Naturalism and Education

In this blog series, I have been examining the effect of sin on the quality of higher education. In particular, I have been examining how worldview changes (and their subsequent effects of society) have led to a change in the quality of higher education as well as the mission of higher education. Most of these changes can be described by examining how the presence of sin in our hearts negatively affects and undermines the human mind and intellect (otherwise known as noetic effects of sin). In previous blogs, I addressed general problems with higher education, but in this blog I want to focus my critique on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. In my view, the fourth major issue associated with contemporary education is the growing neglect of philosophical self-reflection and training in the STEM fields. One important aspect of contemporary education which needs to be recovered is the belief that all college students, including STEM majors, need to receive a thorough philosophical training so that they can understand the proper usefulness and limitations of their academic discipline.

Our Current View of the Philosophy and the Humanities

Historically, one of the pillars of higher education was the study of philosophy and the application of philosophy to the other sciences. However, as rising tuition and mounting student debt makes prospective income a bigger part of choosing a major, disciplines such as philosophy and history are under attack in favor of fields as engineering and business, which are more likely to lead to jobs and salaries that justify the cost of four-year college education. Now, the debate concerning the cost of education will be the subject of another blog, but the usefulness of the humanities is no longer just an academic conversation as only 8 percent of students now major in the humanities, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, down from a peak of more than 17 percent in 1967. Humanities professors contend that what would be lost in eliminating humanities majors is exactly what employers say they really need: the kind of education that teach students how to think, innovate, work in teams, and solve problems. In other words, humanities professors are concerned that we have become shortsighted because we are more concerned with the cost of education rather than the value of education. So far, the humanities are losing the argument.

Now, the debate concerning the cost of education will be the subject of another blog, but it is quite clear that many people have quite a low view of the value of the humanities and the other classical fields of education. In addressing the argument concerning the value of the humanities majors, consider the comment from a non-humanities major

And how exactly are they going to solve problems when they don’t have any skills with which to do so? After all, they have just spent four years reading books by old dead white men and then arguing about it. They have also listened to four years of professors telling them that “the life of the mind” is something that can’t be taken away from you by the soulless vocational professions. Maybe they should just eat their books when they are done with them… maybe then they would have realized that reading old poetry doesn’t really prepare you to be a contributing member of society.

Generally speaking, when STEM majors hear that there are certain critical thinking skills that are not learned within the STEM fields, the response is usually very defensive. Consider the comments in the above article from physical scientists and engineers:

I’m sorry, but this REALLY irritates me.  I’ve got nothing against the humanities, but I really get annoyed by this idea that the ONLY place you can learn critical thinking, communicating, and problem solving is through them.  Yes, a good liberal arts background will help teach you these skills.  But so will a good engineering or science background (and surely other degrees as well which I know less of).  I’ve been working on a multinational science satellite mission for the past decade.  You’re really telling me that because I got an engineering degree, I don’t know how to work with a team, pose complex and creative problems, and think critically about how to solve them?

A Major Flaw in Science Education

From my personal experience, the opinions expressed in the comments section from the above TIME magazine article are generally consistent with how STEM majors view the humanities. Most STEM majors believe that there are many valuable insights that a STEM education can offer to society (and to other fields), but there is relatively little insight offered in the humanities that cannot be gleaned in a standard STEM education. In my view, this has contributed to a very unbalanced science education in America. Today, the prevailing view seems to be that if a STEM major takes their general education courses in psychology, sociology, history, English, and philosophy, then they have learned everything that they really need to know about those fields. It is quite true that STEM majors learn critical thinking abilities, but it is also quite true that STEM majors are usually quite non-reflective on the philosophical basis for the STEM fields. The intellectual ignorance and faulty perspectives on this matter are usually self-inflicted, but it is also true that this ignorance is promoted by the general culture around us. We live in a society in which it appears that moral reality is created by the observer, while things that are “scientifically proven” are considered formally true. To some, this gives the impression that what scientists do deals with reality, whereas what philosophers and others do is speculation.

In my view, the biggest flaw in STEM education today is the lack of philosophical reflection. Working scientists (and science students by implication) usually take for granted a set of basic assumptions that are needed to justify the scientific method: (1) there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers; (2) This objective reality is governed by natural laws; and (3) These natural laws can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation. These are all assumptions that need to justified philosophically and the philosophy of science seeks a deep understanding of what these underlying assumptions mean and whether they are valid.

A cursory examination of the 20th century discussion on the philosophy of science should bring a sense of self-reflection to modern scientists concerning the formal validity of the scientific method. Moreover, a cursory examination of the critiques of the scientific method (i.e. the problem of induction) should produce a sense of humility to modern STEM majors concerning the limitations of the scientific method. Most STEM students are not introduced to the limitations of science until graduate school. Moreover, most STEM majors have been taught that nothing is to be accepted unless it has been “scientifically proved”, and nothing has any claim to be called true unless science acknowledges that claim. Obtaining a deeper background in philosophy will give STEM majors hesitancy before they make vacuous statements such as “it has been scientifically proved”. When STEM majors accept these statements without thinking through the critiques and limitations, it’s only a matter of time before a worldview of naturalistic materialism is accepted as a methodological assumption.

Our Response

Unfortunately, this is the state of science education around the country and the general outlook from STEM students and professionals. It is at this point in which a Christian view of education and knowledge is superior. The Christian worldview informs us that supernatural revelation is the only objective source of truth and this supernatural revelation is given to us through the Bible. Thus, this worldview compels us to address the philosophical grounding and implications of other knowledge claims, including the claims of modern science. This means that a rigorous philosophical education is necessary for each student to have so that he/she can properly assess the difference between that which is formally true and that which is useful. For the case of STEM majors, philosophical training and self-reflection will helps us to know the difference between falsification and verification or the relationship between metaphysics and science, both of which have implications for the working scientist. Thus, for the quality of American education to improve (particularly in the STEM fields), we (i.e. those of us in the academy) need to insist that it is insufficient for any student to leave college without undergoing deep philosophical reflection on the nature and usefulness of their academic discipline.

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4 thoughts on “Naturalism and Education

  1. Pingback: Liberalism and Modern Education | CredoCovenant

  2. Pingback: The State of Higher Education | CredoCovenant

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