How Reading Great Texts Prepares Minds for Liberal Education—and a Life of Leisure

I understand that despite the title of our panel, “How Reading Great Texts Prepares Minds for Liberal Education—and a Life of Leisure” or maybe because of it, I am supposed to, or maybe allowed to, speak about teaching science within a classical secondary school education. I have thought long and hard about the related issue at the university level, and I think that these thoughts should be applicable to secondary school education. Having said that, it is not an easy task. The reason it is not easy is that a classical education is supposed to teach one to study a given subject in a variety of ways, ideally in all possible ways. To be specific to the topic of science, it should inform us how to investigate nature in all of its aspects. In other words, in order to understand nature, we must explore competing views of it. These competing views include the material, the teleological, and the romantic to name a few, each of which has its own varieties and subvarieties. Modern science, however, teaches one approach, a sort of reductive materialism, to the exclusion of all other approaches, nay to the scorn of all other approaches. It is actually a bit more complex than that, but the approach to this complexity only reinforces the tunnel vision of modern science. For example, exploration of the status of mathematics in modern physics could put a dent into the characterization of modern physics as a sort of reductive materialism. One could pose questions such as: Do mathematical concepts, Schrödinger’s Equation for example, actually tell us about nature or do they hinder our access to nature, narrowing it perhaps? But investigating these sorts of questions if off limits in modern science, for such an investigation would undermine the tenants of modern science. In the best case, such questions are relegated to philosophy departments.

This might lead us to the solution of teaching students about the various aspects of modern reductive materialism and the alternatives. That solution, however, is no good, for it wouldn’t lead to students’ learning the modern science that they need to understand the world of modern science that we inhabit, not to mention as pre-requisites for more advanced courses. Besides, we expect our physicists to be able to do physics and our chemists and biologists to be able to do chemistry and biology respectively, and teaching them directly to question the premises of these fields will either get them to reject that teaching or to reject the fields. Either way, we wouldn’t be benefiting them.

We seem to be stuck—well, no one said that a life of leisure would be easy. So what do we do?

I have an answer for this, an answer that might be shocking to some, but likely not to this group of the classically trained. The answer is that we must lie. But we must lie, knowing that we are lying while carefully planting the seeds for students to learn the truth down the line. Perhaps the most precocious students will already start learning the truth in high school. At any rate, the best teachers should be able to teach on many levels at the same time.

Let me give you some examples of what I have in mind:

One of the most basic examples I would like to relate to you as a personal anecdote. It has to do with the difference between weight and mass. I guess that when we are very young, we know about weight, and this is before we know about mass. At any rate, that seems to have been the case with me. Somewhere along the line, I learned about mass and was told that it is the same as weight. I went along happily with such an understanding until sometime in high school my science teacher told me about the difference: weight is the force acting on a body in a specific gravitational system, like on the earth, the moon, or Jupiter (differing on all three), whereas mass is independent of any given gravitational system, a measure of an amount of stuff. I was indignant learning about the difference when before I had been told that weight and mass were the same. I asked my teacher, “Why did you tell us that these are the same when they are really different?”, and my teacher responded, “Because we would have just confused you if we had told you the difference before you were ready.” I bought that explanation at the time, and today it still seems to be the right one. Of course, this example suffers from the problem that it is aimed to expand the understanding of modern science, but not to go beyond the framework of modern science. To go beyond, perhaps one could discuss the abstraction of the concept of mass and the fact that the concept of mass utterly homogenizes material, which itself does not exist without form except as an abstraction. Mass is a wonderful concept in that it allows Newtonian prediction together with Newtonian homogenization, a pair that seems to go hand in hand. For that matter, such a reductive homogenization might require a revealed religion, which might encompass the understanding that finding the simple laws of nature is akin to learning about God’s creation. But, perhaps, I am wandering too far from this simple example and one of the lies we must teach our students at a given point in their development.

Let me give you another example: the teachings of atomism and continuum reductionism. It is a truism today that matter consists of elementary particles that form protons and neutrons, which together with electrons make up atoms, which bind together to form the chemicals that exhibit the chemical properties in the manifest world. This table is not the true table, as Sir Arthur Eddington might say. The true table consists of mainly empty space with a few regions of atomic nuclei and electrons moving around in the void. That may be, but let’s say that we burn the table (whether wood or not) and want to understand via thermodynamics the energy in it. We will use concepts like energy and heat capacity and entropy and the like. These are all continuum concepts, which in fact have no need for atoms and their ilk. They stand within the realm of the infinitely divisible, while in our minds, we keep them together with the atomic notion that there is an end to divisibility. Have we lied when we teach our students about atomism? How much we should raise to the fore in our students’ minds this major inconsistency, this lie of modern science, depends on the student and the timing. However, we can at least bring up the incompatibility of the pairing, planting the seeds of truth for the students.

Now, a third and last example: everyone knows that white light, say from the sun, consist of component colors and that the light corresponding to those colors is differentially refrangible. <show Newton’s prism, slide 2>.

At least, this is what we are typically taught. Is this true? Well, this schematic cannot be completely correct. Here is perhaps a more accurate one <show next slide, slide 3>.

At any rate, we are all used to seeing such things to such an extent that they are engrained in our minds. These are lies. I will show you in a minute why on two different levels. However, I first want to say that there is an alternative theory, that of Goethe. In fact, there was a tremendous battle between Goethe and Newton for the theory of color at the beginning of the 19th century. Spoiler alert: Newton won. But all we need to do is look around us, following a few lines of Goethe’s doctrine of colors (for doctrine is what he called it, not theory), to see that while Goethe lost the polemic, he was not necessarily wrong, and in fact, he was, I would contend, right. Truth doesn’t always win. Goethe’s alternative doctrine to Newton’s is that white is itself a pure color that is not simply made of a combination of different colors. In fact, the representations of Newton’s doctrine that I showed are utterly misleading. <show Goethe’s diagram, slide 4>


This is a more accurate drawing by Goethe and shows that Newton cherry picks the place of where the light shows the most color in order to present a diagram that bolsters his doctrine, whereas in fact the situation is much more complex than Newton acknowledges. In Goethe’s doctrine, the two elemental colors are blue and yellow. These are formed by mixtures of brightness and darkness. Blue, in fact is formed by imposing brightness on darkness and yellow by imposing darkness on brightness. You can see this here via the results of an experiment that I show in this slide <show slide, slide 5>, but you don’t need to believe me, as you can do the simple experiment yourself.

Here, the brightness of the flame over a dark background leads to blue, which you can see on the edges in this photograph on the left. On the right, the darkness of the flame—it is turbid after all– on a bright background leads to yellow, but not to blue. At any rate, Goethe created the color wheel <next slide, slide 6> with the opposites on the three pairsstill used in color theory today: red-green; orange-blue; and yellow-purple.

The two doctrines are incompatible, and yet both seem to be right. But while we should expose the students both to Newton’s and Goethe’s theories, perhaps we shouldn’t stress too much their incompatibilities. Let’s not tell the students about this incompatibility directly. We don’t want to confuse them. We only want to let them mull around for a while with two alternative doctrines of colors.

In speaking of my proposed approach of lying while being aware of our lying, I have introduced a second direction which I now want to make explicit. It is aspects of the history of science, which should be included in science courses within a classical secondary school education. After all, the inventors of Planck’s quanta and Einstein’s relativity are part and parcel of the theories they developed. A third aspect that I can only touch upon is contemporary happenings in science and technology, especially, the ethics of science and technology. Surely, contemporary issues like CRISPR babies and Facebook’s use of our personal data can be included in our science courses.

Finally, a fourth and large direction is what I dismissed as a solution in science classes, but that can be included in other courses. Those different approaches to nature that I mentioned at the beginning can be addressed in non-science courses, like what is designated at Great Hearts as “Human Letters”. <show Blake’s Newton, slide 7>

Here is a print of Blake’s Newton, a criticism of the obliviousness to the world of Newton and the Newtonians. All of the color of nature around him is ignored in the sterile white light of the mathematical diagrams, the aim of Newton’s undeterred focus. Newton’s seven elemental colors are lost on Newton. There is no color in Newton’s doctrine of colors. Here is something from Blake’s “Song of Los” <show slide, slide 8>, perhaps a mistaken approach to counter Newtonian atomistic homogenization, one that Goethe would scorn, but nevertheless is worthwhile to consider. Observe the two youths running in some uncertain direction.

Thus the terrible race of Los & Enitharmon gave

Laws & Religions to the sons of Har binding them more

And more to the Earth : closing and restraining:

Till a Philosophy of Five Senses was complete

Urizen wept & gave it unto the hands of Newton & Locke

Destruction of imagination, obfuscation of our youths’ deepest longings by modern science. The poem continues, and I leave it to you to seek out the rest of it.