Why Our Schools Aren’t Giving us Enough Scientists

Nearly every day I receive another notice or article about the struggles to build a science curriculum that meets the need of the day to produce scientists to keep the economy moving, to cure diseases, and to stay ahead of the enemy technologically.

And no wonder: the power of science to solve physical problems has proven to be something on the order of unbelievable. Sometimes a religious disposition to revere God can lead to a relaxed appreciation for what people do, but this lacks wisdom. As we love God by loving our neighbor, so we revere God by respecting His image.

So we ought to appreciate the achievements of the great scientists and we ought to learn about their discoveries.

Furthermore, we ought to study science because it offers us a knowledge of the cosmos – of the physical world around us, over which we are stewards. We cannot wisely steward what we don’t know.

Many Christians are nervous about science, however. They fear that science offers only worldly wisdom and that worldly wisdom is in direct conflict with the revelation of Holy Scripture, especially, of course, on matters like the creation, fall, and flood of Genesis.

I don’t mean to sound dismissive, because I understand the concern. But as a matter of practical reality, it doesn’t matter. We must study science if for no other reason than that the sciences have risen from the Christian classical world-idea. But, truly, the natural sciences hold unspeakable potential for good, and if Christians believe they have good ideas about how to use the sciences then they need to be involved in the sciences to even have a voice in the discussion.

Reactionary, fear-driven avoidance only makes a Christian irrelevent.

I’ve written quite a few little blogs about how we should teach science in a Christian classical school, but I came to a realization today that I wanted to share with you so I could get some feed back on it. It has to do with how and when science should be taught.

I’ve made the case for some time that science follows on the seven liberal arts of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These arts train the intellect to perceive and to reason and they are part of a world-idea that supports inquiry into the physical universe.

A not unusual development has taken place historically. Consider this: science as I am referring to it (pure science, as opposed to applied science) arose among the ancient Greeks and, frankly, among no other people. Plenty of other peoples had technology and made great leaps in applied science. But none of them ever developed a pure science in which the cosmos was studied purely for the sake of gaining knowledge about it.

That “pure science” approach led to earth shaking discoveries with wide applications. It did so because the ancient Greeks loved every kind of knowledge so much that they developed the arts of knowing to a degree no other people in the ancient world ever had. If you are going to perform pure science, you have to master the seven liberal arts.

For various reasons, the sciences went into remission after the decline of the Roman empire, though many discoveries were made in Baghdad, Constantinople, and other centers of eastern influence. But with the early years of the scientific revolution, a vast new vision of life on earth came into being. Such a scientific progress as the world could never have dreamed about followed in the wake of Albertus Magnus and Aquinas, Bacon and Descartes, Galileo and Newton.

All of whom were profoundly educated in the seven liberal arts.

What brought about the scientific revolution? Astronomy! Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo – all astronomers. Why? Many reasons, not the least of which is that astronomy is the bridge from the arts to the sciences, for it is, remember, one of the seven liberal arts!

Since then, the sciences have uncovered long-hidden secrets about the world in and on and through which we live. They’ve grown beyond Bacon’s wildest dreams when he composed his Instauration and his Novum Organon (designed to replace Aristotle’s Oldum Organon). They hold out promises that Socrates would have laughed at.

Yet, we can’t produce enough scientists in our schools? How can this be?

I believe the problem is quite simple and, as I indicated above, not at all unusual. My friend Steve Manz expressed it with great simplicity: “Now that we have the sciences, we are losing the tools that gave them to us.”

Exactly. We want science, science, science, but we don’t want thinking, disciplined students. We don’t want to train them in the seven liberal arts, preferring instead to weigh them down with electives they can’t possibly understand. As a result, everybody has to work a hundred times harder for one tenth the potential results.

We need, as the cliche goes, to sharpen the saw. To get better scientists, the great need is not to teach more science classes. The great need is to teach children how to think.

More in my next post on how to frame the curriculum.


5 Responses

  1. Thank you, Mr. Kern.
    I am from Kathmandu, Nepal. I try to find and read blogs like yours out of sheer frustration when I meet people who are extremely informed about other cultures, other sciences, but who still don’t acknowledge that the the many alternative sciences, many religions, cultures, and epistemologies are equally respectable, profound, and fallible. I read about the advocacy of science because I don’t understand why “science” has to be defined culturally, narrowly–and sometimes it gets very frustrating, but I guess this frustration also makes me “wiser” as a learner, through learning shocks :).
    I believe that the one most important purpose of education is to become more and more able learn without preconceived notions about reality. I think that that is where science, or scientific outlook becomes the most important ingredient of learning in any discipline, including even culture and society. I really find it disturbing to see people over-complicating science from cultural points of view and obfuscating the basic idea of science as a matter of “skeptical” outlook for as systematic inquiry as possible into reality so that we might be able to better understand what we still don’t or what we need to understand better. But when I sense cultural or political ideologies/agenda behind the logic of people who seem to advocate for “science,” I need to find a better blog for comfort. That is how I found yours. So, as you indicated, I would appreciate if you could write more about culture and science.
    I think there is a lot of value in discussing science from cultural points of view, but I also think it is necessary to acknowledge that there are alternative/multiple sciences that have evolved in different cultures, and I believe that because cultures are no longer so discrete (we can’t afford any exceptionalism anymore) and because so many different cultures have contributed to what used to be the science of the “west” we now need to see that the global community of scientific thinkers, researchers, teachers don’t belong to any “bloc” anymore. I have heard some people talk about “modern” science as a western phenomenon because its roots are western, and I feel sorry to see such “scientists” or scholars act like the Hindu priests I got disgusted by when I was a kid. When I hear people talking about science or knowledge as culturally definable any longer, I remember the voice of the bigoted priests who talked about the “universality,” “timelessness,” “all-embracing,” and such other qualities of their culture or “science” and went on to add that theirs is not a religion but the way of life that preceded other spiritual systems… and all that crap. All exceptionalisms, whether cultural or “scientific” have one thing in common: stupidity that leads to inability to explore connections, to allow understanding to evolve, and to respect other. I hope to read more about cultures and sciences in your future blogs.

  2. I didn’t get two things in this blog: one that “the sciences have risen from the Christian classical world-idea” and two that “If you are going to perform pure science, you have to master the seven liberal arts.” I like the idea that Christians (or religious people of any kidney) should be encouraged to not see science as their enemy. But my (imperfect) understanding is that historically science has risen more from the opposition (indeed destructive forces) than “from” out of religions. Similarly, growing up outside of the US, I never knew that becoming proficient in the hard sciences had to be limited within the cultural compass of Greco-Roman-Anglo-American worldviews. I first selected this blog as a good reading about the false binary people create in my society between science and “wisdom,” but one of my students pointed out that scientific outlook should not have to do with any particular culture. I would appreciate if you could write something that doesn’t exclude students of science from other cultures in your future blogs. I don’t mean that science is a-cultural in evolution but I guess it should try to transcend cultures.

    • Shyam,

      What a tremendously thoughtful and gracious response to a blog from nearly a year ago. If you don’t mind, I’m going to reflect on it over time and try to reply to it one or two items at a time.

      Let me begin by embracing your request that I “write something that doesn’t exclude students of science from other cultures.”

      Your closing sentence is really the key to this whole discussion.

      Clearly science has evolved more in some cultures (Indian, British, Chinese) and less in others (most aboriginal cultures).

      What I need to reflect on is the second part: can science transcend cultures? And then, further, should it? Or does scientific transcendence put cultures at risk?

      I look forward to reading your post again in the near future and reflecting on it with as much thoughtfulness as you showed in writing it.

      May I say, thank you for the grace and humility with which you wrote.

      And may I ask, where do you live?

  3. […] a new look for his blog and some great new insights. My dad, an education consultant and theorist has posted about why our schools aren’t producing enough scientists at his blog Quiddity. Very […]

  4. […] the framework of the science curriculum Posted on April 14, 2008 by Lost and Found This is part two of this post. […]

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