On Placing Limits on Christian Education,

Gerald Bakker


By Gerald Bakker, Professor of Chemistry, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana. This paper, which developed from the Colloquium of a Christian Approach to Curriculum, has been edited by Donald Oppewal, Professor of Education, Calvin College.







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Editorial Introduction, Donald Oppewal

Christian Education Through Science Studies, Russell Maatman

On Placing Limits on Christian Education, Gerald Bakker *

Using Multiple Approaches to Science *

Guidelines to Science Education *

Objectives in Science Teaching *

The Value Dimension *

This document has been reproduced for the world wide web by the Calvin College Education Department in June 2000 thanks to a grant from Calvin College. If you have any questions about this document or others in the Calvin College Monograph Series please contact Dr. Robert Keeley at rkeeley@calvin.edu.


On placing limits on Christian education GERALD BAKKER

There was a time when St. Paul's speech on the Areopagus used to disturb me. When I was a child I had the very uncomfortable feeling that Paul had in some way betrayed his Christian message by addressing his audience as a religious people, equating the 'real God' with their 'Unknown God', and including references to heathen poets. Since then I have come to know that Paul was neither deceiving his listeners nor debasing the Gospel. He was properly and carefully using ideas consistent with the Christian message. But the real source of my previous discomfort still exists; the idea lives on that we must somehow be pure and unique in our thinking if it is to be Christian. There are still those who would argue that there must be a radical disjunction at all times apparent between the Christian approach to science education, or the Christian approach to whatever is being discussed, and the approach taken by a non-Christian.

There are a number of ways to counter this kind of argumentation, which is basically ad hominem in its style, but I should like to focus attention on the variety of points of view which may be assumed by a Christian in analyzing his subject. I wish to argue that a uniformity in our thinking on the subject at hand, science education, is not necessary and that within the group of Christian science teachers there may be many differing ideas on what should be taught and how it should be taught. Demanding one identifiable, defensible approach to science education places unnecessary limits on Christian science teachers.

Using multiple approaches to science

In this paper I will try to show how a Christian can teach science in a variety of ways based on different philosophical presuppositions. I will then offer a set of objectives for science education and, finally, raise some of the ethical questions facing scientists, science teachers, and anyone acquiring scientific and technological knowledge.

In the writings of philosophers of science there are three major approaches to the treatment of scientific law. These have been well delineated by the philosopher Marx Wartofsky of Boston University. The first approach, called the Realist approach, is based on the idea that what is real in this world is not the set of objects we perceive, for these pass away, but the relations between objects and the ideals behind the objects themselves. That which is permanent is real. Universals are real. Among other things which can be called 'real', natural laws are an important class and the task of the scientist is to discover these natural laws or make his scientific laws approximate natural laws ever more closely. Scientific explanation from this point of view consists of finding the scientific laws which cover the particular phenomenon in question. A teacher of science holding this view would naturally place greater emphasis on teaching the fundamental laws and less emphasis on the specific instances where the law can be applied. And if this teacher were a Christian, he would likely speak of the relationship between natural law and God the Creator and Sustainer. Such a teacher would spend more or less time on this religious question depending on how he viewed the demands of the subject matter and the classroom situation in which he found himself.

In the strongest contrast to the Realist there is the Nominalist who denies there is anything beyond the particulars themselves. Instead of seeing universals as real, he considers universals to be only names. He places his greatest emphasis on that which he can perceive and not on some presumed ideals behind the particulars. There is not some 'ideal' table which is exemplified in passing fashion by the tables we see, but only this table, that table, and the other, etc. A teacher holding this view would consider scientific facts to be important. Scientific laws would not hold as much importance for him, for laws to the Nominalist are only summaries of facts and are instruments to be used and then judged by their usefulness. For such a teacher, scientific laws would not be held to be true or false, only more or less useful. If this teacher were a Christian he would have to have a place for God in his scheme of what is real. But in teaching science, he would speak of the scientist, his facts, and his summary laws, and to him the world of created objects would be as beautiful and as descriptive of God as to the man who would replace the objects with their universal forms.

Between the Realist and the Nominalist can be placed most scientists and philosophers of science. These positions can be described as Conceptualist, for universals here are considered to be neither real nor only names, but in some way they are the product of the mind and senses of the observer. Thus the world is not considered to be filled only with the shadow forms of the Realist nor with simply a set of unrelated particulars as for the Nominalist. There is a reality to both the particular instances and to the humanly produced relationships. There is something about our minds which either organizes the world or forms the very way we can even think about and perceive the world. A Conceptualist teacher sees significance in both the scientific laws devised and the particular phenomena studied. He is likely to see more of the cultural, historical, and personal influences on the development of science and he will keep his students aware of these influences. Such a teacher, were he a Christian, would show his awareness of the human involvement in scientific development and would probably have a real appreciation for man as the "crown of creation."

On this line, ranging from Realist through Conceptualist to Nominalist, Christian teachers can be found at each point. Probably the majority of scientists will assume a position close to that of the Realist and many Christian science teachers have taught their subject based on these philosophical presuppositions. But if they assume that this position is the only proper position for a Christian, I would argue they are making a faulty assumption. The Christian has a whole range of metaphysical and epistemological positions he may take. None of the treatments of scientific law is inherently any more Christian than the others. For example, to hold that a Christian's purpose in teaching science must be to show God through fundamental natural laws is to ignore a whole range of points of view which may as legitimately be labeled Christian and to restrict unnecessarily the choices of a Christian teacher. When looking for the philosophical basis of science and science education, we may do as Paul did on Mars Hill, use the ideas we find, bending them to our purpose. All of this is not to say that I do not myself find one of the positions more convincing, but I do not find one more Christian than the others and I would not try to use one in an exclusive fashion to define a science education which is Christian.

There is a difficulty even more troublesome which faces those who wish to define Christian science education primarily in terms of philosophical and religious commitments. There are few guidelines as to what the limits should be on how much theology, how much worship, and how much science there should be in a K-12 science program. The following questions are examples of a kind of question not easily answered. How many years of science teaching are necessary to get across the idea: observations -- laws -- a God of unity and order? Or if, in a given year, 50 phenomena can be studied and found to show the beauty of God's creation, may not only 20 or 10 do just as well? And should we require physics of all graduates of a Christian school because in a physics course we can show most convincingly how man the scientist can operate on God's created world? Proponents of Christian education will often at this point assume a hortatory stance and simply call for more references to God and His creation in the classroom. And a teacher never really knows if he has mentioned the creating and sustaining Hand often enough for his efforts to be called Christian.

Guidelines for science education

How then should we in the Christian schools organize science education from kindergarten through the twelfth grade? I would argue that as to content and approach we have remained, and probably will always remain, within the relatively narrow range permitted a science teacher for his own individuality through professional courtesy. Some examples of what I mean are in order. As science moves into the lower grades on the American scene, our Christian schools will not be far behind. When Jerold Zacharias and the PSSC team changed the subject matter and approach to the teaching of physics, this shift gradually came into the Christian high schools, too. When the confidence in Newton's Laws as eternal verities was shattered in the early 1900's, it was shattered in the Christian schools too. When chemistry teaching shifted from the recital of dreary, unrelated facts to the development in the classroom and laboratory of the powerful laws of chemistry, it happened in Christian and public schools alike. And whether we like it or no, some developments in American science education are carefully planned and justified and others are fashions. Our Christian schools will likely share them all. There are some exceptions to this which cannot be ignored, such as the treatment given evolution in some schools, but the main point still stands. The major outlines of what is done in the Christian schools and most of the particulars follow closely what is done on the overall American scene.


Objectives in science teaching

What should the objectives be in science education? Let me propose a set which is similar to that which has been written by the Science Division at Earlham College. Beginning with kindergarteners, the teacher of science should work toward enabling his students to:

1. Think like a scientist and be capable of demonstrating an ability to design, execute, and report on experiments.

2. Compare and contrast the methodology of science to that employed in other areas of human knowledge.

3. Demonstrate competence in the process of acquiring knowledge in the sciences, including use of the laboratory and the library.

4. Demonstrate a working knowledge of science as shown in oral and written communication.

5. Demonstrate an understanding of the role of science in society.

  1. See science in operation and meet practicing scientists.

7. Enter a science-related vocation or educational program where these goals are appropriate.

Implicit in my statement of the objectives of science education is the assumption that science education must be defined in terms of itself and what is being done generally in science education. Then the limits placed on science education will at least provide a working basis for organizing a science program, even if fads and fashions may be more important than we scientists would generally like to admit.

The value dimension

What then does the Christian teacher do in organizing and teaching science which may be traced more directly to his faith in God the Saviour and Creator? There are: (1) moral judgments necessary in the doing and teaching of science and (2) questions about the ultimate use to which science should be put. In both of these areas the Christian teacher finds it necessary to apply his own religious principles.

Let me describe briefly some of the value questions.

1. The development of science has not had a smooth course. Sometimes little progress is made for years and then a new idea or two may revolutionize the research in a given area. These revolutionary times have generally been accompanied by very vigorous arguments belying the usual notions about scientific objectivity. Given this messiness in the development of science, is it honest to present science to students in neat packages with all questions easily answered? The state of the body of scientific knowledge changes with time. The science of the 70's will be different from that of the 60's. Laws are changed, the importance of certain experimental evidence varies, and research directions shift radically. In all honesty we must not present science as if it has once and for all been codified.

2. The importance of the data of science and the particular methods used to obtain the data need not be argued, for scientific laws stand or fall on the quality of the experimentation and the data produced. In the presentation of an honest picture of science should there not be some emphasis on the laboratory evidence? For didactic purposes a currently accepted theory may sometimes be presented first, but the basis of the theory in experimentation should also then be included.

3. In a growing number of research areas, experimentation on human beings is becoming more necessary. What are the moral questions and how should they be answered for heart transplant research, the testing of contraceptive devices, the testing of supposed cancer cures such as krebiozen, the psychological or sociological manipulation of human subjects in social science research, etc.?

4. In the 1940's and at other times in man's recent history, science has been presumed to have the answers to all human questions. Where problems still existed, the application of scientific methodology was presumed to be the key to obtaining the necessary answers. The debate among the physicists over the development of the H-bomb and the current concern over misuse of science and technology (regarding DDT, waste, etc.) has pretty well laid to rest the more grandiose beliefs in the super-relevance of the scientific method. But it is still incumbent on a science teacher to say something about the limits on the applicability of the scientific method. The scientific mode of explanation needs to be placed alongside the legal, political, philosophical and religious modes.

Finally, no scientist or science teacher can afford to ignore questions as to the ultimate use and value of science, and especially not the Christian. Science may well be used to point to the beauty and order of God. Compared to other human disciplines such as literature, law, philosophy, and art, science can serve this purpose well. But there are other more important questions about the use and value of science. What is the responsibility of a scientist for the use of knowledge he sought for "pure science" reasons? New answers are now being formulated to this question; Christians must contribute to the debate. The belief that any research may be done without regard for its consequences is being extensively debated. It is important, I believe, for science teachers to challenge the assumption that the direction science takes is not a moral decision made by individual scientists. Certainly it is not possible to foresee all the evil uses of a particular piece of scientific knowledge, but it is just as certain that in some cases one can foresee it. Chemical and biological instruments of war are not being made simply as curiosities. The scientist is morally responsible for the consequences of his work; the Christian should be telling the scientist what these consequences are.

There are also the priority questions to answer and value judgments are involved here. In these days, when a major portion of the research in this country is sponsored by the government, what should be the position of the scientist when faced with the alternatives of more money for NASA or more money for our urban centers? Can he simply say that more knowledge is always the higher good? Is research for its own sake justifiable when the world is crying for solutions to problems that should be technologically solvable? Would it not be better to save our environment from some element of pollution than to devise new laws of doubtful use? The alternatives are never so neatly framed but may the Christian shrink from a moral question because it is complicated?

Science education is in a vigorous, changing state today. We can, as Christians, contribute to the changes occurring or we can rigidity our own science education with artificial limits. I urge us to participate in the development. Where moral judgments are needed and ultimate goals must be defined, let us be ready to speak from our Christian conviction.