Thoughts on knowing and the end of education

The english word epistemology seems like a technical word because it doesn’t come from the Anglo-Saxon or French and because it has taken on a rather precise meaning.

As a result, the word can intimidate the reader.

It doesn’t need to. It just means “what is knowable” or maybe “a set of beliefs or theories about knowledge.”

You can imagine that what you believe about knowledge would matter when you teach or build a curriculum.

What can we know? How do we come to know it? What does it mean to know? How is what we can know in one area related to what we can know in another area?

Your answers to these questions are your curriculum, so those answers matter.

So let’s take a moment and start to think about them.If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves teaching materials and in ways that we don’t understand and may not even agree with.

I would like to propose up front that we can find three broad theories of knowledge more or less commonly followed today and pursued through history.

For convenience, I will call them

  1. The Christian and classical view of knowledge
  2. The traditional view of knowledge
  3. The Pragmatic view of knowledge

The pragmatic view is the one people follow most closely in our day when they are consciously following a theory. It’s greatest champions have been men like Francis Bacon (knowledge is power), William James, John Dewey, and Machiavelli.

In the pragmatic view, knowledge is the ability to do something, especially to adapt to and exercise power over the environment. Dewey and James are the most explicit theorists, and Dewey’s pragmatic theories dominate contemporary education, even in Christian schools.

Pragmatists are skills focused and they want children to construct their own realities. They tend to undercut traditions other than their own, seeing them as constraining and even oppressive.

In the old fashioned sense of the word, knowledge is impossible because there is nothing to known in that old fashioned sense and there is nothing that can know it anyway.

In other words, the world and everything in it is constantly changing, so there is no permanent “idea” or essence of a thing that you can know. You can just “know” what it is like now and adapt accordingly. This ability to adapt is knowledge.

In the traditionalist view, knowledge is the retention and reproduction of symbols. That sounds a little silly at first, so let me explain what I mean. Every tradition contains practices, rituals, artifacts, and texts (written or spoken) that embody that tradition.

When a member of a tradition wants to pass on that tradition (tradition literally means “to hand on,” from the Latin traduo), he teaches his students the practices, rituals, artifacts, and texts (which is what I mean by symbols) of that tradition.

Sports are relentlessly traditional because you become great, not by developing radically new techniques, but by imitating and then transcending those who were great before you. The very few exceptions (e.g. the Fosbury flop) only prove the rule.

The best reason for handing on a tradition is that a tradition embodies the wisdom of its members, especially those who came before.

When handled properly, the traditional symbols lead the recipient to the wisdom contained in or, better yet, pointed to by, the symbols.

When a school requires students to memorize poetry, repeat gestures, sing songs, learn the forms of grammar and literature, read old books, and otherwise remember and recite facts and information, it is acting traditionally.

A community embodies its soul in its traditions, so no community that is opposed to tradition can survive.

The great traditional educator of the contemporary world is ED Hirsch, with his Core Knowledge sequence.

You have succeeded as a student in a traditional school when you have demonstrated mastery of the content and symbols of the tradition.

The trouble with tradition arises from two possible sources. It may be that the ideas embodied in the symbols are false. In that case, the tradition may hold a community together, but it may do so by leading the whole community into error.

Or it may be that the members of the community look to the symbols and their preservation rather than the ideas and realities embodied in the symbols of the tradition.

Only a master of the symbols can transcend them. The clearest example of this fact seems to be our Lord and his response to the Pharisees. He recognized that they were, in varying degrees, living off the traditions instead of living by them.

As a result, they began to contort the traditions handed to them to their own advantage and became wolves among sheep.

In our Phariseeism, we can forget how very easily we become pharisees.

But long before the Pharisees began to contort the traditions, they had come to see the traditions either as ends in themselves, or, worse, as means to other ends than what they pointed to.

The Sabbath, for example, was a tradition handed to the Jewish people through their covenant with God. It was meant to be a Holy Day of rest. As such, it pointed the covenant people to something beyond a one day/week religious experience.

Symbols, in other words, don’t refer to themselves. This is easiest to see when we look at words. The word “lamp” is a sound symbol. It does not refer to itself, but to an invention with which we are all familiar that can enlighten a room.

There is a reality beyond the symbols.

In the Christian classical view of knowledge, the goal of learning is to perceive that reality.

We hand on and love and honor our traditions, not so people will know them, but so they will know what they refer to.

Of course, you usually can’t know what they refer to without knowing them because the reason you need symbols is precisely because it takes great wisdom to come to know the realities in the first place.

Here’s one way it could happen. A wise person comes to understand something about life. He wants his children to understand it to. They can’t, because they are young. So he makes up a fable. That fable becomes part of the tradition.

If the child actually contemplates the fable, he can move more rapidly to the insight of his wise father than his father was able to himself.

To the Christian and/or classical educator, it has always been necessary, but it has never been enough, to know the greatest symbols (in the sense I used the word above) of the tradition.

The goal is always to see what the symbols point to.

Knowledge, therefore, to the Christian classical educator is perception of reality.

The pragmatic educator is not content to “know” in this sense, because he does not believe such knowledge exists. He focuses on skills of adaptation.

The traditional educator at his best strives for this kind of knowledge, but he encounters so many temptations (especially honor from men who don’t see the reality beyond the tradition) that he rarely transcends the tradition.

And if he does, he’ll say something a little off kilter and offend the traditionalists around him, who will scapegoat or crucify him one way or another.

The Christian classical educator loves practical applications of his knowledge. But not as much as he loves the knowledge itself. Truth is the delight of his soul, the queen of his mind.

He does not demand of her that she step down and serve him.

The Christian classical educator loves the traditions on which he was raised. But not as much as he loves the truth and beauty embodied by that tradition.

The Christian classical educator takes the knowledge of the traditional educator and the skills of the Pragmatic educator and, guided by the good, weaves them into a beautiful tapestry of truth that nourishes the soul until the disciple has attained wisdom and virtue himself.

But only because he has come to see that knowledge is not mere power, nor is it mere recall of symbols and facts, but it is the perception and apprehension of reality itself.

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One Response

  1. A reforming pragmatist, I may be!
    Seeing beyond concrete representations to ideas, ideas of truth, goodness and beauty, requires a cultivation of the mind, soul, spirit…I consider you one of the few incarnate gardners I know. As often happens, I only wish I had met more gardners like you before now!

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