Trying to put science in a classical paradigm is putting new wine into old wineskins. Modern science just does not easily fit into a classical paradigm…
Many students do not like math or science. It can be difficult, boring, impersonal, and uninteresting. This includes math and science as it is taught in classical schools. Sure, science as we know it had much of its origins with Europeans steeped in Judeo-Christian thought, a fact downplayed in modern secular thought. But the freedom of conscience and other products of religious and even Enlightenment thinking give rise to discussions that students often find more interesting than they find in STEM classes. God, history, religion, and humanity find more favor in the eyes of the majority of students than protons, enzymes, vectors, and geometric series.
Douglas Wilson, founder of modern classical Christian education, mentioned in an interview that his school, Logos Academy in Moscow, Idaho, has not developed the quadrivium.* The trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric has found success in primary and secondary schools. But the quadrivium of geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy reflect math and science as it was known hundreds of years ago. Our schools, including our private Christian schools, for that matter even homeschooling programs, must typically meet state standards. This means that our modern quadrivium of math, physics, chemistry, and biology, with a year of earth science, must usually be taught and then recorded on transcripts.
We must also realize that the quadrivium is essentially obsolete. The trivium can be used to teach the humanities today, but it is based on ancient and medieval thought. Philosophy does not change easily, and many people have opted for the older approach, ingrained in Western thought, than the newer approach, which can produce social justice warriors. Most of what we know about STEM, however, has been learned in the last hundred years. Science today, although built on a foundation laid by many religious people, can stand on its own, at least in most of its practical applications. One plus one equals two, no matter one’s religion, philosophy, or political views. And while great books colleges might try to teach science in the framework of the liberal arts, real STEM universities do not.
The modern classical Christian education programs are typically led by people trained in the humanities. Some schools have large oval desks, which the students sit around. This is great for discussion, but can you imagine teaching algebra with a Socratic session? Trying to put science in a classical paradigm is putting new wine into old wineskins. Jesus warned against this while talking about religion, but that works for science, also. Modern science just does not easily fit into a classical paradigm. While a great books college might try teaching science using historical approach, advanced STEM is not taught like that in rigorous university science programs.
Integration in STEM can come in three forms.
First, its lessons can be better integrated than they are now. Modern curricula include earth science, typically taught in seventh or eighth grade. This includes Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion. But then we wait until tenth or eleventh grade Algebra II to teach about ellipses, on which the Kepler’s first two laws depend. The Omnibus curriculum used in many classical Christian schools combines Bible, theology, history, and philosophy into a series of books used for courses with so much content that one year of Omnibus might count as three courses instead of one. Why not rewrite the curricula for math and science so that they are taught together as much as possible?
Second, integration in science includes labs. People hiring for science jobs do not care about the candidate’s cumulative average in college, but rather about specific job skills. We teach in the classroom, then back up the lesson with the lab. Perhaps the classroom lessons should back up the labs. Allowing the students time to tinker in the lab before new subject material is introduced should pique their curiosity more than a cookbook lab given after the theory is explained in the classroom, although the latter is certainly needed. This is not practical in every case, but starting down this road with the willingness to refine would be a great start.
Third, subjects should be integrated with real life whenever possible. Even if our students do not end up flying on space ships to other planets or moons, how interesting is it to have the students really consider the phases of the moon, or why Alaskans have longer summer days and shorter winter nights than Texans. Math should be taught with business applications whenever possible, and the gas laws should be taught with car and bicycle tire pressures in mind. Students thrive on application and quickly tire of formulas in which they see no use in real life.
Christian schools often want students writing in complete sentences. But the real answer to, “What is the name of the star around which we revolve?” is the sun. That is it, the sun. It need not be, “The star around which we revolve is the sun.” It is not like that in college. We should insist on proper spelling and grammar and syntax, but the issue in math and science is the answer, short and sweet. Term papers in school and college, and qualifying exams in graduate school, require complete sentences and detailed explanations. But to understand the material, to learn and understand as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time, those running the humanities-driven classical schools must come to terms with the fact that their paradigm has little room in modern-day STEM.
School, among other things, trains students for college. A university math class does not consist of Socratic discussions. The push for a classical paradigm in secondary math and science classes runs counter to how these subjects are taught in college. Although integration is possible and should be implemented as much as possible in the years to come, teaching today’s quadrivium of math and the three basic sciences in a mold established for the humanities could slow down the teaching of these advanced subjects. As the cliché goes, we are trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.
Another consideration is what education is for. Is it to train the mind, to transfer the knowledge of a civilization from one generation to the next, or is it job training? The first two are the claims of classical education, but the last needs more emphasis. While classical education trains the mind to think, if all that can be done is to learn it and teach it, if the product of a classical colleges is a group of graduates who can teach in classical Christian schools as long as their finances hold out (and Christian education pays poorly), then we must admit the failure of the de-emphasis of job training.
The neo-classical movement is based largely on Dorothy Sayers’ essay The Lost Tools of Learning, and on the teachings of Douglas Wilson. Both are people steeped in the humanities. Physicians might complain that what they do is controlled by laws and by insurance companies. The same complaint is valid in classical education today. STEM teachers are supervised by headmasters and principals trained in the humanities. While in college, these school heads have presumably had college math for non-science majors and one year of laboratory science. Their classical paradigm fits for the humanities but not for STEM. And with so many of the best jobs these days generally based on STEM, it should be emphasized even in classical schools, but not taught with classical methodology.
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