Erasmus, Ideas, and the Soul

It is scarcely possible even to hope that all men should be good; but it is not hard to pick out from so many thousands of them one or two who stand out in virtue and wisdom, through whom in a short while a great many others could be made good.

And later:

The examples set by famous men vividly inspire a noble youth’s imagination, but the ideas with which it is imbued are of much the greatest importance, for they are the source from which the whole character of his life develops.

Erasmus: The Birth and Upbringing of a Christian Prince

In the second quotation, Erasmus brings together the idea and the type in a manner we shouldn’t overlook. Consider the power he gives to the idea, whereas the examples of famous men will only “inspire a noble youth’s imagination.”

I say “only” deliberately. It is a great thing so to fire the imagination, and the well-being of a society depends on it. But it isn’t enough.

According to Erasmus, the ideas “are the source from which the whole character of his life develops.”

The classical tradition is the tradition of  the idea. Classical educators believe that the formation of the soul (virtue) is the purpose of education and that the soul is formed by ideas. Education is not ultimately about doing and acting (i.e. power) but about being and knowing.

But then modern thinkers, formed by post-classical educations, think that if you are talking about ideas you must be talking about something theoretical and abstract. Nothing could be more obstinately opposed to reality. Indeed, that supposition is rooted in a false view of reality as something external to us, unknowable by us, separate from us; yet something to which we are bound to adapt.

Modern thought is barbaric and uncivilized, and it would be good if we would get off our scientific pedestal long enought to acknowledge that not technology civilizes us, but right relations. And we are relationally challenged at every level.

How to Teach

A word is the seed of an idea.

You plant it in the soil of the soul.
If the soil is ready to receive it, it will spring to life
giving understanding.

If the soul is not ready,
the seed must be protected and nourished
until the springtime of the soul.

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.

A few Ideas about Ideas

Without understanding an idea, we cannot have discretion.
Unless we contemplate an idea we cannt understand it.
We contemplate ideas when we see them embodied in paintings, music, stories, lessons, etc.
The structure of a lesson is itself the structure of the idea taught.

What’s the Big Idea?

The driving impulse of the CiRCE Institute is to figure out what Christian classical education is and to learn how to apply in it ever more complete, authentic, and integrated ways. In my studies and reflection, one astonishing thing has become astonishingly clear to me.

Christian classical education is the education of the idea, whereas conventional education is something else. I’ve been struggling with what on earth that something else is and I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that it is simply power. I’m not content with that idea, because it doesn’t really parallel the idea of the idea, so it might not serve as an ordering principle. But if I go on any further down that track, you won’t want to read any more so I’ll stop and try to explain what I mean.

Ideas are what we think about and they are what we think with. Idea is a Greek word, and at least one Latin word for Idea is species. In the classical world, the best educators believed in ideas and they believed that ideas were transformative. They argued about what an idea was (understandably so) and where an idea existed, but the best all agreed that ideas were real things. So far as I can tell, the sophists did not think they were real, but that existed only in the mind.

Conventional education is not coherent, so one department of a university will have very different ideas about ideas than another and one teacher in a grade school will have very different expectations of students in regard to ideas than another. As an abstraction (what conventional thinkers would call an idea) that is fine. At least theoretically, you want a lot of ideas flowing around an educational institution.

But as a practical matter, what you think about ideas will determine everything that follows. Because education has to have something to do with thinking and when we think we think about ideas. So an educated person is a person who is skilled at handling ideas.

At least it used to be that way. But in conventional thought, Christian and secular, there is an overwhelming tendency to believe that ideas exist only in the mind if they exist at all. Once we come to believe that, understanding ideas simply doesn’t matter as much. The inner drive to understand ideas so that we can understand reality is weakened. A couple of generations of education like that will produce students who can’t think and, worse, can’t see the point of thinking.

Unless there is some other reason to think than to understand an idea.

Well, let’s think about that. Why would a person think if his goal isn’t understanding or knowledge? Ah! I think I’ve got it. Influence. To get a job. To impress people. To be able to change something. In a word: power.

What we have seen happen over the last couple generations is a gutting of the intellectual life of our culture. Many causes have brought about this effect, including the entertainment industry. But at the root of the change is the unconsidered, unreflected, assumption that ideas are not worth thinking about unless they have a practical benefit.

Practical rarely means that it will make a person more virtuous or a better person. It usually means that it will give the person power of some sort, however petty or trivial.

If, therefore, we want to follow the Christian classical renewal, we need to go back to thinking about ideas. There’s no use talking about teaching kids how to think if we don’t mean we are going to teach them to think about and with ideas. There’s no use trying to decide what curriculum we’re going to use if we don’t know how to judge whether the curriculum will help a child think about and with ideas. There’s no use learning new teaching techniques if we can’t determine whether the technique will help or hinder the child’s capacity to contemplate ideas.

If we separate practice from ideas we are simply Pragmatists. If you want to be a Pragmatist, you are free to do so. But don’t convince yourself that you can also be a Christian classical educator. Pragmatism on the one hand and Christian and classical thought on the other are very different ideas.

In a way, the goal of Christian classical education is to learn how to think about Christian classical education. That would be time well spent and it would be much more practical than Pragmatism. What I have just written might seem very theoretical. In fact, it is one of the most practical things you will ever read.