By Nathaniel Saylor
“Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth.” – Archimedes
A few weeks before the start of the school year a score of students are sawing, filing, glueing, constructing. They are building trebuchets – a medieval war engine – on a small scale. Archimedes was moved to make his boast of moving the Earth when he uncovered and described the secrets of the lever. Mastery of different kinds of levers led eventually to the trebuchet. So at Trebuchet Camp, the boys are learning one of the ways science evolved from its beginnings in ancient Greece to more complex technological applications in 14th century Europe.
As the boys build, they are also learning medieval history. The largest trebuchet ever built, War Wolf, so terrified the besieged Scots in Stirling Castle that they sent King Edward Longshanks a surrender before its construction was completed. He ignored their white flag, preferring to see what his massive machine would do. A few weeks later 300 pound missiles brought down whole sections of the castle wall.
Some of the boys complete their project and begin lobbing marbles, competing for range and accuracy. We read about the siege of Kaffa by the invading Mongols, and the trebuchet’s contribution to biological warfare:
“As Mongol forces besieged this Genoese outpost on the Crimean peninsula, the Black Death swept through their ranks. Diseased corpses were hurled into the city, and from Kaffa the Black Death spread to the Mediterranean ports of Europe via Genoese merchants.”
That gets the boys’ attention. Their imagination is at work as they listen. They are learning about a fascinating technology, and they are also learning about the moral struggles that accompany it.
At Western the imagination and the capacity for wonder have pride of place because we are aiming to grow wise young men. When it comes to teaching science, there is a tightrope to walk. On the one hand, we want to celebrate the accomplishments of science without embracing a reductionist view of the world that often accompanies an education in the “hard sciences.” On the other hand, we are not interested in a pseudo-science that takes its every cue from religion.
“For the wise men of old,” wrote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution has been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.” But for applied science, “the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique…” This dissection of the world via applied science is not necessarily a problem, until man begins to practice this dominion without wisdom or virtue. A quick look around is enough to convince that technological progress does not necessarily entail progress in wisdom. The Internet and related technology, for example, is a seemingly infinite expanse of divided and subdivided bits of knowledge. We all too easily get lost – distracted – in the maze.
Lewis asks if it might be possible to imagine a “regenerate” science: “When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole.” This is the call to arms at Western. We teach the boys to employ the scientific method: teach them to hypothesize, to experiment, to collect and analyze empirical data. In this way they learn to take the world apart piece by piece, to analyze, to abstract, and this gives them part of the truth.
We teach them to build a broad view of the world, supported by empirical knowledge and also by what we may call “poetic” knowledge. This intuitive knowledge, gained by experience and by a liberal arts education, will keep the boys grounded in wisdom and virtue. By giving priority to wisdom, we make our scientific knowledge truly valuable and meaningful.
Modern science does, as that ancient scientist predicted, move the Earth. We must have the wisdom to ask why and where.
1. Chevveden, Paul and Les Eigenbrod, Vernard Foley, Werner Soedel. “The Trebuchet.” Scientific American. Web. Feb. 2002. p2
2. Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. Harper Collins. 1944. Print. p77