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The British Association for the Advancement of Science and public attitudes to science, 1919-1945

Collins, Peter Michael Digby (1978) The British Association for the Advancement of Science and public attitudes to science, 1919-1945. PhD thesis, University of Leeds.


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The British Association was founded for 'the advancement of science'. In pursuing this objective it has always operated on two fronts the professional practice of science and the lay attitude to science. It is with the latter that this dissertation is concerned. During the period 1919 - 1945 a considerable public antipathy towards science became manifest. It was felt that the moral, cultural and political values associated with abstract scientific research were at odds with those of a liberal democracy deriving its ethos from the traditionally defined humanities. It was further thought that the rapid development of scientific knowledge and of its technical application threatened a society which had failed to achieve a corresponding development of its ethical standards. The massive and continuous unemployment of the nineteen-thirties and the mounting danger of another war exacerbated public hostility to science and to the machinery which science made possible. As the pursuit of scientific knowledge came increasingly to depend on public financial support, and as the consequences of this pursuit came increasingly to affect all members of society, it grew ever more apparent that the continued advancement of science necessitated an hospitable social environment. Since the public seemed inclined to be inhospitable, the British Association was obliged to go beyond its traditional popularising activities and to conduct a concerted defence of science. It tried to persuade the public that science was a spiritually uplifting exercise, that scientific knowledge was intrinSically worthwhile, that its practical applications were generally beneficial to SOciety. In making this defence of science the British Association became involved in an extended debate over the relations between science and Society which was Simultaneously being waged by other, differently motivated, groups of scientists. The various elements of this debate, and their development during the period under review, are considered in some detail in Part I. The educational system presents a significant mechanism for influencing public attitudes, and it is one which the British Association had long used to further the status of science. Part II examines how the British Association sought between the wars to enlist the educational system in its defence of science. The emphasis here was chiefly on pure science and in this respect the cultural and the political functions of education were the main themes. The Association made the most of the opportunities offered by the general science movement in secondary schools and by adult education to disseminate the cultural values of science : that is, to project a view of science as something deeply imbedded in the social and intellectual heritage of the country, fundamentally of a piece with humane, liberal values and able to contribute to the fulfill~ent of the individual. By thus stressing the cultural aspects of science, the Association hoped to impress on the public that science was concerned with the spiritual as well as the material welfare of man. The political function of education is considered under the heading of education for citizenship and is examined with reference to two disciplines in particular : geography and biology. At the end of the First World War the professional and educational status of both these sciences was low. Each of these sciences began to develop a mancentred orientation and this was made the basis of their claims to a greater rise in the educational system. It was argued that geography and biology generated both knowledge and the sort of outlook vital to citizenship in a democratic society and that they should therefore be taught to all schoolchildren. Such arguments, like the cultural ones, served to emphasise the social importance of science in a non-material sense and hence, it was hoped, to ameliorate public attitudes to science. The motivation behind them, however, was not so much the advancement of society in itself as the advancement of science, for which the British Association had been founded.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of Leeds > Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law (Leeds) > School of Education (Leeds)
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.574464
Depositing User: Repository Administrator
Date Deposited: 22 Oct 2013 11:26
Last Modified: 22 Oct 2013 11:26
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/4621

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