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Classical Christian Movement

Classical Christian Education and the Future of Science

By October 1, 2015March 22nd, 2023No Comments

Classical Christian educators are often asked how their curriculum prepares students for jobs in science and technology. History shows that while classical education prepares its graduates for any profession, it was central in the creation of modern science. Advocates of STEM education say it prepares graduates for a world where good jobs will be in areas indicated by the acronym STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Classical education, however, teaches the arts of mathematics, the quadrivium, with four different subjects: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The superiority of the quadrivium is acknowledged by those who see the need to supplement STEM subjects with an arts component (STEAM).

The quadrivium, however, is only half of classical education. The other half is the trivium, the arts of language: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. The trivium aims at mastery of the fundamentals of language, then of logical thinking and finally of winsome and persuasive discourse. The arts of language are essential for anyone who wants to participate actively as a citizen in governments with consensual institutions. Citizens need to be able to think clearly and express themselves grammatically and persuasively. The narrowly pre-professional STEM curriculum ignores this important vocation. Furthermore, even if it were to be true—which is not proven and not likely—that all good jobs in the future will be in STEM areas, many of these will involve using language. This includes teachers, researchers who must write grant proposals for committees of scientists with other specializations, and writers who explain the significance of the results of scientific research to non-scientists. A STEM or even STEAM curriculum without mastery of the arts of language is a recipe for personal frustration and national disaster.

Classical Christian education is not only useful for those looking for STEM jobs. History indicates that it provided the intellectual environment in which science prospered. From the invention of science by the ancient Greeks and its development under the Roman empire, during late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and on into the early modern and modern age until the middle of the twentieth century, science has been associated with classical culture and classical education, in fact, for most of this period, with classical Christian education.

Let us limit ourselves to the modern period. Marie Boas Hall called the first period of the Scientific Revolution The Scientific Renaissance (1960). She showed that modern science began with Renaissance humanism, the cultural initiative to re-establish contact with classical antiquity. Renaissance humanists discovered, interpreted and translated ancient texts, including Greek scientific manuscripts. They studied ancient science, corrected its errors and misconceptions, and then made new discoveries.

Renaissance humanists had classical Christian educations. Peter Dear in Revolutionizing Science: European Knowledge and its Ambitions, 1500-1700 (2009), after discussing medieval science, goes on to explain the classical curriculum, trivium and quadrivium. The classical curriculum taught the arts of language (trivium) and mathematics (quadrivium) so students could speak, think and compute. They revered the past as the source of beauty and truth. Michelangelo promised in his contract that his Pietà would emulate the beauty of ancient art. Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy’s First Decade ransacked the Roman republic for ways to restore freedom to Italy. Protestants like Luther and Calvin tried to reform the church by reading the Bible.

Sixteenth century scientists had the same classical education as other Renaissance humanists. Science then was self-consciously a return to the ideas and texts of ancient science. Copernicus (1473-1543) knew that he was reviving the heliocentric hypothesis of Aristarchus of Samos (third century BC). His book did not start from scratch, but was
a careful revision of Ptolemy’s Almagest (second century AD). The great doctor Andreas Vesalius (1514-64) devoted years to editing the works of the ancient Greek doctor Galen (second century AD) before publishing his seminal work on physiology, On the Structure of the Human Body, in 1543, the same year Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus was published.

As Peter Dear wrote, “Like Copernicus, Vesalius presented his work as a restoration of an ancient practice; also like Copernicus, he pointed out flaws in the work of his great model from antiquity; and like Copernicus the rationale for his project emerged directly from humanist values and ambitions.”

Classical Christian education continued to foster scientific research. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a Copernican who read the texts of the Pythagoreans and Plato. Like them, he believed that mathematics was essential for understanding the physical world, even when this method led him to postulate that the planets moved in ellipses instead of circles. His fellow Copernican Galileo (1564-1642) denounced him for breaking with the ancient tradition of positing circular motion for the heavenly bodies. He too quoted Plato and the Pythagoreans. Scientists like Kepler and Galileo studied geometry in Euclid’s ancient text to understand the natural world, as Plato had urged in Timaeus and Republic VII. Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651) called geometry “the only science God hath seen fit to bestow upon mankind.” Newton composed Principia (1687) in Latin with geometrical proofs as part of the same tradition.

There is a wide gap between popular opinion and the scholarly consensus on the role of Christianity and the classics in the explosive creativity of the seventeenth- century Scientific Revolution. Voltaire in the eighteenth century and twenty-first century polemicists and federal judges have presented the Scientific Revolution as rejecting tradition and explaining the world as mechanical and godless. In fact, the leaders of the Scientific Revolution were classically educated Christians.

In 1938 sociologist Robert K. Merton studied the founders of the Royal Society in 1660. So many were Puritans that he hypothesized they all were. They were certainly Christians. Merton’s careful study of the Royal Society, a key institution in the Scientific Revolution, showed the “warfare” of science and religion did not exist then. In 1988 historian Steven Shapin wrote, “No historian of science now seriously contends that religious forces were wholly, or even mainly, antagonistic to natural science. When Merton wrote his thesis, that was not the case.”

The memo had not reached Judge Jones when he composed his decision in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District (2005): “Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.”

Scholars have continued to confirm Merton’s results. Stephen Gaukroger in The Emergence of a Scientific Culture (2006) argued that in the seventeenth century “Christianity set the agenda for natural philosophy” or science. In 2009 Margaret J. Osler agreed: “For many of the natural philosophers of the seventeenth century, science and religion—or, better, natural philosophy and theology—were inseparable, part and parcel of the endeavor to understand our world.”

Scientists then were also influenced by their study of the ancient classics. Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo and Newton were products of classical Christian education. They studied ancient authors and could read and write Greek and Latin. Kepler and Galileo quoted Plato’s Meno and Timaeus. The atomic theory Newton used in his optics was based on Gassendi’s recovery of ancient Epicureanism. Classical Christian education shaped science then and continued to educate scientists for centuries.

Today scientists hide their faith in the closet unless they become so famous, like Francis S. Collins, that it cannot damage their careers. Seventeenth-century scientists openly proclaimed that their discoveries confirmed their faith. Robert Boyle (1627-1691), for example, discovered Boyle’s Law in chemistry. Gaukroger wrote, “For Boyle the whole point of pursuing natural philosophy in the first place is that it reveals to us the handiwork and purposes of God in a way that goes deeper than anything we can achieve by
use of natural reason.” Boyle established a lecture series to defend the coherence of science and Christianity.

The first Boyle lectures were not delivered by a professional scientist, but by England’s greatest classicist, Richard Bentley. Bentley did not see his Christian faith or knowledge of ancient authors as obstacles to science. On the contrary, he argued that Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687) confirmed God’s existence. Newton responded to a letter from Bentley, “Sir, When I wrote my Treatise about our System, I had an Eye upon such Principles as might work with considering Men, for the Belief of a Deity; nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that Purpose.”

In the appendix he added to Principia in 1713, Newton wrote, “This most elegant system of the sun, planets and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being…. He rules all things, not as world soul but as lord of all. And because of this dominion he is called Lord God Pantokrator.” The classically educated Newton composed Principia in Latin with geometrical proofs to show that an omnipotent God had designed the universe. Newton shared with other contemporary scientists a confidence in the compatibility of classics, science and Christianity. (Today, of course, Newton could not teach science in public schools.) The classical Christian education that shaped scientists like Kepler, Galileo, Boyle and Newton was then and still is the best education for scientists.

Sceptics object, “Of course the greatest scientists then had classical Christian educations. All this proves is that they were educated. There was no serious alternative back then. It was only in the eighteenth century that the case for vocational training was made by men like Tom Paine and Benjamin Rush, who argued for a modern education that rejected the trivium in favor of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) for a world that wanted the fruits of science and technology.”

History does not usually allow us to study events with a control group. One exception is nineteenth-century Germany with its two distinct educational paths. One path preserved the classical Christian curriculum (supplemented with more Greek) taught in the classical or humanist Gymnasium, from which students went on to the university. The other path was devoted to STEM subjects and a modern language (usually French) taught in technical high schools, from which students went on to a professional school or a job in industry. This critical mass of technically trained graduates working in factories protected by the tariff spurred German industrial growth in the generation before World War I.

The decades on either side of WWI also witnessed brilliant discoveries in Physics: the concept of quanta, the theories of special and general relativity and the development of Quantum mechanics. One might expect most important work in Physics to be done by graduates of the technical school system. Nearly the opposite is true. Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Niels Bohr were classically educated. Einstein attended a Swiss technical high school, but he spent his first six years at a classical school, where his sister remembered his best subjects as Mathematics and Latin: “Latin’s clear, strictly logical structure fit his mindset.” Latin and arithmetic are the fundamental arts of language and mathematics found in the classical curriculum.

When Einstein published his four great articles of 1905, his editor was Max Planck, the discoverer of quanta. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “When Planck was nine years old…Planck entered the city’s renowned Maximilian Gymnasium, where a teacher, Hermann Müller, stimulated his interest in physics and mathematics. But Planck excelled in all subjects, and after graduation at age 17 he faced a difficult career decision. He ultimately chose physics over classical philology or music because he had dispassionately reached the conclusion that it was in physics that his greatest originality lay.” Classical Christian educators will notice that his favorite subjects belong to the Seven Liberal Arts: Latin (and Greek) grammar from the trivium, mathematics, science and music from the quadrivium. In a speech delivered shortly after Planck’s death, physicist Werner Heisenberg, also a graduate of the Max Gymnasium, said, “I believe that in the work of Max Planck, for instance, we can clearly see that his thought was influenced and made fruitful by his classical schooling.”

Heisenberg then explained how his own science was shaped by his classical education. After World War I Heisenberg was drafted into the militia. In his spare time he read Plato’s Timaeus in the original Greek. He had been bothered by the notion that the fundamental particles of nature were little hard things with irregular shapes, the atoms of the ancient scientists, Democritus and Lucretius. Recently scientists had observed light behaving sometimes like particles, but at other times like waves. In Timaeus Plato argued that nature made most sense when viewed mathematically, not physically. Plato’s advice to follow the math even when it contradicted common sense helped Heisenberg toward his discovery of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics. As a young scientist, Heisenberg reports, “I was gaining the growing conviction that one could hardly make progress in modern atomic physics without a knowledge of Greek natural philosophy.”

Classical Christian education formed the minds of important scientists from the sixteenth to the twentieth century (and long before as well). They learned from ancient wisdom to make important discoveries. Americans should not desert a curriculum that has been successful for so long. If they do, they may learn that the relationship of classical Christian education and science is integral and that science will not and cannot flourish apart from the educational ideal and curriculum that fostered it.

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