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An ancient clockwork mechanism, symbolizing the complexity and depth of knowledge, lies ignored by children, representing the lost art of curiosity due to scientism in education.

The Lost Art of Curiosity: Education’s Ideological Confinement

How has scientism reshaped education? It strips facts of any meaning and turns learning into a soulless quest for power.

In the first article of this series, I argued that the current crisis in higher education stems from its abandonment of its traditional intellectual, moral, and spiritual foundations. The deviation from these fundamental foundations, I suggested, has occurred as a direct consequence of the rise of two ideologies: modernism and postmodernism. This next article aims to address the specific consequences of modernism on higher education. 

Over the past century and a half, higher education has either been reduced to the scientific communication of presumably objective facts and information or a breeding ground for ideological activism. From a modernist perspective, education is taken to be a technological process whereby objective facts, separated from their moral and spiritual context, are conveyed by trained scientific experts to untrained young minds in a utilitarian enterprise of mastery over and rational control of the world. The philosophical roots of the modernist approach lie in what has often been termed “the Enlightenment project,” a term meant to capture the essential metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical aims found principally in the empiricist and rationalist intellectual developments of the 17th and 18th centuries. These developments not only gave rise to modern empirical science but have also profoundly shaped our current understanding of the nature of the self, epistemology, and moral authority.

From a scientistic perspective, the fundamental purpose of education is to produce more scientists.

The modernist conception of the purpose of education often reflects a core commitment to “scientism,” a view of intellectual life in which the methods and practices of the natural sciences alone are thought sufficient “to produce knowledge and solve the problems facing humanity.” Scientism, in brief, is “an ideology that believes that science … has an undeniable primacy over all other ways of seeing and understanding life and the world, including more humanistic, mystical, spiritual, and artistic interpretations.” Indeed, as various scholars have noted, a basic presumption of the modernist understanding of higher education is that “moral and political questions that cannot be resolved by [scientific] research, and do not yield to co-operative investigation, are almost by definition outside the academic orbit.”

While not every strand of what might be called “modernist thought” necessarily leads to an embrace of the logic of scientism, the breakneck pace of empirical discovery and technological advancement of the last three hundred years has provided powerful ammunition for those who would argue the supremacy of the scientistic worldview. The central tenets of scientific naturalism have, so the story goes, proven themselves so robust as to warrant universal acceptance of them. In this way, scientific naturalism is solidified as the only valid standard for discriminating between legitimate knowledge and mere belief, prejudice, and superstition. As such, scientific naturalism is taken to provide the only reasonable principles upon which to organize and govern a modern secular, technocratic society.

To put it somewhat over-simply, though not inaccurately, from a scientistic perspective, the fundamental purpose of education is to produce more scientists. Therefore, the purpose of rational higher education is often seen to be the production of individuals who approach the world in light of a singular methodology that is essentially characterized by its commitment to rational detachment, controlled observation, hypothesis-testing, precise measurement, structured experimental manipulation, fact-finding and reporting in an objective, value-neutral manner. It is claimed that individuals educated in this way are thereby enabled to critically evaluate various competing truth claims by sifting through them empirically and making data-driven judgments as to their respective worth solely based on empirical evidence. 

As Demetris Katsikis notes, such an approach constitutes a genuinely rational education, one in which students “are explicitly taught [across the curriculum] about scientific research and related methods of inquiry” and “learn how to test scientific hypotheses, how to measure what they speculate for and how to convert complicated statistical data into simple life facts.” Students are consistently taught to differentiate between facts based on scientific data and values based on emotion-based preferences. Katsikis further argues, “Rational education is each form of education that unconditionally helps people consciously make sense of life things, establishing and verifying facts of life, applying sheer logic in themselves, others and life, and adapting or justifying life practices, life values and beliefs for themselves, others and life based on new or existing [scientific] information.” In such an approach, to establish one’s beliefs and values, and justify one’s actions as rational, “one needs to base assumptions in empirical (is that true?), logical (does it make sense?) and pragmatic (is it factually helpful in the long term?) grounds.”

A solitary individual contemplates a single source of light in a vast library, symbolizing the narrow focus of scientism in education.
Has education become too singularly focused?

Although it is understood that not everyone will wish to become a laboratory scientist, nonetheless, it is often presumed that an ideal education will be one in which students are taught to think like scientists, to value an attitude of detached rationality and the empirical methods of science, and then employ their scientific mindset as the guiding framework for their engagement with and approach to all other interests and activities. Only in this way is it said to be possible to ensure that one’s individual conduct is truly rational and defensible. Likewise, it is thought that only a society composed of or dominated by such persons will be truly rational, productive, and progressive. The utopian dream of scientism, then, is of a world governed by the “supermind,” a term coined by the economist-philosopher Friedrich Hayek to refer to a scientific elite who, though careful training in the canons of empirical detachment and rationalism, have been able to grasp the complex workings of the grand mechanical system of the world and employ that privileged knowledge in the furtherance of their own technocratic ends. Indeed, as the well-known political philosopher John Ralston Saul has pointed out, “the development and control of intricate systems . . . has become the key to power.” Thus, we now find ourselves, as Saul also notes, “in the midst of a theology of pure power,” one in which the tenets of scientistic rationality have replaced the transcendent teachings of religion.

However, the religious impulse does not seem to be quite as easy to extinguish as the modernists have presumed. It seems, rather, to have mutated into a form more amenable to the scientistic mindset of the modern world, though no less recognizable for all of that as being fundamentally religious in nature and ultimate aim. Echoing Hayek’s description of the “supermind,” Saul correctly notes that “the new priest is the technocrat—the man [of science] who understands the organization, makes use of the technology, and controls access to the information, which is a compendium of ‘facts.’” He qualifies this assertion by describing at length the sort of human being the modern, scientistic approach to higher education is most successful in producing. Saul further observes: 

This form of education is not only applied to the training of business and government leaders. In fact, it is now central to almost every profession. If you examine the creation of an architect, for example, or an art historian or professor of literature or a military officer, you will find the same obsession with details, with the accumulation of facts, with internal logic. The ‘social scientists’—the economists and political scientists in particular—consist of little more than these elements, because they do not have even the touchstones of real action to restrain them. 

A key feature of the scientistic vision of education within any career, then, is its fundamental utilitarian approach to understanding knowledge, behavior, value, and its divorce of facts from the moral context of truth. In addition to conceiving knowledge as solely the product of objective, empirical investigation, the modernist ideology of scientism holds that the pursuit of knowledge is ultimately in the service of power and control, echoing the famous claim of the Enlightenment philosopher, and father of modern scientific method, Francis Bacon that “knowledge is power.” In this way, knowledge is taken to be truly valuable only insofar as it serves some utility and functions as an instrumental means to other ends—whether individual or societal in nature. Indeed, reason is typically described in terms of calculative and instrumental utility, commonly known as “means-ends rationality.”

The religious impulse does not seem to be quite as easy to extinguish.

Consequently, knowledge is not to be sought for its own sake, nor because it is intrinsically enmeshed with the True, the Good, and the Beautiful—and, thereby, constitutes a foundation for genuine human flourishing—but rather because it functions as a tool for securing for ourselves greater power and control over the world. In this light, then, knowledge claims are to be tested against an instrumental criterion; that is, the truth of a particular knowledge claim is established or rejected primarily based on whether it serves to further some instrumental function, secures for us in some way some other chosen ends or goods we happen to desire. Ultimately, in this educational scheme, knowledge is taken to possess no intrinsic moral worth or ethical substance but rather to simply reflect objective data, theoretically organized and expressed according to certain basic naturalistic principles, whose value is entirely determined by those particular uses to which such knowledge can be put in securing particular extrinsic ends.

About the author

Edwin E. Gantt

Edwin E. Gantt is a Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Psychological Issues and Who is Truth? Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith (co-authored with Dr. Jeffrey L. Thayne). He has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University.
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