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Dead Horses

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So, the first thing th is morning, I got up, logged on, and found Robert’s last comment on yesterday’s post–and I had an epiphany.

My real problem here–the point I keep failing to get across (and not just to Robert, although he’s the most articulate about this particular set of objections) is so basic, it never occurred to me that there was an issue on that level.

So let me try to restate the case a little better, and then I’ll see what I get from there.

The object of education is to know this civilization as completely and comprehensively as it is possible to know it.

That’s it.

It’s not to be a better person   It is not to be a better citizen.  It is not to be able to do the math on your tax returns or combine the proper chemicals to blow up your lab.

It’s to know. 


Robert complains that if I want to teach economics the way I teach physics and chemistry, then I have to “get rid of the dross.”

But he’s got it backwards.

I want to teach chemistry and physics the way I teach philosophy.

I want to teach the sciences as HISTORICAL disciplines, to teach the sequence and the history of scientific ideas, just as I want to teach the history of philosophical ideas.

And that especially goes for biology.  Biology taught as an historical discipline would most definitely contain an explanation of various forms of creationism over the centuries, as well as Aristotle’s works on natural history and everything in between. 

I’d be willing to be that at the end of such a sequence of study, you’d have far fewer creationists than you do know–and what’s more important, far fewer people who go to school board meetings going, “well, it’s all a matter of opinion, isn’t it?”

And I would have fewer such people precisely because I didn’t approach the teaching of biology as “this is right, this is wrong, that’s it.”

I’ll say it again–what you want is catechism, or Sunday school, a set of “right” answers that students are then drilled to accept and “wrong” ones they’re drilled to reject. 

But that isn’t education either.

And, in fact, it leaves out all understanding of how people can believe the wrong answers, what the history of the wrong answers was, why they were attractive and to whom.

It doesn’t matter a damn if you’re influenced by books on the “required reading list.”  It DOES matter that other people were–that the US Civil Wat would have been a different thing without Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that the Communist ferment of the Thirties would have been a different thing without hundreds of Workingman’s Clubs reading Les Miserable, that the present day tea party movement would be a different thing if it had not been for both the book and the movie of Gone With The Wind.

The issue is not whether or not narratives are historically accurate, but whether or not they have been socially compelling.  It would be really nice if we all knew the Historical Truth about the Civil War, but you ask then people on the street about the Confederacy and you’ll get Margaret Mitchell almost exclusively. 

Knowledge is indivisible.  And this civilization–more so than any other–is a process, and only by understanding the entire process can we understand it.

That won’t mean that we won’t decide to reject our understanding and run off after a fantasy.  It won’t mean we won’t ditch the obvious–that vaccinations are neither witchcraft nor the cause of autism–in favor of something that makes us feel better.  It won’t mean that we’ll be good people.

It will just mean that we know.

And I think knowing is valuable in and of itself.

In fact, I think it’s the most valuable thing.

And now I have to run off and get my hair cut, because I’m speaking at the public library in Glastonbury tomorrow afternoon.

And about murder mysteries, too.

Written by janeh

April 10th, 2010 at 7:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Dead Horses'

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  1. You’ll be gratified to know, Jane, if you don’t already, that your message above is for all practical purposes the same as that in Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book, The New Vichy Syndrome which I’ve just finished and heartily recommend. One of the many salient points he makes about history and people’s knowledge of it or, these days, their lack of knowledge, is that what is important is not so much what happened in the past but what people believe happened. Thus, for example, it doesn’t matter that the British settlers never destroyed the Tasmanian aborigines by genocide or even by more limited massacress. That train left the station long ago when the post-modernist historians argued in chorus that what happened was genocide. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, and not even Keith Windschuttle with his voluminous works destroying the post-modernists in detail, will likely be able to stop that runaway myth within this or probably the next several generations.


    10 Apr 10 at 8:42 am

  2. Well, you’ve put “this civilization” where Lewis or Chesterton might have put “God,” and I can’t say it’s a notable improvement. And you’re quite right, of course, I don’t regard knowledge of a civilization as an obvious intrinsic good, requiring no further justification. I will go to my grave never understanding pottery sequences properly and not bothered by it a bit. You yourself value understanding certain aspects of a civilization more than others. When you explain to yourself why, you may want to hedge the object of education a bit. For that matter, you might ask yourself what Aristotle would have made of such an objective as yours.

    As for reading books because they once influenced people, why stop at books? Attitudes come from many things–the conditions of life in farm and factory, weather and disease. We could duplicate much of that, but we mostl don’t. We describe those things, and go on. Life is short, and there is much to learn. If a book can’t earn its keep TODAY by reaching ME, than it deserves, at best, to be noted in the history texts. Subjective, I know, but literature, like music and art, is a very subjective thing.

    As science is not. There are facts, from gravitational attraction to DNA, there are hypotheses drawn from these facts, and there is a whole separate world of “ought” and “should” which science only touches in places. Science can express an opinion on whether this or that behavior can be suppresed by an environment or bred out by genetice. It CAN’T tell you whether or not that would be good. “Good” isn’t a scientific word.

    But it’s an important word nonetheless. Which is why the things we know and how we know them–physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, economics, history–go in one stack, and our opinions of what is good and how people ought to conduct themselves go in another–not to ignore them, but to study each with the appropriate tools, and suitable respect.

    Mixing opinions and facts won’t get you a salad or a stew. It will get you an inedible mush. And I’ve already had a few courses of it, thank you.

    Time for breakfast.


    10 Apr 10 at 8:51 am

  3. Okay, a couple of things.

    First, I really, really, really, really don’t think that it should be necessary, after all this time, for me to specify that when I’m talking about civilization, I’m talking about the life of the mind–not about farming or mining or even cleaning house.

    I don’t want to know “just some things” about civilization–I want to know about civilization. Men and women farm and keep house and even mine and hunt when no civilization is developed.

    It’s true enough that civilization cannot develop unless our basic needs our met, but meeting them does not comprise civilization. And we share our basic needs with every other animal, very closely to at least some mammals. Civilization is about what is uniquely human.

    As for facts–yes, there are certainly facts. But I don’t think you can understand them fully unless you have all that other stuff you think is negligible.

    One of the reasons we have such problems with Creationism in modern society is that students are told “science is about finding natural explanations for natural phenomena,” but not WHY that’s what science is, where that idea came from, what its history is.

    And because they don’t know those things, they often find the explanation simply arbitrary–there’s no reason for it, so it must just be some prejudice against religion, maybe.

    The same is the case when we talk about “rights.” Since they don’t know the history of the term, or of the idea, they can see no reason why it shouldn’t mean a “right to health care” or a “right to education.” And when we say that’s not what the terms means, we sound merely arbitrary.

    Whether you like it or not, you can’t really understand what was going on in ancient Greece if you don’t know the Iliad and the Odyssey and Sophocles and Euripides. And no matter what the facts are, if that’s all you know, the behavior of the present population of Australia is going to be completely inexplicable.

    As for what Aristotle would have thought of my approach to education–who do you think I got it from?

    The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake–not vocational, or religious, or ideological, or instruement–

    The pursuit of knowledge in order to know is a hallmark of Western Civilization from almost its beginnings. It predates Socrates and Plato by at least a few hundred years.

    And, in fact, it has been the understanding of educatin right up until about after WWII, and even then it held on in a lot of places. It was certainly the understanding of education when I went looking for colleges.

    Granted, that was back in the Pleistocene, but you see what I mean.

    You say you have no respect for that kind of thing–I have no respect for anything else in education.

    Or rather, I grant the needfulness of the utilitarian, but I think it’s a second-rate form of learning, the bronze medal of intellectual life, instead of the gold.

    Education, Aristotle said, is the learning proper to free men–and he did not include in the category of “free men” any man who focussed his life on what Wordsworth would have called getting and spending.

    That wasn’t because he despised the ordinary work of the world–he didn’t–but because he found a strictly utilitarian focus necessarily narrowing and ultimately enslaving of the mind.

    A thousand years after Aristotle died, the Catholic Church would take up the same argument, urging even peasants and laborers to spend at least some of their time concentrating on the things that fed the soul–and they didn’t mean just prayer and fasting, either. That’s why the Vatican looks the way it does, and Medieval cathedrals were built the way they were built.

    Knowledge–meaning the knowledge of what is particularly and peculiarly human, what it is that makes human beings not “just another animal”–is not just A good in itself, but THE good in itself.

    It’s the most important ability we have, and the most important gift we can give to children.

    If I had my way, we’d go back to the days when nobody got to be a doctor or a lawyer unless they’d spent four years on the life of the mind FIRST.

    It would save a lot of trouble.


    10 Apr 10 at 12:10 pm

  4. Jane,

    I’ve been spending too much time in hospitals lately and its been born in on me that if you want good medical care when you are 70, then you need to train new doctors and nurses when you are 40.

    We do have to train the younger generation so that they do not starve after we are gone. I think I understand what you want but I don’t see how to do it and provide the necessary training without making high school 6 years and a BS or BA 6 years. Frankly, I doubt if most students would be willing to put up with that.


    11 Apr 10 at 12:09 am

  5. One more time. The classic Greeks who were interested in history were under no illusions that it began with them. Augustine and Aquinas knew they were part of something broader–overlapping with the West, but not identical with it. To begin with Greece would surprise the first group. To restrict youself to Western Civ would disappoint the second. Matthew Arnold might buy off on both, but much that you comprehend under literature and music he would not have taught and would have seen no need to teach.

    And it is the pride and glory of the West in its periods of greatness to be more interested in what is true than in recapitulating what has been previously taught. Courses on what has been previously said about a subject belong in the Hellenistic Age–or in China, just before the fall of a dynasty.

    As for what makes a civilization, I think you’ve got it exactly backwards. The hallmarks of a civilization are generally held to be agriculture, metalworking, writing and government–which is why we have four centers of civilization: the Aztecs never develop writing, and the Mayans and Incas never make it to bronze. Apart from government, it is the dreaded techne which identifies civilization. Your obsession is with culture, which is different. Art, music and fictional narrative are well within the capacity of the uncivilized. They sort us our from the beasts, but not from the barbarians.

    You can make a case for self-knowledge as an ultimate good. But you’re not calling for that. What you’ve described is a really intense Western Civ course. That’s worth having–but as a means and not an end.


    11 Apr 10 at 5:49 am

  6. Okay. I need tea

    But–first. When I say “the history of art,” by “art” I mean music, painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction, and all the rest of it.

    And note, I specifically said the HISTORY OF art.

    Matthew Arnold may not have accepted Jane Austen, but if I was living in the 1920s, I wouldn’t have accepted Hemingway, or James Joyce–they’re just too close in time.

    Second–the life of the mind is knowledge acquired for its own sake. It’s an ends, not a means. Anything that is a means to another end is, by DEFINITION, not the life of the mind.

    Third–we did a perfectly fine job (or at least a closely approximate one) doing what I’m talking about in a four-year high school and four year-college career. The Brits did it with a six year secondary (starting with the US seventh grade) and a three year college career.

    At that point, people went off and trained to be doctors and lawyers and research scientists and whatever without a problem, and right on schedule.

    The only needful thing here is to actually DO it. What our high schools, colleges and universities do instead is require a bunch of disjointed stuff without any rhyme or reason (those are the “good” ones) or make themselves over as centers for majors in “business administration” and “video production technlogy.”

    Fourth, I’ve tried to stay off the thing about “other things besides the West!” as long as I could because it’s silly, but let me go back and try it.

    I’ve said nowhere in here that anybody should study NOTHING BUT the West, or that we should not acknowledge that there was a big civilization (properly called, in my terms) between the Tigris and the Eurphrates.

    What I have said is that the focus of an education should be Western Civilization, and it should be–

    Not only does it belong to us, but the entire concept of “the life of the mind,” of knowledge for its own sake, originated here. There are entire civilizations–all the Islamic ones, for in stance–with no concept that even vaguely matches it, although they certainly had and have scholars and wise men and artists and magi.

    The life of the mind is here. It originated here, and to the extent that it exists anywhere else it is because it travelled FROM here. If I want to teach “the life of the mind,” then I must, of necessity, teach Western Civilization.

    I am, at the moment, in the middle of an intense fascination with Indian–meaning Indian from India–civilization. I’ve been reading through the Upanishads, the Rig Veda, and this immensely long epic poem whose name I admit I can’t spell without going off to find the book.

    A thorough immersion in the life of the mind did not close off such interests for me–if anything, it encouraged them. Nor did such an immersion require giving me the idea that such other civilizations did not exist. Qute the contrary.

    If you look back on the best experiment in training young men in the life of the mind before sending them off to do work in the real world–the England of the Empire–you can see without trouble that such training in fact expanded their interest in other civilizations. It did not shrink it.

    Sixth, you’re using an anthropological definition of civilization. I am not.

    But even on your own terms, what I remains valid. Yor hallmarks of civilization include WRITING–that is, something only human beings do or are likely capable of doing.

    I’ll reiterate–the reason farming, for instance, is not part of the life if the mind is that the life of the mind deals with what human beings and ONLY human beings do and what they do ONLY in civilizations.

    All animals must get their food and and find or construct their shelter. But beavers build dams–building is not, in and of itself, peculiar to human beings. And the earliest farming communities, no matter how assiduously they practiced agriculture, had none of the hallmakrs of civilization in the classic definition of the word–which included government, the arts, writing, and religion.

    I’m going to go listen to something soothing before I have to give this talk, which is on “Killing People for Fun and Profit.”

    There’s an idea for this morning.


    11 Apr 10 at 6:49 am

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