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In 1962, historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn shocked the academic world with his book The Structures of Scientific Revolution. He asserted that scientific communities are closed-minded and promote convergent thinking as a function of dogma in scientific work. The jolt is that science is popularly thought of as promoting divergent thinking and open-minded inquiry. Kuhn concedes that in the beginning when questions are first arising around a subject this is the case, but once a field rounds up its foundational questions, it forms a set of assumptions that become the dogmatic underpinnings of that community. Kuhn explains that “a scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of espoused beliefs.”

Kuhn called these sets of assumptions scientific paradigms and though there has been much confusion about this word, by paradigm he meant two basic things. First, the notion of a model, a piece of work in a scientific discipline that serves as an example for other works in that discipline. Second, a disciplinary matrix or a view of the world and what an explanation of it should look like. He asserted that this is something you acquire as a result of having worked through typical questions in a particular discipline or community.

Kuhn characterized normal science as the work scientists do with a paradigm. The paradigm is a blueprint and the regular work of scientists is to solve puzzles that fill out the paradigm. If a scientist and his experiment do not prove the assumptions they are considered a failure, not the paradigm. These unsolved puzzles are rejected by the community, not based on whether or not they are true, but because they did not support the paradigm.

Over time the unsolved puzzles accumulate and eventually there are variations and a divergent view grows and leads to a paradigm breakdown and thus the ground is laid for revolt. This process leads to extraordinary science which aims at inculcating a replacement paradigm. Kuhn says that “a shift in professional commitments to shared assumptions takes place when an anomaly subverts the existing tradition of scientific practice.”

These shifts are what Kuhn calls scientific revolutions. He noted that changes in science were less changes in reality than changes in fashion. His theory called into question the accepted notion that science is a rational approach to interpreting reality and asserts it is more of a social phenomenon similar to that of mob rule. An interesting fruit of the tree of Kuhn’s theory is Scientific America’s diatribe series against Ben Stein’s movie Expelled.

In a written discussion, Dr. Christopher Blum explained that Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions rests in two truths; that the first principles of any science are themselves indemonstrable and that trust in a teacher comes at the beginning of learning. Aquinas’ Commentary on the Posterior Analytics demonstrates the first and St. Augustine’s On the Usefulness of Belief elucidates the second.

When Aristotle’s first principles were discarded and replaced by the Cartesian and reductionists schemes of enquiry, the human condition was replaced by artifacts. The project of reforming the human person to the image of Christ was transformed into a revolt against our human limits. The culture of life was replaced by the culture of death. The Enlightenment philosophers returned to the errors of the pre-Socratics.

In 1798 Joseph de Maistre observed “since the time of the Reformation, there has been a spirit of revolt which really struggles, sometimes publically, sometimes privately, against all sovereign powers and especially against monarchies.” The rejection of Aristotelian first principles and the authority of the good teacher have led to this modern climate of radical skepticism and radical individualism. De Maistre called it “the revolt of individual reason against general reason.”

Dan Robinson wrote in 1985 “the social and scientific revolutions of the past two centuries have transformed our perspective on the most fundamental aspects of civilized life.” The changes wrought on human living since the scientific revolution “invade regions of life and thought that have nothing to do with science itself,” especially the public schools.

Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions has the potential to expose operations in the pseudo-scientific field of American public education. For the last century there has been a series of revolts and hostile takeovers between warring paradigms, all of them possessing a set of unifying assumptions excavated from the infertile ideologies of the Enlightenment thinkers. Kuhn’s theory finds a starker relief and clarity when used as a lens to interpret the trends in public education; its reliance on manmade dogma, fashionable sentiments and mob rule.

Today we witness a particularly massive revolt by adherents of the Common Core Standards paradigm successfully vying to take over the insolvent State Standards curriculum. To see the nature of revolt when a new paradigm is warring against an old paradigm, several in the throng of the Common Core advocates provide two excellent examples of how propaganda, fashionable sentiment and mob rule are used to destroy the credibility of the old paradigm. This video called Why We Need Common Core Standards mocks the outcomes of the old paradigm and makes false implications that the new paradigm will be better.

The video Mr. Winkle Wakes up plays on the false theme that public schools haven’t changed in the last 100 years. It promotes the fish story that our public schools need more technology to be brought up to date, encouraging the same utilitarian progressive paradigm that has sucked the life out of our public education for so many generations. A colleague fighting the good fight against the Common Core curriculum called this the “computer geek” paradigm.

Both videos are dishonest propaganda and misleading. Education has been in a state of constant flux and the changes in the last 100 years have been dramatic. The new Common Core Standards are not new, just a repackaging of previously failed paradigms. These two videos are a childish attempt to destroy the existing paradigm and build a pathological support base for the new Common Core Standards. It is an act of revolution to pave the way for the new paradigm and has no connection to true progress. This mirrors Kuhn’s descriptions of the scientific communities.

My colleagues and I have been shown these dreadful videos no less than six times in various trainings over the year. We are encouraged to laugh at how stupid the past paradigm has been and to cheer the new one. And though they are right in identifying this last paradigm as dreadful, the replacement paradigm is worse. Kuhn would confirm that it is only a matter of time before we teachers find ourselves sitting in front of a new set of propagandistic videos condemning and ridiculing the Common Core standards. Perhaps if we slightly increase our worship of computer technology, the next paradigm will be a new internationally imposed curriculum designed to inculcate complete social integration into virtual reality.

In this modern age, Dan Robinson, in The Wonder of Being Human, succinctly observes the process by which the scientific communities invade spheres of life not properly under their jurisdiction.

What begins as a discovery in science, or even a scientific conjecture, is soon taken as a model or metaphor of some larger realm of human concern. In time, at the urging of the leaders of public opinion, the metaphor becomes installed as the reality and the seasonless convictions of the ordinary person are thus put on official notice! Only years later, under reality’s sobering lights, does it once again become clear that our ageless dilemmas have survived these once “new truths”; that the vexing problems of value have not surrendered to the thick and thickening book of fact; that the most recent revolutions of perspective have done little more than move us around the circle whose center is the human condition.

Thomas Kuhn’s explanation of paradigm shifts reveals more than may be readily apparent. Recall the very first paradigm shift when the light bearer uttered his “non serviam” in a prideful rage and fashioned the archetypical pattern for the paradigm of revolt. It was laid at the feet of our first parents by our slithering enemy. And now from time immemorial we have two basic choices: the paradigm of revolt or the paradigm of reform. The prophets reminded us of the righteous choice by crying out “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The very first lines of the Apostles’ catechism the Didache recapped: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death.” The good teacher St. Augustine expanded upon the vital theme in his masterpiece The City of God. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul the Great brings this reality to our era by the hermeneutic of continuity in what he rightfully called “culture of death” as the paradigm of revolt that we must cast-off in favor of the Gospel of Life.

In the field of public education, reality’s sobering lights are effectively and increasingly obscured by the fog of scientism and revolutionary propaganda. Public education has clearly chosen the paradigm of revolt. As parents, we ought to reject the constant paradigm shifts of the public schools and demand a reformation to an education grounded in Aristotelian first principles, staffed by good teachers grappling with the perennial questions of life and the realities that concern the human condition, especially our proper end in eternal beatitude. Our inquiries into the natural world and the education we seek for our children must square with the paradigm of reform to the Christ, the one immutable doctrine unaffected by revolt; our eternal disposition depends on it.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThis article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine and is republished here by permission.

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Published: Aug 30, 2013
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg
Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. A convert to Catholicism, he is a catechist, a school teacher, and a writer and speaker on matters of faith, culture, and education. He holds a degree in History from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Steven is a member of the Teacher Advisory Board and writer of curriculum at the Sophia Institute for Teachers, a contributor to the Integrated Catholic Life, Crisis Magazine, The Civilized Reader, The Standard Bearers, Catholic Exchange, and a founding member of the Brinklings Literary Club.
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7 replies to this post
  1. Bravo! An excellent introduction to the real problems of the present and the past 100 years in education, science, government, finances, and industry. I remember the shocked look on the face of a science educator for a county school system who was getting her Ph.D. in Science Education at UNC-Ch., when I told her that there was a problem with the scientific theory. She was nonplussed and asked: “How did you know that?” What was understood but not said was this, “How does a dumb preacher like you know something like that? After all, we only talk about such things in my classes on science.” I told her I had a Master’s in American Social & Intellectual History, and when I was writing my thesis I ran into the problem. As one minister said, “We are suffering from the paralysis of analysis.” What is needed is a larger , more comprehensive, more perceptive scientific method, one that can handle disparate situations, ideas, and facts, which might manifest the truth when handled as true even though such things appear to be contradictory. Eventually, I would realize that the Bible speaks to every generation, even to the scientific ones, so-called, The problem is that its limpid language, its clarity, makes it difficult to comprehend. Looking at it one thinks, why I understand that as it so clear and simple. But the problem is its depth. We are ill-equipped to handle that matter.

    The problem with such mis-education is that it is exacerbated by arrogance. Once a person has his or her doctorate, all of the training, the person then takes on an aura of omniscience, the very thing that is the undoing of real understanding. Research is the secret of finding out how little one knows, unless the individual continues in the same pattern of set assumptions. At such times, it takes a radical assault to break the set of assumptions that cause such a problem for society’s progress.

  2. Thank you, Jonathan Rummelsburg, for this excellent article, and thank you TIC for sharing it from Crisis Magazine’s website. After a recent online exchange I had concerning the teaching of algebra, which some asserted need not be taught because “we don’t use it everyday,” I wonder if the struggle in education is simply to maintain a few remnant schools that reject this paradigm shift, and that allow students and teachers to struggle “with the perennial questions of life and the realities that concern the human condition, especially our proper end in eternal beatitude.”

    It does my heart and mind no good to contemplate that idea that we how care about education are reduced to a remnant since I am making a career shift midlife and am working toward a teaching certificate. If public ed becomes nothing more than what one finds “useful” on a day to day basis, what becomes of teaching the classics? What keeps a teacher inspired when all he’s tasked to do is provide instruction in the latest technology? What is a teacher who cares about language, reading, and writing supposed to do when the entire educational edifice drifts into “learning theories” that asset drawing pictures is the equivalent of composing a well crafted sentence?

    So many teachers and administrators in the public education system seem intent on throwing out the patrimony history has bequeathed us for no other reason than students can feel good about what they are learning, and teachers can feel good about making students feel good. Sadly, too many parents go along with it. How much of this paradigm shift toward Common Core is built on the premise that privileges self-concept over objectively learning? If algebra is tossed aside because the average consumer doesn’t find it useful, what other subjects shall be jettisoned for the same reason?

  3. Daniel Crandall, I wonder if your fine soul and mind are suited for public education? I can assure you, it is worse than you imagine in your comments. Almost everything of lasting value has been jettisoned and one is expected to follow the party line like a communist. I don’t know of a single reference to our patrimony that has not been stripped of its meaning. The shift to self-reference from referencing an outside objective source was completed generations ago. The virtues and the perennial question were also abandoned a long time ago. The public schools are a hopelessly lost cause.

    Newman makes the excellent point that we should notice the difference between requisite knowledge and mastering our faculties. He points out that the one who masters his faculties is not only the far better of the two, but he is also the master of the knowledge belonging to the man who only possesses the requisite knowledge. And this is our mistake today, we fill our heads with gobs of requisite knowledge but we don’t really know what to do with it, and most people just forget it. With the philosophic habits of mind we practice the proper use of our faculties, our minds, and our wills and even our appetites that are so disordered in this age.

    If you would really like to be a teacher, I think there are very few places you can actually be one. I would recommend a Classical Liberal Arts school. There are not too many, but the ones that do exist are very good and should be very satisfying for one who would really like to teach. Here is a link to about 27 of them: and I have a list of about 30 more I can send you if you contact me because I don’t know how to attach a word document here.

    I wish you the best of luck if you are heading into the public schools for it is a perilous quest. And though I am sure you have the purest of intentions, I assure you, it is worse than it looks from the outside.

    • Sir: There is a lot of truth in what you say. As far back as the mid sixties, I had a professor of sociology at a Black state university who was obviously communist. He spent 5 minutes telling us what the text book should have said, and 50 minutes telling us how communism was going to beat the snot out of capitalism, Later, I would learn from one of the real anticommunist crusaders (he had a masters of Yale and one from Columbia, plus other degrees from other schools) who told me the fellow wrote books read by those who governed communist countries in order to know how to govern them. Later, a Black sociologist from Princeton came to speak at the school where I was an Instructor in American History. He told me the professor I had had was “one of the unsung Marxist heroes.” Further on, our son would attend UNC-CH, where he would begin a class on Marxian theorists. He came home and laid the course outline before me and said, “Dad, I am going to study your professor.” There in the middle of the semester was listed my professor from that Black school in the 60s. By the way I wrote him a paper, showing that all communism did was produce a new class, one more greedy and rapacious than any in history, the Communist Party. The prof. wrote “good” on the paper in red, and some student told me that that was his best grade (a b at the end of the semester).. Some one has well said that communism was an invention of capitalists to control the poor. Bella Dodd, one time chairman of the American Communist Party, resigned after Moscow told her to take her orders from one of three capitalists in the Waldorf Astoria. There is more that I could say, but it is boring in one sense and really deadly (as far as America is concerned) in another. After all, the commie masters a research into the archives over there made decisions to exterminate whole populations of people, rather ruthlessly.

      • Dr. Willingham ,
        I do thank you for your effusive comments. You use more words than most, but they are full of stories and connections that most raconteurs lack.

        I had been planning on responding to your first comments, but as they used to say when they had time to say it “tempus fugit”- though I hold not your degrees, and the one I do hold was fraudulently obtained, I disagree with your view about the scientific method. We don’t need a “larger , more comprehensive, more perceptive scientific method,” we need a smaller, less comprehensive idea of what the scientific method can do. There is no problem with the method, but it is our misuse and misapplication of the method that has caused us so much strife. A simple return to the recognition of the limits of empirical science would take care of that and it wouldn’t hurt to return to the Christological anthropology to put all elements in the sphere of intellect and will back into their proper order. Paradox is not to be explained by the scientific method, but by the comparison of transcendent insight, a gift of the Holy Spirit, to our worldly understanding. To try to use “science” as the eye to see how contradictions work is merely to try to sit comfortably with cognitive dissonance. This is a modern plague of the mind. I do agree with you that we are ill-equipped to handle the depth of the Bible. A better science won’t help that either.

        I enjoyed your discussion of communism- you said that someone well said that “communism was an invention of capitalists to control the poor.” That is a very bizarre statement. I think communism comes from the father of lies and takes root in fallen souls who would have, so many generations ago, taken part in building the Tower of Babel. One point you make that is indisputable is that the communists are ruthless, further they are vicious.

        Thank you for sharing all that Dr. Willingham, may Christ’s peace be with you and your family!

        • Thank you Steven for your rather strenuous reply to my comments. As to the issue about the scientific method, that came about in work for the degree in intellectual history which covered two ideas that were apparently contradictory and yet both true which held by a person enable the person to be balanced, flexible, etc. However, the scientific method would place the apparently contradictory idea in the process as the null hypothesis, the paralysis of analysis again. The science educator earning her Ph.D. in the field recognized what I was saying as a valid point and commented, in a state of shock, “How did you know that. The problem with our present method is what does it do, when both the original hypothesis and the null hypothesis are true? It is something I have been thinking on for about 40 years.

  4. Thank you, Steven Jonathan, for your thoughts and advice. I don’t know how fine a soul and mind I have, and I certainly suffer no delusions as to the state of public education today. I will gladly sacrifice a bit filthy lucre to serve students in a Classical Liberal Arts school, especially a Catholic school, than slurp from the government troughs at some public school. I am praying I can complete part of my teacher training at Benedictine High School – I’m not certain that will happen, but if you’re a praying man, a few on my behalf that that may come to be would be greatly appreciated. I would also appreciate that list of schools if you would be so kind as to forward in an email. I can be reached at “dpcrandall [at] gmail [dot] com.

    God bless you and yours.

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