Slaying Dragons #26 – Classical v. Scientific Education

John Watkinson ponders education.

I wouldn’t know if it was typical, but what are laughingly known as my formative years were spent in the groves of academe. This was perceived by many to be a privilege, but at the time it seemed to me that it was just something that one did as a result of doing fairly well at school.

At school I was forced to make a choice, or perhaps it was made for me. I loved science and languages almost equally, but the education system didn’t allow that and one could become an inarticulate scientist or a technically illiterate linguist. I went down the scientific route and have since spent a lot of time compensating for the shortcomings of that route by reading Saint Exupery and de Balzac and visiting Florence. Perhaps I should say the Florences, as there is another one in Oregon that is worth a trip. 

Had I gone the other route and tried to inject some science into a classical education I think in retrospect it would have been a good deal more difficult. Proper science requires a certain amount of rigour and some grounding in mathematics, which it is harder to acquire later in life, as today’s politicians demonstrate with depressing regularity.   

Although the university at which I studied was one of the best, I wasn’t impressed. Most of the lecturers thought that filling blackboards with equations was better than explaining the underlying principles.  Most of the textbooks we had illustrated that knowledge of a subject and the ability to impart it to others are two different skills. I recently reviewed some of my undergraduate texts that I have kept all these years and the views of my youth did not need changing. 

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