Adler on covering ground

What is the point of covering ground, if the students’ feet never touch it, if they never learn through independent exercise to walk by themselves, with head erect and unafraid of all intellecutal opposition and difficulty…

I would feel happier about the graduates of Catholic colleges if they were really to understand a few truths well… rather than be able to recite… philosophical answers to problems they did not really understand or take seriously.

Reforming Education, chapter 13, The Order of Learning

Multum, non multa is a core principle of classical education: Much, not many. When Vittorino DeFeltre taught his charges in early Renaissance Florence, they started reading Homer around the time they turned 9, if my memory serves (maybe it was 6). In the original. Why?

Because he wanted them to learn to think deeply, which requires careful, precise, close readings of difficult works. No classical educator would believe that we take education seriously when a child can graduate high school without having ever read a text closely. They would laugh at our pre-occupation with “getting through the materials,” they would wonder at our obsession with learning trivia, they would cry when they saw that we don’t believe in truth or beauty. And I think they would scold us when they saw how we treated children, moving them from class to class, bell to bell, data to data, all so they can create the illusion of production so we can create the illusion of assessment.

I suppose I’m writing a bit harshly, but we need to think about these things. What we are doing to our children is inconsiderate.

John Gatto on Where Our Schools Come From

John Taylor Gatto begins this video by pointing out that when we send our children to schools we are giving them up for adoption. Take a look at this video because Gatto continually forces people to think about obvious things that people don’t want to bother reflecting on. “The master creates the lesson; the teacher administers the lessons.”

Loving to learn while I teach

Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know.” He proceeded to support his argument by pointing out that we keep our eyes open. Much of the time we do so because of the pleasure gained by perceiving what is around us.

Schools were established on the notion that learning and knowledge are a good thing and CiRCE is strongly effected by our desire to learn and to help others love learning.

So when I went to Veritas School in Austin this past week, I was excited about the things I would learn, though of course I didn’t know what they would be. But I knew I would learn for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I was doing teacher training. When I do teacher training I both model and discuss one or both of the two classical modes of instruction: mimetic and Socratic.

Teach that way and you will learn wonderful and surprising things. For example, I learned that because an addition sign is a horizontal line crossing a vertical line (perpendicular) and that a subtraction sign is a horizontal line without the vertical line one can say to the child that “the addition sign adds a vertical line to a horizontal line” while “the subtraction sign subtracts the vertical line from the addition sign.”

Some kids would enjoy knowing that so they deserve to.

I also noticed for the first time that two parallel lines are used to form an equal sign because the lines are equal to each other.

I get excited about things like that.

I also got pretty excited when someone pointed out that when a child has an undeveloped soul he doesn’t have many alternatives to the temptations thrown at him. In other words, when a child is little and he learns a lot of history, fairy tales, Bible stories, great music, good dances, etc. he will have that in his soul’s storehouse. Then, when he is a teenager and the meaningless garbage of kitsch culture draws him, he’ll at least have alternatives. He’ll have an appetite for things that taste much better.

It reminded me again of how important those grammar school years are. We must use them to fill the children’s minds with Philippians 4:8 quality stories: things that are true, noble, just, lovely, admirable, praiseworthy, virtuous. It’s hard enough to make sound decisions when you are given these things. What hope do our children have when their souls are neglected until it’s too late.

I had a wonderful time in Austin and hope to post a note or two more about what I learned. But I have to take this moment to say a great big “Thank you” to the folks at Veritas and to pray for God’s blessing on your work.

If you are intrigued by the University Model of schooling, the folks at Veritas are creating a model worth emulating.

Thank you!

Industrial economics, Industrial education, and the Abolition of Man

From Wendell Berry: In Distrust of Movements, a 2000 essay.

Study of the history of land use (and any local history will do) informs us that we have had for a long time an economy that thrives by undermining its own foundations.

Every time I read Mr. Berry’s works about the economy, land use, the environment, etc. I realize that he sees things as an integrated whole. That is why he can make observations like the foregoing, and it is why I, as an educator, commit an act of folly when I fail to apply what he is saying to education.

Economy: From the Greek: Oikos, household, and Nomos, law or custom.

Economy is the study of household customs or, by extension, the study of what is good for the household. Show me that in our modern statistics. We have an economy that undermines its own foundations. How so?

First, we don’t even think about the household when we measure the modern economy. We think about money, a significant PART of the household. But a non-income producing housewife, for example, has no measurable value in the modern economy.

Second, the well-being of the household is the foundation even for our financial economy. We have spent about 80 years living in a welfare state. Because of the way it has chosen to measure things, this welfare state has destroyed families and communities and encouraged behavior that further undermines families and communities. Our “economy” is guided and regulated and formed by people who make their profits by undermining the family and the household it sustains.

This has everything to do with education. First, we live under an industrial model education that has as its counterpart the welfare state to perpetuate it. John Dewey’s “Gary Plan,” that subjected students to the assembly line mode of instruction is virtually universal in American education apart from the home school. Suggest an alternative and you’ll be regarded as a dunderheaded nincumpoop idealist. Well, you would be, but those are big words.

Since education is necessary for everybody but is so incredibly badly managed in America, we need a welfare state to prop it up. $300 billion/year; for what?

In 1890 the typical 8th grade graduate knew math well enough to run his own business without a calculator and to figure out mortgage amortization in his head. 2008 could not have happened in 1890.

To paraphrase Laertes in Hamlet: “The school! The school’s to blame.” By which I mean, of course, those educators who have blinded us to what it means to be a human and have driven us to an anxiety that only they can resolve: by taking more power.

If you were to spend one hour writing notes about what makes us human and what makes life worth living, and then you examined what happens to a child in school, you would find considerable evidence that the developers of modern education hate human beings – hate the human soul, just as you would find evidence that the captains of industry hate the earth and the soil. As a mistress, sure; as a covenanted bride? Forget it.

To adapt Mr. Berry: “Study of the history of teaching (and any local school will do) informs us that we have had for a long time an education that thrives by undermining its own foundations.”

Thus our schools and our economy and our politicians have cooperated to produce a society that is untenable, unsustainable, and eating its own heart out as we watch.

Common Core

Some encouraging news from Diane Ravitch, unquestionably one of the great historians of education at work today. The regrettable demise of the Council for Basic Education has been responded to by the formation of a new research group called Common Core.

Here’s how Ms. Ravitch described it:

We hope to sponsor research, conduct conferences, publish reports, and do similar things to change the climate and to move our schools away from the current unhealthy obsession with testing.

As one who is convinced that standardized testing has measured the decline it has contributed to, this is refreshing news. I don’t think Core Knowledge goes far enough, but I don’t think I do either. We are moving in the same direction in that we agree that knowledge matters. To clarify, Common Core is not Core Knowledge, but they also are moving in the same direction.

God bless them. I’ll be following developments.

Progressive Education Analyzed from a Christian classical perspective

For the Progressive theorist, education is one great, extended experiment for which society is bound to pay. Here in America the progressive experiments (it would not be just to call it a single experiment) have continued for nearly 100 years, during which the inevitable resistance and the internal contradictions of progressive theory have convinced many that the assumptions of Progressive education need to be re-examined.

Yet, because Progressivism is an on-going experiment, there is no end in sight.

If we can find a counter-thesis to Christian classical education, it would be Progressive education. (More realistically, education is triangulated: on one hand is Progressivism and on the other Rationalism. Balancing the extremes and integrating what is just in each is Christian classical education.)

Progressive education claims to be entirely empirical, appealing to the methods of the natural sciences as the only means to certain knowledge and the only reliable source for trustworthy teaching methodologies. Consequently, Prog Ed concerns itself only with material and efficient causes – that which is observable and measurable – and dismisses as superstitious such notions as purpose (final cause) and idea (formal cause).

Because Prog Ed accepts only the scientic as intelligent, the children they teach are reduced to material beings, lacking a spirit, if not a soul. Knowledge is no longer a spiritual reality, but at its most stable a chemical mixture in the brain. Knowing, formerly a contemplative activity, is reduced to an unstable process of transaction or to a “memorandum of conditions of their appearance.”

“Things in their immediacy are unknown and unknowable,” Dewey tells us. If he simply means that we cannot know them scientifically while we are encountering them, he is quite right. But my concern is what he has done with knowledge. He doesn’t suggest that we can know “things in their immediacy” in some other way, but that they are “unknown and unknowable.” Clearly he has little or no notion of what James Taylor describes in his book, Poetic Knowledge.

And yet, this very notion of poetic knowledge should have been the strength of Dewey’s theory. He clearly grasps the unified, interactive, and existential nature of experience. He holds to a dynamic, flowing, experiential theory of knowledge; but, for whatever reason, he never grasps this idea.

The reason he doesn’t may be found in that last word.

The Prog Educator does not believe in ideas in any philosophical sense. He is convinced that Darwin proved that things do not have a permanent nature, that nature itself is in perpetual flux, and that nothing is eternal. Thus, the child is not the Image of God and what the child’s mind does has no link to anything eternal, but only to the material world around him. Ideas themselves are, therefore, not eternal, but always in transition: permanently changing.

Dewey was responding to the extreme idealism of the 19th century, especially as formulated by Hegel. But it seems to me that he went to far the other way. The child is material. Knowledge is entirely contingent, changing itself and of changing things, therefore unstable. Knowing is itself an ongoing experiment by the knower. It is not that we see through a glass darkly, knowing only in part. Rather, there is no part that is always there to know. In any old-fashioned sense, we cannot know at all.

Knowledge is done by a changing material object and is of another changing material object. It is a transaction between two changing things, not an acquisition by a person (a subject knowing) of some permanent quality in another person or thing (an object known). An idea, therefore, is the fancy of a mind, but has no independent, permanent existence.

I can see how Dewey and Progressive educators can come to these conclusions when they have begun their discussion with the insistance on natural science as the only legitimate form of inquiry. But I have two problems, both of which merit mention.

One, as a Christian, I am not bound by that limitation. I believe in authority outside myself. I recognize that as an empirical matter virtually everything everybody knows is derived from what somebody else has told him. That is why the topic of authority is such a vital part of classical rhetoric: we need to learn to assess and judge authority, not to assert our arbitrary authority over it.

Two, as a practical and empirical matter, Progressive theories undercut education. They do so in a number of ways, some of which are hinted at above. Here I will merely point out the pervasive despair and hypocricy that permeate American education precisely because students no longer believe knowledge is possible but they also recognize that their success and income are tied to their academic performance. Dewey’s sophisticated explanations of the dynamics of knowledge are hard to understand. It took me quite a lot of reflection to figure out what he was getting at and I got mostly B’s and above in college.

What the typical high school takes out of Dewey’s explanation we can’t know because the typical high school student is never taught the theories behind the experiments to which he is being subjected. But he drinks the water of Progressive education when he walks the halls of his center of information administration, known falsely as a school, from class to class through a dis-integrated sequence of unrelated activities. After a few years, cynicism takes a firm hold of his mind and soul. And also of the disheartened teachers who expected to accomplish so much when they left the Progressive teacher’s college, learning the fine art of knowledge as flux.

Not only the child and his knowledge are reduced by Progressivism. So are what we used to call virtues. Nietzsche reduced virtues to values to underscore his theory that we all have our own values which are dynamic and relative. No adult has the right to impose values on a child because values themselves are unstable. What you claim to value may be exposed by experience as a sham. What you do value may be altered by experience.

The premises are somewhat obvious. I am such stuff as dreams are made on, and consequently what I think I value, what I want to be committed to, may expose me to ridicule when I fail to live up to my beliefs and values. Fine. Adults should not impose values on children. A fine application. Only, the application doesn’t arise from the lesson. If values are unstable and relative, whose to say I shouldn’t impose values on children. Why should I submit to the values of the tyrant who insists on such an absolute application?

But what if there are values that are not unstable and relative? What if there are things we ought to value? In that case, the question of imposing values on children is altered. Of course I must not impose MY values on children. But if the cosmos itself emodies values, or if God Himself has revealed His values, then my role is not to impose but to submit.

What reason is there for the Progressive educator not to impose his values on children? What would compel him, for example, to limit the extent of his experimentation? What would compel him to treat children with dignity? What if he changes his mind? Law and a sense of common decency help. But what happens when the Progressive educator determines that law and decency no longer hold the value they once did. After all, both have changed significantly over the past century.

On the other hand, there is plenty to restrict me in my relations with children. I am bound by the law of nature and of nature’s God to respect their infinite dignity. I cannot harm the child, not because my unstable value system forbids it today, but because God and Nature (two things expelled from Progressive thought) prohibit it permanently.

Children know right and wrong, probably better than adults, we do a fine job of confusing them when we convince them that they only can know what is scientifically demonstrable and that they should follow their impulses. Convince them of those two things and children become helpless against clever adults.

Even  meaning is reduced in Progressive theory. Experience is meaningful and language makes it so. Here is how he puts it, “When an event has meaning, its potential consequences become its integral and funded feature. When the potential consequences are important and repeated, they form the very nature and essence of a thing: it’s defining, identifying, and distinguishing form. As meaning, future consequences already belong to the thing.”

Thus, if I understand him rightly and in context, Dewey has reduced meaning to consequences. I cannot possibly argue that meaning does not include consequences. But that it is reduced to only consequences is a consequence of his radically empirical theory.

Something means something to us if it alters things, if it changes us, if we can act on it. But it has no meaning in and of itself and to me it has no meaning that is not related to me. I would submit that in so arguing, Dewey is making “man the measure of all things.”

You can imagine that if the Progressive theorist reduces method to only scientific experimentation,  the child to merely a material being who responds to material and efficient causes, knowledge and knowing to nothing more than an interactive process, virtue to unstable values rooted in environmental interactions, meaning to consequences, then, along with all these reductions, there must also be an alteration in teaching.

And indeed there is. Because of time and the nature of this blog, I will list a few of these consequences. Perhaps I’ll be able to discuss them more later on. I hope you’ll feel to respond with your own insights.

First, working backward, Progressive theory places extreme emphasis on “consequences,” especially as they are measurable, related to application, and affiliated with power.

Second, it displaces contemplation, because contemplation is rooted in the notion that there is something other than me worth knowing, something that is stable and knowable. You see the diminished value of contemplation in the tendency to avoid geometry in modern math programs and in the tendency to approach literature as samples to be collected instead of embodied ideas to be meditated on.

Third, the grand scale of the experiment leads to a quasi-standardization and the overthrow of uniqueness and personality. This is ironic, because Progressive educators clearly value uniqueness and personality development, but because they see education as a vast socially funded experiment they are continually bound by the bureaucracies they create.

Fourth, an excessive emphasis on “appropriate instruction for the developmental stage”  leads to the loss of great ideas, great books, great works of art, and great discussions.

Fifth, an excessive emphasis on methodology arises from the need for controlled, measurable, and predictable outcomes.

Sixth, the formal side of learning, in math, language (e.g. grammar and usage) are dismissed as mere conventions, thus undercutting the child’s faculties in these areas.

Seventh, the will is neglected, disregarded, and even overthrown. After all, the will is a spiritual faculty and cannot be controlled by material and efficient causes.

Finally, while multiple theories have come out about learning styles and intelligences, these are usually a response to the sameness inflicted on the American classroom by the general standardization of education.

The Progressive educators had much to teach American schools. They challenged the Idealism and hyper-rationalism of 19th century thought. They tried to bring the teachers attention back to the individual, specific realities and experiences that made up their worlds and relationships. They wisely noted the radical changes going on in society and technology and raised the concern that religion and moral theory were unable to deal with these changes. They made a noble effort to rescue children from poverty.

But their ideas failed them. Now we need to return to the permanent ideas that always work, no matter how the environment changes.

What did you get for Christmas?

I won’t try to say my favorite gift here, but I’ll tell you the one the CiRCE blog readers are most likely to be interested in (apart from all the candy, of course!). My children, in an act of travelling masochism, gave me CD’s of the complete Divine Comedy by Dante, translated by Carlyle-Okley-Wicksteed (what a great name for a translator), and read by Ralph Cosham. You can get it at and I highly recommend it.

Did you get anything recommendable?