Science and poetry: The place of physics and metaphysics in Catholic education

It should concern Catholic educators that conventional education has largely replaced the otherworldly with the worldly. This is partially yet particularly manifested in the exaggerated importance given nowadays in many schools to the physical arts over the metaphysical arts. (It is hardly going too far to say that science poses as a new religion in purporting to explain what religion used to express.)

The prevalent emphasis laid on empirical science and mechanical skills in many curricula is curious. Is a school’s merit ever judged according to its poetry program instead of its physics program? No. But, why not? Of course, there are many societal trends that dictate the preoccupation with measurable and manipulative operations and objectives, given that many fortunes are earned through engineering and technical fields; nonetheless the efforts of physical science can only reveal half of the world—the other half belongs to a different form of knowledge. And for this reason, the poetic and the scientific are not mutually exclusive, but mutually confirming.

Poetry, from the Greek poiesis meaning “to make,” is a language art that connects physical and metaphysical reality. It helps us to see that the physical functioning of matter is not all that matters. There are deeper functions and higher forces that cannot be captured by equations. This is the side of nature that serves as a portal to metaphysical contemplation. Poetry, in this broad understanding, is the creative utterance of the mystical sense of creation, expressive of our sensitivity towards it.

Even so, poetry consistently gets a back seat to science given the focus on technical crafts. But even the technician has a soul, and that soul cannot be saved by mechanics alone. It needs something more, something that stands behind the facts of life and makes them what they truly and ultimately are—something that comes before technê and epistêmê, the “how” and the “why,” the practical and the theoretical. That “more” begins with poetic knowledge and poetry. Poetic knowledge, gathered from the experience of things and garnered by the perceptions of the human spirit, should precede and accompany scientific knowledge. It points to truths such as love, fear, joy, goodness, truth, beauty, and the presence of Divine Providence. Practical knowledge without poetic knowledge, therefore, is only getting at a part of the whole truth. And it is the work of education to bring these two visions into a single, intellectual, and spiritual harmony.

Many syllabi, nonetheless, subordinate spiritual exercise to the acquisition of knowledge that is purely functional and utilitarian. But there are essential mysteries of contemplation that defy empirical measurement and their expression begins with the poetic. Plato and Aristotle, for instance, upheld the study of poetic human expression, as it provides a philosophical and theological platform rooted in wonder that rises above the accumulation of facts to the interconnectedness of all subjects understood in their proper relation to one another. The ancients considered this both the beginning and the end of a liberal education, preparing people to live the good life. The harmonious union and cooperation of science and poetry in education serves to embody a complete worldview absent in the arena of modern education, where the measure of things is valued together with the mystery of things.

Consider the sonnet, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” by William Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Is this mere romanticism? Or is there something truthful in poems like this that science cannot quantify or qualify? Some things must be experienced with eyes that see beyond the physical surface of things. Poetry is a neglected portal for this metaphysical view of the cosmos, and as such should be balanced with the systematic disciplines in a well-rounded or complete education. St. Thomas Aquinas, that ox of reason, produced this balance in his own life when, once given a glimpse of God, he called his Summa so much straw and gave himself to poems instead of theorems, singing the Song of Songs to the day he died.

Every creation reflects the Creator, and Catholic educators should realize that Wordsworth, together with the mythopoeic powers he invokes, urges a different, deeper worldview than the one championed by most schools today. One way or another, students must make sense of the world, but how best to understand it? A conglomeration of combined atoms? Or is that too superficial?

Poets like Wordsworth invite the contemplation of the symbolic nature of the world as it struggles against materialistic fixation, together with the balance of body and soul, which must be achieved first in the school if it is to be achieved in the world. Pilate looked in the face of Truth and asked, “What is truth?” The perception of truth hangs in the balance of poetic and scientific education, for as G. K. Chesterton wrote, without poetry there shall be no truthfulness.

SEAN FITZPATRICK is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves as the headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pa. He also serves on the Advisory Council for Sophia Institute for Teachers. His writings on education, literature and culture have appeared in Crisis Magazine, The Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic Exchange.

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