College majors and jobs in STEM fields—that’s science, technology, engineering, and math—have grown dramatically in the past decades. For some young people (and their parents), it can be easy to head directly into this booming market, leaving behind dusty subjects like history or philosophy. After all, who needs literature when you can code?
I’m a wholehearted supporter of STEM, but I’ve also got degrees in history and theology. I’d like to offer thoughts on how to make today’s budding scientists even better at their subjects.
Science Is Growing, Not Static
Science means knowledge—it’s from the Latin scientia and derived from the verb, scio, scire, “to know.” We see related words in “prescience” (having knowledge before or ahead of time), “conscience” (knowledge with), and “omniscience” (having all knowledge). Scientific knowledge generally means knowledge we’ve derived from observation, measurement, experimentation, and testing. Often we think scientific knowledge is certain, or fairly certain.
However, responsible scientists have always been hesitant to declare what’s finally and absolutely true about the natural world because science proceeds by ongoing analysis and discovery. For example, Pluto was classified as a planet for 76 years before new observations revealed it doesn’t clear the space around its orbit of other objects, like the other eight planets do.
Has not the COVID pandemic revealed this too? As we’ve learned more about the virus (and its variants) we’ve received changing and conflicting policy recommendations. Often our journalists seem happy to publish one rushed, overstated headline and article after another, and too often there have been willing and complicit scientists. The result: many Americans no longer venerate “the findings of science” or believe what follows when they hear that “the science shows. . . .”
What Makes a Trustworthy Scientist
The famous scientists of the past were not merely scientists—they were well educated, trained in the liberal arts and the natural sciences, with a keen interest in natural philosophy. This means they were seeking not only truth and knowledge, but wisdom. The biographies of the great scientists reveal their undying inquisitiveness as well as their full-orbed education that cultivated wonder and curiosity of all kinds. In 1661 when Isaac Newton went to Cambridge, there were no majors (nor were there at Oxford or Harvard or anywhere). Everyone studied a common curriculum and received a liberal education. We might say they all received a classical education.
Our own inability to understand how science proceeds and what it can properly claim is evidence of our need to return to a classical, liberal arts education. Our collective ignorance about the nature, history, and philosophy of science is now a national liability, creating confusion, irritation, and anger.
Our own inability to understand how science proceeds and what it can properly claim is evidence of our need to return to a classical, liberal arts education.
Clearly, we need more talented scientists. We need more scientists who are liberally educated, who can think analogically and poetically as well as analytically, who can reason well but also write with elegance, beauty, and even wit. We would be blessed indeed by scientists who know and love the relationship between music and astronomy; scientists who, while they may specialize, are broadly interested in the relationship of science to all branches of learning and study; men and women who are seekers after truth in and outside of science.
‘Generalize Early, Specialize Later’
Isaac Newton was one such scientist. He was well educated in classic literature and knew Latin and Greek well. He was an amateur theologian, even if an unorthodox one. He not only conceived the laws of motion, he invented calculus and was a pioneer in optics, even grinding his own lenses. Newton’s intellectual versatility contributed to his greatness as a scientist, as such versatility did for so many philosopher-scientists of his era: Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, Boyle.
Newton and his generation (he died in 1727) did not know the word “scientist.” It was coined by Cambridge professor William Whewell. In 1840, he wrote, “We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist.” Whewell wanted one term that would replace the various terms used at the time, including natural philosopher and “cultivator of science.”
Without dismissing the last 175 years of scientific development (or the word “scientist”), we should nonetheless recover what C. S. Lewis called a “new natural philosophy.” This is the practice of science as a quest for wisdom—an interdisciplinary endeavor by virtuous scientists who are also liberal artists and natural philosophers.
Two new books make a case for this—one directly and one indirectly. David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World makes the indirect case. Epstein points out that most people who lead and dominate in a particular profession have a previous range of experience and training that enables them to thrive. He seeks to show that the maxim “generalize early, specialize later” works for sports, business, research, education, and science. The scientists he describes are reminiscent of Newton—more than narrow specialists, they have a wide range of interests, experiences, and ongoing learning outside their professional discipline. They’re also extraordinarily good at the science they practice.
Ravi Scott Jain, Robbie Andreason, and Chris Hall make the direct case in their book A New Natural Philosophy: Recovering a Natural Science and Christian Pedagogy. These three classical educators take their cue from C. S. Lewis and describe how science can be taught as part of a human education that is holistic, incarnational, and interdisciplinary.
How to Improve a STEM Education
A large percentage of classically educated high school students are going into professions of science and research. We can be glad they go with some initial academic “range” and richness that comes from a liberal and classical education, or something of what Newton had. These students take chemistry and physics, but they also integrate their scientific study with Latin, history, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, and of course mathematics. If they were lucky enough to be classically educated as grade school students, they very likely have retained a great “poetic” love for the natural world, continuing to engage it in wonder as a kind of living museum.
If your middle schooler wants to spend all day perfecting his Lego robot, you can also play him classical music at dinnertime or go for a walk in the woods afterward.
But even if your child isn’t in a classical school or a liberal arts college, that doesn’t mean you should give up on improving their STEM education. If your child loves math, don’t stop reading him stories at bedtime. If your middle schooler wants to spend all day perfecting his Lego robot, you can also play him classical music at dinnertime or go for a walk in the woods afterward. If your high schooler wants to dissect every bug he finds, you shouldn’t stop taking him to historical sites, reading the news with him, and talking about the political philosophies that shape human civilizations.
If we’re once again going to see the likes of Newton (or Pascal or Kepler or Lewis), we’ll have to provide students with the kind of education these men enjoyed. For lack of a better phrase, let’s call it classical, liberal arts education. It is an education in grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the verbal arts) but also in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (the mathematical arts). It’s an education that cultivates wonder and virtue by studying the great books of poetry, philosophy, literature, history, politics, and natural science. And while it most often takes place in classical Christian schools and homeschools, it can also come alive in homes where parents and children read Great Books and have good conversations.
Such an education will not merely help students to get scientific jobs. It will bring life back to science itself.