Natural Science and Philosophy

This last year (2017-18) we’ve been exploring the classical liberal arts tradition together as a school. Our mission is to inspire students with an education founded on a Christian worldview, informed by the classical tradition and approached with diligence and joy, and that second part “informed by the classical tradition” is central to so much of why we do what we do at Clapham School. We’ve seen how some have framed ‘classical education’ as if it were just about the Humanities or language arts, but it’s actually so much bigger than that.

Classical education begins in the roots of piety, that sense of duty and respect for your family and country, for God most of all. It’s trained in the gymnasium of bodily skills and mastery, as well as all the virtues of the soul. And it’s inspired by the muses, the great exemplars of history, poetry, literature, music, art, and the deep wonder and appreciation of the natural world. Of course, the liberal arts themselves, both the trivium and the quadrivium, the arts of language and of number form the centerpiece, the tools of learning, training the mind to discover knowledge for itself.

But perhaps the unacknowledged and underappreciated pinnacle of classical education is philosophy. Now by ‘philosophy’ I don’t mean just the ivory tower study of obscure points, like whether or not we can actually know that we exist; based on the Greek roots of the word a philosopher is a ‘lover of wisdom’. And all classically educated students, if they have truly caught the vision, should be philosophers in this sense, they should be lovers of wisdom. That’s why at last year’s Spring Curriculum Night (2017) I defined classical education as ‘the disciplined pursuit of wisdom in community.’ Now wisdom encompasses not just the realm of metaphysical ideas, above most of our heads, but also the realm of humanity and the realm of nature; natural philosophy is what science was once called. In fact, the terms ‘science,’ which is from the Latin for ‘knowledge,’ and ‘philosophy,’ were once virtual synonyms. And that’s what we’re aiming for at Clapham School: the type of fully orbed knowledge and understanding of ourselves and our world that is best called wisdom.

To give you an example of how important it is for us as Christians to recapture this idea of wisdom including natural science, think for a moment of the wisest king in Israel’s history, King Solomon, who when God came to him in a dream and offered him anything he wanted, long life, riches, victory over his enemies, he asked instead for wisdom.

“29 And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, 30 so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 For he was wiser than all other men, wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol, and his fame was in all the surrounding nations. 32 He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. 33 He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. 34 And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.” (1 Kings 4:29-34 ESV)

Notice! Solomon’s wisdom included the humanities, proverbs and songs, but also the knowledge of trees and animals, birds, reptiles and fish. King Solomon was a scientist! On Wednesday afternoons, he attended the club Birders and Botanists. He was wise in the ways of science. So because of this, I want to affirm again the BOTH/AND of classical education, rather than the EITHER/OR our thinking often gets stuck in. We want our students to be philosophers, wise in matters natural, human and divine, by God’s grace, and that is what we’re working hard to do better and better each year.

And so because of that I have a couple exciting announcements. In our old sequence Mammalogy was one of the science subjects taught in 7th grade. Now a few years back we moved Mammalogy down to 3rd grade, where it has now been taught regularly for the last few years. This meant that we had to decide what to put in its place. We have decided to add a Technology course to the science sequence. I’m very excited about this! If what we presented at Re-enrollment night is correct and the idea of STEM is drawn from the classical quadrivium, then we wanted to include technology and engineering in a fuller way in the curriculum. This course will include BOTH the history of technological advances and how they have affected human society, so that our students will grow in wisdom, AND will have practical labs and projects for students to get their hands dirty applying it and experiencing the ideas for themselves.

Second, I also wanted to announce that we are adding an Upper School Economics course as an elective next year. It will be in line with the current Illinois Learning Standards for Social Science, but approached as a branch of moral or human philosophy. Students will learn how production and consumption decisions are made, what factors affect international trade, the role of government policy in the economy and many other things. They will also learn to analyze costs and benefits, evaluate risk and return on an investment, and analyze the costs and benefits of insurance. While making no promises about our students becoming economic and financial gurus, we do believe this class will go a long way towards helping them understand and flourish in complex global economy. These are just a couple of the ways that we are striving at Clapham School to “inspire students with an education… informed by the classical tradition,” so that our students become true lovers of wisdom, while at the same time being prepared to serve Christ actively in the world, for the good of his people and the advance of his kingdom.

By Jason Barney, Academic Dean

*This content was originally delivered at Spring Curriculum Night, May 2018.