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.

Morality and Education

In the previous blog, I addressed the second major issue regarding American college education – the promotion and fostering of the autonomous self. Although most social and academic commentators tend to believe that the entitlement mentality of the current generation of students is a relatively recent phenomenon, I believe that this is the fruit of a deeper problem that extends back multiple generations. Over the span of less than 60 years, the mission of college education has dramatically changed. We have abandoned the view that education is a virtuous endeavor (which seeks to train and disciple the mind) and have replaced it with a pragmatic view of education that primarily trains us for future jobs.

Moreover, the morality of education has also taken a rather dramatic shift and this shift has been consistent with the promotion of the autonomous self. Coupled with this moral change, I want to address the third major issue: the promotion of a morally neutral education. One important aspect of contemporary education which needs to be recovered is the belief that there is a transcendent, unchanging moral structure to our world.

An Overview

Throughout Western history, one of the primary goals in the philosophy of education was the transmission of morality or virtue. Furthermore, many people believed that there is a deep connection between academic learning (i.e. the development of mental aptitude) and moral learning (i.e. development of virtue and character). In other words, early education theorists understood that the development of the intellect and the development of moral character are intimately related. Just as there is orderliness in nature (which has been summarized in the laws of natural science) and in reason (which has been summarized in the laws of logic), so too there is a moral structure to our world. For many theorists, this implied it is necessary to determine the objective moral order of our universe and to restore it to a central place in the educational process. For this reason, many early education theorists strongly believed that moral education belongs in schools. Furthermore, many took this to mean schools are partly responsible to educate children in morality.

Now, this final point has been the subject of intense controversy, especially over the last 50 – 60 years. Both Christian and secular education theorists acknowledge that teachers and professors represent an important adult authority figure in students’ lives and are therefore capable of making a huge impression upon students. Additionally, both Christian and secular education theorists recognize that teachers spend a large portion of the day with the students, often more than even the children’s parents do with their children. Therefore, the teacher has ample opportunity to educate children not only in important academic subjects, but in character and values as well. For some Christian educators, this has been an argument for the Christian homeschool movement. For many secular educators, this has been an argument for why educated societies become inherently more secular.

The Myth of Morally Neutral Education

Within recent decades, the belief in a morally neutral education has grown in popularity and I believe that it is linked to the emergence of the autonomous self. The logic is inescapable: if I can autonomously define my own reality, then surely I can define my own values and moral beliefs. Hence, subjectivity applies not only to my personal identity, but it also applies to morality. The essential argument of a morally-neutral education is as follows: we live in a pluralistic society and so we can no longer stress the values of some, while ignoring the values of all. Therefore, in order to avoid these problems and to promote fairness in our schools, we must all agree to ignore all moral values. For this reason, moral education is no longer explicitly taught in colleges and college students believe that they are only receiving academic training.

The claim of a morally-neutral education is a myth precisely because many college professors openly acknowledge that they intentionally choose to promote certain values and to reject other values. We have all read articles in which professors intentionally speak about the incompatibility of evolution and religious faith. We have all read commentary in which universities intentionally promote LGBTQ lifestyles. We have all read stories of hostile environments towards Christian faculty. The honest reality is that the specious argument for a morally-neutral education is an intentional and morally secular approach to education.

There are two important consequences to this approach to education. First, college students today are surrounded by an allegedly academic setting in which the things they find most obvious are confusing, conflicting claims and the absence of any fixed points of reference. In a nutshell, America’s colleges have become centers of intellectual disorder. Moreover, since a morally-neutral education is typically mandated within college education, this usually means that universities confirm the intellectual prejudices of those who control the agenda of public discourse – the tenured-faculty within the universities. In other words, a morally-neutral education does not actually foster independent thought – it becomes channels of indoctrination.

Second, college students today have not developed the rational faculties needed to make proper moral and ethical decisions. Since moral education is no longer seen as a vital component to a proper college education, students typically tend to ignore its value as well. For many students, the required philosophical ethics course at many universities is just simply a general requirement that they have to take. Another way to state this general observation is that modern students generally do not believe that there is an objective basis for making ethical decisions. For this reason, many students do not take the time to rationally think through moral and ethical decisions. Again, this is consistent with the subjectivism that is promoted in today’s world and this also explains the widespread documented claims of college student cheating. This cheating epidemic is so insidious that it has led to a black-market industry of custom-essay companies.

An Assessment

From a Christian worldview, the issues discussed above are simply the outworking of the noetic effects of sin, primarily intellectual prejudice, faulty perspective, and dogmatism. We should expect that these types of sins will only become more accentuated as our culture continues to embrace this modern post-Christian worldview.

As mentioned previously, important Christian thinkers have always contended that there are transcendent norms (like moral norms), that human happiness is dependent on living our lives in accordance with this transcendent order, and that human flourishing require respect for this order. The most important task of education is to continually remind students of the existence and importance of this transcendent order as well as of its content. This is primarily done by training the mind to properly interpret and understand this transcendent order. If educators are doing their job properly, they serve as an essential link in the chain of civilization because educators are the preservers and transmitters of culture. Without this link, the chain cannot hold and there is an inevitable devolution of culture.

With the morally-neutral approach to education, modern American education has severed the link between virtue, knowledge, and reason. One of the goals of education is to pursue and discover the objective natural order to our world. However, we must not forget that there is also an objective moral order to our world as well and we are all subject to it. Modern American education seems to believe that it is profitable (and possible) to train the mind of a student without training the heart of a person. From a Christian worldview, we recognize this as nonsensical. An adequate education dare not ignore either the mind or the heart. Like any important human activity, education has an inescapable moral component and any effort to produce a morally-neutral education is merely the substitution of one set of moral commitments for another.

It is at this point in which a Christian view of education is superior. When a culture’s moral commitments have no fixed points of reference or objective basis, this means that moral education will become subjective, arbitrary, and irrational (as we are seeing in American education). However, when a culture acknowledges the objective moral structure that God Himself has built in this world, this means that we can recover the view of education as the discipleship of the whole mind and the training of our full rational faculties.

The Autonomous Self and Higher Education

In the previous blog, I addressed the first major issue regarding American college education – a growing lack of mental discipline from students. Although most social commentators focus on the negative impacts of video media upon college students, I believe that the root cause of these issues stem from the fact that we have re-defined education. We have moved from a view of education as a means of discipleship to education as a means of job training. Thus, it can be said that we have undervalued the need to discipline and train the human mind. Coupled with this change in education, I want to address the second major issue: the promotion of the autonomous self.

The self is our interior world, made up of our own thoughts, private intuitions, desires, yearnings, capacities, particularities, and all other elements that makes us distinct from other persons. In essence, it is the sum package of ourselves that makes us unique from all other people. I believe that the promotion of the autonomous self has had a profoundly negative impact on higher education, and I believe the development of the autonomous self is the consequence of three noetic effects of the Fall: faulty perspectives, intellectual pride, and vain imaginations.

As mentioned previously, we are all subject to these issues in varying degrees because of the Fall. We all have various intellectual prejudices that cause us to misunderstand and misinterpret the world around us (as well as the people around us). These intellectual prejudices also cause us to misunderstand ourselves as well. This suggests that prejudice is somewhat axiomatic. However, there is a difference between recognizing our inherent prejudices ourselves and claiming that reality is defined and shaped by the observer. This is a perspective that is being promoted throughout our society, particularly in education. What cultural forces have contributed to this and what impacts do these have on the quality of college education?

The Emergence of the Self

In his book The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells address how the self-esteem movement has dramatically changed the fabric of American culture. In commenting about the 1960s, Wells notes

In a nutshell, what happened was that our individualism, which had always been a potent factor in American life, turned inward in this decade. It withdrew from the outside world and during the 1960s, a new worldview emerged. To a great majority of Americans, it now became clear that the self had become the source of all values. The pursuit of the self was what life was all about.

In other words, the old world individualism has morphed into a new type of individualism. The older individualism in which you should think for yourself, decide for yourself, provide for yourself, and work to serve others in personal and civic ways has turned inwards. Now, individualism is about “finding yourself”, discovering your inner potential for your own benefit, developing positive self-esteem, and developing new ethical rules that serve the discovery of the self.

In this new style of individualism, self-esteem is elevated even above actual performance. This is a trend that is tracked by numerous academics in which virtually all students view themselves as “above average” in all ways. In this regard, we are producing a generation of students who are “cured” of their inferiority complexes, but whose academic performance lag behind that of many other nations. In therapeutic terms, we have all become adept at being our own healers and our own counselors, dispensing wisdom and comfort to ourselves. In other words, we are not challenging ourselves; we are soothing ourselves.

In our version of individualism, we have the emergence of the autonomous self. Instead of esteeming objectively-defined virtues, we have prioritized good subjective values. Instead of developing objectively-defined inner character, we have prioritized self-marketing, image, and personality. We have replaced an understanding of human nature (which is based on a presupposition of a common shared identity) with the new concept of self. We have drifted from what we all have in common to what is unique to each individual.

The promotion of the self has been the message delivered to many of us for the past several decades. When a child grows up, he or she is taught to embrace their distinctiveness and uniqueness. We are taught to develop our own values and that each person needs to be respected for their values. Moreover, each person is entitled to express who he or she is and each person should define the meaning of his or her life. The prevailing theory is that a poor development of the self explains all sorts of bad behavior and also explains failing academic work. We can now examine some of the impacts that this philosophy has had on higher education.

The Impact on Higher Education

There are numerous consequences of the promotion of self upon college education. The first obvious consequence is a growing sense of entitlement and overconfidence. College faculty members tend to believe that this sense of entitlement is fostered into college students because of grade inflation throughout high school education, but there is plenty of evidence of grade inflation within colleges and universities. This means that the quality and respectability of an undergraduate degree is rapidly declining – to the extent that some degrees are not worth the paper that they are printed on. If the statistics in the above link are correct, this means that all college students are literally above average (with an average GPA of 3.1). Because of these trends, there is a genuine sense that if a student fails a course, then it is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

The promotion of self in higher education has also led to an increase in the hiring of student affairs professionals while freezing or delaying the hiring of full-time faculty members. Furthermore, to meet this ongoing need, more colleges and universities are beginning to develop graduate degrees for Student Affairs, and these programs are even being expanded to the undergraduate level. Therefore, we are witnessing an increase of programs aimed at training people to guide, aid, and facilitate the “personal identity” development of students. And what all of these theories have in common is the promotion of the autonomous self. For evidence of this, please see the following cheat sheet of student development theories.

The expansion of student affairs professionals in higher education also indicates a shift in the financial priorities for colleges and universities. It has been documented that the financial endowments of many academic institutions have flatlined or decreased over the past few decades. Thus, the funding for these new programs/departments have come from four likely sources: (1) students (through increases in student fees and/or tuition); (2) private donors and/or grants; (3) at the expense of academic affairs programs; or 4) through cutting the budgets of current student affairs departments to create new departments/programs. In my view, the creation and/or expansion of student affairs has led to the growth of adjunct, non-tenured faculty within most universities as a cost-cutting measure. This is one of the key indicators that colleges have begun to prioritize the development of the self over the development of the mind.

Our Response

From a Christian worldview, we should see this, not as just a fad in modern American culture, but a rejection of the Christian view of man. The truth is that Western societies want to think only in terms of the self, and they want to use this psychological world as an alternative to the older religious world. This myth of the autonomous self is so well-established, preserved in place by so great a public desire to keep it there, that it borders on heresy to question it. Nevertheless, we should question it and confront it.

The question that we should be asking is whether or not we have the ability or the right to autonomously define themselves. The answer is emphatically no! We do not have the right to dictate who we are because we are creatures, not the Creator. We are not self-created beings who choose to define our own reality; our identity has already been prescribed as creatures made in the image of God. Our lives are not a grand experiment in order to discover our unique identity; we are a part of God’s work of creation and providence, which means that our purpose and function has been determined by God. This is our Father’s world, and reality is set and defined by Him. Consider the commentary by David Wells

To speak of virtue, then, is to speak of the moral structure of the world God has made. Rebellious though we are, we have not broken down this structure, nor dislodged God from maintaining it. It stands there, over against us, whether we recognize it or not. We bump up against it in the course of life and we encounter its reflection in our moral makeup. And from all sides a message is conveyed to our consciousness: “Beware! This is a moral world that you inhabit!”

God’s work of creation does not consists only of the physical structure of the world, but it also includes the moral structure of the world. This also implies that we do not have the ability or the right to define the reality that we live in. Therefore, education should not be a means to liberate our minds from prejudices so that we can discover our true selves in our own inner world. Education should be a means to confront our intellectual prejudices so that we can understand the world that God Himself has made.