Almost every Christmas card reminds us of what has been, for centuries, a traditional pathway to wisdom: the stars. (Search online for “Christmas Card” or “Nativity Scene” and notice how many contain a star!)
The study of celestial objects and phenomena is called astronomy, and it’s considered valuable for developing the mind for several reasons. First, it can help foster a certain way of thinking—in particular, it can help us think about what we see. For example, can we always trust our observations? It does seem that the sun rises, travels across the sky and sets over a stationary earth.
The history of astronomy engages students in these sorts of questions. According to Dr Michael Augros, it is good for the mind to start with things as they appear, come to the recognition that that way of thinking can be deficient, and struggle to see the world differently. In this sense, one of the best educations in how knowledge works is walking students through the historical transition from geocentrism to heliocentrism (a model in which the sun orbits around the earth to one in which the planets revolve around the sun) ... or from belief in incorruptible stars to corruptible ones or circular orbits to elliptical ones.
In other words, tracing the drama of scientific discovery through figures like Ptolemy, Kepler, Galileo and Newton can help students avoid either of two extremes: 1) dismissing empirical science as guess-work or unreliable manipulation of data to further a particular agenda, and 2) assuming empirical science always and uniquely provides accurate, indubitable knowledge. Sadly, by circumventing astronomy in their education, students today can miss out on forming a healthy appreciation of the kind of knowledge science provides as well as the limitations and challenges it entails.
Another reason that stars (and other celestial objects) can lead to wisdom is because they provoke wonder. As mentioned in a previous Pillar, Socrates held that wisdom begins in wonder.
Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
We're approaching Christmas, when we read in Matthew’s gospel of another star of wonder. Readers of Psalm 19 will already be familiar with the notion that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” The particular star in Matthew’s gospel somehow revealed to the Magi the birth of Israel’s king.
Some believe that this strange light was a comet or a supernova that God used to lead the wise men to Bethlehem; others suggest that it was a conjunction of planets or a phenomenon known as a heliacal rising; still others hold that it was a purely supernatural occurrence. In any event, this “first-Christmas astronomy puzzle” should remind us that we may have something to learn about "the work of his hands" from investigating the cosmos. The beautiful patterns and mathematical movements of celestial bodies--what ancient scholars called "the music of the spheres"--is worth listening to!
The Millis Institute follows the Western tradition of including astronomy (as distinct from astrology) in a good liberal arts education (see "Notables" section below). Astronomy engages students in perennial questions about the nature and origin of the universe and their place in it, leading them from wonder to wisdom.
O, Star of wonder, star of night
Star of royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
Astronomy as a Liberal Art
This 15th century painting of the Seven Liberal Arts by Frencesco Pesellino shows the figure of Astronomy seated in the centre (with Ptolemy seated at her feet)!
My students read a fascinating essay by C S Lewis entitled "Our English Syllabus," which contains the following quote:
When the cow has finished eating she chews the cud; when she has finished chewing she sleeps; when she has finished sleeping she eats again. She is a machine for turning grass into calves and milk--in other words, for producing more cows. ... When God made the beasts dumb he saved the world from infinite boredom, for if they could speak they would all of them, all day, talk nothing but shop.
This past weekend I read the following comment by Dr Vigen Guroian about modern education:
[It] treats young men and women precisely as if they were destined to be at shop and to talk shop all day long. ... We prepare young people to become cows and mules rather than men and women. We expend great energy and dedicate vast sums of money towards directing all of youth's energy into the pursuit of a career. We are more concerned that our students learn to be professionals and prepare themselves for careers than we are that they learn about the human condition and cultivate the moral imagination. My [university] has sent out into society far too many souls whose imaginations are starved, who do not know what to do with themselves when they are not at work other than to feed appetites that will never be satisfied and to pursue pleasures that will never bring happiness.