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)

Our Education Platform

Anybody who cares about America’s future and about America’s children, both of which are causes of deep contemplation for thoughtful people and desperate action for active, knows that everything depends on education.

The stimulus bill famously set aside 100 billion dollars for America’s public schools. Plenty of people would argue that this is itself a desperate action by people with too much confidence in contemplation. But the present reality is that we have a public school system, that our children are compelled, under pain of law, to get something called an education, and that most of them attend these public schools.

What can be done for our schools? Purists say, shut them down. Save the $500 billion/year spent on them (equal to our federal deficit prior to this year, though not paid by the federal government) by entirely privatising schooling. The JS Mill side of me agrees. But it isn’t going to happen, so we have to look realistically at the world we actually live in rather than fuss and bother about one that will not exist for at least a century, if ever.

But what about the calls for reform. This Economist article about Arne Duncan reminds us that Bill Bennett once called the education bureaucracy “the blob” because it was so amorphous and ungovernable. Can Arne Duncan help? I’m watching anxiously.

Here’s what I want to see in the public schools, since they can’t be shut down:

  • Extensive provision of tax credits for school choice, such as that provided by Pennsylvania and a few other states on a small scale. Again, this article shows the flaw in vouchers: the government still maintains dictatorial power over the provision of the money and that leads to control of schools from impersonal government agents.
  • A great deal more support for charter schools, especially the classical charter schools that are doing so much good in, e.g. Colorado Springs and Fort Collins.
  • Breaking of the stranglehold on innovation by the teacher’s unions.
  • Breaking of the stranglehold on creativity by the accrediting agencies, especially the one that accredits the teachers colleges.
  • A deep reconsideration of the Pragmatic/Progressivist philosophy that has undercut every impulse toward discipline and creativity and knowledge. Actually, I’d prefer a rejection. This is a theme of our conference this summer.
  • Tremendous restoration of authority to the local communities. This is one area where I think the Economist article gets it completely wrong. They suggest that we have a problem because there are 16,000 local districts running schools.

In fact, this is one area that needs some extensive research. Education has centralized any number of functions that need to be decentralized and has decentralized some areas that might conceivably benefit from centralization.

But education has to turn from its military/industrial mentality, which is totally unsuited to its very nature, and return to more of an agrarian mentality, which is more consistent with its nature. Civilization has never been the product of armies and factories. It is the fruit of the always tenuous marriage of the farmer and the merchant. Education must restore this dynamic.

As with everything about the Obama presidency, there is reason for hope. Then let us hope with our eyes open.

Follow this link to read the Economist article: The Golden Boy and The Blob.

Three obstacles seem to hinder everything the schools do: the American history of racism, the unimaginably extensive Byzantine bureaucracy, and the fear and loathing of religion. Perhaps I’ll be able to develop each of these in later blogs.

What elements do we need to add to our platform?

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.