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It’s My Blog and I’ll Academically Divert if I Want To (Not Quite The Defense)

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Over the course of writing all this stuff, I’ve been continually amazed at how many people seem to think they have the right to demand that I do it on their terms, in their order, according to their standards, and then do it pronto, right now, I’m required.

But this is a blog, not a neutral Internet forum somewhere.  I write it because I like it, I have fun doing it, this is the sort of thing I think about all the time.  I’d write it–and I’d write about these things–even if nobody was asking me questions.

But I’ll write it in my way and on my terms.   At this stage in my career, nobody gets to make those kinds of demands on me.

And it isn’t helping that I’m getting the feeling that the people making the demands aren’t actually listening to anything I’m saying.

So let’s recap a little, and point AB on the way to evidence for what the medieval schools and new universities were actually like, and then I’ll go off to have the day from Hell.  It is, after all, Thursday.

First–the claim that a liberal arts education will result in our being morally better people IS NOT MY CLAIM.

And, beyond that, from my very first attempt to examine that claim,  I have said REPEATEDLY that I DON’T THINK IT IS TRUE and that, to the extent that it MAY be true,  I think it would be virtually impossible to prove.

If I was to outline what value a liberal arts education would be to the individual–which is what I was originally asked to do–THIS IS N OT THE VALUE I WOULD CLAIM FOR IT.

The only reason I started to examine this at all was that AB said it was the claim that he thought was the most interesting.

But when I DID start in on this, I said that this was the LEAST interesting and LEAST defensible to me.

AB’s demand that I show some evidence that people having a liberal education are better than they otherwise would have been is a demand that I show evidence not only of something I don’t think it true, but of the truth of a proposition that is inherently untestable. 

In order to show such evidence, I would have to have a way to discover what such a person would have been–morally and otherwise—without such an education.

This puts us squarely into the realm of crystal balls.

What I did think might be possible was to show that during periods in which the liberal arts were widely taught, the society as a whole showed a higher level of overall moral conduct, or the particular subset of people given such an education did, than either or both did in eras when the liberal arts were in eclipse.

And that’s where I’d gotten to when we ended up here.

As to choice and determinism–well, first, AB is a determinist in the same way that a good friend of mine is Catholic.  He has no positive evidence that his position is true, but given what he thinks he knows about the world that position seems the only logical possibility.

If that satisfies him, that’s fine.  My friend joined a cloistered contemplative religious order and she’s happy as a claim.

But it doesn’t satisfy me, and it doesn’t begin to provide any account of the data.

“Choise” is not irrelevant here, it’s the crux of the entire problem. 

To get back to the analogies:  when you are given a liberal education, you are given the tools and materials to build a house, and instructions on how to build it.

Then you’re left alone with all that stuff–and you may build a house.  Or you may do nothing with it at all. Or you may use it to set up an elaborate camouflage of your serial killing spree.  Or…

Give a thousand people a liberal education, and you’ll get all those and many more.  Such choices may actually be determined on the level of our individual molecules or atoms or whatever–but we have no proof that they are, and simply deciding it must be so does nothing at all to make us understand what we’re seeing and certainly no way of predicting what any individual’s behavior will be.

Personally, I think the whole “science is deterministic and if there’s such a thing as choice there can be no science” business is the sort of thing people say and then get embarrassed to remember later, when it turns out there’s something going on we didn’t know about.

In other words, I think that position results not from logic, but from a failure of the imagination.

As to more modern examples–since my position is ALSO that there is virtually no way to get a liberal arts education these days, it’s hard to tell what I’m supposed to come up with when nothing exists even to be tested.  Or close to nothing.

But, on top of that, intellectual history is evolution.  It takes a long time–yes! it may take even a couple of hundred years for an idea to take hold in a society and become fully realiized!  Hell, the equality thing took a nearly 2000–and in the process of that evolution, nothing stays the same.

But I was on my way there–to the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, and the Romantic Era, and the Victorian and Matthew Arnold.

I’ll get there.

As for liberal education in the early Middle Ages–the best book about what actually went on in the era (rather than what the Renaissance and the Enlightenment claimed went on in the era), is a thing called the Didascalicon written by a man named Hugh of Saint Victor somewhere in the early to mid 12th century.

Hugh was an Augustinian monk in Paris, who taught the liberal arts in the Abbey school and then became master of that school.  The Didascalicon outlines the principles of a liberal education both as they were practiced at the Abbey when he studied them and later as he practiced them himself.

It is a practical book, meant to be used as a manual and textbook by furture teachers at the school and by men and women trying to bring the liberal arts to their own schools, or to found schools for them.

If you read this thing, the first thing you’ll notice is that Hugh is trying to square the circle. 

He wants his students to accept Scripture “docilely,” but at the same time he thinks that a) you can’t really understand Scripture unless you learn to analyze and interpret it and b) that the liberal arts and the works of the Greeks and Romans are the best way to learn to do that and c) that the liberal arts are inherently dangerous because the works of the Pagans often carry conclusions in ethics and other things that are contrary to Scripture and that therefore must be carefully dissected and crituqes if they are to be used correctly by Christian students.

The liberal arts then were organized as trivium (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic) and the quadrivium (music, astronomy, arithmatic and geometry). 

When I was first learning about it, the quadrivium sounded a little odd to me,  until somebody explained that music was considered to be a branch of mathematics. 

If you’re looking for students being encourage to challenge the works of the Pagan masters, it’s dialectic you’re looking for, and to a certain extent the higher studies in grammar. 

You’ll note, by the way, that the examples chosen of how to critique and challenge such masters are all in the realm of metaphysics, ethics, and that sort of thing, rather than in “natural philosophy” (chemistery and physics). 

This was not because people of Hugh’s time found natural philosophy to be sacrosanct, but because they largely thought of it as trivial.  It was composed of things that were nice to know, but not terribly important to real life.

You’ll also note that they were very enamoured of a sort of watered-down, passed-on version of the Socratic method–in other words, they taught by confrontation and critique at least at the higher levels.

What Hugh and men like him wanted was to teach their students to criticize and interpret and yet someone insure that they would only do so to works OTHER than Scripture.

Anybody not so thoroughly committed to BOTH Christian orthodoxy AND the liberals arts would have seen right away that that wasn’t going to happen.

As to the Middle Ages/Renaissance thing–you might want to be careful with that.  The Renaissance liked to pride itself on having overturned the stodgy irrelevance of the Middle Ages (how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!), and the Enlightenment liked that even better.  And the narrative we have taken out of that era tend to be about the supposed conflicts between science and religion.

In point of fact, however, the Renaissance stands to the Middle Ages more like the way the Romantic Era stands to the Enlightenment.  It was a largely anti-science, anti-rationalist reaction to a period that had gone far down the road of turning everything over to the logical, the practical and the ploddingly worked-out.

There were great strides made in science in the Renaissance, but they were in large part made by men who were largely out of step with their time, sticking to the plodding and methodical when most of everybody else was going in for emotional extravagance and artistic extremism.

The Renaissance began in theology–with a change in focus from attempting to learn the attributes of God to discussing and delineating the relationship between God and man.   Sounds like a little enough thing, but it gave rise to a renewed concentration on secular learning as a manifestation of God in the world.

I’ll get to what the content of the morality was that the liberal arts taught–both originally and throughout the evolution of it–eventually, because that’s inevitable

But right now, I have to go have my day.


Written by janeh

October 6th, 2011 at 9:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'It’s My Blog and I’ll Academically Divert if I Want To (Not Quite The Defense)'

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  1. I recommend in this context Dorothy L. Sayers’ “The Lost Tools of Learning” which summarizes medieval teaching methods and discusses their utility today. It’s about 18 pages and while it differs from “The Defense of the Liberal Arts” on some points, there are also broad areas of agreement.


    6 Oct 11 at 3:45 pm

  2. “First, AB asks if I’m trying to prove that a liberal arts education makes some people good, or only if some people say it makes them good.

    I’d say I’m trying to prove either.”

    What a difference an N makes! But I haven’t asked for proof, only evidence. And, while disclaiming the position, you have been consistently defending it. While you are certainly free to defend positions you do not agree with, it might help if you didn’t make unequivocal statements of them, or give your posts titles like “The Defense” or “Speaking With the Dead.” This habit may leave us wondering whether you are sincere in claiming, for example, that, “[Abgrund] …has no positive evidence that his position is true, but given what he thinks he knows about the world that position seems the only logical possibility.”

    I would be pleased to discover that the above statement was facetious, not only because you make personal imputations in the absence of information, but because I cannot believe that any thinking person fails to find evidence of determinism, and in great abundance, while there is a conspicuous lack of evidence to the contrary.

    Choice, as an objective reality, is in fact irrelevant, because it is neither definable nor detectable. Feel free to offer some example of how “choice” violates determinism, or how an event of “choice” may be distinguished from one that does not involve choice.

    The Didascalicon is not relevant to the teachings of Gregory the Great, nor the behavior of his priests, but if I can track down a copy at a reasonable price I’m sure it will be interesting.

    If you feel that I am placing “demands” on you, feel free to change the subject. You, are after all, choosing to answer :)


    6 Oct 11 at 8:19 pm

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