The news of the potential closure of my old department has led me to wondering what the future is for a subject like physics, which in turn had me thinking about its past.
While many have been worrying lately about declining interest in a number of ‘core’ academic subjects, such as physics, it is easy to forget that the subject only came into existence as a distinct discipline within the past two centuries. Many of the great heroes of physics–people like Kepler, Galileo, and Newton–would never have considered themselves physicists, probably leaning toward the term ‘natural philosophers.’ Maxwell‘s contributions to the discipline were immense, but he’s also notable for being one of the earlier practitioners to go by the name ‘physicist’.
In her final book, Dark Age Ahead Jane Jacobs argued forcefully against the move within higher education from broad, high quality education toward ‘credentialing.’ She’s far from alone in that concern, and it’s well founded. A solid grounding in the history and traditions of a discipline are as important a part of a full education as specific skills, and are necessary if we are to move forward wisely. If the decline of a subject like physics is the result of a push towards a form of vocational study that is focussed on credentials, then it is a bad thing.
Many physics departments emphasise in their promotional materials how much society needs the skills that are found within physics. And it’s true. Most of the technological innovations we enjoy day-to-day have come to us filtered through the work of other disciplines, but their underpinnings come from physics. We so desperately need new forms of energy production, and the ideas for that are likely to come from physics. Often ‘pure’ research, free of strong practical concerns, can yield the most useful knowledge for practical progress.
But the importance of physics research and of an education connected with an historical tradition should not shield us from the fact that the labels we now assign, and the distinctions we currently make are not absolutes. The form of education and the lines between disciplines will inevitably shift in the future just as they have in the past. What is vital is that we pay attention throughout those changes and keep the emphasis on education over credentialing.