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Trying to put science in a classical paradigm is putting new wine into old wineskins. Modern science just does not easily fit into a classical paradigm…

STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math, is the newest acronym for what is considered a great education, and it often leads to a satisfying and financially rewarding career track.

Many students do not like math or science. It can be difficult, boring, impersonal, and uninteresting. This includes math and science as it is taught in classical schools. Sure, science as we know it had much of its origins with Europeans steeped in Judeo-Christian thought, a fact downplayed in modern secular thought. But the freedom of conscience and other products of religious and even Enlightenment thinking give rise to discussions that students often find more interesting than they find in STEM classes. God, history, religion, and humanity find more favor in the eyes of the majority of students than protons, enzymes, vectors, and geometric series.

Douglas Wilson, founder of modern classical Christian education, mentioned in an interview that his school, Logos Academy in Moscow, Idaho, has not developed the quadrivium.* The trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric has found success in primary and secondary schools. But the quadrivium of geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy reflect math and science as it was known hundreds of years ago. Our schools, including our private Christian schools, for that matter even homeschooling programs, must typically meet state standards. This means that our modern quadrivium of math, physics, chemistry, and biology, with a year of earth science, must usually be taught and then recorded on transcripts.

We must also realize that the quadrivium is essentially obsolete. The trivium can be used to teach the humanities today, but it is based on ancient and medieval thought. Philosophy does not change easily, and many people have opted for the older approach, ingrained in Western thought, than the newer approach, which can produce social justice warriors. Most of what we know about STEM, however, has been learned in the last hundred years. Science today, although built on a foundation laid by many religious people, can stand on its own, at least in most of its practical applications. One plus one equals two, no matter one’s religion, philosophy, or political views. And while great books colleges might try to teach science in the framework of the liberal arts, real STEM universities do not.

The modern classical Christian education programs are typically led by people trained in the humanities. Some schools have large oval desks, which the students sit around. This is great for discussion, but can you imagine teaching algebra with a Socratic session? Trying to put science in a classical paradigm is putting new wine into old wineskins. Jesus warned against this while talking about religion, but that works for science, also. Modern science just does not easily fit into a classical paradigm. While a great books college might try teaching science using historical approach, advanced STEM is not taught like that in rigorous university science programs.

Integration in STEM can come in three forms.

First, its lessons can be better integrated than they are now. Modern curricula include earth science, typically taught in seventh or eighth grade. This includes Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion. But then we wait until tenth or eleventh grade Algebra II to teach about ellipses, on which the Kepler’s first two laws depend. The Omnibus curriculum used in many classical Christian schools combines Bible, theology, history, and philosophy into a series of books used for courses with so much content that one year of Omnibus might count as three courses instead of one. Why not rewrite the curricula for math and science so that they are taught together as much as possible?

Second, integration in science includes labs. People hiring for science jobs do not care about the candidate’s cumulative average in college, but rather about specific job skills. We teach in the classroom, then back up the lesson with the lab. Perhaps the classroom lessons should back up the labs. Allowing the students time to tinker in the lab before new subject material is introduced should pique their curiosity more than a cookbook lab given after the theory is explained in the classroom, although the latter is certainly needed. This is not practical in every case, but starting down this road with the willingness to refine would be a great start.

Third, subjects should be integrated with real life whenever possible. Even if our students do not end up flying on space ships to other planets or moons, how interesting is it to have the students really consider the phases of the moon, or why Alaskans have longer summer days and shorter winter nights than Texans. Math should be taught with business applications whenever possible, and the gas laws should be taught with car and bicycle tire pressures in mind. Students thrive on application and quickly tire of formulas in which they see no use in real life.

Christian schools often want students writing in complete sentences. But the real answer to, “What is the name of the star around which we revolve?” is the sun. That is it, the sun. It need not be, “The star around which we revolve is the sun.” It is not like that in college. We should insist on proper spelling and grammar and syntax, but the issue in math and science is the answer, short and sweet. Term papers in school and college, and qualifying exams in graduate school, require complete sentences and detailed explanations. But to understand the material, to learn and understand as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time, those running the humanities-driven classical schools must come to terms with the fact that their paradigm has little room in modern-day STEM.

School, among other things, trains students for college. A university math class does not consist of Socratic discussions. The push for a classical paradigm in secondary math and science classes runs counter to how these subjects are taught in college. Although integration is possible and should be implemented as much as possible in the years to come, teaching today’s quadrivium of math and the three basic sciences in a mold established for the humanities could slow down the teaching of these advanced subjects. As the cliché goes, we are trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Another consideration is what education is for. Is it to train the mind, to transfer the knowledge of a civilization from one generation to the next, or is it job training? The first two are the claims of classical education, but the last needs more emphasis. While classical education trains the mind to think, if all that can be done is to learn it and teach it, if the product of a classical colleges is a group of graduates who can teach in classical Christian schools as long as their finances hold out (and Christian education pays poorly), then we must admit the failure of the de-emphasis of job training.

The neo-classical movement is based largely on Dorothy Sayers’ essay The Lost Tools of Learning, and on the teachings of Douglas Wilson. Both are people steeped in the humanities. Physicians might complain that what they do is controlled by laws and by insurance companies. The same complaint is valid in classical education today. STEM teachers are supervised by headmasters and principals trained in the humanities. While in college, these school heads have presumably had college math for non-science majors and one year of laboratory science. Their classical paradigm fits for the humanities but not for STEM. And with so many of the best jobs these days generally based on STEM, it should be emphasized even in classical schools, but not taught with classical methodology.

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Published: Jun 23, 2017
Howard Merken
A Bible school graduate, Dr. Howard Merken also holds BS and MS degrees in chemistry from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a PhD in chemistry from Texas Tech University. He and his wife Casandra authored the now out-of-print Beyond Classical: The Next Step in Christian Education. A science professor turned Christian school math and science teacher, Dr. Merken is dedicated to teaching people how to use their minds for the glory of God.
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19 replies to this post
  1. The author is not aware of or rejects the extent to which modern and contemporary science purportedly teaching facts and proven theories is based on biases and stale paradigms that are not easily receptive to actual facts about reality and open to different interpretive schemata. Two examples in which contemporary science is not open to the latest and most accurate evidence and quite plausible alternative interpretive framework’s is evolution and cosmology. That is, science in no way has proven either evolution or the Copernican/Einsteinium cosmologies, but it treats these as “facts” and makes sure to keep out any evidence that would threaten the reigning paradigms. That the earth revolves around the sun might be true, but it surely is not a fact.

    • In homeschooling, you can rearrange the curricula to teach the relevant math along with the science being taught. This might not be possible all the time, but try the best you can. Teach Kepler’s law of planetary motion when you teach ellipses.

      Try doing labs as best you can in a homeschooling setting. Apologia sells kits that are integrated with their textbooks.

      Also, integrating examples in real life is another possibility. I’ve noticed, for example, that college students care a lot more about chemistry when they see how it relates to their own bodies. While talking about calcium, bringing up post-menopausal osteoporosis to directly relevant to half my students, because they know they’ll be there someday.

  2. This is an artificial problem. Just teach the subjects and enforce discipline. Standards have fallen so low. Let’s please stop looking for explanations for laziness and ignorance.

    Just teach all of the subjects at a high level, demand discipline and please stop basing education policy on whether or not children find math boring. Children find school boring because they are ignorant by nature and that is why our duty is to educate them.

    All well educated person knows math, physics, chemistry, biology, religion, literature, history, music, art and gymnastics. Specialization takes place naturally, but elementary and secondary education nowadays are suffering from low standards.

    Western children in 6th grade math learn what Polish and Bulgarian children learn in 3rd grade math. It’s nowadays possible to get 50% of the questions on a test wrong and still pass. Kids are taught to be proud of a mediocre 70% result. I could go on, but it is enough to say Poles, Koreans and many other countries that have maintained education standards don’t have this problem. Compare the textbooks and reading requirements in Eastern Europe to Western Europe, not to mention Korea or Japan. Compare the discipline. This is not hard.

  3. I really don’t see a problem with teaching STEM subjects in a Classical School setting… Use the Socratic teaching style with the appropriate subjects that are well served by that style…

    Math, science, engineering, and medicine can be taught in the ways that serve them well and both then can be complimentary of each other…

    The only “danger”, if it is that, is in worshipping Classical Schooling and placing it on a pedestal… And never adapting it to teach STEM…

  4. “Just teach the subjects and enforce discipline.” I’ve tried that. Do you have any idea of the educational mediocrity enforced in CHRISTIAN schools today? I’ve taught in five Christian schools. Three have closed. Not only do parents too often take the side of their children instead of the side of the teachers, but the administrators too often take the side of the parents, who pay tuition, instead of the side of the teachers. Neither of these two statements is true in every case, but it’s common enough to where I can say that just as everybody wants a hanging judge until they actually get one (according to my college criminal justice teacher), so everybody wants discipline until the teacher actually enforces it.

    The biggest problem of classical Christian schools that I see, besides the ever-present issue of finances, is the way that humanities-trained administrators are trying to implement a humanities-based paradigm in math and science in their schools. I’ve taught for 17 years, nine of them as a professor followed by eight as a Christian school teacher, after MANY years of science training. I heard once that their eyes don’t shine when they take my class, or (in an interview) that I should be able to teach algebra with a Socratic session. The problem is that the classical Christian school system is typically run by people trained in the humanities, and you cannot teach the humanities and STEM with similar pedagogies for the best results.

  5. When I write “enforce discipline” I do not mean that this task belongs to the teacher alone. Obviously there must be institutional and social support for discipline – and in most of the West it is indeed fast eroding. Mediocrity is likewise a problem in the West. Howevever neither of these problems have to do with the supposed difficulty of using the Socratic method to teach math. Both Plato and Aristotle wrote in praise of Pythagoras. Euclidian geometry is a variation of philosophy. Math itself is deductive reasoning and, in essence set theory, which is quite philosophical. Beyond all of the math we find in Plato, Socrates was a natural scientist before he turned to philosophy. There are many advocates of the “Socratic method” who mistakenly believe it is a round table, but it is good questioning. The problem is that most Western schools no longer teach math, but at best arithmetic while the sciences have been reduced to a kind of social hygiene class. None of this is the fault of educators, all of it the fault of parents and the political class that panders to the democratic whims. I would not single out any particular type of school – the problem runs much deeper.

  6. Now may I kindly ask those who don’t see the difficulty, if not absurdity, of trying to teach modern-day STEM using classical pedagogy, if they have ever taught a class in the details of, rather than the history of, math or science? It’s easy to philosophize from a distance.

  7. Certainly. I am a math teacher and I very much enjoy teaching the details of math. I certainly think traditional approaches to teaching math are preferable to what I have seen in modern math textbooks in the West. I admit my perspective as a Pole is different. Poland is of course home to some of the greatest mathematicians, so Polish math textbooks have traditionally been written by very lucid and well educated mathematicians. One of the two fathers of contemporary mathematics (set theory) was Poland’s W. Sierpinski so there is a great tradition there. Western textbooks are faulty. They avoid definitions and accuracy, have very few exercises and are generally too focused on practical use instead of theory. In terms of geometry they are often the exact opposite of what geometry since Euclid came to mean. They teach children how to measure things (the technical etymology of geometry) but not the relationship in nature between figures and angles (Euclidean geometry proper). I agree with you that round tables are bad for teaching math – but they are also bad for teaching the humanities. Round tables are not Socratic. Round tables make students feel good and lend them false confidence. Socrates made students feel bad and shook their confidence in their opinions in favor of knowledge. I attended Polish elementary school where chemistry, biology and physics were taught as separate subjects from 6th grade, as well as the humanities. Of course it was difficult, but school does not exist to be easy. I think you are right to point to certain problems, but their source is not the Christian or classical approach to education, but modern pedagogy. You are my superior in math and science given your education and experience, so I defer to you. That said I do speak from some experience.

    • Interesting comments, and well-taken, Peter. I guess I’ve only seen what we have in the US, plus the three and a half months I was a second grade student in the Netherlands. (My year in the Israeli classroom was for immigrants and foreigners learning Hebrew.) I’ve heard from people who have studied abroad, and I’ve certainly read about our system, so I know about our academic deficiencies.

  8. Grammar equals the scientific facts (memory). Logic equals the relationship between the facts, or analysis (problem working). Rhetoric equals the ability to marshal the facts and analysis into a convincing and functional project (research).

    Voila the scientrivium.

    • Well, Sue, that makes some sense.

      Here is a paragraph from a review of Littlejohn and Evans, “Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning”:

      “Interestingly, this book critiques Dorothy Sayers’ model of the Trivium. Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric are *not* stages of development; rather, they are subjects to be studied. Historically the trivium was never an overarching pedagogy that all other subjects fit into; the trivium was simply a part of the curriculum they studied. At its most basic level, grammar literally means grammar–nouns and verbs and such. Logic means logic, etc. Children do undergo developmental stages, but not necessarily in a clean-cut manner and not necessarily at precise ages. Rhetoric training ought to begin at a young age, with children reciting poetry and re-telling stories for example. Even if one does accept the ‘parrot-pert-poet’ model wholesale, that’s all fine and well, but it’s not what the trivium refers to.”

      I was alerted to this viewpoint while visiting a classical Christian school. My wife and I were told that all stages should use grammar, logic, and rhetoric, age-appropriate.

      I guess my biggest problem is that on job interviews in classical Christian schools, I’m told (now) to teach math and science using the Socratic method. Yet I have sat in on other teachers’ math and science classes a limited amount of times, and this isn’t done. My feeling is that the leadership of these schools, typically with backgrounds in the humanities, just does not understand math and science and how they should be taught, and in fact are normally taught, even as they try to fit these areas into a paradigm which works best for the humanities.

  9. But why even teach engineering? The top ten in my graduating high school class – the students who were strong in math and science exhausted out all the AP math and science classes – either entered medicine, pharmacy or engineering. Those that entered engineering had zero engineering courses before entering university. Most applied to a world-class engineering department at a public university, were accepted and excelled. Those that survived are now working as engineers or analysts.

  10. (continued)

    STEM is a fad. There, I said it. If anything, teach coding (if that goes with technology) and how to build apps. If you want to teach engineering in the elementary and secondary levels then probably start a robotics club. Better yet, teach the kids how a car or tractor works, bottom to top. Show them NASCAR, muscle cars; show them how a space shuttle survives earth’s atmosphere upon re-entering. This combines, math and physics. Those that helped make NASA the legendary program that it is mostly majored in engineering … And probably had zero engineering courses during their high school years. In other words, just teach math and science. The engineering will come, but later. It came for the engineers and astronauts that build NASA. It came for those students in my graduating class who concentrated on engineering while at university. There is no real rush besides training quality engineers and scientists.

  11. @ Howard: Do you think math and science, how it’s normally taught, is fine when integrated in a liberal education? Does it defeat the purpose of a classical liberal education? I personally don’t see an issue and, in another article on this site, think that forcing math and science in a Socratic form of dialogue, though elements can be used, is not conducive to the students and discipline itself. Teaching it like English or history is misguided since they are different disciplines; forcing it into a Socratic mold because the Socratic method is deemed superior is myopic.

    I do agree with the Sayer critique. I never saw the trivium as a pedagogy, but as subjects. The real meat was how to teach these subjects, what would be the content (from the novice to the most advanced) and how to make the students realize that each subject is connected to one another.

  12. The first comment above perhaps hints to the basic problem which is the felt by many conflict between faith and reason. As a catholic physicist I do really not understand modern people. There is nothing wrong with the trivium. There is nothing wrong with the quadrivium. The human person relates to the other human person by the trivium, but to nature by the quadrivium. Also the human person relates to God by the parable, which transcends both the trivium and the quadrivium. Perhaps the error of common people of modernity is their elevation of either trivium or quadrivium to absolute truth. But absolute truth can only be grasped by parable. Do not fear science and mathematics. Do not fear natural history. Do not fear metaphysics and theology. Enjoy literature. Children need parents who agree on moral principles. But moral cannot be learned without history, poetry, and religion. Do not listen to stupid parents. But I must admit that I do not work as a paid teacher.

  13. I am sorry. I cannot help. I think I disagree with the premise that modern science conflicts fundamentally with traditional knowledge. My own interest is teaching science and mathematics to grown up immigrants and refugees, so I do know about the said conflict between traditional knowledge and western ideas. My students struggle with that too. Who told us there was a conflict between faith and reason. Thanks.

  14. I am grateful for reading the article and participating in this discussion about science and math didactics so why not post a third brief comment? In the year 1725 Danish-Norwegian history professor Ludvig Holberg wrote the to this day popular comedy Erasmus Montanus about the shape of Earth controversy: is it round, oval, or flat as a pancake? From the physicist’s point of view Earth has an average curvature with a radius of about four thousand miles, so if you live in the village growing food from Earth in a walking distance from your field of say four miles Earth is pretty much flat, but if you circumnavigate Earth in a nautic or space vessel it is pretty much round or oval. As regards paleolithic humankind Creation was probably felt no more distant than say ten generations which far surpassed living memory, and we do need Biblical myth to understand creation if we must not be inferior to paleolithic culture. Natural and world history bridge the gap between the quadrivium and the trivium, but we cannot know it all and need parable. We will never know it all.

  15. Arguably the most difficult subjects to teach in math and science are probability theory and stochastic phenomena. Yes, you are right: Those modern subjects did not exist in any classical world view. Students and stupid parents want determinism. As regards paleolithic versus modern mankind: Of course average lifespan is higher in the modern world, where millions if not billions of people reach one hundred happy years. But maximum lifespan could arguably be higher in past paleolithic age. If anybody lived to one hundred and fifty years probably he or she was one lucky starvation free, disease free, violence free individual out of billions not so lucky other ancients. Today extremes of the probability distribution seem less likely because of better nutrition and all that pushing the average upwards but also general exposure to pollution, stress and overnutrition arguably pushing the theoretical maximum downwards. These are speculations, and we do not know the theoretical maximum human lifespan if any. Contrary to my point of view I must admit that the Bible says one hundred and twenty years, but modern people have actually reached beyond that, almost one hundred and thirty. Do not attempt to teach my point of view. Please prove me wrong.

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