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

Judge not, Lest You Be

Every statement is, by its nature, a judgment. That one, for instance. In it, I have judged that every statement is a judgment. And you, perhaps reflecting on it, are moving in your own mind toward making a judgment of your own.

You might agree, which is to say, you might judge it to be true.

Or you might disagree, which is to say, you might judge it to be false, or worse.

You might even judge it to be evil, because we all know that judging is wrong. Therefore, if I argue that every statement is a judgment then I am arguing that we are always doing something wrong.

If you are pious, you might conclude that our Lord has told us never to speak, since He told us “judge not.” If you so conclude, you will have judged your conclusion to be just. Thus, even if you don’t speak, if you draw a conclusion, you will have judged.

In short, to speak is to judge. Indeed, to think is to judge.

So I judge.

One could follow a number of paths from this beginning.

For example, one could seek out exactly what our Lord meant when He drew the judgment that we should not judge, especially given that the very next verse indicates that we should make a rather complex judgment about how to handle pearls in the presence of swines.

Or one could develop the implications on the modern mind, so badly trained and so badly informed on moral and philosophical matters, when he is told not to judge, and concludes from that premise, consciously or not, that he is unfit to think for himself (therefore he should, he judges, follow his feelings) or to guide others (therefore he should, he refuses to acknowledge that he has judged, allow them to destroy themselves).

Or one could develop a long and elaborate treatise that defends the need for judgment and therefore to distinguish sound and just judgment from unsound and unjust judgment and draws some general guidelines for when to judge absolutely, when relatively, and when to keep one’s mouth and even mind shut.

Or one could even develop a farcical, satirical, or even cynical theme on the tendency for those who are most prone to judge wildly and in a self-serving way (i.e. politicians and other lovers of power) to condemn the act of judgment, so as to avoid a careful assessment (another word for judgment) of their own actions.

I want to go in what seems to me, at least at first, in a simpler direction. I want to think about the prerequsites to sound judgment.

And lest this seem like a fruitless, philosophical exercise, let me remind you that the goal of education at least includes among its essential qualities that status of wisdom that distinguishes the disciplined thinker from the careless. And surely the mark of a wise man is to judge things rightly!

Thus the goal of education is to judge rightly.

Do you judge this to be true or false, right or wrong, just or unjust, fitting or unfitting, beautiful or ugly, wise or foolish?

It makes all the difference which you judge fitting.

I judge that we have now covered enough ground to complete the preamble, and I further judge that we are ready to look for the prerequisites to sound judgment that I raised earlier. (As an aside, I further judge that every statement always begins with the implied bilogos (a term that I just created, having judged it both amusing and potentially helpful for people who want to contemplate this matter verbally, though it is also, of course, a potential distraction, capable of evolving into a long and relatively distracting parenthetical phrase) “I judge”.)

What are the prerequisites to sound judgment, which is the goal of education? Therefore, what are the things we most need to teach our children and ourselves as we seek this marvel called education?

I judge, having reflected on this literally since childhood, that the first prerequisite to judge something rightly is to perceive it rightly. Thus the beginning of a true education is the training of the powers of perception.

It follows that if we misjudge the powers of perception, limiting them, for example, to what the senses can perceive, we cannot possibly lay a sound foundation for our children’s education.

Perception, however, is not enough.

First of all, to perceive demands attentiveness. To attempt to educate a child without training his powers of attention is an impossible endeavor, perhaps even an act of folly.

Secondly, in order to assess, evaluate, draw conclusions, express oneself, in short, to judge, one must be able to compare one’s perceptions with each other.

If one perceives accurately and if one compares perceptively, then one is well on the way to making sound judgments.

But the instant one allows the will to interfere with the powers of perception or comparison, in that instant he has turned aside from the path to wisdom, a path which to leave, I judge, is the purest act of folly.

Thus I judge, to conclude this post, though, I trust, not these reflections, that to reduce judgment to the status of an act of intellect only is a reduction against which the intellect will cry out its own judgement that you have committed an act of injustice.

In other words, judging rightly is not merely an intellectual act. It is personal.

To conclude, the path to wisdom begins with attentive perception, climbs the mountains of comparison, and, after painstaking labor, it arrives at the pinnacle of sound judgment, from which it can perceive with the soul all the beauties of the cosmos. To climb this mountain is to absorb its power into oneself.

More on Nature and Practicality

Sometimes (always) our circumstances and needs blind us to the reality of the things with which we are working.

Every school has a budget and salaries to pay. Students are gathered in classes sometimes as large as 30 or more students. Facilities are inadequate. Problems are endless.

These represent real problems for a Christian classical school. Indeed, the 20th century imposed these problems on the Christian classical school. So the circumstances within which we seek our vision are very incongruous with that vision.

Having spent 16 years seeking that vision “uncompromisingly” I can assure you, I understand the conflict.

The board, the headmaster, and the administrator are charged with establishing a Christian classical school in that context and its a challenging task with which they are charged.

But if they take the “practical” approach, it’s an impossible task.

Of course, what I mean by the “practical” approach is really the pragmatic approach. The pragmatist says, “I don’t have time to worry about the philosophy behind this thing. I have to pay the bills. Reality is what reality is and we have to live in reality. Our parents want our students to get into good colleges. Our students need to test well. Our teachers need to teach tomorrow’s class.”

All of which is quite true. Only, I argue, such heads and administrators and boards spend to little time looking at one rather important reality: the reality of Christian classical education. Contained in that reality, of course, is the reality of the child’s soul. And contrary to those realities are the structures and methods and approaches of the modernist educator.

The unexpressed and maybe unthought assumption behind many school leaders seems to be that if they really pursue a Christian classical education, then they will lose their student body, parent support, etc.

The unexpressed and maybe unthought assumption behind many teachers seems to be that if they take the time to deeply understand Christian classical education, they will not be able to do their job effectively or it will demand changes in the way they do their work that they don’t want to make.

If those unexpressed and maybe unthought assumptions really occupy the subconscious minds of classical school leaders and teachers, the game is over before it begins.

Think about it. All these schools get excited and build web sites and promote themselves as classical schools. Then they explain what classical education is using ideas and concepts that no classical educator would have understood, much less conceived of.

But to take the time to truly understand classical education is impractical. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the money. We have to fill our school with students and get them into the good colleges where they can live in the dorm brothels.

Fine. But then why call yourselves a classical school?

One is forced to conclude that at least some schools do so because “classical” is a hot word, an effective marketing term, at least in some quarters.

I know that some people have determined to stop using the term classical for that very reason.

It has been taken over by Christian Darwinists or Christian Utilitarians who have found that using words as codes to generate interest is much more effective than using words to carry meaning, in this case a meaning that has grown over the centuries to contain a richness and profundity that the Utilitarian mind is incapable of discovering.

In short, having adopted the Pragmatic approach of the age, many who use the term classical and Christian for marketing purposes will make “practical” use of it but will not examine the nature of classical and Christian education. They fear that it would make demands on them that they do not want to meet.

I thoroughly understand that. It’s just that they sin against language, against the Christian classical tradition, and against those who want to build Christian classical schools when they do so. Thus their practicality is doing what I believe to be deep and lasting harm by perpetuating the confusion of these leaders, misrepresenting classical and Christian education to the wider community, and lying in their promotional materials.

Once again, the problem with Pragmatism is that it doesn’t work.

I’m not meaning to write an attack piece, however. This is an appeal to those of you who may have fallen into this trap by virtue of habit and necessity. I appeal to you to remove yourself. That Pragmatic cheese isn’t as good as it looked and the spring was not as strong as you feared. You can release yourself. The trap is only in your mind.

What can you do? Here are some simple suggestions:

  • Screw your courage to the sticking post (if the meaning isn’t clear, read MacBeth)
  • Think and take the trouble to ask about the meaning of the words you use
  • Ask: How do children learn, by nature?
  • Ask: How should we assess, by nature?
  • Do not look to the way things are as the way things must be.
    • Do not look to the “experts” who base their theories on industrial assumptions for confirmation and standards
    • Look to the God-given standards that arise from the God-given nature of things
  • When you don’t understand something, don’t say, “I don’t understand. Next!” Say, “I need to understand if I am going to fulfill my duty. I’ll take the time to do so.”
  • Take your time, but do it honestly and strategically.
  • Compromise, but only for the short term. Compromise strategically. Take the next hill. Reinforce. Then go to the next one. Don’t take the next hill and settle there!

It is extraordinarily difficult to honor nature in the school setting. It always has been, but never more so than now. But if you aren’t consciously trying to move in the direction of nature, than you will certainly be carried along in the direction of Materialism and Naturalism instead.

You will find yourself using conventional modes of instruction, assessment, and management. These modes are social constructions. And here’s how you will perpetuate the problem:

When your students graduate and go on to be teachers and attend teachers college, they will learn under the constructivist theories that dominate and control the modern mind. And because you had been modeling that theory for them all through childhood in the way you governed your school and taught and assessed your students, they will take it as a matter of course.

And their capacity to perceive truth will atrophy.


Recommended Resources:

  • Norms and Nobility by David Hicks
  • For teachers: CiRCE Apprenticeship (two seats remain as I write)
  • For heads of school and administrators: CiRCE Headmaster coaching (contact me if interested: akern at circeinstitute.org)
  • For boards: CiRCE Board Development and Strategic Planning
  • For faculty: CiRCE Teacher Training
  • For everybody involved in the school: CiRCE 2009 conference CD’s
  • For you: C.S. Lewis: The Abolition of Man (please read and meditate on this book if you haven’t already)

Nature and Practicality

The only thing more foolish than being impractical is being a Pragmatist (i.e. making practicality the ultimate thing).

The demand for practical applications is the most perfect way to avoid having to hear or think about what is inconvenient or undesirable. The demand for relevance is the ideal way to avoid what matters most.

And yet…

If it is not practical, it does not matter. The tension arises, not over the question of whether we ought to be practical, but over what we consider practical.

For example, in the comments on the health care post, the question arose over contemporary success literature, which, thanks to Norman Vincent Peale and his ilk, has become a rather dominant element of contemporary Christian media. But is it Biblical? And does it fit human nature?

I argue that the sermon on the mount is the ultimate statement of how to succeed if you are a human being. But is it practical to turn the other cheek? To go the extra mile? To be persecuted?

Only if there really is a Kingdom of God and if that God is righteous. Only if there is a resurrection.

But I’m not sure I can see how those factors affect the curriculum, modes of instruction, and means of assessment in our schools, all of which, I assume, would be somehow oriented toward the child succeeding in some domain (after all, the schools are the ultimate “success coaches”).  If anybody can explain that to me, I’d be grateful as the links are not obvious.

My fundamental point, to repeat, is that the demand for practical applications is a great way to avoid hearing what needs to be heard. Consider, for example, a steward on the Titanic after they hit the iceberg. If he is practical, he wants to know how to do his job better, how to deal with a particular problem that is troubling him right now.

The last thing he wants to hear is how to deal with something he hasn’t been trained for, for which there are no known techniques, like how to survive in the freezing waters of the north Atlantic.

Or consider the cancer patient (which may be more germane to my point). Cancer is, like Naturalism, a direct assault on the living nature of the person or animal that carries it. It is an excess, a cell gone out of control, eating up the things around it and draining the life of the “system” that it has glommed onto.

But how does the person who has cancer respond to it? My parents both died of cancer and it was, shall we say, interesting to watch how each responded. I know that many people choose to ignore it; to pretend they don’t have it, to live a normal life.

To some extent this is prudent. One needs to continue to do useful, productive things to maintain one’s sense of balance and dignity. Nature demands work of us.

But it can go too far. The person can pretend he doesn’t have cancer, deny the symptoms or explain them away, try to function as though everything is as it should be.

These people find themselves very unhappy.

It is not practical to deny reality. I believe that much of what happens in the American schools is the reality denying behavior of a fourth stage cancer patient.

Let me turn from the metaphor to an explanation and a practical application of my point, which, to repeat, is that the demand for practical applications is a great way to avoid thinking about inconvenient truths.

At the conference, I led a roundtable discussion about assessment in light of the nature of things. It was, necesssarily, much too short.

As an aside, I fully admit that the CiRCE conference is known for raising as many questions as it answers. I find that when you are in the early stages of a project (like recovering the Christian classical tradition) it is best to ask a lot of questions and not to rush forward doing things the old way.

In any case, this discussion was too short. Many things that need to be discussed could not be because of time. But afterward, somebody told me that it was more relevant to the home school parent than to the school teacher.

This comment can be taken a number of different ways, and I did not have the time to pursue it with the person who said it, so I don’t want to assume anything about what he meant.

However, I did take it a certain way, and I want to respond to the way I took it, not necessarily the way he meant it.

The way I took this comment was that the discussion about assessing students and their work according to the nature of the child, lesson, and “subject” can be done better at home because of the circumstances, but at school there are all sorts of obstacles and diversions, so assessing according to nature at school isn’t really a practical thing to do.

I am happy to report that I am quite confident that I have caricatured my interlocuters position. However, that is because he is more thoughtful than most people.

But I believe that my expression of the position is precisely what most people would mean if they brought their reactions to the level of conscious thought. I hope not, but on the assumption that it is so I want to reply to that formulation.

First, think about the implications of that position. The argument is, the school setting is not natural, so it is not practical to assess students and their work according to nature, i.e. with standards derived from the nature of the student, the lesson, the subject, etc. (i.e. from reality).

Since, then, we are teaching children in an unnatural way, when somebody suggests an assessment that arises from a natural way of teaching, we can’t be troubled to bother with it.

Let me reiterate that I know this is not what the person who commented to me meant.

But it is precisely the normal practice of most schools, public or private.

Let’s think about this. 

First, the school is not a natural setting. In its present formulation, it does not arise from the needs, desires, and aspirations of human nature. Martin Cothran presented a talk on “The agrarian nature of education” that I am very, very anxious to listen to.

For most of its history, education patterned itself on the agrarian household, which was an amazingly flexible structure, adaptable to circumstances, and submissive to the environment in which it grew.

But with the late 19th and early 20th century, schools increasingly patterned themselves on the inflexible, unadaptable, irrresponsible structures of industry. The fulness of this madness arrived with the so-called Gary Plan that John Dewey celebrated in his Schools of Tomorrow. That was where the 52 minute classroom with bells and five minute breaks was introduced – and soundly rejected by the parents.

In addition, schools came to be run by the principles of scientific management, then by the rather arbitrary standards established by the IRS for not for profits. The agrarian community’s patterns of leadership were replaced by those of the industrial capitalist and the socialist.

So the school as presently constituted is not “natural.”

Like the cancer patient, we can ignore this fact or we can recognize its awful implications. They are, after all, all around us.

If we use a structure that is not Divinely or naturally ordained, we are going to have just the sort of problems we do have.

Second, a question: If the modes of assessment that arise from the needs, desires, and aspirations of human nature work at cross purposes with the school setting, which should give in to the other?

I would appeal to every school that seeks to cultivate wisdom and virtue in its students simply to engage in the discussion. I know that you can’t change everything right now.

I know that discussion is anxiety producing.

I know that you have too much work to do while you and your parents are being accredited, certified, college admissioned and otherwise controlled and intimidated by the forces for chaos, anxiety, and despair.

Believe it or not, I am tremendously sensitive to those issues. I have three college age children. My wife teaches in a classical and Christian school. I have started three myself. I consult with dozens every year. I am in no way trying to be glib.

What I’m begging you to do is simply to start the conversation. Rise up and begin to assert your freedom to mentor free people.

I don’t know how far this cancer has advanced. Maybe you are part of the cure.

But only if you begin the discussion.

Third, an assertion: If we are to respect the nature of things (a position that seems self-evident to me), and if the home is the more natural setting for the child and for education, then our schools ought to do at least two things with regard to the home (I would be very interested in other things the school needs to do):

  1. Model itself more closely on the household than on the “Gary Plan” that brought the industrial model into the school
  2. Treat home schoolers with great respect. After all,the reason home schooling works so well is because it more closely aligns with human nature. So schools should honor home schooling parents instead of seeing them as a threat and instead of making them feel inferior because they have not learned the artificial techniques that enable a teacher to succeed in an unnatural setting.

Again, please start the discussion. Act only on what you discover. Implement only what you believe in. But start the discussion. And include the local home schoolers in that discussion.

You have to live in the world that you live in. That is where God will transform and sanctify you. But you don’t have to be ruled by it.


Recommended resources:

  • 2009 Conference CD’s; especially the roundtable on assessment and Martin Cothran’s Agrarian Nature of Education
  • CiRCE Next Step Teacher Training with James Daniels, Andrew Kern, or Debbie Harris
  • Charlotte Mason’s writings

Why Pragmatism Doesn’t Work

During the last session at the conference I tried to weave things together into a practical structure that people could take home and think about and implement. Maybe the most important idea in the whole conference for me was the contrast between propriety and pragmatism, justice and utility, nature and abstract object.

Modernist thought found its clearest and fullest expression in two late 19th century philosophers whose teachings have dominated 20th and 21st century practice: William James and Friederich Nietzsche. James was a Pragmastist. It’s hard to say whether any principle ordered Nietzsche’s thought. He once said that he despised the great systemetizers. For him, it was about experience, not thinking (though he did the latter a lot). I would probably call him a Perspectivist (one who believes that truth is not knowable as a thing in itself – we all just have a perspective or worldview), but even that implies a rational structure to his thought that he would laugh at.

Both of them are, strictly speaking, anti-philosophers, or at least, anti-metaphysicians. James wanted to know the “cash value” of an idea. Truth is what works. Nietzsche wanted to know how an idea would lead to life, to flourishing.

I’m sympathetic with both of them. They lived at the end of the “Age of Ideas” that had been launched by the Enlightenment, especially Kant and Hegel. Ideas had become ideologies, and no ideology had been big enough to order souls or society.

So they directed thought away from thinking and gaining knowledge to acting and gaining power.

I can see the sense in what they did. The trouble I can’t escape is this big question of Nature. James and Nietzsche (and virtually all Enlightenment and 20th century thinkers) didn’t believe in the Idea of Nature.

Reality is not determined by (is not equal to) a thing’s nature. It is determined by personal and social constructions, which is what they believed ideas are. So rather than focus on the appropriate ways to treat something based on its nature, they were concerned with adapting to one’s environment.

John Dewey, a good friend of William James and a co-Pragmatist, went so far as to develop a philosophy of education that was rooted in the concept that the world around is not knowable in the Christian classical sense. Instead, knowledge is the adaptation of an organism to its environment.

As this played out over the 20th century, it led to some stark ideas. For example, knowledge isn’t the end we should seek, but practical applications. We shouldn’t contemplate ideas, we should produce measurables. We shouldn’t read old books burdened down with Christian classical assumptions about reality (most of all, that things have a nature); we should read books that are “relevant” to immediate issues for children.

This isn’t the place, and it would take too long to develop this thought, but I will simply assert here that these commitments fall horribly short of the aspirations of the Christian classical tradition.

  • The pursuit of virtue is replaced by adapting to the environmnent, which is a polite way of saying, “seeking power.”
  • Reverence for human nature is replaced by the use of schools to bring about the Darwinian and meaningless world these philosophers believed in.
  • Love of learning (i.e. of knowledge) is replaced by fear of testing.
  • Great books are replaced by, forgive me, twaddle.
  • Liberal arts and classical sciences are replaced by subjects, all equal, all disconnected, all meaningless.
  • Christ the logos is replaced by …
  • Contemplation is replaced by production.
  • Ideas are replaced by constructions.
  • Nature is replaced by permanent change.
  • Propriety is replaced by utility.
  • Purpose is replaced by utility.
  • Wisdom is replaced by skillful adaptation.
  • Being as the foundation of thought is replaced by utility.
  • Change is exalted to the status of divinity.
  • Whatever cannot be measured is reduced to what can be or disregarded as irrelevant.
  • Personhood is swallowed up in futility.
  • Freedom is replaced by compulsive efforts to satisfy instincts.
  • Justice is replaced by measurable social criteria, under the guise of equality.
  • Community becomes an effective marketing buzz word because everybody wants it but nobody knows how to get it.
  • Truth is what you make it.
  • Goodness is what you determine it to be.
  • Beauty is what you like.

In the classical tradition, all these ideas were considered independent realities. In other words, truth was truth whether you discovered it or not. You could construct an idea that was wrong. But look at how reading is taught now, both to children and to college students. It’s seriously influenced by the philosophy of constructivism, which says you create your own meaning.

It’s not that they are entirely wrong. Of course, we see things from our perspective. Of course we construct meaning from our experiences. But that doesn’t mean that there is no knowable reality beyond our perspective and no knowable meaning to which we can compare our constructions.

We see through a glass darkly. But there is something that we see. And as our vision more closely aligns with what is actually there, the better we perceive truth and the wiser we are.

There’s all the difference in the world between teaching a child that what he sees is all there is to see and teaching a child that he can improve his vision through training.

But the educators who dominated 20th century practices systematically undercut the students’ capacity to perceive truth and their confidence that it was knowable.

As a result, we have schooled our children into the least educated people in the history of the world.

Pragmatism doesn’t work. It excludes too much from its vision. It cuts short the quest for wisdom. It disables the mind. It redirects our attention to power. We need to absorb what it had right, but we need to transcend it with a restored love for truth rooted in the nature of things.

It seems un-American, but if you want to train a mind, the only way to do so is to give it ideas to contemplate.

(recommended resource: 2009 CiRCE conference CD’s)

Assessment and Feedback for a Written Composition

The Teacher’s guide for level II of The Lost Tools of Writing has been demanding an inordinate amount of my time these past few weeks so it’s been difficult to enter any sort of a lengthy post in here (to the relief of many of you, I’m sure). In particular, I’ve been writing about assessment this week – inventing, ordering, reordering, drafting, reordering again, redrafting, inventing some more.

It’s such a huge issue, assessment is. To begin with, assessment is not the same thing as grading. In the guide for level II you’ll see a distinction between evaluating, correcting, and grading. Evaluating is on-going and done by multiple people: the writer himself, his peers, perhaps parents and others, and the teacher. Evaluation is far, far more important than grading. So is correcting.

One rather common practice that jumped out at me is the way teachers often wait until after the students have received their grades to have them do corrections. To me, that is unkind at best and seems to involve a loss of clarity on the teacher’s role.

Writing is a skill. The teacher, therefore, is a coach. As coach, the teacher looks good when his “athlete” performs well. The downside of this formula is that some teachers get mad at students for not doing well and use the grade to punish the students.

The upside is that the teacher who realizes her role as coach will coach and not manipulate or engage in other arbitrary, tyrannical behavior.

So rather than wait until the time arrives to grade students papers to tell the poor kids what they did wrong, the coach/teacher is instructing them every step of the way. It doesn’t take very long. Glance at their invention materials while they are working on them. 20 seconds would be more than enough to determine the quality of most inventions. 1 or 2 would assess the quantity just fine (depending on the quality of your glasses).

Students should receive ongoing feedback throughout the writing process. In my opinion, virtually every essay or narrative that students hand in should have been reviewed and challenged and corrected enough times that they will all score in the 90’s on the grading rubric.

So in level II we go into quite a bit of detail about how to go about assessing students work. Keep it objective. Assess virtues, not gifts (though you should certainly acknowledge the latter). Make sure your students understand your feedback, whether it be evaluation, correcting, or grading. Make sure the grade is no surprise. Make sure you don’t grade anything for which you haven’t prepared your students. Make sure both you and your students know what you are looking for when you assess.

All of these will prevent you from being that foolish coach who waited until his team lost the game before he told them how to play.

More Thoughts on Education for Slavery

My daughter, Larissa, my wife, Karen, and I were hanging out at Brian and Shannon Phillips tonight where we talked about Plato’s Republic with Josh and Rebekkah (sp?) Leland. It was an informal, casual conversation about important things like music, the formation of the soul, how to become a gentleman, stuff like that.

Driving home I asked Larissa for her thoughts and she made an interesting point. She said it was unlike a school discussion because at school all of your reading is driven by anxiety about the test. You read asking yourself, “Do I need to remember this? Is it going to be on the test?”

And of course that is what a student is going to do, because the book is long and detailed, and if you start following something because it interests you, you won’t do well on the means of assessment established by the teacher and the school. Teachers often ask me in teacher training workshops how to cure kids of this obsession. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only one way.

Don’t test them.

I heard that reaction and I understand it. I would only challenge you to think about it this way: how did the ancient Greeks and Romans and the medieval and Renaissance Europeans examine their students?

I heard that reaction too and I know perfectly well that we live in America today and that we can’t go back to that long lost era. But that doesn’t remove from us the responsibility to ask which way works better and whether we aren’t doing positive harm to many of our students.

Because we are.

So we at least need to come up with ways to undermine these defective ways of so-called teaching that we have had forced upon us. We at least need to resist them. We can’t just give ourselves up to them. Children do have souls and those souls matter.

There is a time, mode, and place for assessment, but when a child is distracted from contemplating a passage in a great work of philosophy, literature, theology, or history because she is worried about how she will do on a test, a classical education (or whatever) has been used to enslave her mind.

Let’s not call that education, please.