Social Education 57(7), 1993, pp. 384-387
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
The Importance of the History of Science
The history of science is the most important yet neglected field of study in modern education. Not only are courses in the history of science infrequently offered, but college and high school textbooks describe the scientific revolution and the history of science in one or two pages, usually as a prelude to discussion of the Enlightenment. We can find reference to subsequent major scientific discoveries or achievements scattered throughout most textbooks. High school and college textbooks, and the courses that use them as guides for describing the history of the modern world, provide neither an understanding of the global effects of science on the modern world nor an explanation of the fundamental nature of scientific thinking and how that thinking has altered the modern world.
This neglect is astonishing considering that modern science has been, since the seventeenth century, the dominant intellectual force behind the development of the modern world. During the scientific revolution, the founders of modern science created the methodological practices and epistemological assumptions necessary to acquire an understanding of how nature works. They thereby created a vision of an orientation to the world. Moreover, since the seventeenth century, scientists and the institutions they represent have worked at presenting to us an accurate description of how nature works. In the process, science has defined and redefined nature. Nature has a history in the history of science, and our contemporary views of nature are determined by science.
Scientific discoveries of how nature works have also led to the tremendous technological advances of the twentieth century. Anyone hoping for a career in any technological or professional field must understand at least the basic structures of the scientific vision of nature. The influence of science on society, however, goes beyond affecting those interested in a professional or technological career. For example, children must learn mathematics not simply to be able to balance a checkbook (although that is often the reason offered to students when they ask, Why mathematics?), but to be able to understand the language of science. Indeed, mathematics is the language of science. It is also, as Galileo proclaimed, the language of nature (1957, 238).
Learning any language means learning a particular orientation to reality, a certain set of values; mathematics is no different. Mathematics forms the basis of truth in science and society; as René Descartes remarked at the dawn of the scientific revolution, only that which can be measured can be claimed as an absolutely valid fact (1978, 179). The influence of science and its language, mathematics, on society is obvious: we quantify everything. We are a society obsessed with numbers. Graphs, charts, board feet, percentage points, and polls-all proclaiming to say something about our world and all saying something about us-accompany magazine and newspaper articles, political speeches, and business analyses. Quantifying information offers us a certain kind of understanding and a certain sense of control over the complex events that take place around us.
Scientific philosophy influenced even the Constitution and political theory of the United States; Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson were influenced by scientific theories and patterns of thought. Darwin's theory of evolution has influenced political and moral thought since its publication. It is, however, unnecessary to outline the innumerable ways science has formed (as it informs) modern society. From the idea of an infinite universe to the theory of relativity, science has transformed, and is transforming, our world. Science is to society today what the Catholic church was to society in the High Middle Ages: it creates the guiding principles that shape perceptions of reality. Not to study this shaping and molding of our vision of the world is to comprehend minimally both ourselves and our world. One cannot think of modern history without thinking of science.
At some level, our educational system knows this; all schools and universities are required to offer courses in history and science. From elementary school through college, students are taught the scientific conception of reality. These courses, however, do not cover the history of science. Courses in science are designed to impart to students the modern scientific conceptions of nature, how nature works, and how humans can control nature. Science courses in the modern educational curriculum are much like courses the Church taught on Christianity in the Middle Ages: they are not critical but designed to bring students into the ethos of the scientific (and therefore the modern) world. Courses on science teach the modern, scientific way of perceiving reality; they intend to foster and advance the scientific perspective.
A course on the history of science, however, should have a completely different objective. It should not be designed to present students with the truth about how nature works, nor should it inculcate students into the scientific community. Rather, the starting point for courses on the history of science must make young people aware of the socio-historical forces that have helped form their perceptions, and must offer them an intellectual basis for critically analyzing the perceptions they assume to be absolutely true. Then they might respond to the modern world rather than be a particular response of the modern world. Unlike science courses that offer an answer to how nature works, the project of a history of science course is to approach science itself as a question (and an ongoing question at that), not an answer. This is necessary because, living in an age of science, we assume about science what the people of the Middle Ages assumed about the Church-that science is an answer (indeed, it is often the answer). To understand the truths of science without understanding that such truths have a history is to be absorbed in a perspective uncritically. We must demonstrate that science is a human project that liberates and restricts, has strengths and weaknesses, influences society, and is in turn influenced by society.
Teaching the Scientific Revolution
Many of the ways science influences society involve new discoveries for curing diseases, breakthroughs in particular fields, and, on rare occasions, the destruction of a basic paradigm (an outstanding theoretical conception about the elemental nature of reality) and the formation of a new one (Kuhn 1970). We read or hear about the new discoveries-especially if they have important consequences for human health-in the press or in news broadcasts. Discoveries less immediately important to the population are outlined and argued in scientific journals. Eventually they are taught in schools and universities. Generally, science courses teach the discoveries and advances of our knowledge of the universe. History of science courses, however, should not emphasize new discoveries, theories, or even paradigm shifts. They should be used instead as springboards into discussion about the values, assumptions, and thinking about reality that underlie the discoveries and theories, and as guides for understanding how science has influenced social, political, and moral values.
Let me offer an example. Isaac Newton was one of the great pioneers of modern science. His mechanical explanation of the working of the universe and his discovery of the first law of motion and the law of gravity were certainly some of the most significant scientific achievements in the history of science. Others include Einstein's theory of relativity, Heisenberg's ideas on indeterminacy, Darwin's theory of natural selection, and the recent development in chaos theory (Gleick 1987). All have created a new vision of nature and how it works. It is, however, less the laws and models themselves than what the laws and models say (and assume) about reality, and the thinking behind the creation of the new laws, that we need to discuss.
Ultimately, it serves little purpose for students to know that Isaac Newton, following the pioneering genius of Johannes Kepler and Galileo, derived the first law of motion. This fact, his discovery, has been known in our culture so long that high school students know intuitively that an object will continue in motion or remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. To stress this and other facts about the history of science as statements of the gradual progress of truth only substantiates contemporary thought structures. Emphasizing the acquisition of information as the goal of a course, a teacher assumes that information is most important. The teacher also assumes that one particular belief system (the one the teacher assumes as correct) is important. Asking students simply to absorb information is asking them to adopt a particular way of seeing-to think in a particular way.
I am not saying we should ignore the history of science's data, but it should not be our primary focus. It is more important that students realize that the first law of motion presented Newton's contemporaries with an entirely new way to see and live in the world-one that departed radically from prior orientations to reality. Our students must know that the first law of motion runs counter to the immediate experience individuals initially have with nature, and that there is no object in the world that continues in a straight line without stopping; all things in our world are acted upon by outside forces. Our students must know that Newton's science indicates the growth in the West of a new theory of knowledge, a new relationship to nature, and a new conception of our place in nature that has fundamentally altered our world. Our students must realize that the absorption of these theories has altered their orientation to reality and hindered alternative conceptions of reality, and how it has done so. In other words, it is important that they become engaged in the thinking they are studying; they must begin to understand what it is to think scientifically.
The often unarticulated but always assumed theoretical and metaphysical presuppositions behind the theories and discoveries of science make up another important aspect of a history of science course. The basic presuppositions of science lie (1) in its methodological principles, (2) in its fundamental view of matter and the interrelationships between matter, and (3) in its epistemological beliefs or conceptions of what constitutes knowledge and how to acquire it (Burtt 1952). These basic structures were first developed during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century by Francis Bacon (1980, 1983), Galileo (1957, 1967), Descartes (1978), Newton (1974), and others. The works of these scientists reveal the intellectual foundation upon which scientific activity rests.
This foundation remained basically unchanged until the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century when the development of relativity and quantum mechanics began to raise questions about some of the earlier beliefs. Because these changes were alterations of scientists' fundamental perceptions, they too are important to study. Perhaps the most significant scientific statement of the nineteenth century was Darwin's theory of natural selection. Not only did his book revolutionize the concepts of evolutionary biology, the implications of his evolutionary theory influenced political, economic, and moral thought to this day (Darwin 1892). Darwin's book is accessible to students, and reading selections from it would offer them a foundation for understanding scientific thinking and the effects his theories have had on the modern world. It must be remembered that in all these cases the major structures behind scientific activity are not simple theories-they are the dynamic factors (values) that help determine how scientists relate to and approach the world, how they do experiments, and what types of hypotheses they form about the world.
The metaphysical principles of science influence the ontological orientation of scientists to the world; they guide scientific thinking and activity. Science is, after all, a particular way of thinking about reality, and major developments in science are new models for thinking about nature. The consequences of new scientific models for understanding nature are not confined to the scientific community but extend into the social realm. Thus, studying the principles, models, and new discoveries, and the thought behind them, will lead students into the thinking that initiated and continues to guide scientific activity; it will also offer them a basis for understanding the historical development of the modernity.
No absolute rules are available for ferreting out the thinking behind scientific discoveries. I believe it is necessary, however, to approach a course on the history of science by beginning and ending with primary sources. Secondary sources can offer a perspective on the scientific revolution (Debus 1980; Westfall 1977; Kearney 1971; Cohen 1960, 1985; Koyré 1957) and the general history of science (Whitehead 1925; Kline 1953), but I believe that such texts should be used only as background reading. Primary sources in the early history of science are not as difficult to read as one might think and do not require a highly specialized technical expertise to understand. Scientific writings (especially the early writings) are often attempts to spread a particular philosophy, a new perspective, or a new mode of thinking to colleagues and the educated public. This was certainly the intent of the pioneers of modern science. Many recent and modern scientists have also written texts explaining their approaches to the study of nature, their philosophies, and the types of thinking they engage in as scientists, any number of which could be used in a history of science course (Heisenberg 1958, 1967; Hawking 1988; Thomas 1980; Eisley 1970; Schrödinger 1956, 1964).
Reading primary sources is only the first step. When teaching with a primary source, I believe, the essential part of the course should involve classroom discussion. My favorite approach to discussion of a text has three steps: First I try to elicit from my students the theory, discovery, scientific law, methodological statement, or theoretical model expressed by the author. Next, I ask them to explain in their own terms what that theory, law, or model says. I find it helpful at this point to have them attempt to draw the idea (stick figures are fine). This initially strikes them as strange. Draw an idea? They quickly learn, however, that all scientific and philosophic theories and ideas are simply human conceptions about the interrelationships of things in the world. If they can draw the idea, they can understand it. Finally, we explore the assumptions behind the idea and the implications about reality contained in the idea. At this point I try to get the students to educe possible consequences of holding a particular idea. For example, underlying Newton's cosmology is the assumption that the universe is like an enormous machine. While that theory is certainly part of the history of science, what are the possible consequences (positive and negative) of adhering to it? How might the idea of a mechanical universe be spread beyond planetary motion to encompass human and animal actions? Has medicine been advanced by adhering to a mechanical conception of the body? The questions are endless.
The instructive process outlined above is fundamentally grounded in my own assumptions about teaching: (1) that education is educare, and (2) that the means to drawing forth is Socratic-questions and dialogue inspire creative and involved thought. It is really questions, and not answers or information, that should form the basis of a course on the history of science. Questions place the burden of thinking on the students themselves. Students become uneasy when faced with questions not immediately answerable, and they are then forced to think and learn for themselves. Questions create a tension within the minds of students and help force thinking and a personal involvement in the material. Questions precipitate dialogue. Asking one question after another about any of the primary writings of science fosters critical analysis and allows students to draw out the meanings and assumptions behind science for themselves. Education is educare.
For example, one way to teach what the scientific revolution entailed is to discuss Newton's first law of motion. What does it mean that all objects will remain at rest or continue in motion unless acted upon by an outside force? Is it true? Everyone has noticed that inanimate objects do not move unless acted upon by an outside force, but has anyone ever seen an object remain continually in motion? What type of framework or assumption is Newton making about reality before he states his theory? Is he assuming the existence of an ideal world? If no such world exists, if all objects in our world are acted upon by outside forces, how could Newton develop the first law of motion? And what does this say about the development of science? Could it be that science began with the theoretical creation of an ideal reality? Did Copernicus have to deny sense experience, as Galileo pointed out it was necessary to do (1967, 256), in order to accept his theory that the earth moved around the sun?
Thousands of such questions exist. Teachers could outline the Copernican theory and ask similar questions to get students thinking about the abstract theoretical nature of science. Students might read Bacon's (1980, 24) explanation of the importance of experiments and then question the premises and prejudices behind Bacon's ideas. Why did Bacon urge the use of experiments? What exactly are scientific experiments and how are they used to eliminate personal biases? What are the biases inherent in setting up and using experiments? Or, students could study a modern scientist's involvement in and relationship with his studies (Thomas 1980; Eisley 1970), or the explanations they offer about their fields (Schrödinger 1956, 1964). This would provide students with examples of what it is like to live and think as a scientist.
In my own experience with teaching the history of science to both college and high school students, the students' initial reaction is frequently resistance. Most students find the reading a challenge (this is good) and the relentless questioning about what each statement means frustrating. Those accustomed to believing that thinking is memorizing new information often get frustrated ("Just tell us what we have to know!" is the common refrain). I usually ignore their complaints: "Confusion is the first step to learning," I tell them, "at least when you are confused your minds are not static." Most students eventually become aware of their critical and creative growth, their understanding of how the world is put together grows, and they become fascinated learners.
Allen, Garland E. Life Science in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.Bacon, Francis. The Great Instauration and The New Atlantis. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1980._____. The New Organon. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1983. Burtt, E. A. The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1952.Cohen, I. Bernard. The Birth of the New Physics. New York: Doubleday, 1960.Coleman, William. Biology in the Nineteenth Century: Problems of Form, Function and Transformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976.Darwin, Charles. The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selections. New York: Appleton, 1892.Debus, Allen. Man and Nature in the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.Descartes, René. "Meditations on First Philosophy" and "Discourse on Method." In The Philosophical Works of Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.Eiseley, Loren C. The Firmament of Time. New York: Viking, 1970.Galileo, Galilei. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967._____. "The Starry Messenger." In Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo. New York: Doubleday, 1957.Gleick, James. Chaos. New York: Viking Penguin Books, 1987.Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Philosophy. New York: Harper and Row, 1962. _____. Across the Frontiers. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.Kearney, Hugh. Science and Change. New York: World University Library, 1971.Kline, Morris. Mathematics in Western Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.Koyré, Alexandre. From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.Newton, Isaac. Newton's Philosophy of Nature: Selections from His Writings. New York: Hafner Press, 1974.Schrödinger, Erwin. Expanding Universes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956._____. My View of the World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964.Thomas, Lewis. The Lives of a Cell. New York: Penguin Books, 1980.Westfall, Richard S. The Construction of Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1953.Russell H. Hvolbek is a teacher at the Buckley School in Los Angeles, California 91413.