A philosopher, seeking to synthesize science and mysticism into the oxymoronic “spiritual science,” instigates a theory of education whereby teachers actively “hold students in consciousness” and contemplate inspiring pedagogical texts. The farcical philosophy behind this movement is anthroposophy, which postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development!

Another philosopher rebels against the “authoritarian” teachers and gives full freedom to students to decide what is to be taught. The philosophy behind this approach is pragmatism, which tries to synthesize scientific thinking with religiosity and older philosophies and is against any theory that has no immediate utility. Student’s social interaction and the practical usefulness of subject matters taught gain prominence in this pedagogy, while the interest of students in abstract subjects like mathematics is dubbed “showing off.”

A psychologist argues that any subject can be taught to any child at any stage of development, and bases his influential educational philosophy on this absurd idea. Students become inquirers charged with the intellectually Herculean task of discovery, while the teacher plays the role of a facilitator. This inquiry-based pedagogy takes away the “shoulders of giants” from under the students’ feet, causing them not to “see further than others” as Isaac Newton so famously did.

Another psychologist defines intelligence essentially as whatever human beings are capable of doing and bases a theory of education on the idea of multiple intelligences. According to this theory there are several categories of intelligence two of which are logical – mathematical and bodily – kinesthetic. Therefore, an American football superstar is as intelligent as a theoretical physics Nobel Laureate. And the inclusion of interpersonal category prompts an author rightfully to write a book about sexual intelligence!

None of these strategies – or countless others that are based on one kind of philosophy or another – has worked. Philosophy is, after all, just a collection of opinions. And opinions are not necessarily true;  even if they are, their truth is transient. Is there any pedagogy that is not based on a philosophy? To answer this question, we have to answer another one. What exactly is education? History can be a helpful guide.

A philosopher, seeking to synthesize science and mysticism into the oxymoronic “spiritual science,” instigates a theory of education whereby teachers actively “hold students in consciousness” and contemplate inspiring pedagogical texts. The farcical philosophy behind this movement is anthroposophy, which postulates the existence of an objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world accessible to direct experience through inner development!

Another philosopher rebels against the “authoritarian” teachers and gives full freedom to students to decide what is to be taught. The philosophy behind this approach is pragmatism, which tries to synthesize scientific thinking with religiosity and older philosophies and is against any theory that has no immediate utility. Student’s social interaction and the practical usefulness of subject matters taught gain prominence in this pedagogy, while the interest of students in abstract subjects like mathematics is dubbed “showing off.”

A psychologist argues that any subject can be taught to any child at any stage of development, and bases his influential educational philosophy on this absurd idea. Students become inquirers charged with the intellectually Herculean task of discovery, while the teacher plays the role of a facilitator. This inquiry-based pedagogy takes away the “shoulders of giants” from under the students’ feet, causing them not to “see further than others” as Isaac Newton so famously did.

Another psychologist defines intelligence essentially as whatever human beings are capable of doing and bases a theory of education on the idea of multiple intelligences. According to this theory there are several categories of intelligence two of which are logical – mathematical and bodily – kinesthetic. Therefore, an American football superstar is as intelligent as a theoretical physics Nobel Laureate. And the inclusion of interpersonal category prompts an author rightfully to write a book about sexual intelligence!

None of these strategies – or countless others that are based on one kind of philosophy or another – has worked. Philosophy is, after all, just a collection of opinions. And opinions are not necessarily true;  even if they are, their truth is transient. Is there any pedagogy that is not based on a philosophy? To answer this question, we have to answer another one. What exactly is education? History can be a helpful guide.

Before there was a philosophy of education – which started in the nineteenth century – there was just education. It was the medium in which one generation transferred its knowledge to the next. Post-Renaissance education, Middle-Ages education, Greek education, Babylonian and Egyptian education were all of this kind. In fact, we can trace this all the way back to our tool-making ancestors. As soon as the first homo erectus bashed two stones together, they knew instinctively that they had to pass on this newly acquired skill to the next generation.

And from then on, the forces of evolution were directed solely at the brain, whose development was driven by the newer and newer skills taught by the current generation to its offspring. The evolution of the rest of the body became subordinate to the function of the brain.

When our ancestors discovered how to start a fire, by sheer instinct, they educated their next generation on how the new discovery worked. When the first words were uttered, our ancestors made a point of passing on this abstract skill to their offspring. As the abstractness of the skill increased, so did its perceived necessity and importance. And the transfer of the abstract knowledge required the participation of more and more members of the social network (teachers). Egyptians made sure that the next generation acquired the newly discovered abstract skill of writing and built institutions in which this took place. A tablet, probably used in the first madrasahs to teach Babylonian children the abstract skill of the latest technique of multiplication, still exists. Plato insisted on teaching the Greek children the abstract skills of reading, writing, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music in elementary schools. Considering the fact that the first book on geometry – Euclid’s Elements – was not written until almost a century after Plato, and therefore, that geometry was at the forefront of research during Plato’s lifetime, you can imagine how rigorous – and measured by today’s American standards, insane – his curriculum was. Nevertheless, Plato’s educational ideology was arguably the most important factor in the development of the Greek genius.

The only notable exception were the Romans, who were more interested in practical things like politics, entertainment (the gladiatorial “games”), military, law, and oratory than in abstract skills.

Cicero, the Roman statesman, orator, and educator famously said “the investigation of nature seeks to find out either things which nobody can know or things which nobody needs to know.”

This reflected, and simultaneously guided the Romans’ attitude toward science and mathematics. The fact that a “Roman mathematician” or a “Roman physicist” sounds like an oxymoron is the outcome of this attitude. Another outcome was the Dark Ages, which occurred because of the global outreach of the Roman ideology, which started when a Roman soldier murdered Archimedes in 212 BCE and ended when Copernicus published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543 ACE. The pictures of gladiators and the torture chambers of The Inquisition between Archimedes and Galileo in the banner of the website is a sad and disturbing testimony to what happens when social conditions interfere with the course of our evolution.

Conclusion? Our evolution demands the teaching of the most abstract ideas to our children in as early a stage as possible. Plato’s pedagogy proved to be so effective as to lead the Greek society to a historically unprecedented intellectual glory. Let us then adapt his pedagogy to our education. The modern equivalent of Plato’s astronomy – the fundamental science of his time – is physics; and the equivalent of geometry and arithmetic is mathematics.

The present-day education must emphasize teaching our children the five fundamental abstract skills: reading, writing, music (and the arts), physics, and mathematics. The first three are the means by which our species communicates with itself. The last two are the means by which it communicates with Nature.

Wait before you start laughing at me! Go back 40-50 thousand years and tell a mother that someday her 4-year old child will be able to speak. She will laugh into your face as if you were crazy and say that she herself can barely pronounce a few monosyllable words! That she has heard of this superhuman genius, living in a cave not too far from hers, who can put a few words together and make a sentence! … But now we know that the human brain is a remarkable organ which can change its own anatomy to accommodate our new skills, and that is how our 4-year-olds have become capable of learning a language.

Chemists, biologists, and other scientists may think that they have been discriminated against. That is by no means the intention of the statement above. The ability to read is essential for understanding and appreciating literature and poetry, and their exclusion in the statement does not devalue literature and poetry. Chemistry, (molecular) biology, and other sciences are the literature of physics and their exclusion in the statement does not denigrate their importance. As for mathematics, its teaching is crucial because it is the language in which physics is spoken and written.

How do we accomplish the seemingly impossible task of teaching our youth physics and mathematics? The same way we teach them any skill: practice, making mistakes, more practice! To learn our mother tongue, we practice, make mistakes, and practice more, and the brain builds a place to permanently store the language. To learn to play an instrument, we practice, make mistakes, and practice more, and the brain changes itself to accommodate our musical ability. To learn to write, we practice, make mistakes, and practice more, and the brain creates a place to store the writing skill. Physics and mathematics are no exceptions.

The only way to learn physics and mathematics is to practice physics and mathematics, make mistakes, and practice more physics and mathematics.

That’s how physicists learn physics and mathematicians learn mathematics. If you don’t believe this, ask any accomplished physicist or mathematician, or any of the thousands of homeschooling or immigrant parents, or countless Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, and … teachers, whose children or pupils learn to master differential equations before finishing high school!

The brain will make the task easier by eventually finding an evolutionary path to change its anatomy to permanently store physics and math skills. … Yes, even in our 5-year-olds!