Don’t be hasty

I read this from the introduction this morning of Everett Dean Martin’s book The Meaning of a Liberal Education, copywritten 1926.

But something of the shoddiness enters into the minds and hearts of men, when shortcuts are sought in matters of mental growth which are essentially processes of slow maturing.  Education requires time.  The only time wasted is that spent trying to save time.  There should be no haste or crowding or cramming.  Mastery of any subject requires years of familiarity with it.  The formal training one receives in an institution is but the introduction.  Most people never get beyond a mere bowing acquaintance with knowledge.

“Education requires time.  The only time wasted is that spent trying to save time. There should be no haste or crowding or cramming.”  As you go to school today to begin class (whether at home or in a classroom), relax.  Attend to the moment.

The Order of Knowledge

James Daniels just reminded me about the order of knowledge and showed how you can see it disintegrate in western philosophical thought.

At the top of all knowledge is theology, the knowledge that holds all other knowledge together.

Below that is philosophical knowledge, knowledge of metaphysical things like being, mode, and change.

One more step down we find moral or humane knowledge, the knowledge of how we fulfill our natures as human beings in community (politics) or by ourselves (ethics).

Then comes natural science, or the knowledge that we can gain of the physical world around us through modes like observation and measurement.

Each kind of knowledge is gained when you ask questions that require that kind of knowledge for an answer, such as what is being (philosophy), how can I be happy (ethics), what makes a tree grow (science), or what is truth (theology).

Asking the right kind of question causes a person to develop the sorts of tools that sort of question requires.

Using those tools then arouses a given faculty in the human soul – a faculty of perception that fits the knowledge sought.

James showed me how in the 13th century you begin to see an attack on the validity of theological knowledge, which put philosophy at the top of the ladder. Of course, it couldn’t answer theological questions, so people got mad at philosophy for not being able to do what it isn’t capable of doing, so they dropped it for the moral sciences.

Need I say that they proceeded to fail? So people gave up on the moral sciences and trusted only in the natural sciences.

Then came the 20th century. Now the natural sciences are still highly regarded, but nobody really believes they provide ultimate truth except maybe Richard Dawkins.

Thus we live in an age of complete epistemological scepticism, newspeaked into “tolerance.”

Then to undermine the whole project, children are no longer taught how to gain knowledge because people don’t believe it is there to be gained anyway. So they grow up believing there is no knowledge and they live accordingly.

Thus the Hebrew intuition is verified once again: “The fear of God is the beginning of Knowledge.”

Reflections on Progressive Education

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 Progressive 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 (and since they exist only in the child’s mind) 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.

More later.

The problem of objectivity

The motto of the Fox News Channel is “We Report.  You Decide.”  The idea behind the statement is that they are attempting to report the news without bias or prior interpretation.  They are claiming objectivity, in the sense of being “without bias or prejudice; detached.”  Of course, claims to objectivity are numerous, extending to nearly every side of every debate, whether political, theological, etc. 


It is interesting to me that so many people claim to do the impossible.  Real objectivity is, generally speaking, beyond our reach.  We interpret facts, events, and statements by our preconceived ideas, presuppositions, experiences, and beliefs.  Because of that, none of us humans are actually objective.  Would ground be gained in the exchange of ideas if we were at least honest about the fact that we held a few coming into it?


My unbiased opinion is yes.

Faith and Reason: Love or War?

Reflecting on the relation between science and faith, Marty McCarthy, an Episcopal priest and good friend, wrote to me:

“Revealed truth gives us the context for holding scientific (reasoned) truth for what it is.  Knowing how to relate these two is a delicate task, and must be discussed closely, and then spoken to clearly enough that enquiry is enlivened and purpose for science is held in “grace”   Otherwise, science may be cowed by revelation, just as the opposite is true today.” 

His note triggered an inquiry about the relation and its implications for teaching children. I end with some questions that are the shadow dominating all of our public discussion of education, culture, politics, etc.

In what follows you can read natural science for philosophy and not be inaccurate. I quote from Daniel Sullivan’s “An Introduction to Philosophy: The Perennial Principles of the Classical Realist Tradition”:

The concord of faith and reason, with the careful safeguarding of the nature and rights of each, was not achieved until the time of St. Thomas, who opposed equally those who introduced philosophy into theology and those who tried to reduce theology to philosophy. St. Thomas carefully distinguished between theology and philosophy so that the nature of one could not be confused with the other.It is the nature of philosophy to proceed solely by way of rational evidence and demonstration based on such evidence; therefore we should never appeal to revelation in support of a philosophical thesis.

It is the nature of theology to base itself on the word of God, drawing out the implications of revealed truth in the light of faith; although it may use philosophy as an instrument, it cannot be reduced to philosophy….Having thus distinguished between…faith and reason, St. Thomas is careful to make the point that although they are distinct they are not separate: “The gifts of grace are added to nature in such a manner that they do not remove but perfect it. So it is with the light of faith that is infused in us gratuitously: it does not destroy the light of natural knowledge with which we are by nature endowed.”

A truth in one order cannot contradict a truth in another order. A truth in philosophy cannot contradict a truth of faith: “Now although the natural light of the human mind does not suffice for the manifestation of the things that are made manifest by faith, yet it is impossible that what is divinely taught to us by faith be contrary to the things with which we are endowed by nature. For one or the other would then have to be false, and since both come to us from God, God would be to us an author of falsehood, which is impossible.”Because a truth of the natural order cannot possibly contradict a truth of the revealed order, the philosopher or scientist is free to investigate nature as far as his researches can carry him, in the full confidence that he cannot discover any truth that will contradict revelation.”

On the other hand, theology exercises a kind of negative jurisdiction over philosophy and the empirical sciences, in the sense that where there is an apparent contradiction between reason and faith, the theologian claims the right, in view of the infinitely more sure source of his truth, to tell the philosopher or the scientist that he has erred somewhere and must go over his reasons again. “For if in what the philosophers have said we come upon something that is contrary to faith, this does not belong to philosophy but is rather an abuse of philosophy arising from a defect in reason.”

Sullivan, pages 256-258

I have been compelled to return to Genesis 1-3 repeatedly because that is where the entire Christian worldview is laid down: a God who creates by speaking, God as the source of language and therefore the holiness and priority of language, man in God’s image, man as breath of God and dust of the earth -a spiritual being with body and soul, things identified by “kind”, the cosmos as “very good” and therefore the holiness and priority of knowing the cosmos as a good in itself, man as steward of the earth and therefore the holiness and priority of knowing the cosmos as a practical responsibility, dare I say – woman as created as a help fitted to the man to fulfill the work assigned to mankind (steward and fill the earth), an enemy of God who seeks our downfall, disordered desire as the root of sin, sin as the source of death,  and the promise of a soon to come Redeemer.  

These are not truths of philosophy or natural science, but of theology. They are revealed by the word of God and are thus “an infinitely more sure source of his truth” than the reasonings of the scientist or philosopher. But the natural scientists, especially biologists, insist that many or all of these truths have been disproven by the natural sciences.

If then, as it seems to me, what the philosopher and what the theologian believe themselves to have discovered seem to be in contradiction, it behooves the theologian to advise the philosopher and the scientist where his reasoning has gone astray while also examining carefully his own arguments to be sure that he is not lording it over the revelation of the word of God. That requires, in turn and as a practical matter, that the theologian know science and philosophy, not just the Bible.

The theologian cannot simply tell the philosopher or scientist that his conclusions are incorrect. He must get inside philosophy and science and show precisely where the exploration left the path of truth.

Here we see the unholy implications of the dissolution of the Christian church. St. Thomas could speak of the work of the theologian with a great deal more confidence than we can today. While the church had split into east and west, the western church had not yet dissolved into warring parties arguing over details of revealed truth and leading the nations to despair.

It is easy to see that one of the causes of the intellectual disintegration of our age is precisely this radical separation of theology from science/philosophy in which the two are treated not only as different modes of inquiry (which they are) but as unrelated sources of truth (which they are not). Here is an attempted beginning of an inquiry for theologians and philosophers to engage in together:

  1. Does the evidence of the natural sciences lead to the conclusion of Darwinian or Neo-Darwinian evolution, an evolution that breaks down “kinds” and leads to the “origin of species” or does the Cartesian logic of the modern natural sciences build the conclusion into the premises?
  2. Does Genesis 1 preclude Darwinian cross-species evolution in the command of God to the creatures to reproduce after their kind?
  3. Does Genesis 1 preclude a universe that is many millions of years old? Is the age of the universe significant in the light of Genesis 1?
  4. Are purposes and essences excluded from scientific investigation by the very nature of the sciences?
  5. Is any other kind of knowledge higher than and more reliable than knowledge gained through scientific inquiry?
  6. What does it mean to know something? Is knowledge viable in a Darwinian cosmos? How do these questions affect the way children are taught, what they should be taught they can know, etc. What other faculties of perception do humans have that need to be cultivated?
    NB Dewey had a great deal to say on this matter and should be read carefully.
  7. Is language a product of evolutionary development or a gift from God? How does this affect the way children are taught language and its role in human development?
  8. Does Darwinism overthrow the entire western tradition of knowledge, as Dewey claims? On what does he base his claims? Why have they been so widely received and applied in education?
  9. Does the fact that evolutionary approaches have led to fruitful and beneficial insights in biology, the neurosciences, etc. demonstrate the truthfulness of a Darwinian worldview or merely the usefulness of the evolutionary model on a microcosmic scale.
  10. Is Darwinism compatible with Christian theology? Where is it and where is it not? Where they are incompatible, does the evidence for Darwinism create a demonstration?
  11. What is the relation between theology and the natural sciences? Which speaks with more authority? Why?