Many of my educator friends lament the decline of humanities. Today I want to explain why.
The problems in education today are multi-faceted with multiple causes, and I don’t pretend to understand them all, but I will offer one cause, a philosophical one, for the decline of the humanities: Baconian philosophy. First, I want to draw your attention to this web comic by xkcd. In this comic, xkcd offers a hidden argument for what is called a Baconian view of science. Charles Taylor explains:
“Bacon insists that the goal of science is not to discover a noble over-all pattern in things (as he somewhat tendentiously describes the sciences of Aristotle), which we can take pride in making evident, but the making of experiments which permit us to ‘improve the condition of mankind’” (A Secular Age, p. 543).
Richard Weaver sees this shift from an Aristotle to Bacon, from truth to utility, as a great degradation in culture: “The final degradation of the Baconian philosophy is that knowledge becomes power in the service of appetite” (Ideas Have Consequences).
What the xkcd comic is doing is arguing for the Baconian view of science at the hidden presuppositional level. It’s implicitly arguing that utility is more important than truth without explicitly saying so. People drink in the Baconian view as if it’s the only one that’s true and don’t realize there are other options like the Aristotelian view.
Why is this practically significant? Our culture is flux, devaluing truth and forms in exchange for what is useful. Western education used to value both the humanities and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). Now Western education values STEM and devalues the humanities, I would argue, because we have believed bad parts of Baconian philosophy. The simplest way for parents, students, and educators to oppose the bad parts of Baconian philosophy is to insist that truth is more important than utility.
As an engineer, I am against the current obsession with STEM if the obsession comes at the cost of devaluing truth, devaluing the humanities, and believing bad parts of Baconian philosophy. STEM and the humanities are both important. Pursuing truth often turns out to be useful. Pursuing what is useful destroys truth.
A warning to Christians: Paul warns Christians, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Christians working for reform in education while believing the Baconian idea that utility is more important than truth have been taken captive by false philosophy.