Liberal Education

I came across a book in our public library titled The Meaning of a Liberal Education by Everett Dean Martin published in 1926, a seminal period for progressive education. The following is a quote from the chapter “Liberal Education vs. Book Learning.” The last sentence is golden.

People persist in thinking that education comes to a man by virtue of his attendance at some place where it may be “got.”  We frequently hear someone say, “I had so many years of Latin,” or “I took mathematics,” or I did not get much history.”  Formal education, which is book knowledge acquired in a school,–this possession which men measure and grade and standardize,–may or may not be an aid to general culture.  The thing I mean by liberal education is too elusive for the man with the yard stick.  -Everett Dean Martin

What Sayest Thou?

There are few pleasures in life greater than watching someone you mentor grow. Buck Holler joined the CiRCE apprenticeship far beyond any need for me to mentor him, and yet he has embraced my instruction with an eagerness that shows why he hardly needed it. It is my great pleasure to introduce Buck to you as our newest Quiddity author, from whom you will be hearing much in the coming aeon. This is Buck’s third post, and those of you who visit often can already see why I’m so happy to have him on board.

Something Buck doesn’t mention in what follows is that the kids he’s teaching are not yet in high school! With that, over to Buck:

The question I ask my students with nearly every book we read is, “Who most rightly acts?”

We recently finished reading act one of Julius Caesar, and that question divided my class of 18 into three groups. (I will narrate their replies as accurately as possible.)

The majority of students sided with the Sooth Sayer because he simply gives Caesar the truth without force or going overboard.  He gets to the point and allows Caesar to do what he will.

The rest of the class divided those favoring Brutus and Cassius from 2 students who chose Mark Antony and one who supported Caesar.  What occurred was beautiful.  I will share two particular highlights that I enjoyed.

A Cassius supporter challenged the Caesar fan by asking, “Which is the greater injustice” — I love that lead — “killing someone, or destroying something that took hundreds of years to build?”  This student then drew the analogy of a man seeking to destroy the Vatican.

Another student who supported Brutus drew a parallel to the sacrifice of Jesus calling on the necessity at times of a sacrifice.  The young lady supporting Caesar replied, “I need to think.”  Ah, I love it.  I told her, “Thinking is good; it is all right to think.”  Approximately five minutes later she returned with this reply.  “The difference between Jesus and Caesar is that Jesus knew he was being sacrificed and Caesar did not.  If you truly love someone, you tell him the truth, help him, and even allow him to make the decision of what to do with his life.”

Then class was over.

So, who most rightly acts?  What sayest thou?

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.

Link of interest for educators and parents

http://1smartmama.blogspot.com/

Paideia Prize Winner Announcement

You are the first to know that Dr. Peter Sampo, founder of Thomas More College in New Hampshire, has agreed to accept the Paideia Prize at this summer’s CiRCE conference. I’m anxious to learn more about Dr. Sampo and his work, but I can tell you already that he laboured for years in an extremely difficult vineyard to bring St. Thomas More College to life and fruition. He retired from the Presidency about two years ago and Dr. Jeffrey Nelson, formerly of ISI, is now carrying on the work.

Dr. Louise Cowan has described the curriculum at Thomas More as one of the best in our country. I agree. College provides four years to the guardian’s of our culture to raise the vision of the young to something worth aspiring to. The unspeakable waste that is the American college in general underscores the value of St. Thomas More College to those few who are willing to leave the dark cave and gaze on the splendour of the work of God in the human soul and in the cosmos.

Look for more big conference news over the next few weeks. We’ll have details about Dr. Sampo, the program, some very exciting speaker news, and more. I’ll blog about things as they develop here and we’ll post the formal announcements on the web site (www.circeinstitute.org) and in the CiRCE Papers (our free E-letter – sign up here if you don’t already receive it).

Why not read pagan literature?

Last Tuesday night I got involved in a discussion on why Christians are uncomfortable with pagan literature and how to deal with that problem. Then we ran out of time. Next Tuesday we’ll be renewing that discussion on the Pluto and Plato Radio show/teleconference. I hope you can be there because this is an important issue and I want to be able to answer your questions instead of just spouting ideas like a whale lolling on the ocean. Click here for information.

 In the last call I outlined six general categories for why we should read them. Then we talked about two of them (because the Bible tells us to and gives us the pattern and because the Christian tradition is led by those who have, from the apostles to the church fathers to the reformers). There’s a lot left to talk about. Come and join me!