I present for your consideration science in primary and secondary education. Advocates consider funding for this education to be crucial… for America to not fall behind other countries, for us to create new and improved treatments for diseases, for us to find better and cleaner sources of energy, for us to have faster computers, etc. Many of these are relevant and worthwhile considerations, but they are practical aims. In this view, science is merely a means to an end.
The pragmatic approach often continues when the students, as they often do, demand to know why they should have to learn about science in the first place. The best known response is something like, “Because you’ll need it later.” Children and teenagers are typically unimpressed by this. And for them the argument also has the danger of falling through (such as in this cartoon), resulting in bitter adults who are still convinced that science was a waste of their time, and perhaps even a waste of their tax dollars. What the scientists, politicians, teachers, and students are all missing in such a discussion is that science is not worthwhile merely because it gets us cool toys, or even because it saves lives. Science is about increasing in knowledge, and that is worthy regardless of any practical application.
This liberal view of science was well understood by Johannes Kepler, one of the greatest astronomers and mathematicians in history. He once said, “I think thus: As we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, we are bound to think of the praise of God and not of the glory of our own capacities.” Kepler’s own career was also plagued by lack of funding, but his understanding of his work didn’t lead him to argue based on its practical benefit. Instead, he said that science should be funded as an intrinsically worthwhile activity, just as art or music might be.
Today, sadly, the fine arts are losing support even faster than the sciences, especially in the public schools, so perhaps the problem isn’t even that science is being understood as a practical art. Instead, the problem might be that we are losing or have lost our understanding of what makes activities worth pursuing. We pursue education so that we can get jobs, we get jobs so that we can make money, and we make money so that we can buy stuff. We get stuff for the same reason that we get married: for our personal pleasure. If we don’t get what we want from a given thing (merchandise or spouse alike), we cast it aside and get something else. If we really want to solve the problems of science in education, then we need to first stop and remember why we should be pursuing science in the first place, and, for that matter, why we should be doing anything: for the glory of God.