Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Objective, Subjective, Educated, Dumb

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Let me try backtracking a little and see if I can make myself clearer.

I was NOT trying to assert the superiority of the Ivy League over all other American colleges and universities–although for one reason or another, that’s what always ends up being under discussion when  I try to bring this up.

What I was trying to point out is this:

In this culture, at this time, “Ivy League” is used as a code word for “well educated,” and it is BEING WELL EDUCATED that a big hunking minority of us resent.

Whether you actually get well educated in the Ivy League is another question, and I even mean to get to it later, but at the moment, it’s not the point.

The point is this:  why do so many Americans seem to think that being well educated is a BAD thing?

And my point about Sarah  Palin is this:  whatever else she may be as a person or a politician, she seems to be on the Republican ticket at the moment BECAUSE  she could not in any way be mistaken for being well-educated. 

It’s this, this hatred and revulsion at education, that strikes me, continually, about this culture at this time. 

Of course, we talk endlessly about “education,” and we even claim to support it, but what we actually support is training.  Going to college is supposed to be about getting to “be” something–a doctor, or a nurse, or a social worker, or a lawyer, or even (in one of the places where I have taught) a garage mechanic.

But this is not education, and at one level or another I think we know it.   Education does not give you practical skills for the marketplace.  It introduces you to what one of the literary critics of the 1950s called The  Great Conversation–the history of ideas in the West, what those ideas were, what they are, how they have affected us.  

In Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, the librarian accosts the hero, Brutha, when Brutha wants to take out a pile of books.  “Why those books?”  the librarian demands.  “They teach you how to be a plumber,” Brutha says.  The librarian holds out a different stack of books:  literature, philosophy, history.  “These,” the librarian says, “teach you how to be a human being.”

My apologies to Mr. Pratchett.  I’m always getting my copy of that book stolen, so what I just did up above was from memory.  But I got the gist of it right. 

Unlike being a cat, or even a dog, being a human being is a problem that every one of has has to resolve one way or the other.   That’s not the same thing as saying it’s a problem society has to resolve-I think that I could make a good case for there being one, and only one, answer to the question “what does it mean to be human?” for societies.  One of the advantages of the Great Tradition is precisely that we can test ideas against their historical consequences, and for this particular question and its answers we have more than we need to connect the dots.

But for individuals, the “meaning” of life, the way it fits, the way we fit, even what it means to be a “decent human being” is more complicated than quantum mechanics and a lot more likely to get us into trouble.

If you’re part of a religious tradition that answers these questions for you, maybe you can drop out of the conversation, but I don’t it.  At least in the West,  even devout religious believers have found themselves taking part in the arguments, discussions, and, yes, the art that asks the question and tests the answers.

Augustine did it.  Aquinas did it.  Kant did it.  Matthew Arnold did it.  Even Freud and Marx did it.

They left for us a record of their ideas, and history has left for us a record of what has happened when people have adopted their ideas, or tried to.  To be educated means to become part of that conversation, to be able to situate yourself in it.  It means to be able to reference it when things turn up that seem to be “new.”  It means to know what is actually “new” and what is really something old dressed up in modern rhetoric.

Hell, some of the recycling of ideas over the last forty years hasn’t even bothered to go in for modern rhetoric.  It uses the same old same old, and it gets away with it, because too few people are actually educated, and know what they’re seeing.

Robert complains that there’s nothing “objective” about philosophy because we haven’t decided that Aristotle was “right’ and Plato was “wrong” or vice versa, but we still study them both.

But that misses the point.

First, because what he’s asking for from philosophy is not objectivity–which just means that the standards by which you judge something are not something you invent but something you discover–but certainty.

Second, because objectivity in this cases means not deciding if Aristotle was “right” and Plato was “wrong,” but first and foremost in deciding whether Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Hegel, produce work that rises to the level of philosophy, which is the application of reason to the human condition.

As opposed to, say,  Chicken Soup for the  Soul.

Or just about anything by Sam Harris.

Reason is not the same as “thinking,” nor is it the same as “not religiously based.”  Thomas Aquinas applied reason to the human condition just as much as Aristotle did. 

Reason is not “written in complicated language practically nobody can understand,” either.  Which is why  Heidigger produced philosophy–bad philosophy, that is bad for us, but maybe more on that later–but Sartre did not.  Being and Nothingness is, at best, derivative (and of Heidigger, yet), but at worst it’s gibberish, and politically dangerous gibberish at that.  There was a reason Albert Camus refused to call himself an existentialist.

Once we’ve figured out whether or not we’re actually looking at philosophy,  the next question–also possible to investigate objectively–is whether or not the work in question has influenced other philosophers and societies and how and when it has done so.

We can see the influence of Aristotle in medieval Europe, for instance, not just in the sillinesses that sometimes passed for knowledge (the whale is a fish), but in an entire approach to politics, ethics and morals, and science.

When Aquinas “Christianized” Aristotle, he brought into the culture the idea that it was not only possible, but necessary, for human beings to investigate the world around them “by reason alone”–that is, that man could, and should, study nature on its own terms, without the help of revelation.  Revelation was forever afterward to be relegated to the purely religious.  Revelation would tell us (and reason could not) that Christ died for our sins, but we could discover how the blood circulated in the body and even what it meant to be a morally good man “by reason alone.”

It is, to this day, a dogma of the Catholic Church that any human being, making use “of reason alone” and a good conscience, can discover God’s moral law without being exposed to revelation of any kind. 

We can go in to whether or not this is true at some other point, my point is just that the second question we ask about philosophy is whether it has had a long term impact on the culture and what that impact has been.  With Aristotle, the impact has been long and very complicated, but without it there would have been no science as we know it.  

In every other civilization on earth, the workings of nature were supposed to be a religious question, or completely irrelevant to anything any sensible person would think about (the “life is an illusion” of some forms of Buddhism).  Only where Aristotle had an impact did men being to investigate, experiment, and test in the way we now call “scientific.”   Polio vaccine, jet airplanes, the Empire State Building, central heating–it’s not an accident that they happened here and nowhere else.  It’s the direct result of a specific set of philosophical ideas.

Of course, those same ideas have had other results as well, and some of those are not so good for us.  They can be catalogued and examined, too, and the catalogue and examination can be entirely objective.   It is not “just a matter of opinion” that investigating nature on nature’s terms brings many benefits to human beings.  The only “subjective” element comes in the ability to delare (in contradiction to reason) that it is not “beneficial” to human beings to be protected against dying of polio at six or of cold in the winter at any time of life. 

And the fact that human beings can do this–that they can deny reality with conviction if they want to–dos not make the investigation of philosophy as described above any less objective.

Education makes you an active participant in the  Great  Conversation.  It does not make you a morally better person, all by itself.  It does not increase your IQ or decrease your golf score.   It simply makes you aware of where we’ve been and how we’ve gotten there, and of the full range of human possibilities, both good and evil.   It leaves it up to you to decide what to do with what you know.

It is, however, the single most vitally important set of knowledge you can have, and to live without it is to live always in the danger of recreating the mistakes and the evils of the past, and of wasting the one life you have on trivialities and worse.

What I’m objecting to in the marketing of  Sarah Palin is not that she didn’t go to Yale, but that she PRESENTS HERSELF as ignorant and proud of it.

If she was just ignorant, she wouldn’t bother me half as much.  

But that thing–that “Look at me, I’m ignorant–that makes me better than you!  I’m stupid–that makes me better than you!”–which is, in fact, the subtext of the entire Palin campaign, is something worse than actually being either ignorant or stupid.

I’ll try to get to just what tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 25th, 2008 at 7:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Objective, Subjective, Educated, Dumb'

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  1. Let me see whether I’ve got this straight. “Objective” in certain subjects only, doesn’t mean “demonstrable and subject to disproof” but “agreed upon by the practicioners of that discipline” or, since there is scarcely complete unanimity, “true as decided by the majority of the (self-selected) leading lights.” Why do I keep thinking of central committees at this stage? Or union plumbers decying plastic pipe? I think you need a word other than objectivity, and a gadfly beyond my level–Ambrose Bierce, perhaps

    And you are not claiming that the student of art, philosophy or literature is a better human being in a moral sense–THAT silly notion died with the Third Reich–or even more competent in public policy–Jefferson killed that. Listening to Wagner will not keep them from stuffing the death camps, studying Plato will not avert the destructive labor and re-education camps, and a taste for classical art won’t avert horrendous mistakes in foreign policy, or looting the public till. These studies make me a better human being in ways only other members of the elect can see. Yet they’re not cultural choices, which may legitimately be mocked–Death to Fleetwood Mac!–but far above that. Smart people read LEAVES OF GRASS: dumb people learn how to track elk, and if you prefer tracking elk to reading Whitman, you’re either stupid or pretending to be so.

    I seem to be back in high school. I really hated high school.

    And yes, I’ve put history to one side. I DO believe the study of history is objectively valuable for public officials, and should be the proper study of all citizens in a democracy. But I also note that the leading lights of the Democratic Party have been contemptuous of it, and even made up false histories as they went along without provoking any outburst from you. So perhaps “recreating the mistakes and evils of the past” is OK if you’ve read Sophocles? Or act as though you always meant to read Sophocles?

    This still feels more like a demand for respect or deference than a consern for competence. My concern is not with how many paths a man is aware of, but whether he chose the right ones.


    25 Oct 08 at 9:00 am

  2. I think the point is, Robert, that without that awareness of what paths there are, and what the implications are, you can’t evaluate them and choose very well.

    I just posted in response to Cheryl’s response to yesterday’s blog entry (whew) that the difference seems to be whether decisions are made deliberately and with thought, or whether they’re reacting to stimuli. That may not be exactly correct, but if you lack the wherewithal to analyze and evaluate a situation, how do you make that decision?


    25 Oct 08 at 10:44 am

  3. I’m not sure I can follow Jane’s argument. The brutal truth is that Australian media coverage of the US is limited to 1/2 page in the newspaper or 5 minutes out of a half-hour TV news show. And even that is biased and very selective.

    But Australia has an anti-intellectual tradition of its own which is expressed in the phrases “the chattering class” or “the Chardonnay set”.

    I do not pretend to be a “typical” Australian and my reasons for disliking “the chattering class” may not be those of a taxi driver or a check out chick.

    But, long ago, I was taught that an intellectual system with contradictions is a disaster. If you allow both P is true and P is not true in your system, then anything can be proved and nothing can be trusted.

    So consider one of the currently popular ideas in the Australian media. The aborigines (indigeneous inhabitants) should be left alone to solve their own problems. Fine, but there is also an idea that Aborigines are citizens of Australia and entitled to the same benefits as all other citizens.

    Now here is something that happened in the 1970s. A 16 year old Aborigine girl showed up at a police station and demanded protection from her tribe.

    The problem: Her father wanted her to marry a 50 year old man. The traditional tribal punishment for refusal was gang rape.

    How do we respect Aborigine law and custom and also give her her rights as an Australian citizen? (in the end, she was made a ward of the court.)

    Why is it that the people who ignore the obvious conflict always seem to be “well educated” in the Liberal Arts?

    I don’t trust the “intelligentsia” because time after time, I have seen them make disasterous mistakes by following their hearts rather than their heads.


    25 Oct 08 at 5:37 pm

  4. I agree with jd in that I sometimes distrust the ‘intelligensia’ because I’ve seen the experts screw up more than once, and I’ll add that I’ve also sat through too many lectures expressing ideas I consider ill-advised if not idiotic (although most of those were probably by people who have university degrees of the newer type and not people educated in the sense that Jane would like).

    But to get back to Robert – ‘My concern is not with how many paths a man is aware of, but whether he chose the right ones.’

    How do you know the choice is right if you don’t know at least some options? How do you get to know not just the choices, but the possible ramifications of the choices unless you read and listen to other what others have believed on the subject – and what their reasons were, and how their choices worked out? OK, I’m edging back into history here, but it works in *everything*. If I’m facing some kind of moral decision, or a puzzle over how to handle some difficulty, I can do a lot of things. I can write Dear Abby. I can talk it over with a friend. I can talk it over with a professional. I can think about it – and if I think about it, I can use information from all those sources, and all the ones I’ve read and learned. I have more options. I still might choose one that will lead to disaster, but personally I’d rather have access to the options/ideas, the views of lots and lots of people through the centuries than limit myself to my own personal experiences and memories. I don’t see why learning so much about what so many people have said about being human should be considered suspect, as it appears to be in the US.

    And it should be quite possible for someone to be good at tracking elk and also good at enjoying some form of art or philosophy. They aren’t mutually incompatible.



    25 Oct 08 at 6:36 pm

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