Science and Education - Cardinal Newman Society

Science and Education

One of the problems besetting modern education is the obsession with the so-called STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Although there is nothing wrong with these per se, they are emphasized to such a degree that other equally or more important subjects are neglected. In consequence, as more and more resources are channeled into the STEM, the real roots of authentic science are being starved.

These real and authentic roots are to be found in the etymological roots of “science” itself. The word derives from the Latin word scientia, which simply means knowledge. Science is, first and foremost, knowledge, pure and simple. It is knowledge pure and simple before it can develop into knowledge which is applied and complex. You cannot have the latter until you have acquired the former. You cannot have technology and engineering until you have acquired science. And science is not restricted to a particular area of knowledge, to the exclusion or neglect of other areas; it is knowledge itself. This is what Blessed John Henry Newman had in mind when, in The Idea of a University (1852), he wrote of the “philosophical habit of mind” formed by “the comprehension of the bearings of one science on another, and the use of each to each, and the location and limitation and adjustment and due appreciation of them all, one with another.”

If, therefore, education can be considered the imparting of knowledge by teachers and the acquisition of knowledge by students, it is important to understand what constitutes true and authentic knowledge (scientia). Theology is a science. Philosophy is a science. History is a science. Even the creative arts, such as literature, painting, and music, are sciences in this wider understanding of the word. Theology is the knowledge of God; philosophy is the knowledge gained through a love of wisdom; history is the knowledge of the past; and the creative arts are the knowledge gained through the imagination’s engagement with the beauty of reality. These are all indispensable forms of authentic knowledge, the neglect of which poisons the roots of science itself, thereby harming the STEM and preventing the fruits of science from developing in a healthy manner.

As for the truncated sense in which the modern world understands what it calls “science”, it was known to the ancients as “natural philosophy”, the love of wisdom to be learned from nature. It was, therefore, a branch of philosophy. It was not science itself but one of the sciences. Furthermore, it was not a stand-alone science but was connected to the other sciences in a whole or holistic unity. It was not the knowledge of nature for its own sake but for the sake of a higher good, i.e. the love of wisdom.

“Nature,” wrote J. R. R. Tolkien, “is a life study, or a study for eternity for those so gifted.” It is, therefore, not merely the study of ultimately dead matter. It is a matter of life and death; of the finite and the infinite; of the temporal and the eternal. For this reason, physical reality should be studied in the light of the metaphysical questions that it prompts. A star is, for instance, larger than a human person in terms of sheer size and yet smaller than the human person, in the sense that the human person can perceive the existence of the star whereas the star cannot perceive the existence of the human person. The star is physically powerful but clueless. The human person, like a cosmic detective, seeks for clues. This is the reason for seeing what is now called science as “natural philosophy”. If nature is studied in the light of philo-sophia, the love of wisdom, it will bring forth great and wondrous fruits; if it is studied in the absence of such wisdom it will produce scientistic monstrosities which will be the slayers and enslavers of humanity. It is for this reason that a liberal arts education truly liberates the human soul from powers which will otherwise enslave it. It is a matter of freedom or slavery; of life or death.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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