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Archive for September, 2011


with 5 comments

So, I’m going to try to calm down here.  I got up very late (for me) this morning, and I’m feeling a little frantic.

Today I don’t have the time to write this, since I’ve got to teach almost immediately.  Tomorrow, I’m going to have the aftermath of today.

But let me try to outline where we’ve gotten so far, as far as I am able.

The purpose of a liberal education is to form free men–to make us self-governing people in two senses of the word (that we can control  our own personal habits and actions, and that we can participate in the governing of our city-state/nation/whatever).

That has been the rationale for a liberal education as far back as there has been any form of it.  It’s a Western-only phenomenon, and at Western-only cultural ideal, but in the West it has never been anything else.

Over the years, specific Western societies at particular times have had different ideas of the content of such an education, but the content has always fit into a few broad categories.  History Philosophy Literature Mathematics.

Philosophy, to the ancients, included what we now call the biological and material sciences (and astronomy) as well as things like ethics, logic, and politics.   From the Roman period onward, literature has always included both the study of at least one foreign language.  For the Romans, it was Greek.

The Greeks, Romans and Middle Ages put a fair lot of emphasis on the study of music, which they justified as a form of studying mathematics.  After the Enlightenment, music faded out in favor of increasiningly more sophisticated levels of pure mathematics itself.  AB would like to change the emphasis on higher math in the Sixties and Seventies to one that included and possibily stressed statistics and probability.  He could do that, but the broad category (mathematics) would not have changed. 

So that’s where we start, at the purpose for which a liberal arts education was invented and and its content and persistance over time.

At that point, you have no idea IF I agree that that purpose is really what a liberal arts education does.

But you also have no idea if I DON’T agree with it.

I was getting to it, really, but in the world from which I come, you FIRST provide an unbiased and untendentious account of the situation you’ll be discussing and only THEN do you start throwing your personal opinions around.

I’m sticking to it.  I think it’s a good and sensible way to proceed, and better than any of the other methods I’ve run into, lately or otherwise.

Where I seem to have suddenly gotten into trouble was when I started in on trying to take these two claims–a liberal arts education will teach us to be a self-governing people, with government over ourselves and the ability to participate in our government–and take them apart, and see if they actually did what they claimed to do.

I started with the “control of ourselves” thing, because I have always thought that this was where the claims of a liberal education are weakest.

They’re weak, I think, not because a liberal education in particular is weak on this count, but because ALL education is weak on this count. 

The claim that by education we can form the characters of men didn’t start with Aristotle, and it didn’t stop with him.  It’s the reason for anti-bullying programs and diversity training seminars even as we speak. 

All teachers, all over the world, at all times, seem to think that “education’ is the key to controlling behavior.

Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s ever worked, and I don’t think it ever will.  I do not think that character is changed by education alone, no matter what kind the education is.

I don’t think that’s how character formation works.

This is not a flaw in the theory and purpose of a liberal arts education. It’s a flaw in the theory and purpose of almost ALL kinds of education.

I then tried to outline what I thought education COULD do about character, and why I thought a liberal arts education was uniquely good about doing it. 

I also noted what ought to be obvious.  Men and women do develop good character without a liberal arts education, or any education at all.  And men and women do develop a bad character with a liberal arts education, and with all the other kinds of education besides.

Education–any kind of education–will not guarantee character in any direction at all.

Lack of education–any kind of education–will not guarantee character in any direction at all.

But I do think that education can certainly HELP in the formation of character, and that some kinds of education are better at helping build good character than others, just as some others are better at building bad.

And what I started out trying to do, in that last LA post, was to outline what this was and why it was helpful.

I also tried to point on the ways in which this advantage would be of value to an individual living now.

I did not say that this particular value to the individual living now was the only possible value any individual at any time could derive from a liberal arts education, nor did I say that this particular value was restricted to people who lived in the therapeutic culture. 

I gave a specific example for a specific time and a specific place. 

I did not say that this example exhausted the possible examples for this time and place.

I did not say that this example was unique in any sense, or that other examples of the same advantage (the ability to understand that we have defined “human” in radically different ways at different times and places and that the definition of “human” in this time and place is neither set in stone nor necessarily a good idea) couldn’t be produced for people living at other times in other cultural definitions of the human.

I just did as I was requested, and pointed out a value a liberal arts education COULD have to an individual living now.

I’ll try to get back to this later, when I’ve had a little time to breathe.

Written by janeh

September 29th, 2011 at 10:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Okay, I Really Can’t Help Myself

with 7 comments

But just so you know I’m paying attention.

The following:


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


is NOT a claim about the value of a liberal eduction.

It’s a statement of fact–this is what a liberal education is designed to do.  This is what was meant by that designated purpose.

It gives no indication at all–or any claim to know–whether it actually works. 

Although it’s rather clearer when you don’t cut out what’s in the ellipses. 

And this:

>>>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 governance of your family and society.”<<<

is ALSO NOT a claim for a liberal education.

Note the form:  “the idea WAS–”

In other words, all it is, again, is a report on what, historically, a liberal education was designed to do.

And it gives you no idea whether I agree with it or not. 

Reporting something is not the same thing as agreeing with it, adopting it or proposing it.

And the real post is right under this one.

Written by janeh

September 27th, 2011 at 10:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

He Who Dies With The Most Toys Loses (The Defense, Part 8)

with 3 comments

Let me get something straightened out here before I go on, because it may clear up some of the confusion:

AB is quite right.  IF I was trying to suggest that there should be a national policy mandating a liberal education for all, or nearly all, THEN I would need to prove at least some of the things Charlou wants me to prove.

But I’m NOT suggesting that.  You can go back and look.  I’ve never said a thing about intalling a liberal education as policy.

And I won’t.

For what it’s worth–I don’t like national educational policy no matter what it is.  If it were up to me, I’d abolish the Department of Education and go back to allowing every individual school district to set its own policy on almost everything, and that includes curriculum.

And yes, I know that lots of districts would make decisions of which I would not only disapprove, but also be fairly convinced were stupid, dangerous, and wrong.

It’s back to that democratic principle again–and no, by “democratic” I do not mean the mob rule of “pure” democracy.

That having been said:  AB said at some point that the defense of the liberal arts he found most promising (interesting?) was that it might make us better–I assume morally better–human beings.

“To make us virtuous” has been one of the standard defenses of a liberal education down the ages, and very far down the ages. 

It was, in fact, the whole point for the ancients, and for most of the middle ages.   And it persisted as the major rationale into the 19th century, at least. 

It began to recede as a rationale after that, and I think there were several reasons for that.

The first is and should be obvious–it is not the case that all educated people are virtuous, or that all uneducated people are not. 

In the ancient world, when few people were educated, this was less obvious than it got to be later–but it got to be at least by the early middle ages, and the disconnect between virtue and education became more obvious in a world where the dominant narrative was about a bunch of rude fishermen led by a carpenter who was the  most virtuous human being ever to have walked the planet.

What’s more, the founders of the new Christian schools and academies, and of the first universities, were painfully aware that Christians could not and should not take “Greek learning” wholesale and without questioning.

In spite of what you’ve been told,  Medieval universities did not present Aristotle and company as Great Minds who could never be questioned.  (That’s another part of the Enlightenment narrative). 

Anyway, there are whole swatches of Aquinas, Augustine, John Chrysostom, et al, that warn against the Greeks for their apparent fascination with the dissolute and prurient and insist that students be taught to question and refute plausible sounding rhetoric that sounds as if it’s teaching virtue but is instead teaching debauchery and lies.

The closer we get to our own day, the more obvious the fact is–or at least the first part of the fact.  And incredible volume of Renaissance writing is taken up with deploring the depredations of well-born and well-educated men. 

Get down to the 18th century, and you start to see evidence of the recognition that “unlettered’ and “rough” men could be virtuous in spite of their lack of education.   Part of the reason for that was simply that the lives of such people became much more visible to the kind of people who write books.   A well-born Roman could pretty much ignore the rabble, and so could a well-born Englishman.  A well-born American in 1801 faced the very real possibility that one of these people would end up sitting next to him in the Senate.

(Funny outcome for a revolution started and carried out by people whose only real concern was to preserve the rights of the aristocracy against the monarchy…  Never mind.  I thought we’d stopped teaching that bilge in 1985, at the latest.)

I think that rather than saying that a liberal education will make you good, or better, I’d say that a liberal education would present you with alternatives to the conventional wisdom and dominant culture of your day–that it will present you with something else, and therefore with the possiility of choosing something else.

I’m less interested in the “condemned to repeat it” rationale for study than I am in what will help me to affect my present and the future. 

And the first thing necessary for that is to know that there are alternatives, and what the alternatives are.   

Given present-day realities, however, I’d go farther than that.

I’d say that one of the advantages to the individual in having this sort of education today would be that it would act as a kind of antidote to the present prevalent psychology-based narrative of the nature of human life and the contents of human nature.

It would come as a shock to some of my students that there was a time when people didn’t automatically assume that they were incipient candidates for mental illness, and that their every deviation from an (entirely fantasized, and nowhere existent in the real world) ideal of “normal” was a “disorder” that needed to be “treated.” 

They might find it a bigger shock to realize that quite a few of us feel that being treated in that way–as patients–is the ultimate in disrespect, and a good example of the modern version of treating large numbers of people as if they’re not really human.

The other thing I think it would provide an antidote for is the modern mania for assuming that the only thing that matters, the only thing that makes life worth living, is stuff. 

Having these alternatives set out before us gives us options that we will not have otherwise.  And options are what we need if we choose to be good.

Without those options, our attempts will be truncated by the world around us. 

And no, the modern equivalent of giving us “alternatives” is not sufficient, and will not work in the way the classics will–all those pious, theoretically well-meaning morality tales that are now the Young Adult book market, all those sensitivity and empathy training sessions backed up by the threat that your RA can have you thrown out of the dorm if you don’t get with the program.

They don’t provide alternatives.  They reinforce the entire “person as patient” narrative, with a few real beauts of reality-defying dogma thrown in for good measure (bullies are bullies because they were bullied themselves!).

Okay, so first–a knowledge of the alternatives, real alternatives, so that you have the option to choose.

And that’s always of value, I think, to any individual.

Tomorrow, mental training and self-mastery.

But one last note:  of course I’m familiar with Montesquieu, I’m just not impressed.  To be fair, I came to him late.  About ten years ago, the first of series of friends of mine became totally enamored of the man and all his works, and since I knew nothing about him, I got the Penguin edition of the complete essays and read through it.  Then I read through it again, because I was sure I was missing something.   I ended up utterly baffled.  His work seems to me to be repetitive and disorganized at the best of times, and he doesn’t seem to be saying much that hadn’t been said before much better.  

Anybody who could tell me why so many modern secularists love this man would–ah, be doing me a mitzvah, might be the best way to put it. 

Real life now.

Written by janeh

September 27th, 2011 at 6:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sidetracked 2

with 11 comments

Because, you know, it never fails.

So we’ll go a little off to the side for a moment, and then tomorrow we’ll get back on track.

1) I have to prove none of the things Charlou says I have to prove, not least of which because I have made none of the claims Charlou says I’ve made.  All I have done so far is to describe how a liberal education has traditionally been conceived, and to outline the kind of program modern proponents of a liberal education favor. 

If you want to complain about that, go complain to Plato, Aristotle, Basil the Great,  Tacitus, Seneca, Martin Luther, Isocrates, Jonathan Edwards,  St. Benedict,  John Henry Cardinal Newman, and Thomas Jefferson.

For starters.

2) The purpose of talking about this stuff is that I want to talk about it.  That is the only purpose I need.  And I will not be shut up.

3) Sherlock Holmes is a specific character in a specific set of short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, but he’s also what’s known as a mythic archetype.  As a specific character he had his faults–not least of which was that he had no idea where specific species of wild animals live–but as a mythic archetype he is the Great Detective, who is never wrong at all.

For better or worse, such mythic archetypes–think of all the references to “Frankenstein” when people really mean the monster–become part of the cultural currency, and when that happens it’s more important to know the archetype than the reality of the original reference.

4) I don’t think philosophical abstractions are irrelevant, and I don’t think they’re all that abstract.  I do think that determinism–in the sense of “we’re all puppets with our strings being pulled”–is untrue.

To have any usefulness, a proposition has to be able to do two things:  explain and predict. 

Determinism in the sense AB seems to be using it has no predictive power whatsoever–even standing from afar, it could not predict the arrival of a  Kant or a Hegel or, for that matter, of a Monet–and its explanatory power is a version of “because I said so.”

“We’re all being pulled by strings.”  “How do you know?”  “Because we’re all being pulled by strings.  THAT explains everything we do!”

But this is theology, not science.  Get back to me when you can demonstrate the strings being pulled.

And, no, experiments showing that if you stick a needle into this part of the brain the subject crows like a chicken do not prove determinism.  They best they prove is that a brain is a functioning organ that will be affect by physical assaults on its integrity. 

See later, re the attraction of atheists to deterministic narratives.

4)  It would help if everybody would remember that I am NOT talking about academia here.   I don’t have much use for it, especially in its incarnation. 

I agree that the idea that a broad education makes one better has been controversial–but so what?  What we’ve been discussing is the history and utility of a liberal education.  This is what it is.

5)  As for philosophy as a rationalization–well, then it’s “rationalization” when we study tree frogs and try to explain their behavior.   Looking at phenomena and trying to understand how it works is not rationalizing unless you’re being dishonest about it.

Philosophy is, however–talking metaphysics now, and ethics, and politics–definitely the foundation of everything.

Consider your own.  You begin with your atheism, which says that God does not exist, or (if you’re a soft atheist) that there is no evidence that anything like God exists.

You are now presented with the fact that you must explain everything that occurs without reference to anything outside nature.  That’s fine, but it runs you into the problem that the behavior of people certainly does not look as if it operates on the same kinds of principles as, say, the behavior of quartz.

You therefor go looking for an explanation that will fit the bill–keep anything about human beings in the realm of nature with no need of a non-natural or non-material aspect at all.

Determinism cannot be proved, it’s counterintuitive, it explains nothing and it actually makes you more likely to be wrong in your predictions of human behavior–but that matters much less than the fact that it fits your basic philosophical principle. 

Philosophy, in the form of the precepts you accept as axioms about the world and human nature, is the foundation from which all else is built, including your own self-perception.

6) I was not associating “academic philosophy” with “popular self government,” and I do not think that self government is (inevitably) “demogoguery.”

I was saying that, historically, one of the purposes of a liberal education was that it made men fit for participation in the governing of their nations.

Yes, yes, of course, yawn, the ancient Greeks didn’t include women and slaves.  So what?

Philosophy is the foundation of everything, and in one way that is true is in the way in which we define what is “human.”  The Greeks did not define it as we do, quite true.  But they did in fact extend the right to self government to all those included under the definition of “human.”

(And that definition was in itself a matter of tension.  Aristotle’s famous defense of slavery as okay because some people are “born slaves” wasn’t so much a defense as an attempt to escape what seemed to be more likely to be true: which was that, given all the rest of what his philosophy said, slavery was likely to be indefensible.)

The way you get here from there is also a matter of philosophy–It’s St. Paul’s dictum that “you are neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.  You are all sons of God.”

Welcome to a completely new definition of the human, one that had never existed on the planet before as far as we know. 

It took centuries to work its way through the culture, but the culture could not have gotten where it has if it hadn’t.

Philosophy is the foundation of everything.  Science depends not just on universality and mathematics, but on a whole slew of ideas:  that in a conflict between authority and what your mind tells you is true, you should opt for what your mind tells you is true (and you’re a worse person if you opt for authority), for one.  That’s a biggie.

7)  I was never taught Plato or Aristotle as “great thinkers” I had to admire but not question, and I was never taught Shakespeare or Jane Austen as “great writers” that everybody had to admire, either.  This is not a critique of the liberal arts but of bad teaching, and I’m sorry you had it. This entire thing about “geniuses” who “tower over mere mortals” is contrary to any education I ever had.  Hell, the nuns in my high school didn’t feel that way about the Pope.

8) The idea that the bulk of the populace should have as broad an education as possible (as broad was defined for the times) begins with the Protestant Reformation.

The central organizing tenet of Protestantism was that every Christian (male and female) was capable of reading and interpreting Scripture on his (or her) own. 

But to interpret Scripture, you had to read it.  And to read it, you had to be taught to read.  That’s where the first great pushes for universal literacy come, and you can see that manifest in every Protestant community down to the beginning of the 19th Century. 

Even those theoretically “theocratic” communities of Puritans set up schools and then  universities as the second thing after setting up a Church.  And although they didn’t allow women into the universities, they did teach them, often quite well, and in all those “hard” things, too, like Latin.  They taught them well enough so that women could and did pass the entrance exams to places like Yale before the US was even a country, leaving the university to try to figure out another rationale for why they shouldn’t attend.

I don’t know enough about Thomas Paine to say, but I do know George Washing, and he’d definitely had a liberal education (again, as defined in his day) in spite of the fact that he never set foot inside a university.  Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay, John Adams, James Monroe–all of them had a liberal education as it was defined in their day, whether or not they actually attended schools.  Any schools.

The American Revolutin is the ultimate example of a country made by liberal education, drawing on the works of Seneca and Tacitus and Cicero and on history and philosophy to try to make a new system that would work.

The American Revolution not only came about because of those axioms I’m talking about up there, but it came about because people deliberately tried to find a way to build something on them, consciously.

9) Yes, of course, education breeds dissent.  Thinking breeds dissent.  Why do you think “consensus” is necessary to keep a nation going?

10) Nothing can function as a raw democracy–a liberal education will tell you that.  But nations can indeed function as Republics, and have.

But then, I have never said a thing here to indicate I think that’s what I was aiming for, either.  “To participate in one’s government” is not the same as “giving over everything to a popular vote.” 

The point of a Republic is to limit what is part of government at all. 

But then, your philosophy and mine differ on an important point–I don’t think my fellow citizens are (necessarily) “the mob,”  and I do think the fundamental principle of this Republic is a sound one:  the ordinary run of human beings are capable of understanding the issues and making the decisions that determine how their country will be run.

11) I wouldn’t have forced you through Hamelt.  I would have forced you through Lear.

That said–no, just being told about it is not enough.  You need to look at Medieval playwriting and then at Shakespeare and see the difference.

The difference is important because it was part of a whole: the individuation of characters in plays occurs just around the same time as the call for individual interpretation of scripture and around the same time as the growing Puritan sentiment that we should end monarchy–we’re talking the English Civil War here.

Being told about things is nowhere near as useful as seeing for yourself.  

For one thing, if you don’t see for yourself, you’ll never know if what they’re telling you is right or wrong.

12) The fact that all people think in narratives–or most of them–is a fact, and it does not obviate the need for education, nor does it make education useless.

For one thing, education might help you to spot your narratives.  And that will help you control for them.

Note:  I didn’t say “control them.”  I said “control for them.”

AB exhibit a lot of the dysfunctionality of the modern-day atheist narrative, although not nearly as much of it as some people, including some of the atheist orgs.

We have a world that looks like this:  there is Us, and we’re rational and intelligent.  There is Them, they’re “the mob,” and mostly stupid, and totally controlled by something or the other–faith, superstition, fear, whatever.  It’s something emotional and irrational and uncontrollable.  And They are always threatening Us.

It’s coherent, but it’s also a crock.

13)  As for self control–it is definitely not the case that everybody feels equally “free.”  Just talk to addicted people about their addictions.  The idea that without some training in self control–of imposing discipline on our desires–we end up being jerked around like those puppets AB says we all are is the philosophical basis of all childrearing. 

The ancient writers on morality did not feel free of passions and habits.  Nor did the early Christians (St. Paul again–the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak).  Nor did the founding generation of this Republic.

But I’ve said more than enough.

And I’ll get back to the defense, Part 8, tomorrow.

Written by janeh

September 26th, 2011 at 9:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Self Governing People (The Defense, Part 7)

with 9 comments

So, what can I say?  Sleep helped a little, yet again.  But I had a class to teach yesterday, and none of the students showed up.

So I’m in something of a mood.

If I were Sherlock Holmes, I’d surmise at this point that AB found his way to the blog from Facebook,  because he just quoted from an essay about 9/11  that I posted there on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and a number of people picked it up and reposted the link themselves.

But the quote–about how the suicide bombers were among the best educated in their communities–proves my point and not his.

There are all kinds of education.  The kind of education the sucide bombers received was not a liberal one, but a technical one–let’s teach them to blow stuff up, all that other stuff doesn’t matter.

To the extent that they did have an education outside the technical, it was Islamic, not Western. 

And, like I said, ideas have consequences.  And philosophy is the foundation on which everything else is built.

So let me make a loop around here, to get some things straight, before I go on to what’s in it for all of us.

The purpose of a liberal education is now and has always been to train a free and self governing people.

The confusion about the definition of “free” and “self governing” is mine.  I wasn’t trying to say that the ancients were trying to get people to a point where they could do whatever they wanted without interference from government or society.

That is the modern definition of “free” and I was trying to contrast it to the ancient one, which had two aspects:  first, that men should be citizens and participate in the making of the laws under which they lived; and second, that men should have self-control and personal discipline, so that they could decide their own actions and not be pulled haplessly around at the mercy of their passions and the vicissitudes of fate and public opinion.

AB asks what the “self” is anyway–and that’s cute, but that’s all it is.  Cute.  It’s one of those things that sound as if they make sense because we can all natter on endlessly about definitions, and use all that neuron-based psychology to ask if the synapses that fire when you decide to eat an apple go off before or after you’re conscious of deciding, and what that means.

But the fact is that we all experience ourselves as loci of consciousness.  We experience ourselves as making decisions and carrying them out, or not.  That experience is what we call the “self,” and whether we want to our not, the simple fact is that we cannot do anything in this world, or feel anything in this world, or think anything in this world, without it.

AB also says that there are only two reasons people do things:  because other people make them, or at random.

That’s untenable in and of itself.  It seems to imply that anything we do is at random, but other people are able to decide to do things and then make us do them, too.

There are not two reasons why people do things.  There are three.  Either they are compelled (by other people, or by nature), or they are acting at random (I’d think virtually never), or they are acting by decision. 

It was the decisions the ancients were worried about–and the medieval thinkers, too. 

The great danger to human beings on a personal level–and ancient and medieval, pagan and Christian, society agreed on this–was that, left to themselves, they would become enslaved to their passions.

We have a closely related idea, these days, in the concept of “addiction” when it is drawn out to include things like shopping and gambling.

Without the proper training and instruction, the ancients thought, men would sink into “animality,” caring only for immediate sensation and cheap and superficial pleasure.  They therefore needed to be carefully trained in curbing and restraining these passions.

Neither the ancients nor the early and Medieval Christians were naive about this.  Both cultures saw the human being of being made up of two parts, one of them animal, one of them divine.

Both of them believed animal nature to be very strong, so strong that it took a lifelong struggle to control it. 

Still, without the effort to control it, man could never be ‘free,” because he would always be at the mercy of his emotions and his appetites.  A man who had not control of these was a slave as surely as any captive of war sold in the marketplace.

The first thing that liberal education teaches is that morality is not just a matter of how we deal with each other–it’s also a matter of how each of us deals with ourself. 

The message is that we are not okay “just the way we are.”   To be decent human beings we must aspire to much more than that, and it is a shameful thing if we do not try.

The other sense in which a liberal education is a training for free men is that it is supposed to fit them to be able to participate in the governing of their nation, their city-state, their Republic. 

To the ancients, a people was free if and only if it made its own decisions about the conduct of its society and did not have them dictated by forces from the outside. 

The ancients would not have understood what we now call “freedom.”  That definition of that idea arrived first with the Protestant Reformation and then (decisively) with the Enlightenment.  It’s not quite right to say that the ancients had no problem with society dictating the rules for the private life of citizens.  In point of fact, they would have found it impossible to conceive of a government or society being capable of the kind of routine interventions in private life that are a persistant danger now.

What they did understand was that human life was only entirely human if each free man–we would say each free person–had a say in deciding how he lived and how he was governed, and they did not think that was possible without the proper education.

There version of a liberal education differed from ours in its particulars (heavier on the music, for one thing, and with a concentration on speaking instead of writing for another)–but down through the ages, through the centuries and societies that have adopted it, these are the two things a liberal education is supposed to do: make you the governor of yourself, and make you fit to come together with others to govern your society.

What I want to do now is stipulate this:  what I am aiming at is the defense of an education that will do these two things, and to explain why that is of value to each individual person and to society as a whole.

And I’ll start with what’s in it for you tomorrow, after I’ve had some tea and Mendelsohn, I think, today.

It’s Sunday.

I am not required to deal with students.

Written by janeh

September 25th, 2011 at 9:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Intentions 5 (The Defense, 6)

with 4 comments

It’s remarkable what a decent night’s sleep can do for you. 

Tea also helps.

With any luck, this will be the final post in the “what we intend to teach in the liberal arts” part of this exercise.

I say with any luck because, when I started on this project, I thought that part was going to take one day and one post, or maybe two.   Now it’s nearly a week later, and I’m still doing this.

And, of course, this part–the part about teaching literature–is inherently problematic.  I’m like everybody else in that I tend to take my own field a lot more seriously than I do anybody else’s.  I also know more about it, so that I tend to see some specifics as crucial particularities–when, of course, for somebody outside the field, they may not be.

I don’t really care if AB, or anybody else, “likes” Shakespeare’s plays, or thinks they “good.”  And I really don’t care if any of you think he’s a “genius” or not. 

From inside the field, though, it looks to me as if it were important to know that, good playwright or bad one, Shakespeare represented the literary equivalent of a paradigm shift in the way plays were written and theater was experienced in Englished.  There’s a good book about this by Harold Bloom–Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human–but I would think it’s also necessary to remember that it all came together:  the first glimmerings of what we as moderns can recognize as what we call science; the explosion of new techniques of art and architecture; the theological movement called Renaissance Humanism; the Protestant Reformation; the way Shakespeare wrote plays with individual characters rather than allegorical ones–

It was all of a piece, a single sudden spurt in one direction over the course of about 250 years, ending in the Enlightenment, ending in us.

I really like that kind of thing, watching a particular intellectual structure come into place.  When you look at it in hindsight, it all looks inevitable. 

But I’m trying here to outline why somebody should study each of the liberal arts even if that part of them is not what he expects to spend his life doing, and the last real post I wrote was talking about narratives.

Somebody who read that post wrote me an e-mail saying that I should be careful:  yes, I could teach literature as a way to make people understand what a narrative is and how to recognize one, but that it was always possible for narratives to be false. 

But that is, I think, largely my fault–narratives can be false, and since they can be false, they can be dangerous. “Buying into a narrative” is what most people mean when they say they “believe” something rather than “know” it.   Their “knowing” may require buying into a narrative they’re not aware of, but “believing” means buying into it wholesale.

And we cannot do without narratives.  Narratives are the way we order and organized our thoughts and our lives.   We live in narratives.  We think in narratives.   We couldn’t get up in the morning and get ourselves to work if we didn’t have, imbedded deep in our subconscious, the narrative that makes that make sense.

Narratives are necessary.  Narratives can also be useful.   That Enlightenment narrative I was talking about last post hooked into a new idea just rising in Europe (you shouldn’t take things on authority, every man had both the right and the capacity to make up his own mind for himself), gave it a compelling story aimed at the most powerful authorities then in power, and spurred a lot of people to make innovations in science, art, architecture, music, literature, philosophy and government.   It was a big deal.

My problem is that we’ve come to a point where so few people understand what a narrative is and how it works, and that it is not and can never be “truth” in the sense of being entirely factual, that we’ve got all kinds of people in all kinds of places running around acting on narratives they aren’t aware are narratives and then blowing themselves up (along with everybody around them) when reality refuses to get with the program.

And I don’t just mean suicide bombers.  I know a fair number of university administrators who are doing this, too, and a lot of folk Protestant evangelicals. 

What I want from asking “everybody’ to study literature is this:  they should be able to spot a narrative; they should understand that all narratives are constructs and that some are more true than false, some more false than true, some completely false and none completely true.  Then I want them to be able to take that knowledge and apply it to other people’s behavior, and have other people apply it to theirs.

I don’t think any of us can ever be completely objective about our own narratives, but if enough of us from enough different perspectives could do this, we might be able to make the present situation in the world at least a little more coherent.

It might also help us with something else, vital but often in short supply:  it might make it possible for us to listen to other people and actually understand their point of view.

Except that I don’t mean “point of view.”  Internal logic, maybe?

One of the things literature does is to allow us to live other people’s lives, to get inside their heads, to feel what they feel and know what they know as they know it.

We talk a lot of trite silliness like “walk a mile in their mocassins,” but most of us seem incapable of even conceiving that some people think differently or feel differently than we do. 

I can’t count the times I heard, on some of those atheist forums I used to frequent, that William F. Buckley was probably only saying he believed in all that Catholic stuff, he probably didn’t believe it–how could he?  He wasn’t stupid.  

On the other hand, they often didn’t believe that the people they called stupid believed that stuff either–those people were “afraid of change,” or afraid of death, or had some deep-seated fascistic impulse to rule the world and get back at the rest of us.

Or something.

Anything, really, except the obvious: people think differently, they want different things, they know different things in different ways, they have different priorities, and all those differences are real.

The age of diversity not only doesn’t like diversity, it mostly doesn’t even believe it exists. 

So I’d say that it’s important to study literature for those three reasons:  the original one of providing examples of moral and immoral, good and bad, prudent and imprudent behavior; the more modern one of learning the nature and structure of narrative, and how it works, and how to spot  it, and how to use it; and that last and universal one of being able to spend some time in other people’s lives, in the hope that you’ll finally get the point that there are other lives.

And that should give, I think, a fair overview of why I think we bother to study all those things, the rationale behind teaching them.  Whether we actually do teach them–that is, whether in teaching them we actually get the students to learn what we intend them to learn–is a different issue, and I’ll take it up later.

But this is what we intend to teach when we teach the liberal arts.

And I’ll get on to why it would be valuable for an individual to learn it, next post.

I have a Saturday class to teach.

Written by janeh

September 24th, 2011 at 8:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Not A Real Blog Post

with 3 comments

And it’s not.

Thursday is my worst day, Friday starts early and ends early–and I fall over.

So I’m in no shape.

But I thought I’d address a few things.

First, Charlou wants to know why I’m writing this.

Well, AB asked to know why studying the liberal arts was to any value to the individual of today–

And I said I’d tell him.

I started with a (not yet quite finished) definition of what the liberal arts are–hard sciences, mathematics, social sciences, languages and humanities–and the reason it’s important to study each one (and not just ANY one).

That will be followed by an explanation of why I think it is valuable to the individual to know all this stuff.

And that will be followed by an explanation of why I think it would be to the good of society if as many people as possible knew this stuff as far as is possible.

After that, I was going to address Charlou’s post about all those secondary and primary school things, and especially about how we’re giving all sorts of people who never had the chance before the “opportunity to go to college.”

For what it’s worth, absolutely none of this is about my, or anybody else’s, college education. 

College was more than worth it to me, because it gave me a framework for what I was, in most cases, already reading. 

I read my first book of philosophy at the age of twelve, having found it on my father’s bookshelves–which I was always raiding–and been curosious about what kind of thing it was.  It was Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, and when I was halfway through it I gave it back to him and told him I didn’t think I understood it.  He gave it back to me and told me of course I did–and he was right.  I just didn’t believe it.

Two years later, I went to work on Aristotle–all of it, not just a thing here and there.

And I’m still doing it.  If no colleges had existed, if my parents couldn’t have afforded to send me one–I’d still have read this stuff and I’d still be reading it.  Because I am still reading it.  I spent the early afternoon with Clement of Alexandria.  He lived in the second to third century and wrote about the importance “Greek learning” to the newly triumphant Christian Church. 

On my coffee table I have a book by Liebnitz, an eighteenth century philosopher whose work I never have gotten around to before, who did not appear in any of my college courses.  He’s always interested me because he wrote philosophy in his off time, while keeping a day job as a lensmaker.

The simple fact of the matter is that I love this stuff.  I have loved it since I first discovered it existed.   As far as I’m concerned, the point of discussing these things is to discuss them.  I could do it all day.  I think knowing this stuff, and talking about this stuff, and reading this stuff, is one of the top three reasons to love being alive. 

Some things are worth knowing in and of themselves.  The point of knowing them is just to know them.  The point of talking about them is just to talk about them. 

So, you know, AB gave me an excuse.  But I might not have needed one.

As to the rest of it–I’ll get back to it tomorrow.  But I’ve got to state the Oliver Rule.

There are a couple of people who read and sometimes comment on this blog who may remember the Oliver in question, who appeared on a small atheist e-mail discussion list called Sechum-L a few years ago. 

The experience was–well, traumatizing. 

It was, however, largely my fault that I allowed myself to get sucked into it.

So in the wake of it, I established a rule–if you ask me a question and I respond to it and then you indicate that y ou’ve read my response by quoting from it, only to turn around a day or so later and ask the same question again as if no response had been given–

Well, I stop talking directly to you.  

I’m not going to stop talking to anybody right now, because I have a feeling the thing was inadvertant–

But I addressed why it’s not as good to study just one thing deeply, among other things, a ways back. 

I will admit I’m a little bemused by all this talk of “geniuses.” 

I’m going to go fall over again now.

Written by janeh

September 23rd, 2011 at 3:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Intentions 4 (The Defense, Part 5)

with 8 comments

So–yesterday was yesterday.  A super early morning.  Lots of stuff I didn’t want to do.  The week, unfolding ahead of me like a minefield.

Okay, yesterday I was a little impatient.  And I apologize for that.  I do get impatient and exasperated sometimes.  I ought to behave myself.

That said, I left literature to the very end, and for a number of reasons.

The first is that I talk about literature on this blog all the time.  A lot of you have heard this over and over again.   In a way I feel like I’m going over old ground.

In another way, though, I’m not going over old ground.  Most of the time, when I talk about the study of literature, I’m talking about why people should be introduced to the academic field. 

But today that’s not what I want to talk about.   Introducing students to the field is important, but when I think about why we should require the study of literature as part of a liberal education right now, today, for people who will not be majors, I’ve got other concerns in mind than my usual ones.

Traditionally, the study of literature was included in a liberal education because literature–we’re talking largely Homer here, and later some Vergil–was considered to be a good way to train students into a moral life.  Figures from literature–Achilles, Clytemnestra, Odysseus–provided good examples and bad, from which students could learn what it meant to behave well, what it meant to behave badly, what was a good life, what was a wasted one.

And this function still works, I think, and would be valuable, especially now, when it sometimes seems my students live in a monoculture where only one way of life and only one set of values is conceivable:  get what’s mine, pile up as much money and stuff as possible, life is about feeling good, having fun, getting and eating as much as you can suck in, and then you die.

For most of my students, the idea that anybody would spent four years of his life pursuing knowledge just because he wanted to know, even if it never made him a dime in real life or got him a job, is not just “stupid,” it’s unthinkable. 

Every once in a while I use as a prompt for essays the story of Jonas Salk giving his polio vaccine formula free to the nation, in spite of the fact that he could have made a ton of money with it, and in spite of the fact that he was not rich,  because he thought it was more important to bring an end to polio epidemics than to make a lot of money.

The responses I get are mixed, but the majority come down to this:  yes, that was a noble thing to do, but it isn’t a choice they would ever make.  Or even think of.  After all, people don’t have a lot of opportunities to get rich, and being poor sucks, and what would you get out of doing something like that anyway? 

What makes me cringe about that kind of thing is what it says about the interior lives of these kids–lives that have been filed down to the worst kind of least common denominator. 

Even the ones who say they believe in God think like this, when you’d expect whatever religion they follow to have given them a different set of priorities. 

We talk sometimes about a generation that thinks nothing is worth dying for.  What I am seeing is a generation that thinks nothing is worth suffering mild discomfort for.

So, yes.  I think we need to introduce students into examples of people with priorities and assumptions and morals other than their own, who make choices other than the ones they themselves would think of to make. 

I don’t have much hope that literature can make anybody moral, but at the very least it can give them examples of something else besides the lives they live.

That is not, however, my chielf reason for thinking that literature should be part of a liberal education. 

That reason is this:  human beings think in narratives.  Or most of them do.  There are surely some people who are natural abstract and conceptual thinkers, but most of us, even the most intelligent of us, think in narratives.  It is how our minds are made to organize information.

This kind of thinking is so natural to us, we don’t even realize we’re doing it when we’re doing it.  And it forms the basis for our identities as individuals and our collective identities as nations and civilizations, shaping everything we do, everything we think, everything we say.

Our identity narratives are so important to us, so central to our ability to live and function, that we do some very odd things when those narratives are threatened.

Let’s take that story about Galileo and the Catholic Church. 

If you look into that story long enough, you’ll find some very odd things.

First is the fact that Galileo didn’t discover that the earth went around the sun, instead of vice versa.  Copernicus had done that many years before. 

The idea was not new.  It wasn’t even particularly controversial. 

Far from opposing the heliocentric universe, Copernicus’s work was sponsored and paid for by a Pope, and the Vatican schools taught it as part of their regular curriculum.  It was also taught in most of the medieval universities, by monks and priests.

At the very moment when Galileo was being escoriated publicly and being forced to recant, that same heliocentric universe was STILL being taught in the Vatican school, and was considered to be beyond question by almost all the scholars in Europe–including the Churchmen.

Which ought to make one ask the obvious question:  what was going on here?  Why was Galileo being asked to “recant” a theory that the Church itself had accepted for decades?

Once you look into it, you find this:  Galileo’s problem was not that he said the earth went around the sun in opposition to scripture, but that he said that the fact that the earth went around the sun proved scripture to be false and worthless.

And he said this right in the middle of the Reformation, when Christendom was being torn apart by reformers whose chief complaint was that the Church, in being such a patron of Renaissance Humanism, had abandoned scripture entirely and therefore could not longer legitmately claim to be the guardian of the deposit of faith.

It really does not take much digging in the history and literature of the period to find out this kind of thing, but the important thing here is this:  the story about Galileo gained currency, spread across Europe, and, in the mostly Protestant north, because first one of the identity narrative of Protestantism and then (more important for us) the founding narrative of the Enlightenment. 

Of both Enlightenments, really.

The story was this:  brave individuals dedicated to searching out and discovering the truth at any cost stood up to an ignorant, authoritarian and anti-science Catholic Church and finally broke its hold on learning.

As the bumper sticker says:  when religion ruled the world, they called it the Dark Ages.

This entire little morality play is wrong on almost every particular and on every front.  The Dark Ages are the period between the fall of Rome and the installation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day in 800.  The Dark Ages were Dark not because religion ruled them, but because nobody did. When Rome fell, all effective government in Western Europe pretty much disintegrated.  Nobody had the power or the resources to keep order, and the result was predictable.

Once order was restored, the Church not only didn’t fight science, it became the chief patron of it.  We can laugh at the schoolmen now (how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!), but there could have been no Enlightenment without the highly Christianized Middle Ages, which (aside from dealing with angels and pins) also made the first steps to bring chemistry out of alchemy and to study motion and mechanics in a systematic way, never mind what it did for astronomy, before Copernicus and after.

Now, you’ve got to understand–I don’t have a lot of patience with the post-Reformation/Counterreformation Catholic Church, which actually had many of the qualities the Enlightenment accused it of. 

But those qualities were not endemic to the Church at all times and places.  They came into being in the Counterreformation due to a very specific set of circumstances, not the least of which was the fact that it had just lost half its members in an extremely short period of time.

The narrative caught on, however, because it was in fact useful as a foundation for a new identity–first Protestant and scientific, then Deist and scientific, and finally atheist and scientific.  It gave people in those categories a clear picture of the nature of their world and their place in it. 

And it has come down to us today, in barely altered form.  You can read it as “fact’ in most New Atheist books.  We get taught it in sciences classes.

The version of this founding narrative today tends to depict the world as divided between Us (scientific,nonreligious types who rely on reason and evidence) and Them (religious people who rely on “faith” (defined to me completely unproven assertions with no evidence in favor of them) and who are deep in the grip of superstition, and who will kill or maim you if you refuse to accept what they believe.

It’s a picture that has some basis in reality, if you consider, say, the government of the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, but has very little relation to reality when applied to any of the major branches of Christianity in the past 200 years.  It even applies less to the period of heresy-hunting than you think it does, and it doesn’t apply to the Spanish Inquisition at all.

The problem, however, is that, since the narrative is largely false, people who rely on it for their sense of identity keep running into walls where they are required to ignore the reason and evidence in order to keep the narrative–and ignore it they do.  A lot of the ignoring is simple denial. Some of it is a matter of picking their spots–laugh at the schoolmen and you don’t have to read what they wrote and acknowledge what they said, keep away from Medieval and Renaissance history and you don’t have to watch the Popes fund all that scholarship and scientific research.

Some of it takes the form of picking ones spots in another way–behaving as if Christianity is entirely encompassed by American folk Protestantism, for instance, and by the fundamentalists and literalists who want to say the earth is 6000 years old.   That saves you from dealing with James Burtchaell or Richard John Neuhaus or any of the dozens of other ferociously well educated–and not at all literalist–Christian intellectuals.

Some people have a much stronger, and odder, response to having their identity narrative challenged.  Consider the professor in, I think, Wisconsin–sorry, I’ll look it up again, I’ve talked about this on the blog before–

Anyway, consider the professor in Wisconsin whose anti-religious message in a class hit the media and made him something of an overnight local celebrity.  He claimed to have death threats without number, and then, one morning, he called the cops, saying he had been forced off the road by two guys in a pick-up truck with religious symbols all over it who, he was sure, were trying to kill him.

Three weeks later, the cops determined that the incident had never happened.  Apparently the man was convinced that something like it should have happened, and when it didn’t, he became highly disturbed and agitated.  What was he, after all, if he wasn’t bravely facing up to murderous Christian neanderthals?  What if the murderous Christian neanderthals didn’t exist?

I saw a less egregious version of this during a discussion on rec.arts.mystery a few years ago, when a number of people declared to me that you couldn’t talk openly about atheism in the Bible Belt without being threatened or killed.

While we were talking about this, Christopher Hitchens started his book tour for God Is Not Great.  He made a point of going right through the Bible Belt–Alabama, Mississippi, you name it–giving public speeches, lectures and signings.  Not only was he not threatened or killed, but he was wined, dined, feted, and made much of everywhere he went.

At that point, the discussion on RAM abruptly stopped. 

And now I’ve written a longer post than I ever have before, and I have to get to class.

So I’ll go, and finish this topic tomorrow.

Because the Enlightenment narrative isn’t the only one that’s getting us into trouble these days.

Written by janeh

September 22nd, 2011 at 9:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Intentions 3 (The Defense, Part 4)

with 4 comments

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but the middle of my week is a complete,  unholy mess.

But I’m here, and I’m going to philosophy (broadly conceived) and history. 

Or, as I put it elsewhere–the history of events and the history of ideas.

AB declares–as if it proved that there was no point in paying attention to it–that we’ve been debating whether it’s a good idea to kill grandma for generations, and we haven’t come to “an answer” yet.

And, of course, we haven’t. 

Or, to be more accurate, we’ve come to a lot of them.

But this history of ideas is not about answers, but about decisions. 

And the history of events is about the results of those decisions.

It doesn’t really matter if different societies and different times and different places have come to different decisions about whether it’s okay to off grandma when she’s old.

What does matter is what particular decision your time and place has come to, because that decision will have consequences for your life and everybody else’s.  

You can determinedly refuse to know either of the two kinds of history–that’s your choice.  You can’t escape the inevitable–and predictable–consequences of those histories.

AB also complains that a metaphor is not evidence, and I agree, it’s not.

Nonetheless, the metaphor is accurate, and the evidence is everywhere if you want to look for it.

We teach the history of ideas and the history of events because the purpose of the study of moral and ethical philosophy is to investigate the answers other people, people who came before us, came to in asking those questions.  Then we look at the history of events and see if those ideas were implemented, and if they were implemented, what happened because of that.

Is there evidence that the Humanities came first?  Of course.  Look at the history, and you’ll see they came first, long before anybody thought to examine specimens of sea life and try to categorize them, for instance.

We can even find the record of the first people in Western culture who thought of collecting specimens and trying to categorize them–in the school of some guy named Aristotle, who preceeded his foray into taxonomy by first writing a treatis on Natural Philosophy, which is the first work ever recorded suggesting a pragmatic and practical approach, via observation and experimentation, to understanding the phenomena of the ancient world.

The idea came first.  The development of the science came later. 

And, in fact, we have an historical test case for two civilizations who both began pretty much equal in their scientific knowledge, one of which succeeded in building the world’s first (and still only) scientific civilization, the other of which fell back into a dark ages that would make our own look like a light show on New Year’s Eve.

Between 600 and 1300 there were three thinkers and three communities. 

The Muslim was named Ibn R’shd (various spellings–also called Averroes in the west).  The Christian was called Thomas Aquinas.  The Jew was called Maimonides.

Each of them spent some time asking and answering this question:  how should society respond if it turns out that its philosophers (chemists and botanists were “philosophers” in those eras) discovered knowledge that was contrary to sacred scripture?

And–not surprisingly, since all three of these men were students of Aristotle, and the idea that the search for truth must take precedent over everything else, included piety, is an Aristotelian idea–

All three of these men came to the same conclusion:  if there is a conflict, or even just an apparent conflict, between science and scripture, then science must take precedence, and scripture must be reexamined to see how we are reading it incorrectly.

This may sound like a platitude to you know, but it was a fairly significant idea at the time.

There was only one problem.

Jewish society was deeply enmeshed with the Roman, and the (Western) Catholic Church pretty much was Roman, which meant this was an idea that they were already accustomed to, that was part of their very blood and skin and bone. 

It was the Catholic Church that decreed, as a matter of dogma, that men and women could attain all the knowledge necessary for salvation “by reason alone”–by the application of logic and study, with no recourse to revelation. 

It was also the Catholic Church that had been teaching–since Augustine, in the 5th century–that “all truth is one,” and that there can be no real conflict between science and scripture.

And so, in the Middle Ages, when scholars began to come up with some things that seemed to contradict scripture, the Jews and the Catholics came up with exactly the same explanation–obviously they were misreading scripture.   They’d better change their interpretation.  Since it was impossible for God to lie, or to deceive–both were imperfections, and God is perfect–somehow, they must have messed up reading their books. 

The Arab culture out of which Islam came, however, was not Roman, or Greek, and its assumptions about the nature of God, truth, and scripture were very different.

When Ibn R’shd and other scholars began to write books and treatises about how, if there was a conflict between scientific discovery and the Koran, the Koran would have to give way to the science–they were branded apostates and worse.   Over the course of a single century, they were hounded out of the schools and other centers of learning, and no new philosophers rose to replace them. 

And Arab science was over.  It never developed past where it had been in about the year 600–and in mathematics and mechanics, they were considerably ahead of the West.

Everything you do is dependent on the political and social realities of the society you live in.  Most of the people who live in it with you know little about science and care less. 

What they do care about–identity, meaningfulness, purpose–probably sounds pretty stupid to you, but that doesn’t matter.

You need them at least as much as they need you, and more.  All that material stuff is nice, but societies around the world, right up to our own day, have been perfectly happy to throw it all out the window and sink back to the stone age (or something close) if it threatened the things that make life make sense to them.

And those things, by the way, are what the Humanities study.

So that’s why you study history and philosophy.  Everything hangs together.  Nothing is separate.  Science itself not only was but is first philosophy.  At its base are a set of axioms and assumptions that drive everything else.

And the history of events will allow you to investigate how putting some ideas into practice has worked out over time.

But there’s something else the study of philosophy will do for you–it will prevent you from making silly statements about how ethical philosophy is being “subsumed” by psychology.

No, it’s not.   The neuron and brain chemistry guys have nothing at all to say about ethics and morality, and the rest of the crew is presenting a very particular (and not new) ethical philosophy and preening themselves on how it’s “science,” because by doing that, they think they’ll stop you from asking any uncomfortable questions.

And that’s it for today.

Tomorrow–onto literature.

Because literature keeps us from swallowing fairytales like “the Church persecuted Gallileo for saying the earth went around the sun!”

I’m going to go find some food.

Written by janeh

September 21st, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Intentions 2 (The Defense, Part 3)

with 3 comments

I have no idea if I have enough time to do t his now.  I’ve only got about an hour and a half before class, and although I write most blog posts sort of off the top of my head–okay, not quite, but that’s a long story–

Anyway, an hour and a half seems a little tight.

Before I get on to where I’m going next, let me interject a little note.

AB opines that I’m looking for “variety,” but variety is not the point–comprehensiveness is. 

When you train your body, you don’t train your biceps and leave your calf muscles to atrophy.  Your body has many different muscle groups, not just one–and yes, they sort of bleed off into each other and into other parts of the body, since what you’re looking at is a single whole.

But each of the parts must be exercised if you are going to be in shape.

Your mind has many different capacities, not just one, and each of them must be exercised if your mind is going to be in shape.   It’s not enough to exercise just one.

But on top of that–you cannot truly understand ANY of these things unless you understand–at least at the basic level–ALL of them.  They all hang together.  Not one of them is independent of the rest.

So let’s get to mathematics.

AB says that people really need to understand statistics, and asks if the liberal arts can give you that.

Well, mathematics is one of the liberal arts, and stats are a form of mathematics–so, yes, the liberal arts (and only the liberal arts) can give you that.

On the level of mental training, the point of studying mathematics is to learn how to deal with abstractions as abstractions.

This is something a great many people have a great deal of trouble learning to do, and if you’re trying to teach them to “think mathematically,” you get a lot of incomprehension–and sometimes worse than incomprehension.

It is, in fact, just remarkable how honest people are being when they say they are “bad at math,” but what they’re actually bad at is not quadratic equations or finding limits.

What they’re bad at is dealing with the world as symbols and functions and operations, rather than as narratives.

Most people think in narratives.   The few of us who think most naturally in abstractions have a very useful skill that the rest of us don’t understand all that well. 

The danger in this is that too many of us who think in narratives approach information that is expressed in and founded on abstractions as if it worked like narratives work. 

And in that way we cause a lot of trouble for ourselves, but also for the people who work in abstractions.

As to whether the best way to go about teaching mathematics in a modern liberal education is the way I was required to do it (two semesters of calculus and one upper level standard math course) or by requiring stats along with calculus or something else–that’s the kind of thing you argue about after you’ve already decided to teach the whole thing anyway.

Which brings us, of course, to what AB really wants to know–what’s the point of teaching the Humanities.

I’m going to go about this part differently than I did the others, because under the label “Humanities” are really several different things that are independently important:  the history of ideas, the history of events, and the use and functions of narrative.

Far from teaching these things because they”re “tradition,” we teach them because they are still vitally important to the way we live now.  In fact, we can’t escape them.

There is science and mathematics, now, only because the Humanities were there first. 

All societies have narrative–more on that later–but not all of them have history and philosophy, and not all the ones that have history and philosophy have the same history and philosophy.

Full-blown scientific civilization developed in exactly one part of the world, and no other part of the world that has not had significant contact with that one has ever developed science at all. 

This is not an accident.  Civilization is like a house.  Physics and chemistry, astronomy and mathematics are the attic.  History and philosophy and literature are the foundation.

Not only are history and philosophy not relevant to day to day life, they’re the only thing that really is relevant.  Whether or not we go on having a scientific civilization or collapse into barbarism like Islam in the 7th century depends on the Humanities–both what we know about them and what we do about them. 

A little while back in these posts, AB noted that if I was saying that surgeons should be allowed to increase their incomes infinitely, most people would need a justification for that.

And I agree.  Most people would.  But why?  Why shouldn’t it be just fine for some people to have everything and everybody else to have nothing, especially if the people with everything earned it? 

If a person has Alzheimer’s Disease and is miserable and in pain–should his doctor put him out of his misery?  Why or why not?  Should his doctor be able to do that if the man left directions, before his dementia, that that was what he wanted?  What if the man left directions that that was never to happen?   Does consent matter?  Why?  Should it?  Why?

What is more important–the pursuit of knowledge wherever it might leave or the moral health of the community?  Who gets to decide what “moral” is?  Can the people who get to decide impose moral practice on the rest of us?  Why or why not?

Is knowledge still a good thing if it leads to the vast majority of people feeling that life is meaningless and without purpose?  How about if it leads to fewer and fewer women having children, so that there are fewer and fewer children, and your society begins to disappear into sucidal demographics?

What if the knowledge we gain is dangerous, if it could lead us to blow up the world or destroy the environment?  Should that be allowed?  And who will be doing the allowing?

Are human beings all one thing together, or are there different breeds with different capabilities?  If there are breeds and some of those breeds are less capable than others, what should we do about that?  Should we keep them alive?  Should we treat them as equals politically and legally?  Should be kill them off for the good of the rest of us, or enslave them for their own?

And how do you know?

Your civilization depends on the answers to questions like these.  They are the same questions that have been asked since the beginning of time by the very earliest writers.  They were answered differently by men and women on three separate occasions:  in classical Greece, in Europe in the Middle Ages, and in Europe and North America during the Enlightenment. 

And from that, you have all those things you call “modern.” 

But you don’t actually know what that is, and since you don’t, when people do things, propose things, go in directions that are likely to destroy the very modernity you think is the only relevant thing–you don’t even know it’s happening.

And you don’t know you don’t know, because you think you DO know–you look at Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and that whole silly folk-Protestant fundamentalist nonsense and go:  there it is!  that’s the danger!

But the danger isn’t there.  It’s in your own camp.  And you don’t know how to recognize it.

And now I’m either going to run to class or it isn’t going to get taught.

So, tomorrow:  Literature, History, and Philosophy.

Then I’ll go on from there to a) what’s in it all for the individual and b) what’s in it for society at large.

Written by janeh

September 20th, 2011 at 11:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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