in 1882, lost her sight and hearing to a childhood illness. As she grew older, she tried to understand the meanings of words by touching the lips of her teacher. She later earned a university degree.
Dr. Herschbach himself has endeavored all his life to pursue the knowledge of nature, examining the course of nature from the perspective of atoms and molecules. His passion for science has captivated his students. Once, at the end of a lecture, a high school student asked Dr. Herschbach why people study science and how he could balance his interest in science and the expectations of people around him so that he can have a secure job. Dr. Herschbach's answer was simple. He said pursuing truth in science is a basic human desire and an interest in science is key to understanding the world.
Curiosity about nature includes everything from asking why there are four seasons and why leaves turn red in the autumn, to such profound questions as how the cosmos came into existence and where the atoms that make up the human body come from. Hubble's curiosity about the nebula Andromeda helped other scientists discover the structure of the cosmos. Curiosity about nature is the starting point for understanding nature and where we stand and how we fit into this vast cosmos.
Children grow with the expanding curiosity in their hearts. Nature is all around us and we are also a part of nature. Some educational systems help the budding curiosity sprout, bloom and fruit, other systems nip that curiosity in the bud. Even though it may succeed in sprouting, curiosity often ceases to grow further, facing the thorny thicket of an unresponsive society.
Young Herschbach was admitted to Stanford University decades ago. At the time he did not know whether to choose to be a football player or a scientist. The person who helped him decide was his high school science teacher.
The power of America comes from its liberal college education system, which is rooted in a primary and secondary education that cultivates the soil on which students' curiosity can bloom.
Korean students, science majors in particular, suffer from an education that crams fragmented knowledge into their heads. In such an atmosphere, curiosity cannot be developed. Where should we begin in tackling this problem?
*The writer is a professor of chemistry at Seoul National University.
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