Happy Birthday to Thomas Merton!

A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.

~Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968)

Thomas Merton

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Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child (if you hate him/her)

In the category of “Did we really need a ‘study’ to tell us that?” comes this study from Queensland University of Technology.  What did they find that was so shocking?

Parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) of their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, cooperative and solution focused manner, which would benefit both child and school.

And to think, someone already thought of this:

Whoever spares the rod hates his son,
but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.

~Proverbs 13:24

Would Aristotle Send His Son to a Public School?

 

[ Disclaimer: please understand that I am not, in this post disparaging those people who work in public education. My criticisms are leveled against the Philosophy of Education which is driving modern Progressivist Education. I wholeheartedly support those people who are working hard in public schools, in spite of the philosophy which drives it.]

aristotle

Aristotle stands in between two giants of history: his teacher, Plato, and his student, Alexander the Great. As both a student of a great teacher and a teacher of a great leader, one wonders just what Aristotle thought of education. Today there are several strains of educational theory which each offer their own views on the means and ends of education. Aristotle himself had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, so one wonders just what kind of education he thought best? A brief analysis of his Nicomachean Ethics reveals that Aristotle would likely reject modern theories of education.

In Book I of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle begins his discussion of ethics with the observation that whenever a person acts, they always act with some end in mind, some purpose, goal, or good. Further, he observes that the ends we have in mind are mostly means to other ends. For example, I brush my teeth. This is not done, however, without purpose. Clearly there is a good I have in mind for the action, for otherwise I would not brush my teeth. People may brush their teeth with different goods in mind. For example, one person may do it in order to avoid gingivitis, others to have a “clean” feeling in their mouths. Either way, the end in mind is a means to another end. In the former case the end is health and in the later it is pleasure.

Aristotle links the chain of means and ends and asks, is there something towards which all actions aim? That is, is there a “last end” or a “highest good” that we have in mind when we act? Aristotle asserts that the end we all have in mind is “happiness.” (See Note at end of post) That is, whatever we do, we do because we think it will make us happy. All people, says Aristotle, agree on this, but that is as far as the agreement goes. Just what is meant by “happiness” is highly disputed. Some might say that happiness is found in wealth, some that it is found in pleasure, others that it is found in honors. Is there any way to settle this dispute? Aristotle thinks so.

The question of “what is human flourishing or human happiness” must be defined in terms of what it means “to be human.” For, to find the “good” of anything, we must know its function. For example, the good of the computer rests in its functioning as it was designed to function (compute) and it reaches its “good” when it functions (computes) according to the way it was designed to function. The guitarist is a “good” guitarist when he plays the guitar in the way it was designed to function. So, if a human being has a function, the human being’s ultimate “good” will be functioning according to its nature (i.e., we will find fulfillment (our good) when we function according to our essence). Yet, how might we determine the human function?

To determine an object’s function one needs to discover what distinguishes it from all other objects. What is it that makes it, it? What is it, within humans, which makes them “human” and not “whales” or something else? Aristotle claims that the human function is “the soul’s activity that expresses reason [as itself having reason] or requires reason [as obeying reason]” (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a7-8). That is, it is the ability to think or to know that is unique and the principle element that makes a human, a human.  However, it is not merely “thinking” but rather reasoning and acting in accordance with reason. Furthermore, it is not just thinking and acting, but thinking and acting well; that is, excellently or virtuously. Aristotle concludes, “each function is completed well when its completion expresses the proper virtue.  Therefore the human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue” (1098a15-17). Happiness, therefore, “is an activity of the soul expressing complete virtue” (1102a5).

So, what has all of this to do with education? Education itself is an action and therefore may be analyzed with regards to its means and ends. The central dispute in contention is two different theories as to the end of education, and how these relate to the end of human “happiness.” (Here and throughout, I will not assess the means (i.e., methods and materials) by which the two views on education attempt to reach their ends, but only the ends themselves.)

On the “Progressivist” view of education, the primary purpose of education is vocational in nature. For example, the United States Department of Education’s stated purpose is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” No doubt, the competition to which this statement refers is “jobs” or “careers.” The consistent message from politicians with regard to education is that students need to be prepared to enter the “workforce,” and that we must be more “competitive” in math and sciences so that Americans will not be displaced by foreign competition in the job market. So, when the question is put forth as to the end of education, the answer is, “to secure a career.”

On the “Classical” view of education, the primary purpose of education is to rear children into adults. Education on this view has the whole of the person in mind, to train boys to become men and to train girls to become women. It is not taken for granted that as children grow they will naturally mature into adults. This begs the question of what we mean by “adult”. There are a range of answers to this question, but invariably the Classicist will answer along the lines of Aristotle outlined above. The Classicist holds that the end of education is to train the child to think and act well in accordance with virtue. Says Aristotle, “excellence, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual excellence in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral excellence come about as a result of habit…” (1103a14). Habits themselves are trainable and we must, through education, come to learn “to enjoy the things we ought and to hate the things we ought” (1172a22).

So, which of these two views of education is most consistent with the end of “human happiness?” The Progressivist view of education, while it may prepare a student for a job, has confused the means with the end. For if it is asked, “why do we want people to have careers,” the answer, most assuredly would be, so that they can be “happy.” How exactly having a career ipso facto makes one happy or just what “happiness” is, is never quite addressed, especially given how unhappy so many people are in their careers. It isolates a single part of life and leaves the children to fend for themselves in all other things. Furthermore, it eliminates even the possibility of educating for “happiness” precisely because it attempts to remain neutral with regard to the definition of “humanity.” Thus, Progressive education is reductive by its very nature, treating children not as humans who need to be nurtured, but as animals that need to be trained.

Contrariwise, the Classicist has in view an education that creates, not young adults who are prepared for a specific career, but adults who are prepared to live well no matter what their career. For “career” is not an end itself, but a means to an end. Occupation is but one part of life and unless the child is taught to think and act well, even with an occupation, the child can never be fully “happy.” Furthermore, Classical education allows the student to stand before and judge all things, thus preparing the child for whatever may come. The carpenter, who has received only training in carpentry, may be able to judge what is or is not a good wardrobe, but not what is or is not a just society. Such judgments, however, are necessary for the fully formed human.  For, to know, to judge, and to act well is what it means “to be human.” As Aristotle says,

“Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general” (1094b27-95a1).

Given this, it seems unlikely that Aristotle would have entrusted the education of his son to the modern public school system. The education which Aristotle endorsed was one which conforms to the purpose of human beings, contributes to their proper functioning, and enables the child to grow into adulthood. An education that only equips the student to accomplish a single task is not meant for the free, liberated man. Without the ability to stand before all things and judge, the child is at the mercy of those who can. What needs to be assessed now are the best means by which to accomplish this end.


Note:

Aristotle uses the word “eudaimonia” which is misleadingly translated as “happiness,” and notoriously difficult to define. Etymologically, “eudaimonia” means “well-spirited” but may best be translated as “flourishing,” “blessed,” or “fulfilled.” The English word “happiness” is derived from the Old Norse “happ,” which means “chance” or “luck.” Clearly this cannot be what Aristotle has in mind. See, Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1099b9-17.

The Treasury of Knowledge Is Stored in the Human Mind, Not Google

My child, knowledge is a treasury and your heart is its strongbox. As you study all of knowledge, you store up for yourselves good treasures, immortal treasures, incorruptible treasures, which never decay nor lose the beauty of their brightness. In the treasure-house of wisdom are various sorts of wealth, and many filing-places in the store-house of your heart. … The orderly arrangement is clarity of knowledge. Dispose and separate each single thing into its own place. … Confusion is the mother of ignorance and forgetfulness, but orderly arrangement illuminates the intelligence and secures memory.

~Hugh of St. Victor, “The Three Best Memory-Aids for Learning History”

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Soccer, the Sport of the Hoi Polloi

OK, follow me here.

On February 1, 2012 74 people were killed in a riot that broke out in response to a Soccer game in Port Said, Egypt.

Then, on January 26 (today), 2013, a judge sentenced 21 people to death in connection with the riot from Feb. 1.

Now, in response to the judges ruling, 27 people have been killed in a riot protesting the decision.

Yeah, Soccer is the enlightened sport.

How Do I Study?

As a teacher, one of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “How do you study for [fill in the blank]?” This is a frustrating question primarily because I’ve told the students numerous times the best strategies for studying. If they haven’t heard me by now, what are the chances they’ll hear me if I say it one more time? Yet I know, sometimes “one more time” is just what it takes!

There are many things I could say, but here is a Top Ten List I put together during my first year of teaching:

#1 Have a Study Place & Time

Do not study lying on your bed or in the hallway or in another class.  Find a place where you can sit upright (a desk, table, etc.), where there is plenty of light and where it is quiet.  No matter how much you insist you cannot study without music in the background, you are wrong.  Have a “study time” set aside and do not study for too long at a time.  Take a 5 or 10 minute break every once and a while to help clear your head.  Doing all this will get you into a “study mode” where you will be able to concentrate and learn.

#2 Read for Comprehension

Do not just scan the reading 10 minutes before class begins.  Read it at least the night before, if not earlier.  When you read, try to understand what the author is arguing, (i.e. do not read it simply to say you have read it).  When you are finished with your study, know what the thesis is on the piece you are reading (what is the point of the selection?) and several ways how the author defends the thesis.  Knowing the piece well before you come to class will greatly increase your comprehension of the material.  If you do not understand something, make a list of questions and ask for help.

#3 Read Assignments More Than Once

To read for “comprehension” you will rarely, if ever, be able to read something just once.  Read the selection at least twice.  On the first read, just try to get an overall feel for what the author is doing and what they are arguing.  On subsequent readings, take your time and reread smaller sections as many times as necessary (i.e. if something is mind-bogglingly difficult, slow down and reread the sections that are difficult).  These readings are not easy and even the most brilliant minds have to read them more than once to understand them.  You are in good company if you do not understand the first time around.

 #4 Keep a Notebook

Keep a notebook that is dedicated to this class only; preferably a 3-ring binder with loose paper so that they can easily be moved around if necessary.  In your notebook keep your notes from your readings, notes you take in class, and any quizzes, handouts or study guides.  At the top of every page should be the subject matter and the date.  Keeping yourself organized like this will keep the information organized in your head.  When you notes are scattered and chaotic so is your ability to reproduce the information on a test or in a paper.

#5 Review Your Notebook Weekly

We cover a lot of information in this course and it is unreasonable to expect to be able to study all the material in one night before a test.  At least once per week you should review your notes and study the past week’s material.  Read your notes out loud and make sure you are thoroughly familiar with everything that has been covered so far.  Doing this will keep the information fresh in your mind and reduce the work needed when it comes to preparing for the exam.

#6 Make Flash Cards

When studying, particularly for an exam, make flash cards.  On one side, write questions (like from a study sheet) and on the back, write the answer.  Go over your flash cards, again and again, until you can answer all of your flash cards without looking at the answers.  Forcing yourself to reproduce the answer will ensure that you actually know the material.

#7 Find a Study Partner

It is often very helpful to find a partner to help you study.  Quiz each other and help each other understand the material.  It is often the case that studying in large groups can be distracting rather than helpful, so keep it small.  Make sure you find someone who is as motivated to do as well as you are, there is nothing worse than trying to study without some who doesn’t get a rip about the class.

#8 Write Papers Early

DO NOT write your papers the night or even the morning before they are due.  On shorter essays, complete them at least two or three days before they are due and at least one week before they are due for longer papers.  After one or two days, reread your paper and proof-read it for clarity and grammar.  Putting space between your writing and your proof-reading will greatly increase the quality of your papers (I cannot count the times I’ve reread my papers and thought, “what in the world was I thinking when I wrote that?”).  The only thing worse than writing a paper hastily the night before without any proof-reading is having to read a paper that was written hastily the night before without any proof-reading; note that whatever you can do to make it easier for someone to read your paper it will greatly increase your score.

#9 Have Someone Proof-Read Your Papers

Often times we “read between the lines” of our own papers, inserting thoughts and ideas that are not there.  Have someone proof-read ALL of your work.  Another person will not “fill in the gaps” as they read and will be able to point out areas that need clarification and grammatical correction.  Make sure the person you have proof-read your work is competent and knows what they are doing; having someone who is getting a “D” in the class is probably not a “go-to” person for proof-reading.

#10 Develop a Mentality for Learning

No matter how boring or irrelevant a class seems, develop a mentality for learning the information.  No information/knowledge is irrelevant and the sooner you learn this, the sooner you will enjoy even the most difficult and/or boring subjects.  Humanity has a lot to teach us about creation, even the most pagan and irreverent writers get some things right and looking at the world through the eyes of those with whom we disagree will greatly increase our understanding of the world.  It is the case that no matter what you do in life, either at school or at your job, there will be things you do not like, the sooner you get over your self and your preferences, the sooner you will realize that all things are what you make of them.  If you hate something and refuse to engage in it, you will be miserable and perform poorly.  You do not know everything nor do you know what you need to learn, be humble and admit that you need instruction.  For every subject at hand ask yourself, “what can I learn from this;” “what can this person teach me about humanity and/or creation;” “what does God want me to learn from this;” etc.  YOU determine what you will get out of the course and how much you will grow and improve because of it.

A Surfeit of Sources (or, Historian Hoarders)

urlOne might think that given the proliferation of recorded material available to the historian today that the task of history is made easier. Everything is recorded, everything is saved, we can compile terabytes of data on a disk smaller than a human hand. So, to know the causes and effects of the Vietnam War, one only need access the data.  Not so, says historian John Lukacs,

The fantastic and overwhelming proliferation of typed and printed material may suggest that the successor of the aristocrat is not the democrat but the bureaucrat . . . The very number of libraries multiplies alarmingly: it has become recently an American national custom for former Presidents or for their descendants to sponsor entire libraries the contents of which would consist primarily, if not exclusively, of the “materials” relating to the few years of their national administration. In addition to the standard kind of “documents,” the contemporary historian must consider an entire array of new “sources”: magazines, films, photographs, phonographic recordings, oral-history tapes, teletypes, etc. These developments are self-consciously applauded by historical associations. I, for one, cannot share in these pompous and circumstantial expressions of joy: at times I am tempted to wish that there were a long-term moratorium, forbidding the erection of presidential, indeed, perhaps of all new libraries. My reason for this impious desire is simple: the quantity of historical “material” has already become unmanageable. (Historical Consciousness, 54).

Put simply, there is too much useless information for the historian. We are a society of information hoarders. We cannot distinguish between valuable information and trash. Does the Library of Congress really need to archive the entire contents of Twitter? And this is but one example.

This is a moral problem. We can no longer judge what is important and so we throw everything into a pile and call it “precious.” We have a mental disorder that cannot judge diamonds from diapers. We cannot distinguish information from knowledge.