Enlightenment and the Goals of the Science Curriculum

As the Academic Dean of the Regent Schools of the Carolinas, I have been assigned the task of developing a curriculum for a pre-school on the notoriously disadvantaged west side of Charlotte.

In discussion, my associate and friend, Nick Gennett proposed a wonderful phrase to describe the driving force behind the science program. We want our graduates to be, “Enlightened stewards of the earth and its resources.”

Enlightenment. What does it mean? The term enlightened self-interest has been thrown around as an ethical guide for a few centuries now. The Enlightenment was the name arrogated by a movement peculiar to western Europe whose core idea seems to have been that the scientific method – a varying combination of Rationalism and Empiricism – will usher in an age of prosperity and wisdom such as the world had never seen before.

As an editorial aside, I can’t determine what is more astonishing, the amazing immaturity of the proclamations made by Enlightenment thinkers (cf. Kant’s “What is Englightenment?” addresss, in which he argues that the human race has now reached its maturity and age of responsibility. Yeah, sure.) or the gullibility of a world eager to believe them.

So what is Englightenment? It seems to me that when people use the term now, they are either referring to the 17th and 18th century philosophy that ushered in the secular modernist world we now inhabit or they are referring to a state of enlightenment. If it is the latter, there are two common alternatives. One is the condition of being properly informed about a matter. The other is the condition of the Buddha, for example, who has attained an inner awareness of a more abiding reality separate from our deluding world.

Believe it or not, I’m more sympathetic to the latter option. The first is somewhat valid, but, while practical, it is ultimately trivial. Gaining information is not the same as being enlightened. To be enlightened, and this is the point, is to be able to perceive reality. To perceive requires that your faculties of perception be awakened.

That is why the Enlightenment is derisively considered by some to be the EnDarkenment. Their philosophy was that through scientific research alone they would usher in an age of knowing and living that was impossible as long as religious people were allowed any say in public life.

They argued that anything that could not be discerned by their methods simply did not exist and certainly should not be part of the public discussion. David Hicks famously compared them to the man who uses a geiger counter and argues that whatever is not detected by the geiger counter does not exist.

They were radical extremists, closing their eyes and covering their ears, and demanding the right to rule in such a posture. They still are and they still do.

Look, for example, at Dewey’s writings on what he called intelligence. He wants it to replace “reason,” which for him is unprofitable because it is inadequately bound to the scientific method. But the application of the scientific method (which for him is, so far as I can tell, what he means by intelligence) in the classroom would lead to endless growth and social development. Tradition is the enemy.

Dewey first poked out his own eyes, then proceeded to poke out the eyes of three or four generations of American children. He undercut every other faculty of perception that could not be contained under his version of the scientific method.

Until American educators can see that, they will be bound to his philosophy of endless experimentation socially driven and statistically measured. Virtue and wisdom will remain outside the purview of education and we will continue to produce adults who cannot sustain our economy, cannot vote or rule wisely, cannot manage their money, cannot love their neighbors or their spouses, believe that freedom is self-indulgence, and have parents who are willing for their children to be lab rats in the great laboratory of the School sytem.

Instead, we need students who become, as my friend Nick expressed it, “englightened stewards of the earth and its resources.” If ever we have needed true enlightenment, now is the time. But how can we get it?

One of the first steps is to realize that the scientific method is not adequate to the task. But if we align the natural sciences with the higher humane sciences, then they can serve their purpose. They can produce students who will use the scientific method rightly. They will be able to be enlightened stewards because their faculties of perception will be awakened through their awareness that they are stewards, that the creation is good and wondrous, that they are the Image of God. Their teachers will cultivate the faculties of perception that must be cultivated to be enlightened, faculties like poetic knowledge, knowledge of beauty, geometric awareness, verbal skills, musical perception, etc.

Enlightenment is not the acquisition of information, it is the ability to perceive reality. This does require information, but it also requires the ability to gather, interpret, and steward information. It goes beyond information to wisdom.

Now how do we bring that into the preschool curriculum!?

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2 Responses

  1. Becky,

    I agree to an extent, but the preschool curriculum also needs to declare its purpose. The other trouble is getting a whole group of preschool kids corralled under a teacher’s authority.

    But basically I agree with you. If I may slightly alter Marie Antoinette: “Let them eat dirt!”

  2. I think it is interesting that anything other than a loose outline for science would be needed for preschoolers. They are naturally curious and ripe for poetic knowledge. Continuous exploration of the outdoors including digging in the dirt, watching bugs and ants do their daily tasks, tree climbing, mushroom growing – wow- I wish I had that in preschool!

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