Archive for the ‘Character formation’ Category

Reflections on Trisecting the Angle

Thursday, March 12th, 2020

I’m not a mathematician by training, but the language and (for want of a better term) the sport of geometry has always had a special appeal for me. I wasn’t a whiz at algebra in high school, but I aced geometry. As a homeschooling parent, I had a wonderful time teaching geometry to our three kids. I still find geometry intriguing.

When I was in high school, I spent hours trying to figure out how to trisect an angle with compass and straightedge. I knew that nobody had found a way to do it. As it turns out, in 1837 (before even my school days) French mathematician Pierre Wantzel proved that it was impossible for the general case (trisecting certain special angles is trivial). I’m glad I didn’t know that, though, since it gave me a certain license to hack at it anyway. Perhaps I was motivated by a sense that it would be glorious to be the first to crack this particular nut, but mostly I just wondered, “Can it be done, and if not, why not?”

Trisecting the angle is cited in Wikipedia as an example of “pseudomathematics”, and while I will happily concede that any claim to be able to do so would doubtless rely on bogus premises or operations, I nevertheless argue that wrestling with the problem honestly, within the rules of the game, is a mathematical activity as valid as any other, at least as an exercise. I tried different strategies, mostly trying to find a useful correspondence between the (simple) trisection of a straight line and the trisection of an arc. My efforts, of course, failed (that’s what “impossible” means, after all). Had they not, my own name would be celebrated in different Wikipedia articles describing how the puzzle had finally been solved. It’s not. In my defense, I hasten to point out that I never was under the impression that I had succeeded. I just wanted to try and to know either how to do it or to know the reason why.

My failed effort might, by many measures, be accounted a waste of time. But was it? I don’t think it was. Its value for me was not in the achievement but in the striving. Pushing on El Capitan isn’t going to move the mountain, either, but doing it regularly will provide a measure of isometric exercise. Similarly confronting an impossible mental challenge can have certain benefits.

And so along the way I gained a visceral appreciation of some truths I might not have grasped as fully otherwise.

In the narrowest terms, I came to understand that the problem of trisecting the angle (either as an angle or as its corresponding arc) is fundamentally distinct from the problem of trisecting a line segment, because curvature — even in the simplest case, which is the circular — fundamentally changes the problem. One cannot treat the circumference of a circle as if it were linear, even though it is much like a line segment, having no thickness and a specific finite extension. (The fact that π is irrational seems at least obliquely connected to this, though it might not be: that’s just a surmise of my own.)

In the broadest terms, I came more fully to appreciate the fact that some things are intrinsically impossible, even if they are not obvious logical contradictions. You can bang away at them for as long as you like, but you’ll never solve them. This truth transcends mathematics by a long stretch, but it’s worth realizing that failing to accomplish something that you want to accomplish is not invariably a result of your personal moral, intellectual, or imaginative deficiencies. As disappointing as it may be for those who want to believe that every failure is a moral, intellectual, or imaginative one, it’s very liberating for the rest of us.

Between those obvious extremes are some more nuanced realizations. 

I came to appreciate iterative refinement as a tool. After all, even if you can’t trisect the general angle with perfect geometrical rigor, you actually can come up with an imperfect but eminently practical approximation — to whatever degree of precision you require. By iterative refinement (interpolating between the too-large and the too-small solutions), you can zero in on a value that’s demonstrably better than the last one every time. Eventually, the inaccuracy won’t matter to you any more for any practical application. I’m perfectly aware that this no longer pure math — but it is the very essence of engineering, which has a fairly prominent and distinguished place in the world. Thinking about this also altered my appreciation of precision as a pragmatic real-world concept. 

A more general expression of this notion is that, while some problems never have perfect solutions, they sometimes can be practically solved in a way that’s good enough for a given purpose. That’s a liberating realization. Failure to achieve the perfect solution needn’t stop you in your tracks. It doesn’t mean you can’t get a very good one. It’s worth internalizing this basic truth. And only by wrestling with the impossible do we typically discover the limits of the possible. That in turn lets us develop strategies for practical work-arounds.

Conceptually, too, iterative refinement ultimately loops around on itself and becomes a model for thinking about such things as calculus, and the strange and wonderful fact that, with limit theory, we can (at least sometimes) achieve exact (if occasionally bizarre) values for things that we can’t measure directly. Calculus gives us the ability (figuratively speaking) to bounce a very orderly sequence of successive refinements off an infinitely remote backstop and somehow get back an answer that is not only usable but sometimes actually is perfect. This is important enough that we now define the value of pi as the limit of the perimeter of a polygon with infinitely many sides.

It shows also that this is not just a problem of something being somehow too difficult to do: difficulty has little or nothing to do with intrinsic impossibility (pace the Army Corps of Engineers: they are, after all, engineers, not pure mathematicians). In fact we live in a world full of unachievable things. Irrational numbers are all around us, from pi to phi to the square root of two, and even though no amount of effort will produce a perfect rational expression of any of those values, they are not on that account any less real. You cannot solve pi to its last decimal digit because there is no such digit, and no other rational expression can capture it either. But the proportion of circumference to diameter is always exactly pi, and the circumference of the circle is an exact distance. It’s magnificently reliable and absolutely perfect, but its perfection can never be entirely expressed in the same terms as the diameter. (We could arbitrarily designate the circumference as 1 or any other rational number; but then the diameter would be inexpressible in the same terms.)

I’m inclined to draw some theological application from that, but I’m not sure I’m competent to do so. It bears thinking on. Certainly it has at least some broad philosophical applications. The prevailing culture tends to suggest that whatever is not quantifiable and tangible is not real. There are a lot of reasons we can’t quantify such things as love or justice or truth; it’s also in the nature of number that we can’t nail down many concrete things. None of them is the less real merely because we can’t express them perfectly.

Approximation by iterative refinement is basic in dealing with the world in both its rational and its irrational dimensions. While your inability to express pi rationally is not a failure of your moral or rational fiber, you may still legitimately be required — and you will be able — to get an arbitrarily precise approximation of it. In my day, we were taught the Greek value 22/7 as a practical rational value for pi, though Archimedes (288-212 BC) knew it was a bit too high (3.1428…). The Chinese mathematician Zhu Chongzhi (AD 429-500) came up with 355/113, which is not precisely pi either, but it’s more than a thousand times closer to the mark (3.1415929…). The whole domain of rational approximation is fun to explore, and has analogical implications in things not bound up with numbers at all.

So I personally don’t consider my attempts to trisect the general angle with compass and straightedge to be time wasted. It’s that way in most intellectual endeavors, really: education represents not a catalogue of facts, but a process and an exercise, in which the collateral benefits can far outweigh any immediate success or failure. Pitting yourself against reality, win or lose, you become stronger, and, one hopes, wiser. 

Crafting a Literature Program

Saturday, February 22nd, 2020

The liberal arts are, to great measure, founded on written remains, from the earliest times to our own. Literature (broadly construed to take in both fiction and non-fiction) encompasses a bewildering variety of texts, genres, attitudes, belief systems, and just about everything else. Like history (which can reasonably be construed to cover everything we know, with the possible, but incomplete, exception of pure logic and mathematics), literature is a problematic area of instruction: it is both enormously important and virtually impossible to reduce to a clear and manageable number of postulates. 

In modern educational circles, literary studies are often dominated by critical schools, the grinding of pedagogical axes, and dogmatic or interpretive agendas of all sorts — social, political, psychological, or completely idiosyncratic. Often these things loom so large as to eclipse the reality that they claim to investigate. It is as if the study of astronomy had become exclusively bound up with the technology of telescope manufacture, but no longer bothered with turning them toward the stars and planets. Other difficulties attend the field as well.

We’re sailing on an ocean here…

The first is just the sheer size of the field. Yes, astronomy may investigate a vast number of stars, and biology may look at a vast number of organisms and biological systems, but the effort there is to elicit what is common to the diverse phenomena (which did not in and of themselves come into being as objects of human contemplation) and produce a coherent system to account for them. Literature doesn’t work that way. There is an unimaginably huge body of literature out there, and it’s getting bigger every day. Unlike science or milk, the old material doesn’t spoil or go off; it just keeps accumulating. Even if (by your standards or Sturgeon’s Law) 90% of it is garbage, that still leaves an enormous volume of good material to cover. There’s no way to examine more than the tiniest part of that.

…on which the waves never stop moving…

Every item you will encounter in a study of literature is itself an overt attempt to communicate something to someone. That means that each piece expresses its author’s identity and personality; in the process it inevitably reflects a range of underlying social and cultural suppositions. In their turn, these may be common to that author’s time and place, or they may represent resistance to the norms of the time. Any given work may reach us through few or many intermediaries, some of which will have left their stamp on it, one way or the other. Finally, every reader receives every literary product he or she encounters differently, too. That allows virtually infinite room for ongoing negotiation between author and reader in shaping the experience and its meaning — which is the perennially shifting middle ground between them.

…while no two compasses agree…

I haven’t seen this discussed very much out in the open, though perhaps I just don’t frequent the right websites, email lists, or conferences. But the reality — the elephant in the room — is that no two teachers agree on what qualifies as good and bad literature. Everyone has ideas about that, but they remain somewhat hidden, and often they are derived viscerally rather than systematically. For example, I teach (among other things) The Odyssey and Huckleberry Finn; I have seen both attacked, in a national forum of English teachers, as having no place in the curriculum because they are (for one reason or another) either not good literature or because they are seen as conveying pernicious social or cultural messages. I disagree with their conclusion, at least — obviously, since I do in fact teach them, but the people holding these positions are not stupid. In fact, they make some very strong arguments. They’re proceeding from basic assumptions different from my own…but, then again, so does just about everyone. That’s life.

…nor can anyone name the destination:

Nobody talks about this much, either, but it’s basic: our literature teachers don’t even remotely agree on what they’re doing. Again, I don’t mean that they are incompetent or foolish, but merely that there is no universally agreed-upon description of what success in a literature program looks like. Success in a science or math program, or even a foreign language program, is relatively simple to quantify and consequently reasonably simple to assess. Not so here. Every teacher seems to bring a different yardstick to the table. Some see their courses as morally neutral instruction in the history and techniques of an art form; others see it as a mode of indoctrination in values, according to their lights. For some, that’s Marxism. For some, it’s conservative Christianity. For some, it’s a liberal secular humanism. For others…well, there is no accounting for all the stripes of opinion people bring with the to the table — but the range is very broad.

is it any wonder people are confused?

So where are we, then, anyway? The sum is so chaotic that most public high students I have asked in the past two decades appear to have simply checked out: they play the game and endure their English classes, but the shocking fact is that, even while enrolled in them at the time, almost all have been unable to tell me what they were reading for those classes. This is not a furtive examination: I’ve simply asked them, “So, what are you reading for English?” If one or two didn’t know, I’d take that as a deficiency in the student or a sudden momentary diffidence on the subject. When all of them seem not to know, however, I suspect some more systemic shortfall. I would suggest that this is not because they are stupid either, but because their own literary instruction has been so chaotic as to stymie real engagement with the material.

It’s not particularly surprising, then, that literature is seen as somehow suspect, and that homeschooling parents looking for literature courses for their students feel that they are buying a pig in a poke. They are. They have to be wondering — will this course or that respect my beliefs or betray them? Will the whole project really add up to anything? Will the time spend on it add in any meaningful sense to my students’ lives, or is this just some gravy we could just as well do without? Some parents believe (rightly or wrongly: it would be a conflict of interest for me even to speculate which) that they probably can do just as well on such a “soft” subject as some program they don’t fully understand or trust. 

One teacher’s approach

These questions are critical, and I encourage any parent to get some satisfactory answers before enrolling in any program of literary instruction, including mine. Here are my answers: if they satisfy you, I hope you’ll consider our program. If not, look elsewhere with my blessing, but keep asking the questions.

In the first instance, my project is fairly simple. I am trying to teach my students to read well. Of course, by now they have mastered the mechanical art of deciphering letters, combining them into words, and extracting meaning from sentences on a page. But there’s more to reading than that: one must associate those individual sentences with each other and weigh them together to come to a synthetic understanding of what the author is doing. They need in the long run to consider nuance, irony, tonality, and the myriad inflections an author imparts to the text with his or her own persona. Moreover, they need t consider what a given position or set of ideas means within its own cultural conversation. All those things change the big picture.

There’s a lot there to know, and a lot to learn. I don’t pretend to know it all myself either, but I think I know at least some of the basic questions, and I have for about a generation now been encouraging students to ask them, probe them, and keep worrying at the feedback like a dog with a favorite bone. In some areas, my own perspectives are doubtless deficient. I do, on the other hand, know enough about ancient and medieval literature, language, and culture that I usually can open some doors that students hadn’t hitherto suspected. Once one develops a habit of looking at these things, one can often see where to push on other kinds of literature as well. The payoff is cumulative.

There are some things I generally do not do. I do not try to use literary instruction as a reductive occasion or pretext for moral or religious indoctrination. Most of our students come from families already seriously engaged with questions of faith and morals, and I prefer to respect that fact, leaving it to their parents and clergy. I also don’t believe that any work of literature can be entirely encompassed by such questions, and hence it would be more than a little arrogant of me to try to constrain the discussion to those points.

This is not to say that I shy away from moral and religious topics either (as teachers in our public schools often have to do perforce). Moral and theological issues come up naturally in our conversations, and I do not suppress them; I try to deal with them honestly from my own perspective as a fairly conservative reader and as a Christian while leaving respectful room for divergence of opinion as well. (I do believe that my own salvation is not contingent upon my having all the right answers, so I’m willing to be proven wrong on the particulars.)

It is never my purpose to mine literary works for “teachable points” or to find disembodied sententiae that I can use as an excuse to exalt this work or dismiss that one. This is for two reasons. First of all, I have too much respect for the literary art to think that it can or should be reduced to a platitudinous substrate. Second, story in particular (which is a large part of what literature involves) is a powerful and largely autonomous entity. It cannot well be tamed; any attempt to subvert it with tendentious arguments (from either the author’s point of view or from the reader’s) almost invariably produces bad art and bad reading. An attempt to tell a student “You should like this work, but must appreciate it only in the following way,” is merely tyrannical — tyrannical in the worst way, since it sees itself as being entirely in the interest of and for the benefit of the student. Fortunately, for most students, it’s also almost wholly ineffectual, though a sorry side effect is that a number find the whole process so off-putting that they ditch literature altogether. That’s probably the worst possible outcome for a literature program.

I also do not insist on canons of my own taste. If students disagree with me (positively or negatively) about the value of a given work, I’m fine with that. I don’t require anyone to like what I like. I deal in classics (in a variety of senses of the term) but the idea of an absolute canon of literature is a foolish attempt to control what cannot be controlled. It does not erode my appreciation for a work of literature that a student doesn’t like it. The fact that twenty generations have liked another won’t itself make me like it either, if I don’t, though it does make me reticent to reject it out of hand. It takes a little humility to revisit something on which you have already formed an opinion, but it’s salutary. It’s not just the verdict of the generations that can force me back to a work again, either: if a student can see something in a work that I have hitherto missed and can show me how to appreciate it, I gain by that. At the worst, I’m not harmed; at the best, I’m a beneficiary. Many teachers seem eager to enforce their evaluations of works on their students. I don’t know why. I have learned more from my students than from any other source, I suspect. Why would I not want that to continue?

Being primarily a language scholar, I do attempt to dig into texts for things like grammatical function — both as a way of ascertaining the exact surface meanings and as a way of uncovering the hidden complexities. Those who haven’t read Shakespeare with an eye on his brilliant syntactical ambiguity in mind are missing a lot. He was a master of complex expression, and what may initially seem oddly phrased but obvious statements can unfold into far less obvious questions or bivalent confessions. After thirty years of picking at it, I still have never seen an adequate discussion in the critical literature on Macbeth’s “Here had we now our country’s honour roofed / Were the graced person of our Banquo present (Macbeth 3.4.39-40).”  The odd phrasing is routinely explained as something like “All the nobility of Scotland would be gathered under one roof if only Banquo were present,” but I think he is saying considerably more than that, thanks to the formation of contrary-to-fact conditions and the English subjunctive.

My broadest approach to literature is more fully elaborated in Reading and Christian Charity, an earlier posting on this blog and also one of the “White Papers” on the school website. I hope all parents (and their students) considering taking any of my courses will read it, because it contains the essential core of my own approach to literature, which differs from many others, both in the secular world and in the community flying the banner of Classical Christian Education. If it is what you’re looking for, I hope you will consider our courses. 

[Some of the foregoing appeared at the Scholars Online Website as ancillary to the description of the literature offerings. It has been considerably revised and extended here.]

Autonomy of Means Again: “Best Practices”

Wednesday, January 1st, 2020

When our kids were younger and living at home, they also frequently had dishwashing duty. Even today we haven’t gotten around to buying a mechanical dishwasher, but when five people were living (and eating) at home, it was good not to have to do all that by ourselves.

But as anyone who has ever enlisted the services of children for this job will surely remember, the process needs to be refined by practice. Even more importantly, though, no matter how good the process seems to be, it can’t be considered a success if the outcome is not up to par. At different points, when I pointed out a dirty glass or pan in the drain, all three of our kids responded with, “But I washed it,” as if that had fully discharged their responsibility.

The problem is that though they might have washed it, they had not cleaned it. The purpose of the washing (a process, which can be efficacious or not) is to have a clean article of tableware or cookware (the proper product of the task). Product trumps process: the mere performance of a ritual of cleansing may or may not have the desired result. Inadequate results can at any time call the sufficiency of the process into question.

This is paradigmatic of something I see more and more these days in relation to education. The notion that completing a process — any process — is the same as achieving its goal is beguiling but false. Depending on whether we’re talking about a speck of egg on a frying pan or the inadequate adjustment of the brakes on your car, that category mistake can be irksome or it can be deadly.

In education it’s often more than merely irksome, but usually less than deadly. I’ve already talked about the “I translated it but I don’t understand it” phenomenon here: ; the claim has never made sense to me, since if you actually translated it, that means that you actually expressed the sense as you understood it. No other set of processes one can do with a foreign-language text is really translating it.

Accordingly I’m skeptical of educational theorists (including those who put together some of the standards for the accreditation process we are going through now) buzzing about “best practices”. This pernicious little concept, borrowed with less thought than zeal from the business world, misleadingly suggests — and to most people means — practices that are ipso facto sufficient: pursuing them to the letter guarantees a satisfactory outcome. And yet sometimes the dish is dirty, the translation is gibberish, or the brakes fail.

It’s not really even a good idea in the business world. An article in Forbes by Mike Myatt in 2012 trenchantly backs up its title claim, “Best Practices — Aren’t”; in 2014, Liz Ryan followed up the same concept with “The Truth about Best Practices”. Both articles challenge the blinkered orthodoxies of the “best practices” narrative.

The problem with any process-side validation of an activity is that, in the very act of being articulated, it tends to eclipse the purpose for which the task is being done. Doing it the right way takes precedence over doing the right thing. Surely the measure of an education is the learning itself — not the process that has been followed. The process is just a means to the end. In Charles Williams’ words, which I’ve quoted and referred to here before (here  and here), “When the means are autonomous, they are deadly”.

Of course they may not in any given situation cause someone to die — but means divorced from their proper ends inevitably subvert, erode, and deform the goals for which they were originally ordained. This is especially true in education, precisely because there’s no broad consensus on what the product looks like. Accordingly the only really successful educational process is one that’s a dynamic outgrowth of the situation at hand, and it can ultimately be validated only by its results.

Liz Ryan notes, “They’re only Best Practices if they work for you.” There are at least two ways of understanding that phrase, and both of them are right: they’re only Best Practices if they work for you, and they’re only Best Practices if they work for you. Their utility depends on both the person and the outcome. Nor should it be any other way.

Bulletin for Seniors (and Juniors?) Interested in Ethics

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2019

The course on Ethics offered in the autumn is at a college level, so the work will be challenging and interesting. The text originally identified, Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, begins with the problem that the variety of moral beliefs, and the difficulty of finding objective reasons to prefer one over the other, invites the conclusion of relativism, that is, what is right and wrong depends on one’s culture and preferences and there is no universal standard. MacIntyre rejects that conclusion. To explore how to evaluate competing moral beliefs, he develops a strand of Western ethical theory that has its origins with Aristotle. One weakness of MacIntyre’s book, for the high school student, is that he assumes considerable knowledge about historical approaches to ethics. The problem he deals with, and the solution he proposes, makes more sense if the historical material is mastered first. I have been looking for a good text to present the historical material and have found it in Robin Lovin’s Introduction to Christian Ethics. That book will be added to the course listing. Now the course is well balanced. Roughly the first half will present the general topic of ethics and survey various approaches taken by Western thinkers since Socrates. The second half will focus on MacIntyre’s book. I hope this course will be worthy of study both for its inherent interest and for the way it provides an introduction to some important philosophers in the Western tradition. It will also be an opportunity to develop college-level writing skills.

Socrates’ Argumentation — Method, Madness, or Something Else?

Monday, July 31st, 2017

The common understanding of basic terms and ideas is often amiss. Sometimes that’s innocuous; sometimes it’s not.

Many in the field of classical education tout what they call the Socratic Method, by which they seem to mean a process that draws the student to the correct conclusion by means of a sequence of leading questions. The end is predetermined; for good or ill, the method is primarily a rhetorical strategy to convince students that the answer was their own idea all along, thus achieving “buy-in”, so to speak. As rhetorical strategies go, it’s not really so bad.

Is it also good pedagogical technique? I am less certain. The short-term advantage of persuading a student that something is his or her own idea is materially compromised by the fact that (on these terms, at least) the method is fundamentally disingenuous. If the questioner feigns ignorance, while all the while knowing precisely where these questions must lead, perceptive students, at least, will eventually realize that they are being played. Some may not resent that; others certainly will, and will seek every opportunity to disengage themselves from a process that they rightly consider a pretense.

Whether it’s valid pedagogically or not, however, we mustn’t claim that it’s Socratic. Socrates did indeed proceed by asking questions. He asked them incessantly. He was annoying, in fact — a kind of perpetual three-year-old, asking “why?” after each answer, challenging every supposition, and never satisfied with the status quo or with any piece of accepted wisdom. It can be wearying to respond to this game; harried parents through the years have learned to shut down such interrogation: “Because I said so!” The Athenians shut Socrates’ questioning down with a cup of hemlock.

But the fact is that the annoying three-year-old is probably the most capable learning agent in the history of the world. The unfettered inquiry into why and how — about anything and everything — is the very stuff of learning. It’s why young children learn sophisticated language at such a rate. “Because I said so,” is arguably the correct answer to “Why must I do what you say?” But as an answer to a question about the truth, rather than as the justification of a command, it’s entirely inadequate, and even a three-year-old knows the difference. If we consider it acceptable, we are surrendering our credentials as learners or as teachers.

The difference between the popular notion of this so-called Socratic method and the method Socrates actually follows in the Platonic dialogues is that Socrates apparently had no fixed goal in view. He was always far more concerned to dismantle specious knowledge than to supply a substitute in its place. He was willing to challenge any conclusions, and the endpoint of most of his early dialogues was not a settled agreement, but merely an admission of humility: “Well, golly, Socrates. I’m stuck. I guess I really have no idea what I was talking about.” Socrates thought that this was a pretty good beginning; indeed, he claimed that his one advantage over other presumed experts was that he at least knew that he didn’t know anything, while they, just as ignorant in fact, believed that they knew something.

Taken on this view, the Socratic method is really a fairly poor way of training someone. If you are teaching people to be technicians of some sort or other, you want them to submit to the program and take instruction. It’s arguably not the best tool for practical engineering, medicine, or the law. (There is now a major push in resistance to using any kind of real Socratic method in law school, for example.)

But training is precisely not education. Education is where the true Socratic process comes into its own. It’s about the confrontation of minds, the clarification of definitions, and the discovery and testing of new ideas. It’s a risky way of teaching. It changes the underlying supposition of the enterprise. It can no longer be seen merely as a one-way download of information from master to pupil. In its place it commends to us a common search for the truth. At this point, the teacher is at most the first among equals.

This makes — and will continue to make — a lot of people uncomfortable. It makes many teachers uncomfortable, because in the process they risk losing control — not necessarily behavioral control of a class, but their identity (often carefully groomed and still more zealously protected) as oracles whose word should not be questioned. It opens their narrative and their identity to questioning, and may put them on the defensive.

It makes students uncomfortable too — especially those who are identified as “good” students — the ones who dot every “i” and cross every “t”, and never seem to step out of line or challenge the teacher’s authority. These are the ones likeliest, in a traditional high school, to be valedictorians and materially successful, according to a few recent studies — but not the ones likeliest to make real breakthrough contributions. (The recent book Barking up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker has some interesting things to say about this: one can read a precis of his contentions here. Barker’s work is based at least in part on Karen Arnold’s Lives of Promise, published in 1995, and discussed here.)

In practical terms, education is a mixed bag.

There is a place for training. We need at least some of the “download” kind of instruction. Basic terms need to be learned before they can be manipulated; every discipline has its grammar. I really do know Latin, for example, better than most of my students, and, at least most of the time, what I say is likelier to be correct. But my saying so neither constitutes nor assures correctness, and if a student corrects me, then, assuming he or she is right, it should be my part to accept that correction graciously, not to insist on a falsehood because I can prevail on the basis of my presumed status. If the correction is wrong, the course of charity is also to assume good intention on the student’s part, and clarify the right answer in my turn. Either way, there is no room for “alternative facts”. There is truth, and there is falsehood. The truth is always the truth, irrespective of who articulates it, and it — not I or my student — deserves the primary respect. We must serve the truth, not the other way around.

At some point in their education, though, students should also be invited to get into the ring with each other and with the teacher, to state their cases with conviction, and back them up with reasoned argument and well-documented facts. If they get knocked down, they need to learn to get back up again and keep on engaging in the process. It hurts a lot less if one realizes that it’s not one’s own personal worth that’s at stake: it’s the truth that is slowly coming to light as we go along. That’s the experience — and the thrill of the chase that it actually entails — that constitutes the deeper part of education. That’s what the true Socratic method was — and still should be — about.

Two modes of learning are prevalent today in colleges, especially — the lecture course and the seminar. In the lecture, the students are, for the most part, passive recipients of information. The agent is the lecturer, who delivers course content in a one-way stream. It’s enshrined in hundreds of years of tradition, and it has its place. But a student who never moves beyond that will emerge more or less free of actual education. The seminar, on the other hand, is about the dialectic — the back-and-forth of the process. It requires the student to become, for a time, the teacher, to challenge authority not because it is authority but because truth has the higher claim. Here disagreement is not toxic: it’s the life blood of the process, and it’s lifegiving for the student.

At Scholars Online, we have chiefly chosen to rely on something like the seminar approach for our live chats. We have, we think, very capable teachers, and there are some things that they need to impart to the students. But to large measure, these can be done by web-page “lectures”, which a student can read on his or her own time. The class discussion, however, is reciprocal, and that reciprocity of passionately-held ideas is what fires a true love of learning. It’s about the exchange — the push and pull, honoring the truth first and foremost. It may come at a cost: in Socrates’s case it certainly did. But it’s about awakening the life of the mind, without which there is no education: schooling without real engagement merely produces drones.

The Divine Gift of Philosophy

Saturday, July 29th, 2017
CATCHY TITLE NEEDED
We’ve been busy this year, and that’s taken its toll on publishing blog articles.  Besides reviewing our options for accreditation, upgrading the Moodle and its theme, finding and supporting teachers and teaching our own classes, we were faced, as some of you know, with serious medical challenges that absorbed huge amounts of time and emotional energy. It didn’t help that the political scene was also one of chaos and increasing incivility tearing at the fabric of our nation.
In the quiet spaces when there was time, we’ve done a lot of thinking about why Scholars Online exists, and what the point of classical Christian education really is. In its origins, the liberal arts of the quadrivium and trivium were the foundation of the education that was required,  not to make men free, as some have supposed, but to equip free men to meet their primary duty: to act wisely and responsibly as citizens of their communities, whether a small polis or a great empire. To this end, the citizens of Greece and Rome needed to discern carefully to discover the truth, analyze many disparate factors closely to determine the likely outcomes of possible actions, and argue clearly to convince others to adopt their plan of action for the best outcome.
This passion to know the truth was part of the Greek outlook, and part of the Judeo-Christian tradition as well, since knowing what is true is a way of knowing God.  Knowing the truth sets us free, Christ says: we no longer need blindly accept what we are told by those around us, or be swayed by the emotions of the moment, but can choose for ourselves how to serve God. We can be ourselves, and our relationships with others will have a firm foundation.
St. Paul notes that among the gifts of the Sprit are  wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, and wonder,  all of them dependent on knowing the truth and being able to act on it wisely.  But the truth is often complex; we need help to discern it and we need skill with words to communicate what we’ve learned clearly, precisely, and persuasively.
The early Christian fathers were quick to recognize the benefits of classical philosophy in searching for the truth, even though the discipline originated in what they considered a pagan people. If divine inspiration was God’s gift to the Israelites, St. Clement argued, then philosophy was God’s gift to the Greeks.  The tools of the Greek philosophers  became essential tools for the Christian, providing ways to discern which doctrines were true, which actions wise.
And such persuasion is convincing, by which those that love learning admit the truth; so that philosophy does not ruin life by being the originator of false practices and base deeds, although some have calumniated it, though it be the clear image of truth, a divine gift to the Greeks; nor does it drag us away from the faith, as if we were bewitched by some delusive art, but rather, so to speak, by the use of an ampler circuit, obtains a common exercise demonstrative of the faith. Further, the juxtaposition of doctrines, by comparison, saves the truth, from which follows knowledge. Philosophy came into existence, not on its own account, but for the advantages reaped by us from knowledge, we receiving a firm persuasion of true perception, through the knowledge of things comprehended by the mind. (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book I, Chapter 2).
To comprehension of the truth, the Christian fathers added charity and compassion in action.  One could act from knowledge of the truth but still promote despair, fear, hatred, and chaos.  The fruits of Christian actions can be identified because they promote peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galations 5:22-23).  Combined with tools that let us discern the truth, these criteria help us determine how we should respond to any situation.
So here’s the goal of Scholars Online, not merely to teach students the philosophy of the past, but to help them determine how to act in the present:
To inspire students with charity; to develop their acumen by close interpretation of words, arguments, and ideas; and to cultivate precise expression by sharing our love of the written word—the medium through which the most critical ideas have been conveyed throughout the generations.

We’ve been busy this year, and that’s taken its toll on publishing blog articles.  Besides reviewing our options for accreditation, upgrading the Moodle and its theme, finding and supporting teachers and teaching our own classes, we were faced, as some of you know, with serious medical challenges that absorbed huge amounts of time and emotional energy. It didn’t help that the political scene was also one of chaos and increasing incivility tearing at the fabric of our nation.

In the quiet spaces when there was time, we’ve done a lot of thinking about why Scholars Online exists, and what the point of classical Christian education really is. In its origins, the liberal arts of the quadrivium and trivium were the foundation of the education that was required,  not to make men free, as some have supposed, but to equip free men to meet their primary duty: to act wisely and responsibly as citizens of their communities, whether a small polis or a great empire. To this end, the citizens of Greece and Rome needed to discern carefully to discover the truth, analyze many disparate factors closely to determine the likely outcomes of possible actions, and argue clearly to convince others to adopt their plan of action for the best outcome.

This passion to know the truth was part of the Greek outlook, and part of the Judeo-Christian tradition as well, since knowing what is true is a way of knowing God.  Knowing the truth sets us free, Christ says: we no longer need blindly accept what we are told by those around us, or be swayed by the emotions of the moment, but can choose for ourselves how to serve God. We can be ourselves, and our relationships with others will have a firm foundation.

St. Paul notes that among the gifts of the Sprit are  wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, and wonder (1 Corinthians 12: 7-11),  all of them dependent on knowing the truth and being able to act on it wisely.  But the truth is often complex; we need help to discern it and we need skill with words to communicate what we’ve learned clearly, precisely, and persuasively.

The early Christian fathers were quick to recognize the benefits of classical philosophy in searching for the truth, even though the discipline originated in what they considered a pagan people. If divine inspiration was God’s gift to the Israelites, St. Clement argued, then philosophy was God’s gift to the Greeks.  The tools of the Greek philosophers  became essential tools for the Christian, providing ways to discern which doctrines were true, which actions wise.

And such persuasion is convincing, by which those that love learning admit the truth; so that philosophy does not ruin life by being the originator of false practices and base deeds, although some have calumniated it, though it be the clear image of truth, a divine gift to the Greeks; nor does it drag us away from the faith, as if we were bewitched by some delusive art, but rather, so to speak, by the use of an ampler circuit, obtains a common exercise demonstrative of the faith. Further, the juxtaposition of doctrines, by comparison, saves the truth, from which follows knowledge. Philosophy came into existence, not on its own account, but for the advantages reaped by us from knowledge, we receiving a firm persuasion of true perception, through the knowledge of things comprehended by the mind. (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book I, Chapter 2).

To comprehension of the truth, the Christian fathers added charity and compassion in action.  One could act from knowledge of the truth but still promote despair, fear, hatred, and chaos.  The fruits of Christian actions can be identified because they promote peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23).  Combined with tools that let us discern the truth, these criteria help us determine how we should respond to any situation.

So here’s the goal of Scholars Online, not merely to teach students the philosophy of the past, but to help them determine how to act in the present:

To inspire students with charity; to develop their acumen by close interpretation of words, arguments, and ideas; and to cultivate precise expression by sharing our love of the written word—the medium through which the most critical ideas have been conveyed throughout the generations.

Getting Started Asking the Right Questions

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

Recently on a homework assignment for my Natural Science course, I asked students to identify which solar system planets it would be possible to explore from Earth-based telescopes, which from space-born but Earth-orbit telescopes (like the Hubble), and which would require space probes sent to the planet. The results were fairly telling about the approaches students take to open-ended questions. Several students left the question blank, because (as they explained in emails and chat), they “couldn’t find the answer” in the assigned reading. Most students explained in very generic terms that while Venus and Mars (closest to Earth) could be viewed from Earth-based or Earth-orbit satellites, more distant objects would require probes. None addressed the question of Earth-based vs. Earth-orbit telescopes implied by listing the two options, and only one considered planetary characteristics other than distance, and identified Venus as a candidate for a probe because its dense atmosphere blocks any attempt to view its surface from Earth-bound telescopes.

Although I had warned the students repeatedly that some of their homework questions would require them to think through the answer and not simply look it up, at least some of my students felt this was unfair: they couldn’t be held responsible for what they couldn’t not look up and quote from the assigned reading. Most of my students were game to tackle the question even without finding the words “we can use telescopes to look at Mars but need probes for Pluto” in their reading, but they still did not study the question carefully enough to realize they needed to think about the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and consider the individual planet itself, as criteria for determining the best method of observation. They immediately seized on finding a single uniform answer, which would let them complete the assignment quickly, without worrying too much about whether the situation was more complicated.

From the perspective of classical education, this is backward, because classical education, and in particular Christian classical education, is not fundamentally about finding right answers to practical questions. Its goal is to develop the skills required by a free citizen who would be responsible for discerning God’s will, then making decisions for himself and for the state. It recognizes that there is no set formula for “getting the right answer” to the questions of real life; the most important first step is to make sure we can even formulate or recognize the important questions. Then we can look at how these questions (or ones like them) have been answered before, in literature and in history. Although Greek philosophy in particular developed rigorous methods of rational analysis, classical education still depends on story to convey the complexity of real decisions in real circumstances. Greek drama and history constantly throw out examples where individuals must decide between personal integrity, duty to the gods, and duty to the state. Latin literature is full of examples of individuals who sacrifice themselves to fulfill their civic duty. The Greeks and Romans of the classical period studied their own history, read their own literature, and produced often conflicting philosophical reflections because they realized that determining the right questions to ask was a citizen’s responsibility, and it was no use seeking answers until one had the right questions.

St. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromata calls rational philosophy God’s divine gift to the Greeks, identifying direct revelation as God’s gift to the Jews. The early Christian Fathers, like Clement, who found inspiration in and supported the study of pagan classical literature recognized the development of reason and logic as an important skill in witnessing to and defending the Christian faith — and for distinguishing important questions that were worth pursuing from questions that were merely divisive and distracting. For nearly twenty centuries, western civilization depended on these stories and philosophies to help students form the values that would let them determine the wisest course in a difficult situation, both for themselves and for those they were expected to govern: personal integrity, loyalty, charity, civic duty, duty to God. The questions it forces us to ask are the most important questions of our lives: who am I? what do I want? what is God calling me to do?

If classical Christian education is about questions, then, how do we get students to learn to formulate or recognize the questions they need to ask? And equally important, how do we get them to develop passion for their studies and the courage to overcome the sense that asking questions is somehow an admission of failure to study correctly?

I believe that we need to make asking questions the most important job a student has to do: not completing the homework, not skimming the reading, but thinking deeply about the ideas they encounter and formulating questions about them. Every student (and teacher) needs to come to class full of questions. We meet in discussion to bring up these questions and to hear each other’s questions. As a teacher, I usually have a stock set of questions for a given chat to get the ball rolling, but these are based on my own experience and my own values and they are essentially “plan B” material for the chat. The most successful discussions occur when the students raise questions about their own understanding, based on their own concerns. When they voice those questions and we explore possible answers, we all find new ways of thinking about the material, and new insight on the questions that pester us.

While ultimately we need to address the important questions of our lives, we have to start somewhere, so here are some of the questions even novice students ought to be asking themselves constantly as they read both factual material and literature. Most important, to put this into practice, students should be writing down notes to bring up in class if they are puzzled or don’t have answers, or want to test their own assumptions:

Do I know what all the words mean? Does a term (even if I know its dictionary definition) seem vague or misapplied to the topic? Do all the parts of this graph or illustration make sense and can I see how they are related?

Can I follow all the steps of an example? Do I know what all the assumptions are, and how they are justified? Can I follow the calculation or reasons given for making a conclusion?

Is the author making an argument for a general conclusion or interpretation? Is the author’s claim valid? Do I understand the evidence used to support it? Does it apply to the cases given? Is it too general? too narrow? Can I think of any contradictory examples?

If several things are described, what characteristics, values, or processes are used to distinguish them? Do I understand how these distinctions are made, and can I use these methods myself to make distinctions among similar things?

If a process is described, can I follow the process? If not, why not — where do I get confused? If I do understand the process, do I accept it as valid, or do I think it skips important steps or considerations?

What does the author think are the most important points to make or take away from his or her presentation? What criteria does he or she use to make this evaluation (and do I agree)?  Can I make an outline of the important points and identify the supporting details? Does the author skip points I think are important? Can I figure out why — what values or assumptions am I making differently from those the author is making?

If I am translating a sentence or a paragraph, does my English translation make sense in English? Does it reflect something an intelligent person would say, or is it gibberish? Do I understand what each word means and how it functions in the sentence?

These questions force us to be honest with ourselves in two ways. One is making sure that we actually engage with the materials, not just pass our eyes over the reading, and that we seriously  attempt to comprehend the knowledge presented. The second is making sure that we are also applying our own developing system of values to what we are learning, that we are not simply agreeing blindly to what is presented, but trying to develop ways to determine for ourselves what is right, pure, lovely, admirable, and worthy of praise.

Failure as a good thing

Friday, March 11th, 2016

People tout many different goals in the educational enterprise, but not all goals are created equal. They require a good deal of sifting, and some should be discarded. Many of them seem to be either obvious on the one hand or, on the other, completely wrong-headed (to my way of thinking, at least).

One of the most improbable goals one could posit, however, would be failure. Yet failure — not as an end (and hence not a final goal), but as an essential and salutary means to achieving a real education — is the subject of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure (New York, HarperCollins, 2015). In all fairness, I guess I was predisposed to like what she had to say, since she’s a teacher of both English and Latin, but I genuinely think that it is one of the more trenchant critiques I have read of modern pedagogy and the child-rearing approaches that have helped shape it, sometimes with the complicity of teachers, and sometimes in spite of their best efforts.

Christe first drew my attention to an extract of her book at The Atlantic here. When we conferred after reading it, we discovered that we’d both been sufficiently impressed that we’d each ordered a copy of the book.

Lahey calls into question, first and foremost, the notion that the student (whether younger or older) really needs to feel that he or she is doing well at all stages of the process. Feeling good about your achievement, whether or not it really amounts to anything, is not in fact a particularly useful thing. That seems common-sensical to me, but it has for some time gone against the grain of a good deal of teaching theory. Instead, Lahey argues, failing — and in the process learning to get up again, and throw oneself back into the task at hand — is not only beneficial to a student, but essential to the formation of any kind of adult autonomy. Insofar as education is not merely about achieving a certain number of grades and scores, but about the actual formation of characer, this is (I think) spot-on.

A good deal of her discussion is centered around the sharply diminishing value of any system of extrinsic reward — that is, anything attached secondarily to the process of learning — be it grades on a paper or a report card, a monetary payoff from parents for good grades, or the often illusory goal of getting into a good college. The only real reward for learning something, she insists, is knowing it. She has articulated better than I have a number of things I’ve tried to express before. (On the notion that the reason to learn Latin and Greek was not as a stepping-stone to something else, but really to know Latin and Greek, see here and here. On allowing the student freedom to fail, see here. On grades, see here.) Education should be — and arguably can only be — about learning, not about grades, and about mastery, not about serving time, passing tests so that one can be certified or bumped along to something else. In meticulous detail, Lahey documents the uselessness of extrinsic rewards at almost every level — not merely because they fail to achieve the desired result, but because they drag the student away from engagement in learning, dull the mind and sensitivity, and effectively promote the ongoing infantilization of our adolescents — making sure that they are never directly exposed to the real and natural consequences of either their successes or their failures. Put differently, unless you can fail, you can’t really succeed either.

Rather than merely being content to denounce the inadequacies of modern pedagogy, Ms. Lahey has concrete suggestions for how to turn things around. She honestly reports how she has had to do so herself in her ways of dealing with her own children. The book is graciously honest, and I enthusiastically recommend it to parents and teachers at every level. If I haven’t convinced you this far, though, at least read the excerpt linked above. The kind of learning she’s talking about — engaged learning tied to a real love of learning, coupled with the humility to take the occasional setback not as an invalidation of oneself but as a challenge to grow into something tougher — is precisely what we’re hoping to cultivate at Scholars Online. If that’s what you’re looking for, I hope we can provide it.

Common Ground: A Lenten Meditation

Thursday, February 25th, 2016

My heart is broken these days as I read the political protestations by the candidates for president. The conversation seems to have descended to the level of a cock fight, with each side crowing over scoring a hit, rather than rising to a thoughtful discussion of the need to supply basic health care services and pay for them responsibly, the need to supply national security without destroying personal security, the need to help those who will responsibly use that help without wasting resources on those who willfully squander them — discussions that, if the proponents weren’t so concerned with winning, might actually provoke the creativity necessary to craft viable solutions. Conversations over religious issues often seems more about scoring points by citing the most proof texts than about seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit to discern how we Christians may help each other fulfill our baptismal vows to love our neighbors — all our neighbors — without violating our consciences.  Even the debate over evolution and creation is often reduced to quips and quotes of various authors that promote neither good science nor good theology, but that do sell books.

What we have forgotten, and what we desperately need to remember, is how to become reconciled, one to the other. It’s a fitting topic for Lent, when Christians reflect on the great price God paid so that we might be reconciled to Him.

Americans seem particularly bad at reconciliation. We are great at competition, but we don’t do forgiveness well. We aspire to reconciliation from time to time — we have the incredible image of the whole of Congress standing together on the steps of the Capitol after 9/11, singing “God Bless America”. Unfortunately that dream of common cause faded all too quickly with squabbles over the nature of the threats and best ways to meet them, and there was no underlying sense of real unity to carry us through the practical realities of the ensuing politics and economics. The sense of disunity has grown over the last decade to real divisions that our leaders — political, religious, and academic — seek to exploit to their own advantage, rather than amend for everyone’s advantage.

I don’t know what the answer is. I can only offer, by way of meditation, three images that continue to haunt me: an archway at Magdelen College in Oxford, a statue and a plaque in a side chapel at the Cathedral in Rouen, and a pair of Westminster Abbey tombs.

We went to England in the summer of 1986. We were grad students with little money, but we had come by a slight windfall, we had some vacation time coming, and we had friends in England we could stay with at least part of our trip. So we packed up our 9-year-old, 3-year-old, and 15-month-old, and went to find the England of J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Ransome, Dick Whittington, Henry II, T.H. White, Isaac Newton, and Edmund Halley.

Lewis’s England lies largely in Oxford, where he taught at Magdelen, so we boarded the train to Oxford and the hallowed groves of academe, where teachers have taught and students have studied and dreamed for a thousand years. Wandering through those grounds that were open to the public, we came upon names carved into the wall of an archway between a great square and a cloistered walk. It was a memorial to the members of the College who had fallen in the Great War of 1914 to 1918.

You find these memorials in every village in England, sometimes on the walls of a municipal building, sometimes on columns in the center of village square, sometimes on plaques flat in the ground of the churchyard, among the gravestones of those who made it home. Lists are long; casualties were high, and some villages lost half of their male population in the trenches. Standing in the shadowed archway at Magdelen, we paused to read through the names, and realized with awe that they were divided into two groups: those who died in the service of George V of England, and those who had died in the service of Wilhelm, Emperor of Germany.

For you see, Oxford colleges have this odd notion that once you become a member of college, you remain a member of college. You can return and read books in the library, be seated at the college dining table, wear the college robes, attend the college colloquia, and when you die, be memorialized on the college walls — even when you die in the service of a political enemy.  Governments rise and fall in the actions of charismatic leaders; industry bends to pragmatic ends; fashions will alter, economies will render the rich poor and the poor rich, but the underlying purpose of academics is to seek the truth, and at Magdelen, that shared journey creates a community that cannot be easily severed, even by war.

Fast-forward twenty-three years to a different trip, and a different country.

There was a decade in the nineteenth century when the Cathedral at Rouen was the tallest building in the world, its steeple rising nearly five hundred feet above the placid waters of the Seine, which meanders through the fields and orchards of Normandy on its way from Paris to the English Channel. Bombed and broken on D-Day, the cathedral nave has been repaired and remains breathtakingly impressive. Beneath the lacy stone and stained glass lie the tombs of Rollo the Northman and a shrine containing the heart of Richard the Lionheart, at the same time both king of England and Duke of Normandy. And, not surprisingly, since just about every church in Normandy has some memorial to Jeanne d’Arc, there is a chapel in the north transept with a modern statue commemorating her martyrdom. She is in chains, her expression calmly resigned, while stone flames lick at her stone gown.

Rouen is the end of Jeanne’s story: here she was held in a fat tower that still stands near the train station, tried by an illegal court, and burned to death in the town square as a witch at the hands of the English, who had determined that her uncanny ability to beat their well-trained armies with smaller forces must lie in a pact with the devil. One might well think the Normans should have little love for the English: Jeanne’s martyrdom marked a turning point in a century of war between France and England that left northern France devastated and economically impoverished for yet another century after hostilities ceased.

So it is with a bit of shock that the Cathedral visitor reads the plaque under the double gothic arches just behind the chapel altar: in French and English, it proclaims “To the Glory of God and to the memory of the one million dead of the British Empire who fell in the Great War 1914-1918, and of whom the greater part rest in France.” In the chapel, in the crimson and sapphire and emerald light from the restored windows above, you suddenly realize that you are in a holy space, one that can abide the fundamental tension of human relationships. The English killed Jeanne, savior of France; the English died in defense of France, and became themselves saviors of France.  The English are — however long ago driven back and exiled to their island, and however badly some of them have behaved — still part of Normandy, and they will still come, if need be, to defend it.

Across the channel, in the center of London, on the banks of the Thames, lies Westminister Abbey. Here the English buried their poets and painters, dreamers and scientists, princes and kings: Geoffrey Chaucer and Lewis Caroll, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, Charles and James and Anne Stuart.

In the north aisle of the Lady Chapel are two tombs, one stacked above the other. In the lower one lies Mary Tudor, most Catholic queen of England, who held her sister Elizabeth in house arrest to prevent a civil war, whose courts ordered Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley burned at the stake on Broad Street in Oxford for their defense of a Protestant faith, and who sought all her life to serve God by bringing Him a Catholic kingdom in communion with Rome. In the coffin above her lies that same Elizabeth, most Protestant queen of England, who in her turn held her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, under house arrest to prevent a civil war, who ordered the executions of Mary and Robert Devereux for political plots, and who sought all her life to serve God by avoiding the religious wars of the Continent and creating a peacable England. When we visited the chapel in 1986, the plaque on the floor read: “Those whom the Reformation divided, the Resurrection will reunite, who died for Christ and conscience’ sake”.  Standing among the royal tombs beneath the stone arches of the chapel, confronted by two sisters at deadly odds with one another, it is with some shock that four hundred years later what remains is the conviction that reconciliation is not merely possible: it is inevitable where there is a fundamental common goal to serve God.

The issues that divide us as Americans and as Christians are real; they are complex, and they challenge us to be the best we can be to address them. As individuals, we have limited resources of time and money and talent and intellect and emotional stamina. We cannot resolve complex problems by isolating ourselves from each other.

One of our visions in founding Scholars Online was to create a community where Christians of different backgrounds could study together, and we welcome anyone, regardless of their religious background, who shares our conviction that education requires not merely mastery of subject matter and the development of close reading and critical thinking skills, but also the formation of character that seeks to deal charitably and honestly with others. We do not require a statement of faith from our students. Our faculty comes from diverse traditions, and we all view our call to teach as a ministry. We — students, teachers, parents — do not always agree on issues, but we hold ourselves together in community, not only to serve the cause of classical Christian education, but also to serve as a model of community built out of diversity.

We start by standing together on the common ground of God’s eternal love for each of us and all of us.

[Part of this meditation appeared a 2009 entry to the All Saints Episcopal Church (Bellevue) blog.]

STEMs and Roots

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016

Everywhere we see extravagant public handwringing about education. Something is not working. The economy seems to be the symptom that garners the most attention, and there are people across the political spectrum who want to fix it directly; but most seem to agree that education is at least an important piece of the solution. We must produce competitive workers for the twenty-first century, proclaim the banners and headlines; if we do not, the United States will become a third-world nation. We need to get education on the fast track — education that is edgy, aggressive, and technologically savvy. Whatever else it is, it must be up to date, it must be fast, and it must be modern. It must not be what we have been doing.

I’m a Latin teacher. If I were a standup comedian, that would be considered a punch line. In addition to Latin, I teach literature — much of it hundreds of years old. I ask students, improbably, to see it for what it itself is, not just for what they can use it for themselves. What’s the point of that? one might ask. Things need to be made relevant to them, not the other way around, don’t they?

Being a Latin teacher, however (among other things), I have gone for a number of years now to the Summer Institute of the American Classical League, made up largely of Latin teachers across the country. One might expect them to be stubbornly resistant to these concerns — or perhaps blandly oblivious. That’s far from the case. Every year, in between the discussions of Latin and Greek literature and history, there are far more devoted to pedagogy: how to make Latin relevant to the needs of the twenty-first century, how to advance the goals of STEM education using classical languages, and how to utilize the available technology in the latest and greatest ways. What that technology does or does not do is of some interest, but the most important thing for many there is that it be new and catchy and up to date. Only that way can we hope to engage our ever-so-modern students.

The accrediting body that reviewed our curricular offerings at Scholars Online supplies a torrent of exortation about preparing our students for twenty-first century jobs by providing them with the latest skills. It’s obvious enough that the ones they have now aren’t doing the trick, since so many people are out of work, and so many of those who are employed seem to be in dead-end positions. The way out of our social and cultural morass lies, we are told, in a focus on the STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Providing students with job skills is the main business of education. They need to be made employable. They need to be able to become wealthy, because that’s how our society understands, recognizes, and rewards worth. We pay lip service, but little else, to other standards of value.

The Sarah D. Barder Fellowship organization to which I also belong is a branch of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. It’s devoted to gifted and highly gifted education. At their annual conference they continue to push for skills, chiefly in the scientific and technical areas, to make our students competitive in the emergent job market. The highly gifted ought to be highly employable and hence earn high incomes. That’s what it means, isn’t it?

The politicians of both parties have contrived to disagree about almost everything, but they seem to agree about this. In January of 2014, President Barack Obama commented, “…I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree. Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree — I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

From the other side of the aisle, Florida Governor Rick Scott said, “If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state. Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

They’re both, of course, right. The problem isn’t that they have come up with the wrong answer. It isn’t even that they’re asking the wrong question. It’s that they’re asking only one of several relevant questions. They have drawn entirely correct conclusions from their premises. A well-trained plumber with a twelfth-grade education (or less) can make more money than I ever will as a Ph.D. That has been obvious for some time now. If I needed any reminding, the last time we required a plumber’s service, the point was amply reinforced: the two of them walked away in a day with about what I make in a month. It’s true, too, that a supply of anthropologists is not, on the face of things, serving the “compelling interests” of the state of Florida (or any other state, probably). In all fairness, President Obama said that he wasn’t talking about the value of art history as such, but merely its value in the job market. All the same, that he was dealing with the job market as the chief index of an education’s value is symptomatic of our culture’s expectations about education and its understanding of what it’s for.

The politicians haven’t created the problem; but they have bought, and are now helping to articulate further, the prevalent assessment of what ends are worth pursuing, and, by sheer repetition and emphasis, crowding the others out. I’m not at all against STEM subjects, nor am I against technologically competent workers. I use and enjoy technology. I am not intimidated by it. I teach online. I’ve been using the Internet for twenty-odd years. I buy a fantastic range of products online. I programmed the chat software I use to teach Latin and Greek, using PHP, JavaScript, and mySQL. I’m a registered Apple Developer. I think every literate person should know not only some Latin and Greek, but also some algebra and geometry. I even think, when going through Thucydides’ description of how the Plataeans determined the height of the wall the Thebans had built around their city, “This would be so much easier if they just applied a little trigonometry.” Everyone should know how to program a computer. Those are all good things, and help us understand the world we’re living in, whether we use them for work or not.

But they are not all that we need to know. So before you quietly determine that what I’m offering is just irrelevant, allow me to bring some news from the past. If that sounds contradictory, bear in mind that it’s really the only kind of news there is. All we know about anything at all, we know from the past, whether recent or distant. Everything in the paper or on the radio news is already in the past. Every idea we have has been formulated based on already-accumulated evidence and already-completed ratiocination. We may think we are looking at the future, but we aren’t: we’re at most observing the trends of the recent past and hypothesizing about what the future will be like. What I have to say is news, not because it’s about late-breaking happenings, but because it seems not to be widely known. The unsettling truth is that if we understood the past better and more deeply, we might be less sanguine about trusting the apparent trends of a year or even a decade as predictors of the future. They do not define our course into the infinite future, or even necessarily the short term — be they about job creation, technical developments, or weather patterns. We are no more able to envision the global culture and economy of 2050 than the independent bookseller in 1980 could have predicted that a company named Amazon would put him out of business by 2015.

So here’s my news: if the United States becomes a third-world nation (a distinct possibility), it will not be because of a failure in our technology, or even in our technological education. It will be because, in our headlong pursuit of what glitters, we have forgotten how to differentiate value from price: we have forgotten how to be a free people. Citizenship — not merely in terms of law and government, but the whole spectrum of activities involved in evaluating and making decisions about what kind of people to be, collectively and individually — is not a STEM subject. Our ability to articulate and grasp values, and to make reasoned and well-informed decisions at the polls, in the workplace, and in our families, cannot be transmitted by a simple, repeatable process. Nor can achievement in citizenship be assessed simply, or, in the short term, accurately at all. The successes and failures of the polity as a whole, and of the citizens individually, will remain for the next generation to identify and evaluate — if we have left them tools equal to the task. Our human achievement cannot be measured by lines of code, by units of product off the assembly line, or by GNP. Our competence in the business of being human cannot be certified like competence in Java or Oracle (or, for that matter, plumbing). Even a success does not necessarily hold out much prospect of employment or material advantage, because that was never what it was about in the first place. It offers only the elusive hope that we will have spent our stock of days with meaning — measured not by our net worth when we die, but by what we have contributed when we’re alive. The questions we encounter in this arena are not new ones, but rather old ones. If we lose sight of them, however, we will have left every child behind, for technocracy can offer nothing to redirect our attention to what matters.

Is learning this material of compelling interest to the state? That depends on what you think the state is. The state as a bureaucratic organism is capable of getting along just fine with drones that don’t ask any inconvenient questions. We’re already well on the way to achieving that kind of state. Noam Chomsky, ever a firebrand and not a man with whom I invariably agree, trenchantly pointed out, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.” He’s right. If we are to become unfree people, it will be because we gave our freedom away in exchange for material security or some other ephemeral reward — an illusion of safety and welfare, and those same jobs that President Obama and Governor Scott have tacitly accepted as the chief — or perhaps the only — real objects of our educational system. Whatever lies outside that narrow band of approved material is an object of ridicule.

If the state is the people who make it up, the question is subtly but massively different. Real education may not be in the compelling interest of the state qua state, but it is in the compelling interest of the people. It’s the unique and unfathomably complex amalgam that each person forges out of personal reflection, of coming to understand one’s place in the family, in the nation, and in the world. It is not primarily practical, and we should eschew it altogether, if our highest goal were merely to get along materially. The only reason to value it is the belief that there is some meaning to life beyond one’s bank balance and material comfort. I cannot prove that there is, and the vocabulary of the market has done its best to be rid of the idea. But I will cling to it while I live, because I think it’s what makes that life worthwhile.

Technical skills — job skills of any sort — are means, among others, to the well-lived life. They are even useful means in their place, and everyone should become as competent as possible. But as they are means, they are definitionally not ends in themselves. They can be mistakenly viewed as ends in themselves, and sold to the credulous as such, but the traffic is fraudulent, and it corrupts the good that is being conveyed. Wherever that sale is going on, it’s because the real ends are being quietly bought up by those with the power to keep them out of our view in their own interest.

Approximately 1900 years ago, Tacitus wrote of a sea change in another civilization that had happened not by cataclysm but through inattention to what really mattered. Describing the state of Rome at the end of the reign of Augustus, he wrote: “At home all was calm. The officials carried the old names; the younger men had been born after the victory of Actium; most even of the elder generation, during the civil wars; few indeed were left who had seen the Republic. It was thus an altered world, and of the old, unspoilt Roman character not a trace lingered.” It takes but a single generation to forget the work of ages.

But perhaps that’s an old story, and terribly out of date. I teach Latin, Greek, literature, and history, after all.