Homework and the Galileo Trap

Here is an article from the New Yorker about one dad’s struggles with making his young grade school children do homework, and the elite college admissions bureaucracy that creates this mess. It’s worth reading the whole thing. A local school superintendent in Princeton, NJ (Ha!) is trying to tone down the cut throat culture of schoolkids competing to get into college. Predictably, people who have been trained for 12, 16 or more years that your schooling defines your worth as a person object, as well as first and second generation Americans who come from cultures (the Chinese, for example) who are *good* at competing in this way. Why dumb it down and get all touchy-feeling? It’s a version of the Campaign Reform problem: the people who win in a particular system are very unlikely to want to change it in any ways that reduce their chances of continuing to win.

This little tempest occasions some deeper thoughts about education:

My ideas about schooling are pretty old-fashioned. Unlike the Deweyan progressives who’ve long dominated American education, I think drill and memorization are not just effective but entirely consistent with deep, holistic understanding. The only thing I’m sure I learned in my desultory high-school years is the sonnet prologue to “Romeo and Juliet,” which a frightening ninth-grade English teacher demanded I memorize, or else. I can still recite it, and do. (For some reason, knowing it by heart has not prevented me from understanding it.) I think the rigorous teaching of academic subjects is teaching “critical-thinking skills,” and teaching critical-thinking skills without those subjects is nuts.

Well, while he’s at least heard of Dewey, which makes him much more aware of education history than 99% of Americans, he seems to be laboring under the impression Dewey was in favor of “deep, holistic understanding”. Nooo, that’s not what Dewey was after, at least, not for those students who aren’t going to get into those elite colleges. He was in favor of making sure the many didn’t trouble their little heads about issues that don’t concern them, such as getting a liberal education, and instead were prepared to get in line on the Right Side of History(tm) when their betters told them to do so. Critical thinking skills might be turned against what your teachers are telling you, so we can’t do that except in the Orwellian modern sense in which it means “following orders” – the way it’s used in colleges today.

Be that as it may:    Continue reading “Homework and the Galileo Trap”

Education Reading Update & Thoughts

Currently finishing up Parish Schools (part 1 of my review here), and rereading A History Of Education In Antiquity. That’s a fascinating read, but very detailed and long (plus, my old paperback copy is starting to fall apart, and Amazon lists the cheapest replacement at $20 – sheesh!) 

Education of an Urban Minority: Catholics in Chicago, 1833-1965 arrived yesterday, and a quick perusal was not encouraging: a sociological study written in the 1970’s, when, after almost a century and a half of steady if not spectacular growth, the Chicago parish schools were starting to crater, just as the American Catholic educational hierarchy gave itself magisterial authority and decreed that all that awkward Catholic stuff about dogma and especially sex doesn’t really matter. Why, the introduction wonders, at this of all points in history, are Catholic parents no longer as interested in making the large personal and financial sacrifices required to send their kids to these school? 

Why, indeed. Too bad the period covered ends before Chicago public schools reached the logical apex of Dewey’s reforms by becoming at the same time the best paying and worst performing schools in the nation, thus presenting those Catholic parents with some pretty ugly choices.(1) So, it’s with a certain morbid fascination that I look forward to reading this book.

Still waiting for The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schoolswhich will go to the top of the list once it arrives. Due any day now. 

Some observations:

A. Schools are about culture, not about ‘the Basics’, however those basics are defined. In the Greek schools of antiquity, the key texts were Homer – for over a 1,000 years, an educated Greek was expected to know his Iliad and Odyssey, and could recite long passages from memory. (2) Homer’s stories defined what excellence meant to a Greek – that was the point. And so on – Fichte, Mann, Dewey and that crowd are all about changing the culture. The supposed basics virtually never come up for discussion. (3)

B. Thus, fights over schooling are fights over culture. In America, the Protestant leadership wanted to impose Protestant culture on Catholic immigrants. Catholics built parish schools in which their own culture (especially and inescapably their own religion) were passed on.

The early years were full frontal assaults: In public schools, reading was taught from the King James Bible complete with Protestant commentary attacking the Church, largely Protestant hymns and prayers were used, and ‘history’ was told from the Protestant rabidly anti-Catholic perspective (some things never change!). Catholics objected, especially since they were not only required to send their kids to these schools, but were taxed to pay for them! (4)

Later, the efforts became much more sneaky.

C. The weakness exploited in America to move this agenda forward is the immigrant’s nearly frantic desire to fit in. Catholics, especially the Irish who have such a tragic history with government and culture, felt compelled to conform to anything American, as long as it wasn’t an open attack, to counter the constant accusation that Catholics couldn’t be real Americans. The graded classroom was presented as modern and scientific and above all American, so was very appealing. The anti-Catholicism built into it is subtle.

  1. Except, of course, for those gold-souled politically connected elites, who can send their kids to the local Sidwell school-equivalent.  For example, the  University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, founded by John Dewey, are feeder schools for the Ivy League – perfect! And in keeping with Dewey’s belief that it is a waste of time to teach the vast bulk of kids how to think for themselves, such schools, while touting their ‘diversity’, end up training only those who show promise of getting into elite colleges. A few blocks away, on the South Side, it’s an impoverished war zone. What about those kids? Oh, well, can’t make an omelette and all that – as Dewey himself mentioned in his defense of the vast carnage of the Russian Revolution.
  2. One of the fun things about rereading the Republic and the Dialogues in general is how much Socrates will quote Homer – and how his interlocutors took it for granted.
  3. Plato once even mentions that anyone who charges money to teach what any competent adult knows is committing fraud. Bingo.
  4. You probably thought public schools were secular. Ha! No more then than now. It’s just the underlying Protestantism that’s changed, evolving from Puritan to Unitarian to Progressive, which, historically, is what happened at Harvard and elsewhere. The one constant: belief that if only they were in charge and had enough power, they could make things right. I and my family and everyone outside the mold are, it turns out, problems to be fixed.  Schooling is the way to fix us!

Science! In the News

As always, just perusing the Google news science feed. First, the good stuff:

A. James Webb: Hubble successor maintains course OK, so sure, it’s a decade late and billions over budget – I don’t want to hear about it. This is about as cool as science gets. Remember how, when we* were kids, we’d look at pictures taken through earth-bound telescopes? While they were nice and everything, inspiring, even, once we started sending out space probes and those probes started sending back pictures, the pictures from earth-bound telescopes started looking not so hot. Then came the Hubble, the single coolest science project ever, and the source of a near-endless stream of dazzling, awe-inspiring glimpses of our universe.

Well, if we can get the Webb up and operational – tricky business, that – it will make the the Hubble seem like an abacus compared to a super-computer. The pictures should be a couple orders of magnitude more detailed, and pick up objects far too dim for the Hubble. Plus, it is to be put at a Lagrange Point a million or so miles from earth. And it has a giant heat shield umbrella to take the sun’s light and heat out. And the main mirror consists of 18 hexagonal segments, each of which has computer-controlled servos to bring all of them into common focus.

All this hardware has to fit inside a single rocket payload, then be carefully unfolded once on site. NASA has been carefully rehearsing the whole choreographed thing for years now – unlike the Hubble, if something ain’t right, you’re almost certainly not bopping out to fix it.

Just look at it!

Webb

 * for values of ‘we’ 45 or older

B. From the sublime to the ridiculous:

Bigger Brain’s Best, Study Finds Animals With Larger Brains Are Best Problem Solvers

First, they need a headline editor to cut that meandering mouthful down and properly click-bait the hook. Something like: Bigger Brained Predators Solve Problem of How to Kill and Eat You. Something like that.

This study offers a rare look at problem solving in carnivores, and the results provide important support for the claim that brain size reflects an animal’s problem-solving abilities-and enhance our understanding of why larger brains evolved in some species,” Sarah Benson-Amram, lead author of the study from the University of Wyoming, said in a news release.

In order to carry out their study, the researchers visited nine zoos, where they presented 140 animals from 39 different mammalian carnivore species with a novel problem-solving task. These animals included spotted hyenas, tigers, river otters, wolves, polar bears and arctic foxes. Each animal had 30 minutes to get food out of a closed metal box.  The animal needed to slide a bolt latch, which would open the door to the box, which contained the animal’s favorite food. Red pandas were given bamboo, while snow leopards received steak.

Not to be a pedant here – well, not any more than usual – but doesn’t evolutionary theory assert that animal brains evolved as a result of how well they happened to help the animal survive in a particular environment? So, presenting animals with a test that mimics nothing they’d ever have come across in their environment of evolutionary adaptation, and then seeing how well they ‘solve’ it proves – intelligence? There are a whole load of assumptions and a heaping helping of anthropomorphizing in there. And are zoo animals really representative? Would a wild bear take a different approach to a locked box than Bobo the Circus Bear who has spent a lifetime around people and boxes and locks? Inquiring minds want to know.

But, hey, now we don’t have to just *suppose* bigger brains (relative to body size) mean smarter animals (in terms of solving tests based on the kind of challenges human beings – thieves, for example – sometimes need to solve). Now, we have a study! Science! has shown!

Slightly more seriously, where are the parrots and crows and other smart birds in all this? They seem way smarter than their tiny bird brains might suggest.

C. Last week, posted about the idea that intelligent species have evolved all over the place, but just gone extinct due to climate change before they got the letter to us in the mail, figuratively speaking, and that’s why we have no evidence. I chose a particularly insouciant article, based entirely on the way-cool picture they chose to illustrate it.

Silly me. Here is a more serious article, which doesn’t even mention climate change per say, and goes out of its way to say that, given the native instability of planetary environments over time, it seemed to the researchers very unlikely that intelligent, or even multi-celled, life would evolve before climatological Snuffagedon. All that ‘we’re doomed by climate change’ hand-wringing seems to have been entirely in the heads of a few people writing under, let’s say, deadline pressures. This article has a few other interesting ideas as well.

Now, as speculative fiction, this is very cool. Asimov had a very similar idea in the Foundation series. But as science, it as much hogwash as the Drake Equation that formalizes the daydream that we have any basis at all to predict how common or uncommon life is out among the stars. So, for a college bull session or a SciFi writing group, cool. For real science, silly.

The Modern Emotionally and Morally Flat World

Over on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, Cedar Sanderson writes about the modern insistence on a flat emotional world: how we are not allowed to contemplate or even acknowledge that one might, in her example, be happy and sad at the same time. As a dad with 3 kids away at college, and whose oldest daughter is graduating, I’m happy and sad all the time. It is not only possible to have more than one emotion at a time, it may very well be the norm for adults.

This flattening of the emotional world is, I think, of a piece with the modern cool kids insistence on a morally flat universe, as discussed here. My comment on Sanderson’s piece:

Understanding complexity requires thought – and goodness knows where that might lead! Just as dating teenagers are advised not to get on the train unless they are going to Minneapolis, the Cool Kids in our colleges learn not to even start in with that thinking stuff. Slaves are all always sad – it’s much easier that way. Recognizing any complexity is just giving in to the Man, or something.

The same ‘thinking’ applies elsewhere, too. Morally, bad people are always bad, good people are always good. (That’s why the idea that rank and file Nazis were no worse than we are causes head to explode, or at least is certain to get anyone raising that point labeled a Nazi themselves lickity-split) Good people are victims; bad people are oppressing members of some hegemony or other. Thus, in our flat, flat, flat world, any happily married women, for example, are repressed no matter what they may tell you, and their husbands are evil meanies no matter what they do in fact.

And on and on – pick your topic, and the modern world will steam-roller any bumps out of it and hand it back, ready for use to justify any evil in the name of fixing whatever binary problem the now-2-dimensional world presents.

Chesterton often described the Church as wobbling through history, balancing all sorts of conflicts and seeming contradictions in order to achieve a sort of reckless balance, and becoming thereby something beautiful. His was a tremendously complex and paradoxical life, mirroring, as it did, the complex and paradoxical world we live in. It is in loving and living in such a world that joy is to be found.

Walk for Life: A Couple Thought Afterwards

I am not against abortion because I’m Catholic. One of the reasons I’m Catholic is because I’m against abortion, and the Catholic Church, however imperfectly here in America, has always stood against abortion.  I remember the day I heard about Roe-v-Wade. I was in high school, and my faith, when I had any, was weak.  My first thought: I’m next. Even at 14, I had an inkling of how the world worked at least in this one respect: people who want power never have enough of it. If, today, a few old men on a court get to create out of thin air a ‘right’ to abortion, which removes the right of the unborn baby to life, then tomorrow the gravity of that logic will inevitably pull others to create and remove other rights so as to better serve the interests of their herd.

We now have a ‘right’ to die, which removes, of course, any leverage those, near death or otherwise inconvenient, to insist on being cared for. Why? ask those who see their own lives as intrinsically meaningless, and can therefore hardly imagine a meaningful death.

Like most people my age, I have been around people, old and otherwise, as they have neared death – parents, a grandfather, sisters, in-laws, people I knew well, people I hardly knew. My father lingered for years as his mind ebbed away. It’s easy to say, and millions of people will say it, that his last few years had no meaning. One thing it did mean: other people had to step up and provide some care for a man who, whatever his flaws, had provided for a large family for decades. Giving such care once no repayment is possible is very meaningful – to the people giving the care. Such giving helps to make us something more than animals.

Euthanasia is just the tip of a vast logical iceberg, an iceberg inevitably drifting south. If, as Plato and Hegel say, life’s value is derived from the service we provide to the state, what happens when the state is reduced to nothing more than raw power? Someone might well reshape the state so that people like me – nothing special, except that I don’t follow orders very well unless they make some sense, and I don’t think History is Moving Us Forward in any inevitable sense, except chronologically – are defined out of usefulness.

This is not idle speculation. People who actually got the kind of power our current betters dream of having promptly used it to kill off around 110 million people in the last century, people who were of no service to the states they were using their power to make. Kulaks, Jews, Chinese peasants, Cambodians who could read, competent military people, Gypsies – and folks who just didn’t get in line fast enough, or who had or might someday have a vision of the state that didn’t include the current tyrant.

It may be small and selfish, but that was my first thought, scaled back to a 14 year old’s level of understanding. It is much better to hate abortion for the horror it inflicts upon, first and foremost, helpless infants, but also on mothers, families and basic human relationships. Ultimately, as we have so dramatically seen, it poisons the body politic, until civil discussion dies. Baring a miracle, it is only a matter of time before our opponents get enough power to use the state to silence us. Then, since their consciences won’t abide the continued existence of people whose disagreement shames them, further steps will be taken. Safe spaces mean nothing unless they can be enforced – and shouldn’t the whole world be a safe place?

 

2016 West Coast Walk for Life

West Coast Walk for Life 2016
Looking down Market Street. Most of the crowd is behind us in this picture. 

  • Vast crowd again this year. Estimates run about 60,000, which seems about right, but it is hard to guess when you’re in the middle of it. That would be the largest ever.
  • Lots of young people, including our kids: our middle son with a contingent from Thomas Aquinas College, and our 11-year-old. Our younger daughter made the DC March for Life with students from Thomas More College in New Hampshire. My eldest daughter has done the D.C. March for Life in the past; our oldest did the West Coast Walk while he was with us. In general, this is a movement of the young.
  • More counter-protesters this year, it seemed to me. I almost feel sorry for them, in a way: for the most part, the Walk consisted of thousands of healthy and happy people of all ages and of all races, and many, many cultures all walking peacefully down the street; the protesters looked and sounded like desperate nut cases. Of course there were exceptions, but I can’t believe anybody would get a much different impression if they just looked. Plus, pro-abortion ‘arguments’ are getting more shrill and insane by the minute. Something is coming to a head.
  • The city is beginning to mess with the Walk. A few years ago, they made sure some banners offensive to the walkers were flying on lampposts along the route; this year I heard rumor that they were being difficult about the permits for the buses (many people bus in). They also changed the route, although that was almost certainly coincidence – they are doing a lot of construction down by the Ferry Building, and so routed us around it. But it didn’t seem like they went to any trouble to make sure it was OK – the route took us a couple blocks south of Market, then just sort of petered out instead of being clear all the way to the Bay, which is what it has been in the past. Who knows, but it’s always been clear that they don’t like us much.
  • The Cathedral is at its best when hosting a big Mass.

Cathedral
Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, looking up. 

When praying with thousands of people at a Mass with a couple dozen priests and 6 bishops and beautiful choirs, you can forget that you’re in a giant concrete box that looks all the world like an enormous washing machine agitator. It was lovely. Archbishop Cordeleone is a huge blessing for us.

  • The music was also lovely for the most part – organ, choirs, cantor, bell choir, with a nice mix of music, including a little chant and even a bit of polyphony – the Agnus Dei from Lotti’s Missa Brevis: (this is just a recording off YouTube, not from today’s Mass)

  • One nit to pick – please don’t imagine this in any way made the Walk measurably less awesome. Unfortunately, they almost ruined the ride at Mass (musically speaking only – sacraments work by working) with an inexplicably execrable closing hymn:

For the healing of the nations,
Lord, we pray with one accord,
for a just and equal sharing
of the things that earth affords.
To a life of love in action
help us rise and pledge our word.

All that kills abundant living,
let it from the earth be banned:
pride of status, race or schooling,
dogmas that obscure your plan.
In our common quest for justice
may we hallow brief life’s span.

You, Creator God, have written
your great name on humankind;
for our growing in your likeness
bring the life of Christ to mind;
that by our response and service
earth its destiny may find.

This bit of dizzying doggerel was penned back in 1968 (‘natch) by a Fred Kaan (Kaaaaan! I yell reflexively) a Dutch Congregational Minister (of course) who, as a Congregational minister, must dis the very idea of dogma and offer a vision of justice that gives people equal shares of the earth’s bounty.

These ideas present some logical problems. Sometimes, one must choose between justice and equality, as sometime what each is due isn’t the same for everybody. For example, if I get a piano, does that mean everybody, whether they want a piano or not, gets one? Oh no, I can hear the ghost of ol’ Freddy protest, I didn’t mean *that*. Well, how about writing what you did mean, then? I suppose the earth’s bounty includes apples, say, but not Apples? Kale, but not cars? Or do we not mean to make that distinction, either? Either way, people could get the idea from such sloppy writing that, if anyone has anything I don’t have that I want, I’m being treated unjustly – that’s an idea unlikely to promote all that peace and harmony we’re singing about in those other lines.

And let’s not even get into how, if a teaching truly is dogmatic (He spoke with authority, and not like the scribes, after all) then it can’t obscure God’s plan – dogma, insofar as it is dogma, is more properly said to *be* God’s plan, at least insofar as we can understand it. But hey, a Congregationalist believes that each congregation manages its own business, such as saying, if they so choose, what they believe. So, let’s not bicker about ‘o killed ‘o – this is a happy occasion!

In any event, any one who wants it can have my share of kale, and I’ll take any avocados anybody doesn’t want. Just to be clear, just in case.

Of course, there are mostly pleasant thoughts in this hymn – it’s not all mindless heresy. it just seems as if we could do better. Ya know?

  • I continue to dread doing this each year – I am not a protester by nature, even for a peaceful and mostly quiet protest. It has always worked out OK, but I dread them just the same. I would be ashamed not to attend, though.

Science! In Love With Its Dogmas

Mentioned before how ‘we don’t know’ is a perfectly fine scientific answer to many if not most scientific questions, especially in cases where, you know, we don’t know. For example – Question: Is there intelligent life on other planets? Answer: we don’t know. Could be, but maybe not.

But that, no matter how true, isn’t any fun! Besides, if we dogmatically believe that life springs up of its own accord and then strives toward intelligence until it gets at least as close as we’ve gotten, then the utter lack of evidence that this is so becomes a problem. Does life spring up wherever in the Universe the proper conditions prevail? Does life tend of its own to get smarter and smarter? Is the Universe full of planets with right conditions for life to emerge? Has intelligent life arisen untold thousands of times across the many billions of suitable planets over the billions of years the universe has existed? If you answered ‘Yes’, put down the Cool-aide and crack one of Feynman’s several fine books that talk about how science works until you are sheepishly compelled to admit the obvious: We don’t know. Could be, maybe not. Until there’s some evidence – little green men, radio broadcasts, alien relics – SOMETHING, ANYTHING – we must, humbly and perhaps sadly admit that, scientifically speaking, We. Don’t. Know.

I felt compelled to leap up upon this well-worn soapbox yet again by this:

Are we alone in the universe because all the aliens went extinct?

What, oh what, could have driven all the fuzzy, slimy, tentacled, carapaced, segmented, multi-headed, oddly colored  and really, really smart aliens to extinction? What tragedy could have caused this? Hmm? Maybe we could look at earth, and select whatever the current fads insist we should be most scared of, and then apply it to space aliens that our dearest dogmas insist exist despite no evidence?

(They did find a totally righteous picture, I’ll give ’em that.)

Space aliens!
They are mostly naked because it’s getting so warm! Probably all the C02 that rocket plane released in the upper atmosphere when it landed pushed the entire planetary ecosystem over the edge! Curse you, evil earthling! Curse you!

Yep. Climate change killed off all the aliens before they could swoon into our manly arms. Many news sources picked up this ‘study’ and its politically useful conclusions, but only one (that I saw) had a picture of a scantily-clad green space beauty with antenna growing out of her head, so we, like any red-blooded American male, went with it.

Sheesh. And besides, the Lex Luther equation (tm) is a much more scientifilicious explanation. Whoever thought that up is a genius!

Book Review, pt 1: Parish School

Reading Dr. Timothy Walch’s Parish SchoolI’m taking this in several sections just so 1) I can give some of the critical ideas their due (there are many) and  2) I’m not writing a 20,000 word blog post.

Nutshell: This book is a gold mine. It compensates for it short length (<300 pages) with copious notes and references. I’ve already ordered a couple books from Amazon based on particularly crucial or interesting references, and have a half-dozen more in my shopping cart (I’m going to see if the local library can get them, as we’re starting to look at some real money buying them all.) He names names and points to critical movements and organizations. In other words, Walch has put together an excellent starting point for my needs, as well as a wonderful overview for anyone interested in the subject.

The first half of the book concerns itself with the early days of Catholic education in America up until the 1920’s, even taking time to discuss the Church’s activities in the various Spanish, French and English colonies. It hits its stride discussing the American and American Catholic responses to the vast waves of immigrants and ends with the early efforts of Catholic Liberal (his term) educators striving to implement ‘Efficient’ ‘Scientific’ education into the Catholic schools. I’ll take up the second half of the book in a couple days.

Key points:

  • The established Protestant majority despised and feared Catholic immigrants. Preachers railed against the ignorant, superstitious Papists, and asserted that they could never be good Americans unless they could be made into good Protestants.
  • The rougher elements in their flocks responded with violence on several occasions, and with contempt and  political machinations to thwart Catholic attempts to make America home.
  • One key step by the Protestant establishment was the imposition of compulsory schooling, the curriculum of which was designed, not to teach anything so mundane as the 3 R’s, but rather to inculcate solid Protestant values and a corresponding contempt for the Church and the parents, families and cultures that supported it.
  • The response of the American Catholic Hierarchy to this bigotry and the political machinations it spawned was to undertake the building of the Catholic parochial school system.
  • The bishops in charge of this project varied widely in their commitment. In New York, building parish schools was seen as almost a life-or-death project; in Boston, it was almost an afterthought. Other bishops fell somewhere in between.
  • While a huge success on some levels, at its peak only about 50% of Catholic school-age kids ever attended Catholic schools; at most times the percentage was much lower.
  • By the turn of the 20th century, once the project was well under way and had met with much success, the issue became exactly how much like the public schools the parochial schools should strive to be. ‘Conservatives’ (Walch’s term, again) were not interested in conforming to Protestant ideas of education; Liberals wanted Catholic schools to be ‘up to date’ and reflect the best current ‘scientific’ education practices as promoted by the likes of John Dewey. (1)
  • The Catholic Education Association (CEA) was founded at this time, as the Catholic equivalent of the NEA. This move was part of a more general effort to centrally manage and homogenize Catholic schooling.

And that’s where we get to at the end of the first half of the book.

Much of the above I was familiar with from previous reading. One thing new to me was how the role played in the growth of parish schools varied by the ethnic origin of the parish itself: (I extrapolate a bit here in regards to how the immigrants’ experience of government in their native lands influenced their enthusiasm for school-building.)

When the German immigrants starting pouring into the Midwest in the middle of the 19th century, they, like many American immigrants, formed tight-knit communities based on their ethnic origins. The Catholic Germans needed little encouragement to throw themselves into the project of building churches for German-speaking parishes. All across America, wherever German Catholics settled, one finds beautiful churches. The sacrifices the largely impoverished immigrants made to build these glorious buildings is breathtaking.

Along with beautiful churches, German – and Polish, Czech, and Slovak – immigrants also built Catholic schools in response to the encouragement of their bishops. They instantly grasped that if they were to keep their Catholicism alive in the patently anti-Catholic America they found themselves in, they would need to make sure their children learned the faith and were insulated at least to some extent from the efforts of the established Protestant majority to drive a wedge between the parents and their children. (2) It was obvious to them, based on their experiences of the activities of the governments of their native countries, that such division was in fact the major goal of the public school. If they had any doubts, they needed only to look at the constant stream of anti-Catholic invective coming from staunch Protestant preachers, and, more important, school related legislation and regulations intended to use the public schools to suppress and supplant Catholicism. (3)

Again, the Germans, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks made huge sacrifices to build and run parish schools, second only to their efforts to build the churches themselves. A significant majority of their kids attended these schools, which largely retained their ethnic character until WWII.

Yet at no time did more than 50% of Catholic kids attend Catholic school. Often, the attendance rate was much lower. Support for parish schools varied widely depending on ethnic group. Italians almost never could be moved to build parish schools. The Irish rarely built schools outside of the New York City archdiocese. (4)

Italians, who had largely not been schooled by the state back in the old country and who generally seemed to believe any schooling past 6th grade was excessive, (5) seemed to be unimpressed by the idea of schooling in general. Besides, the state offered it for free. Paying for schooling to make sure their kids would stay Catholic was probably simply incomprehensible to someone from Italy. German Catholics had lived for several centuries in a country where it took active effort to remain Catholic; Italians, not so much.

But the real story here is the Irish. Their sons, not the Germans, dominated the American Catholic hierarchy for a century or more. These archbishops, bishops, and priests were the architects and front lines in the parish school movement.

Unlike any other ethnic group (with the possible exception of the Jews), the Irish had endured centuries of mistreatment at the hands of their government. Their British overlords generally treated them worse than animals when they weren’t actively trying to exterminate them. When Irish peasants got to America, they met with what must have seemed depressingly familiar attitudes from the established Protestant majority – hatred and contempt. (6)

The Protestant leadership constantly flung the accusation at the Irish that they were not and could not be good Americans, as they were ignorant, superstitious Papists. Some bishops and other Irish leaders felt the need to prove them wrong. I strongly suspect that, as far as schooling goes, the psychological need to out-American the Americans meant to many leaders trying to adopt as much as possible the public school model. It was assumed without comment by the Liberals that the ‘efficient’ ‘scientific’ public schools were better than Catholic schools at educating kids for their place in the modern world.

Of course, changing schools that were created in opposition to the public schools to be more like the public schools was a controversial idea. The two chief concerns: how much of the public school model embodies what it is that the Catholic schools were built to oppose? And, how compelling is the case for spending money on a Catholic education for your kid if what he’s going to get is a public school education with the Baltimore Catechism tacked on? We’ve reached the middle of the book.

Observations: Walch points out that, early in the game – mid 19th century – that the bishops opposed not just the rampant Protestantism of the public schools, but the very concept that the state, rather than the family and the Church, had the primary role in the education of the young. The Hegelian (and Fichtian, and, frankly, Platonic) idea that the value of the individual is a function of their role in, and usefulness to, the state would have been anathema even apart from its manifestation in the public schools. Somewhere along the line, that battle appears to have been lost or at least obscured.

I put ‘efficient’ and ‘scientific’ as applied to schooling in scare quotes since, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, these words they keep using – I don’t think they mean what we think they mean. As mentioned here, William Torey Harris, the fourth United States Commissioner of Education from 1889 – 1906 and a prolific leading voice in school reform, tried during his life to make Hegelianism the official philosophy of the US education. While he failed to get Hegel officially accepted, the Hegelian gate-keepers at all the major education schools made sure it became the de facto standard.

The term ‘scientific’ as applied to education at the turn of the last century must be taken in the Hegelian sense, not in what might be called the Feynmanian sense. ‘Scientific’ here does not mean ‘demonstrated via rigorous application of the scientific method as practiced by, for example, physicists and chemists’; nor does it mean ‘results come from a systematic organized body of knowledge’. Nope – Hegel uses the term most tellingly in his Science of Logic, which science, as Hegel would have it, eliminates what any sane person would call ‘logic’ and replaces it with ‘speculative reason’, which by definition is beyond the reach of the Aristotelian logic that lies at the core of Science as understood in the prior definitions. Specifically, the Law of Non-contradiction is rejected – you know, the very law that allows anyone to make any sense of anything and communicate anything at all – that law.

No, ‘scientific’ as used by education theorist from the late 19th century on means ‘we are more enlightened that you are’. It certainly does NOT mean ‘supported by rigorous research using the scientific method’ since no such research was ever conducted.(7)

Similarly, for an Hegelian, all the world is the Spirit unfolding itself through History. ‘Progress’ is toward wherever the Spirit is going. But we can’t see where the Spirit is going until it has sufficiently unfolded itself – that’s why we can’t tell you where we’re going until after we get there. ‘Efficient’ means whatever gets us to where we can’t say we’re going – got it?  And if this makes no sense to you, that’s proof you’re a benighted fool – all the cool kids get it. The Emperor’s robes are truly dazzling!

The only thing more striking than the willingness of Hegelians to accept this patent, irrational nonsense is their certainty that they’re right.

A Thomas Edward Shields – I’m trying to lay my hands on some of his essays and books – was the major Progressive voice in American Catholic education in the early 20th century. He was a champion for incorporating modern ‘scientific’ ‘efficient’ methods into Catholic schooling. Most tellingly, when he was rebuffed in these attempts by the Catholic Education Association in 1908, his next step was to just start publishing textbooks for Catholic schools that incorporated these ideas. He was the owner, editor and chief writer for his own publishing company. Thus, we see demonstrated another aspect of Church ‘reform’ – if the proper authorities don’t like it, just get sneaky to get it done anyway.

  1. When he wasn’t acting as an apologist for Russian Communist atrocities according to dictates of Progressive Pragmatism (can’t make an omelet, and all that), Dewey promoted kinder, gentler ways of turning kids into obedient dunderheads. Not that I have an opinion on this, or anything. I will be reading more Dewey as part of this project – maybe I’ll change my mind…
  2. Perhaps some of those Germans had read Fichte, and knew what the game was really about?
  3. In case you doubt  this, turns out there is copious documentation that this is exactly what was going on. That I’ll save for the book – this is just a preliminary essay.
  4. The early archbishops of New York were among the greatest and most vociferous supporters of parish schools, and expended far more energy on the project than the typical bishop of the time. Outside New York City, Irish Catholic parishes with schools were the exception rather than the rule.
  5. In 19th century Italy, as in almost all places through almost all of history, a 12 year old was expected to contribute to the sustenance of the family.
  6. It should not be surprising that when the Irish have gained dominant political power in America, what seems to follows is an utterly corrupt political machine. The give-and-take that characterizes (or, at least, used to characterize) American politics is noticeably absent in Boston and Chicago, where a single party dominates by whatever means are necessary. To the Irish, reacting to centuries during which (British) government was, in effect, the mere exercise of raw power, small-R republican ideas of a government guarding a common patrimony for the good of all were probably merely incomprehensible. Political power is, as Callicles said 2500 years ago, the ability to reward one’s friends, punish one’s enemies, and indulge your every whim – as Billy and Whitey Bulger, or Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathouse” John Coughlin would understand. Every group has its bad apples, but these characters attained Robin Hood status among the Boston Southies and Chicago Irish, respectively.
  7. While my efforts are hardly exhaustive, I’ve made a hobby of looking for scientific support for the claims of educators – that’s primarily how I got involved in all this in the first place – and, so far, I’ve seen exactly one education-related study that had anything important to say that stood up to 15 seconds of examination. It takes that long or less to identify where the study fails from a scientific view.

Plato on Education in the Republic: A Compendium of Bad Ideas

A continuation of the Education History Reading project, as begun here.

The weirdest thing: rereading the Republic, discovered that in general, I really  do enjoy reading classic philosophy more than just about any other kind of reading. Sure, sometimes history or science fiction hits the spot, but in general, it’s Plato, Aristotle and that crowd that does it for me. Weird, I know. And they still let me walk around loose. For now.

Plato’s Republic is a gold mine, a rabbit hole, an inspiration, a cause of despair all at the same time, especially if one is reading for education ideas. It contains some of Plato’s most inspired rhetoric and ideas while at the same time, by missing or dismissing some key premises, goes remarkably far off the rails. Let’s get to it:

First, it’s very difficult to not get sucked in to re-rereading, as there’s a feeling (with this and all truly great books) that you’ve just missed something important, something that you might be able to figure out with more attention(1). There’s no such thing as an exhaustive or definitive reading of the Republic. That said, with the implied caveat that I’ve no doubt missed all kinds of important stuff, we plow on. As much as possible, we will set aside the bulk of the dialogue in order to focus on education.

Plato wants all children to be educated toward virtue in as much as they have capacity for such education. The Truth sets you free from fear and controls base desires. He equates love of wisdom – philosophy – with love of knowledge. The truly wise man is always curious (about the right sorts of things). True philosophical knowledge is of being, not of becoming(2).

So far so good. The main conceit of the Republic is that Justice, the explicit subject of investigation, can be better seen in something large, like the State, rather than something small, like a man. By describing the just city, we can then see justice in the individual more clearly.

This is dubious. First, since justice has no size, there is no reason to believe that it will be any easier to understand justice in the state than justice in a citizen. Further, it may well be that the justice manifested in a city is the same as the justice manifested by the just man, but it may also be that, given the different duties and responsibilities, as well as the different temptations and failings, of men and cities the specific unifying thing-in-itself may well be rather more obscured by this approach than not.

But enough. Through Socrates, Plato clearly want to discuss government, thus the title of the dialogue. We want to see how Plato’s thinking has influenced future educators.

Here we will just catalog bad ideas we see echoed, often repeatedly, by education theorist through the ages. Note that, as mentioned previously, I’m never sure exactly how serious Plato via Socrates is – he says he he doesn’t know anything and is just a gadfly and midwife, so, taking him seriously on that point makes it incumbent on us to not take him entirely seriously when he starts throwing theories around. Right?(3).

A. Family is harmful to the education of children.

B. The state is the only competent authority that can make educational decisions.

C. The goals of education are state goals.

These ideas come up repeatedly; here is one passage that’s got them all:

They will begin by sending out into the country all the inhabitants of the city who are more than ten years old, and will take possession of their children, who will be unaffected by the habits of their parents; these they will train in their own habits and laws, I mean in the laws which we have given them: and in this way the State and constitution of which we were speaking will soonest and most easily attain happiness, and the nation which has such a constitution will gain most.

Book VI

 

That the state knows way better than parents how to educate their children is an ongoing theme in education theory since at least Lycurgus. Total state management of the schools and compulsory  attendance was preached by Luther (who, contrary to all of history, imagined that the Church, as personified in Luther, would bend the state to the purposes of God, rather than the other way around), Fichte, Mann, Barnard, and Dewey, and is in fact the unstated premise of virtually all parent-teacher conferences to this day.

Fichte, following Plato, wanted to completely and permanently remove children from the family and place them in school 24 x 7 x a decade or so under the management of state-trained experts; Mann and Barnard and Dewey were content to use the schools to drive a wedge between parent and child, especially the Catholic parent and child. The modern practice is to emphasize homework and extra-curricular activities so as to fill the lives of children completely, leaving as little time as possible for the building of relationships that do not spring from nor depend on school, specifically family and church and friendships springing therefrom – for their own good, of course. (4)

D. People must be categorized by the state, and trained accordingly.

E. The state is to breed people like animals for the purposes of the state.

And, since people are unlikely to like this arrangements, lie about it to them.

How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke — just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?

What sort of lie? he said.

Nothing new, I replied; only an old Phoenician tale of what has often occurred before now in other places (as the poets say, and have made the world believe), though not in our time, and I do not know whether such an event could ever happen again, or could now even be made probable, if it did.

How your words seem to hesitate on your lips!

True, I replied, but there is more coming; I have only told you half. Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honor; others he has made of silver, to be auxiliaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. But as all are of the same original stock, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son. And God proclaims as a first principle to the rulers, and above all else, that there is nothing which they should so anxiously guard, or of which they are to be such good guardians, as of the purity of the race. They should observe what elements mingle in their offspring; for if the son of a golden or silver parent has an admixture of brass and iron, then nature orders a transposition of ranks, and the eye of the ruler must not be pitiful toward the child because he has to descend in the scale and become a husbandman or artisan, just as there may be sons of artisans who having an admixture of gold or silver in them are raised to honor, and become guardians or auxiliaries. For an oracle says that when a man of brass or iron guards the State, it will be destroyed. Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?

Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons’ sons, and posterity after them.

Book III

 

Woodrow Wilson, who was merely repeating the accepted wisdom of the education establishment of the time (he was, after all, president of Princeton before he was President of the US) told the New York City School Teachers Association in 1909:

We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

Wilson’s view was the view of all education leaders then and remains so down to today. The herd of the liberally educated and those fitted for specific manual tasks covers what Plato would call the Silver and Iron souled worker bees. Where are the Gold-souled leaders in this picture? The next book I’m reading now – Parish Schools, will have notes up on it ASAP – mentions that the general enthusiasm for compulsory state schooling among established American Protestants in the mid-nineteenth century differed depending on their social status: the rich thought it a splendid idea, but had no intention (or even thought) that their children would go to them. Nope, factory schooling is not for the Gold souled guardians of the state, but for the little people – not for the controllers, but for the controlled. None of our elected officials, who without exception support compulsory state schooling, send their kids to DC public schools. (5)

Plato recognized that his ideal state would not be able to pull this off by telling the truth. He was perfectly fine with lying about it, if it got the job done. This, perhaps, is the defining characteristic of all state-sponsored education programs through the ages: they are not set up to do what those who are made to attend them are told they were set up to do.

Notes:

  1. Then you have to go learn Greek, as the small pile of insufficiently thumbed Greek books to my immediate left dolefully remind me…
  2. This is the exact opposite of what Hegel says, btw. The God of Plato is pure being; the Spirit of Hegel is a mixture of being and not being that is Becoming. Plato teaches us to seek after the Unchanging Divine, of which is the only true knowledge; Hegel mocking dismisses this idea (and the ‘propositional logic’ that supports it) in favor of an ever-unfolding, ever-changing Spirit in History. The true philosopher understands but, following Hegel’s exposition in Science of Logic, he cannot explain (with what? Logic? Speculative reason by definition is not bound by logic) – the speculative philosopher tells you his story, you either get it, and are enlightened, or you don’t, and you are benighted.
  3. A couple places in the various Dialogues, including once in the Republic, Socrates says something like “that is so beautiful I’m sure something like it is true.” Which is, of course, saying the thing as described *isn’t* true…
  4. This has been a sore spot over the years in my discussions about education with friends and acquaintances. A key symptom of the Stockholm Syndrome that is the defining characteristic of the properly educated is that they cannot imagine that those who guide the schools don’t have their best interests at heart. Teachers – well, some of them at least – are so *nice* and dedicated!
  5. Our political leaders send them to places like Sidwell Friends School, for example. Since 1956, even non-whites could attend. They have the best school lunch program in the country!

The Chalice

I’m in Atchison, Kansas at the moment, sitting in my daughter’s living room after the 3-day drive from California. Flying back in a few hours.

It has been an interesting trip. The most interesting part of all concerns a chalice.

We took off from Concord Saturday afternoon right after the Winter Spectacular at Diablo Valley School, and muscled our way to Barstow that night. Next morning being Sunday, I’d checked out Masses along the route. We wouldn’t get out of Barstow until after 10:00 if we went to Mass there, so I checked times in Needles (about 2 1/2 hours out) and Kingman (about 3 hours 15 minutes out). Mass was at 8:00 in Needles and 9:00 in Kingman.

We got up at 5:35 A.M. and took off, thinking we could make Mass in Kingman. Teresa, bless her heart, drives the speed limit. But it was my turn behind the wheel, and miles of open desert tend to bring out the lead foot in me. We made Mass in Needles with 2 minutes to spare.

Needles is a town of about 5,000 on I-40 near the Colorado River in the middle of the Mojave Desert – the middle of nowhere. St. Ann’s is a pretty little church with lots of statues and pictures inside. When we entered, the priest was engaged in some sort of catechesis with the congregation. Considering the size of the town, the early hour and the availability of a later Mass that day,  the turnout was pretty good.

The priest is a gregarious sort with a devotion to teaching the faith – he interjected explanations and expansions into the Mass up until the Offertory, after which he stuck mostly to the script. There were no accompanying musicians available, so he would just launch into songs which the congregation would just pick up and carry. He sang the Canon and the Commons – the congregation hung right with him. It was beautiful.

After Mass and the announcements, he walked to the front and explained that Exposition would follow the Mass. Then he told a story while the adult altar servers collected one of the chalices that had been used at Mass and brought it to him:

When he had been assigned to St. Ann’s 7 and half years ago, he had discovered in a box several unused chalices, evidently left by priests previously assigned there. Each chalice represented some priest’s vocation. He had them refinished and put them back to use. But that was not enough. So, as a parish devotion, he had begun to send one of these chalices, in a sturdy purple drawstring bag, home with a family for the week, along with a laminated prayer card with a prayer for vocations. He wanted his flock to hold in their hands for one week this symbol of vocations, and pray that one of their own would hear God’s calling to the priesthood.

As he finished talking, he walked down the aisle, exchanged a few words with some of his parishioners (I imagine he knew them all by sight, at least) and then walked straight to me.

“Where are you from?”

“Concord, in the Bay Area.”

“You are traveling?”

“Yes.”

“How long will you be in town?”

“About 10 more minutes.”

“If you are traveling, you can afford to mail this back. Mail it by Thursday.”

And he handed me the chalice. This chalice:

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He then returned to the front of the church and processed out to Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.

I was in shock. I waited for him to come back, and tried to tell him: my oldest son was discerning a vocation, and went on a pro-life cross country walk, and was hit by a car and killed. I think I got that much out before I began weeping uncontrollably for a minute or two. He tried to comfort me, telling me not to connect the possible vocation of my son with his death (I don’t) nor to blame God (I don’t). But his mere interest was, in fact, comforting, as was my daughter’s hand on my shoulder.

So I have taken out the chalice from my backpack (my only luggage) and said the brief prayer in a cheap motel in Tucumcari and in a room in the Benedictine guesthouse in Atchison. Tonight, I’ll fly it home with me, and say the prayer again. On Thursday, I will FedEx it back to St. Ann’s.

Please pray for vocations. Thanks.

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