The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
12.2 (Spring 2012)
courtesy of artrenewal.org
It is no secret that many home-educators, at least early on in the movement, undertook their burden in order to spare their children an indoctrination into evolutionary theory. The most inflexible of this group will no doubt not find the following essay very helpful in their effort to compose a curriculum; but for others who acknowledge the critical importance of science to the Western literate way of life, Mr. Amit’s defense of teaching science as a way of thinking rather than a repository of unimpeachable facts will be very appealing. For that matter, the opponent of any Darwinist or neo-Darwinist view cannot effectively teach a contrary view without understanding the true nature of scientific method.
Honor Thy Darwin and Thy Newton
In my junior year of college, I became interested in the theory of evolution and enrolled in an introductory evolution course. Wishing to be prepared, I contacted the instructor ahead of the semester and enquired which edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species I should purchase. The instructor, baffled by my question, replied that reading Darwin’s classic would not be required and gave me the names of two textbooks instead.
Being naïve at the time, I was surprised that an introductory course on evolution could proceed without Darwin’s canonical text, perhaps the most famous and influential work in the history of science. Having taken many science courses since, I have come to realize that there was nothing unusual about that evolution course: practically no science course today requires reading of classic texts in that particular field. Biology students don’t read Darwin; physics students don’t read Einstein, Fourier, or Kepler; mathematics students don’t read Euclid or Gödel; computer science students don’t read Turing or von Neumann; and many chemistry students have never heard of Lavoisier.
The primary tools of modern education are the lecture and the textbook, and as a result students of science today learn about great scientific discoveries and theories almost completely by proxy: they learn about classic works of science but rarely if ever read these works. Practically all required reading is that of glossy, comprehensive textbooks that deliver a pre-processed, pre-digested, and in many cases a politically and socially pre-approved version of scientific discoveries, facts, and methods. The classic works of science have been pushed aside as historical relics, famous yet unknown.
Not surprisingly, scientists today are remarkably ignorant of their field’s history and canonical texts. This ignorance is not merely a moral or aesthetic deficiency; it is a symptom of the failure of modern science education to take advantage of the most effective teaching tool that is available to it: the original works of great scientists. It is time for science educators to rediscover great scientists and their works as the primary tools of science education, and to base science education on the Socratic method of reading, analysis, and discussion of classic texts.
There are many benefits to studying the classics of science. The most important one is that by acquiring first-hand familiarity with the classics, students learn the scientific method and the process of scientific discovery, not merely the dry facts of science. By learning how great scientists thought, experimented, and drew conclusions, students learn how to think like scientists: how to ask questions, hypothesize, design experiments, handle obstacles and failures, and analyze results.
Is learning the process of science more important than learning the facts of science? I think it is. The scientific method is the essence of science. It is the driving force of scientific progress, a common thread that unites all scientific thought across space and time. The facts of science are important, but they are also fairly easy to learn, and can be taught on a need-to-know basis. The scientific method, on the other hand, is a prerequisite to all scientific inquiry and must be given priority over facts and technical know-how.
While reading the classics, students are exposed not only to the discoveries and achievements of great scientists, but also to their follies, prejudices, and blunders. Learning from the mistakes of great scientists, and learning how they learned from their mistakes, can teach us as much as learning from their successes.
Perhaps the textbooks’ worst crime is that they present a linear, neat, cleaned-up version of scientific progress, as if science were a series of successes following one another in an eternal march towards the iPod, Prozac, and Apollo 11. In reality, the scientific endeavor is messy, inefficient, and strewn with dead-ends, blunders and serendipity. Science should be taught as it is, not as a Hollywood movie.
For example, one must read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to know that Darwin considered Lamarckian “use and disuse” a possible mechanism of evolution. In fact, Darwin was vague regarding the machinery of inheritance and considered several different mechanisms, including the gemmules hypothesis, which he introduced in his later book, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. Modern textbooks would spend little or no time on gemmuels and Lamarckian evolution since these are considered discredited theories, but students of biology must learn about these theories to understand the progress and development of biological thought.
Another example is Gregor Mendel’s groundbreaking work in genetics. Most biology students learn about Mendel and his experiments, and some even learn that some of Mendel’s methods were questionable. But what exactly was wrong with Mendel’s methods? What is it that he did, or should have done differently? How were his results affected by his methods? What were the thought processes that led him to his hypotheses and experiments? Only a reading of Mendel’s original papers (in translation, if necessary) can answer these questions.
Learning from the classics is difficult, as learning science should be. Science is not, and never has been, an inclusive activity that is open to all, regardless of mental capability or diligence. The prevailing mentality of education for all is continually eroding the value and quality of education, and with ever more book titles including the phrases “made easy” and “for idiots”, educators should teach students to appreciate the high level of creativity, knowledge, persistence, and intelligence that are necessary to pursue scientific research. Reading the classics would serve as a natural sieve that culls students who are incapable of performing the demanding mental effort required for scientific research. Those who cannot understand great works of science should not be pursuing a career in science.
Studying the classics also promotes humility, a sorely missing ingredient in modern science. By learning to appreciate the monumental achievements of their most accomplished predecessors, scientists-in-training acquire a sense of proportion that places one’s own work in a historical perspective. In a culture in which even high school students shamelessly describe their science fair projects as breakthroughs, it is never too early to instill a sense of proportionality and humility in future scientists.
A delightful side effect of learning science from the classics is the production of educated human beings who are more than merely good scientists. A scientist who has been schooled in the classics is one who has experienced genius first-hand. Therefore, he is likely to be not only a good scientist but also a Man of Letters, one who is able to appreciate beauty, genius, and creativity in all their forms – literary, scientific, philosophical, and artistic — rather than a mere skilled technician who is an expert at manipulating laboratory equipment, writing grant proposals, and managing crews of scientific working ants.
It is noteworthy that many of the great scientists of the past were themselves schooled in the classics. The system of classical education, which flourished throughout Europe and its colonies until the beginning of the twentieth century, was based on learning the classics of the Western canon from Homer to present times, usually in the original languages. Being products of that system, Leibniz, Pascal, and Descartes were philosophers as well as mathematicians, and Newton wrote more on theology than on science. While it would be difficult to prove a causal relationship between classical education and scientific greatness, the fact is that the beginning of the twentieth century saw not only the demise of classical education but also the end of the era of great scientists.
Finally, learning science only from secondary resources is simply irresponsible. It is preposterous for one to claim that one understands Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection without having read Darwin’s explanation of the theory in his own words. A true scientist is one who is by nature inquisitive, skeptical, and distrustful of authority. As such, a scientist cannot rely exclusively upon secondary resources, with their inevitable editing, redactions, excisions, interpretations, and additions. A true scientist must read (and question) the classics first-hand.
It is important to note that secondary resources such as textbooks and lectures are not dispensable. In fact, they play an important part in the process of science education. Secondary resources serve to elucidate, buttress, criticize, and challenge the classic works, and are therefore important supplements to primary resources. Nevertheless, textbooks and lectures are secondary and supplementary, and should be used as such.
One argument against studying science from the classics is that it is inefficient. Great scientists are not necessarily great writers; their works are often difficult to read, disorganized, and confusing. Textbooks present the material in a friendly, efficient, and clear fashion, thus saving the students time, effort, and confusion.
I reply that although studying the classics may not be the most efficient way to learn the facts of science, it is the most efficient way to learn the process of science, and the process is more important than the facts, as I have argued previously. Furthermore, the time and effort a student invests in struggling through the classics contribute to the student’s scientific maturity and strengthen his analytical skills. The trite adage “no pain, no gain” has its place in science education as well as in sports; to toughen the mind in preparation for the rigors of scientific research, one should go through the difficult process of reading the classic works in the field.
Another possible objection is that the classics are great resources but they are also old, and science moves too fast for students to spend time reading centuries-old works. There is simply not enough time to cover old texts and still leave time for modern discoveries and methods.
But the value of scientific theories is independent of their age; a centuries-old theory or discovery that has revolutionized mankind’s understanding of nature is far more valuable than a hot-off-the-presses research paper that constitutes a miniscule contribution to a very narrow field of science. New discoveries are best discussed in journal clubs, whereas modern research techniques and methodologies should be learned during an apprenticeship in a research laboratory; neither belongs in the classroom.
The classics belong in every classroom, yet for too long science students have been sitting in large lecture halls, blindly copying the instructor’s notes from the board and memorizing dry facts from textbooks. Professors and publishers have been making a good living regurgitating watered-down versions of great scientists’ theories to their indolent students. It is time to give the podium back to those who have earned it: the great scientists whose discoveries form the foundations of modern science. The only way to do so is to read the masters of science in their own words. These masters have plenty to teach us, and we must give them the opportunity to do so. Put your textbooks aside, future scientist, and borrow a copy of the Principia from your local library! You will be a better scientist for it.
The author wishes to thanks an anonymous reviewer from the online journal Hypothesis for several good suggestions and corrections. A second reviewer and an editor chose political correctness over substance. (Specifically, the offending passage read, “Science is not, and never has been, an inclusive activity that is open to all, regardless of mental capability or diligence.”) Therefore, this article was not published in Hypothesis.
Mr. Amit recently received his B.S. degree in Mathematics from Boston College. His first short story was published in Praesidium 11.2.