The Age of Revolution and Science

The Age of Revolution and
Science (1600 – 1850)
Social Conditions in the Age of
Revolution and Science
The World - 1777
American Colonies - 1776
Changing Power Structures
As the western world moved towards
establishing the language of human and
civil rights into law, sophistic thinkers
manipulated the new system to guarantee
that the laws as administered continued to
serve their interests and privileges.
Land Scandals
In 17th century America, land was available as it
had never been in Europe. Poor farmers whose
families had labored under the feudal system for
generations could now afford their own plots.
However, as Meyers has documented, large
land companies worked (often through bribery
and corruption) to obtain large tracts of land,
paying virtually nothing.
They then sold small pieces at exorbitant prices,
which often drove the farmers into debt and
forced them to give their land back to the sellers.
Factory Conditions
Another example can be seen in the rising
power of the factory. Workers were often
forced to labor 14 to 16 hours a day for a
few dollars a week. They were unable to
form labor unions or go on strike for any
reason because it was illegal to do so.
When workers did attempt to unionize or
protest, the U.S. government often
responded with military force.
Persecution and Intolerance
The Inquisition, which began in the 12th century, lasted
well into the 19th, and continued to stifle freedom of
The Atlantic slave trade (roughly 1502-1820) became a
powerful economic force and millions lived and died in
conditions which cannot be captured by words. Thus a
theory was required to justify the systematic targeting
of specific groups for enslavement. It was at this time
that racism emerged.
Scores of indigenous groups were exterminated or
assimilated, their cultures forever altered or destroyed.
Some of these genocidal movements were systematic,
some were accidental, and some were a mix of both.
Significance to Critical Thinking
Work conditions, and the hours required, severely
hampered the ability of many to develop their minds.
Incentives existed for those who worked hard and obeyed
orders, and not to those who questioned established
It was very difficult to obtain land, despite the vast “unused”
areas, and therefore difficult to escape factory and city work.
Sophistic critical thinking began to take off as the market
benefited those whose skills of thought enabled them to
control and manipulate others. Fortunes were made through
bribery, corruption, and blatant human rights violations.
While many Europeans lived in far less than ideal
conditions, their non-European counterparts had virtually no
chance to develop their minds as they were, quite literally,
fighting for their lives.
A Brief Look at Education – 17th Century
“The colonies did not provide teachers with any technical
preparation for their work, were satisfied to conduct
schools as best they could, employing anyone to teach
who could be secured for the relatively small wage which
the community was able to provide.”
The first schools were established in America by
Protestants who sought to teach the congregation how to
read the bible. From the school law in Connecticut, 1950:
“It being the chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to
keep men from a knowledge of the scriptures.” Children
were thus taught how to read and write in order to avoid
coercion by the devil. – Lincoln Library of Essential
Information, pp 1623
In 1671 Governor Sir William Berkeley of Virginia remarked
“I thank god there are no free schools, and I hope we
shall not have them these hundred years; for learning
has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the
world.” – A Student’s History of Education, pp 192
Harper’s Index of Education
Percentage of married couples in a hundred year study of
Perquiman’s County, NC (1676 – 1776) who were able to
sign their own names: 54
Number of school days attended, in a lifetime, by the
average American living in 1800: 82
Number of days in 1840: 208
Combined total of the graduating classes of Harvard, Yale,
Princeton, Williams, Pennsylvania, and the University of
South Carolina in 1815: 267
Percentage of those graduates who went into the clergy: 70
First year in which a federal office of education was
established (for information gathering purposes only: 1867
Portion of the 750 American colleges in 1830 controlled by
religious denominations: 2/3
Possible Significance to Critical Thinking
The development of the intellect cannot thrive in an
environment dominated by superstition, myth, or
religious dogma.
Strong sense critical thinking is a lifelong process
which necessitates regular practice. This is not
likely when most cannot read and are only exposed
to learning in a disciplined environment for a few
dozen days a year.
Local unemployed, with no training and probably
little education themselves, are not the best
candidates for fostering critical thought in the minds
of children.
Some Insight into Curriculum and Teaching Methods
In 1838, Horace Mann wrote in his report to the
Massachusetts Board of Education: ““More than
11/12ths of all the children in the reading classes do
not understand the meanings of the words they
read; and that the ideas and feelings intended by
the author to be conveyed to, and excited in, the
reader’s mind, still rest in the author’s intention,
never having yet reached the place of their
“Public education in America has, throughout its
entire history, emphasized training for work almost
to the exclusion of training for leisure.…the youth
received rigorous training in memorizing processes.
There was little motivation other than reproof,
punishment, and the awe of failure.” - William
Reavis. “Cultivation of Leisure Activities”. The
Elementary School Journal, Vol. 37, No. 9, (May,
1937), pp. 678
Possible Significance to Critical Thinking
Memorization and regurgitation are not effective
means for developing critical capacities. Thinking is
driven by questions. Critical thinking, among others,
seeks to analyze and evaluate systems for their key
ideas and basic logic. Unless the mind is given
opportunities for self reflection and effective tools
for self analysis, significant flaws in thinking are
likely to remain undiscovered and unprocessed.
Job training, while possibly effective at creating
more efficient and productive workers, is not
A school system based on punishment and fear is
not conducive to encouraging young minds to think
for themselves and come to their own conclusions.
These are vital traits to critical thinking.
Influential Thinkers in the Age of
Revolution and Science
Descartes (1596 – 1650)
Key Idea: Descartes is most famous for the idea “Cogito
ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) which is a shortened
version of “Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum” (I doubt, therefore
I think, therefore I am). This was the beginning of his attempt
to reduce the world into things known and things not known.
By beginning with himself, and proving that he existed, he
could then expand to include other natural phenomena.
Key Idea: Descartes developed a theory of the relationship
between the mind and the body which is to modern minds
exceedingly obvious, yet to his contemporaries it was
groundbreaking. Whereas most argued that either the body
controlled the mind or the mind controlled the body,
Descartes concluded that both could influence each other.
The mind could control the body but the body could also
influence the mind.
Descartes (contd.)
Key Idea: Descartes was also an
accomplished mathematician who developed
several mathematical branches including
calculus and the Cartesian Plane (the xy chart
on which lines are graphed).
 Key Idea: Descartes believed that humans
were the only creatures with minds and that
animal noises did not signify that they were in
pain. He thus performed many vivisections
(dissection of live animals) and influenced
many others to do the same.
Significance of Descartes to Critical
Descartes was extremely committed to the
power of human reasoning to solve problems,
to developing reasoning skills, to thinking
systematically and in a disciplined manner, to
thinking about a wide range of subjects, and
to lifelong learning.
 However, we also see a certain arrogance
and inability or unwillingness to question key
assumptions. His belief in the superiority of
humans, for example, led to incredible
suffering and pain.
Galileo (1564 – 1642)
Key Idea: Galileo, building on the work of
Copernicus and using his own improved
version of the telescope, developed scientific
evidence which proved that the Earth
revolved around the Sun, not the other way
around (this is known as the heliocentric, sun
centered, as opposed to geocentric, earth
centered, view). The Catholic Inquisition
forced him to recant this idea and did not
allow him to leave his house for the remaining
years of his life.
Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)
Key Idea: Isaac Newton, like Galileo,
contributed much to the scientific revolution.
Two of his most important discoveries were
the law of gravity and the three laws of
motion. By defining and calculating gravity, he
made many calculations possible, including
those which eventually erased all doubt over
the heliocentric view of the universe. His three
laws of motion laid the groundwork for
modern engineering.
Significance of Galileo and Newton
to Critical Thinking
Both of these thinkers demonstrated a
disciplined and systematic approach to
thinking, a belief in the power of reason, a
commitment to question received belief and
orthodoxy (though, in the case of Galileo, not
necessarily to the point of death), as well as a
willingness to think about a wide range of
Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809)
Key Idea: Thomas Paine was first and foremost a
champion of civil liberties. His first major publication
Common Sense, was a groundbreaking work wherein
he critiqued many commonly held beliefs regarding
the nature of government and its role in human affairs.
It is considered the first work which argued for
separation from Britain. It was so widely read that, by
proportion, it is the best selling book in American
history. A contemporary wrote of his influence on the
American Revolution that: “without the pen of Paine,
the sword of Washington would have been wielded in
Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice
These two works represent Paine’s thinking
through the idea of civil rights, government,
social stratification, economics, and a host of
other interconnected ideas revolving around the
question “how can humans live in large scale
societies while maintaining equality for all?”
“The world is my country, and to do good my
“Where liberty is not, there is my country.”
“While men could be persuaded they had no rights, or
that rights appertained only to a certain class of men,
or that government was a thing existing in right of
itself, it was not difficult to govern them authoritatively.
The ignorance in which they were held, and the
superstition in which they were instructed, furnished
them the means of doing it. But when the ignorance is
gone, and the superstition with it; when they perceive
the imposition which has been acted upon them; when
they reflect that the cultivator and the manufacturer
are the primary means of all the wealth that exists in
the world, beyond what nature spontaneously
produces; when they begin to feel their consequence
by their usefulness, and their right as members of
society, it is no longer then possible to govern them as
before. The fraud once detected cannot be reenacted. To attempt is to provoke derision, or invite
Paine and Religion
Key Idea: Thomas Paine’s The Age of
Reason, which was a comprehensive
critique of established orthodoxies, was
possibly the first open attack on religion for
more than a millennium.
 While himself a deist who fervently
defended his belief in god, he carefully
traced the destruction to human life and
reason which organized religion had
Significance of Paine to Critical
Paine himself represents one of a small number of
paradigms of fair-minded criticality. Like Socrates, he
lived what he taught and his thinking was deeply
grounded and painstakingly developed.
In his best thinking, Paine exemplifies all of the
threads of critical thought used in this history.
His most significant flaw was that he naively believed
that the revolutions which he fostered would ipso facto
create an ideal society. He underestimated the power
of human ignorance and egocentricity, the ability of
sophistic critical thinkers to manipulate others, and the
need for critical thinking.
What can we learn from the Age of
Revolution and Science?
That even apparently justified actions often have
economic incentive, and not ethical
considerations, as their underlying motive.
That popular revolutions must be followed by
education and the establishment of a critical
citizenry, otherwise the ideology goals will go
That as new structures of power replace old
ones, sophistic thinkers rise to the top and
ensure that their interests are protected.