The History of the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Vassar College

by James Challey, Senior Lecturer
January 2011
Program Website

In the spring of 1970 the Vassar Faculty approved the creation of a new multi-disciplinary program to be entitled "Man and the Human Community." Approved only as a two-year experiment, it was indeed experimental in several senses. First it was one of Vassar's first multidisciplinary programs, a curricular option only recently approved as a "third track" for an undergraduate major, the other two being regular departmental majors and an Independent major.

The proposed focus of the new Program was also an experiment, an attempt to create a rigorous academic framework to begin to understand the political and social turmoil of the time. In an affluent, advanced industrial society poverty and urban riots were endemic; despite the triumphs of science and technology crowned by the manned lunar landing in 1969, in the same year the Cayoga River in Cleveland was so badly polluted it caught fire; and weighing on everything the war in Vietnam was becoming increasingly divisive, hopeless and savage. In its prospectus the new Program that its goal would be to undertake a critical analysis of the present condition and an exploration of alternatives.

"It will be concerned with the degree to which a society fulfills, distorts or denies its own possibilities and promises, and the need to project new modes of existence based on a critique of experience, as well as project new solutions to existing social problems."

The course offerings for the first year (1970-71) ," consisted of two year-long, upper level "collogquia," entitled "The Structure of Hell" and "The Structure of Paradise." The courses were team-taught, a tradition that the Program maintained for some of its courses until the 1990s. With Stephen Rousseas (Economics) as Director, the participating faculty included James Farganis (Sociology), Morton Tavel (Physics), George Frangos (History), Michael Murray (Philosophy) and Eugen Loebl (Economics). The name "colloquia" was chosen to emphasize that they would not be the traditional lecture or seminar formats. Instead each weekly two-hour session consisted of intense discussion based on a set of wide-ranging and often difficult readings. Some students recall these courses as among the most challenging of their academic careers; others have used words such as "brutal" and "not for people with sensitive egos."

The following year the Steering Committee decided to change the Program's name to Science, Technology and Human Values. In a similar attempt to be more descriptive, the titles of the two colloquia were changed to "Critiques of Technological Society" and "Man and Society," respectively. Two new colloquia, "Science and the Future of Man" and "Science and Politics," were also added. In the fall of 1971, at the request of the Dean of the Faculty, the Steering Committee began considering how urban studies and the study of ecology and the environment might be incorporated into the Progam. At the time both existed as loose collections of courses that students could fashion into a major through the Independent Program. By the end of 1972-73 a new structure for the Program had been proposed and approved, under a new name "Program in Science, Technology and Society.' The original program would continue as Division I: Program in Critical Thought, while Division II would be the Program in Urban Studies and Human Ecology. (This was soon shortened to simply "Urban Studies.")

In spring 1973 the first two STS majors graduated, after completing what became two of the key STS experiences: the writing of a senior thesis and its oral defense during the senior seminar. From the outset each of the participating faculty read each senior thesis and attended each defense. As a result each senior's thesis received a critical, multi-disciplinary examination, and the seminar sessions rewarded those students who could maintain their poise and clear-thinking under fire. The senior theses also served as a kind of feedback mechanism, with the topics often serving to suggest new issues to add to existing courses or new courses to be added to the Program.

  • Senior Thesis #1: 1973 "A Body Politik"
  • Senior Thesis #2 1973 "The Dynamics of Autonomy: Its Physiological Matrix and Its Social Correlates"

The structure and composition of the STS Program stabilized with the 1973-74 academic year. For the next eight years Division I of the Program centered around the social critique embodied in the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, with some courses incorporating topics in science and technology policy and in history and philosophy of science. Vassar's Program was among the first STS Programs in the country and was one of the very few at an undergraduate, liberal arts institution. This was one of the reasons the Program was able to win funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and from the Sloan Foundation.

  • Senior Thesis #5: 1974 "Youth in Revolt: Generational Conflict and Social Change"
  • Senior Thesis #13 1975 "Reflections on a New Relationship to Nature"
  • Senior Thesis #29 1976 "Neighborhood Rehabilitation: A Case Study"
  • Senior Thesis #35 1977 "The Limits to Growth: A Case Study of the Implications and Limitations of Technocratic Society"

One of the hallmarks of the STS Program has been its ability to re-invent itself through its course offerings and its participating faculty. In 1981 Division II split off to become the multidisciplinary Program in Urban Studies. At the same time curricular revisions, including Bob MacAulay's courses in the sociology of science, brought into the Program new perspectives from the emerging field that would soon be called Science and Technology Studies. New courses explored medicine and health care policy, environmental policy and sociobiology. Complementing this turn toward a greater emphasis on science and technology, the Program received funding from the Sloan Foundation and from IBM to sponsor three seminar series that brought Vassar faculty and people from the local community together in monthly discussions with leading social and natural scientists.

  • Senior Thesis #71 1980 "A Critique of Environmental Risk Assessment"
  • Senior Thesis #87 1981 "Diagnosing Health Care Systems: Conceptions of Disease and Treatment in Great Britain and the US"
  • Senior Thesis #103 1985 "Scientists and the Ballistic Missile Defense Controversy"
  • Senior Thesis #131 1988 "Music and Technology: The Aesthetics of Electronic Music"

During the 1990s the increasing focus on the many and complex ways in which science and technology shape the social environment and, in turn, are shaped by this context led to a reformulation of the Program's mission as found in the statement in the current catalogue and in the topics of more recent senior theses.

  • Senior Thesis #178 1996 "The Inherent versus the Constructed Need for Cellular Telecommunications Technology'
  • Senior Thesis #265 2005 "ADHD in Children: A Critical Analysis"
  • Senior Thesis #270 2005 "The Social Construction of Environmental Decision-Making"
  • Senior Thesis #296 2009 "China's Internet and Panoptic Power"

In order to strengthen the Program's new focus for students, STS 200, a core required course, was introduced in the mid-90s as " Introduction to Science and Technology Studies. " Another new course, "The Bio-politics of Breast Cancer," grew into a nationally acclaimed educational and awareness initiative. STS has continued to be a place where new ideas and new perspectives can be tried out, for both Vassar's Environmental Studies Program and the Media Studies Program have emerged within the last decade from courses first offered in STS. The Program continues to explore contemporary and emerging technologies and movements in science, as our students and faculty explore together the critical meanings of living in a world that is ever more technologically and scientifically complex.