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Archive for September, 2011

Intentions (The Defense, Part 2)

with 3 comments

Okay, let me start here for the moment.

The purpose of a liberal education is to form free men. 

And women, of course, but when that formulation was first made–in the time of Socratic Greece–they were only talking about men.

The “free” in this case means self-governing, both in the sense of being able to participate in the political governance of the (city) state, and of being in control of oneself. 

The second part of that means not only that you get to decide what to do with yourself–and you can’t stop me!  It also means that you have control of your actions, your passions, your tastes–that you can exercise self control in a world of almost infinite choice.

This definition of a liberal education has not changed in millenia, although the specific contents of specific aspects of that education have.  This is the definition used by Plato, by Tacitus, and by George Washington, who never had a formal liberal education at all.  It’s the definition that would have been recognized by Shakespeare and Napoleon,  Francis Bacon and Sigmund Freud, Pope John Paul II and Christopher Hitchens.

What’s more, the general categories with the overall definition haven’t changed, either.  Isocrates and Quintillian insisted on the study of the humanities, the social sciences, the sciences, mathematics and foreigh languages just like we do–they just called them different things.  Chemistry, biology and physics were called “natural philosophy” and “material philosophy” then, and “political science” was political philosophy.

The purpose of all this is not to turn people into “Renaissance men,” but to train their minds in much the same way vigorous physical training trains the body.  In fact, the Greek authors who first formulated the idea of a liberal education and commented on it, and the Roman authors who followed them, made this analogy repeatedly.  The idea was to get your mind in shape to do difficult intellectual work in the world, both in the conduct and management of your own life and in your goverance of your family and society.

The purpose of the study of a foreign language, for instance, isn’t to equip you to be able to speak whatever the hot language is this generation.  That’s not a bad thing, of course, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of the study of a foreign language is the make you better, clearer and more conscious in speaking your own. 

It is meant to force you to pay attention to the way in which grammar and syntax impact sense, the intricacies of nuance and connotative definition, the way language shapes thought.

For those purposes, Latin will do as well as Japanese–in fact, it will do better.  Latin is the language from which Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese evolved.   If you start with Latin, you will find those others much easier to learn if you want to learn them later.

But even if you never learn another language past the point where you can write simple paragraphs and read a few pages of not very complicated prose, you will have learned something about how langauge functions–how all language functions, even your own–in the only way that will ever make any difference:  by doing it.

AB complained about my statement that anything a liberal education needs to teach about science can be found in Francis Bacon, but it’s true.

The point in teaching the sciences is not that the student should know the second law of thermodynamics or the workings of natural selection.  The point of teaching the sciences is to make sure that students know what science is, know how it operates, know what separates it from non-science of various kinds, and know how to spot that something claiming to be science is not.

For those students not intending to go on to do actual work in the hard sciences, this is much more important that the law of conservation of mass/energy.  The sciences discover knew things and discard them all the time.  But the nature of science–what makes something science–is more or less constant.

And it happens to be the single thing we most need to know in order to navigate this particular culture at this particular time and this particular place. 

We are presented every day with claims from various quarters that they are giving us “science.”  We are asked to make law and court decisions and decisions about our personal conduct and the raising of our children, all on the basis that the advice (or directives) we are being given are “science.”

And most of what is being presented to us is not science at all.

People complain a lot about how Americans are anti-science, or are so stupid they won’t accept science–

But what is really happening is this:  they’ve been so inundated with claims of things to be “science” that are NOT science, that they’ve begun to suspect that the entire thing is a crock.

This was a perfectly predictable outcome of the relentless “scientification” of everything, but that is not actually the result that’s most dangerous. 

The really dangerous thing is the tendency of courts and lawmakers to accept the latest pseudo-science as science and impose it by law–twelve step “treatment” programs for “addictions’! bullies are bullies because they were bullies themselves!  the number of children with autism has been rising exponentially for the last ten years!

What’s more, “science” is often the excuse we use to make end-runs around the Constitution–you have the right not to incriminate yourself and your home cannot be entered by the authorities without a warrant, unless it’s Child Protective Services, which has to be allowed to do this, because it’s children, and abused children grow up to be abusers themselves.   Adults get to make their own decisions about how to run their lives, unless it’s about smoking tobacco, because that’s an addiction, and they’re not really making a choice, they’re just a victim of their uncontrollable impulses.

Never mind the drug war.

Francis Bacon was the first person to articulate what made what we modernly call sciences different from all the other kinds of philosophy.  He’ll do.

I’m always tempted to say that the reason a liberal education requires the study of the social sciences is to show how they are not in fact sciences–and, in a way, that’s true.

The vast majority of work in what we like to call the “social sciences” bears no relation to actual science at all.  Not only does it not require the same sort of rigor in experimentation, but it is often almost entirely normative. 

That is, it’s central purpose is often not to find out what is, but to justify what its practitioners have already decided ought to be true. 

In 1965, the American Pyschiatric Association declared that homosexuality was a mental illness that could be cured with therapy. Today, it declares that  homosexuality is perfectly normal and unchangeable.  Did it discover some new facts about human sexuality through experimentation and research?


It voted on the issue somewhere in the 1970s (I think), and when it found that a majority of its members believed (b), it went that way.

There is a lot going on in a situation like that, but none of what is going on is science. 

It would help us all a lot if we understood not just THAT some particular finding or the other isn’t science, but WHY it isn’t science.  Maybe it would help us the next time we were tempted to declare that “science” tells us that children should be protected from failure at all costs,  or that eight year old boys who can’t sit still in class have a ‘”disorder” that needs to be treated by hyping them up on amphetamines during the most crucial years of their physical development.

The other thing we can do, of course, is to study what the social sciences do well–and they do some things well–and why they do it well.  Aristotle would have recognized socioloy and anthropology, if not their pretentions to hard-science rigor.  He did a lot of both. 

In fact, all the ancient writers did a lot of both.

And “political science” may very well have been the first philosphy the Greeks ever invented.

Now I find that this has become very long, and it’s running more than a little late.

So I’m going to go off and finish that manuscript, and I’ll get to mathematics and the humanities (specifically philosophy, history and literature) tomorrow.

Written by janeh

September 19th, 2011 at 8:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Speaking With The Dead (The Defense, Part 1)

with 12 comments

So, I have been thinking about how to go about this, and it occured to me that we actually have two problems here, not one:

First we have the question of in what way the knowledge of in what way a thorough knowledge of the liberal arts (yes, including the hard sciences) is of value to the individual.

Second, we have the question of in what way the fact of such knowledge being in possession of a good number of people is of value to the rest of us.

The two questions are intertwined with each other and complicated in the extreme, and they’ve got multitudes of answers that, although not contratictory, are sometimes paradoxical.

So let me try to start with what seems to me to be the beginning, and barrel through to the end.

In the aid of actually getting somewhere, though, I’m not going to respond directly to comments until the exposition is done.

Or I’m going to try not to.

Me being me, there may be some backsliding here.

So let me start here:  the liberal arts (yes, including the sciences) are the record of human culture generally and Western Culture in particular.

Human beings have been alive on this plant AND able to write things down–as far as we now know–for about 7000 years. 

During this period of time, we have written down a lot of things–stories and poems, diaries and reports, histories and works of religion and philosophy.

We wrote them down because we wanted people to be able to hear us even when we weren’t that, across space (in another city or country) certainly, but also across time.

The liberal arts are what is left to us of all the generations that came before us, of all the men (mostly) and women who lived and tried to understand what it meant to live, what they should do to live well, what the universe was and if it had a purpose, if they had a purpose,  what evil consisted of, how hurricanes could be explained,  the nature (or even existence) of good and evil), what could be done to control chance–and a lot more.

The people who thought about these things and wrote down their thoughts and discoveries did so because they thought these things were vital to their lives, that they were not only relevant but the most relevant of all possible uses of their time.

And one of the things you discover when you start reading the old stuff is that human beings have changed very little in all this time.  We’re still asking the same questions.  We still need the same answers. We’re still the animal that cannot live well by instinct and sensation alone.

Sometimes, when I get through reading the posts that go “what value is it to the individual–will it make him more money?  will it make him better able to reach the top of his profession?”–my instinct is to go:  well, for a start, it will teach him that that is a mean and self-destructive standard of value to hold, and give him a few others for comparison.

As knee-jerk reactive as that response is, however, on reflection I find that it’s not that silly–that IS, in fact, one way in which a knowledge of the liberal arts

We have exactly one chance to live this life on this earth.  If we’re very, very lucky, we’ll get a full century with our minds intact.  Most likely, we’ll get twenty years less.

That’s not a lot of time, and the vast majority of us spend far too much of it frittering it away. 

You can, of course, fritter it away by caring for nothing but will make you money–large scale (a fortune) or small (a living)–or for what will bring you the temporary prestige of being the top of your profession.

Please note the NOTHING BUT–the qualifier is there for a reason.

Here’s the thing–I have seen people live their lives like that, and I have seen how they end, and I will guarantee you do not want to go there.   It’s an ugly thing.  And it makes no one happy in the long run.

But it’s not only individuals whose lives are corroded by this kind of thinking–society doesn’t do so well with it either.

And I think, right now, we are living in the midst of a positive orgy of people who think like this.   That’s why we have so many institutions–schools, hospitals, police departments, corporations–whose first answer to any problem is to engage in frantic and completely unprincipled self-preservation, at the expense of anybody or anything that gets in the way.

That’s why we have so many people who don’t care what they do–steal, murder, betray their friends, betray their country, screw donkeys in public–as long as it makes them some money and makes them “famous.”

That’s why we have so many people who accept and admire and envy the fame of people like Paris Hilton, Heidi Fleiss–and, yes, even Casey Anthony.

This is an objectively bad way for people to live, as individuals or as a society.  It makes no individual happy and it makes the society that individual lives in increasingly dangerous and hostile to his well being. 

And here’s the thing–we didn’t discover this with the rise of reality TV.  This particular approach to life has been with us since the beginning.  and the problems with it have been obvious to at least some people since the beginning.  Other societies in other places and other times have seen the rise of it and tried to cope with it.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. 

What’s more, other individuals in other times or places have run smack into that brick wall which is the only place such an approach to life leads, and they’ve tried to find answers to it, ways around it, and ideas and practices to escape it.  We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, either.

So the first thing–and the most important thing–a thorough knowledge of the liberal arts can give you is this:  the ability to read the sign, prominently posted, which says “cliff ahead!  stop now!” before you rush right over it and break your neck.

So I’ll start here.

There’s a lot more particular stuff to say about the value of the liberal arts to the individual, and how it will in fact make you a better doctor and a better architect and a better engineer, but this will do for a start.

But I’ll get to that tomorrow.

It’s Sunday, and I have tea and Frescobaldi, and Quintillian and Tacitus.

And a continual desire to own every single book in the Loeb Classical Library.

Written by janeh

September 18th, 2011 at 10:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

And One More Thing…

with 2 comments

Just another note–you wouldn’t have gotten a “freebie” in  introductory philosophy where I went to school, either.

It was divided into two semesters, 101 to 102.  There was–again–no textbook.

You would have read selections from the pre-Socratics, then all the dialogues of Plato, plus The Republic and The Laws (in their entirety), plus Aristotle’s Politics, Nichomachean Ethics, and Poetics, plus Cicero’s De Officiis, plus some Seneca, Augustine, Aquinas, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Abelard, Erasmus, More, Occam, Francis Bacon, Luther. 

And that was first semester.

You’d have had three short (about 10 page) papers and an ORAL final exam, at which you would have been required to first explain all of that and then illustrate the connections that made this an evolution (what came from where and why).

And the papers couldn’t be bullshit, either.  What were the practical social and political effects of the change in the concept of the human person between Aristotle’s Athens and Aquinas’s Rome?  Show how Bacon’s divorce of ethics from the scientific pursuit of temporal knowledge was related to Macchiavelli’s divorce of ethics from statecraft.


It’s not that most people these days are taught the humanities badly.

It’s that they’re not taught them at all.

Written by janeh

September 17th, 2011 at 9:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

So I get up this morning, and I get some work done, and then I look at the comments–and sometimes it seems to me that I go around and around the same things, over and over again, without anything ever sinking in.

But it’s Saturday  morning, and I have a class to teach in a few hours.  So I’m going to try to address the side issues, and then I’ll get to a defense of a liberal education, and then I’ll get to primary and secondary education, and then I’ll get to that thing about living more fully and nobly human.  That last thing is where I started.  It isn’t even about school.

First, to the vocational business–Charlou remembers a girl she knew who got a degree in journalism and–shock! horror!–couldn’t find a good job in journalism.

So I’ll say it once again–the dirty little secret of American higher education is that “practical” degrees are not practical.

There are certainly fields–certification for public education teaching, or nursing, for instance–where there is a set vocational path without which you can’t get hired to do the job, and wi th which you can.

But by and large, “practical” degrees are a trap.

I know more than a dozen people who worked at The New York Times, including three senior editors.  None of them–not a single one–has an undergraduate journalism degree. 

In fact, if you have an undergraduate journalism degree, the chances are that the Times won’t even bother to interview you, never mind hire you.  And that goes for the rest of the national news media.

What do they have?  Most of them have degrees in English.  The rest range from history to philosophy to economics. 

A couple of them did graduate work in journalism at Columbia–but only AFTER they’d been hired by a good newspaper, and then only when their employer was willing to pay for it.

In publishing, in journalism, in national magazines, in television, in radio, in movies–to the extent that you’re dealing with people who have degrees at all, they’re NOT “journalism” or “broadcasting” or “film” degrees.  They’re those useless ones you don’t see how anybody gets a job from.

The same is true, by the way, in business.  Companies do indeed hire undergraduate “business” majors–for middle management jobs that are dead ends in terms of going any higher.

When they hire for their promotional tracks, the ones that give you a shot of ending up CEO, they hire English, history, philosophy, sociology,  psychology, whatever.

This does not, by the way, have anything to do with the value of a liberal education.

It’s an artefact of the truth–which is that what matters in terms of a job after graduation is not WHAT you study but WHERE you study it.

The Ivy League/Seven Sisters/Little Three/Top Tier colleges and universities often do not offer “practical” majors.  At my old college, as I said, you couldn’t study business, engineering, nursing, or education.  You can do an MBA at Harvard–but there is no undergraduate business major at Harvard.

The national and international companies want to hire off the top tier, and they don’t really care what you’ve studied there if you studied THERE.

A major in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale will get a better job at General Motors than a major in business at SUNY-New Paltz.    And once those two get those jobs, the Yalie will have a shot at being promoted all the way to the top, and the guy from New Paltz will be slated to get stalled before he ever leaves his cubicle.

As to AB’s demand that I justify liberal studies–but not the math and science, because they could be remunerative–and Charlou’s complaint that we’re learning new things all the time and times change so you can’t have the same kind of education now as you did even 50 years ago–

Both comments misunderstand the nature and purpose of liberal education.

AB’s is the equivalent of demanding that I explain how to bake a cake, but leave out the butter and sugar, because those can be used for other things.

The underlying assumption of all liberal education is that all knowledge is part of a single whole–that each of the disparate parts hang together and cannot be without doing damage to your ability to understand any of it.  The point is not to study literature, it’s to study literature AND science AND mathematics AND history AND philosophy TOGETHER. 

If you’re not going to understand how all these things make one single whole and how each of the parts interacts with all the others–there’s no point in studying any of it, including the chemistry.

As for Charlou’s suggestion that this is all supposed to “enrich your life” or “make you a better person”–no, on both counts, although it might do either or both, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Nor is the point to try to stuff the student full of little facts, so that they know all about what chemistry has discovered up to now!  and physics!  and…

No, that couldn’t be done, and there would be no point to it.  When you demand that a literature major, or a philosophy major, or a psychology major study chemistry or physics beyond the introductory level, you don’t do it so that they know what cosmologists are thinking about the curved universe this week, and you don’t do it because they’re going to “use” differential equations in the grocery store. 

In a way, the St. John’s approach makes sense the IMPORTANT thing to know about the hard sciences was discovered by the time of Francis Bacon, and none of the progress on the ground since then has changed that one important thing. 

In the rest of the fields, however, the idea that we’ve made so much progress that everything is changing all the time is, simply, untrue.

Charlou tells me that we know a lot more now about HOW CHILDREN LEARN. 

Do we?

Are you sure?

I’m reading, at the moment, an excerpt from a long book about education by the Roman orator Quintillian (35-100).

 In the section I’m looking at, he’s discussing the theory that children should not be taught to read until they are seven, because before that their minds have not developed to the point where learning to read will be anything but a misery.

It seems I read an article about that–last week.  Same theory.  Coming up again.

Ah, you say, but now we have SCIENTIFIC proof of whether it’s right or wrong!

Do you?

I wouldn’t count on it.

What I would do is go off and give this lecture.  I’ll get back to this tomorrow.

Written by janeh

September 17th, 2011 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Bee’s Nest

with 12 comments

Okay.  It’s going to take me a couple of days to get back to where I started, which was about the aspiration to virtue.

And which, in spite of the fact that I used the word “education,” was not really about what goes on in schools.

The question is:  where to start on all this.

And I think that what I want to do is to get to Charlou’s concerns next time, and do the sort of boilerplate stuff with AB first.

So–to being.

I went to college for the education, not the credential.

AB says he’s never heard anyone include the sciences in the liberal arts.  I think he also said he’d only been out of college for a couple of years.

The two things go together.

Before 1980, it was automatically understood that “the liberal arts” included what we now call the sciences, and mathematics, as well as history, philosophy and literature.

It’s a very new thing to use “liberal arts” to mean “humanities.” 

I got a liberal arts bachelor’s degree in 1973.  In order to earn that degree I had to take:

1) Freshman composition

2) Three semesters in the Humanities, including one at the 200 level or above, NOT in the major.  (So, for me, none of these could be English courses.)

3) Three semesters of a foreign language at the 200 level or above, NOT in the major.  (So, if you were majoring in French, you had to take three semesters courses ABOVE the intro level in another language.  I did Latin.)

4) Three semesters of mathematics, including calculus 1, calculus 2, and a 200 level course above that.  (In that era, nobody taught calculus in high school.  It was the standard Freshman math course.  And there was no “math for idiots” available as an alternative.)

5) Three semester of lab science, including one at the 200 level or above.  (No “science for nonscience majors.”  Most people not in the sciences took intro bio, intro chem, and then a biology higher course, because everybody was afraid of the math in physics.  Once again, though.  These three could NOT be in your major, so if you were a bio major you had to take chem and physics or astronomy at the very least to fulfill this.)

6) Three semesters of social science, including one course at the 200 level or above, all NOT in the major. 

7) A set of courses for your major, which included a senior thesis–and they weren’t joking about the thesis.

8) A set of courses for a minor that related to your major (I did literature for a major and philosophy for a minor.)

That’s a liberal arts college education.  The “liberal” in liberal arts means “free.”   The liberal arts are those things we study for themselves, and not as a means to some other end.  They’re knowledge pursued for the sake of knowledge itself.  So chemistry is one of the liberal arts, but engineering is not.

Oh, and my college did not offer business of any kind, or education, or nursing.

And I believe you when you say that you took humanities courses to have an easy semester and raise you GPA. 

But had you taken a literature course at Vassar in the early seventies, you’d have been in for a lot of work.

For instance, in my 19th Century British Novel course, we were required to read complete novels by Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility and Emma), George Eliot (Middlemarch), Anthony Trollope (Barchester Towers), Charles Dickens (Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend), Thomas Hardy( Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles)–and I’ve forgotten the other two.  Ten in total over the course of a 16 week semester.

On top of that there was critical reading in scholarly journals in the discipline, and two short papers (10-15 pages) and one long one (20 minimum), plus a final exam.

The papers, by the way, couldn’t be blathering on about your opinions about what the novels meant “to you.” 

One of the papers I was assigned for that course was “the foundation of evil in the novels of Dickens, Eliot and Hardy.” 

Nobody came to the English department for easy courses with not much work and lax grading standards so they could bring up their GPA

For that, there was, at least theoretically, the Sociology Department.  I don’t know, because I never took a sociology course.  I stuck to Economics for my social sciences distribution.

When I talk about the humanities properly taught, I’m not talking about teaching methods–which I presume means things like lecture vs. interactive and that kind of thing.

I’m talking about focus, depth and approach.

The humanities properly taught are taught in a way that makes clear their part in the whole of liberal learning, how it all hangs together, and taught with enough rigor so that students know what the academic field is all about.

In most of the colleges I see, the humanities aren’t taught at all.  “English” is either straight composition with no literature, or, if literature is on offer, it’s an in coherent smattering–a couple of short stories by Hemingway, a poem by Matthew Arnold and another by Robert Frost, a really modern something about eating disorders or racial profiling, all mushed together, without there being much of it, and requirements limited to a couple of 5 page papers where the student is urged to explain “what this means to me.”

Is this a waste of time?  You bet it is.  Is the ACTUAL study of the liberal arts a waste of time?  No.  It’s one of the most valuable ways you can spend any of your time at all.

This is an approach I like, existing now:


It’s not perfect, and I’ve got my quibbles with some of the sequences, especially in the sciences–but they’re at least attempting to do it right.

By the way–the people I went to college with were not, by and large, trust fund babies.  Over 70% of them were on financial aid.  And yet they all graduated and either entered professional schools (law was a biggie) or got jobs, and the vast majority of them are doing better than four-fifths of their fellow citizens. 

Then, on a note–yes, as a matter of fact, assuming that both parties to the transaction are engaging in the trade without compulsion–that is, that the surgeon is making his money because individual people are individually willing to pay  him, and not because I’m being taxed to pay for Joe’s liver–then as far as I’m concerned, there is no reason why the amount of money he makes shouldn’t be infinitely higher than anybody else’s.

I do think, however, that this is rather a straw man–for a number of reasons, no such infinite difference can ever occur.

I’ll get to high schools, grammar schools, and who gets the “opportunity to go to college” later.

Written by janeh

September 16th, 2011 at 11:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Interim 2–Ooops, I Forgot

with 5 comments

Sorry.  Second post for the day, but I’m a little addled.

I didn’t say that the value of things is determined by how much money–or how many people–are willing to pay for it.

I said that in any society in which individuals get to decide for themselves how to spend their own money, there will be inequalities of income–and likely vast inequalities of income.

And that will be the case even if nobody acts like an idiot–if everybody gets up every morning, goes to work, stays out of debt and all the rest of it.  Some people will simply have skills their fellow citizens value over the skills of others. 

People do, of course, make bad choices all the time.  But I’ve never seen a system that relies on anything else BUT allowing people to make up their own minds about what to value (and therefore what to pay for) that I like better than this one. 

I am more than happy to put up with the people who insisted on buying pet rocks–and who turn people like Paris Hilton into celebrities–in order to be left alone to make my own valuations in my own way on my own time.

Written by janeh

September 15th, 2011 at 11:22 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

It’s a kind of crazy day, the longest one I have in the week, so these are just some notes on the comments.

1) It’s my fault that I wasn’t explicit about this, because I haven’t talked about it earlier, that I know, but–the “fuller and more nobly human life” is NOT a life spent in study and scholarship.

I think the ancients and many of the cultures since were wrong–I think that not only can the mechanic and the farmer and the merchant live that fuller and nobler life, but that they’ll have an easier time doing it than any scholar would.

That life is not a matter of learning philosophy and history, but of practicing virtue.

And yes, I know that’s a can of worms, but I will get to it in a day or two.

2) I don’t understand why I have to care about HOW CHILDREN LEARN if I’m NOT TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN.

Virtually everything I say here about education has to do with college students, not fourth graders.  Surely, at twenty, we should all be past that “if it’s not relevant to my life, I don’t care!” bit. 

Beyond that, I worry about high school–but there, again, we’re NOT TALKING ABOUT CHILDREN.  

At sixteen years old, most people have the right to marry, and at eighteen–when lots of them are still in high school–they have the right to vote. 

About the lower grades I have only this to say:  the material used in whatever teaching method is decided on should provide knowledge of things like American history and classic children’s stories so that the references are available so that later, when the come up elsewhere, they won’t be totally unfamiliar.

That said, as far as I know, the tests for NCLB do not include American history or government, basic geography or any of the other things we usually considered part of K-8 education in the old days.

And I agree that Charlou’s model of teaching sounds awful, but I wasn’t talking about teaching methods.  And the “it’s not relevant to their lives” thing leaves me cold.

My model of education for the lower grades would be this:  decide what you want students to learn.  Teach it to them in whatever way seems best to teacher.  BUT–if they don’t learn it, they fail, and if they fail there are consequences, including staying back, not being allowed into college, not being employable. 

That is, I think, the best that can be done.  I don’t expect that they’ll all learn it.  So what?

3)  On AB’s post–a couple of things.

First, I expect that the humanites AS HE’S BEEN TAUGHT THEM have been a waste of time.  But we talk about that a lot here. 

The issue, however, is not the humanities as they are now taught, but the humanities as they are PROPERLY taught, which is something else altogether.

4) On the rich and smart thing–the phrase is “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” 

And my late husband’s very working class family (shop foremen and union workers every one of them until my husband made the break for Syracuse) definitely think there is a connection between being “smart” and being rich.

What they DON’T think is that “smart” is the same thing as what their schools said it was.

What they do think is that what schools call “smart” is really irrelevant and stupid, and nothing to do with REAL intelligence at all,  which is proved not by being good at school but by being able to function well in the world. 

5) That whole post is a testament to what I’ve been saying all along–that the liberal arts (which means not just history and philosophy and literature, but chemistry and physics and mathematics) is no longer being taught AT ALL.

Nobody knows what they are, or what they mean, or why they need to be seen as a whole. 

And being half-taught and taught piecemeal, they are indeed a waste of time.

But the real liberal arts are the one necessary thing.

And I’ll get to all of that–and the practice of virtue–at a later date.

Written by janeh

September 15th, 2011 at 9:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bach in the Background

with 11 comments

I know it’s not Sunday, but it’s the last calm day I’m going to have this week, sooooo…

I’ve been reading the comments lately with some bemusement–I think we’ve now seen the expression of every single known political point of view in the comments, at least over time, if not consistancy.

But it all sort of feeds into what I’ve been reading, so I’ll go from there.

One of the things that strikes me about reading through the Greek and Roman authors in excerpted in The Classical Tradition is this:  there is an enormous amount of stress placed on the idea it is not possible to be fully and nobly human if you must spend your life engaged in commerce or toil.

This is not a particularly unusual sentiment in the history of the world, and it is not peculiar to Western civilization.  You can find it fully operative in African tribal cultures that have not yet emerged fully from the bush.   It is the destructive poison at the heart of many cultures around the world, where physical work is left to the women while the men sit around in cafes most of the day, drinking coffee and arguing about politics.

The men in the cafes are not by any stretch of the imagination of a high social class.   In places like Rhodos and Samathraki, they tend to own small businesses largely run by their wives–shops selling sweets and newspapers and tourist souvenirs and the endless little map books that are supposed to tell you how not to get lost in a country whose alphabet you can’t decipher.

Men of high social class in these places do not live in village, and do not spend their day in cafes. 

If there is a case for American exceptioinalism, it starts in the assumption here that there is something wrong with somebody who does not work.  Even our upper classes feel the need to show that they “do” something, even if that something bears little relation to work as defined by the mechanic down the street.

To say, however, that inequalities of income arise here from the inculcation of “class” in schools and communities is, I think, not true.

In the case of the surgeon–I don’t think he’s worth more money than I am because he’s “smart,” but because he can actually do things that keep people alive and that I cannot.  People want to stay alive, and they’re willing to pay quite a lot of money to make sure they do.  They are willing to pay more for that than they are to get their car fixed, for instance, or to have a nice handbag, or even to keep their homes heated in the winter.

And that being the case, if we all started off materially equal tomorrow, and thoroughly embued with the idea that nobody is worth any more income than anybody else–the good surgeons of the world would have much higher incomes than most of the people around them within the year.  There would simply be more people out there willing to give them money–and a lot of it, if that was what it took to get the service–for what they do.

Other people are worth very little, but worth it to a lot of people.  Stephen King, for instance, isn’t “worth” a $5 million advance–he’s worth $7.99 to each of five million people, who find that a reasonable price to pay for a paperback copy of one of his books. 

Numbers like that add up, over time. 

As long as people are free to choose what to spend their money on, there will be inequalities of income for reasons like this–and there will need to be no inculcation of class attitudes by the educational system or anything else to get us there. 

Which is not to say that such inculcation does not occur.   Of course it does, but I don’t think it does it by convincing people that they’re not smart and therefore have no right to higher incomes.

In my experience, schools that deal principally with students from middle-middle class backgrounds and lower tend to do nothing at all to indicate why people in higher social classes will make more money than they do.

In fact, they do so little to explain or excuse such a thing, they don’t even bother to indicate that there might be something going on at the school up the road that isn’t going on at their own. 

Most such students finish high school firmly convinced that “education” is a scam, that it’s all bullshit, that there’s no actual content to most of the “subjects” they have to take.  They do, indeed, think the doctor deserves to make a higher income than they do, but that’s because they see the practical utility of what he does, not because they think “smart” automatically should be paid more.

In fact, in quite a few cases, they think “smart’ deserves to be paid less–they see very little reason or justice in handing a ton of money to stock brokers or the people who run the banks.

On the other end of the class scale, there is certainly a tendency in some “elite” schools to push the study of the liberal arts as a kid of fashion accessory. 

There are remarkably large numbers of people in this world who will quote Aristotle and  Keats to you in that smug little way that shows that they may have read the stuff, and they may have remember a fair amount of it verbatim, but they have absolutely no idea what any of it means.

I spent most of my adolescence pining for the day when I would be able to escape from people just like that–and others who knew nothing about things like literature and art and philosophy and therefore decried it all as bunk–

I would be able to escape from such people into a world where there were other people who got it, who loved it the way I loved it, who just wanted to be in the middle of it to be happy.

It was one of the great disappointments of my life that what I found when I got to that place–and the exact place; I was three years old when I saw a picture in the Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia of Vassar College and decided I wanted to go there–

It was one of the great disappointments of my life when I got there and found most of the same learning-is-a-fashion-accessory people I’d been trying to escape from.

Except, of course, I also found other people.  They were a minority, but they were there.

I don’t much like schools.  I’ve said here, before, that there’s something about the structure of them that works against what I really want, which is a country with many people in it who do get the point, who understanding that learning is valuable in and of itself, even if you never “use” it for anything; but who also realize that it is not possible to fail to use it, because it is the most useful of all things.

One of the other themes in the excerpts from the classical authors I’ve been reading these past several days is this:  that being human in the fullest and most important sense is an aspiration, something to be worked at and lived up to.

The Greeks said that human beings were creatures half  gods and half beasts.  St. Paul said that human beings are each and every one of us not only the image of Christ but the rightful inheritors of his kingdom.  Psychology says that we are all creatures of our habits, our emotions, our whims and our desires, and that it will kill us if we don’t “express” “ourselves.”

I don’t care about schools.  I do care about a world where people know that humanity is one of the things that can be chosen, and in order to get there I need every person to have a basic competence in things like reading and writing.

Which leaves me back to not knowing how I want education to be worked out.

Written by janeh

September 14th, 2011 at 10:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Forever in the Wings

with 8 comments

So, it’s Sunday, and as usual on Sunday I am pretending to take things slowly.  In a minute or two I’m going to go off and listen to Frescobaldi.  Maybe.  I’ve got tea, anyway.

I’ve been thinking, though, that all the talk about education is a little odd.  I know it doesn’t seem odd, because these days we tend to put a lot of our aspirations and our fears into “educating” people, presumably children, but also young adults and sometimes even older people.

What’s odd is the enormous percentage of life this thing called “school” has become in the United States at least, but I tend to think also in other industrial countries.

I was brought to that thought by my living room book.  I don’t know if you have living room books.  I usually don’t, because I like to start a book and finish it before going on to something else.  Unlike some of you, I don’t usually do that thing where I have three or four books going, one for home, one for bed, one for taking to work and reading at lunch.

Living room books are books that are too large and unwieldy for me to carry around comfortably.  A while back–hell, might have been a year ago–I was reading a book on Renaissance Italian art that was sized like a coffee table volume, so that just getting it out of the house and into the car became a problem.  Carting it around to classes with four heavy textbooks and a stack of student folders was impossible. 

When I have living room books, I read them when I’m home, and have something else–usually something light–for taking with me when I go.  The living room book at the moment is called The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means To Be an Educated Human Being. It’s edited by Richard M. Gamble, who holds a chair in History and Political Science at Hillsdale College in Michigan.

For those of you who don’t know Hillsdale College, you can go here:


It’s self-consciously conservative, self-consciously Christian, and has one of the stronger core curricula in the liberal arts of colleges that are not actually Great Books programs.  Its great drawback is, yet again, the squidiness on evolution, caused almost entirely by a reaction to the strident insistence that Darwin proves that God does not exist–sometimes I think Dawkins has a lot to answer for.   Squidiness or not, it has a nationally recognized biology program and graduates who  major in biology at Hillsdale go on to good graduate and medical schools.

It is also one of about five colleges in the country whose students cannot get Pell Grants or federally guaranteed student loans, in spite of being fully accredited.  That’s because it refuses to install affirmative action programs of any kind or to open its admissions processes to anybody.

The book in question is not a book about the Great Tradition.  It’s a collection of readings from many authors over time, starting with Plato and going through Xenophan, Isocrates, Seneca, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory the Great–right down to Michael Oakeshot and Dorothy L. Sayers.

That makes it better than usual for a living room book, because it means I can pick it up, read through one of the selections and finish it, then read my carry around book without that nagging feeling that I left something half done somewhere else.

And the book has been interesting in a number of ways, not the least of which has been in introducing me to work by Xenophon (especially) and other classical Greek authors that I knew nothing of.   Like most people who have not had a “major” in classics, the only Xenophon I knew was the text of a book about a war that is the standard for first translations in Introductory Greek classes.  I never knew that he wrote about education, or that he was a student of Socrates’s and wrote about that, too.

But what really has kept striking me over the course of this book is this:  through most of history, “education” has been something you got before you were, say, 16.  After that, you had a life.

In other words, school was a very small part of anybody’s life.  It was certainly not the defining environment of childhood and adolescence, and it surely did not extend into ones twenties.

Some of you are probably jumping around out there going: yes, but back then there was a lot less to learn.

And, in one way, this is true.  The Greeks had nothing like the mountains of technical knowledge about things like medicine, engineering, or even plumbing that we do.  Even history has more in it than existed for Isocrates. 

But vocational training programs are not quite the same as school–or at least don’t need to be.

And the Greeks, the Romans, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, actually taught the students they did teach more about history, philosophy, and art than we do now, except for a small minority at specialized private schools.

But it’s not just what we do or don’t do that bothers me about this, it’s the assumption we make–that school should take up huge swaths of a child’s or adolescent’s time, that school is somehow “naturally” the place where such people will spend most of their time, and that school should make up the second-largest (if not the largest) experience over the course of a single life.

This is, I think, quite frankly crazy.

Somebody once posted to the comments here the idea that most people had made up their minds about their philosophy of life and the general tenor of their politics by the time they were 21, and I objected that I did not think that was true of me and that I didn’t think it was a good idea.

I’ll stick by that.  I think that everyone should be testing and searching ideas continuously through a life.

But doing that on your own with books and discussions is not the same thing as going to school.  It’s not education in the same way that taking a course is, or earning a degree.

One of the hallmarks of that kind of education is submitting oneself to a system with very specific characteristics:  It is a system where the student is always in a position of subordination to the teacher, and where rewards and punishments are determined by that teacher, often on no set or clearly construed criteria.

One of the advantages the Greeks had over us in the matter of education was that there was very little relying on the fact of it alone.  A Greek boy sent to be educated by Socrates who refused to study anything and made a nuissance of himself might get beaten by his father when he got home, but it wouldn’t have anything to do with the work he did to make his living afterwards.  Socrates insisted that education should be first and foremost education in what was useful, but that wasn’t the kind of useful he meant.

Robert Nozick thought that an exclusive (or near-exclusive) habituation to the culture of schools was  what made intellectuals, who were successful there, so consistently left-wing.  It wasn’t that they were indoctrinate in left-wing ideas.  It was that they came to long for a world that always operated on the same principles as a school.

The article is here


if you want to check it out.  I did post the link a couple of years ago, so you might already have seen it.

I wonder if there isn’t something else going on, if the enormous amount of time we now require nearly all our young people to spend in schools isn’t driving real kinds of arrested development.  What, after all, is the whole Jersey Shore/Bad Girls Club/Flavor of Love phenomenon but a gigantic cultural return to high school, complete with gossip, drama over trivialities and in and out crowds?

Maybe the reason I sometimes feel as if this entire culture has become nothing but one big high school–who’s got the most expensive bag?  who’s breaking up with who? Paris! Paris!–is that I’m looking at the generation that never really left, and maybe never will leave, because they spent so long in that one place.

Okay, this is a little heavy for Sunday, but you see what I mean.

Written by janeh

September 11th, 2011 at 10:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Friday Night Fights. Or Thursday.

with 19 comments

I have one of those schedules this term that could only have come about if I was paying no attention when I set it up–or when I let other people set it up for me, which is closer to the reality.   Whoever is to blame, I have ended up with a situation where I come in before eight in the morning on Thursdays, teach and office hour and do other things of supposed academic importance until nine o’clock at night, get home around ten, get to bed around midnight, get up around four, and then teach another class at eight o’clock Friday morning.

Then an odd thing happens–I have all the rest of the day after 9:30 in the morning free.   I do have to teach again on Friday afternoon–yeah, yeah, I wasn’t paying attention–but the rest of Friday is open. 

And, of course, what I normally do on Fridays after teaching is to sit down with a book, determined to get some serious reading done.  And then I fall asleep.

I didn’t quite do that today, because I’ve found myself caught in one of those weird whiplash things where a part of your life that you truly thought you were over and done with suddenly comes out of the atmosphere and hits me on the head.

One of the first things I ever did on the Internet was to join an e-mail discussion group called Sechum-L, run then by the Council for Secular Humanism.   I’m not going through the intricacies about how this discussion list morphed over the next ten years or so.  Let’s just say the sponsorship changed, the list blew up a few times, and I don’t know what else happened.

I do know that in the end I left.  And I left for a reason–because I had gotten completely sick of the everlasting tendentiousness of what I have heard other people call “atheist fundamentalism.”   I am not sure it is intellectually coherent to use “fundamentalistm” in that way, but I do know what people mean when they use that particular term.

A good example of it is Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great:  How Religion Ruins Everything.  In that book, a man who is usually among the most coherent on earth says so many things that are completely and utterly idiotic, it’s like he took idiot pills every day before he sat down in front of the typewriter.

I want to make it a point, here, that everybody on Sechum-L was not an atheist fundamentalist.  In fact, I met quite a few of my Internet acquaintances there, and some of them post to this blog now and then.

The problem is that getting started with an atheist fundamentalist is like getting started with any other kind of fundamentalist.  What seems on the surface to be an argument is really a psychodrama.  Fundamentalists (of all stripes) are like people who deeply and viscerally hate one of their parents, and who are determined to grow up to be nothing like them.

If the pain and anger are deep enough, then the urge is to deny that the hated parent had anything at all to do with your being who you are today–nope, nothing, everything the parent was was bad, and everything you are you made on your own, with no help from that.

The problem, of course, is that it won’t work.   If your grandfather was a convicted pedophile child rapist, and you are (to your credit) not, the fact remains that you could not be who you are today if he hadn’t been who he was first.  That is the way that works.  His genes have been in part passed down to you.  You are who you are because he was who he was.

Atheist fundamentalists have the same kind of problem with Western Civilization, because Western Civilization was, for over 1500 years, largely both religiously and culturally Christian. 

A great many ideas that we take for granted as “our values” were discovered or developed by Christian thinkers, who based their evolution of those ideas on Christian principles.

This is the kind of thing I tend to think ought to be obvious to anybody who has ever picked up a Freshman Civ textbook, but I have learned over time it is not true.

Most people have no idea where “their values” came from, or how they evolved, or on what principles they are based.  And atheist fundamentalists are like Christian fundamentalists in that neither wants to know.   As long as they don’t know, they can go on declaring that none of THEIR values has ever had anything to do with that other, yucky side.

The pit I fell into–only for a moment, I promise, I am not going to get sucked into this–started innocently enough.  I still hear from a number of the people from when I was on the list, and one of them is this guy Phil, who for some reason always writes to an old e-mail address that I keep but haven’t used for years.

An e-mail appeared on that address yesterday that said it was from Phil, and when I opened it contained seemed to contain a forwarded message from the Sechum-L list.  Thinking I was responding directly to Phil, I sent back an e-mail that said “I didn’t known Sechum existed any more.”

Well, it turned out that Sechum did exist, and it was sending e-mails to this old address–but I hadn’t noticed them, because there were nearly none.   The list had exploded, and was now nearly defunct–but the operative word was “nearly.” 

And I had just sent back an e-mail to the list.

Now, that’s a far as it needs to have gone, except that I’m me, and I can’t help myself.  And the next item that came across the bow was an e-mail by a poster I don’t know about a course on war giving by the US Military which had been shut down after complaints from nonreligious servicepeople that it was using religious materials, including work from Augustine and Aquinas on Just War Theory.

I did pay some attention to this at the time it first came out, but not a lot.  I did ask some people in my family who are in various branches of the service what it was all about, and I was told that the course tried to cover the history of the way we have thought about war, and included people like Clauswitz and Sun Tsu as well as the Augustine and Aquinas thing.

So when the next e-mail on that account was a little rant about how the military was trying to force “religious dogma” down servicepeople’s throats–I just exploded.

What I said was, again, the kind of thing I would have thought unexceptionable in the years before I found the web.  The history of Western Civilization is, for better or worse, largely Christian over the single largest expanse of its history.   To say “government entities” cannot teach the intellectual and artistic history of that period of time is to say that no government-funded form of education, for the military or for your local public schools, can ever be first rate.  Stopping a “government entity” teaching about these things does not secure or enhance anybody’s rights, not does it advance any cause any sane person would want to be part of.

Then I said that I would not bother them any more with any of this, and that I was going back to real life.

I got a response from the original poster to the effect that I just wanted to hold to my ignorance and aggitate–so that obviously I must be a “tea bagger.”   This is not the kind of thing I find difficult to ignore, as I tend to think that people who resort to that sort of language are, you know, adolescents.

What got to me was a post that came in a few hours later, from a poster I had known when I was on the List, to the effect that it was too bad that we had to be saddled with all that stuff, and it was probably nice to know the history, but what we really needed now was to ditch that and concentrate on teaching our military leaders and others real and valid forms of reasoning.

And I just sat there.

Some of you on this blog get angry with me about the way I want to see education run.  You tell me I’m only interested in education for trust fund babies,  or that I’m being irrelevant, or some kind of elitist, or something.

But there–right there, in that post–is why I want everybody I can get my hands on to get a complete classical and liberal education.

Because I literally, and I do mean literally, do not know what to do with a statement like that.

For what it’s worth–Just War Theory is, first, not “dogma” for anybody.  It was an attempt by writers over time to reconcile the idea of war with the basic Christian message, which isn’t easy to do.

It began first with the idea that not all wars were just, and not all wars were therefore allowable under Christian morality–some wars, in other words, were evil, and therefore sin.

That in and of itself was a step in the right direction, especially coming out of the sack of Rome and the long period (leading up to Aquinas) of wars whose only justification was rape, plunder and conquest. 

Just war theory went beyond that, however, to posit that soldiers, in order not to sin while conducting war, had responsibilities in their relations with noncombatants and each other.  These included things like NOT raping the local women, and keeping prisoners and captives adequately fed and housed and not under painful physical duress.

The line from there to the Geneva Conventions is a long run that winds through Kant and Hegel and Liebnitz and a lot of other thinkers who would have defined themselves as at least basically secular–but it is a line.

We are the people who invented those particular rules for war because we are the people who had Just War Theory in our intellectual history.

And Just War Theory is in our intellectual history because Christianity is in our intellectual history, because Christian thinkers through the middle ages assumed it was a fact given to us by God that every single human being, rich or poor, smart or stupid, male or female, Christian or not, was a temple of the Holy Ghost whom we were bound to treat as “another Christ”–that is, whom we were bound to treat as well as we would treat Christ if we met him on the road.

I do not want everybody who can to have a classical and liberal education because I’m some kind of elitist snob who doesn’t really consider the fact that some people need to make a living.

I want it because to leave the fate of the Geneva conventions–or freedom of religion; or the acts of corporal charity–to people who know as little as this is about as safe as giving a paranoid schizophrenic a suitcase nuke and letting him loose in Times Square.

In the meantime, I am trying to be good.  I am trying to remind myself that this is the same man who refused to speak to me for two weeks after I said that even if there was a worldwide environmental crisis, “cleaning it up” was only one possible choice of what to do about it–and the man who, having finally been convinced that universities were enforcing draconian speech codes, refused to talk about them, period, because he just wasn’t going to deal with that.

If I can stay off the other e-mail address, I should be fine.

Written by janeh

September 9th, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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