Knowledge, Love, and Civilization

Francis Bacon said “Knowledge is power,” and I know of no record of him ever apologizing.

What sort of disposition would lead a person to saying such a thing. It’s not as if people prior to Bacon did not realize that knowledge gave its possessor power. But they had good manners and higher values, so they didn’t come right out and say it.

But Bacon did.

Worse still, people embraced this statement.

When Francis Bacon said “Knowledge is power,” he introduced a scientific revolution. But what even the experts often fail to see is that he initiated an intellectual revolt that introduced a new intellectual temper.

Prior to Bacon people believed that it was possible to know things for what they were. In Plato and Aristotle, Moses and Solomon, St. Paul and Erasmus, one finds a consistent awareness that knowledge is not justly said to be power.

For the great western Christian classical tradition knowledge is apprehension, perception, relationship.

Such an awareness makes civilized life possible.

But in Bacon we hear the destructive philosophy of an elegant barbarian.

Let me draw an analogy to present times to explain my point. You will often read in the New York Times or USA Today or Wall Street Journal about how civilization has advanced over earlier western society or sometimes even over, say, the third world, because we have more advanced technology.

The widely held assumption of people who believe that such a thing as civilization might conceivably exist is that, if it exists, it is measured by technological advance, which is another phrase for power.

This is utter rubbish. Genghis Khan was amazingly advanced in some areas technologically. The gang-leader in LA has access to more advanced technology than Erasmus was able to conceive.

A person who believes that technology is the mark of civilized society is a barbarian himself. A person who believes that knowledge is power is both profoundly and utterly ignorant and a barbarian.

That knowledge gives power one cannot deny. The claim that knowledge is power is a revolt against the entire Christian and classical tradition.

I don’t want to imply that Bacon himself held to such a thoroughly barbaric conception of knowledge in all his thinking.

Nevertheless, after Bacon British thought embraced his axiom and developed an anti-philosophy under the name of Empiricism that has undercut civilized thought everywhere in the world.

I mean these claims to be taken quite seriously and not as mean-spirited ad hominems.

In fact, I might go so far as to claim that the difference between barbarians and civilized people is that the former lives by Bacon’s axiom and the latter live by something higher, richer, less easily coined, and more human and humane.

For example, in Plato, we see the groping of a mind for something beyond power, something that will harmonize the soul and the community. In Aristotle we read in his Metaphysics that “All men by nature desire to know,” and he goes on to explain that knowledge is an end in itself because knowledge itself is a delight to the soul.

What Aristotle meant, at least in part, was that, since our nature desires knowledge, we derive pleasure simply from knowing. We do not need to apply it, make it “relevant,” or derive some practical application from our knowledge.

Simply knowing gives us pleasure. So we keep our eyes open – and we don’t only look at the things that we might trip over. Sometimes we look at the stars in the sky even if they don’t provide any practical guidance.

Bacon’s axiom, on the other hand, would lead us to look at the stars only as astrologers or sailors.

Which might explain why we don’t teach astronomy much any more even though a cursory study of the history of science will reveal that all the natural sciences as studied in the western tradition developed out of the study of the stars.

Civilized people use things rightly. In other words, they deal with them according to their natures.

Bacon’s axiom (for which I will use the name Bacon from now on) led to the conclusion that things cannot be known in their natures. We can only “know” them from the outside.

The culmination of this teaching was reached in Dewey’s doctrines and is the unknown core principle of teaching in America.

He argued that knowledge in the Christian classical sense does not and cannot exist. Knowledge to the benighted Christian or classicist was derived from a hang-up on permanence.

But Bacon’s revolution was secured by Darwin who showed us that nothing is permanent.

Things don’t have a nature, Dewey argued (he used the term “species” following Aristotle). Things are like they are now, but their environments will cause them to become something other than what they are now in time.

There is no human nature. There is only the present state of the offspring of human parents.

The nature of things, therefore, cannot be known, since it does not exist.

Thus to set limits on things, which is a precondition for knowledge in the Christian and classical tradition, is both unnecessary and counterproductive.

Why set limits on what humanity can become? If people as smart as Dewey can only rule us, they can make us into something better than what we are now. So give us the schools and let us have our way.

Why set limits on what a word can mean?

Why set limits on what a text is saying?

Why set limits on what the state is allowed to do?

Why set limits?

Limits imply natures, and natures don’t exist.

The problems with such a horrific idea are manifold and would merit an encyclopaedia of their own. Our age is that encyclopaedia.

If you don’t set limits on what a word can mean, the word doesn’t mean anything. Take marriage for example.

If you don’t set limits on what a text can mean, the text doesn’t mean anything. Take our constitution for example.

If you don’t set limits on what the state can do, the state can do anything.

If you don’t set limits on what the object of your attention can be, you can’t give the object your attention.

To define is, by definition, to set limits on meanings. To remove the limits from meanings is to overthrow meaning itself.

To live a life without meaning is to be a barbarian.

Thus we delude ourselves to think we represent civilization. We live in a barbarian country.

We are all barbarians.

We don’t love civilization; we love meaningless equalities and limitless liberties and undefined powers.

What then is needed? Is it possible for us to become civilized?

It is possible, though it isn’t likely. Civilization is difficult and it requires submission.

First, it requires submission to reality. Civilization’s core principle is that all things must be treated according to their natures.

But the rewards are unspeakable, and the first of those rewards is that our souls can escape the lust for power that led Bacon to his foolish axiom and Nietzsche to his extension of it in his doctrine (much more worth reflecting on than Bacon’s) of the “will to power.”

Our souls can return to a right understanding of knowledge. For in the Christian classical tradition, knowledge is not power.

Knowledge is perception.

Knowledge is apprehension.

Knowledge is relation.

Civilized people recognize that right knowledge requires love because to perceive something for what it is we need to receive it into our souls as it is.

To receive something into our soul requires that we will the thing we seek to know.

Thus knowledge requires, first and foremost, a pure will in relation to the thing we seek to know.

Love does not feel good about its object or even desire, first, to be united to its object. Love wills its object – it wills the perfection and well-being of its object.

And this is possible only when the nature of the object is acknowledged and known.

Thus love alone makes accurate knowledge of the object possible.

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)

Industrial economics, Industrial education, and the Abolition of Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Poison of Subjectivism

Correct thinking will not make good men of bad ones; but a purely theoretical error may remove ordinary checks to evil and deprive good intentions of their natural support. An error of this sort is abroad at present… I am referring to Subjectivism.

After studying his environment man has begun to study himself. Up to that point, he had assumed his own reason and through it seen all other things. Now, his own reason has become the object: it is as if we took out our eyes to look at them. Thus studied, his own reason appears to him as the epiphenomenon which accompanies chemical or electrical events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of an evolutionary process. His own logic, hitherto the king whom events in all possible worlds must obey, becomes merely subjective. There is no reason for supposing that it yields truth.

CS Lewis, Christian Reflections: The Poison of Subjectivism

This essay by Lewis he develops into The Abolition of Man and into the novel That Hideous Strength, both of which I urge you to read. Here is the crux of the matter. Put Dewey against Lewis and you see the conflict that is determining and will determine the path of our age: will we cast aside civilization and its discontents along with its contents, or will we rediscover the belief in truth that serves as the only tenable foundation for ethics and politics – for the right ordering of soul and society.

Read these essays. I’ll try to find a link to a carrier as soon as I get a chance. Read these texts!!

Authority and memorizing

Modern thought resides in the realm of fantasy, perhaps nowhere moreso than on the question of authority. The Middle Ages are mocked for their constant appeal to authority, an appeal that Francis Bacon is supposed to have freed the human race from with his Novum Organon, an appeal to use the nascent scientific method of induction as the only source of truth.

But on what basis do we mock the Medieval thinkers for their submission to authority?

Somebody told us!

Authority to the modern mind seems to be a negative idea. We seem to think it is necessarily evil. But it is not. To the Medieval mind, authority was rooted in knowledge. To be an authority was to know what you are talking about.

It is the same to the modern mind, with this difference. We are so individualistic, so disconnected from reality, so controlled by manipulators, so eager to create ourselves, that we have created a vocabulary and set of practices that thinks and acts as though we can function without authority. We’ve driven the whole concept of authority into our subconscious.

Living in this condition leads us through all manner of emotional contortions. Many people will embrace an idea as long as the people in front of them don’t know where they got it. That’s easy to do now, because we spend so much time learning from people we don’t know that the impersonal nature of knowledge and authority seem normal to us. But intellectually and spiritually, we enter a state of confusion. We take on ourselves the existential burden of creating ourselves and the Cartesian burden of finding truth within ourselves, independently.

So we remain forever adolescent, constantly showing off our knowledge and abilities, perpetually terrified that people will discover the truth.  We are emotionally bound.

And the solution is so simple. We simply need to admit that we know almost nothing apart from what authorities have discovered and told us. This is true in math, grammar, science, history, philosophy, the arts, and religion. But our distrust for authority is so intense that we pretend to not need any.

If we wish to remain moral and spiritual dwarves and loners, I suppose we don’t need any authority. But if we are going to grow, we need to learn from those who know so very, very much more than we do. This is common sense. It is necessary. The fact that authorities abuse their authorities cannot alter that fact. As the French Revolution illustrated, when you reject authority all you do is assert your own tyranny.

I am arguing for more clear-headedness on this matter.

Those who reject authority other than their own (Dewey, Keating, etc.) want us to pull the pages out of our text books and start over with a barbaric yowp.  Now we have a culture letting out one long, extended yowp.

Those who accept authority other than their own recognize the need to submit to authority and the need for what the authority above them have to say. So rather than have their students practice primal scream therapy, they have them memorize the Bible, and Homer, and Virgil, and Dante, and Shakespeare.

Students taught in that atmosphere of authority are give the resources they will need when they have to fight their own battles in the unjust world in which we live. They will not be abandoned to yowps and guns and roses.

Shakespeare’s Language and the Evolution of Human Intelligence

I was watching a bit of Brannagh’s Hamlet tonight and luxuriating in the language (some of which I understood) when my dear wife asked me for my opinion. “Do you think the groundlings actually understood what was going on in those plays?”

To which I answered yes, but the reasons are probably another blog post.

Then she asked for another opionion. Why do you think people today can’t understand it?

I must warn you, I’m about to say something that will sound caustic. You probably want to cover your children’s ears while you read this.

The reason we can’t understand Shakespeare or read the King James Version of the Bible or grapple with Milton or almost any poetry is because we systematically school children in our culture to become increasingly stupid. Charlotte Mason uses the term “stultify” to describe what we do.

 I understand that sounds very harsh, so I need to defend the position.

First let me say that this problem is systemic and cannot be blamed on any particular teacher or parent. Those who govern American education at the highest level are highly irresponsible, do not understand the effect of systems on education, and bear primary responsibility for this folly. In addition, text book publishers have profited immeasurably from poor theory, so they bear high responsibility as well.

What then is the problem?

It’s the way we teach reading. I can and will approach this from many angles over the next little while, but today I want to express one simple point. When we teach reading, we treat the child like she is a mechanism learning a process. We do not teach it like she is a person interacting with ideas.

The notion of a child as a mechanism learning a process arises from Dewey’s theory of instrumentalism or pragmatism, which I haven’t the time to develop right now but there are scads of resources explaining it on the internet. In short, it reduces humans to mechanisms, knowledge to a process, and learning to a technique. The person is displaced.

But to read is not simply to decode symbols (i.e. sound out letters or translate pictures into words). To read is to be a person interacting with ideas (usually embodied in metaphors, sometimes, for older people, expressed as abstractions). That’s what pre-school children do when you read a fairy tale to them while they sit on your lap.

The pre-school child handles complex syntax with little trouble. He cuts through it to the tensions and questions and actions of the main actors. It’s a human instinct to do so. Then we get them to school and we only let them read what they can sound out. In fact, and this is the FATAL mistake: even the books we read TO them have to be at what we call “their level” by which we mean what they can sound out.

This is silly. Children can understand and interpret texts far beyond anything they can sound out. But Victorian cuteness and sentimentality have overtaken the classroom, and the child’s mind and moral development suffer for it.

As a result, we undercut the development of the child’s mind by interfering with it. In kindergarten we limit our oral reading to texts with a syntax no moron would need by the time he is three. See Dick Run! Why? Why would I want to see Dick run when I can listen to something like this:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and movement how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.

When my child is 12, what good will it have done him to have had to read something as inane, as jejune, as ridiculous, as empty, as stultifying, as stupidifying, as “see Dick run”? On the other hand, the passage above will feed the child’s soul to the day he dies. It will help him know who he is, his place in the cosmos, his likeness to God, his obligations. It will provide comfort in dark hours.

When he begins to learn formal writing skills, it will sing in his mind as an ideal to be sought for. It will provide examples of schemes and tropes. It will provide a sequence of perfect word choices.

In short, those two lines from Hamlet will feed his soul from the day he first has them read to him through his later encounter with the play in high school through the trials and tests of adulthood (for which, after all, an education is meant to prepare a child – unless we look to Professor Umbridge as our model), to the day he lies on his bed or goes into battle ready to meet his maker.

See Dick run. I’d rather not.

The consequence of our folly is that we habituate students to read and write at absurdly low levels. Then to top it off, we sentimentalize what they read, fearing that they can’t deal with monsters and werewolves.

In all these ways we truly dis-educate our children by teaching them.

What should we do if we want to cultivate our children’s intelligence and moral development (and yes, they go hand in hand)?

We should read to them works that they cannot understand. We should read rich metaphorical works, like fairy tales, folk tales, fables, mythology, legends, Bible stories. We should not ask them to analyze them.

We should just read them. We can discuss them in personal ways, but to transfer this personal activity into an intellectual exercise before 2nd or 3rd grade is counter-productive.

We should teach children to decode phonograms, but we should not convince ourselves that this is reading. It’s a very different intellectual exercise that prepares children for reading. But they do more reading with their ears than with their eyes when they are learning to decode.

Most of all, we should never forget that we are teaching persons, not mechanisms that need to master a process for efficient operations.