Another Sign of Renewal

I love education and I distinguish it from training, but here is an idea that fits our circumstances and that I hope will set an example for other colleges to emulate.


It’s the mindset behind this idea that needs to spread.

Which Comes First?

The point for the liberal arts teacher to keep in mind is that the trivium and quadrivium were established before the pragmatic advantages of those disciplines appeared, developed out of the natural desire of man to know, not because they were immediately practical.

Marion Montgomery The Truth of Things: Liberal Arts and the Recovery of Reality, P. 62

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

High School Attainments

I was just over at the Well-Trained-Mind board where I posted this bit about what a high school student should have attained by graduation. Perhaps you’ll find it valuable too:

As a father with three children in college and one a senior in high school who is also home schooling his ninth graders I’ve thought a lot about this. If you don’t mind, I’ll think about it some more right now…0

The first thought is about college. Not much creates more anxiety, but not much is more toothless.

What I do and what I encourage schools and home scholars to do is to determine 10 or 12 colleges you would like your children to attend and then call the admissions officer at those colleges.

Tell them what you are doing and ask them if they want that sort of student. Don’t let them dictate what you are teaching the eternal soul you are raising.

Then you can start to develop your “profile of a graduate” with a clear head and this vague thing called “college” won’t matter to you anymore. Instead, you’ll have concrete, specific colleges for which to prepare.

When I think about what I want my children to achieve by the time they graduate, I try to throw out the assumptions of the age.

For example, Andrew Pudewa has taught me not to think high school matters. Therefore, with my ninth grade son, I have told him I have two goals for him: 1. to be running a profitable business of his own by the time he is 19 and 2. to receive his college undergraduate degree by the time he is 19.

Maybe it’s a boy thing, but that seems to have motivated him.0

With those goals in mind, I then think in terms of three columns that Mortimer Adler developed:

1. Skills to master

2. content to know

3. ideas to understand and appreciate

For example, under 1, it is imperative that a human being in any age master language and reasoning skills to a high degree. Everything else follows, especially in the professions and management.

So I emphasize Latin, Greek, and the language arts of listening, speaking, reading, and writing (more Pudewa influence), along with the reasoning arts of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

Under 2, I want my children to vote, so I’d hate to think anybody would ever do that without knowing the contents of our consitution and the job description of those to whom we delegate our authority. I also want them to know our history as a people so they can understand why we are the way we are and what is possible.

Under 3, I want my children to understand freedom, justice, and order; truth, goodness, and beauty; glory, honor, and immortality; being, mode, and change; wisdom, virtue, and personhood – because these 15 ideas contain everything.

If I were bold enough to make a suggestion, then, I would recommend:

  1. that you contact the colleges you are interested in
  2. that you would not be cowed by the way things are done in our failing culture (after all, you home school!)
  3. that you identify the knowledge, skills, and ideas that YOU want your children to master before completing high school
  4. that you not fall into despair when you only make it part way there! One step on the path of life is better than a thousand miles on any other.

I hope this has some value for you. It has helped me clarify my own thoughts, so thank you for asking such a great question!

A Filosopher Reflects on Philing

Owen Barfield was an inkling to whose daughter, Lucy, CS Lewis dedicated The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

He was a first class scholar in his own right who was comfortable with Latin, Greek, German, French, and who knows what other languages. I would love to read his book called History in English Words, which he described as a “general and superficial survey of semantic development.” How can that not make your heart melt?

The following quotation comes from another of his books called Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning.

… the rational principle must be strongly developed in the great poet. Is it necessary to add to this that the scientist, if he has ‘discovered’ anything, must also have discovered it by the right interaction of the rational and poetic principles? Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowledge, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.

As a great believer in different kinds of knowledge, I have to pause here and draw a rather technical distinction that you’ll want to skip over to get to the bold text below.

He is looking at the words Poetry and Science as they are used now. He’s describing a very metaphysical mode of knowing that was developed and explained by Coleridge and Shelley in the early 19th century.

What he’s getting at, I think, is that Descartes and Bacon, with their pretensions for the scientific mode of knowing, were off base. The highest forms of knowledge discovered by the poet and the scientist are the same.

These words can and have been used differently, and that can create confusion. These uses pre-date Bacon and Descartes, so they arise from a quest for true knowledge as opposed to Pragmatic utility.

I am referring to the distinctions Dr. James Taylor makes in his masterful opus, Poetic Knowledge, which you need to read if you want to teach knowingly.

He describes four kinds of knowledge as identified in the classical tradition and developed by Thomas Aquinas and others: the poetic (pre-rational, rooted in the senses), the rhetorical (persuasion by evidence), the dialectic (one of two options – beyond a reasonable doubt), and the scientific (absolute certitude – notice that this is not what modern “Science” means).

So in the Classical Christian tradition, there is a distinction between poetic and scientific knowledge, but neither term refers to what the terms poetry and science refer to today.

End of metaphysical digression

Barfield is arguing against the false claims of the scientist (from now on, I’m using the terms in the modern sense) to have some sort of knowledge the poet can’t have. This arises from and relates symbiotically to hubris:

That the two or three experimental sciences, and the two or three hundred specialized lines of inquiry which ape their methods, should have developed the rational out of all proportion to the poetic is indeed an historical fact–and a fact of great importance to a consideration of the last four hundred years of European history. 

A disordering has taken place, he suggests, in European culture and in the European soul.

But to imagine that this tells us anything about the nature of knowledge; to speak of method as though it were a way of knowing instead of a way of testing, this is–instead of looking dispassionately at the historical fact–to wear it like a pair of blinkers.

Modern science, that following on the work of Bacon and Descartes, provides a method for testing theories. It is dialectical and rhetorical, in Taylor’s sense above, but it is not (oh the irony) scientific.

Now, Barfield has a great deal more to say. Poetic Diction is one of those rare books with something jarringly insightful on every page. I am in the process of reading it through quickly, sans reflection, to get something of the gestalt in my head.

But I was prompted to write the foregoing because of a practical matter I am dealing with. Order.

More to the point, filing.

I conclude from my efforts that in a pragmatic world the philosopher will be out of place – unsuited.

The pragmatist orders things for their utility. The question is, “What will I use this for? Then file it accordingly.”

The philosopher, humbling himself before everything he encounters, orders things according to their nature, whether or not he can make use of them.

Happily, sometimes, even frequently, utility and nature overlap. Of course, as a would-be philosopher, I cling to the hope that in the end they overlap perfectly. What creates the disruption is false perceptions of utility, which lead to false perceptions of reality. But sometimes they overlap even in the immediate.

For example, businesses are, by nature, Pragmatic concerns. Their purpose is to produce results. They measure those results with a rather reductionist but quite powerful proxy called “cash.”

So the business, living in a realm dominated by conventions, don’t have to worry much about contradicting nature. They can ignore it almost completely. It’s natural for them to do so. (oh the irony)

Thus busines files can be ordered by utility pretty completely.

But schools are different. They are not Pragmatic institutions measured by an abstraction. They are, by nature, philosophical institutions of the highest order, requiring more wisdom than any other institution except the family. That is probably why most of them become not-for-profits.

A business model may help a school succeed as a business, but it runs the risk of destroying it as a school.   

However, since the late 19th century, schools have been trying to operate pragmatically. For example, much of the practice of the modern school arises from scientific management and factories.

The bell, for example, at the beginning and end of 50 minute sessions. Who would do that to a child? Who would believe that a child could learn best in that setting? What an unnatural way to order things!

It didn’t matter. Schools had become institutions for utility, not for education. Please note the distinction, as it cuts to the heart of our failure as a nation to educate our children.

Another clear example of Pragmatics overthrowing truth in schools jumps out with the curriculum and the way it is ordered.

The arrangement of classes simply doesn’t lead to discoveries of truth. I say that not based on some party conviction, but on the constant statements of high school and college students that I talk to, like:

  • “You say that because you are X”
  • “We have to agree to disagree”
  • “That’s your opinion”
  • “That’s true for you”

What all of these and so many more statements share in common is that they confess one thing: You can’t know the truth.

These deeply felt convictions arise, not from philosophical persuasion, but from being formed by a structure that doesn’t lead to truth (and also from a resistance to submitting to truth).

When students are assessed, the assessors don’t ask whether they can see truth better or whether they are more free than they were at the beginning of the lesson. All too frequently, they ask where they perform in an abstract exercise against an abstract group of people so they can, at best, determine whether to move them along the assembly line.

I saw a commercial for one of those nationwide colleges like University of Phoenix or LaSalle or something like that. The graduate talked about how much she valued it because it gave her a certification from an accredited institution.

Abstractions like certification and accreditation have replaced practical, concrete virtues like wisdom.

This is a cancer that eats at our cultural soul. What kind of adult student would freely subject herself to a process whose highest virtue is that it “certifies” her. What kind of a school would make that what they advertise? What kind of a society would value it so disproportionately and uncritically?

Answer: a Pragmatic society; which is a synonym for a soulless society.

So I’m trying to file my papers without eliminating my soul. I guess I just don’t fit.


Suggested resources:

Poetic Knowledge, Dr. James Taylor
Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield
File… Don’t Pile, Pat Dorff

James Schall on Getting Murdered by Your Students

Just read this in a marvel of an essay by James Schall that I appeal to you to read and contemplate:

Education means that we seek to know (and see and hear and taste and feel) what is. To do this, we must free ourselves. And we free ourselves by encountering the myriads of particular things amid which we live and whose ultimate cause of being we wonder about.

Here’s a link to the essay, from The University Bookman. Please read it.

The Trouble With Ed Schools

This article suggests that ed schools aren’t all that harmful; they’re irrelevant. Hard to conceive, given the number of teachers who have to go through them.

Immanuel Kant and the “Aim” of Education

I’m sitting in the library at Hiram College visiting my daughter and checking out the books. I came across this by Immanuel Kant, from his book Education. It made me laugh.

1. Man is the only being who needs education….

2. Animals use their powers… according to a regular plan–that is, in a way not harmful to themselves….

3. Discipline changes animal nature into human nature…. Having no instinct, he has to work out a plan of conduct for himself. Since, however, he is not able to do this all at once, but comes into the world undeveloped, others have to do it for him. 

4. It is discipline, which prevents man from being turned aside by his animal impulses from humanity, his appointed end…. By discipline men are placed in subjection to the laws of mankind, and brought to feel their constraint. This, however, must be accomplished early. Children, for instance, are first sent to school, not so much with the object of their learning something, but rather that they may become used to sitting still and doing exactly as they are told. 

5. … discipline must be brought into play very early; for when this has not been done, it is difficult to alter character later in life. 

 At which point I visited the men’s room, where I came across this computer generated sign:


Ah, yes, the groves of Academe, where men learn not to pee on the trees.

Another reason to worry about our cults, er, I mean, universities

Contemporary “education” feeds on the prestige capital of the western tradition. Yet, if we pay any attention, we notice quickly that what conventional schools do would not be considered education by the founders of this tradition. For one thing, conventional schooling focuses its attention on the economy: “How can our graduates contribute to the economy?”

Sometimes, it recognizes citizenship. What it doesn’t attend to, except in a decadent, degenerated form, is the cultivation of virtue, intellectual or moral. It will do these silly things that only an a bureaucratic mind could come up with called Character Studies.

 In the west, education was always seen as an end in itself: it’s goal was to cultivate the human-ness of the student. Educators believed that if people were more human, they would be able to do all the human activities better, like make decisions, relate to each other, etc.

In the 20th century, education came to be seen as more important than ever because of the rise of the new economy. Unfortunately, “educators” then proceeded to change what education was. Largely because people stopped believing in human nature and in God, they determined that education was the means to create the kind of society they wanted, not by cultivating the human-ness of the students, but by training them, by conditioning them, to do and act the way they wanted.

It’s a pretty childish idea, when you get right down to it. But if your conception of human nature has been reduced to something malleable and something easy to control through chemicals and environment, it’s easy enough to see why you would fall for this childish idea.

And that, if I may be so bold, is why education colleges tend to be characterized by immature, idealized, unrealistic, sentimental thinking.

Now, because so many centuries of an education that proved powerful, education has a high reputation. As a result, a group of vandals is using its language, facilities, and resources to overthrow the culture that gave it to us.

Here’s an NAS article that launched this tirade:

How the Dorms Are Politicized: The Case of the University of Delaware

A freshman at Delaware couldn’t escape the ideological, highly politicized messages about consumerism, social justice, affirmative action, world redistribution of wealth, and so on. The messages were woven into the fabric of the very place where students slept or talked late into the night.


And, Oh, look!

“Educated Americans” (i.e. those who went to college) tend to be more liberal. What could possibly have caused that.

On the Necessity For Long Sentences

We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.

That is the second sentence in Charlotte Bronte’s 19th century novel Jane Eyre. According to Microsoft Word, it scores an 11.1 grade on the Flesch Kinkaid readability level.

Now, I’ve always been a qualified fan of Rudolph Flesch and his book  The Art of Plain Talk. Even more than that, how can a person who values Benjamin’s Franklin’s pioneering work in developing phonics, possibly complain about Flesch’s famous work, Why Johnny Can’t Read.

Furthermore, so much time has melted since I read Flesch’s Plain Talk that all I can do here is offer qualified recommendations to people who want to learn some basic principles of public speaking.

However, to understand why I went on that rabbit trail, I need to write some more opening sentences from a more recent book than Jane Eyre. Consider these words, because they are very, very revealing:

Sophie Amundsen was on her way home from school. She had walked the first part of the way with Joanna. They had been discussing robots. Joanna thought the human brain was like an advanced computer. Sophie was not certain she agreed. Surely a person was more than a piece of hardware?

I must state here and now that I have not read Sophie’s World, though I know of many children who have and many schools that use it. I don’t know why he wrote the opening paragraph to this book on philosophy at a 3.6 grade level.

Perhaps it was because he was being overly concerned about his audience: knowing they were being invited to think hard about issues that the greatest minds in history have still not settled and, for some reason, wanting junior high and high school students to engage in these matters, perhaps he felt like they shouldn’t have to pay too close attention to what they were reading; so he made it simple.

Or maybe he was trying to capture the implications of the mind working like a robot, so he wrote the opening paragraph in a robotic/computeristic manner. Maybe the reader will encounter complex syntax later in the book.

I turn randomly and optimistically to page 223 and read these words:

What was the difference between a dog and a person? She recalled Aristotle’s words. he said that people and animals are both natural living creatures with a lot of characteristics in common. But there was one distinct difference between people and animals, and that was human reasoning.

How could he have been so sure?

This paragraph draws me in and makes me want to read more, but probably (I cannot be sure until and unless I read much more) not for the reasons most authors would hope. First, I sincerely hope that he will not so simply dismiss Aristotle’s ideas.

I suppose a teenage girl might ask that question, especially one who has been conditioned toward skepticism by the structure and process of her education. But the question is really rather silly. If she remembers Aristotle’s words, then how can she possibly not remember that every word that preceded and followed them was the reasoning behind his being “so sure?”

What exactly were Aristotle’s words? They aren’t quoted here, only a paraphrase.

In what context did she experience them? Did her teacher give her a quotation or even a paraphrase himself, thus preventing her from encountering these words in their context?

I’m asking those questions so as to expose myself to ridicule. I know that a book would not survive if they had not been addressed at some level. Flipping through a few pages I note that the author places great emphasis on mystery and uncertainty. The ending indicates a father – daughter dialogue has been going through the entire book.


But here is something interesting. Page 189, in a chapter entitled The Renaissance, a time during which cultured life was enamored of, perhaps inebriated on, Platonic party games:

Philosophy is not a harmless party game. It’s about who we are and where we come from. Do you think we learn enough about that at school?


Nobody can answer questions like that anyway.


Yes, but we don’t even learn to ask them!

This goes to the heart of my concern. Here we have young people being confronted with questions that they are convinced can’t be answered. The reader is confronted with a 3000 year stream of philosophical speculations, from Aristotle, to Democritus, to Freud.

To be comfortable with this book, I need to know that the students are being given a coherent set of tools and a sound tradition to maneuver the wild shoals of metaphysical speculation.

I have been engaged in philosophical studies for 25 years, since I first tried to read Plato’s Republic. I’ve been engaged in theological studies much longer, since I started memorizing Bible verses and doing exegetical studies of the epistles of Paul. I’ve learned a few things in that time, though not much.


One thing I’ve learned is that a child should not be given this rope to hang himself if he does not have a mentor to guide him through it.


And that’s why the opening paragraph bothers me so much. This is a book about philosophy! You can’t do philosophy at a 3.6 grade level. You can learn about it, but why would you teach a child that there are no answers about who we are and where we come from, or that if there are answers the most recent discoveries indicate that they are blobs of protoplasm waiting to become manure.


There is, I am suggesting, a breakdown in the form of writing and the content of writing, at least in this first paragraph, that points to a much deeper and more penetrating breakdown between the content of the book (the history of philosophy) and reality (the content of metaphysics).


Permit me to recall Gaarder’s paragraph on Aristotle:

She recalled Aristotle’s words. He said that people and animals are both natural living creatures with a lot of characteristics in common. But there was one distinct difference between people and animals, and that was human reasoning.

That opening sentence should not be seperated from the next. The act of recollection should not draw the readers attention, but the words of Aristotle. Or rather, since they are not quoted, they should probably not be referred to. Instead, i would suggest something more like this: Aristotle had said that…


Then, at the end, when a phrase should have received more punch, more isolation, more distinctiveness, he blends it in with the preceding sentence. one distince difference between humans and animals: human reasoning.


Short sentences should only be used for emphasis, especially in a philosophical text. That is Flesch’s fatal mistake. Because everybody seems to write this way, our minds are being reduced to simplistic thoughts, thoughts that cannot be extended beyond the immediate subject and predicate, thoughts that don’t demand that we recall the main idea for more than eight or nine words.


The person who needs those sentences should not be studying philosophy. He should be studying grammar and learning how to read, two vital foundations for philosophy.


Please note that my primary concern here is not with philosophy but with writing. I’m arguing for the long sentence, contending that we have made ourselves stupid by refusing to express a thought that cannot be reduced to a single clause, by putting periods between every clause and sometimes phrase, by eliminating the semi-colon from the realm of comprehension, by compelling students, even in college, to think about matters for which the reading materials they have encountered have disabled them, by developing an attitude of resentment toward any writer that challenges their intellects beyond a single conjunction.


Have you tried to read Paradise Lost? The challenge is not the length of the sentence, though they are frequently immeasurable; the challenge is remembering the subject of the sentence. But if he had not written it that way, he would not have written the same poem, and the reader would have suffered for it.


We can write very well for business and advertising. Sometimes we get by on scientific writing. But to write about things that matter greatly: metaphysics, theology, ethics, politics, the arts, I say, to write about these matters demands that we be able to control more than a single clause at a time.


We cannot think beyond the capacity of our syntax.


The irony is that Flesch, who valued Plain Talk and Phonics so highly, has undercut Johnny’s ability to read by justifying writing that would keep him stuck at the mental development of a child in 3.6 grade.