From theistic science to naturalistic science, part 5

Part 4 is here. Chapter Four on the Goals of Science Education describes how Maxwell and Huxley each volunteered to teach at the Working Men’s College but for very different reasons.

p. 119 – This idea that a religious intent is incompatible with science education is a major part of the educational side of modern scientific naturalism. The claim is that the goals of science teaching are incompatible with theist religion.

We will see that the values and goals of science education for both theists and naturalists found common ground in the classrooms of the working classes.

p. 130 – An education in science was thus a crucial part of rescuing the working classes from the linked dangers of ignorance and political radicalism.

p. 133 – Despite his many projects, Maxwell devoted a great deal of effort to working-class education over the course of his career. Why? Part of this was certainly noblesse oblige from his role as a Scottish Laird. He had a genuine sense of a need to make the most of his elevated social role.

p. 134 – Upon his evangelical conversion, Maxwell committed himself to live as an instrument of God’s will, and he seems to have latched onto teaching as an expression of that. His feeling of everyday work being part of a divine plan were quite strong.

And Maxwell had high expectations for the results of his science teaching. Practical benefit and more efficient engineering were useful side effects of science but they were not the important parts of science education. In his inaugural lecture at Aberdeen he declared that science education helped grow “that well ordered steady frame of mind and manners which belongs to educated men and by which they are distinguished from the undisciplined.”

p. 135 – Maxwell did not expect his students to dedicate their lives to science, but rather to take the mental and moral benefits that came from learning science and apply those to all professions.

p. 136 – [Maxwell:] “We are daily receiving fresh proofs that the popularisation of scientific doctrines is producing as great an alteration in the mental state of society as the material applications of science are effecting in its outward life.” This was certainly very impressive, but he worried that this influence had created a situation in which people would believe anything as long as it sounded scientific.

p. 137 – [Maxwell] was very concerned about those who claimed science as a weapon in favor of revolutionary politics or against Christianity, and explicitly framed his own science teaching as a remedy for those dangers.

p. 138 – Huxley’s interest in education stemmed from a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the existing school system in Britain, which he saw as being particularly unfair to the working classes. At best, it was inaccessible to them; at worst, it actively reinforced their subservience to an archaic authoritarian social structure. He felt victimized personally by this system, having been closed out of the Oxbridge system and its resulting career boost.

p. 139 – Adrian Desmond has argued that Huxley fashioned a low-class Dissenting image of science: no priesthood had “access to her deepest secrets”: they were accessible to anyone.

Overturning the British class system and replacing it with a social meritocracy became an enduring theme for Huxley’s career.

For Huxley, the class system’s chief weapon was the traditional British education. Its greatest sin was it instillation of blind, unthinking worship of authority.

p. 141 – Huxley said a classical education was fine, as long as you had no interest in learning anything new. For that, you needed science. … “The mediaeval view was that all knowledge worth having was explicitly or implicitly contained in various ancient writings; in the Scriptures, in the writings of the greater Greeks, and those of the Christian Fathers.”

This was in contrast to his vision of a modern university, which embraced science and the values of intellectual progress.

p. 145 – For Huxley, the beneficial effects of science education came from encountering facts. … It was the conditioning of the mind to deal with, apprehend, and appreciate facts that was valuable. He credited learning anatomy as the best way to gain these skills.

p. 147 – The traditional British liberal education aimed at the formation of character, and Huxley was unwilling to concede that ground to his enemies. He argued that science could be a moral discipline as easily as literature was. Moral lessons could follow from direct encounters with facts and the laws of nature.

p. 148 – [For Huxley] The breaking point, however, was Christian doctrine. No “theological dogmas” whatsoever could be allowed in the classroom. The imposition of belief via authority was absolutely unacceptable.

Huxley hardly hid his opinion that science education would pry the misled away from the authority of the established Church, but he certainly saw room for the survival of religion. He saw his science as a danger only to the flimsy, self-serving doctrines of antiquated theology.

p. 149 – Both [Maxwell and Huxley] were interested in training the working classes to think about truth, but Maxwell’s had a capital T — scientific truth was mainly practice for thinking about the truths of God, and the truths of man as laid down by God. Huxley’s truth, on the other hand, had no divine pedigree and its revelation was reliant on messy, human common sense.

p. 150 – The social benefits traditionally associated with natural theology gradually became co-opted over the second half of the nineteenth century by those espousing a purely naturalistic cosmology.

p. 151 – … the Working Men’s College show how science education brought Christians and agnostics together. Rather than being a wedge between the religious and the secular, science education was a glue that bound them together in a common cause.

p. 152 – Advocates of the new professional science certainly aimed for complete detachment from the old ways, but for some decades their attitudes toward education fit neatly with the religious frameworks of Maxwell and his allies.

Part 6 is here.