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Intentions (The Defense, Part 2)

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Okay, let me start here for the moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never mind the drug war.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by janeh

September 19th, 2011 at 8:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Intentions (The Defense, Part 2)'

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  1. No comments from anyone else?

    I’m in general agreement with Jane except that I’m not convinced that “science” is a useful word. I’m also not convinced that there is a reliable way of distinguishing science from non-science.

    The experimental method? Consider that the first experimental evidence that the earth moves around the sun wasn’t obtained until the late 1830s. That was about 150 years after Newton proposed his law of gravity.


    19 Sep 11 at 8:07 pm

  2. Thank you for your post, Ms.Haddam. I appreciate your indulgence in providing me with item (2) below.

    1. I’m not convinced that a liberal education is synonomous with doing whatever you please. I’m almost sure that several Classical thinkers have insisted that society has a right, even a duty, to regulate individual behavior. In fact, “I decide what to do with myself – you can’t stop me!” could easily be mistaken for sociopathic personality disorder…

    As far as having “self control in a world of almost infinite choice,” I’m not sure what that means. Is the person without self control under the control of someone else, or is she merely acting randomly? And in either case, isn’t she very well likely to feel that she /is/ in control? What, after all, is the “self,” and how can you tell if it is in control or not?

    If the object of liberal education is the better governance of society (a more sensible goal, I think, in the older sense of the word), it remains a matter of speculation whether this would succeed. My guess is that it would not.

    2. If the purpose of education is intellectual exercise, and we suppose that such is valuable, to what extent is a liberal education superior to – let us say – learning calculus or studying astronomy or biology in depth?

    If the principal object of such exercise is /variety/ (which proposition I do not admit /prima facie/), I say that the traditional liberal education is seriously lacking – in fact it is rather narrow. It has a woeful obsession with antiquity for the sake of mere tradition, and an unconscionable neglect of science, even “soft” sciences like economics. Most Classical authors are not worth reading, except for historical interest. I’ve read some of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, among others; these men were not by any means geniuses. Shakespeare (and by Shakespeare I mean Oxford, of course) was a good poet but a terrible hack as a playwright. So Aristotle influenced Western civilization? Then let historians read him; the rest of us can just as well be glad that most of his influence has ended. Reading “great” authors uncritically is certainly not intellectual exercise.

    3. Sorry, but you’re overrating Mr. Bacon. His historical importance was as a publicist for science, not a scientist, and he didn’t understand science very well. Science extends to a great deal more than just “experiment” and the “scientific method” (which he also did not fully understand). If you don’t know how Galileo, Newton, and Laplace influenced modern science and thought, you’ve missed the boat, not just on science but on key aspects of the modern world. And if you think scientific “fact” is merely transient, undercut by each new discovery, it’s /because/ you haven’t understood how science and technology function in the world.

    Moreover, one /cannot/ abdicate responsibility for the knowledge of scientific particulars and still comprehend the modern world. The world of the twenty-first century – or even of the nineteenth – is not a world of “letters” and philosophical generalities; it is a world of scientific and factual specifics. The second law of thermodynamics is NOT optional – not one word set on paper before 1687 is now of equal significance.

    Also: There are no definite boundaries between “science” and “not science.” Real life is much blurrier than that; it would not be controversial to say that chemistry is a “harder” science than psychology, but both exist on a multi-dimensional continuum of forms of knowledge. Seldom in practice are there any absolute distinctions between “A” and “not A”. (Syllogistic logic is one reason I despise Aristotle; in his day, there was /nothing/ in the known material world to which it truly applied, yet he did not refrain from doing so. He could have applied it to mathematics, but he did not have the intelligence for that.)

    Finally: There is one other thing one /absolutely/ necessary to function as a knowing agent in the world. This is statistics, or at least the rudiments thereof. It is not, perhaps, necessary for the layman to know exactly how a standard deviation is calculated, but without an understanding of the collection and interpretation of statistics one is utterly lost in the face of most of the “facts” so readily available today. Given any pool of raw data and an audience randomly divided into two parts, I assure you that I can convince one part that “A” is true and the other part that “A” is false. All of them, no, but a statistically significant majority :D. Lies, damned lies, and statistics – can liberal arts tell you the difference?


    19 Sep 11 at 9:44 pm

  3. jd, proof of the heliocentric solar system was obtained by Galileo long, long before 1830.


    19 Sep 11 at 9:48 pm

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