Does Education Need Science?*

One of the greatest symptoms of approaching a nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.   ~Bertrand Russell

In his latest, Derridian post, Professor Iguana interprets Derrida as saying “that we should ‘say everything’ even if it is experimental performance, or a work of ‘fiction’—and this ‘even’ is not an aside but feels like an imperative or a challenge to do the work in this way…” I think that Prof. Iguana’s insight is both true and directly applicable to education questions.

For one, we see an inversion of the truth of Iguana’s passage in present-day schooling, in their policies and curricula. To riff somewhat playfully on Iguana: we are to say nothing unless it is precisely NOT an experimental performance or a work of fiction—and this ‘unless’ is not an aside but an imperative to do the work in this, and only this, way.

What can be said is, of course, to be based strictly upon “science-based research.”

The modern University is emulated in all the “lower” mini-university institutions and they all share and serve the same god: Science. In fact, science itself has devolved into thinking of itself as a science. The art of science—the process of saying everything, even through performance and fiction—has been replaced by a strange, incestuous idol: the science of science.

As a result, teaching is thought to be a science. Everything is thought to be a candidate for science. It is either available to science or it is nothing at all. Since modern science has created a metaphysical, existential confusion, a phenomenological confusion about what things are, it is no surprise that education is often (mis)understood and measured in terms of its production of science and its progeny, technology.

This begs the question: does education really need science to survive? Can education be attained without modern science as its means and its end? Is “education” possible beyond the servitude of science?

Moreover, if science gets rid of art from schools—as we see happening today across the country—what spaces will emerge where we can ‘say everything.’ In the age when art becomes profane, where will profanity be spoken?

I have recently written elsewhere about whether we can imagine the possibility of a world after—not only before or during—the reign of science. This world-to come (monde à venir) recalls Derrida’s most consistent insistence: the need for a futuristic phenomenology that has the creative capacity for something “to come” that is beyond the future. (Derrida is very clear that the “to come” is not the same as the future.)

By asking whether education needs science—or, more specifically, whether teachers (and students) need to be scientists—we might begin to imagine in a similar, if not the same, spirit. A spirit of hope.

This begins, for me, in abandoning the insane idea and false hope that our present work is terribly important, that it matters or, using my previous post’s profane lexicon: amounts to more than shit. Derrida and Prof. Iguana put more meat on those emotional bones by pointing to the more important, impossible work that lies ahead and beyond.

Regarding science and teaching, I’ll end by recalling the words of William James in his Talks to Teachers on Psychology:

You make a great, very great mistake, if you think that psychology, being the science of the mind’s laws, is something from which you can deduce definite programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate schoolroom use. Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generate arts directly out of themselves.

* The point I am driving in this essay at has nothing to do with the longstanding craft of science. I am not questioning the value, merit, or beauty of the art of science and its many products. Again: I have no desire to see an abolition of the natural sciences. No. In this post I am tilting at a very different windmill: the ideology of science, an ideology that has very little to nothing to do with the actual sciences themselves.

About Sam Rocha

Sam Rocha is an assistant professor of philosophy of education at the University of British Columbia.
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8 Responses to Does Education Need Science?*

  1. Pingback: June 21, 2012 11:51pm

  2. Bob says:

    It also seems interesting today that the arts must justify themselves in terms of how they contribute to the sciences. “By doing art students can develop their mathematical skills”….”Learning to read music helps students in math”….etc. This phenomenon seems to justify your point about sacrificing everything to the idol of science including studying art for its own sake.

  3. As Robbie remarked in response to my post on the Habita, we see with this ‘beginning’ a condition in the form of decree that protects the scholars (specifically, Irnerius and the Doctors of Bologna who were doing exegesis and continuing the tradition of reading the Justinian Codex [‘as if’ they could!], as opposed to the Jurists who were ‘applying’ knowledge). But, paradoxically in the way negative liberty works, the condition was a protection from conditions! Here then is the origin of the university without conditions, as far as I can see it. NOW, wouldn’t it be something to imagine an ‘education without condition’ in the sense of being ‘for itself’ as in propelled by the force of energeia; hence, experimental, poetic, theoretic, etc., etc. Can there be a ‘non-teleological’ education? Or, perhaps, one that is an ‘end’ (telos) for itself?

    • Sam Rocha says:

      @Iguana: Yes, yes, yes! This is what I am trying to think about, I think…

      Whatever that space would become, I think it would have to have a poetic/prophetic function first and foremost. This is why art affects culture in ways that, it seems to me, have different sort of resonance than the academy is producing.

      @Robbie: Or — perhaps ‘and’ is the better word — it could be equivalent to writing a futuristic memoir that imagines a world-to-come that is nearly identical to the world from which the self is disclosed, right? Like “Enough”?

  4. Yes, I have long been taken with Nietzsche’s idea of philosophizing with a hammer, but given the scale of the world that may be equivalent to working with one or another material condition of history.

  5. Sam Rocha says:

    Thanks, Robbie. My affection for James runs very deep, as you know, and you’re right that his attitude about science never took hold at all. He was also great at making fun of things descriptively. His essay “The Ph.D. Octopus” is a fine example of that. My own constructive work is largely centered, for now, on recovering James in my classes and some of my writings, perhaps a book. But Nietzsche’s grand contribution, to me, unlike Foucault, was in his aphoristic, poetic, and prophetic work. This is not to dismiss doing genealogical work, but I do think the sort of work that has been taken up in our time, largely based more on Foucault than Nietzsche, too often forgets the hammer and opts for archeological instruments instead. Foucault did, however, identify the need for a critical ontology, which is precisely what I think we are driving at.

    Education without condition is something I think you are right to point us to imagine. For Derrida — and for negative theology — to imagine the “to come,” education-to-come, is precisely to not imagine it in its presence but only in its pregnant absence. Derrida (unlike Foucault) seems to take much from Nietzsche’s hammer in his deconstruction, but not enough from his genealogy. Caputo’s stuff at PES this year spoke to that, but I am dissatisfied with this total Derridian futurism and think there is more to it than that. Maybe I’ll try to sort it out a bit here next time…


  6. You are putting a question that is both huge and important. I fear that James’s authority did not have much effect in countering the urge to base education on science, however. Perhaps we need a Nietzschean genealogy that uncovers the reasons why educators and public leaders have been so attracted to a science of education, a critical phenomenology of the intentions driving the development. Perhaps then we could not simply push against the trend, but undermine it at its source. Also, to generalize Derrida’s “university without condition” a bit, can we ask what “education without condition” would be like?.

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