Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom Part 2: Scientism & the Culture of Professionalism

Following up on yesterday’s post, “Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom”, I continue the thread by looking at my friend Ron Miller’s second theme (from his book, What Are Schools For?) which he labels as “Scientific Reductionism”. What intrigues me most in his text is his description of science as a belief system or “ism” (scientism) and the “culture of professionalism” that emerged in America from that belief system.

Ron’s provocative thesis here is that science has been adopted in America not just as a method for acquiring knowledge but as an encompassing belief system, which interestingly enough he finds complementary to mainstream Puritan/Protestant theology rather than a challenge to it. A belief system that goes beyond merely acquiring knowledge, but includes applying it in novel ways.

The scientific revolution was not so much a repudiation of Protestantism as the other side of the Fall/Redemption coin. Scientism retained the religious dichotomy between matter and spirit. The material world is ruled by impersonal, amoral laws, not by any transcendent, self-creative purpose; the spiritual realm is wholly supernatural, and thus not the concern of science. The scientific emphasis on reason over subjective, mystical experience was an exaggeration, but not a rejection, of mainstream Puritan epistemology.

It is fascinating to me (and initially counterintuitive) how this growing belief in science, along with America’s constitutional separation of Church and State, actually enhanced rather than diminished the spread of the Puritan Calvinist theology in American conventional wisdom. While European countries with their state-sponsored religions became more and more secular, America with its explicitly secular government became more and more religious.

As a side note, radical educator and educational historian John Taylor Gatto’s take on this dichotomy is interesting as well. The initial American political elite were secular/political in their orientation and the common folk rebelled against that elite by coalescing around religious beliefs. While in Europe, the elite were generally sectarian religious, and the common folk rebelled against them coalescing around secular/political ideologies like socialism and communism. (It is intriguing to think that maybe if those on the right ever got their wish of turning America into a truly “Christian country” it would do more harm to their cause than good!)

Though not incompatible with Puritan Calvinism, the emerging scientific worldview was moving beyond it as powerful tool transforming American society…

Knowledge of natural laws would give humankind power to control physical events — the highest aim of science. Applied to human affairs by Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and others, the scientific worldview was a major underpinning of the republican vision which moved the American revolutionaries and founding fathers. In an important book, Individualism and Nationalism in American Ideology, Yehoshua Arieli (1964, 110-111) says the Enlightenment taught that “man was capable of reshaping himself and his social life according to the dictates of reason and could reflect in his society the harmony of the laws which maintained the universe.”

In terms of The Chalice and the Blade, partnership versus patriarchy, egalitarianism versus hierarchical authority, there is a lot to consider here. The “man” being “capable of reshaping himself” can easily become “The Man” reshaping others to meet some abstract utopian goal that those others may or may not subscribe to.

If science is in fact a two-edged sword, Ron addresses the more egalitarian “edge” when he says…

The scientific worldview offered a more progressive social philosophy and a more optimistic image of human nature than did Calvinist Protestantism… Those who were most enthusiastic about the scientific worldview, such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine, argued that “unalienable” natural rights applied to all men, and thus called for a broadly democratic society with limited concentrations of political, social, or religious authority. The view that a rational scientific approach is the most authentic means for achieving a humane, democratic society was echoed over a century later in the thought of John Dewey and secular humanists and progressives.

So here are roots of the expressions of the more radical progressive thinking today that still “question authority” and challenges “The Man”. Thomas Jefferson was the most successful of the early American left-wing radicals who challenged authority and the concentration of power, but more on him in my next installment looking at Ron Miller’s take on “Restrained Democratic Ideology”.

But then there is the other “edge” of creating more powerful tools for patriarchal power-over control…

But after the middle of the nineteenth century, the scientific worldview became more aggressive and pervasive. Religion began to share its central cultural role with a consuming scientific positivism; it was believed, with ever greater fervor, that the scientific method could solve all the riddles of the universe and all the problems of society. This echoed the hope of the Jeffersonian republicans — except that nineteenth century science, freeing itself from all religious concern, veered toward materialism, the belief that all reality is essentially physical matter (which is measurable and manipulable) without any spiritual, transcending force. It became more mechanistic, presuming that natural events are produced by lawful cause-and-effect relationships rather than any overarching purpose. And it became more reductionistic, seeking to explain phenomena by breaking everything into component parts and measuring the pieces. By the early twentieth century, even the human sciences had adopted these biases, and still today behavioral and quantitative approaches remain the preferred methods for studying human and social problems.

As the Industrial Revolution emerged in the 19th Century, facilitated by this scientific reductionism and mechanism, the ideas of “mass production” moved beyond creating large quantities of inanimate products to actually looking at making the mass of human beings potential objects of scientific “social” engineering through the application of the social sciences, including sociology, psychology and others.

Paralleling the building of large factories and mills, the 19th Century saw the creation of penitentiaries, asylums and schools to apply scientific techniques to the improvement of humanity toward utopian ends. Some of those ends were egalitarian in nature, like creating a universally educated public (one of American public education founder Horace Mann’s goals) or attempting to rehabilitate criminals and the mentally ill.

Other ends were more elitist and hierarchical, like using public schools to teach the kids of the increasing waves of Catholic immigrants more Protestant values (another goal of Horace Mann). Another was the creation of a new scientific meritocracy, certainly more attuned to enlightened thinking than the old corrupt European aristocratic hierarchies. Still it was a patriarchal hierarchy going against the more egalitarian democratic ideas of Jefferson and later Andrew Jackson.

As Ron frames it…

Professional expertise assumed the new prestige – we might even say mystique – that was beginning to surround science during the latter half of the nineteenth century. The new professions sought, and received, legitimacy by applying “scientific” (i.e. quantitative, analytical, reductionistic) techniques to their work. The social sciences, which promised to explain human nature and control social problems, emerged as important professional applications of scientific technique.

Jefferson’s pastoral agrarian society of “citizen farmers” had given way to a new aristocracy, one of expertise…

The aspiring middle class made a “culture” of professionalism by defining social success more and more in terms of professional status. In a society becoming increasingly technological and impersonal, professional credentials became a visible badge of personal attainment, a rational and standardized way of defining elite status in contrast to the common herd. By the 1870s… the medical, legal, engineering, and education professions had evolved their own associations, terminology, codes of ethics, and more standardized training, which set them apart from, and above, the nonprofessional.

There were certainly more egalitarian aspects of this new aristocracy, including the promise that its upper echelons were open to anyone with the will to learn…

Professionalism had profound implications for education. Since admittance into one of the specialized fields required extensive schooling, education assumed greater and greater importance as the primary avenue to professional and social success. The middle class use of education for economic advancement was greatly expanded by the need to attend high school, college, and graduate school in order to secure professional status. Non-professionals were increasingly disdained as unqualified to conduct the affairs of society, including education. Consequently, the role of educator itself became highly professionalized, with all the trappings of specialized training, “scientific” techniques, and an aura of superior expertise.

In a brand new emulsion of sorts, patriarchal and partnership ingredients are combined to build a new power-over hierarchy of expert authority, but at least one that promised everyone (through the public education system) an equal opportunity to rise in. It was maybe Calvinist religion and Baconian science in an incestuous and uniquely American embrace.

Stay tuned for more about Thomas Jefferson in our next installment of Ron Miller’s American themes, “Restrained Democratic Ideology”.


3 replies on “Five Themes of American Conventional Wisdom Part 2: Scientism & the Culture of Professionalism”

  1. “patriarchal hierarchy going against the more egalitarian democratic ideas”

    You’ve got a couple of errors here. People aren’t all the same in capabilities and character, and it’s been known for about 3000 years that pure democracy distills the worst in human failures to comprehend reality into the sort of lazy entitlement mentality we have now.

    Humans aren’t “blank slates”, you know. Read the book.

  2. First of all… thanks for the comment!

    You’re right people are not blank slates and are not the same in their capabilities.

    But by humanistic principles they all have inherent worth and dignity which in egalitarian terms means they are entitled to speak and to have their views count like everyone else. Democracy or a “circle of equals” does not preclude certain people from taking on or being given by the group tasks they are particularly suited for.

    To “sort” people by capabilities, framing one “better” than the other is more in line with the patriarchal thinking, where the most talented are supposed to rise somehow to the top of a hierarchical structure and exert power over others rather than be given power by others.

    But I really appreciate getting the comments and would love a continued discussion!

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