Almost 90 scholars from 50 North American colleges and universities gathered at Vassar for a two-day conference, “Teaching Cognitive Science to Undergraduates,” sponsored by a $16,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.   Even defining the new discipline proved difficult.  David Waltz, computer science professor from Brandeis University and editor of The Journal of Cognitive Science admitted that his keynote address, “What is Cognitive Science?” was “a tough question,” and George Miller, professor of psychology at Princeton University declared that there seemed at present a number of “cognitive science” whose methodologies and concerns sometimes overlapped.  “Cognitive science,” he said, “remains an aspiration at this point.”

Approached differed as well when it came to how to teach the hard-to-define subject.  Some participants urged that students needed first to be grounded in the several disciplines involved—computer science, psychology, linguistics, biology, anthropology and others—while some of their colleagues said that having acquired the biases and constraints of these disciplines as part of the grounding would only make it more difficulty for students to grasp the essentials of the new field.  Neil Stillings from the School of Communications and Cognitive Science at Hampshire College, where courses in cognitive science were taught since the college’s founding in 1970, said he believed students were capable of handling the uncertainties in the field.  “The students,” he said, had “a unity in this field that we do not.  They are the wave of the future.”

Vassar led the nation’s colleges and universities in 1983 by becoming the first undergraduate institution to offer cognitive science as a major.    The Miscellany News, The New York Times