The Case for Adopting Philosophy as a Foundational STEM Subject

Published on 20th August 2019

To align herself to emerging global job trends, Africa is in the midst of an epic, almost frantic science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) implementation wave. STEM experts would be surprised if they are told that to fully understand and optimally propagate their field; they need some level of philosophical understanding. Identifying the nexus between philosophy and science qualifies philosophy as an integral ingredient for STEM.

The isolationist or insulated attitude amongst many scientists today is not reflective of past generations where the unity of philosophy and science was embraced. Philosophy is the mother of all disciplines, including science, because it gave birth to and nurtured every other discipline that exists today. Philosophical questions about the nature of things prompted the emergence and adoption of scientific research in seeking answers.

Until the 19th century, there was no real distinction between a scientist and a philosopher. Great philosophers in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century such as Descartes, Newton, Leibniz and Galileo, among others, were in fact also scientists. Their reflections on Ancient Greek philosophy germinated humanistic thought and consequent creativity, innovations and technology that grew into the scientific revolution in Europe and quickly spread to the known Western world. The successes of STEM studies and the ongoing innovation boom in Eurasia and America is largely a product of their culture of philosophy.

If Africa’s goal is to embrace STEM subjects, trigger social change and ultimately become part of the global family of innovators, the continent must deliberately inculcate a philosophical culture on the continent.

Philosophy has several definitions. For this writing, it is the critical inquiry into the nature and principles of reality, based on logical reasoning. The inquiry involves thinking critically, analytically and coherently about the world in its completeness. It involves asking, answering, and arguing for answers to assumptions about the nature of existence and subsequent reality.

Inductive reasoning that is required in establishing basic premises before scientific demonstrations, and deductive reasoning about abstract ideas and principles constitute a cornerstone to scientific method. Philosophical grounding enables one to critically understand, interrogate, and critique how one knows and similarly impart similar foundational skills to those studying under one’s school.

STEM is a global educational program preparing primary and secondary students for college and graduate study in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It manifests in two perspectives. The first narrower perspective aims to foster inquiring minds, logical reasoning, and collaboration skills in the students at primary and secondary levels. The second is broad; aimed at inculcating into society a culture of science, critical thinking and innovation. It follows that STEM should not be seen only as primarily about increasing the number of students joining university to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but also about equipping them to actively reflect on reality, attempt to make sense and deploy the products of their interrogation in the daily contexts of their schools and homes as well as spread it in the communities.

In this sense then, the STEM program is inextricably linked to philosophy, as they cyclically segue into each other. STEM gives philosophy a way of empirically testing theories and concepts, whilst philosophy underpins and facilitates the development of the scientific methods in use. Philosophy encourages one to think in a more connected and holistic way, and therefore, can improve STEM. The meta-level ways of abstract thinking and knowing that STEM experts, especially teachers, require to effectively understand and teach STEM knowledge, demands that they are at least equipped with a basic understanding of the elements of philosophy.

With a bit of philosophical foundation, STEM teachers will be better able to engage in interactive presentation and analysis of arguments and concepts as well as pass on these skills to students more effectively. Further, the teachers will be acquainted with philosophical approaches to teaching such as the Socratic Method, which is a process of asking the right questions; to stimulate investigations where students are identifying objects, making comparisons, making predictions, testing ideas, and sharing discoveries.

Education policy makers and implementers in Africa, including Kenya, must incorporate philosophy as a foundational and core STEM subject. The Western and Asian countries where STEM studies and innovations appear to flourish have a robust culture of philosophy. Their teachers, almost at all levels, are somewhat equipped with foundational philosophy. At the very least they equip their primary and secondary teachers with an introduction to philosophy.

If African countries such as Kenya are to realize their stated goals in Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa, then they must revitalize STEM education by incorporating basic philosophy in the STEM teacher’s training program. The basic philosophy studies may include studying how human beings develop knowledge (epistemology); the art of good reasoning and problem solving (critical thinking and logic); abstract conception of reality (metaphysics); and guiding principles for harnessing nature for the good for individuals and society (ethics). It is also important that teachers appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of science, hence an introduction to the problem of scientific method - which is an important aspect of creativity and innovation. Philosophical knowledge is both foundational and integral to successful implementation of STEM education.

By George Nyongesa

The author is senior associate at the Africa Policy Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. Email: Twitter: GeorgeNyongesa 

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