In which I Muse on Things I Assume Every Parent Knows, but Apparently not.

Heinlein quote

The English word “spoil” is ultimately derived from the Latin word spoliare and comes down to English via the Old French word espillier. What is interesting about all the different forms of the word throughout history is that one common theme emerges: violence. “Spoil” as a verb referred “to stripping someone (usually an enemy) of clothes; to strip, plunder, pillage.” As a noun, “spoil” referred to the results of what was taken by this act of violence.

Why do I begin here? Today we most commonly apply the word “spoil” to two categories: food and children. What is interesting to observe is that these two categories “spoil” in opposite ways: food by neglect, children by indulgence. When we ignore and “under-care” for food, it spoils. Contrariwise, when we mollycoddle and “over-care” for children, they spoil.

But what does it mean to “over-care” for or pamper a child and why does this lead to spoilage?  The answer rests in the nature of growth. We might, to continue the analogy, spoil food before it reaches maturity in a similar way. We might over-water it, over-feed it, over-expose it to sunlight, and so on. If we are poor gardeners we might lavish a plant with things that it legitimately needs to grow, but given to excess, kills it. We might even do this out of love. That is, we so love our green beans that we lavishly spread manure over them, but give them so much that we suffocate them. No one who did this to plants could be said “to love” his green beans; so too with children. Both plants and children need the right amount of nutrients to grow, but no more. Both plants and children must be worked on to grow—they must be weeded, they must be pruned. They must be cultivated, which might include activities that each find disagreeable.

It is quite understandable that parents would want to protect their child. But when that protection is aimed at the elimination of all suffering, the parent—in a serious way—does violence to the child (i.e., spoils the child). We live at a time when people view childhood as a time set aside for delight, for play, for the care-free life spent skipping amongst the daisies, and splashing in pools. We must not, so the thinking goes, impose upon the child discipline and training and force the child to “grow up too fast.” Children must not be made to suffer these things. We must not spoil their childhood.

It is certainly understandable why some parents have this point of view. When we’re children, all we want to do is grow up, right? We want to be older. We want to do what the grown-ups do. We want to sit at the grown-up’s table. Who likes to sit at the “kids table?” Yet, once we grow up, we find that it’s not all it promised to be. There are debts to pay, yards to mow, laundry to wash, meals to cook, careers to advance, spouses to please, neighbors to keep up with. And faced with such undesirable circumstances, we tell our children, “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” So, we want to protect our children from all this. Perhaps we don’t want them to grow up, because we don’t like what growing up looks like. So, we give our children everything they want to protect them from all these undesirables.

No one, however, who thinks this way about their children, can be said to love their children. For this approach merely keeps the child as a child, which is unnatural. The child’s desire to “grow up” is natural and must be nurtured, not impeded. To lavish the child with everything he or she wants is to keep the child in a state of perpetual youth. Is this not what we mean by a “spoiled brat?” And when the child is given everything he wants, he cultivates within the mindset of “I will do what I will do, and no one will tell me otherwise.” This seems to have become the mantra of a large portion of our culture, and it is the mantra of perpetual childhood. It is the mantra of a wealthy era. For only the child expects to get whatever they want, do whatever they, and say whatever they want without consequences. This is the false process of a shallow freedom defined only as “lack of restraint.”

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But true freedom is the ability to live according to one’s nature: to be able to live and act without a ruler and an overseer. But this requires great training, great discipline, great pain. The parents who truly love their children would be willing to see their children suffer so that those children might grow into healthy adults.

In our culture we often consider struggle as a sign that there is a problem. When a student is “struggling” with his or her homework, either the homework is too difficult or there is something wrong with the student—a learning disability perhaps. But why make this assumption? When I see a student struggling to understand, I rejoice. To me, this is a sign not that there is a problem, but that the student is thinking. Muscles must strain to grow. Iron must be hammered to be shaped. Friction must be achieved to sand wood. The mind must struggle with things it does not understand in order to come to an understanding. What really worries me are the students who aren’t struggling, because this is a sign either that the student already does understand (and so what is the point of the lesson) or that the student is indifferent and so no learning occurs.

Of course, we must do the right exercises too. Anyone who works in fitness and health will tell you that much damage can be done when exercises are done improperly. And much of what goes on in modern education would count as “damaging exercises.” But that’s not exactly my topic at the present. What is of more concern here is that we often find educators and even adults, avoiding tasks because they are “difficult.” For example, so many adults I meet refuse to read Shakespeare because it is “over their heads.” To this, philosopher Mortimer J. Adler answers:

Whoever passes by what is over his head condemns his head to its present low altitude; for nothing can elevate a mind except what is over its head; and that elevation is not accomplished by capillary attraction, but only by the hard work of climbing up the ropes, with sore hands and aching muscles.

We mustn’t give our children “what they can handle.” We must give them “more than they can handle” so that they can grow ever stronger and stronger. Adults who refuse to grow can never, without the charge of hypocrisy, expect children to grow.

We must be stronger than our children. We must be strong enough to say “no” to their desires because they are not yet strong enough. But to do this, we must be strong enough to say “no” to our own desires. And perhaps, as the Bard said, “there’s the rub.” Perhaps we give our children all they want because we ourselves are still children. Perhaps we are not yet strong enough to rule ourselves. Perhaps we are not willing to be exact and demanding with ourselves, so we cannot do so with our children.

So, will we? Will we ourselves “grow up” and stop spoiling ourselves and our children? Are we willing to see ourselves suffer and our children suffer that we might be something greater than we are now? Or will we continue to indulge ourselves like children and remain in a state of perpetual immaturity demanding to have the world bend to our wills?

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And by “suffer,” of course, I do not mean “abuse.” Clearly, that would go against all that I’ve stated here. Certainly there is an opposite error that some parents have made whereby they use abuse and punishment for the “good of the child.” Certainly not all discipline, training, and punishment is up-building; but neither is all discipline, training, and punishment harmful. As I’ve argued here, it can, in fact, be quite loving. Where is the line? Let that be the topic for another post.

For now, let us focus on not spoiling our children, on not plundering and pillaging them by lavishing them with all they want. Let us discipline them and help them grow. Let us cultivate them into the adults they are intended to be.

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The Success of Euclid’s ‘Elements’

Scuola_di_atene_07In a survey of books used for education throughout the history of Western civilization two books stand out: the Bible and Euclid’s Elements (Carl B. Boyer and Uta C. Merzbach, A History of Mathematics, 119). Poet and schoolmaster Edna St. Vincent Millay says of the Elements that “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.” And Euclid earned a spot amongst Raphael’s School of Athens painting alongside Plato and Aristotle. What can account for such high praise and popularity? Is it that Euclid has laid the foundations for all mathematics? If so, why has Euclid been left behind in the modern classroom? Is there any value in a return to Euclid? What value might there be in studying Euclid today?

It may be too strong a claim to say that the Elements provide the foundation for all mathematics. Nevertheless, the basic principles or axioms of many of the branches of mathematics can, in fact, be seen in Euclid. In the classical mathematical Quadrivium of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy, we see that Geometry is but one of the fundamental subjects of mathematics. Yet, in Euclid’s Elements there are applications and axioms for the other branches. For example, his earliest axioms like, “If equals be added to equals, the wholes are equal” have clear implications for the axioms (if not being identical) in Arithmetic. The proofs for relationships of ratios throughout Book X (and elsewhere) have clear implications for the science of Music which deal in harmonies and patterns. And certainly the principles of trigonometry that are laid down by Euclid have far reaching application from Astronomy to sea-faring to engineering.

200px-EuclidStatueOxfordYet Euclid does not specifically set forth the axioms of those other branches. However, to the student who is attentive, the Elements does teach an important principle concerning the nature of learning and of certain disciplines. In demonstrative sciences one always begins with axioms and definitions and then begins to reason from those assumptions. They are the grounds or conditions of the reasoning that follows. In this sense they are indemonstrable. To ask for such demonstrations is to misunderstand the nature of the science. For example, Aristotle in the Metaphysics, sets forth to show that the Principle of Non-Contradiction (the foundations of Logic itself) cannot and should not be demonstrated. To attempt a proof is to misunderstand the nature of proof, for one cannot prove it without assuming it. The best Aristotle can do in this case is show that it is impossible to deny, because to deny it, one must assume it.  In Geometry it would be improper for Euclid to attempt to prove that “a proportion in three terms is the least possible.” Rather, this definition functions as an assumption from which the proofs proceed.

As indicated from the example from Aristotle, Geometry is not the only science that proceeds in this fashion. The student who is attentive in his studies of the Elements should see parallels in other disciplines as well, such as the philosophical and theological sciences. Just as there are axioms of Geometry, so too are there axioms of philosophy and theology that are not subject to proof, but are the grounds from which reasoning proceeds. This may be one of the mistakes of Descartes in Epistemology: he attempted to assume nothing and prove everything. A task which is impossible, for all disciplines requires axioms. Even Moral Philosophy, of which Thomas Aquinas asserts the axiom of all action is: “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided” (Summa Theologica, II-I, Q. 92, A. 1).

This may partially account for the staying-power of the Elements throughout history, the implicit lesson about the nature and procedure of demonstrative sciences. In addition to this, the one who studies Euclid does not just study Geometry. For the Elements is also a lesson in the Trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. That is, Euclid bridges the gap between the Trivium and the Quadrivium. This is also why Euclid may appeal to those persons who find mathematics difficult or intimidating. For as a modern student peruses the Elements they may be struck with how “unmathematical” it appears. There are no numbers, no Cartesian coordinate planes, no formulas. It is as much a book of literature as it is of geometry. This may account for the testimony throughout history of its elegance and beauty. For each of Euclid’s proofs begin with an assertion followed by the elegant “for if not” reductio ad absurdum and ending with pointed “the very thing which was to be shown” (Q.E.D.) or “the very thing which was to be done” (Q.E.F.). Thus, in the process of learning Geometry, the student also learns Grammar and Logic, as well as certain principles of persuasive argumentation (Rhetoric). This may also account for the popularity of the Elements in education.

Will Euclid ever be used again to the same degree as he was in the past? This seems unlikely for a number of reasons. First, there is a need for certain modern concepts in geometry like the Cartesian coordinate plane. Second, textbook companies have no incentive in publishing Euclid since the Elements is in the public domain. Third, the modern student (for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this essay) may no longer have the capability to read Euclid as an introductory text on Geometry. Yet, for the student who struggles with mathematics, Euclid may be a way to bridge the gap between the humanities and mathematics. And maybe, these students too may come to see that: “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.”

The Necessity of Gratuitous Education

As we look over the plethora of options for education available to us, how we to decide what education is best? There is “on the job training,” vocational schools, technical schools, nursing schools, and the list goes on and on. Among this array of choices is “liberal arts education.” Looking over a truly liberal arts education, we might be struck to see the lack of similarity among the classes. We find classes in literature, philosophy, history, mathematics, speech, possibly theology, and the sciences. What exactly is the point of all this? Why would anyone pursue this kind of education? A liberal arts education will not train us to be bricklayers, it will not make us into doctors or lawyers, and it will not enable us to buy a home. It seems entirely gratuitous—something a rich person might indulge in until forced (if ever) to get a “real job.”

First, what exactly is meant by a “liberal arts education”? Many programs today which call themselves “liberal arts” would be unrecognizable as such fifty or more years ago. Today, many “liberal arts” programs have been reduced to “general studies” which contain little to no common core and an abundance of elective choices. Instead, a liberal arts education is one which has no electives whatsoever, for to allow the student to choose his own course of study is to turn over the process of education to the one who is in the least position to know what needs to be known: the student. As Mortimer J. Adler points out, “it is the student who is the master under the elective system … the relatively ignorant and incompetent, choose their own road to learning, according to the fickle interests of their immaturity.” In a liberal arts education, all students receive the same education because the end of liberal arts education is the cultivation of the human mind, not the training for a productive career. Since all are human, all require the same education.

250px-Grigorii_chudotvoretzIt is the end of liberal arts education itself which is the greatest argument for its pursuit. We should pursue the liberal arts because we are human. No one can choose not to be a human being, one can only choose whether or not to be a good one. To become fully what we are means the cultivation of the mind. James V. Schall states that within each of us is a “longing to know … [this is] the very heart of what we are as rational beings.” Most importantly, and yet often least known, is the need and desire to know “ourselves”—who we are, where we come from, where we are going. Liberal arts education aims to reveal the student to themselves. Gregory Thaumaturgus claims that this was one of the highest things that Origen taught his students: “teaching us to be at home with ourselves, and to desire and endeavor to know ourselves, which indeed is the most excellent achievement of philosophy, the thing that is ascribed also to the most prophetic of spirits as the highest argument of wisdom—the precept, Know thyself.” This indeed is the beginning of knowledge. For without knowledge of ourselves, no amount of our struggling will bring us closer to what we truly need.

So no, the liberal arts will not help you get a bigger boat, a better job, or a beautiful spouse. It will, however, teach you why none of those things, in themselves, will make you happy. Instead, the liberal arts will enable you (no matter what possessions you have, no matter what career you choose, no matter whether you are married or single) to be more human, more of what you were intended to be, and consequently, happier.

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Adler, Mortimer Jerome. Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind. Edited by Geraldine Van Doren. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

Schall, James V. On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001.

Gregory Thaumaturgus. “Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen.” In The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, edited by Richard M. Gamble, 179-80. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009.

 

In Over My Head?

I’m taking a course next semester: “Mathematical and Scientific Reasoning.” After looking over the reading list, for the first time in a long time, I fear I might be in over my head:

Plato, Meno
Euclid, The Elements
Archimedes, On the Equilibrium of Planes
Nicomachus, Introduction to Arithmetic
Sir Thomas L. Heath, Greek Astronomy
Kepler, Epitome of Copernican Astronomy
Galileo, Two New Sciences
Bacon, Novum Organum and The Sphinx
Newton, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy
Huygens, Treatise on Light
Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry
Gilson, From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again

It will be a challenging few months – to say the least! My plan is to invent a new form of calculus, that ought to be enough to pass the class!

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Technological Impoverishment the Key to Education?

From Sean Fitzpatrick’s A School Without Success

Students should live a life of “technological poverty,” where the use of electronic media is prohibited. This policy should not be enforced out of paranoia, ignorance, or a will to oppress, but to create an atmosphere conducive to education—to the experience of joy and contemplation. This restriction is radical, but radical action is called for. Modern technology and the habits surrounding it distance people from creation. The influence of television, video games, and popular music distort human vision by deforming the imagination, inclining more to bizarre fantasy than to reality.

Classical Education the Key to Scientific Progress

From E. Christian Kopff’s Greek to Us: The Death of Classical Education and Its Consequences

The decades on either side of WWI witnessed brilliant work in Physics: the concept of quanta, the theories of special and general relativity and the development of quantum mechanics. One might expect that the most important work in these fields would be done by graduates of the technical school system. Nearly the opposite is true. Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr were classically educated. Einstein attended a Swiss technical high school, but he had spent his first six years at a classical school, where his sister remembered his best subjects as Mathematics and Latin: “Latin’s clear, strictly logical structure fit his mindset.” Heisenberg wrote: “I believe that in the work of Max Planck, for instance, we can clearly see that his thought was influenced and made fruitful by his classical schooling.” Heisenberg insisted that his own insights into nature came from his classical education. Its combination of math and physics with language instruction led him to read Plato’s Timaeus in Greek. He was impressed by Plato’s rational appeals to understand nature mathematically rather than as a purely physical reality: “I was gaining the growing conviction that one could hardly make progress in modern atomic physics without a knowledge of Greek natural philosophy.”

High School Senior Decimates Common Core

This young man understands the problem with modern education: it has lost its humanity. He uses “robots” – I would use the word “slave”. Education that is aimed career is education for slaves, not free people. Common Core, as it is implemented will do just that, train a slave class to work a job. It will not cultivate minds to live and think freely.

 

An Apologia for the Study of Logic

In the never ending world of education reform, from “No Child Left Behind” to “Common Core Standards,” we are continually told of the need for “critical thinking,” reading, and writing skills—along with technical skills for future employment. A survey of the reforms and initiatives put into law and practice, however, all have a similar defect: a failure to teach Logic. When, exactly, Logic was dropped from the curriculum, I do not know, but it’s reintroduction does not seem to be a goal of any reformers of public education.

metalogicon250One of the most cogent and eloquent defenses of the teaching of Logic comes from the 12th century thinker John of Salisbury. In his book, The Metalogicon, John argues persuasively that a study and knowledge of Logic is necessary for myriad reasons. The title, while admittedly daunting, means simply “on behalf of Logic,” and in the book John sets forth to refute those thinkers of his own time (who he refers to collectively as Cornificius) who were adversaries of the teaching of Logic (or the trivium more generally). Cornificius, says John, is the “ignorant and malevolent foes of studies pertaining to eloquence, attacks not merely one, or even a few persons, but all civilization and political organization” (11-12). Bold words indeed, for as John sees it, to oppose the teaching of Logic, is to oppose civilization. John’s apologia includes more than just a defense of Logic, undeniably it is a robust defense of the whole of liberal arts education, but I will restrict my discussion here to the focus on Logic.

What exactly is “Logic” as a field of study? For John, Logic has a twofold meaning: “the science of verbal expression and reasoning” (32). That is, Logic (in the narrow sense) covers the rules of rational thinking and (in the broad sense) knowledge and skill of how to express reason with speech—or, as John puts it, “all instruction relative to words” (32). This broader sense, Augustine referred to as, “the science of argumentation” (80). Thus, John suggests that the traditional trivium of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, is what he has in mind by “Logic.”

This seems to go beyond the traditional definition of Logic which was restrictive to the art and science of reasoning, with Rhetoric taking up the ability to express ideas eloquently and winsomely and Grammar the science of words. The reason John extends the use of Logic to encompass all of the art of argumentation seems to be due to the nature of Logic itself as the hinge to both proper Grammar and effective Rhetoric. Grammar, affirms John, “is the science of speaking and writing correctly—the starting point of all liberal studies” (37). Rhetoric is the art of expresses those words eloquently, or as John puts it, “Rhetoric, where persuasion is in order, supplies the silvery luster of its resplendent eloquence” (67). In order to show why Logic is the “linchpin,” so to speak, of the verbal arts, it’s nature and purpose must first be explored.

The kind of Logic, in the narrower sense, John has in mind is that formalized by Aristotle. Aristotelian Logic, certainly at the time of John, was the only game in town. Aristotle, being its one and only founder, dominated Logic studies and John did not depart from this tradition.

So, why study Aristotelian Logic? John gives several reasons. First, logic provides the groundwork or rules which give birth to Prudence. Says John, “Of all things most desirable is wisdom, whose fruit consists in the love of what is good and the practice of virtue” (74). Could we considered anyone wise who reasons illogically? In fact, is that not a true oxymoron, to “reason illogically”? Logic provides the tools for the mind to operate and enable it to judge (if not to act) wisely. In order to act Prudently, one’s mind must operate along the rules of logic, which guide the mind to the proper course of action. This, of course, is not a perfect road map, but without it, one could only follow the proper course by accident. With all the roads that we would take, who could navigate without the ability to read the map?

In an age which is tempted to worship science, it is a wonder that training in Logic is not mandatory, given that the presumed object of science is truth and logic is the mind’s aid to discover truth. As John says, “Prudence consists entirely in insight into the truth, together with a certain skill in investigating the latter; whereas justice embraces the truth and fortitude defends it, while temperance moderates the activities of the aforesaid virtues” (74). That is, at the center of the Cardinal Virtues is Truth and Logic provides the means to attain the Truth.

Given all of this, we can now see why Logic is the linchpin of the verbal arts, and why John calls the whole of the trivium “Logic.” Logic is what connects the grammar of the word with the eloquence of expression. Without Logic, Rhetoric becomes Sophistry. Logic aids in judging propositions, it is what guides the mind in the discovery of Truth. If the mind is not aimed at Truth, Rhetoric is merely aimed at power, overcoming one’s opponent. As John puts it, Rhetoric “unenlightened by reason, is rash and blind” (10). The uniting of the trivium John explains poetically:

If we may resort to a fable, antiquity considered that Prudence, the sister of Truth, was not sterile, but bore a wonderful daughter [Philology], whom she committed to the chaste embrace of Mercury [Eloquence]. In other words, Prudence, the sister of Truth, arranged that [her daughter], the Love of [Logical] Reasoning and Knowledge, would acquire fertility and luster from Eloquence. Such is the union of Philology and Mercury. (78-79)

It may be that the modern educator’s failure to teach and instruct in the art and science of Logic is an implicit rejection of Truth. For if there is no Truth, Logic is irrelevant. So too is reason, knowledge, and science. If, however, Truth is deemed possible, to ignore the study of Logic is to handicap the mind. It is to lead the student in the study of truth but not to give the student the tools to discover it. A recovery of the study of Logic, therefore, is one of the truly necessary areas of “reform” for modern education, even if it is not on the agenda of any modern school boards or legislators.

 

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John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon: A Twelfth-Century Defense of the Verbal and Logical Arts of the Trivium, translated by Daniel D. McGarry, Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2009.

Why Study History? Part IV: The Displacement of History in Education

Note: This is the eighth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In the previous four posts (see end of this post for links), I argued that History plays a central role in education. In spite of this, since the late nineteenth century, American education has seen a steady decline in the teaching of certain academic fields, primarily the arts and humanities (including history). No doubt the cause of this change goes well beyond what can be covered here, but a few general observations concerning this shift in curriculum may be observed.

First, the changes in emphasis of curriculum are due to an overall change in the view of the ends of education. As mentioned above, both humane and utilitarian views of education go back thousands of years, with the dominant view being the humane education which seeks to make students good. Recently, however, utilitarian views of education have become dominant, at least in the United States. 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.

In order to achieve these goals, a shift in curricula is necessary. For example, in 2007 the United States passed the America COMPETES Act (P.L. 110-69) which specific purpose is “to invest in innovation through research and development, and to improve the competitiveness of the United States.” Again, “competitiveness” is the driving force. To do this, the act shifts funding for educational programs into S.T.E.M. disciplines. S.T.E.M. refers to any discipline which correlates to Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics. Accordingly the act authorizes funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy Office of Science. As educational programs receive increased funding in S.T.E.M. disciplines, they must necessarily de-emphasize non-S.T.E.M. fields like history and the humanities.

Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesSecond, these shifts, though not a direct result of, are certainly influenced by an overall Cartesian view of knowledge which emphasizes certainty above all else. The “pure” sciences, like mathematics, lead to absolute certainty in matters of truth. Without certainty there is no knowledge, only speculation, or so we must reduce all disciplines to mathematical postulates and explanations, and if not, they are viewed as suspect. Says Descartes, “In the subjects we propose to investigate, our inquiries should be directed, not to what others have thought, nor to what we ourselves conjecture, but to what we can clearly and perspicuously behold and with certainty deduce; for knowledge is not won in any other way.”( Rene Descartes, Rules for the Direction of the Mind, 225) That is, unlike Pascal, Descartes emphasized the throwing-off of tradition and previous generations as a way of knowing, leaving the philosopher alone with reason only to discover truth. Where then is a place for history, literature, or the arts in an educational program? Since these cannot lead to any kind of certain knowledge, they are at best seen as interesting trivialities. That is, a philosophical shift in the general view of truth and knowledge may also be driving these educational changes.

Third, while the current driving force of these changes may be an utilitarian view of education, the underlying assumptions of American Pragmatism must certainly be explored as an influence. Though many would trace these changes in American education back to John Dewey, Dewey himself was heavily influenced by the English philosopher Herbert Spencer. According to Spencer the purpose of education is to prepare children for “self-preservation, securing the necessaries of life, bringing up children well, [and] producing good citizens.” (Egan, Getting It Wrong, 116) The means to achieve this would be the sciences. Accordingly, a new curriculum would be necessary to meet this aim. The criteria for selecting fields of study then would be their utility in preparing the student for these goals. “So the prevailing curriculum based on Greek, Latin, and history was to be swept away.” (Ibid.) What use would a child have for declining Greek nouns, conjugating Latin verbs, or knowing when the Battle of Hastings occurred in getting a job or raising a family?

From this educational shift, history was replaced with general social studies, the arts with more practical arts of the home and everyday life, and literature with science and technology studies. We have today, incorporated Spencer’s view of education wholesale so that his views of education are now mainstream. The more traditional curriculum is left for those who can afford private schools, while middle and poorer-class students are relegated to a crass utilitarian education:

An implication of Spencer’s writing was that the classics should disappear from the experience of middle-class student and should have no role for the increasing numbers of children from the lower classes who were filling the expanding state schools…Today, of course, the educational establishment—almost entirely without any knowledge of what once was the backbone or staple of education and almost invariably ignorant of classical languages—takes it for granted that the classics should be treated as an occasional and exotic option for only a few students. (Ibid., 120-121)

As noted, the champion of this kind of education in the United States was John Dewey. Dewey emphasized education as a kind of vocational activity. In order to function best in society, Dewey focuses his curriculum on “thinking skills” while de-emphasizing “information.” That is, it is more important that the student think than what the student thinks about. After all, the educator cannot predict what vocation their students will pursue, and so cannot predict what kinds of information will be useful to them. So, once again there is a replacing of history and culture with pragmatic skills. Though Dewey himself found utility in the studying and teaching of history, those who came after him found it of little use.

What then of those uses of history covered previously? How might a student come to think without something to think about? How might a student come to understand the society in which they live? How might a student learn to plan for the future? How might a student be formed morally? All these questions are treated as relatively unimportant on an utilitarian view of education. Yet, as I will examine in my final posted, it is precisely the lack of these functions provided by history that prevents utilitarian education from meeting its goals.

Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge
Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs and Disciplines
Part IIIc: History Teaches Universal Principles
Part IIId: History Helps in Moral Formation

 

Stretched Out Towards Knowing: Human Wonder and Knowledge

The wonder in a child’s eyes as they encounter the world for the first time is as exhilarating as it is unmistakable. It is the exuberance, delight, and astonishment of a young mind dazzled by creation. The dazzled young mind does not remain dazzled though, it is drawn out to know that which dazzles it. The child asks “why” incessantly, struggling to know this world in which he lives, this world which dazzles him so. This experience reveals something profound about human nature and the process of education.

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliAt the center of the child’s experience is wonder. Thomas Aquinas defined wonder as “a kind of desire for knowledge, a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or power of understanding” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 32, A. 8). As we see the fireworks, we might wonder as to how the pyro-technician is able to produce explosions of different colors, shapes, or sizes. When we hear a strange sound at night, we might wonder what kind of goblin is roaming our house. As we reflect on ourselves, we might wonder why we exist at all! This experience of wonder reveals an essentially human characteristic, for of all creatures, humans alone wonder. These feelings of wonder are an essentially human phenomenon. As Philip Melanchthon muses, “Who is so hard-hearted…that he does not sometimes, looking up at the sky and beholding the most beautiful stars in it, wonder at these varied alternations…and desire to know the traces…of their motions?” (Orations on Philosophy and Education, 106)

As Thomas’ definition suggests, humans can wonder, because they can know. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know” (980a22). This translation hides an interesting dimension to Aristotle’s claim. For the word here translated as “desire” is the word ὀρέγω (orego), which does not simply mean “desire” but “stretch out, extend” and in this context could be rendered: “All men by nature are stretched out towards knowing.” Humans are stretched out but also must stretch themselves out to live in according with this nature. As Aristotle says, humans “must, so far as we can…strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (Nicomachean Ethics, 177b33-34). The mind is, as James V. Schall says, capax omnium—capable of knowing all things (On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 15). It is in human nature to be pulled towards and to strain towards truth, for only truth can be known. Both Plato and Aristotle cite wonder as the cause of or the beginning of all philosophy (wisdom): “This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” (Theaetetus, 155D) “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (Metaphysics, 982b12-13).

At this point, we are still missing an important part of wonder. The Latin word for wonder, admirare, comes into English as “admire” or “admiration.” Yet, wonder is not admiration, for admiration suggests a distanced response to something worthy of respect. Wonder, on the other hand, involves the wonderer. The wonderer is not a distance observer, but a participator with those wonders. As involved in the process, the wonderer experiences a great pleasure. This pleasure is not simply that of amusement (far from it!), but a hope that that which causes awe in us due to our ignorance can come to be known. Again, says Thomas, “wonder is a cause of pleasure in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge one desires to have. … Wonder gives pleasure … in so far as it includes the desire of learning the cause, and in so far as the wonderer learns something new.” Wonder, therefore, is intimately linked with hope. For, if there is no hope that the wonderer will come to know the object of his wonder, the only result is despair. Consequently, any belief system which denies that knowledge is possible, or that truth is attainable by the human mind, must be a system of despair; and must chastise the child that wonders.

If this desire to wonder and to know is innate in human nature, why then do many people stop wondering as they grow? A full treatment of the decline in our wonder is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to suggest one possibility. As we grow, we sin, and as we sin, we violate our very nature. The effects of this will vary as individuals vary, but one of the effects is often the diminished desire for our very nature to develop. We lose what G.K. Chesterton calls, “the eternal appetite of infancy” (Orthodoxy, 58) The world becomes a wearisome and tiresome place, because we are wearied and tired of ourselves. We are born, as Wordsworth puts, “trailing clouds of glory … [and] Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” But as we grow up, we grow old and can no longer see Heaven around us.

The question now becomes, what is to be done? How are we to recover this eternal infancy? How are we to grow up, without growing old? The answer must partly come from education. Education of the kind that does not dull the mind into submission, but which liberates it from opinion and ignorance, and feeds it on truth, goodness, and beauty. Then, and only then, is the mind freed to continue wondering, knowing, and delighting in the process as it matures. Furthermore, as the mind matures, it’s capacity to wonder also matures and so too does the delight in knowing. In short, we become more human, more of what we are, more of what we were intended to be.