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The Problem of Scientism in Conventional Education

In my previous post I noted some of the problems with technicism in conventional educaiton. In this post I’d like to touch on some of the problems with scientism in conventional education.

Scientism is precisely not a focus on the importance of learning all that we can about the natural world in school. This we applaud, and classical education has a lot to tell us about how we can teach our knowledge about nature, our scientia nātūrālis as the Medievals would call it, better than we currently do. Instead, scientism is the trend in the social sciences, like the field of education, to conform to the pattern of the wildly successful hard sciences by proving themselves through data and pure reason alone. If we can prove it through an experiment and logic without appealing to any traditional belief, then we will accept it as true. Educational schools have become labs, where white-coated practitioners test the latest theories on the thousands of children scattered in their suburban and inner-city habitats across America. The best teachers read the educational journals and carefully follow the latest research on how to most effectively manipulate the environments of their subjects in order to attain society’s desired ends. Scientism listens to evidence and data, not to history or philosophy.

Scientism is a problem because the field of education is not a hard science, but a branch of moral philosophy, scientia mōrālis. Every philosophy of education necessarily relies on a previously established account of what it means to be human. But scientism screens out such foundational questions about man, the good life, and ultimate purpose, in an attempt to be more precise—or precise in a different way—than the subject matter admits of (cf. Aristotle, EN I.3, 1094b12-15). In so doing, it does not actually attain a neutral, “objective” viewpoint; instead, half-baked philosophies and unexamined assumptions rush back in, as seven demons take the place of the one that was exorcised. Scientism promises us firmer knowledge, not swayed to and fro by the winds of history and the waves of philosophy, but in reality it delivers only ignorance of how we are recycling old ideas by recasting them into new, scientific-looking forms.

For example, Paul Hirst, an educationist of the last generation, popularized a view of “seven forms of knowledge” that was essentially an unacknowledged recycling of Isocrates’ vision of the seven liberal arts. One scholar has documented Hirst’s grave historical inaccuracies in his account of the history of education—all the more disturbing because of the work’s placement in a standard encyclopedia! He writes, “Hirst’s ‘history’ of liberal education, though found in a standard reference work, is inaccurate to a degree that it is difficult to exaggerate, and it is now imperative that this article be replaced by an historically informed discussion.”[1] Unfortunately, this lone voice has not been heeded. Why? Because almost no scholars in education departments are engaged in any meaningful way with the history of educational philosophy.

The classical education movement, at its best, is a way of saying “No!” to the scientism of conventional education, and saying “Yes!” to the rich tradition of philosophical thinking in our past. Unfortunately, in our recovery movement’s first feeble steps in this direction, we have often fallen into the same pitfalls as Paul Hirst, who attributed a doctrinal abstraction of his own invention (‘classical realism’) to a historical abstraction (‘the Greeks’) without any evidence from their actual writings: “There is little resemblance between the ideas which Hirst attributes to ‘the Greeks,’ and the educational ideas any of them actually held.”[2]

To the extent that we attribute our educational ideas to the Greeks and Romans or even to the Medievals without the hard historical work of recovering what Isocrates or Aquinas actually wrote, we may be unwittingly participating in the scientism of our day. Please do not misunderstand. We may need to use such abstractions and generalizations for heuristic purposes: for instance, an informational meeting for those interested in classical education probably shouldn’t be citing Isocrates, Plato and Quintilian, and distinguishing between their very different philosophies of education! However, if in our books, conferences and blogs we do not rise to a higher standard of historical accuracy, then I am afraid, even the classical education movement will be doomed to suffer the repeated recycling of old ideas only partially rediscovered.

Cicero’s famous dictum applies to the classical education movement as a whole: “Nescīre autem quid antequam nātus sīs acciderit, id est semper esse puerum” (“However, not to know what happened before you were born, that is to be always a boy”). To grow up into mature manhood, we must know the history of educational ideas, not in word or in name, but in action and in truth. This realization should be liberating and exciting, rather than leading us into the despair of what we do not yet know. A great path of discovery lies before us, and after all, Rome was not built in a day. In fact, the recovery process must take time, if only because there is so much educational philosophy to recover. We should ask ourselves the encouraging question of possibility, “How might our schools grow, if we devoted ourselves fully to learning the history of educational philosophy, rather than the watered-down summaries of scientism?” I, for one, hope to find out.

[1] James R. Muir, “The History of Educational Ideas and the Credibility of Philosophy of Education,” Educational Philosophy and Theory, 30, no. 1 (1998): 15.

[2] Ibid., 17-18.

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