C.S. Lewis on Reforming Science Education

“No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power… [Now that love of power has exceeded love of truth,] reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.” ~The Abolition of Man (The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Collection, p. 489).

How College Has Changed

How has college education changed in the past 200 years?

The short answer is that research universities replaced classical universities.

“And while our universities are under greater pressure than ever to emphasize pragmatic results–technological achievements and career-oriented skills–there are voices calling for a reaffirmation of the classic role of education as a way to articulate private aspirations with common cultural meanings so that individuals simultaneously become more fully developed people and citizens of a free society…When education becomes an instrument for individual careerism, it cannot provide either personal meaning or civic culture.

“[In classic universities], the purpose of education was to produce a ‘man of learning’ who would have ‘an uplifting and unifying influence on society.’ Literature, the arts, and science were regarded as branches of a single culture of learning. It was the task of moral philosophy, a required course in the senior year, usually taught by the college president, not only to integrate the various fields of learning, including science and religion, but even more importantly to draw the implications for the living of a good life individually and socially…It was only late in the nineteenth century that the research university replaced the college as the model for higher education…The prestige of natural science as the model for all disciplined knowing and the belief that the progress of science would inevitably bring social amelioration in its wake partially obscured the fact that they unity and ethical meaning of higher education were being lost…There were great positive achievements in this transformation of higher education. The new educational system prepared vastly larger numbers of people for employment in an industrial society, and it included as students those who, because of class, sex, or race, were almost completely excluded in the early nineteenth century. The authors of this book and, in all probability, most of its readers, are beneficiaries of this great change. Yet we must be aware of the costs. One of the major costs of the rise of the research university and its accompanying professionalism and specialization was the impoverishment of the public sphere. Tocqueville as our example [of man of classical education]…was…intelligible to any educated reader. Today’s specialized academics, with notable exceptions, write with a set of intellectual assumptions and a vocabulary shared only by their colleagues” (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in America by Robert Bellah, pp. 293, 299).

STEM and the Humanities are Both Important

STEM and the humanities are both good. We must not elevate STEM to the neglect of the humanities.

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.

The Value of Beauty and Aesthetics in Education

“The serious pursuit of beauty, for both children and adults, has a delightfully amplifying effect on all other areas of life. It makes us better at everything else, whether that be theology, engineering, homemaking, or plumbing. The connection here is quite mysterious, but it’s often quite radical. Poetry, music, and fiction can utterly transform the coldest logician, computer programmer, or colonel into someone with a soul.”

~Doug Wilson, Angels in the Architecture

The Enlightenment Idol of Science

Before I share this quote, I need to set the proper perspective. I am nuclear engineer. I love science and benefit from science every day. Science has an important place in Western thought and culture, but it does not stand supreme.  I refuse to idolize science. People who build the houses of their lives on a foundation of scientific studies and scientific consensus are building on shaky ground.

“The Enlightenment idol is science…Science sells. Neil Postman likes to tell stories about how he can get people to warm up to absurd ideas just by suggesting that some large university has produced research on the topic. Attaching ‘produced at Berkeley, Harvard, MIT’ to a ridiculous argument immediately makes it cogent to many. That’s part of life, but let’s not pretend that it’s rationality.

The odd thing is that science has a rather ridiculous track record to serve as such a powerful veto-house of truth. If we think in terms of centuries and millennia, few other disciplines turn inside-out so flippantly and quickly as the natural sciences. Nothing can take the puff out of the scientific chest more than a study of its history. Perhaps that’s why it’s so rare to find science departments requiring courses in the history of science. The history of science provides great strength to the inductive inference that, at any point in its history, that day’s science will almost certainly be deemed false, if not laughable, within a century (often in much less time)…If the history of science were a single person, we certainly wouldn’t let that person drive heavy machinery or carry sharp objects…he could serve some useful functions…But to set him up as the premier standard and priest of rationality is a bit too much to ask.”

~Doug Wilson, Angels in the Architecture


Bibliography of Educational Resources

I hope to keep here an updated list of resources I have found helpful while researching my children’s education. (They are in alphabetical order by title.)

The Higher Education Bubble by Glenn Reynolds

Can be found here on Amazon. Reynolds argues that, in light of rapidly increasing university costs and massive student loan burdens, American colleges will have to reform or go out of business.

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform by the National Commission on Excellence in Education

Can be found for free here. In 1983, the United States Department of Education released a report warning Americans that education in our country is failing.

Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Doug Wilson

Can be found here on Amazon. Meticulously researched, Doug Wilson explains the problems with modern secular education and proposes reforms. Doug Wilson emphasizes education reforms at the local level since reforms at the public and Federal level will take too long. He argues that the quickest way to reward good schools and good teachers and force bad schools and bad teachers to improve is through choice and tax vouchers, something Wisconsin is already trying.

The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory

Can be found here on Amazon. Gregory states and explains the principles every teacher needs to hone. I have found it helpful for teaching sailors and engineers at my secular job and the 8-12 years-olds I teach at my church.

“Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts” by Justin McBrayer

Can be found for free here. In 2015, a a philosopher critiques Common Core.