Classical Christian Education and the Future of Science

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.

Why STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Education Needs the Trivium

Christian Kopff

E. Christian Kopff was educated at St. Paul’s School (Garden City NY), Haverford College and UNC, Chapel Hill (Ph. D., Classics). He has taught at the University of Colorado, Boulder, since 1973, and most currently as Associate Director of the Honors Program. He has edited a critical edition of the Greek text of Euripides’ Bacchae (Teubner, 1982) and published over 100 articles and reviews on scholarly, pedagogical and popular topics. A Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, he has received research grants from the NEH and CU’s Committee on Research. The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (ISIBooks, 1999) is widely cited by Classical Christian educators. He translated Josef Pieper, Tradition: Concept and Claim (ISIBooks, 2008; St. Augustine’s, 2010) and contributed the Introduction to Herbert Jordan’s translation of Homer’s Iliad (Oklahoma UP, 2008).

The STEM Pipeline Meets the Trivium

Classical Christian Education, the latest, cutting edge curricular development in American education, was also the educational Gold Standard in the United States from the Colonial Era until after World War II. Critics arose, however, as early as the time of the Revolution. Some were radicals like Tom Paine, who wanted science to replace both the classical and the Christian elements of the traditional curriculum. Others were devout Christians like Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Rush argued that American education should promote Christian knowledge and morals and give Americans the practical training they would need to settle a new continent. Rush felt that engineering and science, not the classics, should be taught in schools and colleges.

The objections of Rush, Paine and their supporters were drowned out by the response of educators and political leaders. Thomas Jefferson defended classical education in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “The learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe. I know not what their manners and occupations may call for: but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their example in this instance.” John Adams wrote to Rush, “I should as soon think of closing all my window shutters to enable me to see as of banishing the Classics to improve Republican ideas.” George Washington did not enjoy a classical education, but he made sure that his step-son, Jack Custis, did.

When the utilitarian assault on the classical curriculum was renewed in the 19th century, it was opposed by a wide spectrum of Americans. John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, for all their political differences, agreed about the importance of the classics. New England Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau left the church, but defended the classics. “We might as well omit to study Nature because she is old,” wrote Thoreau in Walden. “These works of art have such an immortality as the works of nature and are modern at the same time as they are ancient, like the sun and stars.” The “Yale Report,” published by the President and faculty of Yale in 1828, cemented the place of the classical Christian curriculum in colleges and so in preparatory schools until after the Civil War. As historian Carl Richard has seen, “From the beginning, Americans had been a pragmatic and commercial people, but one who had simultaneously harbored a reverence for tradition, both Christian and classical, and who had seen in these theistic and humanistic traditions a crucial means of moderating their own penchant for utilitarianism and materialism.”

Recently there has been a revival of some of Rush’s ideas; not about teaching Christian truth and morals, but his call for science and engineering. Under the acronym STEM (“science, technology, engineering, mathematics”) educators and politicians have insisted that Americans are sadly uneducated in these subjects and have demanded that schools and even the federal government intervene to save the nation from an educational gap that will mark the end of American prosperity and plunge the United States into bankruptcy and ruin as it falls behind competitor nations, such as China and India.

This is not the first time that such appeals have been made. A similar hue and cry went up after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, Sputnik, on October 4, 1957. A few days later Elmer Hutchinson, director of the American Institute of Physics told the New York TIMES (October 8, 1957) that unless the US revamped its educational system to emphasize science, “our way of life is, I am certain, doomed to rapid extinction.” Threatened with rapid extinction, the national government poured money into science programs, one aspect of the educational environment in which enrollments in high school Latin went from 728,637 in 1962 to barely 150,000 by the late 1970’s.

This significant change in the nation’s priorities in curriculum and funding was accomplished with remarkably little public debate. As we saw, earlier generations rejected calls to repudiate traditional classical Christian education, and America enjoyed 200 years of prosperity, creativity, and freedom. The success of the American space program in the 1960’s could not have been due to the money directed at what are now called STEM subjects in schools. The scientific and military leaders associated with the space program were all educated in the previous generation.

Classical educators recognize STEM as a modern version of the quadrivium, the second level of the Seven Liberal Arts, which consisted of mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music. Few would question that the arts of mathematics needed to be expanded in the modern period to include, for instance, algebra, calculus, chemistry, and the life sciences, to name only a few. On the other hand, those who have reflected on Dorothy Sayers’s classic essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” or observed the success of classical schools and classical home schoolers understand that the quadrivium follows and depends on the trivium, the arts of language, grammar, logic and rhetoric. They feel uneasy when they see educators and politicians rush forward with large-scale and expensive programs aimed at expanding the quadrivium at the expense of the trivium.

What T. S. Eliot’s Sweeney says about himself is true of the elite: “I gotta use words when I talk to you.” In Real Education (2008), Charles Murray argues convincingly that “The tools of verbal expression… are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.” The inability of our leaders to think soundly and speak persuasively affects all of us. Leaders of a regime based on consensual institutions need the full panoply of verbal ability. Even science grant proposals must be written grammatically, logically, and persuasively.

Schools know there is a problem. Throughout most of the 20th Century, when classical education and Latin were still flourishing, poor writing was viewed by colleges as a deficiency to be corrected by taking remedial courses without college credit. Those days are long gone. Most colleges and universities have regular writing programs and even departments to teach remedial writing courses that receive full college credit. Too many students arrive without the requisite writing ability. Schools do not feel justified in denying credit for such common educational gaps. They are not gaps anymore. They have become the norm. This is a real educational crisis that requires curricular reform. There is only one viable curricular alternative that puts the arts of language at the heart of its educational vision and that is classical education and its trivium.

Another area where teachers perceive a problem is what educators call “critical thinking.” Many colleges and universities have instituted critical thinking requirements. Polls indicate that college teachers feel that improving their students’ grasp of critical thinking is the most important goal of a liberal arts education and are frustrated at the lack of achievement in this area.

My own anecdotal experience is that both teachers of writing and those committed to improving critical thinking share a common complaint. Time and again I hear them say, “It is hard to find time to improve students’ writing or critical ability, because I spend so much time correcting their grammar. They make so many elementary mistakes.” When I respond, “So you have come to think that teaching students a robust command of grammar would be a substantial aid to their ability to think critically and write clearly and persuasively,” they respond with a yes. These are not classical Christian educators. Most of them have not heard of this new movement. They have learned the hard way that grammar is fundamental for critical thinking and effective writing. As classical Christian educators understand, there is a connected hierarchy of language arts and grammar is primary and basic for a later command of logic and rhetoric.

A renewed commitment to teaching the arts of language does not involve undermining math and science education. On the contrary, the greatest figures in the Scientific Revolution were classically educated: Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, to name only a few. They had studied ancient texts and could read and write Latin. The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was very self-consciously a return to the ideals and even the texts of ancient science. Copernicus knew that he was reviving the heliocentric hypothesis of Aristarchus of Samos from the Third century B.C. The atomic theory Newton used in his optics was based on Gassendi’s brilliant philological recovery of ancient Epicureanism. Galileo quotes Plato’s Meno and Timaeus over and over again. The education of scientists remained classical through the time of Linnaeus in the 18th century and Charles Darwin in the 19th.

Skeptics object to the premises of this historical narrative. “Of course the greatest scientists of the modern age had classical Christian educations. All this proves is that they were educated. There was no serious alternative from the Renaissance to the 19th century. The case for vocational or technical training was made in the late 18th century by men like Tom Paine and Benjamin Rush. They argued that a relevant modern education can bypass the trivium and concentrate on an expanded quadrivium for a world in desperate need of the products of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

History does not usually allow us to study events with a true control group. There is an exception to this situation in 19th century Germany, where there were two distinct educational paths. One led from the old classical school, now with more Greek added, and culminated in the classical or humanist Gymnasium, from which students then went on to the university. The other path was devoted to math, science, technology, and a modern language (usually French) and led to the technical high school or Realschule, from which the student 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 that preceded World War I.

The decades on either side of WWI witnessed brilliant work in Physics: the concept of quanta, the theories of special and general relativity, and the development of quantum mechanics. One might expect that the most important work in these fields would be done by graduates of the technical school system. Nearly the opposite is true. Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr were classically educated. Einstein a ended a Swiss technical high school, but he had 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.” Heisenberg wrote, “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 insisted that his own insights into nature came from his classical education. Its combination of math and physics with language instruction led him to read Plato’s Timaeus in Greek. He was impressed by Plato’s rational appeals to understand nature mathematically rather than as a purely physical reality: “I was gaining the growing conviction that one could hardly make progress in modern atomic physics without a knowledge of Greek natural philosophy.”

When we review the story of SAT scores from the high point in 1963 to a nadir reached in 1981, after which the verbal scores experienced only slight improvement, we may want to add one factor to those usually discussed. 1962, the year before the SAT high point, marked the year of the zenith of enrollment in high school Latin in the United States, when 728,637 students enrolled in high school Latin. The decline in Latin enrollments tracks the decline in SAT-Verbal scores. Latin has never regained its position as a “more commonly taught language,” just as SAT-Verbal scores have never go en back to their 1963 level. If the relation of high school Latin and SAT-Verbal scores is significant, we may note that the decline in measurable achievement was most striking in good students and it was precisely good students who tended to take high school Latin.

“Man is like the drunken peasant trying to ride a horse,” Martin Luther noted. “If you prop him up on one side, he falls off the other.” Luther could have been describing the educational establishment in the United States. A few years ago they perceived a crisis in writing and established writing programs in most universities. Now the STEM pipeline is supposedly drying up, and we need federal intervention to save our country.

Instead of careening from one crisis to another, our nation needs a curriculum that is balanced between the arts of language and the arts of mathematics. It should not be a recent fad; it should have been practiced for a long time, preferably for centuries. Its success should be demonstrated by wide acceptance in many countries for a long time. Its best graduates should be distinguished in a wide variety of areas, like literature, art, philosophy and political thought, politics and science, people like Shakespeare and Michelangelo, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Je erson and Adams, Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Galileo and Newton, Linnaeus and Darwin. Where in contemporary education can we find a curricular alternative that meets these requirements?

We know the answer. Classical Christian education balances the arts of language and mathematics and so avoids the hysterical swings between crises in reading and science that have afflicted American education since the triumph of Dewey. Classical Christian education has flourished throughout the modern era in many European countries and the United States. Its graduates are widely recognized as the most successful and creative figures in history. It connects students with their past and prepares them for a free and creative future. To restore its prominence, the drunken peasant of American educational policy needs to sober up and start listening to the wisdom of the past and then face the challenge of teaching the classical Christian curriculum that created the modern world.