Does our current education system tend to produce or prevent Frankensteins? This question has been of central importance to our “Reading with Scientists” class over the past three weeks, and as we close our engagement with Mary Shelley’s novel, I’d like to reflect on some of our key discussions.
In the first volume of Frankenstein, a young Victor goes off to University at Ingolstadt to study science. We often think of Frankenstein as a solitary, romanticized hero, tinkering away in a laboratory by himself. And, indeed, as has been well-documented, much of his downfall is due to the way he shuns social relationships with family and friends throughout the process of creating the monster. But to concentrate on Frankenstein’s solitude is also to miss an important aspect of his education: the teachers and academic structures that surround him, and, in many ways, facilitate his grave invention. The moment that “decided my future destiny,” as Frankenstein recollects, is a conversation with a professor, who “took me into his laboratory, and explained to me the uses of his various machines; instructing me as to what I ought to procure” (31). For two years, Frankenstein is an active undergraduate who participates fully in college life: “I attended the lectures, and cultivated the acquaintance, of the men of science of the university” (31). And when he progresses, it is with the “great esteem and admiration” of his colleagues (33). Though my students were originally quick to lay the greatest blame for Frankenstein’s mistakes at his own feet, such details might make us wonder how much responsibility also belongs to the scholarly community that fosters his intellectual development. If Frankenstein had had a different college experience, in other words, might his research efforts have ended more positively?1
What of today’s colleges, then? Have we improved upon the model that educated Frankenstein? The question at the start of this post – “Does our current education system tend to produce or prevent Frankensteins?” – prompted a lively class discussion for us. I broke students into brainstorming teams and then wrote down ideas from our full-group discussion on the board. We made two columns, “Produce” and “Prevent.” (The former was noticeably longer than the latter.) On the “Produce” side, students cited a prevalent “start-up culture” and drive to success, which privileges ambition and wealth and often creates problems in order to put forward the (costly) solutions to them. (Think: the Apple Watch that you never knew you needed until you couldn’t live without it.) Some students pushed back, however, saying they had not gotten the sense that their classes explicitly emphasized making money as a justification for education.
The “Produce” column also contained points like the lag-time between scientific invention and appropriate legal regulation, and a lack of institutionalized ethics classes. On the “Prevent” side, students cited social interactions and group work as key features privileged by the American school system, which would tend to provide criticism of dangerous or unethical research practices and result in increased safety overall. Such an emphasis on teamwork and collaboration is certainly valuable. But we unpacked the idea one step further, viewing scholarly interaction along a continuum. Of course, conversations and group work among colleagues are preferable to solitary research and much more conducive to avoiding the kinds of mistakes that Frankenstein made. But how often, I asked the class, do we really collaborate with people who have received different educations from us – i.e., with fellow researchers not in our own fields? It is this highest level of scholarly exchange which is most needed – but least accessible – within a highly structured university system that relies upon specialized departments as its main administrative units. Such specialization can be a key factor in the production of Frankensteins, scholars who are so isolated within segmented fields of knowledge that they, too, might reflect on their college experience in Frankenstein’s words: “[I] continually sought the attainment of one object of pursuit, and was solely wrapt up in this” (33). What if Frankenstein had taken time from his studies to seek feedback from a philosopher, a historian, or a literary scholar? And why is he not prompted to do so by his teachers?
To bring our discussion of Frankenstein to a close, we ended with a current, high-stakes comparison: consider Victor Frankenstein and Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook) as figures who invent a technology that in some way exceeds their control. Students read Volume 3 of the novel and watched video footage of the opening statements from Zuckerberg’s April 2018 Congressional hearings, which dealt with issues of data security, privacy, and foreign interference in elections. I also asked students to read the Facebook Data Policy (revised April 2018) in full and to read selections from Data Mining: The Textbook, by Charu C. Aggarwal. In class, teams of students came up to the board and wrote down the similarities and differences that they saw between the situations of Frankenstein and Zuckerberg. We mapped out relative responsibilities for the various actors in each case, including the Facebook-using public. A central similarity that emerged in discussion was that both figures were college students when they made their inventions. Frankenstein, as outlined above, was a young scholar at Ingolstadt. And Zuckerberg was a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard.2
Part of our goal of pairing Frankenstein with different scientific textbooks over the past three weeks has been to think through the mechanics of just how scientific knowledge is presented to students. We’ve covered Precision Medicine, CRISPR, and Genome Engineering (see this post for more on our discussion); Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach (Third Edition); Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction; and Data Mining: The Textbook. Within the “narrative arc” of a textbook, we’ve noticed, questions of ethics or privacy and notes of caution often come at the end (like on page 1034 of Artificial Intelligence). My students have actively initiated discussions of how such models might be constructively changed. Rather than level uni-directional criticism and moral reprobation at scientific education, how might humanists and scientists work together to rethink ethics education, in all disciplines (including the humanities)? Should ethical questions be clearly demarcated in dedicated classes and textbooks? Or should they be integrated throughout the educational process? What pragmatic issues might each option raise?
With opportune timing, last week closed with a fantastic day-long conference on Frankenstein at UCSB, organized by English Professor Julie Carlson and English PhD candidate Giorgina Paiella (also Project Manager for WE1S!). In honor of the novel’s bicentennial, the conference brought together scientists and humanists for a heartening discussion of ethics and the pursuit of knowledge across disciplines. It is my hope that “Reading with Scientists” and WhatEvery1Says, more broadly, can play a role in continuing this conversation.
- Several footnotes in the MIT Press edition of Frankenstein explicitly address the issue of Frankenstein’s education and mentorship, including his self-directed reading program as a young child. See, for example, Notes 18 and 19, p 22; Note 28, p 28; and Note 32, p 32. In Volume 2 of the novel, we of course have the story of a second failed education – that of the creature – whose acquired literary knowledge does not prevent him from entering upon a life of violence. As my students pointed out, we thus see problems with both scientific and humanistic educations in the book.
- One of the essays at the back of the MIT Frankenstein also explicitly links the novel to Facebook. See Cory Doctorow’s “I’ve Created a Monster! (And So Can You).”
Aggarwal, Charu C. Data Mining: The Textbook. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2015.
Russell, Stuart J and Peter Norvig. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds. Eds. David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017.
Tsang, Stephen H, and George M. Church, Eds. Precision Medicine, CRISPR, and Genome Engineering: Moving from Association to Biology and Therapeutics. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017.
Van de Poel, Ibo and Lambèr Royakkers. Ethics, Technology, and Engineering: An Introduction. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course “Reading with Scientists: How to Export Literature.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course.
The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!