THE PLACE OF SCIENCE IN A LIBERAL EDUCATION
For centuries the scientist and the scientific thinker were personanongrata with the educational authorities both in the east and the west. The attitude of the scientist was a questioning attitude, while education demanded of the student perfect conformity. The disciple came to the preceptor in a mood of absolute humility and everything that the preceptor said was gospel truth for him. Faith, absolute faith was the sine qua non of education.
Now science is opposed to this attitude of passive acceptance. Scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, Bruno, Newton and Leibnitz challenged accepted opinions. They would accept nothing on trust. Even the Bible was not the last word for them. They had to suffer a lot; one of them, Bruno had to pay the extreme penalty for his opinions. But these men did not swerve from their set path of reason and experimentation. They went on asking questions and challenging time-honoured beliefs and proved them to be mostly ill-founded.
It was this antagonism between science and the educational authorities, which prevented science from being included in educational curricula for a long time. The subjects generally considered suitable for study were History, Philosophy, Belles-lettres, with a modicum of mathematics. Even a century and a half back, literary type of education was advocated by eminent men and even when science came out into the forefront and with its discoveries and inventions began to provide amenities for the common man, its inclusion in the school curricula was not favoured.
Even such a great scholar as Newman was all in all for liberal education and was not in favour of education, which had a technical or professional bias. Today, however, the trend is towards education, which is scientific as well as humanistic. In fact it will not be wrong to say that the swing of the pendulum is to the other extreme. There are Science Colleges, Institutes of Technology and Engineering Universities where nothing but science is taught. But even where liberal education is being imparted it is felt that some sort of scientific education is very much necessary. Without scientific education the knowledge of a person regarding the Universe is practically nil.
The study of science is useful for the growth and development of the mind. In countries where science is ignored and neglected, the minds of the people remain stunted and dwarfed and the reasoning faculties remain dormant. The material progress of a country now depends upon science. The U.S.A., the U.K. and the Western countries are making progress because of scientific superiority. In backward countries, science must be made a compulsory subject in schools and colleges so that in course of time the country attains a minimum standard of living. Science places knowledge and power in the hands of nations and in a world where only the strong and the fit can survive in the struggle for existence, it is imperative to make students and citizens science-minded. The inventions of scientists are not miracles but he fruit of a long and laborious life, a life spent in research work in laboratories.
In the study of literature or art, our attention is perpetually invited upon the past: the men of Greece or of the Renaissance did better than any men do now; the triumphs of former ages, far from facilitating fresh triumphs in our own age, actually increase the difficulty of fresh triumphs by rendering originality harder of attainment; not only is artistic achievement not cumulative, but it seems even to depend upon a certain freshness and naivete of impulse and vision which civilization tends to destroy. Hence comes, to the one who have been nourished on the literary and artistic productions of former ages, a certain peevishness and undue fastidiousness towards the present, from which there seems to escape except into the deliberate vandalism which ignores tradition and in the search after originality achieves only the accentic.
The despair thus arising from an education, which suggests no preeminent mental activity except that of artistic creation is wholly absent from an education which gives the knowledge of scientific method. The discovery of scientific method is a thing of yesterday; broadly speaking we may say that it dates from Galileo. Yet already it has transformed the world, and its success proceeds with ever-accelerating velocity. In science men have discovered an activity of the very highest value in which they are no longer, as in art, dependent for progress upon the appearance of continually greater genius from science, the successors stand upon the shoulders of their predecessor; where one man of supreme genius has invented a method a thousand lesser men can apply it. No transcendent ability is required in order to make useful discoveries in science; the edifice of science needs its masons, bricklayers and common labourers as well as foremen, master-builders and architects. In art nothing worth doing can be done without genius; in science even a very moderate capacity contributes to a supreme achievement.
Scientific education has another advantage over literary education in regard to proper assessment of values, namely the study of things in a cold, impartial, dispassionate and unbiased manner. This is decidedly a dear advantage over literature, which is based on human emotions. In science there is no prejudice, no bias, no exaggeration, no mutilation, no distortion, no partiality and no unjust criticism. Science enables us to see things in their time perspective. The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires, taste, and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world. But to remember it consistently in matters arousing over passionate partnership is by no means easy. Two illustrations will make it clear.
Aristotle considered that the stars must move in circles because the circle is the most perfect curve. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, he allowed himself to decide a question of fact by an appeal to aesthetico-moral considerations. In such a case it is at once obvious to us that this appeal was unjustifiable. We know now how to ascertain as a fact the way in which the heavenly bodies move, and we know that they do not move in circles or even in accurate ellipses, or in any other kind of simply describable curves. This may be painful to a certain hankering after simplicity of pattern in the Universe, but we know that in astronomy such feelings are irrelevant. Easy as this knowledge seems now, we owe it to the courage and the insight of the first inventors of scientific method, and more especially to Galileo.
We may take as the second illustration Malthus’ doctrine of population. This illustration is all the better for the fact that his actual doctrine is now known to be largely erroneous. It is not his conclusions that are valuable but the temper and method of his enquiry. As everyone knows, it was to him that Darwin owed an essential part of his theory of natural selection, and this was only possible because Malthus’ outlook was truly scientific. His great merit lies in considering Man not as the object of praise or blame, but as a part of Nature, a thing with a certain characteristic behaviour from which certain consequences must follow. If the behaviour is not quite what Malthus supposed, if the consequences are not quite what he inferred, that may falsify his conclusions, but does not impair the value of his method. The objections which were made when his doctrine was new—that it was horrible and depressing
people ought not to act as he said they did, and so on—were all such
implied an unscientific attitude of mind; as against all of them. His calm determination to treat Man as a natural phenomenon marks an important advance over the reformers of the eighteenth century and the Revolution.
The introduction of science in a curriculum of liberal education
absolutely essential for a complete and integrated view of life. It is the scientific approach, the adventurous and yet critical temper of science, the search for truth and new knowledge, the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on preconceived theory, the hard discipline of the man—All this is necessary, not merely for the application of science but for life itself and the solution of its many problems. The scientific approach and temper are, or should be, a way of life, a process of thinking a method of acting and associating with our fellowman. The scientific temper points out the way along which
man should travel. It is the temper of a free man. It is therefore with the temper and approach of science, allied to philosophy and literature that we must face life. Thus, we may develop an integral vision of life which embraces in its wide scope the past and the present, with all their heights and depths, and look with serenity towards the future. A combination of liberal and scientific education is the solution for the many problems that confront mankind. Education must be all-round, complete and absolutely perfect. In the world of today science is of as much importance as liberal education. To ignore science is to encourage falsehood, hypocrisy and superstition which have been the retarding forces in the history of mankind.