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I got up late.  Well, latish.  For me.  And I’m feeling better, so I have my fingers crossed.

But I just wanted to jump in on three points.

First, I’m sure there really are cases out there where kids are so extremely jumpy and distracted that we’re looking at an honest  problem in mental functioning.

I’m also sure that those kids never comprise a quarter of any middle school, or over half of all males in any middle school–numbers Connecticut got quite close to in the 1990s. 

A lot of this was definitely driven by parents, as I’ve noted here before.  Upper middle class parents are on a crusade to make sure they never have to accept the unpalatable news that their offspring are…well…not exactly academically inclined.

This is a group of people in a generation of people for whom “smart” was the most important thing, and “smart” meant “good at school.” 

What’s more, these are people who believe in setting goals and doing everything possible to go after them, and who are convinced that if they do that they will always succeed.

When junior arrives on the scene more interested in Monster Trucks than getting into AP Calculus–well, that won’t do, there must be something wrong with him. 

And, you  know, if that was all it was–parents going nuts on this level–I’d feel sorry for the kids and let it go.

But the fact is that once the fad got started, the teachers got started with it, and it suddenly became fashionable to “diagnose” any kid not behaving the way teachers wanted him to.  And I  want to stress the “him.”

And even then I would be okay with it if it had not come to attempts by the school to threaten and bully parents into putting the kids on Ritalin whether the parents wanted the kids to be on it or not.  The threats and bullying were not idle.  They included being reported to Child Protective Services for neglect–he needs medicine and the parents are withholding it!–and quite a lot of other nastiness.

The second thing is that when I said “lecture,” I was using a code for a larger problem.  I don’t mind actual lectures, myself.  What I do mind, and what I’m increasingly beginning to think is counterproductive, is this:

It doesn’t matter what the “subject” is.  You go into a classroom and sit at a desk.  The teacher outlines material in the front of the room.   She asks questions of the class and the class raises its hands and tries to answer them.  There are right and wrong answers about everything, including things it is not actually possible for anybody to know the answers to. 

Then papers are assigned, and everybody writes one, five to ten pages, with a works cited list.  They have to get their topics approved first.  Their topics are things like “Guilt and Innocence in Crime and Punishment” or “Plato’s Concept of the Good.” 

At the end of the term, there is an exam.  It’s probably an essay exam.  It asks things like “Compare and contrast the concept of the ‘social contract’ in the works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with all that–except that it’s the only way we ever teach anything these days. 

That is, assuming we teach it at all. 

I tried to outline a pretty good approach, here.  I’m just complaining that it’s the only one we use. 

It’s not the way I got into the Great Conversation myself, and I don’t think it’s the way most people actually get into it.  What they do, instead, is start asking the questions and then stumble across the fact that other people have been asking them for a long time. 

To me there seems to be something almost perverse in the idea that you can use the great conversation as the basis for credentialing people to–what?  Go to law school?

Like I said, we’re so used to the idea that this is how we learn and teach things, we don’t realize that there might be other ways of doing it that do NOT entail this scenario. 

And I can see why a fair number of people who are in fact interested in the Great Conversation might not be interested in doing that kind of thing.

Third, there’s that thing about “arriving at a satisfactory philosophy of life.”

I’ll have to say that not only have I never done that, but that I’ve never been interested in doing it.

I don’t want to find a philosophy that’s satisfactory, or satisfying, to me.

I want to know what is in fact objectively true.

Written by janeh

November 14th, 2010 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Lectures'

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  1. ” There are right and wrong answers about everything, including things it is not actually possible for anybody to know the answers to.”

    That had been my conclusion in school, but I understood it to be BAD teaching, and not inherent to the program. Or am I misunderstanding something?

    I’d have said the lecture and question method wasn’t a bad way to start, and the five to ten page paper wasn’t a bad way to verify that the student could derive meaning from the material–but they both wear thin with repetition.

    As for philosophy and truth, good luck. I’d have said that knowing all the “is” answers was not the same as knowing all the “shoulds.”


    14 Nov 10 at 11:51 am

  2. And Robert says:

    >>>As for philosophy and truth, good luck. I’d have said that knowing all the “is” answers was not the same as knowing all the “shoulds.”

    And I say–sure it is.

    If I know the laws of physics and how those laws work in the world of concrete, earth, etc.

    Then I can derive the following: How SHOULD I proceed to build a bridge that will stand up and carry the loads I want it to carry?

    The laws of physics are the objective basis for the rules of engineering.

    The rules of engineering are, in fact, a series of contingent “shoulds.” I’ve just derived “should” from “is” with no problem at all.

    The real problem here, the one that everybody keeps stumbling over, is not about particular rules or even their objective basis.

    It’s about the teleology–why build a bridge? Why not build a house? Why not build a bridge meant to fall down?

    And those questions have no more “objective” answers–and no less–than questions about morality, the meaning of life, etc.

    Yet they are entirely objective, and entirely objectively based.

    I still say my bottom line is this: no double standards.

    If there can be no objectively determined truth in philosophy because somebody, somewhere can always have some other goal besides this one–to die instead of to live, or to cause pain instead of prosperity–

    Then there can be no objectively determined truth in engineering, either.

    After all, somebody could always decide to build a bridge that falls down.


    14 Nov 10 at 4:21 pm

  3. Jane wrote:

    “It’s about the teleology–why build a bridge? Why not build a house? Why not build a bridge meant to fall down?

    And those questions have no more “objective” answers–and no less–than questions about morality, the meaning of life, etc.”

    I think this is a false dichotomy. Of course the bridge/house questions have objective answers. One builds a bridge to fulfill the need to get over the river. The need to get over the river is also objectively based…there is food, or living territory, or a raw resource over there that will make life better, or possible. The need to live is the most basic need. Very few people, even if they cannot answer the question “why live?” will choose to stop. We also build bridges nowadays to make a commute shorter, but that’s just an extension of the basic need.

    One builds a bridge that won’t fall down if one decides to use it more than once. Or a house, if one decides that a particular spot is a good one to live in. There isn’t any “why” about the choice between, either. The purpose of fulfilling the need informs the choice.

    And then she said:

    “After all, somebody could always decide to build a bridge that falls down.”

    Yep. We do this all the time. When the purpose is singular, or the need is fleeting. Span a river in flood, or lay a bridge for invasion, but deny it to the enemy if they should win…lots of reasons. So what? Once again, the need informs the choice. If we decide moving something over a wetlands is necessary, but we don’t want to disturb the wetlands permanently, we’ll build the bridge, and then take it down.

    But the need to live doesn’t really inform us HOW to (or how we SHOULD) live, whether in family groups or public crechés, whether we are monogamous or are promiscuous, whether we eat dogs and cats or keep them as pets.

    The expression of individual morality all over the world is so varied, while deriving from the same need to live, I’m not sure there can be a single objective declaration of SHOULD that gets from reality to morality.

    “You SHOULD eat” is so far away from “You SHOULD eat meat” that I don’t see how you can get there from here.


    14 Nov 10 at 4:47 pm

  4. >>>The expression of individual morality all over the world is so varied, while deriving from the same need to live, I’m not sure there can be a single objective declaration of SHOULD that gets from reality to morality.

    In my favorite period of history, sane human being built buildings with “flying buttresses.”

    Do you know why?

    Because they couldn’t figure out how to get the walls of their great cathedrals to stand upright. So they built them with these massive outside bulwarks to keep them in place.

    There are varied ways of getting tall buildings to stand up–in fact, ways more varied than I’ve hinted at here.

    Does that mean that there is not “single declaration of engineering” that will get us from “want to build the building to stand” to “SHOULD do in order to get the building to stand”?

    No. There is indeed a single optimal answer to that question.

    The fact that people have different ideas about X does not mean that there is no truth about X, it just means that some people are wrong, and others are only partially right.

    As for “the need to live”–pace Ayn Rand, but I don’t think that’s the question that morality answers.

    As for eating meat…well, it depends on what you mean by a reason for it.

    Nutritionally, I can make a good case (with no moral overtones at all) for man as an omnivore and the eating of meat as necessary to optimal healthful human body functioning.

    And if I define my goal as “minimizing the pain of conscious creatures” (as Sam Harris does) I can get to SHOULD NOT eat meat in no time at all.

    It is, as I said, the teleology that’s bothering people, not the rules.

    The rules are all objectively based, in every version above–all that changes is the goal of the project.

    Just like the engineering rules change depending on whether you want a bridge to fall down, to last for centuries, or to be a house instead.

    But the rules remain objectively based, and we STILL derive the should from the is, every time.


    14 Nov 10 at 4:59 pm

  5. Okay, here’s the thing.

    In order to get me to accept the idea that there can be no objective basis for morality, and no objectively based moral rules

    You have to come up with a reason that you will apply to EVERYTHING. That is, a single standard you are willing to use every time it appears in a problem.

    So, if there can be no objective basis for morality or objective moral rules because lots of different people have lots of different ideas about what is moral…

    …then there can be no objectively based cosmology because lots of different people have lots of different creation stories…

    …and there can be no objectively based rules for building buildings because there are lots of different takes on that, too, even on building tall buildings out of stone as a subset…

    I can do this with virtually every other argument anybody here–or anywhere I have ever seen–has ever come up with about the possibility of objective truth in philosophical questions.

    And it’s all nonsense.

    It’s an attempt to rationalize treating philosophical questions different than any other kind of question.

    But the same rules should apply, not different ones. And the same scale for evaluation should apply as well–that is, philosophical questions should not require any MORE certainty than any other scientific questions.

    Because philosophy started out as a science, and all the sciences we now have started out as philosophy.


    14 Nov 10 at 5:17 pm

  6. I think we have a vocabulary problem here rather than a real dispute. It is precisely the teleological problem I referred to as the “should” and Lymaree seems to be taking the same approach–we are not questioning that there are principles of personal conduct and social rules which can be understood by investigation and reason. We are saying that the ethical endpoint which determines which rules to follow is another matter.

    I would have said that this was beyond where reason unaided can take us. Jane must, by her beliefs, believe there is a natural explanation for all objectives, but that’s not quite the same thing. I can perfectly well understand why I want to do something without feeling that it’s the right thing to do.

    Jane, over to you. Does unaided reason in your view give us an objective, or only tell us how to achieve one?


    14 Nov 10 at 5:49 pm

  7. Yes, there’s definitely an vocab difference here – if I say ‘should’, I don’t mean ‘If you want a bridge to cross that river you must do Y. I meant the teleological stuff.

    And I think you’re almost veering into scientism. The ISN’T one optimal way to build a bridge. The BEST way, at any given time in history, depends on the technology and materials available, the amount and type of traffic you want the bridge to bear, the knowledge of stresses etc the amount of money available for construction and maintenance, the decision to go for something that’ll withstand a hundred-year storm or somthing that’ll survive the winter.

    Scientific knowledge isn’t actually absolute; it’s tentative. I think I was interested by science because of the appeal of absolute certain knowledge of the world. I was horribly taken aback when I discovered that the first model of the atom I was taught was ‘wrong’. Then I found the next one was ‘wrong’ too, and the one after that. Finally, I realized that no one yet knows what matter is. We have increasingly complex models of atoms and subatomic particles that can be used to answer increasingly complicated questions about the nature of matter – although for everyday work, quite simple atomic models provide useful tools.

    So even science doesn’t provide certain knowledge, and when it does state something with certainty – normal water always consists of two parts of hydrogen to one part of water, it isn’t saying water SHOULD be like that, it’s saying ‘we have observed that it is like that’. And it’s not really providing an ultimate description of the nature of water – or of hydrogen and oxygen, for that matter.


    14 Nov 10 at 6:10 pm

  8. Cheryl has a good point about there not being one optimal way to build a bridge.

    The fundamental equations of physics have an infinite number of solutions. You need to impose boundary conditions in order to get a unique solution to a specific problem.

    Engineers can ask if a given design for a bridge will take the stresses imposed by the load. But there may be maany possible designs, there doesn’t have to be a unique design.

    One objective fact about humans is that human children take a long time to mature. If a society is going to survive for more than 1 generation, it must have some way of seeing that children receive years of care. But there doesn’t seem to be a unique way that all societies have adopted.


    14 Nov 10 at 10:50 pm

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