The Paradigm of Revolt in Public Education

In 1962, historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn shocked the academic world with his book The Structures of Scientific Revolution. He asserted that scientific communities are closed minded and promote convergent thinking as a function of dogma in scientific work. The jolt is that science is popularly thought of as promoting divergent thinking and open-minded inquiry. Kuhn concedes that in the beginning when questions are first arising around a subject this is the case, but once a field rounds up its foundational questions, it forms a set of assumptions that become the dogmatic underpinnings of that community. Kuhn explains that “a scientific community cannot practice its trade without some set of espoused beliefs.”

Kuhn called these sets of assumptions “paradigms” and though there has been much confusion about this word, by paradigm he meant two basic things. First, the notion of a model, a piece of work in a scientific discipline that serves as an example for other works in that discipline. Second, a disciplinary matrix or a view of the world and what an explanation of it should look like. He asserted that this is something you acquire as a result of having worked through typical questions in a particular discipline or community.

Kuhn characterized normal science as the work scientists do with a paradigm. The paradigm is a blueprint and the regular work of scientists is to solve puzzles that fill out the paradigm. If a scientist and his experiment do not prove the assumptions they are considered a failure, not the paradigm. These unsolved puzzles are rejected by the community, not based on whether or not they are true, but because they did not support the paradigm.

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Over time the unsolved puzzles accumulate and eventually there are variations and a divergent view grows and leads to a paradigm breakdown and thus the ground is laid for revolt. This process leads to extraordinary science which aims at inculcating a replacement paradigm. Kuhn says that “a shift in professional commitments to shared assumptions takes place when an anomaly subverts the existing tradition of scientific practice.”

These shifts are what Kuhn calls scientific revolutions. He noted that changes in science were less changes in reality than changes in fashion. His theory called into question the accepted notion that science is a rational approach to interpreting reality and asserts it is more of a social phenomenon similar to that of mob rule. An interesting fruit of the tree of Kuhn’s theory is Scientific America’s diatribe series against Ben Stein’s movie Expelled.

In a written discussion, Dr. Christopher Blum explained that Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions rests in two truths; that the first principles of any science are themselves indemonstrable and that trust in a teacher comes at the beginning of learning. Aquinas’ Commentary on the Posterior Analytics demonstrates the first and St. Augustine’s On the Usefulness of Belief elucidates the second.

When Aristotle’s first principles were discarded and replaced by the Cartesian and reductionists schemes of enquiry, the human condition was replaced by artifacts. The project of reforming the human person to the image of Christ was transformed into a revolt against our human limits. The culture of life was replaced by the culture of death. The Enlightenment philosophers returned to the errors of the pre-Socratics.

In 1798 Joseph de Maistre observed “since the time of the Reformation, there has been a spirit of revolt which really struggles, sometimes publically, sometimes privately, against all sovereign powers and especially against monarchies.” The rejection of Aristotelian first principles and the authority of the good teacher have led to this modern climate of radical skepticism and radical individualism. De Maistre called it “the revolt of individual reason against general reason.”

Dan Robinson wrote in 1985 “the social and scientific revolutions of the past two centuries have transformed our perspective on the most fundamental aspects of civilized life.” The changes wrought on human living since the scientific revolution “invade regions of life and thought that have nothing to do with science itself,” especially the public schools.

Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions has the potential to expose operations in the pseudo-scientific field of American public education. For the last century there has been a series of revolts and hostile takeovers between warring paradigms, all of them possessing a set of unifying assumptions excavated from the infertile ideologies of the Enlightenment thinkers. Kuhn’s theory finds a starker relief and clarity when used as a lens to interpret the trends in public education; its reliance on manmade dogma, fashionable sentiments and mob rule.

Today we witness a particularly massive revolt by adherents of the Common Core Standards paradigm successfully vying to take over the insolvent State Standards curriculum. To see the nature of revolt when a new paradigm is warring against an old paradigm, several in the throng of the Common Core advocates provide two excellent examples of how propaganda, fashionable sentiment and mob rule are used to destroy the credibility of the old paradigm. This video called Why We Need Common Core Standards mocks the outcomes of the old paradigm and makes false implications that the new paradigm will be better.

The video Mr. Winkle Wakes up plays on the false theme that public schools haven’t changed in the last 100 years. It promotes the fish story that our public schools need more technology to be brought up to date, encouraging the same utilitarian progressive paradigm that has sucked the life out of our public education for so many generations. A colleague fighting the good fight against the Common Core curriculum called this the “computer geek” paradigm.

Both videos are dishonest propaganda and misleading. Education has been in a state of constant flux and the changes in the last 100 years have been dramatic. The new Common Core Standards are not new, just a repackaging of previously failed paradigms. These two videos are a childish attempt to destroy the existing paradigm and build a pathological support base for the new Common Core Standards. It is an act of revolution to pave the way for the new paradigm and has no connection to true progress. This mirrors Kuhn’s descriptions of the scientific communities.

My colleagues and I have been shown these dreadful videos no less than six times in various trainings over the year. We are encouraged to laugh at how stupid the past paradigm has been and to cheer the new one. And though they are right in identifying this last paradigm as dreadful, the replacement paradigm is worse. Kuhn would confirm that it is only a matter of time before we teachers find ourselves sitting in front of a new set of propagandistic videos condemning and ridiculing the Common Core standards. Perhaps the next paradigm will be a new internationally imposed curriculum that will prepare our children for economic survival of the fittest in the “global village.”

In this modern age, Dan Robinson, in The Wonder of Being Human, succinctly observes the process by which the scientific communities invade spheres of life not properly under their jurisdiction.

What begins as a discovery in science, or even a scientific conjecture, is soon taken as a model or metaphor of some larger realm of human concern. In time, at the urging of the leaders of public opinion, the metaphor becomes installed as the reality and the seasonless convictions of the ordinary person are thus put on official notice! Only years later, under reality’s sobering lights, does it once again become clear that our ageless dilemmas have survived these once “new truths”; that the vexing problems of value have not surrendered to the thick and thickening book of fact; that the most recent revolutions of perspective have done little more than move us around the circle whose center is the human condition.

Thomas Kuhn’s explanation of paradigm shifts reveals more than may be readily apparent. Recall the very first paradigm shift when the light bearer uttered his “non serviam” in a prideful rage and fashioned the archetypical pattern for the paradigm of revolt. It was laid at the feet of our first parents by our slithering enemy. And now from time immemorial we have two basic choices: the paradigm of revolt or the paradigm of reform. The prophets reminded us of the righteous choice by crying out “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” The very first lines of the Apostles’ catechism the Didache recapped: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death.” The good teacher St. Augustine expanded upon the vital theme in his masterpiece The City of God. In Evangelium Vitae,  John Paul the Great brings this reality to our era by the hermeneutic of continuity in what he rightfully called “culture of death” as the paradigm of revolt that we must cast-off in favor of the Gospel of Life.

In the field of public education, reality’s sobering lights are effectively and increasingly obscured by the fog of scientism and revolutionary propaganda. Public education has clearly chosen the paradigm of revolt. As Catholic parents we ought to reject the constant paradigm shifts of the public schools and demand a reformation to an education grounded in Aristotelian first principles, staffed by good teachers grappling with the perennial questions of life and the realities that concern the human condition, especially our proper end in eternal beatitude. Our inquiries into the natural world and the education we seek for our children must square with the paradigm of reform to the Christ, the one immutable doctrine unaffected by revolt; our eternal disposition depends on it.


  • Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg

    Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a Catholic convert and a teacher with over twenty years experience in the public education system. He graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a degree in History in 1991. He is also a husband and father of 3 children and a catechist at his parish in Bakersfield, California.

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