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.

The War Against Grammar

Every now and then I come across a book that addresses a ridiculously important issue and does it with a clarity and grace – and knowledge – that drives me to urge the book on others. Lately, I am pretty sure I’ve discovered such a book. It’s called The War Against Grammar, by David Mulroy.

I have mentioned it before and have read portions in the past, but reading it again in short snatches over the last few days has compelled me to draw it to your attention. First, because the issue of grammar is so astoundingly important at every level of our existence. Second, because he provides insight and perspective that help us think more intelligently about the matter.

May I say that at a certain level I don’t even care if he is right in his contentions. What I appreciate is that he enables me, by the way he writes, to think more intelligently about the matter.

But I do hope somebody is right about the issues he deals with, because grammar is so astoundingly important at every level of our existence.

In chapter one, Mulroy describes the present situation, one that he was both experienced and observed as a professor of classics at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. College students simply don’t know grammar anymore. This most educated people in the history of the world, as I think President Obama called us, has not mounted the first rung of the educational ladder.

The second chapter describes in a few rapid pages the development of the seven liberal arts from the development of the alphabet around 800 BC (and he explains why what the Greeks developed as an alphabet was fundamentally different from all the previous prototypical alphabets, such as the Phoenician and Hebrew systems, from which the Greeks borrowed a great deal – they didn’t invent the alphabet out of thin air. He also shows how that alphabet led to the explosion of Greek learning).

In chapter three he suggests something very, very compelling about which I need to think some more. He suggests that the rise of the university in the middle ages led to the decline of grammar because, having rediscovered the final bits of Aristotle’s logic, they put logic on such an exalted pedestal that the other arts paled in their minds. In a way, I can see why they would do that. But it was still a mistake and it rests close to the heart of all the errors of subsequent western philosophy.

The humanists of the 14th-17th century revived grammar and produced writers like Dante, Shakespeare, and Erasmus and Mulroy shows how that happened and who was responsible for it.

Then comes chapter four, perhaps the climax of the book. He opens it with these fateful words:

For two thousand years, no one in the western tradition challenged the notion that education should be based on the liberal arts, starting with grammar… It was not until the beginning of the twentieth century in America that a full-fledged revolt against the liberal arts occurred. This happened under the banner of “progressive education.”

Dewey sought a balance, Mulroy suggests, but when Kilpatrick came along the extremism of contemporary Progressive theory (which dominates the teachers colleges and unions) was unleashed. This chapter gets only more and more interesting as he continues, for he treats the Progressives with appropriate respect and understands their arguments and positions. He sees what they got right.

As he proceeds, he describes what he calls “the return of speculative grammar” in the 1950’s, and develops the theme that the modern era has a great deal more in common with the medieval era during which the university came into being than it might want to admit. He proceeds to discuss Chomsky’s theories and his support for the teaching of traditional grammar, the place of diagramming, and what he calls “the scandal of prescriptivism.”

Having jumped the trenches and engaged the enemy in hand to hand combat, Mulroy raises his banner on the other side and offers some counsel for this already fable-ized third millenium in the fifth chapter. I love the opening section: Where are despots when you really need them. Maybe those who are busily expanding the totalitarianism of our own government will be overly sensitive to the language through their own guilt, but those of us whose spirits are free find the irony quite tasteful.

Because the great problem of 20th century civilization was its yearning to discover a freedom that didn’t mean anything, a freedom not of self-governance nor of natural perfection but of freedom from restraint and pain – an abstract freedom.

Grammar serves as the locus for the battle over whose freedom will govern society and our minds: the freedom of those who believe in the glory of human nature and yearn to see it perfected, who recognize the tendency of tyrants to disable the mind through confusion and instability, who see discipline as the foundation for both freedom and creativity, and who hold language and therefore grammar in an exalted place – or the freedom of those who believe that human beings are chemically and environmentally determined and can be altered according to the will of the ruling powers through social experimentation, who project their tyrannical ambitions onto their opponents so that they can unhinge the minds of young people by denying them awareness of their own nature and the nature of their thought processes (e.g. and i.e. that every thought has a subject and a predicate and so does every existing thing), and who, therefore, cry loudly that instruction in grammar, the first step to freedom of thought, is a tyrannical imposition by cultural tyrannists.

Make no mistake. The future of the human race turns on whether we teach proper grammar to our children.

I don’t know if Mulroy would follow me all the way to that final claim, but I’m pretty confident he’d like to see our children learn grammar anyway. It would make it so much easier for him to grade their papers.

Get his book (which I hope to add to the CiRCE store in the near future) at this link:

Reading Homer in Byzantium

I was just listening again to a talk by Dr. Bryan Smith called Reading Homer in Byzantium. In it, he outlines how the early Christians taught their students to write, how they selected their literature, and so on.

If you teach writing, reading, or anything that uses writing or reading, or if you are involved with the curriculum for your school, I would urge you to get your hands on this CD. It’s included as disk 23 in the 2007 set.

Bryan explains things like

  • Why we have nine of Euripides plays instead of the 40 or more that he wrote
  • How to practice writing using metaphrasis and paraphrasis (with some very amusing examples of pop music turned Shakespearean)
  • Why we need to read less and slowly

Bryan is always insightful and relentlessly practical!

Visit the CiRCE store to secure this CD or the entire 2007 set.

What is Literature, Part II: Grammar

Some reflections on what people have meant by the term grammar, from CS Lewis’s The Discarded Image, page 185 ff. in my Canto edition

To give an educational curriculum a place in the Model of the universe may at first seem an absurdity; and it would be an absurdity if the medievals had felt about it as we feel about the ‘subjects’ in a syllabus today. But the syllabus was regarded as immutable…; the Liberal Arts, by long prescription, had achieved a status not unlike that of nature herself.

‘Grammar talks’, as the couplet says; or as Isidore defines her, ‘Grammar is the skill of speech’. That is, she teaches us Latin….

Grammar… sometimes extended far beyond the realm it claims today. It had done so for centuries. Quintilian suggests literatura as the proper translation of Greek grammatike, and literatura, though it does not mean ‘literature’, included a good deal more than literacy. It included  all that is required for ‘making up’ a ‘set book’: syntax, etymology, prosody, and the explanation of allusions. Isidore makes even history a department of Grammar. He would have described the book I am now writing as a book of Grammar. Scholarship is perhaps our nearest equivalent.

I like all that because it is informative and helpful. I add what follows because it is amusing.

In popular usage Grammatica or Grammaria slid into the vague sense of learning in general; and since learning is usually an object both of respect and suspicion to the masses, grammar, in the form grammary comes to mean magic…. And from grammary, by a familiar sound-change, comes glamour — a word whose associations with grammar and even with magic have now been annihilated by the beauty-specialists.

One of the things that bothers me about contemporary language is the contradiction between text books and reality. If you study language in the books it tells you two things: 1. language is conventional, and 2. it is formed by the usage of the common people.

I deny both, at some level, but especially the second. It is disgusting the extent to which language is altered and manipulated by advertisers who are professionally indifferent to anything without a utilitarian defense (they would lose their jobs if they submitted to nature). Meanwhile, the human mind, human communities, and human souls deteriorate because the most powerful tool they have for development and growth is stolen from them.

What is Literature Anyway?

When we teach literature, if we must, our students should not encounter a general, bewildering sampling of all the types of writing, their philosophical roots, their representative masters, and their characteristic obstacles.

Such an approach teaches literary relativism. (I suppose the act of having a literature class probably already assumes a literary relativism, or at least that literature has a relative place in the curriculum.)

Instead, students should learn the nature of literature from a given philosophy or theory of literature. Even if that theory is wrong it will be better than this mythical neutrality and expertise that the textbook pretends to.

Let me press this just a little further. Literature, in the classical tradition, never had a class of its own and it certainly was never taught as a historical phenomenon. Both the class and the historical approach seem to have developed during the 19th century in Germany, where the modern school was born and nurtured in the short-lived incestuous relationship of Enlightenment and Romanticism.

In the Christian classical tradition, children were taught grammar, which was a rich vein for the intellect.

Grammar comes from grammatikos: letters. It included what we mean by grammar, but that was considered a rather small, though foundational and important, portion of it. However, the word literature itself, which comes from the Latin litera: letters, is probably a better translation of what they meant by grammar.

So that would seem to be a direct contradiction of what I said earlier.

It seems that way because our minds are so fragmented, especially in the matter of languages.

Grammar was the close examination of literary texts.

There was the practical school of the Alexandrians, who developed what we think of as grammar precisely because people were unable to read Homer and they wanted to ensure that children could make the adaptations.

Then there was the more philosophical school of, for example, the Stoics, who believed that language was rooted in nature and therefore there was an ideal form that language should take.

They seemed to believe that Homer and possibly Plato had approached that form quite closely.

In both cases, when they approached grammar or literature (both mean “letters”), their purpose was to give the student a profound encounter with a great text.

They didn’t study very many texts. For example, one of my favorite educators, Vittorino de Feltre, took years to teach his students only a few books, such as Homer, Virgil, and a couple others. But they didn’t need to study very many texts for their purposes.

Their goal was to become “men of letters,” by which they did not mean that they had read lots and lots of “letters” by other people but that they were masters of their use. Such a goal requires a close analysis of a few texts, not a shallow introduction to a multitude of texts.

They placed a much higher value on intellectual skills (liberal ARTS) and the deep experiences that arise from close, sustained consideration of an idea than on a superficial acquaintance with a vast array of content.

They would have been puzzled by the compulsion to “get through the material.”

 But they were in a tradition, and I think this might be the critical point. They recognized that some texts were out of this world, came from another world, were works of heartbreaking genius and merited everybody’s attention and reverence.

As a result, they could feed on those texts for their whole lives without missing anything that mattered. Indeed, some of them could go on to produce their own works of immeasurable genius.

Since then, the tradition has been broken. Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls? Are there any schools filled with teachers who simply teach their students to contemplate beautiful and good things?

The worst of it is that once a tradition is lost, much of it can never be regained.

What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.

They do not demean literature by reading a bunch of novels because Shakespeare is too hard. And they recognize the full wealth of grammatikos, litera, letters, grammar.

This is what the president of Yale refered to in the 19th century when he said that the goal of eduation is to read Homer in the original.

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.

Greek Paideia and the Bible

From Werner Jaeger’s Early Christianity and Greek Paideia

As the Greek paideia consisted of the entire corpus of Greek literature, so the Christian paideia is the Bible. Literature is paideia, in so far as it contains the highest norms of human life, which in it have taken on their lasting and most impressive form. It is the ideal picture of man, the great paradigm.