Preface
 

You hold in your hand [metaphorically] the second volume of VAST Essays, an annual collection of some of the best essays produced by students in the VAST (Values and Science/Technology) Program at Lafayette College during spring semester, 1999.  All students at Lafayette take a VAST course during their sophomore year as part of their four-year writing requirement, and professors of VAST courses range across the College’s four divisions: Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Engineering.  As detailed in the Appendix, “What is a VAST course?”, the goal of each course in the program is to gather students from a variety of majors around a problem too large for any single discipline to address fully, guided by the specialized knowledge and intellectual curiosity of the professor. As a representative sampling, the essays in this volume are drawn from courses on environmental studies, AIDS, ancient New World technologies, and the “science wars.”

The opening two essays explore ways in which science and values can be integrated in grappling with real-life problems.  In the first, Jessika Luth argues for the central role of science in finding solutions to a problem some say science has created: environmental pollution. Cheryl Mascitelli, by contrast, offers ethical criteria by which to judge a social-scientific problem: whether testing pregnant women for AIDS should be voluntary or mandatory. In the third essay, Robert Schweder thinks experientially through an apparently simple technological problem, discovering hitherto unsuspected complexities. Technology is revealed to be essential to constructing society—and to realizing a sense of beauty, as well.  The current debate between realism and constructivism is joined by Matthew Coble, in an essay which offers a strong defense of constructivism as a position deserving further exploration. Finally, Caitlin Gray ends with her own impassioned plea, in the voice of a radical environmentalist, for direct environmental action in our daily lives.  Our five essays this year show students experimenting with a range of positions and, in doing so, discovering the means and pleasures of intellectual and moral commitment.

I would like once again to offer my deep thanks to Patricia Donahue, Associate Professor of English and Director of the College Writing Program, for her help in editing these essays for publication; and to Tom Yuster, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Co-Coordinator of the VAST Program, and to Dan Barber, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, for their help in selecting, out of many fine submissions, the five essays reproduced here.  Above all, thanks to all the students and their professors who contributed to this volume by submitting essays to our ongoing competition.  I believe the essays offered here demonstrate the goals of the VAST Program better than any description, and I hope they inspire students in the year 2000 to write with passion, commitment, and intellectual depth.

--Laura Dassow Walls
Associate Professor of English and Co-Coordinator of VAST