When I’m cruising through my giant pile of education history books, the pernicious phrases ‘scientific’ education and ‘scientific’ schooling keep popping up.
That word you keep using – I don’t think it means what you think it means.
Brief recap of the use of the word science: The ancient use of words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ referred to the systematic and logical exploration of a topic. Only later did the ‘scientific’ method arise. Science in the original sense was developed from fragmentary origins by Aristotle into the method of inquiry he used, for example, in the Physics.
Aristotle’s standard formulation of his approach: we start with what is most knowable to us and move toward what is most knowable by nature. As with much Aristotle, this is stating an obvious, simple thing: if you want to know about, say, horses, you start with the actual horses at hand – most knowable to us – and move toward the generalized knowledge of horses as a genus – more truly knowledge. Aristotle will use examples like ‘four-legged’ to describe the sort of thing we’d learn from the horses at hand. We’d conclude that having four legs is natural to horses in general. Stuff about horses in general is more knowable by nature as follows: a particular horse may be brown and unusually skinny and short, but once you know enough individual horses, by the miracle of the human mind, you can understand something about horses in general. Horses can be many colors and sizes (but not all colors and sizes!) but all of them have 4 legs and eat grass.
When applied in this manner to natural objects, Aristotle’s ‘scientific’ approach is not much different in nature than what modern hard (read: real) scientists do, including the part about where all conclusions are conditional: given the horses we have looked at are really representative of horses in general, and that we’ve perceived what we think we’ve seen correctly, then horses are of such and such nature. Aristotle would have never asserted that what he knew about horses rose to the level of certain knowledge, such as can be achieved in mathematics and logic. But it was interesting, and not unworthy. Aristotle didn’t care much that it was also useful – the tamer of horses better know what horses are like! And the city-state needed horses! – that came later with the likes of Francis Bacon. To Aristotle, the satisfaction of knowing something was the short term reward; the goodness of cultivating one’s mind and the excellence that results from such cultivation were the long term benefits. Making a buck, not so much.
To get from Aristotle’s approach to modern science, three things were missing: experimentation(1) – the idea that one could tease out knowledge from nature by making it jump through carefully controlled hoops; math – the idea that many of the relationships so teased out could best be expressed through numbers and formulas; and motivation – that whole ‘conquer and subject Nature to Man’s will’ thing. The Franciscan friar and scholar Roger Bacon is often credited with adding experimentation in the 13th century, although this is disputed (historians love to view the ancients through modern biases – see? Bacon was advanced – like us!). Be that as it may, Bacon’s writings pointed in the direction of the increased importance of careful observation of the natural world as a way to knowledge. (His contemporary Albertus Magnus, a Dominican friar and scholar, whiled away some of his time making careful observations and drawings of plants – much like Darwin 650 years later – so the successful ideas again prove to have many fathers.)
Once experimentation and math got added to the mix over the next couple centuries, and people like Francis Bacon (the bring-home-the-bacon Bacon, as it were) promulgated the dogma that the purpose of science is to be useful (2), we’d reached both what we’d recognize as the the modern scientific method – and a great divide.
Without the math and especially experimentation, and, for really modern science, without the need for discoveries to prove themselves useful and profitable in the real world, science could trundle along including any number of subjects and approaches. Many things might be thought of a science, loosely speaking, in the old sense of something thought about rationally and systematically, that are not at all science in the current sense.
On one side of the divide, then, we have science in the full modern sense of the term – a body of knowledge that was teased out by careful experimentation, generally expressed at least in part through mathematics, and which has proven useful in some sense. This usefulness may merely be as an aid to further understanding (such as astronomy or even Darwinian evolutionary theory) but most often it means cold hard cash. Maxwell’s equations are used to make sure the lights go on when you throw the switch; Einstein’s discoveries are used to give you your correct location when you use the GPS function on your phone. And people have made a lot of money making use of that science, and we are all better off for it.
Sorry (slightly. Very slightly) if I’m bursting any bubbles here: Systematic, mathematic and profitable. That’s the science to which we owe allegiance. Pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake is lovely stuff, I am a fan, but the crass truth is that we’re never as sure about the claims of science as we are when somebody puts it into practice – and nothing motivates that like cold, hard cash.
On the other hand, there is a form of envy? Ambition? Greed? that compels some people to put on the sacred lab coat of science and claim that their pet ideas are science, even if there’s no systematic, replicable experimentation behind it and no one has challenged or is even allowed to challenge their ‘discoveries’. They then claim their ‘science’ is owed the same allegiance we pay to the science behind all the wonderful tech and gadgets that have given us, among other things, cars and phones, clean water, lots of food and long lives. Some – Freud, for an egregious example – wanted to be famous SO BAD that they just make stuff up and call any who object bad names. Others – their name is Legion – infest our colleges and schools so that they can inflict their ‘insights’ unchallenged on callow children. No systematic, repeatable experimentation? No solid math? Nobody making the world better by applying these discoveries? No science, no allegiance owed.
Phrenology springs to mind as an historical example – serious people worked up what they took to be a serious scientific theory about how different areas of the brain created or controlled ‘propensities’, higher and lower ‘sentiments’ and so on. Phrenologists had theories about how the physical configuration of the skull could tell us about the mental condition of the brain inside it. They had all sorts of case studies, after a fashion, which proved their theories to their satisfaction.
The idea that you’d need careful definitions and double-blind, controlled studies preferably conducted by non-believers didn’t really seem to occur to fans. As is so often the case with complicated ideas about human behaviors, it would be difficult if not impossible to concoct an experiment that illuminates phrenology’s claims. How does one define a propensity, say, such that anyone could do a double-blind a study to shed light on what sort of correlation, if any, exists between skull shape (or brain configuration – there were different flavors of phrenology) and such a propensity, as compared to some other propensity? One can imagine an ‘instrument’ of some sort by means of which one person could gather information about subjects and some other person could judge from that information to what degree any particular subject had this or that propensity, and then other people could survey their craniums (inside or out or both, I suppose) and someone else could attempt to correlate skull/brain topography to various propensities – but nothing remotely like this was ever done, as far as I can discover with the minimum amount of research I’m willing to do for a blog post. Way too much work, I imagine, for the armchair pseudo-scientist.
All the foregoing is to simply show that the term ‘science’ in the modern world is used equivocally. There’s the science that’s *hard* in at least 2 senses of that word, the science that leads to the tech that leads to better living (or at least works!). Then there’s the ‘science’ that is a combination of wishful thinking and browbeating and child abuse (telling self-serving lies to 18 year old under pain of expulsion from at least the cool kids club and maybe college itself isn’t abuse?).
Which brings us to today’s point: There is no science behind ‘scientific’ schooling. No careful studies were ever done showing that grouping children by age and feeding them all the same instruction at the same time regardless of what those kids already knew for hours and months and years on end is better than any other approach or even works at all. (3) No studies were ever done showing that this approach succeeds better than any other approach or even no approach at all. There’s no evidence to show compulsory graded schooling yields better results than 1-room aged mixed schooling, homeschooling, or unschooling or any other approach, for that matter.
There is NO science behind the modern schools. None. Nada. It’s ‘science’ in the same way Freud’s ad hominem harranges and phrenologists’s pretty diagrams are science. In other words, not science at all.
Modern schooling does demonstrably work considered as a tool for the destruction of the families and communities that might oppose the total state. There’s some science behind that idea, although not generally expressed in those terms.
- I’m saying experiment for the sake of brevity. Please include ‘careful, replicable observation’ under ‘experiment’ in this sloppy blog post. Yes, astronomy can be a modern science.
- Through the expedient of making scientists like Bacon rich and famous. Or maybe I’m seeing things through my modern biases?
- For example: control for parents: if a child has successful, happily married parents, does modern school contribute anything to the likelihood of that child’s future success? Similarly, if a child has a single drug-addicted parent and lives in squalor and neglect, does school help? Intervention might help – but is school the best or even a workable form for such intervention? Inquiring scientific minds would like to know.