In June 1633, an elderly man was required to drop to his knees and effectively deny his life’s work. Galileo Galilei’s recantation to the Roman Inquisition obliged him to affirm that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, orbited by the Sun.
He had previously got into trouble for pointing out that the Moon, instead of being a perfect heavenly sphere, was actually a lump of rock with craters on it, as revealed through his telescope. Again, Galileo had to recant.
It remains one of the most disgraceful episodes in intellectual history. Science had attempted to speak the truth to power, and religious power crushed science.
The story of Galileo’s trial – and the power struggle between science and the Inquisition – was brilliantly dramatised by Bertolt Brecht in his play, The Life of Galileo.
Another startling literary fable is the 22-page story-within-a-story of the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoievski’s The Brothers Karamazov. It tells the tale of how, in the 1600s, Jesus returned to Earth, performing acts of kindness as well as miracles, including the revival of a young girl’s body after an accident.
Instead of being thrilled and delighted by the return of Jesus to the world, the Grand Inquisitor has Jesus arrested, promising to burn him as a heretic the following day.
The Grand Inquisitor recognises that Jesus might get in the way of the church’s mission to frighten people into submission.
Throughout his interrogation, as Dostoievski tells it, Jesus remains silent, looking on benignly at the Grand Inquisitor as he is sentenced to death. At the end, he still says nothing. Instead, he does something extraordinary. He kisses the Inquisitor tenderly on the lips in forgiveness. The Inquisitor is so shaken by this act that he lets Jesus go.
It is a lesson in how an impulse to love can grow into a system, how a gospel of kindness can harden into an institution that then distorts the original message from love to fear.
The clash between science and the church was one of power. For the church, faith was what mattered, not knowledge. Science, on the contrary (scio is the Latin verb to know) was founded on the need to understand, to verify its truths through repeated experiment.
Since the time of Galileo, and even since Dostoievski, it is science that has grown to enjoy much more power. We can see that in the recent advice given to governments in handling the Covid emergency, and in the influence that scientific modelling has had on policy decisions. Not everyone is convinced by science, though.
When in 1971 the Apollo astronaut David Scott simultaneously dropped a 1.32kg hammer and a 30g feather on the Moon to prove Galileo’s findings about falling objects in gravitational fields, some declared the film footage a fake, supposedly contrived on a soundstage back on Earth.
It is right to be intellectually sceptical and to question evidence. But the outright denial of science, whether in the form of the anti-vax movement, rejection of evidence for climate change, or the dismissal of Covid-19 as a hoax, can have its dangers.
Science plays a key part in any modern school curriculum. Meanwhile religion has been marginalised, and in many cases has virtually disappeared.
Both science and religion are examples of what are called ‘grand or master narratives’ – narratives that attempt to explain the world and human life within one theoretical framework. The last great master narratives were developed by three late Victorian patriarchs – Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud.
Darwin considered evolution to be the key to understanding human life. Marx developed a theory of economics that explained human societies and historical forces, while Freud thought that sexuality was the motive and source of human behaviour.
With the collapse of Communism, however, and the totalitarian nightmares of Stalin and Mao, Marxist theory became discredited.
Instead of reassuring us that the mind could be healed through rational analysis, Freud only succeeded in proving that human minds are full of irrational, aggressive and erotic instincts.
Meanwhile, Darwin's narrative of biological adaptation has been haunted by the spectre of genetic engineering and warped by the sense that life evolved not in any logical or progressive way, but rather in ways that were brutally random and ruthlessly cruel.
In our postmodern era, the idea of the master narrative has been eclipsed. No longer is any single system of thought seen to explain everything. Instead, intellectual theory has fragmented into a series of micro or meta-narratives, a mosaic of ideas that, put together, approximate a series of truths rather than one ultimate and overarching Truth.
This postmodern view is enshrined in the curriculum, whereby events, themes and ideas are looked at from different perspectives and multiple points of view. This reflects the pluralistic, relativistic world we live in, where we are left to put the bits together to form some kind of coherent whole.
It is not an easy world to navigate, and some might be nostalgic for a clarifying master narrative. Now, themes of identity, sexuality, race, are all hotly contested. More recently, Brexit, Trump, and Covid have revealed the ideological fault lines that run through society, polarising people’s views.
How can students learn meaningfully engage with such a world? The more internationally-minded they are, the more creative and critical they are, the more able they will be to survive and thrive in this fractured landscape. They might even find it exciting.
It is our job to prepare and inspire them. It is the great educational challenge of our time.
Principal & CEO