The Sciences in Classical Education

Abigail McRae
Classical education is known for its strength in the Humanities and Arts. With such a reputation, it can appear that the sciences occupy less of a privileged place in a classical curriculum. However, if a school follows a truly classical model, the sciences are part of a balanced core. In the seven classical liberal arts, three are what we would consider part of “the sciences.”
JHCA is fortunate to have Mr. Jozef Benko teach our 12th grade Physics and Chess classes, working closely with our seniors to hone their scientific, mathematical, and spatial reasoning skills. Mr. Benko believes that it’s almost a requirement that you stay classical when teaching these courses. As part of a classical curriculum, chess enhances algebraic and geometrical thinking (and thus is cross-disciplinary), helps students learn good decision-making
(part of character formation), builds sportsmanship, and develops relationships. James Neishabouri, a JHCA senior, said he began to love chess when he learned at a very young age that it was the game commanders of ancient armies would use to plan their next battles. “Through JHCA’s curriculum, I enhanced my love for and knowledge of chess. From the logic and ability to think in advance that chess provided, I thrived in algebra and loved calculus.”

As far as physics goes, Mr. Benko says that teaching Newtonian physics means relying on major classical authors such as Newton and Copernicus, who wrote what essentially are the Great Books of science. “Newton’s Gravitational law; his First, Second, and Third laws; his Christianity and theological writings; all of these make it impossible to be anything other than classical with physics.”

Studying physics is also a study in Christian belief, according to Mr. Benko: “All pioneers of physics were devoted Christians, but we often skip over their statements about God.” Approaching these subjects in a holistic manner, he discusses how Newton, Copernicus, and the other pioneering physicists began their work by asking that God show them the order of His universe. “We wouldn’t even know what chaos was if we didn’t perceive order in the universe.
The universe is deeply mathematical, its language is math, and that it has a language ultimately points to God. The profundity, complexity, beauty, and order of the universe are what formed these thinkers.”

Although these courses are sometimes challenging in the extreme, James says the small class sizes and personal relationships with his teachers help him take ownership of his own learning and seek the answers he needs. They have also taught him about himself: using the circumspection, foresight, and integrated perspective he’s learned from chess and physics, “I have been able to look around at my surroundings and environment and understand things more holistically.”

As a capstone project last semester, the 12 th grade Physics class co-wrote a paper with Mr. Benko demonstrating that the time it takes for a particle to travel through the center of the earth will take 42 minutes, no matter the angle of travel. Each student was responsible for a different aspect of the proof; James worked on the coding, loved it, and expanded what he thought he was capable of. “While I usually cannot stand coding and am a terrible coder,” he says, “I found coding in LaTeX to be both inspiring and enjoyable.” The excellent coding he did was an essential aspect of the overall proof, which relied on different equations rather than the harmonic oscillators more conventionally used to prove the hypothesis. This dovetails with what Mr. Benko has learned from his students: “They’re smarter than they think they are, and their intelligence comes in numerous different ways. Their love of the subject allows them to break past discouragement and failure, keeps them going with their studies, and helps them treasure every discovery.”

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