Science loosely speaking, knowledge is a relation between someone who knows and something that is known. It can therefore be measured in two ways. The first focuses on the quantity of knowers, which depends on the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next. Thus, it will pay to consider the history of educational institutions . The second focuses on the quantity of what is known, which depends on new discoveries and insights. Science is more than just a product, however; it is a process.
It is not just knowledge, but more importantly a method for acquiring knowledge. The best method yet devised for acquiring knowledge emerged during the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s . To fully appreciate this method, it helps to contrast it with what it is not .
Throughout history, most individuals have acquired knowledge on an informal basis: from personal observation, from gossip with peers, and from instruction by elders, including occupational apprenticeships. The beginning of literacy, however, brought formal education: teachers were professionals, and students met at regular appointed hours during which time they self-consciously learned abstract material — material abstracted from the immediate and obvious tasks of living — material without direct practical import.
A visiting dignitary, shown some early electrical machinery, asked: “What use is it?”
The reply, so legend has it, came from Ben Franklin or Michael Faraday or Thomas Edison: “What use is a baby?”
In the West, primary schooling has traditionally focused on the three r’s: reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Secondary schools focus on transmitting culture to adolescents: civics and patriotic history, foreign languages and literature, art and music, and public speaking (plus, more recently, skills traditionally taught by parents such as home economics and industrial arts).
Tertiary education focuses on either professional training (law, nursing) or the liberal arts: skills for free citizens rather than servants and slaves.
In Greece, primary education might last for only three years — long enough for students to acquire literacy sufficient for conducting their businesses and partaking in their civic duties (perhaps half of the free male population, depending on exact time and place). Those from the wealthier families continued with secondary education, where they learned to recite Homer, play the lyre, and practice the arts of war. Those so inclined could undertake tertiary education: they could attend talks by accomplished speakers who toured the lecture circuit or even enroll in one of the research academies. They studied rhetoric and oratory (so as to prevail in the democratic assembly), moral philosophy (for self-improvement), and because they were intensely curious natural philosophy (science).
In the Dark Ages, primary education shriveled and higher education ceased to exist altogether. Virtually everyone was illiterate except for some of the priesthood. Charlemagne (800), for instance the most powerful and pro-education emperor in the whole era could not read.
In the late 1700s, Prussia introduced mass education (publicly financed compulsory universal primary schooling). It was followed by France, the UK, and the US in the mid-1800s. In 1900, the percentage of Americans with a high school diploma was in the single digits; in 1940, the number was one-half.
Into the 1800s, it was still common for primary education to last for only a few years. For the minority who attended secondary schools, students would recite the Bible, learn Greek or Latin, and study algebra, geometry, and some physical science. After WWII, all US citizens were expected to complete twelve years of grade school. Education has expanded because spelling reflects antiquated pronunciation, and so reading and writing require more years’ instruction than before, and because there is more science to learn. Subjects once unknown, now typically covered in primary schools, include geography, decimal-point arithmetic, the carbon cycle, the hydrological cycle, the food pyramid, and the germ theory.
The first university in the world was in Taxila, India (–500). Subsequently several immense institutions of Indo-Buddhist higher education arose (Nalanda, early 400s; Valabhi, 600; Odantapuri, 700; Somapura, 800; Vikramashila, 800; Jagaddala, 1100), most of which were destroyed by invading Muslims around 1200. Nalanda, perhaps the first university with dormitories, grew to 10,000 students and more than a 1000 professors; its library, the Dharma-ganja (Treasury of Truth), held millions of manuscripts.
China had a highly developed system of tertiary education for training state functionaries (appointed on the basis of civil-service exams). By +100 the Imperial Academy had 30,000 students, a number that declined as thousands of decentralized academies, many of them private, spread around the country. They taught the Confucian classics, law, math, martial arts, and the “four arts”: calligraphy, painting, playing the lute, and the game of go. Mastery of the four arts was expected of bureaucrats, known as “scholar-officials”, while obedience and knowledgeability marked the “superior person”. Around 1900, Confucian colleges began to be replaced by modern research universities.
Plato’s Academy may possibly qualify as Europe’s first university. On the one hand it was an institution that combined tertiary education with original state-of-the-art research intended to advance the frontier of knowledge. On the other hand it had no set curriculum and it did not give examinations or award degrees. It opened in –387 and continued until it and other pagan universities were closed down by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 529. Literacy in the West was preserved by monasteries, but only for very few, and only for subjects safe for religion.
During Europe’s dark ages, knowledge of Greek scholarship was partially preserved in the Arab world. Even there, however, institutions of higher education primarily emphasized theology and sharia law. The oldest still-surviving university in the world, al-Qarawiyyin (established 859, Morocco), requires its students today to devote themselves to memorizing the Koran. The most prestigious university in the Muslim world, al-Azhar (est. 970, Cairo), is charged with training government-sponsored preachers and propagating Islam. The largest university of the medieval world, al-Nizamiyya (1065, Baghdad), was destroyed along with the famed House of Wisdom library by Mongols (1258).
Spurred by a growing economy, and the recovery of Aristotle, Euclid, Galen, and other Greek texts during the Crusades, around 1200 there began in Europe an accretion of degree-granting institutions of higher learning. These universities, chartered by kings and popes, granted master’s degrees in “the arts” (especially the arts of writing, speaking, and reckoning: grammar, rhetoric, and mathematics). They also granted doctoral degrees in law, medicine, theology, and “philosophy” (any subject Aristotle wrote upon). The first European universities to be chartered as such were Bologna (1158), Paris (1200), Salamanca (1218), Padua (1222), Naples (1224), Toulouse (1229), Cambridge (1231), Oxford (1248), and nearly a hundred others by 1600. Today there are 26,000 universities in the world.
The English-speaking nations currently have the world’s leading universities, as measured by research excellence. All of the top ten are in the US or the UK: Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Stanford, Caltech, Oxford, Princeton, Berkeley, University of Chicago, and Imperial College London. Twenty of the top twenty-five are in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. Anglophone dominance may be explained by several factors.
The British Isles were insulated from the religious wars that devastated continental Europe, and so they were better organized and more prosperous than their rivals during the 1500s/1600s thus giving the British an initial head start in the Scientific Revolution. More recently, its former overseas colonies escaped the brunt of World War II; indeed, the US benefited enormously from scientists fleeing fascist Europe.
The British scientific head start, combined with their exceptional coal reserves, contributed to a technological and industrial advantage that fed back and reinforced scientific capacity, in an upward spiral.
The UK commanded a trans-oceanic empire from mid-1600 to mid-1900; the US economy is the largest in the world, and has been for more than a century. The two nations have thus enjoyed an out-sized capacity to invest in schools, scholarships, teachers, and researchers. Protestants, who predominate in the English-speaking nations, tend to be more interested in science than Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians.
Due to colonial extension, English has more native speakers than Dutch, French, German, Italian, and the Scandinavian languages combined (Spanish has more, but Iberic societies have shown comparatively little interest in science). This has helped to make English the international language of science, in another self-reinforcing cycle: the more that is published in English, the more attractive English becomes as a second language, which leads to ever more publications in English. In addition, English’s status as lingua franca gives proficient speakers of English an edge on mastering the literature, which makes them more effective scientists.
Success begets success: prestigious universities attract the most donors and draw some of the best minds from the rest of the world. Brain drains harm developing countries and benefit those that are already rich. The anglophone educational record is more mixed at the pre-university level. Among wealthy OECD nations, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand all score below Singapore, Japan, China, and Korea, though still above average. The US scores below average. One reason for its underwhelming performance, given the wealth of the nation, may have to do with the high rates of home-schooling and the use of parochial schools (which undermine funding for public education). An additional reason may be that the high number of immigrants in the US struggle with their language of instruction. Relatedly, social inequality brings down the US averages, with many superior scores washed out by sub-average scores. Still another reason is that the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese languages use regular numerical systems, which enable school children to learn arithmetic more readily. Finally, Confucian cultures honor learning, which many Americans are suspicious of.
Every society possesses science: hence historians speak of Babylonian science, Chinese science, 19th century science, and so on. Some societies are more advanced in their science than others: they have accumulated larger databases of observations, they have constructed more models and theories (general explanatory principles that yield predictions), and they’ve gone about it in a more effortful self-consciously systematic way.
Infant science is found in oral folk traditions. Science moves beyond a crawl when it is professionalized when select individuals within a society are trained and paid to devote their lifetimes to advancing knowledge. Scientists learned to walk in ancient Greece, and they began to run in Europe around 1600.
Folk science. In primitive cultures, people know about daily cycles and seasonal cycles, and they know a great deal of zoological and botanical lore. Some folk science is correct: the reason elk migrate really is because of seasonal changes in climate. Some folk science is incorrect: thunder is not the result of clouds colliding into each other; water can turn solid (contrary to the beliefs of tropical islanders without experience of ice); and bats are not birds (contrary to the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews).
Professional science. Civilizational societies possess quantitatively more science, or more knowledge, than primitive nomadic societies; and it is of a higher quality, having been more refined in debate and more rigorously tested against observation. First, the use of writing