One of the most powerful trends of the last hundred years has been the increasing amount of "science" that exists in our classrooms. Compared with centuries ago, our students are learning more about the empirical method and the natural world than ever before.
And yet, these fields are still held to a different standard than the old, established disciplines of literature or art or philosophy. This is perhaps best-personified in the kinds of information that are considered to be "essential" to a well-rounded education. It's rare to find someone who hasn't been taught the basics of Shakespeare, yet quite common to meet a college student with no idea of how basic physics works.
Perhaps one reason for this is that scientists haven't made clear what are the most important things to know. When you look at such a diverse field, it can become difficult to figure out what facts are "essential" and which are best left to those with a strong interest. To that extent, here is an interesting article that tries to detail the "essentials" in an attempt to provide a foundation upon which non-scientists can build their knowledge.
For those who just want a quick glimpse at what they came up with, here's the short list:
- Genes and DNA
- Big bang
- Quantum mechanics
- Atoms and nuclear reactions
- Molecules and chemical reactions
- Digital data
- Statistical significance
I don't agree with all of their choices on the list (not that they aren't important, I just wish they had included a basic understanding of the brain in their list, given the large number of misleading and "pop" articles on neuroscience), but it's certainly a good start.
Hopefully, the future will bring with it a culture in which it is just as shameful to be ignorant of Mendeleev as it is to be unversed in Steinbeck, where a knowledge of classics includes a knowledge of classical physics. A well-read mind is a powerful one indeed, let's make sure we keep such an idea up-to-date.