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Susan Wise Bauer | Homeschooling, History, and the Foundation of Science

Historian and educator Susan Wise Bauer talks about the state of alternative education today and reflects on the reciprocal relationship between devout theistic faith and careful science.

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Boy doing school work at table

Historian and educator Susan Wise Bauer talks about the state of alternative education today and reflects on the reciprocal relationship between devout theistic faith and careful science.

Description

Traditional homeschooling and hybrid models have seen a huge uptick in the last couple of years, and, unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge driver of this migration. But the virus and various school and government responses to it are not the only factor causing parents to consider alternative education options. Contentious discussions of which histories and sciences are taught in the classroom continue to cause worry for parents all over the political spectrum. 

Our guest today is historian and educator Susan Wise Bauer. A respected and well known name in the homeschooling world, Susan has spent much of her career developing reliable resources and curricula for homeschoolers. She walks us through her own experiences with, emerging trends in, and the biggest issues facing the homeschooling world today. A Christian, Susan also reflects on the reciprocal relationship between devout theistic faith and careful science.

  • Originally aired on June 02, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

Dear reader,

We’ll get right to it: Young people today are departing the faith in historic numbers as the church is either unwilling or unable to address their questions on science and faith. BioLogos is hosting those tough conversations. Not with anger, but with grace. Not with a simplistic position to earn credibility on the left or the right, but a message that is informed, faithful, and hopeful.

Although voices on both sides are loud and extreme, we are breaking through. But as a nonprofit, we rely on the generosity of donors like you to continue this challenging work. Your tax deductible gift today will help us continue to counter the polarizing narratives of today with a message that is informed, hopeful, and faithful.

Bauer:

Science is a way of understanding the world that has some built in assumptions, some assumptions that should be questioned. Some assumptions that have to be accepted, if you’re going to do science, other assumptions that you ought to push back against. If we were able to approach science in that way, science education could become like learning literature, like learning history, a way of understanding who we are, because we’re looking at the past, we’re looking at how we’ve come to understand the world, and how that affects what we do every single day.

I’m Susan Wise Bauer. I’m a historian and author. I have particular interest in education and actually own a publishing company that does K through 12 resources for private schools, charter schools, and for home educators. And an offshoot of that is a very traditional liberal arts Online Academy, which became accredited last year. 

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump. 

Over the past couple of years, the COVID pandemic sent an increasing number of people looking for alternative options for educating their children. Many of these parents, especially those with the financial and time affordances to do so, took up some form of homeschooling. As a minority among schooling options, homeschooling has often fallen prey to stereotypes about who homeschools their children and why they do it.

Susan Wise Bauer is one of the leading voices in today’s homeschooling movement. She is a writer, historian, and educator, and has written books such as The Well-Trained Mind, The Story of Western Science, and several series on history and writing. In our conversation, Susan shares a bit of her own experience with homeschooling—reflecting on being a product of it and her journey of homeschooling her own children. Drawing on her extensive engagement with the homeschooling world, she identifies a few issues facing home educators, particularly those wanting to teach their children from a Christian perspective. Of course, we at BioLogos have published our own material for teaching faith-based science in the classroom and at home through our program Integrate, and you can find out more about that on our website. But Susan’s advice goes beyond plugging our own materials, offering Christians a faithful vision for future classrooms, whatever they might look like.

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Susan Wise Bauer, welcome to the podcast. We’re glad to be talking to you. 

Bauer:

Thank you. 

Stump:

We had originally planned to record a couple of weeks earlier, but had to reschedule because it conflicted with lambing season at the farm. How did that go?

Bauer:

We are right at the end of it, fortunately. It’s always an exhausting time. Because you’re up late. You’re up early. You’re up in the middle of the night. But most of the lambs are fine. It was a pretty successful season, so we’ve got 15 brand new lambs, making a lot of noise outside.

Stump:

Oh, wow. That’s fun. Well, I have known about you for a number of years being familiar with your book, The Well Trained Mind and your work on classical education. But then in prepping for this conversation, I was a little surprised by some of your background. You are not the first person we’ve interviewed who went to Liberty University, but that might need some explaining for our audience. So go back and give some autobiography, if you would: where’d you grow up? What was your family like? And then we’ll catch up to where you are now.

Bauer:

Sure. And you know, whenever I have to admit that I went to Liberty, I say it seemed like a good idea at the time. The background was that I was educated at home, I have an older brother, younger sister, we were all educated at home, not for conservative religious reasons, as was often the case. This would have been beginning in like 1972, 1973. But because my mother who was also an educator, she had been a private and public school teacher, had actually served as a principal, just didn’t trust the classroom to get us where we needed to be. So she wanted to do it herself. You know, she thought she could do a better job than the local school, which at that time was pretty bad. It had lost accreditation, it was not well run. So we were all educated at home. And even though it wasn’t primarily for religious reasons, we were a very conservative religious family. And we also didn’t have a lot of money, so public university was going to be the first choice. My older brother went off to a public university here in Virginia and as older brothers sometimes do, muddied the waters for the rest of us by going off the rails a little bit, as one does when one is 17 years old and away for the first time. My parents were very definitely you are not going off to Sodom and Gomorrah like your brother. At the time, my grandfather, who was a son of Southern Baptist missionaries, was a huge fan of Jerry Falwell, offered to help with my education. And then Liberty itself offered me essentially a free ride. It was the strangest thing, we went to visit it, and this was the year before I enrolled, and they had Francis Schaeffer there doing a talk on Christianity and culture. I thought, oh, this is interesting, I can do that. At the time, Francis Schaeffer was considered kind of a liberal, which is funny when you think about it now. So I said, okay, we’ll give this a try. Then, between the time that I enrolled and the time I actually attended, Jerry Falwell decided to double the size of the university overnight. It was just a really awful experience. I finished, I don’t often tell people this, I finished college in five semesters, because I was so wretchedly miserable there that I took 26 hours a semester, which they let me do, and got out. But I left feeling like I’d been in a desert. After Liberty, I did a Master of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, which at the time, was headed in a much more progressive direction than it is now. It took a hard turn to the right, as I think many graduate schools of theology did in the past 15 years or so. And the contrast between Liberty and Westminster, which is where I first studied the history of science, by the way, was that it was like getting water after you’d been in the desert. So that’s a little bit of the background with my religious education.

Stump:

Before we take the story further, go back again, a little bit. Do you remember any parts of your childhood where science itself was particularly remarkable or interesting to you? Did you grow up with particular views of the relationship between science and Christianity?

Bauer:

I certainly didn’t grow up thinking that there was a huge contrast between the two of them or not a conflict. I didn’t grow up seeing them opposed to each other. My mother is an educator, my father is a pediatrician, my brother studied computer science, and it was never presented to me as two mutually exclusive things. I would say that certainly the church that we were in when I was growing up, was very fundamentalist, looking back at it really had aspects of a cult to it. And it was certainly literalist. So I grew up believing that the seven days of creation were literal, and therefore, Darwinian evolution was something that just couldn’t have happened. But interestingly, that didn’t sort of bleed over into a distrust of the rest of science. It was more like there was the sort of parentheses in my understanding of science that this part of it’s probably not right. And I will say my whole family has certainly moved away from that literalist understanding of Genesis one and two, particularly my parents who, they’re both 86 this year, still going strong. And, you know, have shown a lot of flexibility in sort of stopping and rethinking and retooling their understanding of the Bible. I think that that was possible for them because there wasn’t a hostility to science in our house.

Stump:  

Good for them. Well, part of the reason we’re talking to you now is that BioLogos has just released a science and faith curriculum designed for home schools and Christian schools. You’ve been a really important voice in that space, so keep your own story going a little bit. You mentioned you yourself were homeschooled, and I believe that you homeschooled your children then.

Bauer:

I did. 

Stump:

When did you think, I’d like to become America’s guru for homeschooling and classical education? How did that come about?

Bauer:

It was all planned out from the beginning, as so many parts of our lives are [laughing]. Well, actually what happened was I was a professional writer. I had a couple of novels published and I was sort of casting around for my next project. My husband is from Baltimore and he had gone to Baltimore public schools. When I said to him, you know, I was homeschooled, it was a great experience, I’d like to homeschool our kids, he was all for it. He did not want them to have the same education that he had had. So I was looking around for my next project. And I’m kind of a type A linear thinker. I think my oldest was five or six at the time, I said to my mother, because she used a pattern of classical education with us, she drew from a lot actually, from the Jesuit tradition quite a bit in putting together our education. You might think it’s unusual for someone from southeastern Virginia, but there’s a whole nother story behind that. I said to her, what you did with us worked so well, and it was such a great experience that I’d like to reproduce it for my own kids. So let’s just sort of outline what I would do for the next 12 years, because I like to know where I’m going ahead of time. And it was this fun project she and I embarked on, just putting down the principles that she had used with us, and then looking around for materials that would fit those principles, because most of the stuff that she had used by that time, of course, was out of print. We had to find equivalents. So we put together this outline for K through 12 education. And I mentioned it to my literary agent, because we had kids about the same age, and he said, oh, I bet somebody would be interested in publishing that. So I sent the outline off. And this is my favorite story. He calls me and he says, I’ve got a really great nibble from Norton and WW Norton. I don’t know if you remember those, like huge literary anthologies that nobody ever carries to class because they’re too big. Norton’s interested in it, but there’s just one catch. And I said, what’s that? And he says, well, there’s the homeschooling thing, and then there’s the like, the religious fanatic thing, he actually used those words. Then there’s the living, we were homesteading at the time, the living on a farm thing, and they just think you might be too weird to promote successfully. They want you to come to New York, so they can eyeball you. I’ve never been to New York. I was also eight and a half months pregnant, which really just makes you feel like an object that can be seen from space when you’re in New York. But my mother and I bought clothes and we went to New York and talked to them. And they decided we weren’t too weird to promote successfully, so they bought the outline. We spent the next two years developing it to a fully fledged book. I don’t think they expected it to do very well. I remember my editor’s assistant saying to me, she had lived in New York, and she had lived in Los Angeles, and that was her experience of the United States. I’m really trying to keep an open mind about this book, because I’m sure there are people probably in the Midwest who do this kind of thing. So the book came out and it got a review in the New Yorker of all things. And it sold and it sold and it sold and it sold and it sold. It’s in its fourth edition now. It has just stayed on the radar. That just led to both my mother and I, she retired from speaking about 15 years ago, but doing a lot of conferences and presentations and talking to thousands and thousands and thousands of people who wanted to homeschool, and who wanted to do it well. So, yeah, that’s how that whole story happened.

Stump:

Well, let’s talk about the homeschooling movement a little bit. And let me put all my cards on the table here. I’m a product of public schools. My parents were both public school educators and we also came from a very conservative religious tradition, but had always sort of felt that we conservative Christians ought to be out there in the world, leavening it, was often the words that were used, instead of withdrawing from it. I think for a lot of people in our audience talk of homeschooling conjures that image of people who want to just withdraw from society so as not to be stained by the world. And I’m sure there’s some of that, but give us a little better picture of homeschooling, if you would, where it came from, what it looks like today, in at least some of these broad strokes. 

Bauer:

I think if you go back far enough, and I’m talking here about really probably the late 60s and in the early 70s, which was when we started homeschooling, homeschooling wasn’t at that time a conservative protectionist sort of movement. It was a hippie, liberal, leftist, fight against the man, rage against the machine sort of thing. 

Stump:

Yeah, if I might interrupt you there. I’ll just add for our audience that Francis Collins, our founder, tells the story of he himself being homeschooled for zero religious reasons whatsoever, but it was more of the hippie ones, you mention there.

Bauer:

Absolutely. And my parents were actually kind of Southern Baptist hippies, which is another interesting sort of intersection. They came back to Virginia to live off the land and a lot of what we were doing was in that same vein, and that has continued to be, I think, a strong aspect of homeschooling, it’s just not as noisy. The thing about — I’ll make a big political generalization here — the thing about people on the left is that they don’t organize big public events nearly as well as people on the right. What happened with homeschooling is that when it became more visible, the organizers of state homeschool organizations and big conferences with lots of speakers, and the publishers of curriculum specifically for homeschoolers, all sort of started to trend to the right. So the most visible and the most vocal homeschoolers have always been the ones who were doing it for very conservative religious and social reasons. That sort of protectionist, you know, keep them unspotted from the world also has a couple of secular offshoots. I mean, I talk to a lot of parents of color who are homeschooling their kids because they want to protect them from what they’re seeing. They’re seeing institutionalized racism in their local schools. I’ve talked to mothers of daughters who do not want to send them where they will be given an idea of femininity that the parents think is destructive. So there are nonreligious protectionist reasons out there too. I don’t know in terms of numbers that any one set of homeschoolers really has the advantage. People do it for so many different reasons.

Stump:

Do you have any demographics on the movement of who homeschools?

Bauer:

Nobody has really good demographics on the movement, because homeschoolers are really reluctant to answer questions because they don’t want anybody butting in and telling them what to do, for whatever reason they’re doing it. So no, there aren’t there aren’t good demographics.

Stump:

Just even in terms of the total number of people who are doing it, is it growing? 

Bauer: 

Well, it’s definitely growing. That’s a little hard to say right now, because obviously, during the first two years of the pandemic.

Stump:

It grew a lot, yeah.

Bauer:

It kind of grew a lot. It’s still unclear and it’s May and a lot of smaller children still don’t have immunizations, so it’s very hard to say how much of that… I think the growth was, it was crazy, it was something like 22%. It’s really hard to say right now how many of those are going to stick with homeschooling. But I think what we’re actually seeing even more of is people realizing that they are not necessarily stuck with one model or another. They’re not necessarily stuck with the classroom or being home educators, a lot of people are pursuing hybrid solutions, where they navigate with a local public or private school for kids to go part time and they do some of the subjects themselves. We see particularly after the pandemic, families enjoying the fact that they were able to set their own schedules. With so many more people working from home, a lot of families would like the flexibility to just take off and go somewhere else for six weeks without having to navigate a school system. So post, I’m not gonna say post pandemic, because we’re not out of it, but post the height of the pandemic, I think a lot of the interest in having a flexible education is going to remain, and that’s going to mean that there’s going to be an even broader cross section of home educators. It’s also going to mean that the word home educator is going to lose some of its meaning. You can see now on some of the longer established homeschooling message boards, and we at The Well Trained Mind, we run one of the oldest ones on the web. It’s been up since 2001, I think, I mean, back when it was really elementary, it really was a bulletin board. You can see some of the longer term homeschoolers objecting that some of these people who call themselves homeschoolers, they’re not really homeschoolers, because they’re using charter school resources or they’re using online classes. So let’s really narrow down on what it means to be a home educator. But that kind of protectionist impulse always loses in the end. So the answer to your question is, nobody really knows. Kind of depends on what you mean by homeschooling. But certainly, people are looking for educational options that they didn’t even know existed three years ago.

Stump:

Okay, how about this, then how do you respond when people ask for your advice on whether they should homeschool their kids? Is this for everybody? Or what are the pros and cons are, other important factors that want to be considered?

Bauer:

It’s certainly not for everybody. I mean, it does for one thing require that both parents aren’t doing 50 hour work weeks. Somebody’s got to teach the kids. Somebody’s got to run things. It depends a lot on whether your family situation allows one or both of you to take on that responsibility. But when people ask me if they should homeschool, I usually say to them, well, what’s going on? What’s going on in the current situation? How does it feel? Is your child flourishing? Are they thriving? Are they just squeaking by? Do they cry when you put them on the bus in the morning? Homeschooling really has to do with finding the best environment for a child to learn in. Some kids need a classroom, some kids need that sort of external structure, and others are suffocated by it. I don’t think anyone should go into homeschooling, because they think that this is going to be their, they’ve got to pick the best educational path, and this is going to be it. It has to be more a matter of, this fits our family, this fits my child. And always, always, there should be some aspect if you’re going to pull a kid out of a classroom situation and bring them home, why are you doing this? What’s the felt problem? What is the felt need to be really clear about what it is that you’re getting out of? Before you get into this new way of thinking about education.

Stump:  

Is there a concern, particularly as kids get older, and topics become more specialized and technical, that the average parent isn’t equipped to be a teacher of those things? I mean, teachers go to school to learn how to become teachers, right? 

Bauer:

Actually, that’s an interesting point. Teachers go to school to learn how to become elementary and middle school teachers. People study subjects in order to be effective high school and college teachers. My mother has an education degree and was a licensed certified teacher. And she always used to tell people that most of what she learned in her education classes was classroom management. It wasn’t how to teach, it was how to teach a group, it was how to effectively get information across to 25 or 30 students at a time. That is a very specialized skill and that is something that does need training. And my hat is off to teachers who do this effectively, because it is a tough, tough job. It needs training, and it needs skill. But to teach subjects one on one with your own child, you really need resources, you need to know where to go to find tutors, online classes, books, curricula, you need to know where to get help with the subject areas. And I would say certainly, since we’re talking about science in the area of science, particularly as you get into late middle school and high school, that has always been one of the weakest areas for home educators. But with the rise of online classes, and online tutors, the expanse of resources for home educators who want to do science and math, really, even if they’re not scientists or mathematicians, well, has just expanded enormously.

Stump:

Good. I’d like to ask about two issues related to homeschool curriculum, one because you’re a historian and the other because we’re BioLogos. In my very unscientific polling, there seems to be among homeschoolers a view of American history that’s quite far outside of the mainstream of historians. Is there any explanation for that? Apart from the fact that many homeschoolers are quite religious and religious people, maybe quite naturally, want to see their religion factoring prominently and making America what it is today. There’s a lot between the lines there I didn’t say that I’m guessing you’re picking up on.

Bauer:

There’s a lot of bad history in the world, and there are a lot of bad history textbooks in the world. Some of those are Christian nationalist, and probably Christian nationalist versions of the American history story is probably a little bit more prominent among very conservative religious homeschoolers. But it’s also pretty prominent in Christian private schools. This is not a feature of homeschooling; it’s a bug, not a feature, as they say. It is an approach that very conservative American Christians can be drawn to, but I don’t think it’s associated with homeschooling so much as with conservative Christian education in general.

Stump:

Fair enough. Then on the science side, so much of the homeschool curriculum, at least that I’ve seen, takes young earth creationism as not just an option for interpreting the Bible in nature, but as the only faithful and coherent way to do so. Is that a fair stereotype? And is the explanation the same that you gave for the history? That it’s just more correlated with conservative Christian education in general? 

Bauer:

No, it’s a little bit different, because if you’re teaching a Christian nationalist view of history, you’re not doing so with the explicit authority given to you by Genesis one and two, you have to extrapolate a lot. From the Bible, so there isn’t the same sense that doing history in this way is the only thing that honors the Bible, there’s a lot more room to sort of push back. I think the closest thing that we’ve seen in the realm of history, to the level of pushback that Darwinian evolution has gotten in science, the closest pushback we’ve seen in history has been all the franticness around critical race theory. That reaction feels very familiar to me, because it’s the same reaction that those of us who respect science have been getting for decades when we recommend science curricula that don’t teach young earth and a literal seven days of creation. I mean, that has been a flashpoint in science for as long as, in scientific education for Christians, for as long as I can remember. The critical race theory pushback has that same edge, sort of, if you allow this in, everything will fall, we’ll lose it all, and that’s it. That’s a very interesting development to me. I’m not quite sure that I know how to explain it, or why it’s happening at this particular time, but I think that the Christian respect for the Word, which can, of course, be a wonderful thing in an educational context, does lend itself to a literalist interpretation. Particularly if theological education has not really been part of your upbringing. And it feels very true, it feels very true and faithful to God to say, I don’t care what science says, I’m going to take God’s word literally. So that has definitely been a shaping aspect of science, and it has shaped homeschooling curricula, even that produced by people who are not literal seven day creationists because of the amount of violent rhetoric that those who do support it throw at us.

I’ll tell you a story, which is when we were recommending science curriculum. If we recommended science curricula that were not seven day creationist, we would literally be called out by these conservative homeschooling conferences, speakers at these conferences, and most notably, this happened with us with Ken Ham, this is all public knowledge, so you can go and look it up. Ken Ham said that we didn’t believe in a literal seven day creation, we didn’t believe in a literal flood, we didn’t believe in young earth and therefore, no one should use any of the resources that we publish. And he called on his followers to boycott us and send books back, even history books. And some of them did, some of them did. You didn’t tend to get that kind of reaction if you recommended a particular grammar curriculum, writing curriculum, math curriculum, or history program; it was all centered around science. I said earlier that it was the more right wing of Christian homeschoolers that really managed the state organizations and the conferences, they continue to be the loudest voice on the homeschooling scene, not the most numerous, but the loudest voice. It was quite a few years before I dared to stick my toe in this and recommend resources, because I didn’t want to get called out in public, I don’t wanna get jumped on with both feet. It took a certain stability of the business, a certain stability in my own professional life to be willing to dare that. So there was this general dampening over anyone developing homeschool science curricula that weren’t literalist seven day young earth and that kind of thing takes, I mean, it’s only recently that I’ve started to see curricula that dare to do this. And I think it still has a long ways to go. Because of that, it was effectively a boycott, that really affected the resources that are out there.

Stump:

So my next question was about that long ways to go. Where are things headed in a more positive direction in that regard, or at least a more open direction where there isn’t the same sort of rhetorical pressure to adopt the young earth perspective, if you’re doing homeschool science?

Bauer:

I think so. I mean, I think it has to happen, because there’s so many more people homeschooling, who don’t want to teach that. There’s an increasing polarization in the homeschool world as there is everywhere else, between people who want to teach science one way, and people who just want to teach science. I think those two poles are going to continue to grow further and further apart. I mean, right now, probably with the exception of your curriculum, all of the ones that I’m familiar with are either explicitly faith based and young earth or explicitly secular, not even non sectarian, just totally secular. So that’s a result of all of that pressure, all of those loud voices.

Stump:

Well, maybe we can talk again in five or 10 years and see what’s happened since then.

Bauer:

See where we’re going, exactly.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Listeners! On this podcast we hear a lot of stories of young people who consider leaving the church because of the tensions they find between science and faith. It doesn’t have to be that way. That’s why we developed Integrate, a teaching resource, designed for classroom teachers and home educators. It seeks to equip the next generation of Christian leaders to be faithful, informed, and gracious voices engaging with the hard questions raised by science. To learn more just go to biologos dot org slash integrate. Alright, back to the conversation. 

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Well, let’s talk about science a little more generally, now. Some of the stats I’ve seen seem to suggest that America has a pretty bimodal distribution when it comes to science education. We have some of the best in the world for some of our students, but also a lot of students who lag far behind the average students in other countries. Can you speak at all to science education in general in this regard, not just within home schools, but what’s the place of science education within the educational system as a whole? And what do we need to be doing better in that regard?

Bauer:

Yeah, well, I think that, I was gonna say, science shot itself in the foot, because that’s the best metaphor that I can think of right now. So you have to forgive me for that. We need to do a better job of understanding science as a philosophy. If science is a philosophy, science is a way of understanding the world that has some built in assumptions. Some assumptions that should be questioned, some assumptions that have to be accepted, if you’re going to do science, other assumptions that you ought to push back against. If we were able to approach science in that way, science education could become like learning literature, like learning history, a way of understanding who we are, because we’re looking at the past, we’re looking at how we’ve come to understand the world, and how that affects what we do every single day. That hasn’t really happened because, this is where I get to the science shot itself in the foot. Scientists who write and publicize about science have overwhelmingly, I think, presented science as something that cannot be questioned, something that cannot be interrogated, something that cannot be examined as a truth, as the truth. I have all the respect in the world for science, but no human endeavor is the truth. No human endeavor reveals with complete and total clarity what it is that’s important about our lives. So there’s been a hubris, a lack of humility, a defensiveness on the part of working scientists, and particularly those who write about science, and particularly those who write about science for a larger audience.

I wrote a book called The Story of Western Science where I trace the history of writing about science. And the arrogance of many, particularly 20th century scientists writing for a popular audience, who say with complete and total certainty things that they cannot be completely and totally certain about, can be very, very off putting. Not only that, let’s just really pull this back around to education. If you treat science in this way, as this infallible guide, then the only way to study it is basically to just memorize everything that it tells you, right? I mean, what else can you do with it? It’s like, here’s the truth, all you can do is memorize it. It’s very much the way that very conservative religious people treat the Bible, we can’t interrogate it, we just got to memorize it. And that’s the most boring way to teach in the world. But most science textbooks that I’ve examined, that’s how they approach it. This is just stuff you got to know. And it takes the whole interest in, how do we know what we know, out of the field, it becomes incredibly boring. It’s just dull. And so our science education is very much cast in that mold. Look at any science textbook, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.

Stump:

Interesting. So BioLogos has certainly tried to counteract some of that messaging from scientists and to emphasize the limitations of science. And even the methods of science that ought to lead us toward greater humility, rather than greater certainty and arrogance of just how little we do know about the world. Being a philosopher of science myself, let me ask you a little further, if you can make a distinction at all between saying that science is a philosophy, versus there certainly being philosophical assumptions that are that you can’t escape. But is there some distinction in your mind between the methods of science? Is there any way of demarcating, this is when we’re doing science over here, and this is when we’re doing other kinds of disciplines? Or are those lines so fuzzy, in your view, that it all just kind of runs together?

Bauer:

Certainly. And look, and I’m not a scientist. So if I were to try to point out to you an exact example of how this works, I would be afraid of misstating, so I’m not going to try to do that. I think they are fuzzy. That’s the thing about fuzzy lines, fuzzy lines really inspire people to make concrete pronouncements. Have you ever noticed that? I think it’s because the lines are fuzzy, that we get these dogmatic pronouncements far too often. I think scientists a lot of times are on the backfoot, they’re defensive, because they’ve been attacked quite a lot. And they’re reluctant to say, actually, I’m not sure about this. That is a characteristic I find for, and here I’m talking about secondary school science textbooks, not college level, because I think then you’re dealing with people who have a little bit more maturity, a little bit more experience, you can say, yeah, we’re not really sure about this. But secondary school textbooks are very reluctant to admit that there’s any fuzziness at all. Let me give you, this is a silly example, but let me give you an example of what I mean. When you are in elementary and middle school, and you first learn about the atom, you got this model of an atom, where you’ve got the nucleus, and you’ve got the electrons circling the nucleus. And it looks like the solar system, right? How many people ever discover as they go on, and I didn’t discover it until I was researching this book, The Story Western Science. How many people ever learned that that is not at all what an atom looks like? How many people are then told later on, well, yes, that was the model that you got in your elementary school textbook, because that helped you understand the concept of what an atom is. But actually, it’s a lie. You cannot find this, even if you could get down to the subatomic level and look, you would not see something that looks like a solar system. It’s the model that we have created to represent a reality that’s really hard to get hold off, right? Most people never learn that they never learn that they were taught a lie and that the teaching of the lie was in order to get them closer to the truth. That’s a really hard thing to do. 

Stump:

There’s a lot of nuance to that, that I suspect gets lost. So give us then instead a more positive view of what science education could be doing or ought to be doing. In the sense of why students who have no intention of becoming a scientist, why do they need to understand what an atom really is? Or how the periodic table works? Or photosynthesis? Or even evolution for that matter, right? What’s the point of studying these things? Or how should they be studied in order to bring about a more positive understanding of scientific education in general, and then for us as citizens of the world? 

Bauer:

I think it’s really twofold. I mean, definitely, it’s important to know how things work. Because if you don’t know how things work, you can’t make decisions about the world. If you don’t understand how photosynthesis works, then you’re not going to be able to know whether or not you should vote for the green candidate in your local election. I mean, those two things really are related. Just the joy of knowing how the world works, that is sort of a pure thing in itself that we need to honor, you may not be a scientist, but you should know something about fossil fuels, because this is gonna affect your daily life. So there’s that aspect of it. And I think, actually, I think we do this better than we do other aspects of science with science education. I mean, you do learn in most elementary, middle high school science classes, how things work. What I don’t think we’re doing well, is giving the historical side of science, the development of science, as well as its present form. We are so often presented with science on one plane, as though this is how it has always existed. The most historical perspective we get is Galileo being condemned for his model of the solar system. For me, I’ve always sort of seen that in the context of well look how far we’ve come. It would be so much more honest, and so much more enlightening, to study why people believed what they believed about the world when they believed it, because then we could apply that to our own situation. That’s all a little bit vague. So let me give you a really interesting example that I ran across recently, if I may. I, I’m actually right now, this was just either the worst timing in the world or the best, and I still don’t know. Right at the beginning of 2020, I signed a contract for a new book, which was going to be about how illness and disease, and in particular epidemic disease, changes the way we look at each other and we look at the world and we look at God. It was this really big picture: here’s how epidemics change us. The beginning of 2020, I signed this contract and I spent the next year not working on this book, because I had my grown kids home, and we were all trying to survive. I couldn’t, it was too much every time I would read a newspaper or open the most recent updates. I was like, oh, I’ve got to somehow incorporate this into this book. So I had to back off. In 2021 I finally got back to it. My editor is very understanding, fortunately, she’s like, yeah, you can’t write this book just yet, that’s fine. And so in 2021 I got back to it. It’s completely different book than it would have been three years ago, obviously. But here’s an interesting thing that I ran across while working on this. We talk a lot about the Black Death, which is the sort of this huge 14th century wave of bubonic plague that burns through Europe, that was actually caught. That’s actually just the beginning of what, this is not going to be encouraging, sorry. It turned out to be a 200 year pandemic. 

Stump:

Yikes. 

Bauer:

Yeah, it’s the second pandemic. The first pandemic was in Justinian’s Rome and the second pandemic began with the Black Death, but went on in wave after wave after wave after wave after wave until pretty much through the 16th century. So yeah, that’s pandemic for you. After the first wave, there’s sort of a second peak in the late 15th century, which is when a few innovative scientists started talking about this idea that a disease could be spread by something outside your body. So previously, what we see is this idea of disease that’s something that’s intrinsic, there’s bad air, there’s bad waters, there’s a miasma, which is like poison floating up from the ground, and it interacts with individual human bodies. And each individual human body gets sick, maybe for a slightly different reason. So disease doesn’t have that, there wasn’t what we now call the disease entity model, which means that we now think of diseases as being specific things with specific causes smallpox, measles, you know, COVID-19, they’re come from outside of us, they infect us, and when they infect us, we get sick. That is a very different model than what people believed for the 1500 years before that, which was the disease was intrinsic, it had to do with the interaction of your body with the world. The disease entity model, which slowly gets promoted and written about and says that there are these things called, we still use this word, fomites, which are particles from the outside that carry the disease, and they get into you. Huge, huge, huge pushback from late Renaissance people. Because the disease entity model means that you’re not in charge of your own body, it means that you are not as they had all begun to believe in Renaissance Europe, you’re not the master of your fate, you’re not the captain of your soul, you can’t control and shape who you are. Because there’s this thing that can come in from the outside and just mow you down. You can’t control that, there’s nothing that you can do about it. So there’s this huge push back against this idea that disease is caused by something from the outside. It’s to the point where, like, in Florence, the departments of health, which were like, yeah, I think these things called fomites are real. So what we’re going to do is when people die, we’re going to burn all their stuff so nobody else can catch fomites from their stuff. Huge, huge push back to the point where the people of Florence used to pelt the board of health with stones when they tried to walk to their place of work. So I read the story, and I’m thinking about the COVID deniers that I have seen, and all you got to do is go on social media, and you’ll still find them. This isn’t a real disease, or it’s just like the flu, or you’ve been lied to by the government because they just want to control you — all of these reactions already happened in 15th century Europe. And it was because there was a fear of losing individual personal control. Okay, now we know something not just about science. But now we know something about how to respond to people who are COVID deniers, we have to recognize the place of fear that they’re coming from. It’s not a denial of science as much, it’s a fear of being told that they’re no longer sovereign, and they’re no longer in charge and in control of their own lives. Now, I would say that that’s true. They’re not sovereign, and they’re not in control of their own lives. But the discussion we can then have with them is very different than if we just wave scientific studies in their faces, and say, why don’t you believe the science? So understanding why people react, not only understand science in the way that they do, but react to it in the way they do? If we look at that in history, we learned so much more about us today. Because I do history, we haven’t changed that much.

Stump: 

 Yeah, that’s fascinating. I, too, have found that understanding some of these big moments in the history of science helps people see the current kinds of debates and a little different light, and wish that scientists themselves might have a better understanding of the history of their discipline that they could present things in ways that are that are more in keeping with that. Let me ask you one more question related to the history of science. And you mentioned the book that you’ve written on The History of Western Science, it’s called now. And I find it fascinating that in there almost all of the characters in that story until the 1900s are Christians, yet the institution of Christianity is often found in conflict with the development of science. And I think that’s really curious. I wonder if the explanation is simply, of course people back then were Christians, that was really the only option in Europe during the time science was developing. Or do you see some deeper connection between the Christian worldview of these scientists and the kinds of theories that we’re developing throughout the scientific revolution? 

Bauer:

Yeah, and I would say it is the story of Western science in part because it’s an examination of original sources. That’s the lens through which I’m talking about the story of sciences to look at original writings. There is an enormous amount of Arabic science which is not represented in the book because it just doesn’t exist in good translation and I don’t read Arabic. So what’s represented there is not necessarily representative of scientific achievement. When we look at science, though, what we see is that there are huge advances coming from people who are in theistic religions, we actually do see much more of what is maintained and developed in science. In lands where Islam is the dominant religion, in lands where Judaism is the dominant religion, in lands where Christianity is the dominant religion, we don’t see as much from from the Far East, where there there are non theistic religions. And I think it’s because theism really does give you confidence in a cause and an effect, that you can find a lasting reason for something because you’ve got this model of God the Creator, who speaks in a world comes into existence, and then maintains this world. You can have faith that there are causes that can be discovered, you don’t have to immediately revert to a mysticism in order to explain the natural world. So I think that’s the thread that holds it together, not Christianity, but I think God as creator, God as a maintainer, God as the ultimate reality, meaning that there is an ultimate reality that really acts as a foundation for science.

Stump:

And even a God who freely creates means that we have to go out and look to see how that creation has happened, rather than being able to deduce it as a necessary emanation of like an impersonal being, right? So yeah, there’s an experimental encouragement because of that.

Bauer: 

Yeah. And I’m a fan of mysticism, but mysticism does not lend itself to the development of science. There’s that famous New Yorker cartoon, where the guy’s got this board full of equations, and then in the middle, he’s just written and then a miracle occurs. That becomes in a lot of places where a mystic spirituality rather than a theistic theology is dominant. It seems like it’s almost far too easy to say, well, and then the Spirit moved, and now we’ll go on to the next thing rather than searching for that answer.

Stump:

Wow, very fascinating. We’re running out of time here. What books are you reading these days?

Bauer:

I’m mostly reading stuff about epidemic diseases. It’s just kind of depressing, so sometimes I have to take a break. And actually, I’m reading When We Were Orphans by Ishiguro and what else, oh, and Practical Lambing. I’m looking at the books that are sitting on my table. Those are my most recent two titles.

Stump:

Super. Well, thanks so much for talking to us. We’ll have to do this again sometime.

Bauer:

Thank you. I’m glad we were able to get it on the calendar. 

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, the Fetzer Institute and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you  will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

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Susan Wise Bauer

Susan Wise Bauer is a historian and educator who has earned an array of academic degrees. A respected and well known name in the homeschooling world, Susan has spent much of her career developing reliable resources and curricula for homeschoolers. She is the owner and founder of Well Trained Mind Press and Well Trained Mind Academy.


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