Adler on the Education Options

A badly stated issue calls for false or extreme solutions. It is important, therefore, to correct the impression that th issue in American education today is between classicism and progressivism. Both of these names signify undesirable extremes which have exagerrated and distorted some sound elements of educational policy. Classicism names the arid and empty formalism which dominated education at the end of the last century. It emphasized the studyof the classics for historical or philological reasons. It was interested in the past for the past’s sake. It mistook drill for discipline. Against such classicism, the reaction which took place was genuinely motivated and sound in principle. Unhappily, as always the reaction went too far.

We have reached an extreme in the swing of the pendulum, an equally unfortunate extreme that, in its many forms, is called progressive education. Progressivism has become as preposterous as classicism was arid. It is so absorbed with the study of the contemporary world that it forgets human culture has traditional roots. It has substituted information for understanding, and science for wisdom. It has mistaken license for liberty, for taht is what freedom is when it is unaccompanied by discipline.

Mortimer Adler, Tradition and Progress in Education

What do you think?

Sympathetic Identification or Critical Analysis?

All learning is imitation, if only we understand what imitation is. All teaching, then, is either exemplifying or presenting what the student will imitate.

This can apply to the classroom, but the truth is, we spend most of our active time teaching and learning anyway – or at least attempting to do so – so it would be foolish either to apply this only to the classroom or even to begin our reflections on learning with the classroom.

The classroom seeks to make learning super-efficient by removing every extraneous movement (usually by sending him to the office), but I remain skeptical about the effectiveness of this approach. As a teacher, I have alway found the classroom to be something with which you must do the best you can rather than the best there is, which is, I suppose, the reason why they have extended courses on classroom management at teachers colleges and at education conferences.

Imitation, however, comes in layers. I am beginning to suspect that you can see these layers played out, perhaps in reverse order, over time in European art.

The most obvious layer of imitation is when the artist (art is imitation) imitates the surface of the artifact he is imitating. For example, I can imitate a poem by Wordsworth quite easily by memorizing it. I can imitate a painting by DaVinci by coloring it in a coloring book.

Inasmuch as every following layer of imitation depends on this layer, I am unwilling to dismiss it as insignificant or unhelpful.

In the second layer of imitation, I would imitate the form of the artifact. While I simply retained the words in my head in layer one, now in layer two I would try to replace the words themselves with words of my own, but I would do so in the form (fable, lyric, etc.) of the original artist.

This is what Benjamin Franklin refered to when he used “hints of sentiment” and what Andrew Pudewa uses with IEW when he has students make key word outlines. The reason was activated by the imitation of level one, but not very vigorously. In level two, we call on it for more energetic activity.

Layer three imitation goes beyond the form to the qualities found within the form, such as voice, energy, harmony and other more abstract principles. Here the reason is seriously challenged even in analyzing, not to mention imitating, the artifact. This cannot be done by the would-be artist who is unwilling to practice the first two layers of imitation.

Finally, the artist becomes an artist in his own right when he imitates the artistic process itself: the process of creation. This varies from art to art and artifact to artifact, but there remains the universal process of creativity that applies to every art and artifact: attentively perceive, contemplate, conceptualize, re-present or articulate.

The master teacher is able to guide his students from the first through the fourth stage organically and dynamically and the gifted student is able to pass from one stage to the next with an alacrity rooted in attentive perception.

Most artists (including teachers) are unaware of this sequence and are drawn by thy mystic cords of necessity, the rational call of harmony, and the volitional impulse to beauty. But when programs are constructed to teach students en masse that disregard this organic sequence and strive instead to teach on mechanistic assumptions, a vast array of talent is squandered and human souls atrophy in the desert of negligence.

Thus scientific materialism undercuts the teaching of literature and composition by applying un-artistic, unfitting, counter-productive tools of assessment.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the greatest English philosophers of the 19th century, comes to my aid in his analysis of the poetic process. For simplicity, I quote from English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins, 1967 and I italicize for emphasis.

Coleridge often contrasted organic with ‘mechanical’ form. The ‘mechanical’ he said…, is predetermined and subsequently impressed on whatever material we choose, as when ‘to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened.’ The organic form, on the other hand, ‘shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fulness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.’ Each exterior thus becomes a ‘true image’ of ‘the being within.’ The concept of organic form… gave rise to an approach to art that stressed sympathetic identification rather than analysis from a critical distance. And it stimulated  a criterion of evaluation that rests on the extent to which all the ‘parts’ of a work of art… interconnect and sustain one another.

I have never seen a clearer and more concise description of the heart of the classical education that arises from a close understanding of what a “logos” is, that Plato and Aristotle groped for, that Chaucer and Shakespeare expressed, and that nobody of whom I am aware ever developed in a more timely way than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

As I continue to reflect on teaching in a manner that sustains and is compatible with liberty and as I continue to explore the impact of the German philosophers on German and American education, I will frequently return to the foregoing passage  as something of a locus classicus of sound artistic theory and therefore of how to practice the art of teaching.

I promise to try to write more clearly as I develop some of these thoughts. ; )

The Path to A Smaller Government: Get Involved

Here’s an irony: the solution to too much government involvement is more involvement in government.

Here’s a contrast:

Image 1: In Colonial New England, because the American colonies were not a priority to the English parliament and king, every local community was locally run. It seems as if virtually everybody was involved in politics, but the politics were local.

In other words, in every local community, local people were making decisions about local matters.

Image 2: In 19th century Imperial Russia, on the other hand, Russian society was run by the Imperial bureaucracy and the aristocracy. The Russian workers had little to no formal involvement in local politics.

John Reed was the author of Ten Days That Shook the World, an eyewitness, sympathetic description of the Bolshevik revolution. In this propoganda piece for “the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” Reed writes,

Foreigners, and Americans especially, frequently emphasise the ‘ignorance’ of the Russian workers. It is true they lacked the political experience of the peoples of the West, but they were very well trained in voluntary organisation.

Now, one always runs the risk of over-simplification when he selects a passage out of context, but when I read those words, they fairly leapt off the page.

I’d never thought of this contrast before. In America at that time, it seems that one could still find a vibrant, local political life that gave people a voice in their own affairs. Meanwhile, in Russia, if they wanted a voice in their own affairs, they had to engage in extra-political organizations that would represent their financial and social interests.

The contrast is too clean. At first it sounds as though we have two options: either be involved in politics or be involved in voluntary organizations. Thankfully, the choice is not needed.

However, a balance is needed and I don’t know the proportions of that balance. An idea assertively suggests itself in any case: if people are not deeply involved in local politics, then they will lose the right to govern themselves.

Voluntary organizations are different. They are unelected, though their members will often elect their leadership. When they begin to involve themselves in matters more appropriately left to the political arm, liberty is threatened at the local level.

For this reason, local government needs to be maintained and sustained by local communities and by higher levels of government. When the union workers, or the Optimists, or the Catholic Aid Society, or any other voluntary organization asserts its power to govern instead of appealing to the governors, society is, in varying degrees, placed at risk.

This reflection may point to the most nefarious influence of collectivism and to the fatal flaw in conventional “conservatism.” First, collectivism, as practiced by both parties in American politics under the almost triumphant influence of Progressivism in both politics and pedagogy, has drawn the decision making power away from communities and cities and towns upward into states and federal governments.

How much decision making authority does the local alderman really have? You know who you voted for for president. Do you know who you voted for for alderman or even mayor?  

The fatal flaw in conventional “conservatism” may be rooted in sloppy use of English. Everywhere I look, when I read the conservative approaches, they all talk about “limited” government.

Like every other political buzzword, this one is not actionable for the simple reason that it has not been understood or even thought much about.

The standard comeback of the liberal argues that conservatives want limited government except when it enforces their morality or goes to war. Then they want big government.

Both are right. We alternate between two parties that want the federal government expanded in complementary areas. As a result, it grows, regardless of the party in power.

Here, I think, may be at least part of the explanation: when a “conservative” says “limited government” he seems often to be expressing a bad attitude toward government, expressed in the phrase “necessary evil.”

As one who believes that “of the increase of [Christ’s] government there shall be no end,” and prays every day that His kingdom will come, and who recognizes that even angels are ordered in a celestial hierarchy, it is difficult for me to understand how Christians can possibly believe in government as a “necessary evil.”

On the contrary, government, understood as what it is instead of a word with connotations, is a natural and a supernatural good.

If you think of it as an evil, then you necessarily want to limit it for the sake of limiting it.

But to do so is to take an ax to a body to remove a sliver. Government should be limited, not for the sake of limiting it, but as a result of defining it. The difference is not slight.

The constitution does not merely limit our government so we can talk about how small it is. It limits it BY defining its role.

When people think government is an evil that should be limited, they come to see it as beneath their dignity to involve themselves in it. 

Since so many conservatives think of government as an evil, they don’t get involved, not even at the local level. Consequently, people who love government as a means, not to manage affairs in a local community but as a means to “change the world” and all that sort of adolescent rubbish, get involved in politics.

And here’s the resulting irony: such a government gets involved in everything, undefined and unrestrained precisely because the local community doesn’t want to govern itself.

The real difference between the progressive and the conservative is that the progressive wants expansive and virtually unlimited government at the highest levels (which is why they have a tendency toward symbolic gestures) while the conservative wants a vigorous and defined local government that involves as much of the community as possible in decision making.

So if we want a nation of limited government, then we need more people involved in government at the local level, representing the interests of the local community close to home.

Since this responsibility has been abdicated to ever higher levels of government, we are now under the unbearable weight of a federal government that cannot possibly make wise decisions about local affairs.

Under such an expansive and intrusive federal government, you can expect two things: local governments become irrelevant and voluntary organizations expand.

Tea Parties are fun, but I’d like to know how many participants are involved in local government. Not everybody should be, but everybody who is called to it must be.

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

You can live from the inside, or you can live from the outside.

You can think from the inside, or you can think from the outside.

You can read from the inside, or you can read from the outside.

You can teach from the inside – but only if you live, think, and read from the inside.

To live, think, and read from the inside you must enter into the thing you live with, the thought you are thinking about, the text you are reading.

To live, think, and read from the outside, you only need to look at it.

Most living, thinking, reading, and teaching are done from the outside.

The greatness of the great teacher is the ability to get inside and lead his students there.

Things can only be loved on the inside, where they cannot be measured.

Things can only be measured on the outside, where they cannot be known.

By living on the outside, we have turned education and our civilization upside down.

Amazed by America

Every act of teaching rests on the implicit or explicit assumption of authority and trust. Student, parent, and community always assume the teacher knows what he is talking about and is therefore trustworthy. When this is not the case, as in every form of coerced schooling, the end cannot be anything other than cynicism.

Such cynicism cannot but put the community at risk for the simple reason that it arises from a failure of authority – a quiet form of tyranny.

The extent of American acceptance of this tyrannical behavior on the part of our governments astounds one who reflects on it. How much longer can we continue without a dictator, rising cynically on the rubble of some state created crisis or another?

Susan Wise Bauer on Medieval History

Every class at school is dominated by either a skill set (the arts, liberal and fine) or ideas (history, theology, etc.). In either case, the content learned will serve the idea or the skill. To avoid confusion, ideas classses also develop skills and skills classes also think about ideas. They cannot be laid into air tight chambers.

The classes that are dominated by ideas were called sciences under the classical curriculum. The classes dominated by skills were called arts.

The arts were seen as foundational to the sciences because before you could contemplate ideas you had to learn how to think.

This changed in the nineteenth century when German philosophers like Kant, Fichte, Hegel and others (following the French revolutionaries) determined that either there were no ideas (classically understood) to know or that any ideas there were to know had no connection to the actual world around us.

Ideas set free from reality were what gave us the revolutions and radicalisms of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century.

They are also what unhinged the classical tradition and the focus on the seven liberal arts as  prerequisites to an educated mind.

In that context, knowing what to teach in a history class, for example, becomes problematic. The conventional school is lost, being dominated by text book publishers who take their cues from arguments at school board meetings in Texas. They don’t have a philosophy of history and if they did they would be shot down by the establishment for imposing it on their students.

Susan Wise Bauer has been writing history books into that context for the last decade or so, and on February 22 she will be releasing a new volume: A History of the Medieval World.

Over the next couple weeks I’ll be posting comments on this work from a number of different angles. For example, I’ll point out that I appreciate that she at least occasionally uses complex sentences, without which a child can never learn to read and think complex thoughts. I’ll also reflect on the question of what one ought to include in such a study; whether it is fitting, give what she includes, to call it medieval history; how to make use of the text in your school or home; and a few other things.

I’ll begin by giving the book a qualified thumbs up, while acknowledging that Susan Wise Bauer has produced a very useful artifact. If you are a teacher or parent seeking knowledge of the medieval era as a source of wisdom, you’ll want this book nearby.

For reasons we’ll explore later, I’m not sure if I would make it my primary text to teach the middle ages in a classical school. However, I would absolutely want my students to have it nearby as a resource.  

Over the next few days I’ll be with the apprentices close to 24/7 so I’m not likely to post much – maybe a great quotation here or there. But I’ll be back at it on Monday, reflecting on medieval history, the rise of Hitler in Germany, and whether there is a necessary relationship between education and freedom.

Let me remind you again that our conference on Liberty will be held in Dallas on July 14-17 and the early bird registration fee is available, though the conference is filling at a surprisingly rapid pace. You can register for 245 (225 in groups of three or more) and I’d love to see you there. We need to think hard about liberty if we expect to keep it.

Blurry Minds and Fuzzy Habits

At the same time as they foster he blurred mind, then, the elementary and secondary schools postpone and finaly make unpalatable the ancient discipline of work.

…. no way has yet been found to teach him how to write. The sole magic that could make freshman composition succeed would be the belief on the part of both student and teacher that writing mattered, that the instructor was bored by dullness, offended by barbarisms, and outraged by nonsense. Then the student might begin to feel, through his written work, a moral responsibility for his intellectual acts. As things are, he writes in order to gain three credits…

Jacques Barzun: The House of Intellect, ch. V, Instruction without Authority