Classical Education the Key to Scientific Progress

From E. Christian Kopff’s Greek to Us: The Death of Classical Education and Its Consequences

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 attended 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.”

Why Scientists Need Classical Education

What has science to do with Classical Education?  After all, we need scientists, not people who dawdle around in dead languages.  Yet, E. Christian Kopff argues persuasively that many of the greatest modern scientific achievements were made by scientists who were classically educated.  Further, that it was because of that classical education, not in spite of it, that they made the advancements they did.  Says Kopff,

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 attended 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.”

You can find the full text of Kopff’s essay here.

The American Founders and Education

E. Christian Kopff has an excellent piece on the influence of classical education on the American founders in The Imaginative Conservative.

For centuries Americans understood that their free and creative way of life was founded on virtue, instructed by a curriculum that balanced the study of language and mathematics and fostered by reading ancient authors like the Bible, Virgil and Cicero, Livy and Tacitus. The old classical curriculum by balancing education in language and mathematics avoided the alternating crises that are endemic in contemporary education. Students were thoroughly grounded in grammar before studying critical thinking (dialectic) and persuasive writing (rhetoric). Classical education balanced instruction in mathematics and language and made sure students had mastered basic subjects before proceeding to more challenging ones. It was not expensive, but it was demanding. But then so is freedom.

You can read the rest here.

I also highly recommend Kopff’s book, The Devil Knows Latin.