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.”


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?


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.

Socrates Prophecies the Internet

You [Theuth] who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

~Plato, Phaedrus, 275

Of course, Socrates was speaking of the invention of writing, but is there any more apt description of the Internet Age?

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.

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!


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.”

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.


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.

The Copulation of Reason and Eloquence

Just as eloquence, unenlightened by reason, is rash and blind, so wisdom, without the power of expression, is feeble and maimed. Speechless wisdom may sometimes increase one’s personal satisfaction, but it rarely and only slightly contributes to the welfare of human society. Reason, the mother, nurse, and guardian of knowledge, as well as of virtue, frequently conceives from speech, and by this same means bears more abundant and richer fruit. Reason would remain utterly barren, or at least would fail to yield a plenteous harvest, if the faculty of speech did not bring to light its feeble conceptions, and communicate the perceptions of the prudent exercise of the human mind. Indeed, it is this delightful and fruitful copulation of reason and speech which has given birth to so many outstanding cities, has made friends and allies of so many kingdoms, and has unified and knit together in bonds of love so many peoples.

~John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon, Book I. Chapter 1.


Why Wouldn’t You Want to Know?

I can hardly emphasize enough that, ultimately, each must discover in his own soul this longing to know. Nothing can replace it. This longing to know constitutes the very heart of what we are as rational beings, distinct in the universe precisely because we ourselves can know. In the last analysis, we have to wake up to knowledge. We cannot do that…till we reach a certain level of maturity or self-discipline. An experienced teacher can almost tell, by the light in his eyes, the day a student first wakes up and begins to want to know. No one can really find a substitute for his own personal attraction to the truth itself. If this desire is not there, no one can give it to us from outside ourselves. And if it is not there, it is undoubtedly because we have not ordered ourselves or put our interests aside long enough to wonder about things.

James V. Schall, The Life of the Mind, 9-10