Democratic Education Promotes Better Science

Even if we adopt for the sake of argument the rather pessimistic — because it denies superiority of chronologically more recent science — schematization of T.S. Kuhn

whom Your Intrepid Reporter happened to sit next to one day in Shakey’s Pizza on Durant Avenue in South Campus, so-called, while my mentor John Heilbron introduced his one-time co-author to his, Heilbron’s graduate students

nonetheless his scientific revolutions, even though they are transitions induced onto “normal science” by the quantitative accumulation of questions outside the paradigms guiding the labors of legions of only averagely-endowed scientific workers, are still guided by individual talents of overwhelming intellectual dominance. Physicists like Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and Niels Bohr, each of whom was leader to a large-scale scientific revolution, are undoubtedly men of genius, and they are of an influence rare in the history of science.

Therefore it seems fairly clear that the greatest progress in the development of at least modern European science has occurred due to the contributions of a relatively few men of genius. Among the ranks of scientists only a few men and women (since around 1800) of rare talents lead conceptual revolutions, change the reigning paradigms, and, whether their genius is exaggerated by later generations or not, determine the outlines of scientific development.

These geniuses, whose success it is in the interests of the whole community in which they live to make possible, are unpredictable in their origin within the population. Science and technology, those uniquely human endeavors to manipulate the environment for the betterment of posterity, has known leading lights born into every social class, nationality, race, creed and/or culture.

The best social institution, then, to promote the appearance of scientific geniuses is equality of educational opportunity — one of the fundamental principles of Confucianism.

And quite appropriately so.

If society is conceived, as traditional imperial Chinese political thought did, of as a population mass led by a few elite scholars, then meritorious advancement of the scholar no matter what his social background is an element conducive to, perhaps requisite for, social stability, certainly, and Confucianists would add prosperity as well. It would seem well-justified to suppose social stability to precede the flourishing of the community in any structured political system.

By the very nature of science, I argue, the progress or development of the enterprise is accelerated by the practice of incorporating into it as many “geniuses” (however defined) as possible; and, since the distribution of geniuses within the gene pool is erratic and unpredictable, that incorporation requires widespread scientific mobility. Circumstantial evidence from the history of the various scientific disciplines tends to support the first of the above propositions (at least in my opinion), while the second is only a rephrasing of admitting that we don’t know the interior dynamics of scientific genius.

In the absence of knowing the optimal conditions for the appearance of genius (and such an endeavor would suffer from severe problems of knowing what context would exist in the future), the best way to encourage its appearance is to make education, scientific education in the first instance but education in general, available to every child in the community.

Now as the reader is aware, education has been identified since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as the surest means of promoting social mobility; for if anyone can earn on his or her own the highest intellectual laurels in the realm then the principle of fixed social class is thereby breached. One might argue that the popularization of such a scalawag as Jean-Jacques Rousseau already showed that people of low birth were already admitted to the circle of power within French society; I regard his democratic preaching that “everywhere man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains” to have contributed less to the appearance of the Declaration of the Rights of Man than his own social biography.

Or those of a large number of eighteenth-century scientists, for that matter. The fact that Isaac Newton went to college on a scholarship; that the new connection of the sublunary world with the supermundane worked only with astronomical orbits of a great deal of mathematical complexity — a complexity now shared with the flight of a cannon ball — and so those few with the mathematical talents which, like poetic ability, have always been granted unequally among men, now were valued for a contribution to warfare; the fact that Benjamin Franklin could join a metropolitan scientific community with perfect aplomb; the fact that the philosophy of the Enlightenment claimed that a better world would be based on the accomplishments of Reason: already these displayed an acceptance of a vision of a democratic society of advancement based on merit.

Just as in science.

About M. Meo

Worked as translator, museum technician, truck lumper, lecture demonstrator, teacher (of English as a Second Language, science, math). Married for 25 years, 2 boys aged 18 & 16 (both on the Grant cross-country team). A couple of scholarly publications in the history of science. Two years in federal penitentiary, 1970/71, for refusing the draft.
This entry was posted in Astronomy, Don Gavitte, Economics, Education, Empire, Global, Inequality, Permaculture, Seth Woolley, Spiritual life, U.S. Constitution. Bookmark the permalink.

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