Both Plato and Aristotle believed that philosophy, “the love of wisdom,” begins in wonder. Moreover, Proverbs says that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Worship and wonder clearly are crucial to the development of wisdom in our children, a development that even our Lord underwent: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.” But in contemporary culture it seems that natural science strives to be a detached discipline by which people acquire ‘just the facts’ free from any value judgments and unable to provide them. It appears to have no role in the acquisition of wisdom. The highest goal for natural science education then is the ability to do work. Christians do value hard work as God called Adam “to fill the earth and subdue it.” Moreover a godly vision of vocation, as epitomized in the phrase ‘the priesthood of the believer’, is an important legacy of the Protestant Reformation, though its theological roots are surely catholic as well. But with the culture’s ever pressing emphasis on education as vocational training or college preparation, one may conclude that learning some useful skills in natural science is appropriate but question whether preparation for a career should be the primary goal of natural science in a general education. So how does a teacher balance the pursuit of wonder, work, wisdom, and worship in a natural science curriculum? Three themes can help us keep in mind how to balance these in a Kindergarten-12th grade natural science education: a holistic curriculum, an incarnational pedagogy, and an interdisciplinary approach.
A Holistic Curriculum
The first theme regards the curriculum: how can it be made more holistic and not habituate a scientistic or reductionist mindset in students? In previous generations, besides natural science, natural history and natural philosophy were also taught. What are these other curricular categories and do they need to be recovered? Moreover, in addition to the liberal arts, attention was given to the common arts and the fine arts as well. How might these all play a role in a holistic curriculum and the recovery of wonder, worship and wisdom alongside work in natural science?
The Liberal Arts Tradition, written by Kevin Clark and me, detailed the need to teach natural science within the context of natural philosophy. But the book did not speak explicitly of the role of natural history within the Western curriculum. Since the time of Aristotle there have been two impulses within natural philosophy. The first was natural history, a focus on the observation of phenomena. The second was natural science, a demonstrable knowledge of the causes of phenomena.
Harvard historian of science, Steve Shapin in his book entitled The Scientific Revolution notes that natural history observed three things: the ordinary course of nature, nature’s irregularities or monsters, and nature contrived to act by the artifice of man (experiments). While contemporary schools encourage or demand their natural science classes to have a robust laboratory component, where are students being asked to observe nature in her ordinary course? When are they to keep track of nature’s surprises? Natural history has been all but lost as a discipline, even though Darwin himself considered his vocation that of a natural historian. The lost emphasis on observing nature in the raw has left our students with a false impression of what nature really is — a false ontology. We only conceive of her through artificial experiments and then ask the students to attend to only the natural phenomena that are highly regular and predictable.
One easy way schools can reintroduce a natural history element into classrooms without disrupting the many goods of natural science, is by having students use sketchbooks to observe nature both in her ordinary course and her surprises as well as crucial experiments. Drawing then offers another way to see. Reintegrating natural history into the curriculum reminds me of the Charlotte Mason emphasis on nature study. The goal for doing so is a mix of wonder, worship, and wisdom, and it need not disrupt the more formal elements associated with the work of natural science. In fact, in many ways, natural history has always been indispensable to natural science.
A holistic curriculum ought not recover only the liberal arts, but the common and fine arts as well. The Liberal Arts Tradition described how all seven of the liberal arts provide the tools of learning, both the arts of language and the arts of mathematics. Recapturing the significance of these arts for contemporary education is of crucial importance. But since the 12th century, Hugh of St. Victor had identified the common arts as important for education as well. (These are sometimes called the vulgar or servile arts). The common arts are the skills needed for civilization by all men everywhere throughout the world. John Scotus Erigena had listed them as these: tailoring, agriculture, architecture, warfare and hunting, trade, cooking, and blacksmithing. Note that these common arts help man to provide food, clothes, shelter, and safety to his family or town. They help him do useful work.
During the scientific revolution these activities, like blacksmithing or navigation (which appeared in Hugh of St. Victor’s list), became more appropriate for natural philosophers to investigate. For example, the longitude prize awarded in England in the 18th century for new navigation techniques energized many of the brightest minds of the time. Note that one motivation for better optics and lenses (hence microscopes and telescopes) was to improve navigation, and the steam engine was invented by those within the metallurgical tradition of the blacksmiths.
Consider the transformational role attention to a garden and a few farm animals could have on the students’ understanding of nature. Introducing the skills needed for the other common arts such as spinning, weaving, and sewing for tailoring; or threshing, millery, and butchery for cooking; or tracking, archery, and trapping for hunting, provides extensive exposure to the details of physical situations which then provoke wonder and curiosity about the natural world. Why bother with such an artificial experience as dissecting a frog before kids have butchered a chicken or gutted a hog?
One can build a mobile foundry to melt aluminum for about $10, and the contemporary “maker” subculture offers innumerable projects for parents or teachers to explore. Gameboys, cell phones, and drones operate only by magic for students, and without pressing on to the rigors of electrical engineering and computer science, students will likely never uncover the inner workings of these. In contrast, the curiosity aroused by the common arts is the kind more likely to sustain investigations into the causes of the phenomena which students encounter in high school natural science. By attending to these they might also develop an entirely new vision of the role techne (art) and technology plays in a civilization.
Consider the lament of professor James Taylor, author of Poetic Knowledge, when he considered the plight of contemporary college students:
[A]n entire preindustrial culture was missing from these students’ experience, and in its place was our familiar modern life, artificial and insulated more and more from direct experience with nature and reality.
In order to cultivate a proper vision of nature and the role of human art and technology within it, our natural science curricula should build from a basis in the common arts as well as the liberal arts. Acquiring facility with the common arts also provides a large numbers of skills that the students can then put to work in small or large ways. But it situates that work within a context of wonder and wisdom.
An Incarnational Pedagogy
In addition to a holistic curriculum, an incarnational pedagogy calls teachers to appreciate the nature of the child and avoid a kind of mere technique in education. Christ became like us and laid aside his prerogative that He might live among us. The Word became flesh.
This is the same disposition that teachers ought to have towards students. Attending to the nature of the children, body and soul, involves shaping loves, midwifing ideas, and cultivating practices. Shaping loves is most important to avoid the exasperation warned against in Ephesians 6:4. All learning occurs within a network of relationships. Relationships with peers, with parents, with God, and with teachers all matter, and love must be cultivated in these.
How could assignments such as, “go on a family picnic and identify five wildflowers,” change the family dynamic? Moreover, the teacher can hold out beauty inherent in the subject. Causing students to wonder at the order in nature is truly having them marvel at the incarnate Logos, the second person of the Trinity. This beauty begets a love that can sincerely be directed towards Christ, in whom all things hold together. Wonder and worship.
Midwifing ideas is the Socratic ideal for teaching. Natural science teachers tend to use lecture and laboratory as the only two pedagogical modes. These are appropriate at times, but do the students understand themselves more broadly as pursuing great and significant questions during these moments? Moreover, do they feel like they are arriving at the ideas themselves? Are the ideas being born from them or are they just repeating what they have been told? A pedagogy that focuses on following the question through the interrelationships between observation, reasoning, and assumptions within communities of faith and practice provides a richer pedagogical experience — a kind of global guided inquiry.
Finally, what practices do we cultivate among the students? The observation of nature with a sketchbook and the recovery of the common arts are soul-shaping practices. Are there others? Reading the great discoverers unearths many more practices for students. Perhaps some students will conclude they should pray more fervently upon encountering Pascal’s prayer life. Tracing Galileo’s interactions with the Duke of Tuscany may embolden some to consider how natural science and leadership or politics intermingle. Certainly the 20th century interplay between technology and war offers an interesting case study. By reading the histories of the great scientists, practices are suggested to students that can disciple them unto wisdom as well as worship.
An Interdisciplinary Approach
The last theme is that of an interdisciplinary approach. I have written previously about “Science and Poetry” in the Society for Classical Learning Journal, detailing how Tennyson’s phrase “Nature red in tooth and claw” preceded Darwin’s theory by nearly ten years. I did not mention, though, how a theory of the multiverse and one of evolution date back to the ideas of the ancient Greeks, not to mention heliocentrism as well.
The Presocratic thinker Anaximander suggested that men evolved from fish (or a fish-like common ancestor?) and also claimed an infinite number of universes as continually coming into existence and passing away. I do not mind natural scientists talking about the multiverse, so long as they recognize that they are participating in the very ancient discourse of natural philosophy.
The question then arises whether they are doing such philosophy well or poorly. Too often, natural scientists gloss over the foundational questions of their discipline, adopt simplistic dogmatic stances prematurely, and then surmise that their conclusions are certain and indubitable no matter how unconventional or bizarre. Scientists blithely extend the idea of deterministic mathematical law ever outward to prove notions that then undermine the very possibility of such a sort of law.
It strikes me as more prudent to consider the consequences of such extensions before spending decades working out the mathematical complexities. This is especially true in an era in which so much research has been regarded as of dubious quality. Moreover, if many of these theories have been discussed for generations, though in slightly different garb, then history is an essential discipline for the natural scientist. Thus at the bare minimum natural science must explore its interdisciplinary boundaries with literature, mathematics, philosophy, and history if not for the sake of helping the students integrate their knowledge, then for the sake of true understanding in natural science itself — for wisdom’s sake.
As Christians confess that in Christ all things hold together, theology becomes an indispensable discussion partner. By continuing to hold up the deep questions of natural science before the light of Christ, much is illuminated. The wave-particle duality of quantum physics is famously suggestive of the Trinity. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle and chaos theory raise questions about causality and determinism — these mirror questions regarding God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. And the mind-body problem has, since at least the Nicene Creed, resembled the mystery of the Incarnation.
Truth does not exclude mystery but embraces it. Faith in the incarnate Word, hope in the resurrection and new creation, and love in covenantal charity are important virtues by which we may tether our investigations of the natural world to the mystery of Christ. Thus theology as the queen of the sciences still has a crucial role to play in the study of natural science and natural philosophy. Proverbs does not say in vain that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” These words are very practical. They remind us that natural science must not begin primarily in wonder but in worship if it is going to lead to true wisdom and work.
The good news is that when science is properly balanced, all four of these become inextricable from each other. Wonder, work, wisdom, and worship flow organically from our students’ proper engagement with the natural world.
PS—There are resources posted at Recovering Nature for those trying to implement this vision. The three central projects of the website are 1) Shared Lesson Plans 2) Establishing the Narrative and 3) Reimagining Curriculum.
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