Humor and Humility

I’m still not sure if these words have the same etymology or if the first syllable is a coincidence, but the link is quite profound. A healthy sense of humor lives in humility, while a diseased one is grounded in ego. Humor is rooted in the bringing down of the exalted, the humiliation of the proud. It finds its higher fulfillment in the surprising and delightful exaltation of the humble.

 Perhaps we find an indication of the warpedness of our age when we note that people don’t seem to find the exaltation of the humble very delightful, but they do delight in the humiliation of the proud. I’m speculating on the basis of logic there, not noting anything historical. If anybody knows enough about, say, 17th century humor to evaluate that statement, I’d be very interested in what you can find. Furthermore, I do recognize that we like the Horatio Alger stories, though we seem to be losing our pleasure in them to an extent. We think of them as sentimental (think Rocky) and that leads us to cynicism just when we are most in need of heroes.

But back to the point, humor delights in humility and justice. That is one reason we’re focusing on it as a conference theme. Humor restores our confidence that things do work out well and that there is justice after all. It encourages us to hope, no matter how dark things look.  It helps us to adjust and adapt in this fallen world. It links us to a standard of justice that helps us to keep our perspective. That’s why comics can sometimes get so angry when they deal with political themes – and that’s when they stop being funny.

Any experienced teacher knows how important that sense of humor is when she looks at some of the children she has taught – not to mention when she remembers some of the things she has done or believed as a teacher. If we lose our sense of humor over ourselves, we are finished.

How can you see humor mattering in the classroom or in the teacher’s inner world? How does a teacher maintain a healthy sense of humor, avoiding cynicism when she sees that students don’t become superstars under their tutelage as a matter of course? How does a teacher develop a sense of humor in the first place? What sorts of things are funny about a teacher’s life?

These are some of the things we’ll be reflecting on and discussing at the 2008 conference in Houston. Click here and Be there! (And, for a special surprise, click on the picture of the monk!).

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Stalin’s Russia Remembered

This review of The Whisperers keeps alive the memory that Putin seems to want silenced. But just as we cannot forget what neo-paganism achieved through Hitler’s Holocaust, so we cannot forget what atheism achieved through Stalin’s savagery. We must not forget that we also can kill and be killed. These were human beings at both ends of the weapons.

 What we sat outside of during the 20th century can make a conscious mind tremble. That we won’t experience it in the 21st becomes less and less certain.

Science and Faith

This NY Times op-ed argues for some sort of theism, then chooses panentheism for some reason. I think it is because the writer, Paul Davies, a physicist, recognizes the need for a god, but doesn’t want that god to be free of the universe it made. Read it here, and comment here. I’m interested in your thoughts, because this whole idea of science and theology is the crux of western historical development.

Let me out!

James Taylor argues in Poetic Knowledge that kids need to spend time outside. So bad have things become that The Charlotte Observer wrote an article about parents who try to spend time outside with their kids. This article underscores the real reason education is dying in America.

How Dewey has overcome American Christianity and overthrown America

Not everybody should read the ancient pagan writers, only those who want to be educated.

 John Dewey has such a stranglehold on modern thought that most Christian schools don’t even realize the extent to which he rules over them. This is natural, because his strategy was to insist that philosophy/metaphysics is a waste of time. All that matters is experience. Even thinking isn’t such a great thing, because we’ve been doing it incorrectly for 2500 years. We’ve been following this silly Christian classical tradition. We need to escape tradition and lean on experience. We need to come up with a new way to think. We need to stop reading the ancients, both pagan and Christian.

American Christians play directly into his hands, because they are pragmatists themselves, rooting their beliefs and actions in experience and emotion – in that which can be seen and felt. So they are perfectly happy not to think about hard questions like what we can know, how we know, how knowledge can be ordered, etc.  Dewey wins. The patterns that were established by progressives throughout American education through their complete dominance of the teacher’s colleges (another place that wouldn’t condescend to studying philosophy except, perhaps, as a subject) now dominate the American Christian schools. What, after all, could philosophy have to do with education?

By failing to read the pagans, especially Plato and Aristotle, and by failing to see how the fathers of the church interacted with pagan thought, we are not able to become, as we would convince ourselves, more thoroughly scriptural (unlike those benighted church fathers, who were blinded by Greco-Roman philosophy). On the contrary, we simply become more limited in our thinking, more like the age in which we live.

 And what is this age in which we live? Frankly, it’s the age of Darwin as interpreted by Dewey. What does that mean? I’m afraid you’re going to have to be willing to reduce the seductions of Dewey and think about philosophy for a moment to understand not only what it means to live in the age of Darwin and Dewey but to grasp the unbearable implications.

For the most part, John Dewey’s writings are unbearably obscure. For a general critique of his dogmas (and Dewey was perversely dogmatic in his writings), I recommend this book by Henry Edmondson III: John Dewey and The Decline of American Education. It’s a critique, so it takes sides, but this is a good general overview of the Dewey’s teachings and some of their flaws. If it falls short in any area (and I don’t know Dewey as well as Edmondson does), it is in failing to emphasize the significance of Darwin on Dewey’s thought. In fact, neither Darwin nor Evolution appear in the index. This brief post attempts to begin to rectify what I believe to be a shortcoming.

The careful observer can watch the world shift on the Archimedean fulcrum by reading John Dewey’s extraordinary short essay The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy. This is a philosophical treatise, so it’s not easy to read. But given its subject it is very unlike Dewey’s other writings in its lucidity. The language is technical, but at least it is coherent and consistent.

The entire thrust of the essay is expressed in the first paragraph. I will quote it in patches and comment on each.

That the publication of the “Origin of Species” marked an epoch in the development of the natural sciences is well known to the layman. That the combination of the very words origin and species embodied an intellectual revolt and introduced a new intellectual temper is easily overlooked by the expert.

Laymen like you and I, Dewey acknowledges, realize that Origin of Species was a milestone in the natural sciences. It was a big deal. But even the expert tends to overlook the signficance of the title of the book. Even the expert fails to see that Darwin’s title was embodying an intellectual revolt – a revolution. Indeed, more than a revolution, he was introducing a new temper, habit of mind, way of thinking. And how did he do so? By combining the word “origin” with the word “species.”

What!?! Why is that such a big deal?

Here I return to Dewey as he writes two long sentences with simple words but complex syntax and earth-shattering implications:

The conceptions that had reigned in the philosophy of nature and knowledge for two thousand years, the conceptions htat had become the familiar furniture of the mind, rested on the assumption of he superiority of the fixed and final; they rested upon treating change and origin as signs of defect and unreality. In laying hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency, in treating the forms that had been regarded as types of fixity and perfection as originating and passing away, the “Origin of Species” introduced a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of morals, politics, and religion. [emph. mine]

In brief, the Christian classical tradition has valued the eternal and unchanging above the temporal and changing. If things change that indicates an imperfection. Understand, however, that Dewey has nothing but derision for religion, especially Christianity. “There is not, I think, an instance of a any large idea about the world being independently generated by religion.” So his attack is not so much on Christianity as on classical categories of thought that were adopted by Christians in the early years of the church.

Frightened Christians who also run from any association with pagan thought fall gently into Dewey’s hands – and under his authority – over the issues in this essay.

What, then, is the ancient idea that Darwin has disposed of? In a word, “species.”

“Few words in our language foreshorten intellectual history as much as does the word species,” reports Dewey. “The Greek formulation of the aim and standard of knowledge, was in the course of time embodied in the word species, and it controlled philosophy for two thousand years.”

Dewey uses a couple pages to brilliantly summarize the development of the concept of species among the ancient Greeks and then among the scholastics. Aristotle called it eidos, referring to that which “keeps individuals distant in space and remote in time to a uniform type of structure and function.” In other words, by noting the structure and function of individual things, you can determine what “kind” of thing they are – i.e. their eidos. The scholastics translate eidos into the Latin word species, which we have since adopted into English.

Dewey recognizes the significance of the term “species” when he says, “The conception of eidos, species, a fixed form and final cause, was the central principle of knowledge as well as of nature. Upon it rested the logic science… Genuinely to know is to grasp a permanent end that realizes itself through changes, holding them thereby within the metes and bounds of fixed truth. Completely to know is to relate all special forms to their one single end and good: pure contemplative intelligence. ”

Knowledge was formerly conceived as knowledge of truth, and truth was unchanging. To really know something is to know its purpose or end. To really know all things is to see how they all relate to each other and tend to one final ultimate goal or end. Of course, Dewey is only responding to the classical tradition, not respecting the Christian developments (the existence of which he denies). But we can simplify this to the common sense statement that for the western tradition, everything has a purpose. To know that purpose is the goal of learning. Dewey, basing his dogma on Darwin, utterly denies this.

Thus, in the third section of his essay, Dewey confronts the argument from design, which is based on the notion of fixed species and argues that all things have purpose. In this context, he makes this extraordinarily insightful statement: “Science was underpinned and morals authorized by one and the same principle, and their mutual agreement was eternally guaranteed.” In a designed universe, there is no conflict between the study of science and the study of morals or between the practice of science and the practice of morals. Both were governed and directed by the idea of purpose.

But there is no purpose, according to Dewey, so the relationship between morals and science is broken. I leave it to the reader to develop the implications of that notion in his leisure time (I mean thus to illustrate the absolute necessity for leisure for those of us who wish to live consistent lives and to educate children)

In this context, he thrusts his dagger. Of course, the victim is dead now, so we don’t feel the dagger thrust any more. But try to imagine for a moment that you are foolish enough to believe that life has a purpose and that things are what they are by nature and always will be what they are. He says:

The Darwinian principle of natural selection cut straight under this philosophy. If all organic adaptations are due simply to constant variation and the elimination of those variations which are harmful in the struggle for existence tht is brought about by excessive reproduction, there is no call for a prior intelligent causal force to plan and preordain them.

So much for intelligent design, which Dewey regarded as a “crucial instance” of the question of the implications of Darwinism on philosophy. Since we have done away with design, what further conclusions can we draw?

In the first place, the new logic outlaws, flanks, dismisses–what you will– one type of problem and substitutes for it another type. Philosophy forswears inquiry after absolute origins and asolute finalities in order to explore specific values and the specific conditions that generate them.

No longer will philosophy ask questions about the purpose of things and the meaning of life, no longer will philosophy try to determine some ultimate origin and source for all things. Instead it will use the scientific method to study specific values – the way things are – and specific conditions that generate them -how those values came to be held. While it seems hard to deny the value of such a study, its self-refuting nature (its own values are ultimate) and its ultimate relativity explain the futility of so much sociology and psychology as the have developed out of Darwin’s naturalism as interpreted by Dewey.

For example, are you as astonished as I am that we have spent over a century figuring out all the sources of happiness and unhappiness and failed utterly to build a community that is able to wisely pursue happiness? Of course, when truths are no longer self-evident (i.e. rooted in the necessities of a permanent nature), you can’t turn to them as unquestioned foundations for such a society. And we no longer believe that the right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness are self-evident truths. Only specific values that arose from specific conditions.

Dewey deludes himself and America by convincing himself that he is being practical, action oriented, facing reality with manly endurance:

In the second place, the classic type of logic inevitably set philosophy upon proving that life must have certain qualities and values… because of some remote and causal goal…. The habit of derogating from present meanings and uses prevents our looking the facts of experience in the face.

But by not wasting our time on “the habit of seeking justification for ideal values in the remote and transcendent” we can demonstrate “that knowable energies are daily generating about us precious values.” This extraordinary statement needs unraveling. What energies? Are they of a permanent or temporary type? How are they to be known? What on earth (since that is the only place we are permitted to look) makes these values precious? Precious to whom? Caesar certainly had values he deemed precious. How are we to assess them?

Well, at least we can clarify them. Because our society values values clarification. On the other hand, our society values other things that Dewey didn’t like, like religion. These things need to be allowed to die. So much for religion in school.

Of course, when we are rooting our knowledge in immediate experience there is little value studying a history of a people who believed in species. So much for history studies.

Practical application: “To improve our education, to ameliorate our manners, to advance our politics, we must have recourse to specific conditions of generation.” Here I truly believe that Dewey has overreached himself and fallen into the fatal temptation of intellectual man. He speaks of improvement against no ideal, amelioration (gradual improvement) against no standard of perfection, advancement toward no final goal. Then what guides his improvement, amelioration, and advancement?

His values.

Suddenly, not only has the pursuit of happiness been discarded, so has liberty. We are to become (and indeed we have become) the objects of his experiments. The masters will put in place “specific conditions of generation” and those conditions will turn us into the kind of people the masters want us to be. On this matter, I refer the reader to the great novel by CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength. Let me point out what was once obvious to all thinking people: you are not free if you are another man’s lab rat, no matter how happy he makes you being his lab rat. Soma is no substitute for human dignity rooted in the Divine Image. But I digress.

My point was that Dewey is practical, not philosophical, and this is regarded as a good thing. He says, “if insight into specific conditions of value adn into specific consequences of ideas is possible, philosophy must in time become a method of locating and interpreting the more serious of the conflicts that occur in life, and a method of projecting ways for dealing with them: a method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis.”

So philosophy must have its tools taken away and then get on with the most difficult problems with which humans confront. Dewey reflects a touching naivete that can be traced through western philosophy from the day sof Descartes and Bacon, the two parents of modern thought, from whom we received our temperament. A touching confidence in reason, a sentimental hope that people will work together for global well-being, a precious fancy that we’ll all get along when we are properly conditioned by the masters. I thank God for the human spirit that rebels against this nonsense, but the only pure rebellion that is not both rejecting and absorbing Dewey’s teaching is that of the Christian classicist.

Dewey concludes his essay by pointing out that

Old ideas give way slowly; for they are more than abstract logical forms and categories. They are habits, presdispositions, deeply engrained attitudes of aversion and preference… Intellectual progress usually occurs through sheer abandonment of questions together with both of the alternatives they assume–an abandonment that results from their decreasing vitality and a change of urgent interest. We do not solve them: we get over them.

This may not have been a conscious move on Dewey’s part, but one can easily see the psychological strategy Dewey is handing to those who share his consciousness. Those who are opposed to us are simply not over the questions we have left behind. If they win the argument, that is irrelevent. The question no longer matters. it is not vital or urgent. We don’t care.

Simply ignore the old questions and drown the old habits and the day is won! That explains why Darwinism is so little defended and so often applauded and why theories like Intelligent Design re so little argued against and so often derided.

I’ll bet you never thought a single word could move the universe. But with the “Origins of Species,” Dewey made sure it did.

But, though you are no doubt exhausted, I have one more point that needs to be made. Earlier I quoted Dewey saying, “There is not, I think, an instance of any large idea about the world being independently generated by religion.” I’m not sure what he means by independently generated, and since I don’t believe anything is independently generated, I can accept the truth of this statement. The trouble is, it is meaningless. There is also no instance of any large idea about the world being idendently generated by philosopy, or science, or art, or by my mother, or my neighbor, or by Dewey. This provocative statement leads to one long bored yawn.

But, and this matters enormously, the concept of species is not unique to Greek thought and did not originate there. So far as I can tell, the first use of this concept is in an ancient Hebrew text that predates Aristotle by hundreds of years. In it, the Hebrew account of the creation is recorded. The Hebrew God creates animals and plants from the dust of the ground and He gives them instructions. He tells them to reproduce. And He tells them to do so “after your kind.”

Species, kind, same thing. Whether the Greeks got this idea from the Hebrews or just from looking carefully at the obvious, I don’t know. But it is by sharing this concept that Christian classical culture built an extraordinary civilization and continues to be the conscience of what is left of the “West.” Dewey is determined to put a final end to it and so far he has been astonishing effective. He has convinced us that philosophy is a waste of time and that we can have schools that pay no attention to transcendent ideas. He has designed an experimental approach that sets aside the soul, denying it the truth, goodness, and beauty on which it feeds. He has overseen the teaching methods of most Christian schools in America.

He laughs every time one of their graduates loses his faith, which he would have been less likely to do if he had understood more Plato, Aristotle, St. Athanasius, and St. Thomas.

Next time the parents in your school want to know why you read the ancient pagans, tell them it’s because you want to escape the traps of the post-Christian pagans. Tell them you are in revolt against Dewey and want to get educated no matter how opposed he is to education in the schools. And go read some Mortimer Adler.

What’s a Teacher To Do?

At least one of the goals of eduacation must be to understand. That seems self-evident to me – bound up in the act of education itself. So I’m always intrigued and part of me is always puzzled by the antipathy among educators and parents for reading and thinking about profound and compelling ideas. American society seems to have a self-deluding concept of itself as being very practical. It’s hard to accept that when you read about how much time is spent watching television, playing video games, and piling up debt. In fact, American society is quite driven by immediacy. That isn’t practical; that’s just selfish and childish.

And that, in my opinion, is the real reason the vox populi doesn’t appreciate references to great literature, encounters with deep thinkers, and challenges to their children in school. The pretext is, “What will my children be able to do with this?” or, quite often more hypocritically, “Why should a Christian read pagan literature?” The real reason is, “I dont’ want to have to deal with the challenges you are introducing into my child’s mind; I don’t want to appear ignorant in his eyes; I resent the suggestion that my child can do better than I am doing.”

Financially, these are habits of poverty. Raise your children with these attitudes toward financial education and your children will live in the same poverty you live in. It’s the same intellectually and spiritually. When a parent undercuts his child’s development for fear the child will outgrow the parent, he has condemned the child to layers and layers of poverty.

That is what we are doing as an educational society. What we call school in America is an abomination and we need a prophet to expose it for what it is. The discussion led by Ken Myers to which I refered in yesterday’s post underscored this for me once again. Ken’s daughter was home schooled through high school and now attends William and Mary. One of the great jokes the Vox Populi plays on itself is the ridiculous and scurrilous suggestion that home schoolers risk not being well socialized (yet another of the abstractions that stands for an argument among contemporary opponents of common sense), as though learning to relate to your parents and to other people in small and humane groups somehow undercuts your development, while being age-segregated, broken into cliques, and treated like a number and a slave is better for your soul.

When Ken’s daughter arrived at William and Mary she was put in a dorm with a group of class presidents. She expected them to be interested in things worth thinking about, to be able to converse intelligently about a wide range of interests. In fact, she told Ken that they were unable to carry on a conversation for more than three minutes and that those conversations functioned at a very low level. My son David says such conversation is dominated by gossip because people simply don’t care about each other.

The most important thing a school teaches is the ability to communicate. The most important thing. There is nothing more important. The college transcript is a sin against the Divine Image in man if it looks impressive for a child who cannot communicate. If I can blow up Kurdistan, build bridges to span the Atlantic, create and then solve global warming, but cannot communicate, I am not educated. I am not human. I am a very sophisticated machine. But I am not human.

Communication is rooted in community. Knowledge is impossible outside of community. Being itself is an act of communion. When a school allows anything to displace the power of communication as its vital force and unifying principle, it has wandered from the path of wisdom.

And yet, every day, teachers in classical and Christian schools, not to mention state schools and vanilla private schools, strive to complete a curriculum that by its nature undercuts the child’s ability to communicate. We simply don’t have time to talk. Not with our neighbors, not with our teachers, not with our classmates. Not unless we are scheming to do something. We are the most schooled society in the history of the world, but we might be among the worst communicators and thinkers ever to walk the face of the planet.

But we can carry on with the illusion because we always have the news and print media putting a white wash of intelligence over the whole stinking sepulchre.

Please, parents, sit around your tables at home and talk to and listen to your children. Please, teachers and administrators, set aside the goal of appearing to educate your children by covering material that sinks in to the depth of a hair follicle. Replace it with the goal of really educating your students. Please talk about and listen to them as they discuss great ideas embodied in great texts and great works of art. Please engage them in a continual stream of Socratic discussions. The outcomes are not predictable, but at least they matter. At least they are real. At least they have an actual, practical point.

I know that this approach raises fears about standardized tests and other appearance based assessments. There is no need to fear. If you have the courage to actually educate a child, he will get into the college he needs to go to. College just isn’t that hard to get into. There are 1500 or more colleges in America and about 50 of the smaller ones (and maybe 3 or 4 of the larger ones) are pretty good. You only need one. And a child who can communicate will have a great shot at a good college.

The whole world changes when people talk to each other. Please do it.

What’s A classical school leader to do?

When a school determines to become a college preparatory school, it has two options. It can either think about the kind of college it is preparing its students for or it can become a silly little meaningless school that has no identity of its own and neglects its duties to its students.

Of course, it will more likely end up somewhere in between, with some serious college prap activity and some silly, meaningless trascript worshipping, gutless activity.

I write so provocatively because I believe that many people simply play the devil’s fool in this matter of college admissions. It’s as though they are perfectly happy to prepare other people’s daughters to go mindlessly into what Dr. Vigen Guroian has called a Dorm Brothel. They certainly aren’t taking the Christian faith seriously, or at least they don’t know what they are doing, when they are willing to let that great bugaboo of the high school parent, the college transcript, guide their curriculum development.

Which colleges do you want your students to go to? What is their philosophy of education? What habits of mind will they cultivate in your students/children?

These thoughts were provoked in me while listening to Ken Myers colloquy on a quotation by Joseph Pieper to the effect that the place where truth lives is in conversation. He argues that flattery is the enemy of truth and the corruptor of conversation. Pieper’s definition of flattery is conversation in which the speaker says what he does to get something from the listener. It appears that he is honoring him, but in fact he is degrading him to an object of use. Given our soul’s hunger for honor, we’re very susceptible to flattery.

And that, people in the conversation suggest, is what interferes quite directly with a classical education in our supposedly classical schools. Many parents put their children in our schools because they want something out of the school, a commodity, not because they want their children to be a part of the school’s life and conversation. Thus they demand highly productive and highly regulated curricula that have no room for, say Socratic instruction.

As a result we have classical schools that eliminate Socratic instruction, not only in the grammar stage (where it is also needed) but even in the rhetoric stage (where it ought to be the heart and soul of the intellectual life of the school). Classical schools without Socratic instruction!! Thank God Latin increases SAT scores or we wouldn’t have them either.

American education is governed and regulated by people who despise classical education, by people who set standards that are contrary to standards either a classicist or a Christian would establish. Teachers are trained to teach using methods and grounded in theories that have only a little to offer to classical educators and that only to those who are well enough trained in classical theory and practice to discern what is useful and what is not.

Yet we allow ourselves to be assessed by these Progressives and Pragmatists while bowing the knee to the parents who can’t think for themselves about what they want their children to learn. It’s all about success in the very generation and world from which came to save us.

The result is that, being confused, schools either don’t grow as they could, grow for the wrong reasons, or close their doors.

What can a leadership team do if the parents are squealing for higher SAT scores and more content for the college admissions officers if the leadership team doesn’t have a (literally) authoritative grasp of what Christian classical education is? The most practical thing most of our school boards could do is to spend a year studying classical theory. In the best schools the leadership has set a direction so firmly and clearly and has continued to grow so deeply that everybody in the school knows, within a few minutes of entering the school, where the school is going. The Volvo mafia is silenced, powerless.

Except when they want to participate in a Socratic discussion.  

What then should school leaders do?

  1. Enter the great conversation! If it doesn’t interest you, don’t try to lead a school that is defined by it.
  2. Read Norms and Nobility and discuss it as a team.
  3. Come to the CiRCE conference where we’ll laugh our way through these issues in 2008 (a Contemplation of Humor).
  4. Submit only to the assessment those who know what they are doing in education, and that does not include the standardizers.
  5. Demand that your teachers teach Socratically and through contemplation. Insist that they not be glued to production driven curricula.
  6. When parents want to reduce your school to yet another servile worshipper of the gods of the age, remind them of what you are: A Christian classical school that was created in response to the follies and failures of the age.
  7. Decide whether or not you really believe in Christian classical education. If you do, die for it. If you don’t, stop interfering with those who do. As the bumper sticker says, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way!”
  8. If you are ready to commit yourself, be ready for endless battles with people who won’t understand, most of which take place in furtive corner conversations, and for the endless pleasurs of schools coming alive.
  9. To return to the launching point of this diatribe, take very seriously the question of what kind of college you want your graduates to attend. Don’t sell out to that great abstraction that US News and World Reports has made of the American college. Remember, your students will be attending particular colleges, not “college.”

(By the way, I don’t think this CD is in our conference set and the sound quality isn’t great because it’s a colloquy. But if you’d like a copy in spite of the fact that you have to listen quite closely to hear what some of the participants are saying, I’ll see if we can make a special run. We could probably make some for the normal price of $6 plus S&H. Write to me at Akern at circeinstitute.org if you’re interested.)