In Over My Head?

I’m taking a course next semester: “Mathematical and Scientific Reasoning.” After looking over the reading list, for the first time in a long time, I fear I might be in over my head:

Plato, Meno
Euclid, The Elements
Archimedes, On the Equilibrium of Planes
Nicomachus, Introduction to Arithmetic
Sir Thomas L. Heath, Greek Astronomy
Kepler, Epitome of Copernican Astronomy
Galileo, Two New Sciences
Bacon, Novum Organum and The Sphinx
Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
Huygens, Treatise on Light
Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry
Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again

It will be a challenging few months – to say the least! My plan is to invent a new form of calculus, that ought to be enough to pass the class!

Sir-Isaac-Newton-001

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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 Study History? Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs & Disciplines

Note: This is the fifth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous post I argued that history provides the foundations for knowledge.

Beyond the foundations of knowledge, history also functions as possibly the only way students can understand the current world in which they live. For no one lives in a vacuum. A society’s current state of affairs is the result of a long process of changes and influences. Not to know the history of a society, is not to know the society. To understand ourselves, our cultures, our political structures, our way of acting, our way of thinking, etc. depends on the history of those things. As Aristotle pointed out, “we do not know a truth without its cause” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 993b23). “Cause” here includes, but is certainly not limited to, past persons and events. Even the great champion of progressive education, John Dewey, noted that without a study of history, we cannot understand ourselves or our present condition:

But the achievements of the past provide the only means at command for understanding the present. Just as the individual has to draw in memory upon his own past to understand the conditions in which he individually finds himself, so the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.(John Dewey, Experience and Education)

fatherofhistory03bFor example, Herodotus seems quite conscious of the goal of using history to explain the current state of affairs in Greece and elsewhere. “The ancient feud between the Eginetans and Athenians arose out of the following circumstances…” (Herodotus, The History of Herodotus) These and numerous other such statements are found throughout Herodotus as he attempts to narrate the events which result in current political affairs. Similarly, Augustine’s City of God may be seen as an attempt to place the current decline of Rome into the cosmic history of mankind. Augustine’s defense against the charge that Christianity was responsible for the miseries of his own day, was to recount the historical processes and causes that led to Rome’s decline. That is, to understand the way things were at that time, it was necessary to understand how they arrived at those state of affairs.

Furthermore, the principle that “history enables one to understand the present” can be seen throughout the Old Testament. Again and again, the Israelites are called “to remember” what God has done in order to live correctly in the present. (Cf. Deut. 6:20-25; 7:6-19; 16:1-12; Joshua 24:1-27; I Samuel 12; Nehemiah 9; Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 20) That is, apart from a “memory” or a “history” of God’s activities in the past, their present actions are meaningless: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…’” (Deut. 6:20-22 ESV). In the Old Testament, moral imperatives are always connected with historical indicatives. Without first understanding God’s role and relationship to the history of Israel, His commands might be seen as arbitrary or capricious.

Beyond an understanding of culture and current states of affairs, history, as pointed about above, can enable one to better understand specific disciplines. Blaise Pascal pointed out that the scientific research of his own day had shown too much deference to historical scientists, particularly Aristotle, and that this deference had slowed scientific progress. However, unlike other philosophers of his time (like Descartes), Pascal did not advocate ignoring the ancients in conducting new fields of research. Instead, says Pascal, “Since their [the ancient scientists] perfection depends upon time and effort, it is evident that even if our effort and time had gained us less than the labors of the ancients, separated from ours, the two together nevertheless must have more effect than either alone” (Blaise Pascal, Scientific Treatises). That is, if the scientist is going to advance any field of science, he must know the history of how the current understanding of his field developed. This was precisely what Pascal himself did in developing his theories and proving the existence of vacuums. The kind of “chronological snobbery” that has become prevalent today, arguing that because such-and-such a philosopher / scientist worked prior to a certain time they may therefore be ignored, is flatly rejected by Pascal. “The ancients should be admired for the consequences they drew correctly from the little stock of principles they had, and they should be excused for those in which they lacked the advantage of experiment rather than force of reason” (Ibid.)

As Pascal argues for a history of science, so too does Kant argue for a history of philosophy. In his Preface to the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant traces the relative progress of science versus philosophy going all the way back to the earliest Greeks. The purpose of this historical narrative is to discover why science had been able to make certain advances, but philosophy had not. That is, Kant conducts an historical analysis of philosophy in order to learn the nature of, current understanding of, and the way of progress in philosophy. As Kant saw things, without such knowledge of the history of philosophy, no philosophical progress would be possible.

So we see the educative value of knowing history in order to know the current state of affairs of a society, and of advancing knowledge in various disciplines. Without such historical knowledge the student is attempting to live in a vacuum of time and space that is disconnected from the reality in which he lives.

 

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge

 

Why Study History? Part IIb: The Definition of “History”

Note: This is the third post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous post I offered a definition of “education.” I must next set forth just what is meant by “history.” Once these two definitions are in place we will be able to explore their relationship.

How then shall we define “history?” According to historian John Lukacs, “no definition will do.” Instead, Lukacs offers a description of history: Says Lukacs, “History is the memory of mankind” (John Lukacs, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History). Understood thusly, “history” is a kind of memory, the memory of things and persons past. In this sense, history is both active and passive. Active in the sense of the “study of things past” and passive in the sense that the contents of thought are memories: we cannot think apart from “things remembered.”

Yet, in spite of the discouragement of defining history from Lukacs, a general definition is necessary in order to proceed. “History” as such seems to sit between science and poetry as a discipline and practice, incorporating elements of both. The English word “history” is derived from the Greek ἱστορία (historia) and according to the Liddell and Scott Greek-English lexicon denotes “knowledge or information obtained by inquiry.” It is in this way that history relates to science. Both science and history are concerned with a kind of knowledge that comes only after research, and both attempt to prove or justify their claims. Hence, Aristotle titled his study of animals, The History of Animals. It is not the past events of animals or tales of animals in the line of Aesop, but rather a study or inquiry of what he discovered about animals as the result of his research.

urlIn our time we might entitle Aristotle’s work as a “study” or “science” of animals, but this similarity between history and science is quite informative for the definition of “history.” First, history is not necessarily concerned with natural, universal laws of the physical world, but the particular events of the past. That is, it is the knowledge of what happened in the past. In this way, we can also speak of certain natural sciences as also being a “history.” Geology might constitute both the natural laws of rocks and planets, and the history of those particular rocks on Earth that explain its current state. In fact, some scientists have argued that a study of the history of a particular science is the best way of studying that field itself. “In the twentieth century some of our best physicists have suggested that the clearest explanation of the new concepts of physics may be that of the history of their development…the history of chemistry is chemistry itself” (John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past, 6).

Second, history is distinguished from the natural sciences in that, as its name implies, it is concerned with telling a story. The natural sciences are presented as propositions, while history is related in narrative (or prose) form. As Hegel says,

In our language the term History unites the objective with the subjective side … It comprehends not less what has happened than the narration of what has happened. This union of the two meanings we must regard as of a higher order than mere outward accident; we must suppose historical narrations to have appeared contemporaneously with historical deeds and events. (Georg Hegel, quoted in, Mortimer J. Adler, ed. “History,” 546.)

It is in this way that history was distinguished from poetry. Though both relate to what is known, historia relates to that which is known as the result of research. Both Homer and Herodotus wrote concerning the Trojan War, yet Homer’s is poetry, while Herodotus’ is history. The difference is that Herodotus intentionally set out to investigate the claims that people like Homer have made about those events. Says Herodotus, “I made inquiry, whether the story which the Greeks tell about Troy is a fable or not” (Herodotus, quoted in, Mortimer J. Adler, ed. “History,” 547). This relationship to poetry helps explains why history was one of the Nine Muses. Clio stands next to comedy and tragedy as art forms, requiring or offering inspiration. This would seem to suggest that there is more to history than just a scientific analysis of past events. History unites the investigations of past events with the poetry and prose of narration and storytelling.

History, then, may be described in the following ways:

  1. It is the investigative process whereby the historian determines what has happened in the past.
  2. It is knowledge of those past events as determined by the research
  3. It is the narration which communicates those events to others.

While certainly more could be said about the nature and philosophy of history, this brief description will suffice for the purpose of setting history as a topic within educational curriculum.

Up next: The first function of history in education

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”

Why Study History? Part I: Introduction

“Why do I have to learn when the Battle of Hastings occurred? When am I ever going to use this information in my life!?”

Such laments about learning the events, peoples, or places of history are not uncommon in the school classroom. For some time children are taught about those people who came before them, and those events which led up to their own time. Yet, why? Why spend so much time teaching students about history? It seems rather impractical to spend so much school time on the past when schools are supposed to be preparing students for the future, right?

Claims like these are among some of the reasons why history is losing its place in the modern American school. In a series of upcoming posts I plan to explore the role of “history” in education, which up until the modern era held an essential role. Recent calls for educational reform are essentially a plan to return history to its place in education.

My plan for this series is as follows:

  1. First, I will offer definitions of both “education” and “history” in order to explore the proper relationship of the two ideas to one another.
  2. Second, I will give a brief survey of four ways that history has been used as a part of the educational process going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
  3. Third, I will explore the philosophical shifts that have led modern American educational systems to displace history (and the humanities generally) in place of science and technology subjects.
  4. Fourth, I will survey attempts by several different kinds of educational reformers, all of which see the failure to teach and study history one of the essential problems with American public schools. All of this will go to show that the most robust education must have a place for history.

Stay tuned!

Happy Birthday to G. K. Chesterton!

Chesterton is far too quotable to do justice, so here are three quotes from him related to the topic of “Reason”

Reason and the Heart:

Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of ‘touching’ a man’s heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it.

Reason and Imagination:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.

Reason and Faith:

It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young sceptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

~Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936)

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Happy Birthday to Walker Percy!

You live in a deranged age, more deranged that usual, because in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

The influence of Kierkegaard on Percy is apparent:

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

~Walker Percy (1916-1990)

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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.

Wendell Berry on Computers…

From “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” by Wendell Berry:

…My best reason for not owning a computer is that I do not wish to fool myself. I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil. I do not see why I should not be as scientific about this as the next fellow: when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of computcr with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one.

To make myself as plain as I can, I should give my standards for technological innovation in my own work. They are as follows:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

 

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You can find the whole essay here.