The reasons for the change are more sociological than educational. Earlier starting times and more breaks from school seem to be the wishes of decision makers. Broadly speaking, schools are not only educational institutions; they are also social institutions. They are places for learning subject matter content, but they are also places for the young to learn how to interact with others and to be a part of a group. Schools are also places where students can learn from other students, especially from those of a different “bent.”
Whatever the ages of children entering school this year, I’m going to argue that each of them is either a scientist or a philosopher. Academia already does this in a fashion in that it divides studies into sciences and humanities.
The difference between a scientist and a philosopher is that when a scientist looks at something new or of particular interest, he or she mutters, “Hmm.” When a philosopher looks at the very same thing, the response is “Ahhh!” In other words the difference between science and philosophy is the difference between curiosity and awe.
Children and adults as well who have a scientific bent (engineers, lab researchers, technicians, mechanics, builders, mathematicians, etc.) wonder why and how things came to be as they are. Their minds are full of questions and sometimes healthy doubt. People with a philosophical bent (musicians, writers, poetry lovers, theologians, artists, etc.) simply marvel that things ARE.
This distinction is obviously an oversimplification, but it is not a distortion. Occasionally an individual straddles science and philosophy, a most interesting reality that makes for an interesting person. For instance, astronauts are definitely scientists; they are explorers. They must master much technical knowledge and know-how. At the same time they stand in awe of the unknown and wish to conquer it. It’s interesting that so many children say they want to be astronauts.
Astronaut Jim Irwin’s philosophical “Ahhh” moment came when he stood on the moon and looked upon Earth, the “blue planet,” more than 70 percent of which is covered by the sea. Irwin’s later comment was that anyone who thinks it’s awe-inspiring to stand on the earth and gaze at the moon should stand on the moon and gaze upon Earth. Irwin was a philosopher-scientist. He appreciated both the world of knowledge and the world of thought and wonder. He was not so technically trained in component parts that he could not appreciate the whole.
Scientists and philosophers use different tools to ply their trades or their interests. Scientists use laboratories, telescopes, measuring devices, spades, wrenches, hammers and nails. Philosophers primarily use words. Perhaps that’s why we often call them intellectuals, even though their work is no more thought-y than that of scientists. Philosophers traffic in logic and moral dilemmas. They explore ideas rather than places. They construct arguments rather than physical structures.
Where would the world be without either its scientists or its philosophers? Just as we need a Jonas Salk, an Alexander Graham Bell, or a Steve Jobs, so do we need minds like those of Aristotle, John Locke and Mark Twain.
But the work and ideas of both scientists and philosophers must be transmitted, and that’s where schooling enters the picture. In the sciences/humanities construct, the humanities are the domain for our philosophers. Because of a weakened economy and the resultant cry for making education more “practical” and job-oriented, the humanities are falling on hard times. State legislatures are beginning to question the value of certain areas of the humanities and the costs of teaching them. With funding at issue, why study art, music, or sociology? Of what good is philosophy?
In 1818 John Keats wrote the line, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Sadly the modern materialist retorts, “A thing of beauty will keep you broke forever.” Pressing utilitarianism too far, the materialist denies our need for stories, legends, music, art and beauty. These things don’t bring jobs, it is argued. Utilitarianism says to the philosopher, “You should be a scientist.”
Everybody needs gainful employment, but we also need some high thoughts for the time we’re not earning bread. If your children or grandchildren are philosophers, don’t let policy setters kill their spirit or jeopardize their future. Don’t allow anyone to even hint that your child’s feet are firmly implanted in air. Our philosophers are the ones who remind us that we cannot live by bread alone.
Wish them well as they trot off to school this year.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.