Fostering the Humanistic Face of Science

January 5, 2017


D. Avery's article "Cultural Value of Science", 1920, expresses how the focus in the society of this time has shifted to one which is utilitarian; its emphasis being on training people and children for earning a wage. He goes on to explain that this shift is dangerous as it goes against human nature.He writes that "Man's nature is threefold-physical, intellectual, spiritual; his capacities are threefold. His relations to the surrounding world should also be threefold, or his life will be dwarfed and cramped. His nature will be unsatisfied unless his threefold self finds sympathetic response in the physical, intellectual and spiritual world in which he lives" (Avery).


These ideas are still very relevant today. Humans still have these same three sides which must be attended; it is what separates us from other living creatures. Neglect of one or more gives us an incomplete human. The nurturing of all three is also a vital part of being a parent and as a parent we should expect their education to continue this support too. Their education should do much more than just prepare them for a life focused on a materialistic world in which they most benefit, but should awaken their love of life, nature and people. "Education should introduce a boy [or girl] to a wider world than that of the office or the factory, it should give him interest, human, scientific, aesthetic, in which his leisure will be fully occupied, and his life find freedom" (Avery).


Avery writes that like man"... every subject has its threefold value: material, intellectual, aesthetic. Not that it can be divided into clearly defined parts, because as in nature and as in man himself, the physical, intellectual, and spiritual, though distinct, blend into each other. The trouble in school life is that too much time is spent over the details of the material of many subjects, little time can be given to the intellectual, and usually none can be spared for its aesthetic interests and values" (Avery). Of all subjects in which children are educated, the teaching of science is most neglectful of a child's need for the latter two of the three. Children need to connect to science through intellect and aesthetics too. While typically education attends to these sides of a child in the subjects of the humanities-specifically history and literature, the subject of science tends to be taught strictly for its material value. What facts can be learned to better prepare the student to go on and use them for a job?  Avery contends that both the humanities and science are complementary; they are both needed to better fulfill the human scope. "But man's intellectual aspirations, and man's material activities, are each counterparts of the whole story; each, to be complete, must somehow include the other" (Avery). He reminds us that "it is not so much the subjects themselves that make the difference-whether they be literary or scientific-what is of importance is the way in which the subject is treated" (Avery). If educators teach children the structure, beauty and mystery of science, then they will better develop an understanding of its value to humanity. They will begin to see past the materialistic face and what facts might be useful to them for practical reasons and, instead, begin to see how their relationship with nature and science impacts the world.

"Every subject is like a building. Its material is the bricks and mortar, intellectual work is involved in the construction of the building, how the pieces can be used to provide strength, distribute loads, take up stresses; and aesthetic value lies in the architectural beauty, the symmetry, composition, and harmony of the whole" (Avery). Literature's materials are words and phrases, it is built with grammar and syntax and its beauty is found in poetry and literature. History's materials are people and events, it is built with a sequence of cause and effect, and its aesthetics is found in its story, illuminating the spirit of mankind (Avery). Meanwhile the structure and beauty of science remains uncovered.


Avery writes:

Scientific training should have three objectives clearly in view, and should shape its methods definitely for their realisation.

(1) It should lead to a knowledge of the properties of substances and of the forces in the world around us: what they are, and how they can be used for the benefit of man. This must be a knowledge of the things and forces, not about them. It must be obtained by personal experience.

(2) It should lead to scientific methods of thinking: accurate observation, careful comparison of results, and the formulation of general principles. It should make the imagination quick to see possibilities, to suggest methods, to devise experiments to test their truth.

(3) It should introduce to the living world of men and nature, a world of absorbing interests that will enlist our sympathy or arouse our enthusiasm, a world of mystery that fascinates with promise of discovery and fuller knowledge, a world of wonder and beauty that we cannot explain, but in which we walk reverently with uncovered head (Avery).


Notice in number (1) the statements which clearly support the ideas behind nature study, particularly the sentence which reads "It must be obtained by personal experience". Exploring the world, observing nature, studying natural forces, noting the growth of life, classifying natural history and thinking through questions promotes a connection between students and science, including nature study, that allows them to not just know about it but really "know" it, in a deep and personal way. Avery goes on to explain that he doesn't wish for educators to foster the humanistic face of science at the expense of a thorough study of the material side of it. In fact, the statements in number (2) demonstrates how important the scientific method is for scientific training. But, he reminds us that there is a difference between teaching students the scientific method and having them experience the scientific method. He asks "How have you, during this year, made your classes work according to the "scientific method?" Not explained it to them, but made them think accurately and critically from individual observations to the ultimate conclusion"(Avery). This doesn't have to be overly complicated or involve expensive lab materials. Avery tells us that we can show children how to follow the steps of the scientific method by starting with a simple question about everyday life and seeing that its followed through to its conclusion.


He expands on this:

Take the simple things of everyday life and set them as problems for your class and let them solve them, drill them in observing carefully, and still more carefully, show them how often superficial observation is incorrect, let them devise experiments to test their suggested explanations, have at least some of the experiments carried out, not by yourself, but by the students, and follow to a conclusion as completely as possible. Don't take stock examples of which they already know the answer—take the obvious things of every-day life, you will find them wonderfully complex as soon as you begin to go beneath the surface of accepted things. For younger children, nature study offers numberless opportunities, but see that observing and thinking are not loose, but strict and orderly; see that conclusions are reasonably supported by sufficient observations. For older children, take more difficult things from every-day experiences. Why does sugar dissolve more rapidly in water when it is stirred? Why does water splash upwards when a stone falls into it? What mechanism starts the rings of waves that follow each other out in widening circles? Or investigate popular beliefs that are not well founded. Why does bright sunshine put out a fire? Or suggest problems for them to solve during a holiday. Is every seventh wave always the biggest? Why are some waves bigger than others? Why do they occur at fairly regular periods? Is the period the same at different parts of the coast? Or why does wet sand on the shore become wetter when patted with the foot? The everyday world teems with problems of this kind, problems that can in many cases be investigated by the children themselves, and form excellent opportunities for drill in scientific thinking.


In (3) he reminds us that in science, children can marvel on the delights and secrets of our world. They, like all of mankind, hunger to meet their spiritual needs in all that elicits their wonder.What subject better than science can give them this? The study of science and nature study is the very epitome of the study of the wonders of our world.


 He concludes by reminding us that science can inspire, and should, and this is best taught with teachers who are themselves inspired. Children can be shown the mystery of life and encouraged to delight in it. Science education should also include 2 more things: literature (living books) to bring imagination into the science world and inspired teachers to, yes, inspire. Without these, and particularly without the ability to ask questions and  follow them to a conclusion, without the time to study life and nature and revel in its beauty and depth, we have disconnected our children not only from a natural desire to be complete as humans, but also have rendered science to a subject not meant to reach the soul. Where is the truth, beauty and good in that?


This article corresponds so well with this curriculum's  essential principles for science.

Read more from this post:  General Principles for Science and Nature Study



Parents' Review Magazine

"Cultural Value of Science"by D. Avery, M.Sc.
Volume 31, no. 9, September 1920, pgs. 651-664



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