Reinventing Science Education in the 21st Century
Government and business leaders are worried about STEM education. There is a growing shortage in the United States of teachers and students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Hundreds of million are invested in public-private initiatives to retrain STEM teachers and to recruit and prepare new STEM teachers. The initiatives rightly recognize the importance of STEM professionals to our future economic wellbeing, environmental health, and national security.1 However, after six decades of enormous public and private investments in science and math educational reforms, perhaps we need to rethink our approach.
Alfred North Whitehead, one of the twentieth century’s great mathematicians, turned philosopher and educational reformer, provides a useful analysis of our educational malaise. Whitehead matriculated at Cambridge University in 1880, where he studied mathematics and physics. He went on to be a fellow at Cambridge, where he tutored Bertrand Russell and later collaborated with his former pupil in writing Principia Mathematica. In 1924, at the age of 63, Whitehead crossed the Atlantic to teach philosophy at Harvard University and began a remarkable second career publishing several seminal books on science, religion, and education.
In The Aims of Education (1929), Whitehead describes a three-stage cyclical process for effective education. Powerful pedagogy always begins with falling in love, a romance with the subject that the teacher must contagiously embody. This initial inspiration, fascination, awe, and reverence are the first motion. One cannot expect students to dedicate hours of tedious study without catching this infectious enthusiasm.
The second stage is that of precision. Once their spirit is stirred, students must begin the disciplined and difficult work of critical study and observation, the careful weighing of complex evidence, through which we expand our understanding. The teacher must act as compassionate guide and insistent gadfly at this stage, challenging students to resist lazy and sloppy thinking.
The third stage is that of generalization. According to Whitehead, “It is a return to romanticism with the added advantage of classified ideas and relevant technique.”2 This is the creative and synthetic moment in which students discover meaningful patterns and purposeful holism.
In Whitehead’s view, these three stages—romance, precision, and generalization—are both cyclical and parallel operators, not simply a linear progression. These principles can guide the structure of a single class, the flow of a semester, or the praxis of a lifetime.
Students are awash in “meaningless” factoids, quickly learned and forgotten, that appear irrelevant to their lives. “The result of teaching small parts of a large number of subjects is the passive reception of disconnected ideas, not illumined with any spark of vitality,” writes Whitehead. “Let the main ideas which are introduced into a child’s education be few and important, and let them be thrown into every combination possible.”3
Other educational luminaries have made similar observations. Maria Montessori talked of the danger of teaching “dry facts.”4 Such teachers she called “the vivisectionists of the human personality.” Vartan Gregorian recently echoed these thoughts in reflecting on the crisis in higher education:
The fundamental problem underlying the disjointed curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge itself. Higher education has atomized knowledge by dividing it into disciplines, subdisciplines, and sub-subdisciplines—breaking it up into smaller and smaller unconnected fragments of academic specialization, even as the world looks to colleges for help in integrating and synthesizing the exponential increases in information brought about by technological advances. The trend has serious ramifications. Understanding the nature of knowledge, its unity, its varieties, its limitations, and its uses and abuses is necessary for the success of democracy… We must reform higher education to reconstruct the unity and value of knowledge.5
The solution to “disconnected ideas,” “dry facts,” and the “fragmentation of knowledge” may well be in recognizing that the history of the universe, the evolution of life, and the rise of human civilizations are in fact a unified story and best taught that way. Physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker called this new history of the nature and self “the most important discovery of modern science.”6 Some call it “the Epic of Evolution,” others “Big History.” It is also most certainly “Our Common Story,” because for the first time humans have an origin “myth” that transcends all of our regional, religious, and tribal differences.7 “Creation myths are powerful,” writes historian David Christian in his book Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, “because they speak to our deep spiritual, psychic, and social need for a sense of place and a sense of belonging.”8
This Big History curriculum has been tried with great success by a few pioneering colleges and disparate high schools.9 The advantages of teaching general science and history as an epic narrative are many. The integrative story provides a context and mnemonic for understanding and retaining the many details of science and history.10 This approach inspires students to appreciate the awesome grandeur of the new sciences and the human adventure. It helps students to understand the unique environmental, political, economic, and technological challenges of the twenty-first century global civilization. This approach engages students in profound questions of meaning and purpose, virtues and values, in ways that are respectful of science, supportive of thoughtful religion, and conducive to civil societies.
Like any good story, the Epic of Evolution is open to multiple and divergent interpretations, so long as we are first faithful to the “text,” in this case the new “Book of Nature” put together in bits and pieces by many scientists working in diverse fields. The dominant interpretation of science in intellectual circles today can be called Stoic and Existentialist, as represented by the following quote by Bertrand Russell, the other mathematician turned philosopher, who parted ways with his Cambridge tutor. Russell writes:
That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.11
Does the scaffolding of truths as discovered by contemporary science really put our transcendent aspirations “on the firm foundation of unyielding despair”? Of course, this is not a scientific statement and could never be proven as such. This view of science is prima facie in conflict with the spiritual intuitions of most of humanity and thus creates the perceptions of a necessary and self-defeating conflict between science and religion. This perception undermines both public understanding of science and the necessary evolution of religion. This Stoic and Existentialist interpretation of science is also disproven by the actual lives of scientists, who are generally dedicated to noble purposes and a lot of hard work. Perhaps thinking of his former student, Whitehead wryly observed the inherent irony of Russell’s interpretation. “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving that they are purposeless,” writes Whitehead, “constitute an interesting subject for study.”12
As intellectual history would have it, Bertrand Russell ended up with a much larger “market share” in the academy than that of his former tutor and collaborator, but science, religion, and the world are no better off for it.13 The purposeless and meaningless reading of science and history is one plausible interpretation of Big History, but it is not likely to win many converts to STEM careers.
In a statement announcing new educational initiatives, President Obama correctly observed that “passionate educators with issue expertise can make all the difference.” An integrated understanding of the universe, evolution, and the accelerating drama of human civilization provide the content, context, and perspective necessary to excite students and their teachers. Big History introduces students to the basic STEM disciplines and provides enough passion for a Greek wedding. Our Common Story is also a key to meeting the challenges of our common future.
After decades of disappointing educational outcomes, it’s time to work some educational alchemy with a real philosopher’s stone—as proposed by Alfred North Whitehead and others. Centuries of scholarship and scientific research have made us privy to a new and true creation myth, which explains who we are and how we got here. Nothing could be more romantic, more precise, and more general. We now possess the means to move our students with a sense of awe and hunger for a fuller understanding of the universe and themselves. STEM careers demand a long, often difficult discipleship that requires significant romantic commitment on the part of students, teachers, and professionals. Big History is the first step in STEM literacy in the world. Such literacy and expertise will be needed in great supply to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.
1 Office of the Press Secretary, “President Obama Expands ‘Educate to Innovate’ Campaign for Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education,” White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/president-obama-expands-educate-innovate-campaign-excellence-science-technology-eng.
2 Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education (New York: Free Press,  1957), 19.
3 Ibid., 2.
4 Maria Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential (Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 1989).
5 Vartan Gregorian, “Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge,” Chronicle of Higher Education 50, no. 39 (2004).
6 Whitehead tried to capture something this emerging epic in his philosophical, historical, and metaphysical reflections, but he did not have the benefit the many ensuing and accelerating decades of scientific advance. The two most important works are Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Free Press,  1967). and ———, Process and Reality (New York: Free Press, 1978). The later is profound, but difficult. The former is accessible, but dated. See also ———, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press,  1967).
7 Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker, Die Geschichte Der Natur (Frankfurt: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1962).
8 David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 2.
9 A recent survey suggests that “Big History” is taught at 32 institutions by 28 professors (or teams) in 7 countries. See Barry Rodrigue and Dan Stasko, “A Big History Directory,” World History Connected 6, no. 3 (2009). A substantial literature is evolving about this content and pedagogy. See Metanexus Institute.
10 History should really be understood as an extension of the sciences as it seeks first to be factual and evidence based, even though it also involves humanistic disciplines and is inevitably implicated in ideological biases. When human history is approached in the context of Our Common Story, it is less about the rise and fall of civilizations and more about global change processes including the rise of agriculture and the spread of infectious diseases, tool-making and technology, paleoanthropology and cognitive neurosciences, the nature and evolution of human conflict, the nature and evolution of human cooperation, the rise of markets and global capitalism, the growth in human populations and the human impact on the environment. As “history,” Big History is also inevitably implicated in ideological and disciplinary biases. Effective pedagogy welcomes these debates about these interpretations, so long as they are factually based.
11 Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1917), 47-48.
12 Alfred North Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Princeton: Princeton University P ess, 1929), 12.
13 David Christian addresses this question of interpretation in the introduction of Maps of Time (2004). He writes: “Metanarratives exist, they are powerful, and they are potent. We may be able to domesticate them; but we will never eradicate them. Besides, while grand narratives are powerful, subliminal grand narratives can be even more powerful. Yet a ‘modern creation myth’ already exists just below the surface of modern knowledge. It exists in the dangerous form of poorly articulated and poorly understood fragments of modern knowledge that have undermined traditional accounts of reality without being integrated into a new vision of reality. Only when a modern creation myth has been teased out into a coherent story will it really be possible to take the next step: of criticizing it, deconstructing it, and perhaps improving it. In history as in building, construction must precede deconstruction. We must see the modern creation myth before we can criticize it. And we must articulate it before we can see it.” p. 10.
Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Grassie, William J. Metanexus Institute, https://www.metanexus.net.
Gregorian, Vartan. “Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge.” Chronicle of Higher Education 50, no. 39 (2004): B12.
Montessori, Maria. To Educate the Human Potential. Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 1989.
Rodrigue, Barry, and Dan Stasko. “A Big History Directory.” World History Connected 6, no. 3 (2009).
Russell, Bertrand. Mysticism and Logic. London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1917.
Secretary, Office of the Press. “President Obama Expands “Educate to Innovate” Campaign for Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (Stem) Education.” White House, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/president-obama-expands-educate-innovate-campaign-excellence-science-technology-eng.
von Weizsaecker, Carl Friedrich. Die Geschichte Der Natur. Frankfurt: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1962.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: Free Press,  1967.
———. Process and Reality. New York: Free Press, 1978.
———. Science and the Modern World. New York: Free Press,  1967.
———. The Aims of Education. New York: Free Press,  1957.
———. The Function of Reason. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1929.