The Prepared Mind

Francis Steiner
Professor of Biology, Hillsdale College

Francis SteinerFrancis X. Steiner is the Dean of Natural Sciences and Professor of Biology.

The following is adapted from Mr. Snow's speech at a Hillsdale College seminar on October 15, 2001, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“In the field of observation, chance favors the prepared mind.”
—Louis Pasteur

These remarks, which are attributed to one of the greatest microbiologists of all time, lay the conceptual framework not just for a scientific education but for a true liberal arts education. You might be surprised at hearing that from a dyed-in-the-wool microbiologist, but in my 14th year at Hillsdale, I am confident this is truly what our college is all about.

We believe that science is a vital “way of knowing” about the universe. The courses we offer emphasize the philosophy of science, which helps students understand the process of scientific reasoning and empirical inquiry based on observation and verification by experimentation. We do not subscribe to the view that science and religion are incompatible. History is filled with countless examples of how they have worked together to provide humanity with untold blessings. We have a decidedly theistic science faculty at Hillsdale that believes, along with Galileo, “The Bible tells us how to get to Heaven, but science tells us how the heavens go.”

We also believe that science is an integral part of the liberal arts. Historically, the liberal arts were the higher arts, which among the Romans only freemen (liberi) were permitted to pursue. In the Middle Ages, the liberal arts consisted of seven branches of learning that belonged to one of two groups: the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) or the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). Briefly, what are the natural sciences at Hillsdale today? Biology considers the basis and phenomena of all life. Chemistry focuses on the composition of substances and the results of their interactions. Physics deals with matter, motion, energy, and the structure of the world. Closely allied to the natural sciences is mathematics, which examines relationships between space and quantity and offers symbols, abstract constructs, and patterns of logic. The computer sciences are a more recent but equally fascinating addition to this diverse collection of disciplines.

Since coming to Hillsdale, I have come to appreciate the fact that all three academic divisions—the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences—share more similarities than differences. No division stands by itself. Each has an outstanding teaching faculty, and the lack of a “publish-or-perish” environment enables professors to concentrate on students, not on their vitae. The natural sciences are particularly blessed with great facilities and “research-friendly” courses that allow for a great deal of experimentation and creativity. Other obvious attributes are small classes, frequent guest lecturers, and, in many cases, state-of-the-art equipment. However, the most important benefits of the education offered at Hillsdale are our professors’ constant interaction with students and the sound academic preparation that these students receive.

In the natural sciences, our professors introduce advanced research techniques at the undergraduate level. Serious interest, even among non-science majors, can often be sparked in this way. For example, we teach freshmen in survey courses to do “agarose gel electrophoresis” and analyze their own DNA fingerprint. In upper-level junior and senior courses, we encourage students to undertake ambitious projects that range from studying the effects of electromagnetic fields on melatonin production to studying the amount of metal alloy contamination in superconductor materials using powder X-ray diffractometry. Many of these projects are so successful that the students in charge are invited to present their results at scientific meetings.

In the natural sciences, we try to communicate the “how” and “why,” not just “what” we know. We want students to think, investigate, and discover for themselves. We also want them working side by side with us in the lab. For most of us, the lab is our favorite place to be, so you could say that we aren’t just teaching; we are doing what comes naturally.