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Eichmann Loved Beethoven (The Defense, Part 9)

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So, okay.  I’ve had some sleep.  Some.

For what it’s worth, my “week” started nine days ago, on the Saturday before yesterday, when I showed up for my Saturday morning class and was the only person to show up.  No students. Not one of them. 

I thought at the time that this did not bode well, and it didn’t.  Remind me to take off on one of my rants about how we shouldn’t send people who don’t want to be there to “college.”

But back to the wars, for the moment.

I said in the last point that I didn’t think it was possible for a liberal education–or any kind of education–to make us good. 

Education can tell us what “good” is, or give us an overview of how “good” has been conceived over time, but in the end the only thing that can make us good and decent human beings is our decision to be good and decent human beings. 

And the nature of that is such that we have to keep renewing the commitment every day.

Maybe every hour.

“Good and decent human being” is not the default position.  It’s essentially an aspiration that no actual human being ever reaches to the full.

But there, you see–there it is again.  The idea that to be a good and decent human being, to lead a good life in this world, is itself inextricably bound up with the idea of a liberal arts education. 

Plato tells us that the virtue of philosophy is to teach us to live well, and Aristotle and the Romans echo him, right down to the Christian era–where learning how to live well, so that one can leave this life to spent eternity contemplating the face of God, is the whole point of studying anything.

What’s more, right through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, what was claimed was not just that those parts of philosophy (or theology) which directly addressed ethics were meant to teach us to do good, but that all the liberal arts were needed, including the things we now call physics, chemistry and mathematics.

But a claim is a claim, and not proof, on any level.  Is there any evidence at all that a liberal education will a) help you if you decide to be good and b) help you better than other forms of education or none at all?

Well, let’s ask first–what is evidence?

A lot of times, when I get into these discussion, I find that what people want is the experimental and quantifiable. 

The actual claim of advocates of the liberal arts over the years is not that it will make you good but that it will make you better than you would have been without them. 

People commenting on this blog have grumbled that such a proposition is not testable, and therefore is worthless as a proposition.

The problem is that an untestable proposition is not by that fact proven to be untrue.

A great many of the most interesting and important questions in human life are not amenable to this kind of “proof,” and I doubt if anything except physical reality–chemistry and physics–is. 

I think that’s why the “social sciences” are such miserable failures as sciences.  They’re almost always attempts to stuff intractable human questions into little science holes that are not big enough to contain them. 

But testable propositions or not, there are ways in which we can find support for the squishier questions.

The first–and least reliable, I should think–is through testimony, through the statements people have made through their own experiences.

In the case of the liberal arts, there are a lot of testimonies. 

Going back at least to the Roman Imperial period, we have the writings of numerous men (all men in the beginning) and women about their encounter with the liberal arts and in what way it changed the way they thought and behaved.   We have accounts of their decisions to change and of their actual struggles in carrying out the change. 

Testimony lacks solidity, of course.  True believers testify.  They have a stake in the outcome of the argument.  A convert to Islam will have testimony to the changes in his behavior–and often in the same kind of behavior, in his ability to exercise self control–as well as a student of the liberal arts, or a Christian, or a NeoDruid.

No, I am not making those up.

We do a little better if there is third party testimony to the changes–confirmation by outsiders of a change in attitude and behavior that followed on an introduction.

And we have that, too, lots of it. 

The problem is that we also have lots of such third party testimony from other kinds of conversions, all across the board again. 

In the case of third party testimony, we do have a calculable difference of the direction of change and its durability–but I think this is still far too squishy to be satisfying.

Maybe the best we can say here is that when a person converts to a new idea, that conversion will in and of itself cause a change in behavior.

And since control of the self is one of the perennial problems of human existence, such conversions almost always lead to more of such control,  probably to an extent simply because most such systems tell the people who convert to them that they’re actually capable of exercising such control.

There are exceptions (those NeoDruids again), but I think that’s the basic idea.

What seems to me to be a more interesting avenue of investigation is this:  during several periods of history there have been mass conversions, and within those mass conversions societies had discussions about the value of the liberal arts.  And they made different decisions about that, too.

I’ve already talked her about what happened to Islam in about 700.  AB responded that Muslim civilization had a longer run than that, right through the Turks, at leas as it pertained to having materially rich socieites.

But the question was not what made societies materially wealthy, especially in the short run.  In the short run, you can do that with simple plunder.

The question was what made scientific civilizations, meaning civilizations that advanced the sciences.

Materially wealthy or not, science in Islamwas dead by 700, and has never returned on a civilizational level.  Saudi Arabia has state-of-the-art medical facilities–built by Western engineers and staffed by Western doctors.

Not just Western-trained, mind you–the senior level staff is literally Western, usually Australian and British.

But we don’t have to restrict ourselves to the Islamic example.  There are several periods in Western history where such discussions took place, not just the one carried on largely by Aquinas and Abelard in the High Middle Ages.

One of them took place in the two to three centuries after the fall of Rome, when the Christian Church strugged with the education of its members. 

There was a strong sentiment in favor of abandoning “Greek learning” altogether, and providing only study in the Scriptures, a Christian version of the Islamic madrassah.

You can read through the work of the men and–in this case sometimes–women who took part in that discussion, while society at large was taking part in a vast social experiment in the training of priests and nuns.

And when you do, what you find is a significant and alarmed dissatisfaction with the ability of priests trained in scripture alone not only to control themselves in the face of various temptations, but to take on the responsibilities of a parish.

Alcuin, Cassiodorus, Basil the Great, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom, even Augustine–all of these writers were almost painfully aware of the dangers of “Greek learning.”   They looked to Vergil and saw images of debauchery and worried at them the way we worry about violence in video games.   They looked to “natural philosophy” and metaphysics and saw the seeds of doubt and heresy.

In the end, however, they also saw advantages, and too many of them to ignore.  They included increased personal self control among the priests and increased understanding of the effort needed to be good and willingness to undertake the effort.

Gregory especially, charged with the Papacy in one of those periods of chaos and corruption that made a lesser man like Celestine give up in despair and resign in terror, hammered home, time after time, the necessity of “Greek learning”  in the training of good and competent priests.

He instituted training in the liberal arts in priestly formation on as wide a basis as possible through his papacy, encouraging bishops to set up cathedral schools that taught the liberal arts not only to priests in training to but the local boys and girls of the aristocracy, and to men who wanted to live as secular scholars.  He encouraged the formation of schools and institutes that because the platform from which the universities developed into what we know now.  He provided funds and encouragement for monastery and convent schools (technically, cloistered women lived in monasteries, not convents, but–that’s another story).    He provided funds and support for the copying of manuscripts and the establishment of libraries, and encouraged bishops, abbots and abbesses to do the same. 

The result was the transformation of society in the West and the rebirth of that civilization that is distinctly Western. 

Of course, it’s always possible that this was entirely accidental, that the actual cause of the change in everything from the conduct of government to the reported conduct of individual human beings came about accidentally or at random or due to some cause that has nothing to do with Gregory’s educational reforms.

But here’s the thing.

It happened at least twice again.  With similar elements. With more than similar outcomes.

And I’ll get to that the next time I write.

I’ll also explain why AB is wrong to say that if I’m connecting Shakespeare and the Puritan revolution, I’m in the “wrong century.”

Ideational arcs take a lot longer than a century to work out, and that one started around the reign of Henry VIII and didn’t end until the Second Great Awakening.

I need tea.

Written by janeh

October 2nd, 2011 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses to 'Eichmann Loved Beethoven (The Defense, Part 9)'

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  1. “A convert to Islam will have testimony to the changes in his behavior–and often in the same kind of behavior, in his ability to exercise self control–as well as a student of the liberal arts, or a Christian, or a NeoDruid.”

    I see an important distinction in that a religious conversion (to a religion, to a different religion, to no religion) is the result of/solution to cognitive dissonance (from whatever source).

    That does not seem to be what you’re describing the result of liberal education (as you have defined it) to be.


    2 Oct 11 at 9:40 am

  2. Do we have testimony as to the value of a liberal arts education from someone who did not receive such an education?

    Yes, I’m perfectly serious. The word we’re looking for is “disinterested.” I’ve heard soldiers tell me how military discipline builds character, doctors explain how the killing hours of an internship are the making of a physician, and Harvard graduates explain how there is “something about” a Harvard man. Testimony as to the effect of a liberal arts education on moral character by the liberally educated falls in the same category.

    When a civilian says a military man is punctual and disciplined–or when a French soldier calls the English the finest infantry in the world–then you have testimony with some weight. So, what testimony of that nature do we have for the liberal education?

    I would also consider the possibility that it was the rigor rather than the curriculum that Gregory the Great had going for him. There used to be an abundance of studies that going to an “open plan” office boosted productivity–and an abundance of studies that breaking up the “open plan” office into small private offices boosted productivity. Seems more likely that management showing interest boosts productivity.

    Just because is isn’t physics or chemistry doesn’t mean you can’t produce useful numbers. In fact, if you CAN’T measure it or test for it, it’s worth asking whether you’ve defined it adequately.


    2 Oct 11 at 1:24 pm

  3. There’s a name for that effect, Robert. I thought it was the Westinghouse Effect, but apparently it’s the Hawthorne Effect.

    It’s possible to get good numbers when studying human behaviour. It’s just bloody hard, and the further you get from the strictly physical (eg the blood surgar concentration following eating certain foods), the harder it is. I used to know someone with a PhD in both chemistry and education who said it was harder to study people than atoms. Of course that was back when the proliferation of qualitative research methods. So many people forget what they’re sacrificing in terms of generalizability when using these methods. I think it was Mique who suggested an author who studied the research and history of anti-smoking campaigns. I ordered another book by the same author which looks fascinating.

    Anyway, getting away from research and its difficulties and our tendency to believe any statement prefaced by ‘Scientists have proven…’, do we have periods other than the present and recent past in which there were disinterested outsiders available to comment on the effect of a liberal arts education? How would, say, a Muslim or Hindu ruler who sent his children to the best schools in the West justify that action – was he, when it was on offer, looking for a liberal education for them, or merely attempting to get knowledge that would provide him with the economic and political strength of his rivals? I don’t know how you can tease out that thread. It’s fairly easy (at least, I suppose it is) to decide that one lot of soldiers is better than another, but to decide that the source of and admired or feared rival’s courage and strength is that they studied Homer in school…I don’t know. There are so many other possible effects acting in combination that I don’t know how you’d prove the liberal arts one.


    2 Oct 11 at 2:56 pm

  4. “It’s fairly easy (at least, I suppose it is) to decide that one lot of soldiers is better than another, but to decide that the source of and admired or feared rival’s courage and strength is that they studied Homer in school…”

    I’m sorry. I absolutely refuse to do the whole “playing fields of Eton” business. But I picked the English infantry for a reason. In wargaming circles, our version of this quarrel is called “national characteristics” and ink and electrons are wasted arguing whether a particular army performs as it does “just” because of training, weapons and discipline or whether something deeper in involved. Near the end of one such go-round, one of the participants (not me) just piled up about two pages of short quotes over about four or five centuries of history–all contemporary military officers and none of them British–concerning the respect in which English or British infantry was held, and their concern when facing it.

    This was not proof as the Mathematics and Chemistry departments understand proof, but for the humanities, it was an awe-inspiring display. Certainly none of his correspondents offered anything like it in favor of any other nationality.

    If I had to guess, I’d say certain parts of the LAE at least offer the opportunity of moral improvement, that certain parts make the beneficiaries more formidable without regard to morals, and that some parts remain out of innate conservatism like ceremonial sabers or cantlepieces (sp?) on uniform coats. But that’s only a guess. Given the time and money on the line, it would be nice to tease out the threads if we could. Disinterested testimony would help.

    Perhaps the self-made men of America or the graduates of the Dissenters’ academies in the British Isles had something to say on the subject?


    2 Oct 11 at 3:30 pm

  5. “Do we have testimony as to the value of a liberal arts education from someone who did not receive such an education?”

    Reading Cheryl’s and Robert’s last two comments it finally recurred to me what one of the evidences of the results of a liberal, or at least somewhat liberal, education might be.

    The very existence of such a place as Liberty “University”.

    While not “proof” of all that Jane alleges, the fact that biblical literalists found it necessary to found their own “university” to “protect” the offspring of their flocks from “liberals” is by itself a testimonial to the effectiveness of a broader education in opening minds.

    Just teaching science won’t do it. LU teaches biology, and teaches it well enough to earn admission to graduate programs — while pushing creationism in its introductory level courses.

    It teaches the basic distribution requirements for math and the physical sciences.

    What LU does NOT have is a philosophy major, a math major, a physics major, and it’s “history” well, here it is from the catalog:

    “It is the purpose of the Department of History to teach and train students toward a Christian worldview of history. Offering general education courses, major programs and graduate courses, the Department gives comprehensive instruction in history and historical methodology, encourages students to develop an integrated Christian worldview,. . .”

    In other words, LU exists as something of an “anti-liberal arts” school to ensure that the bad results of a liberal arts education — the offspring leaving the fold of biblical literalism — does not occur.


    2 Oct 11 at 3:56 pm

  6. Is the assertion here that education in the liberal arts has improved the moral fiber of some people, or merely that some people have historically made such a claim?


    2 Oct 11 at 4:05 pm

  7. So, Michael, our only outside observer so far says that liberal arts education CORRUPTS morals? The citizens of Athens may have agreed–unless the jurors were disgruntled students, and Socrates gave out one too mny pop quizzes.

    Will no outsider say a word in favor of the Philosophy majors? (I assume no one could say anything in favor of the morals of Political Science majors without giggling.)


    2 Oct 11 at 5:47 pm

  8. “Do we have testimony as to the value of a liberal arts education from someone who did not receive such an education?”

    Some time ago I mentioned that the knowledge/skills/whatever that I needed most the higher I rose in the air force was philosophy. I think I may have mentioned that I had also recalled reading somewhere about the same time, ie mid-late 1980s, that IBM had made a policy decision to hire Arts graduates with degrees with heavy emphasis on philosophy.

    I Googled around a bit just now and immediately found this:


    Now, obviously, as the guy is an Arts graduate hired by IBM, and he admits himself that he’d hardly rush to hire someone as technically illiterate as he had been when he started at IBM, he makes good points.

    I never had the formal tertiary level education that I consider would have been ideal for me in my working life. That I came to recognise that it should ideally have been “a liberal arts education”, regardless of any other qualification, as I rose in the officer ranks is, to some extent at least, confirmation of the utility of such an education from someone who never had it.


    2 Oct 11 at 7:06 pm

  9. “So, Michael, our only outside observer so far says that liberal arts education CORRUPTS morals?”

    Well, what THEY think is “moral”.

    That not biblical literalists ARE anything like “moral” is, well, another debate perhaps.

    But the high priests of ignorance certainly recognize the dangers of a liberal education to keeping the children similarly closeted.


    2 Oct 11 at 7:28 pm

  10. Michael, I don’t think you get to decide what moral is for them–unless it also works in reverse, of course. And while Mique has a practical defense of the liberal arts, I still don’t see people rushing up to proclaim the virtue of our Sociology majors.

    Of course we could all keep in mind that Jane has said she’s NOT defending what’s currently taught in our “elite” univesities–but that rather undercuts the notion that sending children elsewhere represents a rejection of the liberal arts education.

    Anyone prepared to leave his wallet unsecured near an Ethics Professor? Going twice.


    2 Oct 11 at 7:59 pm

  11. “Michael, I don’t think you get to decide what moral is for them–unless it also works in reverse, of course.”

    Yes indeed, a variation on the euthyphro dilemma.

    But if the question is does a liberal arts education inculcate “morals”, then it seems the question is answered in the affirmative. Which would seem to confirm that the education does what it’s supposed to

    The only question remaining then is are they the “right” morals, whether what the education produces is what it “should”.

    But then, isn’t that what Jane has set out to discuss?


    2 Oct 11 at 8:07 pm

  12. On the contrary. If any behavior whatever is regarded as moral–well all living things exhibit behavior, even without a liberal arts education.

    If a liberal arts education promotes a particular behavior, then we can argue the morality of that behavior. But if it undermined all moral standards, it would certainly be corrupting and Liberty U–Did they turn you down, or something?–would be entirely justified.

    (Actually, if I were looking for an institution which values conformity above free inquiry and indoctrination above ecducation, I don’t believe I’d bother with LIberty U until wolves howled in Harvard Square. Business before pleasure.)

    So we still have no one not so educated who sees the LAE promoting morality. Volunteers to leave a baby near Professor Singer? Going three times.


    2 Oct 11 at 9:57 pm

  13. Indeed all things exhibit behavior — and social mammals exhibit behavior that certainly looks like the beginnings of moral behavior. Even people. Even without any formal education or ethical code contained in any holy writings. It’s a hint that we’re probably not as free as we’d like.

    As for undermining all moral standards — is that YOUR thesis regarding “liberal education”? If so, you have the same external meta-ethical and epistemological problem Jane does except in the other direction.

    LU simply stands as evidence that something bearing some resemblance at least to a liberl education as outlined by Jane indeed has a profound affect, at least on a particular sub-population, and one that such “leaders” as Jerry Falwell did not appreciate, and which in fact can be substantiated by hard numbers if you care to look for them.

    Oh, and Liberty, if I chose to apply to a college where the average SAT is below average, certainly would not accept me as I would not be able to complete their essay requirement: “Provide an essay of 200 to 400 words on the following: How will your personal faith and beliefs contribute to Liberty’s mission to develop Christ-centered leaders?”

    At least not one they’d like. I mean if their impressionable young students faith could survive my rather scathing skepticism in and out of class I’d say I would have contributed greatly to the “witness” of anyone whose faith survived intact. I doubt they’d see it that way.

    As to why they pop up on my radar, let’s say I’ve been interacting with one of their idiot faculty for a decade now online. Jane knows who I’m talking about.

    As for indoctrination above education — LU states their goal to indoctrinate right up front in black and white for all the world to see. It’s their primary purpose.

    As for Harvard or any other Ivy league school, I wouldn’t know. Any familiarity I personally have with a liberal education is by way of being an autodidact and simply being interested in that kind of stuff.

    As for the Singer comment, go to your shelves and pull down an introductory logic text and review informal fallacies.


    3 Oct 11 at 1:38 am

  14. I’m not sure how Liberty University can have been created as a reaction to the dangers of a liberal arts education if we’re all pretty willing to acknowledge that a liberal arts education as defined for the purpose of this debate is almost entirely unavailable today, even or particularly in universities. Michael appears to know far more about the institution than I do, but I’d assume they simply want an education without the baggage of the mainstream system – the conformity to particular views on politics and religion, the social atmosphere, etc.

    And universities don’t education children, they educate adults, insofar as they education anyone.

    I got a university education, admittedly some time ago and from a smallish an obscure Canadian institution, and although I learned stuff, enjoyed most of my experiences and got jobs based on the pieces of paper they gave me, I wouldn’t begin to claim that I got a liberal arts education.

    What I know about that is what I’ve picked up in my rather eclectic reading and courses-taken-for-interest since then – mostly reading, because the courses tended to have a different focus, even the ones that weren’t on sewing or quilting or something else un-academic.

    Last time we went round this particular debate, I said something like I didn’t see any way you could get from ‘this is the way people behave’ to ‘this is the way people should behave’ without sticking something down as a foundation – it could, of course, be a religion, or it could be a particular philosophical view of what it takes to be truly human, or it could be a strictly mechanistic view – this behaviour gives that kind of society.

    Any choice, though, is utlimately arbitrary. You choose to believe in some view of God, or that humans are innately good, bad or mixed in nature, or that the right social structures can create good humans. You can’t prove your choice is right.


    3 Oct 11 at 6:39 am

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