Book Review: William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure V

Concluding this review with the final lecture in the series. Lecture I review here, Lecture II here, Lecture III here, Lecture IV here. Going into more detail than usually is possible, including just pasting the the entire lecture below, because of Harris’s importance in advancing compulsory state schooling, and the lectures are short enough to admit of it.

This final lecture is also written as one run-on paragraph, this one nearly 3 pages long; clearly, these are outlines or note.

Let’s summarise our current state after Lecture IV: Harris believes all ‘substantial education,’ which he defines as the rote training and thoughtless inculturation every child in every culture receives, reduces the student to an ‘automata,’ careful to accept cultural premises and follow acceptable cultural paths. He tacitly dismisses the idea that a child could learn to think for himself, and accepts some form of tabula rasa: the idea that a child might already be himself, and thus not a clean field for indoctrination, is never considered.

In Hegel-speak, a substantially educated child has his individuality ‘subsumed’ into the culture. Such a one will have surrendered his individuality in order to belong. Harris then proposes a second educational principle, which frees the student’s individuality from this subsumption (while simultaneously not freeing it – hey, it’s Hegel!): learning to be an Hegelian. Only Hegelians, in Harris’ view, possess the tools to address society’s problems.

This second kind may be called individual or scientific education; it is the education of insight as opposed to that of authority.

Here we find the traditional Hegelian and especially Marxist abuse of the word ‘scientific’ to mean ‘untestable and poorly-defines assertions that I’d really like to be true.’ We know Harris means this, because he calls this an ‘education of insights’. Hegel places insights – direct infusions of truth into the soul, not subject to logic nor testable by experiment – above and beyond the reach of the little people and their math and science and technology. It is by insight, for example, that the enlightened Hegelian sees the Spirit unfolding and coming to know Itself through History. Thus progress is not a measure of net relative advances, if any, over time, but is instead Progress, a god-like force moving us ‘forward’. This is all very scientific.

Another aspect of scientific education is that it must be doled out a spoonful at a time by experts – here he echos Pestalozzi and Fichte – lest the child get the crazy idea that he can figure stuff out on his own, and become unmanageable. We see here the foundation of our dumb-them-down system that does everything possible to exclude or trivialize parental involvement.  Harris praises textbooks as the perfect tools to this end.

So, after the first two lectures, we are to understand that we all are automata except insofar as we’ve been enlightened, the sole measure of this enlightenment being our agreement with Hegel and his acolytes like Harris. Our schools need to be run by professionals, who alone are able to properly ration out knowledge, and who will take great care that their charges remain docile.

After an excursion through Kant and some more blank slate nonsense in Lecture III, Harris gets to the point in Lecture IV: the little benighted people need to be lead by the good and enlightened people, a sort of revolutionary vanguard, as it were.

LECTURE V. February 4th, 1893.  HERBERT SPENCER AND WHAT KNOWLEDGE IS OF MOST WORTH.  (found here.)

In Herbert Spencer, the return to nature means the study of natural  science, and this becomes the great thing. But natural science is only the  instrument with which we conquer nature. Everybody becomes filled with the idea of progress by it, for we see that nature as it is, existing in time  and space, is conquered by inventions and made to serve man. There was never a more unscientific book made than Spencer’s essay on education ; for while he praises science, he does not apply it to a study of education as it  is and has been. To do this he ought to study the genesis of the course of study and explain its functions. The unscientific person takes things as they are, and cares not for their origin. To study things from a scientific standpoint means to take an inventory of them to find the process in which  they are being produced ; to connect them with other things ; to see things in their causal process. He does not understand the system of education as it exists, because he does not know the educational value of its branches. The education he proposes for us is for the purpose of complete living; but  what is Spencer’s definition of this complete living? Spencer does not take education as the genesis of man’s spiritual life, but merely as something useful for showing how to care for the body and perform the lower social functions as the tool of life, the instrument by which life is preserved.

More specifically Hegelian criticism. All current action is to be judged by its place within the Spirit’s unfolding both now and in the future. I have little knowledge of Spenser’s educational theories and would likely find them appalling based on what little I do know, but Harris’s critique here hangs on Spenser not being Hegelian enough, which I would take as a complement.  Sure, sound education is first and foremost education toward spiritual growth. Hegel’s idea of spiritual growth is hardly anything I’d sign up for.

Now  suppose the definition of complete living to be, to elevate each individual so that he can take advantage of the life and experience of his race. Then  he would find complete living to involve the initiation into the civilizations of the past that furnish the elements out of which our own civilization is formed.

This sounds good, having children learn about past civilizations, until you see it in an Hegelian context: past civilizations are mere illustrations of the Spirit’s march through History. One would not be permitted by Hegel to dwell too much on how our modern age has in many ways lost the excellence of past cultures – e.g., Greek excellence, Roman honor, Medieval logic, Renaissance conceptions of beauty  – and failed to replace them with anything of equal value, let alone exceed them. Hegelians have no place in their schema for genuine admiration of the past, which is just prelude to an ever more glorious present and future.

Spencer thinks that the first business of the child is to know physiology ; the next is the selection of a vocation or trade, which leads to training for citizenship ; and last of all he puts relaxation and amusement, in which he includes literature and art. Now, Aristotle characterized man as the symbol-making animal. Human nature has to be expressed by symbols. The poets of a people first paint the ideal, which makes civilization possible. Literature furnishes the most essential branch of education, so far as its function is to help the child into civilization. Man sits in the theatre of the world (as Plato tells us) and sees the shadows of men and events thrown on the curtain before him. Behind him and out of his sight is the Great Leader, who is making these shadows. From them he draws his ideals, but ideals are potentialities, not realities. Self-activity, the freedom of the soul, is made possible by the institutions of society, the family, civil society, State and Church. We must not confound the mere school with these other great institutions of civilization. In the family are learned the mother tongue, habits, and nurture. Civil society teaches him his vocation; the State, his duties as citizen ; and the Church shows him his place in the divine plan of the universe. Spencer calls education the subject which involves all other subjects, and the one in which they should all culminate. But some one has better said that school education is the giving to man the possession of the instrumentalities of intelligence. By his school education he does not attain all education, but he gets the tools of thought by which to master the wisdom of the race.

OK, sure, pretty common understanding, although the glossing over of “church” Mere Christianity style fails to address the real, passionate disagreements people have over what constitutes a proper church. This, I suppose, would be an area Harris would expect the little people to be lead by their betters.

There are, then, three epochs  of school education elementary, secondary and higher. The first or elementary stage is the opening of the five windows of the soul. (1) Arithmetic is the foundation of our knowledge of nature, by which we measure  and count all things inorganic. When its first principles are mastered the child begins to want to combine the organic with the inorganic, and then we come to another window (2), that of elementary geography. The distribution of animal and plant life is learned, and the child begins to peep  into the organization of things, the growth of plants, and the formation of the continents and the earth. Thirdly, he learns to read and write, and gets a glimpse into literature. The original colloquial vocabulary learned at home, variously estimated at from 300 or 400 to 3,000 or 4,000 words, deals  only with commonplace things. But the school takes this colloquial vocabulary as a key and opens up the great reservoir of literature in books, initiating him into a higher class of words, expressive of fine shades of feeling and thought. Thus, to his own vocabulary are added those of great writers, who have seen nature from a different point of view, and presented their thoughts  in gems of literary style. Literature lifts up the pupil into the realms of human nature and discloses the motives which govern the actions of men. Yet Spencer puts this last in his course of study. After learning all science has to give, after learning one’s trade and the care of his body, he would then, if there is leisure, permit literature and art. But literature is the greatest educator we have. It has made possible newspapers and periodicals and books, with pictures of human life and of the motives governing  our actions. The fourth window of the soul is grammar, wherein we have a glimpse of the logical structure of the intellect as revealed in language. The fifth window is history (that of his own country), wherein he sees revealed the aspirations of his countrymen, his own nature, written out in colossal letters ; and these five studies should make the elementary education of the student.

Here the Pestalozzian approach is clear: the expert decides the child shall learn Arithmetic first, and not go on to anything else until it is mastered; then  basic Geography, and only once this is mastered, reading and writing; then Grammar, then the History of his own nation.

Well? Anyone who has been around kids knows that no two are alike, and that one may take to math like a fish to water at age 5, while another will find it baffling into adulthood. Lumping kids together by age, a barbaric practice championed by Harris and his predecessors, makes it certain that the first kid is going to be bored out of his mind and the second baffled and confused. Sure, in some Pestalozzian, anti-Fichtean dream world each kid gets all the attention he needs and moves ahead at his own pace. Sure. History shows how well the graded classroom model has approached that ideal. If education were the goal, it might; but since control is the goal, it won’t.

And so on. I’m old enough and, after a fashion, smart enough that I got left alone by the teachers for the most part when I was a little kid, because I either knew the stuff or could fake it. Now? from what I can tell, teachers are not allowed to let a kid skate on attention or classwork if he seems OK to them. Nope, conformity is demanded. Control is, after all, at the base and summit of Harris’s ideal.

The secondary education takes up human learning and continues it along the same lines, namely : 1, inorganic nature; 2, organic nature; 3, literature (the heart); 4, grammar and logic (the intellect); and 5, history (the will). Algebra deals with general numbers, while Arithmetic has definite numbers to operate with. Geometry and physics continue inorganic nature, while natural history continues the study already commenced in geography. Then come Greek and Latin, and here is opened up a great field of study into the embryology of our civilization. In the dead language* we have the three great threads running through the history of human progress. The Greek, with its literature and aesthetic art and its philosophy, showing the higher forms of human freedom in contrast with the Egyptian, which showed only the struggle for freedom and never the man separated from the animal and the inorganic world. The Roman, with the continual gaze upon the will of man, seeks the true forms of contracts and treaties and corporations, whereby one man may combine with another, and it essays the conquering of men and reducing them to obedience to civil law, not only external conquest but internal conquest as well. The Hebrew thread is the religious one, which we recognize in the celebration of worship one day each week and in the various holy days. We acknowledge this the most essential thread of our civilization. So, with the secondary education we begin to get the embryology of our forms of life.

As mentioned here, high school education at the close of the 19th century puts virtually all undergrad work to shame. Admission to Harvard at this time merely required a demonstration of basic competence in Greek, Latin and calculus – which a high school student who hoped to go to college could reasonably be expected to have achieved.

Harris seems to support this model, which is quite similar to what I went through at St. John’s College.  He seems confident it will produce exactly the good little Hegelians he invisions all enlightened people to be.

But what if it doesn’t? What if the vanguard decides good little Hegelians are good little Marxists? Then, understanding history, logic, scripture, etc., become positive liabilities if they don’t produce such Marxists. There’s even a risk a student who really learned this stuff might forcefully reject Marx! What if education leads away from, not towards, the glorious revolution?

Best not to take that risk. Stick with basic indoctrination. It’s the only way to be sure.

The higher or collegiate education is the comparative step of education. Each branch is studied in the light of all the others. Natural science  and sociology are investigated ; logic and mental philosophy ; ethics and rhetoric; as well as the philosophy of history and of literature, and the comparative sciences, which furnish the light for the whole method of  higher education. The first, or elementary education, then, is but superficial, a mere inventory ; the secondary insists on some reflection on what has been learned ; and the third, or higher education, is the unity and  comparison of all that has been learned, so that each is explained by the whole. Give the child possession of the embryology of civilization, and his insight into the evolution of civilization is insured.

“Insight” – and there you have it. Harris is naively confident this insight is Hegelian. His Marxist successors excised all the basic stuff because they more wisely understood that all this education could, from their view, go terribly wrong.

Educators have  adopted the course of study as it exists, led by an unconscious or blind  impulse. Herbert Spencer should have investigated and discovered its purpose, which is a far deeper one than he has thought out when he advocates its overthrow for the sake of knowledge that leads to direct self-preservation.

“…led by an unconscious or blind  impulse. ” More Hegel, the Spirit unfolding itself despite men not being aware of what is happening.

  1. Rosenkranz: Paedagogik als System (English Translation, D. Appleton it Co., New York). Third part, treating of the substantial contents of the national education Its sacred books, and the idea that the nation stands for in the history of the world. (Lec ture 1.)
  2. Karl Schmidt : Geschichte der Paedagogik ; gives a much fuller statement of the details of the culture systems of the several nations. (Lecture 1.)
  3. R. H. Quick ; Educational Reformers. (Lectures 2, 3, 4, and 5.)
  4. Pestalozzi : Lienhard und Gertrud. (English Translation, Boston.) (Lectures.)
  5. Herbart; Lehrbuch zur Psychologie. (English translation, tfno York). (Lectures.)
  6. Rousseau : Emile. (Lecture 4.)
  7. Herbert Spencer ; Essay on Education. (Lectures.)

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Book Review: William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure IV

Continuing this review. Lecture I review here, Lecture II here, Lecture III here. Going into more detail than usually is possible, including just pasting the the entire lecture below, because of Harris’s importance in advancing compulsory state schooling, and the lectures are short enough to admit of it.

One more after this one. Another lecture written as one run-on paragraph. This one, more than the previous, appears to be just an outline or notes. I’d assume there was a lively discussion period afterwards?

LECTURE IV. January 25th, 1893. ROUSSEAU AND THE RETURN TO NATURE. REVOLUTIONARY PROTEST. (found here.)

The time of Louis XIV: the nobles attracted to Court and to a life of gayety, neglecting their estates and wasting the fruits of toil in riotous living ; the laborers deprived of the advantage of the directive power of the nobility fail in power of production. The French Revolution is the result. Rousseau its prophet ; he proclaims a return to nature. “Nature,” a word of ambiguous meaning; human nature versus physical nature; human history the revelation of man’s nature; it is realized in institutions and not by man as an isolated individual. Nature in time and space is under the dominion of necessity, everything constrained to be what it is by outside forces. Human nature is an ideal, and when realized it has the form of freedom and self-determination, each man a law unto himself and each one engaged in helping every other one, for by this each one helps himself. Rousseau appealed to nature in everything. What we call civilization was to him a mere artificial form. His plea was to be natural, come back to the point where nature leaves you. Rousseau came from Switzerland to France, and at an opportune time for him ; for there was a great ferment of ideas at this epoch. He was struggling along in Paris, barely securing a livelihood, when there came the offer from the Academy of Dijon of a prize for an essay on the progress of the arts and sciences, whether it has tended towards the purification of morals and manners. The negative side suggested itself more forcibly to him, as he was better fitted for it by his mode of living and morals, and by his literary style, and he found himself at once a “censor of civilization.” This essay was soon followed (1752) by one on the origin of the inequality among men. The great tension produced by the artificiality of the civilization of the Court life of the time had caused men to become anxious to get back to a simplicity of living, and Chateau briand painted the charms of the forest life of the Indians. In this reaction the meaning of civilization is ignored. Man emancipates himself from drudgery and compels nature by the forces of his intellect to feed and clothe him. The “Social Contract” followed (1762) this with an attack on the authority of the State; and in the same year his Emile undermined the School and the Church : and so he attacked all the social institutions one after another the family, civil society, the Church and State. He proposed to sweep all away by summoning them before the bar of his individual judgment and condemning all. In the opening paragraph of his Emile he declares that everything which comes from nature is good, while everything degenerates in the hands of man. The antithesis of civilization is savagery, and Voltaire wittily exposed the fallacy of Rousseau’s teaching in his letter accepting the book. He said “never has anyone employed so much genius to make us into beasts. When one reads your book he is seized at once with a desire to go down on all fours.” External authority is a perennial necessity for man in his immaturity. An appeal to nature is always a piece of jugglery with words. In mere nature we have matter and force. Everything inorganic is made by some external influence. But organic nature is the opposite of inorganic. The plant has the power of assimilation, and the animal the further powers of locomotion and feeling, or ability to select or choose its surroundings. In man this is still further increased by recollection and memory, by which the mind makes over its impressions. To do his duty properly he must look to higher things, and in ethical ideas the human becomes transcendental. The moral man acts as though the sole being in the world is humanity. No natural instinct is admitted as having validity against the moral law. If we adopt the doctrines of material nature and yield to our feelings and impulses, we remain animals. But if we take nature in the sense of our ideal, divine possibility, and realize it by education, we attain to human nature properly so-called, which is not something given us without effort, but only the product of culture.

Harris is an Hegelian:

With Brockmeyer and other of the St. Louis Hegelians, he founded and edited the first philosophical periodical in America, the Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1867), editing it until 1893. It promoted the view that the entire unfolding was part of a universal plan, a working out of an eternal historical dialectic, as theorized by Hegel.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Torrey_Harris

It is said that Harris, as the United States Commissioner of Education, tried to make Hegelianism the official philosophy of American compulsory schooling. He only succeeded in making it, as dumbed down(!) by his incorrigible idiot child Marx, the *unofficial* philosophy of American schooling.

Now, the primary and defining belief of Hegelians is that they’re smarter and, most importantly, more enlightened than everybody else. They worship the power they lack but feel they deserve. Therefore, in their world, ignorant masses need (and deserve) to be lead into the glorious future by better people: “…the laborers deprived of the advantage of the directive power of the nobility fail in power of production. The French Revolution is the result.” Catch that? One might suspect that Harris is not entirely on board with America’s idealized egalitarianism. Also, I’m thinking there might be a few more tiny steps between indolent French counts and marquis neglecting to guide the farm hands and the Committee for Public Safety decapitating nuns. But hey, I’m not an Hegelian.

Following right on the heels of this vigorous & evidently double-jointed self back-patting (1) and not so subtle petulance about not being in charge is the idea of Progress: there’s this universal plan, see, under which the Spirit (2) reveals itself to itself inevitably through History. Through, of course, the ministration of enlightened Hegelians such as Harris, whose belief in the inevitability of Progress doesn’t seem to extend far enough to stay the hell out of imposing it on others.

Rousseau is a manifest idiot. Figures he’d be the prophet of the murderous idiocy of the French Revolution.

Now we get to the hardcore Hegelianism:

“Nature,” a word of ambiguous meaning; human nature versus physical nature; human history the revelation of man’s nature; it is realized in institutions and not by man as an isolated individual. Nature in time and space is under the dominion of necessity, everything constrained to be what it is by outside forces. Human nature is an ideal, and when realized it has the form of freedom and self-determination, each man a law unto himself and each one engaged in helping every other one, for by this each one helps himself.

Digression: Generally, the world, or ‘Nature,’ can be understood according to two general steps. The base level is either/or, as succinctly stated in the Law of Noncontradiction. The next level is both/and, and is perhaps best expressed in the Schoolmen’s advice: “Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish.” Using these two steps, one first establishes what is logically necessary and what is common experience, and moves from there to what might be (conditionally) true about the world. The Church, for example, has for centuries issued anathemas and proclaimed dogmas as a first step, then seemingly splits hairs when considering the application of those dogmas and anathemas. Science works the same way: the definitions and assumptions are necessarily dogmatic; data collection is always thoroughly hedged in by the assumptions and definitions; conclusions are always conditional. In both cases, we may yearn for more forceful and unconditioned conclusions, but the careful thinker is not likely to give us them.

Hegel strove for a third way: he wanted a dialectic within which everything is conditional – nothing ‘is, everything is ‘becoming’ – where violations of the Law of Noncontradiction were never resolved but rather suspended in the synthesis, where the currently unknowable workings of the Spirit create a new reality in its unfolding through time.

If this sounds like bafflegab, that’s because it is. It’s meant to fend off – summarily dismiss, really – the sort of careful dissection of questions which is the hallmark both of the Aristotelian/Thomist schools and science insofar as science works. (3) Hegel, and Marx much more so, are simply nonsensical. They contradict themselves in word and deed at every step. But since they know they’re right – what superior individual does not? – these contradictions must not be valid. Therefore, etc.

Here’s where Harris gets evil: “…human history the revelation of man’s nature; it is realized in institutions and not by man as an isolated individual.” Under the both/and approach, one would distinguish as follows: it is the inalienable dignity of men as individuals that gives any meaning to the institutions within which man finds himself; yet it is true that men are formed and most fully realized within these institutions: marriage, family, village, state and church. Under Harris’s formulation, one would focus all efforts on changing institutions (sound familiar?): change the institution – school, in Harris’s case – and thus change the individuals.

One of the things naive supporters of more centralized control over people – progressives, socialists, Marxists (but I repeat myself) – seem unable to imagine is that this control, once established, will not long remain in the hand of the avuncular and well-intentioned as they imagine the Bern to be, but will in short order end up in the hands of Pol Pot. That’s the lesson of small ‘h’ history; that’s why capital ‘H’ History seeks to ignore and rewrite it.

Another historical aside: throughout the history of philosophy, there have been camps promoting multiple truths that need not gibe, and those after the beloved Emerson Cod: “The truth ain’t like puppies, a bunch of them running around, you pick your favorite. One truth… and it has come a knockin’.”

Here, Harris is proposing that there’s a material world of complete determination, and a spiritual world where, once idealized human nature is realized, everyone will be perfect little saints. Not one world of matter and form, but two worlds where different truths prevail. Subtle, but important: rather than a man striving to be personally better as a creature comprising an inseparable and essential body and soul, Gnosticism has crept back from the dead: the body is evil, only the soul is good. Gnosticism has proven many times over the centuries to ba an idea tending inexorably toward misery.

We have thus arrived at a situation that should sound very current and familiar: we are to focus our attention on changing institutions, which, once conformed to the enlightened ideas of the elect, will produce perfect, happy little people. Remember, enlightenment means never having to listen, let alone explain yourself, to the unenlightened – they just won’t understand! (This also conveniently absolves the enlightened from having to personally behave themselves, since their personal behaviour has no effect by definition: Weinstein can rape away and Gore and AOC can jet around like rock stars, just so long as they mouth the right platitudes in favor of *institutional* change.)

After thankfully disposing of Rousseau – hey! Stopped clock got one right! – Harris turns back to his own naive mysticism:

External authority is a perennial necessity for man in his immaturity. An appeal to nature is always a piece of jugglery with words.

That he considers man immature is almost a tautology; that he considers appeals to human nature ‘jugglery’ is an appeal to more Hegelian and especially Marxist nonsense: while Hegel merely denies any permanence to our understanding of human nature – it’s unfolding along with the Spirit, and is always becoming, never being – Marx just flat out denies the existence of human nature: it’s a social construct, man.

He and his will be happy to provide the external authority needed by us immature people until the point at which we are mature: by definition, when we agree with Harris. Not quite fair: when we agree with Harris, we will be counted among the enlightened and allowed to indulge our tyrannical jones over the less enlightened and sit at the Kool Kids Table until the Spirit is done unfolding itself. Not kidding: Harris worked his whole adult life to make the schools the instrument of the Enlightened.

He succeeded.

To do his duty properly he must look to higher things, and in ethical ideas the human becomes transcendental. The moral man acts as though the sole being in the world is humanity. No natural instinct is admitted as having validity against the moral law. If we adopt the doctrines of material nature and yield to our feelings and impulses, we remain animals. But if we take nature in the sense of our ideal, divine possibility, and realize it by education, we attain to human nature properly so-called, which is not something given us without effort, but only the product of culture.

Ethical ideas are spiritual. Natural instincts are controlled by morality. Going with feels is to remain an animal. So far so good. “But if we take nature in the sense of our ideal, divine possibility,” This sounds sensible, out of context “… and realize it by education, we attain to human nature properly so-called, which is not something given us without effort, but only the product of culture. OK, so we yearn to fulfill our divine destiny, which can be realized through – school? We’ll school kids so that they will change the culture? To bring about the Hegelian Valhalla?

What could possibly go wrong?

One more lecture to go.

  1. How do they not pull a muscle?
  2. Hegel may not have invented the practice of renaming old ideas in order to sound smart and hip, but he certainly advanced the art: here, anybody else would say ‘God’, but that turf had already been worked over pretty good by the Salvation History folks, most prominently Augustine. In contrast to Hegel’s Spirit unfolding and coming to know itself History, Salvation History posits, on the one hand, a God Who reveals Himself to us over time and on the other a lamentably realistic view of secular history as one long tragic train of failure punctuated every now and then by a passing victory, until, in the end, we all lose – and then Jesus comes! Hegel wanted God embedded, as it were, with the forward troops in a long march to Victory! Marx’s eschatology, all but indistinguishable in outline from traditional Christian eschatology
    excepting that that God person has been renamed History, reflects this persistence.
  3. The irony here: Hegel, writing in the early 19th century, assumes Progress is so completely obvious that his task is to explain the origins and workings of that Progress. In doing so, he dismisses scientists, mathematicians, and technologists as the little people, those who need to use logic and reason as traditionally understood – not *real* philosophers like Hegel, who have transcended all such crutches. Problem: the only really obvious progress has been made by precisely those scientists, mathematicians and technologist Hegel dismisses. Everything else we might want to call progress is highly debatable, to say the least. He saws off the branch he’s sitting on.

Insomnia Book Review: Honor at Stake

Woke up about 3:30 in the morning today, started to get up, but then forced myself to stay in bed and read. Fired up the Kindle, tried Rousseau’s Emile – tedium – and some Everlasting Man, which I read for maybe half and hour, and then started losing interest (I’ve read it many times, just didn’t work at 4:00 a.m.)

So I tab through the stuff on my Kindle and discover, contrary to all my customary reading practices, a vampire romance novel: Declan Finn’s Honor at Stake. I don’t remember when or why I ordered this book, but, what the heck, I can’t sleep anyway, so…

It was a lot of fun, definitely more than $2.99 worth of fun – and remember, I’m about a million miles from the target audience. Yard Sale of the Mind says: check it out!

I’m going to have to keep the review vague, as there are a couple nice reveals early on that saying much might spoil, and I liked them a lot, so I’m holding back. The book is about a couple of very different and seemingly star-crossed lovers who take a long time to realize that’s what they are. And vampires. Lots and lots of vampires.

Finn wisely starts right in on the action, then introduces us to the main characters, who we get to know through how they act under pressure. His major characters are very well fleshed out, attractive and sympathetic, and his minor characters are well and quickly sketched. It’s a fairly short novel – I read it in under a day – and does not drag. Finn also has a nice touch with dialogue.

Image result for Declan Finn Honor at Stake

Finn also deftly works in the Catholic elements alway present in all the traditional vampire stories – holy water, crucifixes, rosaries, priests – so that Catholics can be delighted and amused, while there’s nothing anyone sympathetic to the roots of the genre could complain about. Vampires and their hunters treat the signs and sacramentals of the Church seriously. He also works in a few more or less original twists around the Church that are also fun. There is a Swiss Guard Vampire Ninja squad, for example, and firehoses shooting holy water. It’s cool.

The love affair smolders, often quite intensely, but never bursts into anything above very light PG level stuff – for which I, for one, am grateful as a reader.

Fun read, check it out.

Rereading Canticle for Leibowitz as a First Contact Story

Yesterday, took a crazy 5.5 hour drive there, 5.5 hour drive back trip with the Caboose to see Middle Son’s thesis defence at Thomas Aquinas College. Elder Daughter drove up from L.A., so the fam was well-represented. About 20 – 25 of Middle Son’s classmates also showed up, so it was good turn-out, especially considering TAC only has about 400 students total.

He did very well. I am a happy dad. Our kids are a wonderful and undeserved blessing. Also, the 11 hours in the car with our 15 year old son provided an opportunity to throw on the A Canticle for Leibowitz audiobook.

There has been quite a bit of recent discussion among the authors I follow on Twitter (mostly I’m on that silly platform just to follow SciFi authors and Catholics) about worldbuilding. Several writers deplored the evidently common current practice of going overboard with worldbuilding at the expense of plot and especially character. The consensus seemed to be that some writers had taken the wrong lesson from Tolkien. Many, many pages at the beginning of Lord of the Rings are spent describing the preparation and execution of a birthday party, as a way to introduce us to Middle Earth and the Shire. The wrong takeaway is that this long exposition is primarily meant to create a vivid setting. The writers seem to think it is meant to introduce us rather to the main characters, and the Shire and its inhabitants are described as an essential key to understanding those characters.

William Gibson was used as an example of strong worldbuilding at the expense of strong character development. I can sort of see that, except I think Johnny Mnemonic, Trinity Molly Millions and even the Fynn are quite memorable. But, yes, Gibson’s world is vivid in a way that his characters are not, while Gandalf, Samwise, Frodo and Gimli transcend even the glories of Middle Earth.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of my absolute favorite books, I’ve read it many times, and have given copies to a number of friends and acquaintances over the years. So it was natural for me to consider its structure and worldbuilding in light of the more expert opinions of real writers, especially since the Novel That Shall Not Be Named that has been percolating in my head for a decade or two now could hardly help being strongly influenced by it. In fact, the story I’m (very intermittently) trying to tell is about a culture, a civilization, over centuries of time and lightyears of space. No human character can last that long, so it can’t be at its heart about any particular character.

Miller’s masterpiece is the exception that proves the rule. (1) While populated with any number of engaging and sympathetic characters, it cannot be said to be about any of them neatly as much as it can be said to be about the world itself.

In a number of places, Chesterton talks about the world and the Church as being too close, too familiar, to be honestly seen. He suggests that to truly see, a man must approach his own home as a stranger seeing a foreign land for the first time. In ACFL, Miller takes up this challenge. Our own world must be approached as a thing totally alien. He must first destroy the world in order that we might see it. He burns it to ashes to try to save it. He must purge the Church down to the bare visible essentials, a few rag-tag would-be saints stumbling , half-blind, into an uncertain and terrifying future, in order that she may be seen at all. The story is not about Brother Francis Gerard or Lazarus. The story is about a world that needs saving and a Church whose martyrs are the instruments of its salvation.

A Canticle for Leibowitz presents to us the unfamiliar ashes of our familiar world, populated by people that are often only barely recognizable as our shadows or ghosts. The monks of Leibowitz Abbey, with their rituals, discipline and logic, present a humanity far more difficult for a modern reader to see than that in a Ferengi or Klingon. Just as the look of Star Trek aliens is created through the artful application of latex to mundane human bodies, their personalities and motivations are merely emphases of existing human traits. It’s easier for a person today to see the humanity in Gul Ducat or Quark than in Brother Francis Gerard or Abbot Arkos, and to recognize his reflection in the Romulan homeworld than in an abbey full of monks.

In this way, the worldbuilding of ACFL is more nearly that of a first encounter story than any other kind of science fiction or fantasy story. Hidden behind the startling originality of the story, Miller follows a classic formula. He spends the first third of the book describing an alien species and their home world, and the rest of the book showing how these aliens are not so different from us.

Thus ends today’s Sci Fi musings.

  1. Two other exceptions would be: the Foundation and Dune series, where the world is the consistent character in a way none of the human characters can ever be. I’m guessing this is more broadly true in this era of fantasy and sci fi series, but I’m more an old-school guy, so I don’t have much experience in more modern works.

Book Review: Polanyi’s Great Transformation

Since this is a very long review – Short and sweet: Polanyi knows the answer. It doesn’t really matter much what the question is, as the answer he knows is the answer to everything. All the great erudition on display is just that – a display. He happens to know a great deal about English history over the 18th and 19th centuries, and a bit about an obscure set of pacific islanders, but by the end of the book, it’s obvious that this expertise is irrelevant to his thesis. He could start from basket weaving and wheat as a theme in Art Deco, and he’d end up at the same place: what the world needs now, what it has always needed, what History has been striving for, is Communism, sweet Communism.

In the Great Transformation, Polanyi describes the mechanism by which the commoditization of land, labor and currency and the implementation of the Gold Standard reveal the contradictory and self destructive nature of Capitalism and the impossibility of any free market being long maintained. He asserts that not only are free markets not natural in any sense, but they can only come into existence and continue by means of constant political and social intervention.

Using England’s industrialization as the case study, Polanyi argues that there’s nothing natural about free markets, that the very idea of free markets is a mythology used to justify the reduction of land, currency and people to commodities. A market in labor reduces people to mere human resources, something to be managed like any other resource and a cost to be controlled. Land will simply be consumed, not husbanded across generations. And currency, with which the book is mostly concerned, will be standardized across the world in order that international trade can take place. This standardization, under the rubric of the Gold Standard, is the engine driving political and social change, almost entirely for the worse.

The idea that people might take advantage of a market for labor by decommoditizing themselves – learning skills or moving someplace where their skills are in demand in order to better their prospects – is not considered. That people did not in fact stay illiterate laborers for very long once the market provided opportunities unavailable for rural laborers is not discussed. That the workers of the world today are vastly better off than the rural laborers prior to the industrial revolution is barely mentioned. Rather, Polanyi dwells on all the evil effects of the social displacement caused by industrialization and the political steps meant to mitigate them, and well as the steps taken to facilitate market creation and trade. He sees, not individual decisions both good and bad being made in an uncertain environment (i.e., the real world), but the forces of History working themselves out according to inevitable laws.

Similar filters are applied to the commoditization of land and currency. In 1944, when Polanyi published this tome, it was perhaps reasonable to believe that land was being recklessly consumed by industry – FDR did promise that the skies would soon again be ‘blackened by industry’ once the New Deal kicked in. (Of course, his cousin Teddy had begun the process of setting aside land from too much human use a generation earlier.) Subsequent small ‘h’ history has shown that free people with a little material security tend very much to want to keep the world tidy and clean – nobody wants to live in a dump. A continually better cared for world is not what theory predicts, even if it is what history seems to be showing.

Currency, by which Polanyi means international banking and the trade it facilitates, does tend strongly toward standardization, because international trade, like all trade, is built on trust. You pay me in standard Spanish pieces of eight or silver U.S. trade dollars, and I’m good, because everybody agrees on the value of such currency. We trust each other, at least that far. Once transactions become too large and too frequent for physical silver or gold to change hands, I need some other mechanism I can trust – the Bank of England, for example. Their notes are as good as gold! My trust is built on stability: the claim that our notes are worth X amount of gold or silver, which you can trade your note in for if you want, is good as long as you back it up. Floating fiat currencies require a level of trust that people who knew their history were not able to muster, in past eras.

This view, which is based on the logical and historical playing out of personal trust between trading partners and banks, is built on the observation that our world is uncertain and involves many discrete and often unpredictable human decisions. Polanyi wants vast forces to push History to an end already known, and so must reject what people actually do as a basis for reality.

Continue reading “Book Review: Polanyi’s Great Transformation”

Book Review: William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure III

LECTURE III. January 21st, 1893. OPPOSITION BETWEEN PESTALOZZI AND HERBART AS EDUCATIONAL LEADERS. (found here. Lecture I review here, Lecture II here.)

This lecture is one run-on paragraph. I will break it up for convenience of discussion:

Pestalozzi laid great stress on sense-perception as the foundation of all school education. Herbart lays stress on the elaboration of sense-perception or rather upon the mental reaction against the impressions made on our senses. Thought goes back of the object to understand and explain its origin, how it became to be what it is, what purpose it is to serve. Thought sees objects in the perspective of their history. It studies causes and purposes.

The Herbart Harris refers to here is one Johann Friedrich Herbart,
(1776 – 1841) a German philosopher, psychologist and founder of the academic field of pedagogy. His principles of education are roughly Platonic, as he sees the fulfillment of the individual as only possible as a member of a civilization. Man is a political animal, after all, so no argument there on a general level. The trick here is implied in the phrase ‘productive citizen’ which Wikipedia uses to describe Herbart’s meaningful relationship between a man and his civilization. Does man derive his meaning and value from being a productive citizen? Or does the whole idea of a productive citizen depend on people having value and meaning prior to any production? In the first case, it might be logical and even merciful to cull any people – can’t really call them members of society in this context – who are not productive, since they cannot have meaningful lives without such production. Not that such an idea would occur to any Germans of that time…

Herbart is also said to be a follower of Pestalozzi, which supports my suspicion that Pestalozzi is more a Rorschach test than an actual teacher. My forays into Pestalozzi’s writings left me thinking he is nearly completely incoherent; when Fichte, a proto-Nazi, and Einstein, who was a student at a Pestalozzian school, both praise his methods, one has got to wonder if they are talking about the same thing. Herbart is said to differ from Pestalozzi in that Pestalozzi believed everything is built on sense perceptions, while Herbart believes cogitation on sense perceptions is the source of understanding and knowledge.

If that sounds a bit gobbly-goopy, it may be because it is. You get these men who want desperately to control how children learn – Fichte, Mann, Dewey, heck, Plato and on and on – and they start fighting over stuff that normal people, eve normal philosophers, would roll their eyes at. Watch a kid, especially a really small kid, and you’ll see someone obsessed with sense perception to the point where they’ll stick crap they pick up off the ground into their mouths (this is a big learning experience, btw. We don’t stop doing this because we’re told to, but because we insisted on doing it). AND one will see little minds working overtime to figure out how stuff works. It’s not that sense perception or cogitation is more or less important, but rather that it’s absurd upon inspection to imagine that adults need to do anything to promote either. Adults just need to refrain from screwing it up, which seems beyond the reach of these gentlemen.

I’m not going any deeper into Herbart, who I first heard of from these lectures, for now – this is all from a skim of Wikipedia, for which I promise to feel bad about later. Onward:

Thus thought is not as the disciples of Pestalozzi hold, a continued and elevated sort of sense-perception, but rather a reaction against it. It is a discovery of the subordinate place held by objects in the world ; they are seen to be mere steps in a process of manifestation, the manifestation of causal energies. A new perception is received into the mind by adjusting it to our previous knowledge ; we explain it in terms of the old ; we classify it, identify it ; reconcile what is strange and unfamiliar in it with previous experience; we interpret the object and comprehend it ; we translate the unknown into the known.

People learn by experiencing the world, thinking about what they experienced and trying as best they can to fit it in with everything else they know. Got it.

Does Harris suppose we can do anything about it? Does Harris imagine the process he (following Kant, more or less) describes ought to be somehow promoted or encouraged, let alone managed? That would be hubris-ridden nonsense, like believing the sun will not rise unless the shaman performs the correct rituals. You might as well try to teach kids hearts how to beat. But maybe that’s not where he’s going.

This process of adjusting, explaining, classifying, identifying, reconciling, interpreting and translating, is called apperception.

Yep, Kant. Apperception is one of those terms of art in Philosophy, pretty much meaning what Harris described above.

We must not only perceive, but we must apperceive ; not only see and hear, but digest or assimilate what we hear and see. Herbart’s “apperception ” is far more important for education than Pestalozzi’s “perception.” At first the memory was the chief faculty cultivated in education; then Pestalozzi reformed it by making the culture of sense- perception the chief aim; now with Herbart the chief aim would be apperception or the mental digestion of what is received by perception or memory.

Hmmm. How far back is the phrase “at first” meant to go? Certainly not all the way back to the Greeks, who before Socrates’s time had come to understand education as a function of friendship. They didn’t even write about how kids learned reading, writing and basic math, any more than they wrote about how you went to the market or walked down the street. Instead, the wrote about ephebia – schools for young men entering adulthood, where they spent 2 or 3 years training to be fit soldiers and learning how to be good citizens – why they should love their city-state and Greek culture in general. Then, the most promising and noble youths were taken under the wings of men of achievement, who acted as mentors, as described peripherally in Plato’s Symposium. (The occasional sexual aspects of these relationships, while real, are generally overstated and misunderstood.) An educated Greek would memorize Homer, but even that feat had the primary goal of immersion into Greek culture, especially understanding arete, the excellence toward which every Greek aspired and the measure by which they would be judged.

Or there’s St. Jerome’s 5th century advice to the noblewoman Laeta how she should teach her daughter Paula to read. This is not memorization training, at least not essentially. The essential part is the sharpening of Paula’s wit.

More Enlightenment (sic) nonsense: Harris and his crowd thought they were the smart people, first people to understand these things, and had a right and duty to guide lesser individuals. They started with memorization, therefore, the whole project starts with memorization. That people have successfully educated their children for as long as there have been people if acknowledged at all is pooh-poohed: maybe, but not educating them correctly!

Illustrations of the power of apperception to strengthen perception: Cuvier could reconstruct the entire skeleton from a single bone ; Agassiz the entire fish from one of its scales ; Winckelman the entire statue from a fragment of the face; Lyell could see its history in a pebble; Asa Gray the history of a tree by a glance.

OK, I suppose, although I’d want a serious look at those reconstructions of Cuvier, Agassiz and Winckelman before conceding the point to quite that level. Be that as it may, I’m not sure such levels of expertise are the product of a particular kind of schooling. Not to give him too much credit, but Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink describes a similar if not identical result, except that the process by which an expert reaches his conclusion is mostly not conscious or even strictly rational. That level of expertise seems to be learned, but not taught, and to require some innate talent. Herbart, at least, is a blank slater – he doesn’t believe in innate talents. It the turtles of nurture all the way down.

Apperception adds to the perceived object its process of becoming. Noire has illustrated apperception by showing the two series of ideas called up by the perception of a piece of bread. First the regressive series dough, flour, rye ; and the processes baking, kneading, grinding, threshing, harvesting, planting, &c. Each one of these has collateral series, as for example, planting has plowing, plow, oxen, yoke, furrow, harrowing, sowing seeds, covering it, etc. The second series is progressive bread suggests its uses and functions; food, eating, digesting, organic tissue, life, nourishing strength, supply of heat, bodily labor, &c.

Ok, again. Yes, understanding something does mean putting it into a larger, more coherent, context.

The course of study in schools must be arranged so as to prepare the mind for quick apperception of what is studied. The Pestalozzian makes form, number, and language the elements of all knowledge. He unfortunately omits causal ideas, which are the chief factors of apperception ; we build our series on causally. Accidental association satisfies only the simpleminded and empty-headed.

Sure. Perhaps the course of study could be comparatively brief encounters with a mentor, who guides and reviews, and comparatively large amounts of time to experience and process the world?

I suspect that’s not where Harris is going with this.

Next up: Lecture IV.

Book Review: William Torrey Harris – The Philosophy of Education, Lecure II

LECTURE II. Saturday, January 14, 1893. PROBLEMS PECULIAR TO AMERICAN EDUCATION. (found here. Lecture I review here.)

Harris begins his second lecture by describing what he means by ‘substantial education’:

There are two kinds of education. The first may be called substantial education, the education by means of the memory; the education which gives to the individual, methods and habits and the fundamentals of knowledge. It is this education which the child begins to receive from its birth. This sort of education is education by authority that is, the individual accepts the authority of the teacher for the truth of what he is told, and does not question it or seek to obtain insight into the reason for its being so.

At this point, I had to check whether Harris was married and had children. A quick perusal of the interwebs reveal that he married his childhood sweetheart, but if they had any children, the sources fail to mention it. Why this is relevant: the idea that children accept everything on authority could hardly be held by anyone who ever raised children. It’s a variation on tabla rasa, as if kids are waiting around for authority figures to lecture them, and accepting the lecture without criticism, and otherwise don’t learn anything. Anyone who has raised children can see that, starting from birth at the latest, the vast bulk of learning is done by the child on his own initiative. He absorbs the assumptions of the adults around him, to a large extent, without criticism, but any adult who has tried the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach will quickly see how much adult authority figures into what children accept without question.

It is this education by authority, the education of the past, that the modern or second kind of education seeks to supersede. This second kind may be called individual or scientific education; it is the education of insight as opposed to that of authority.

The man here using the word ‘scientific’ was heavily into phrenology and late 19th century psychology, among other things, so what he means by ‘scientific’ is clearly not ‘that which can be objectively verified through observation’ but rather more along the lines of ‘what my smart friends and I believe.’ This is relevant, since the advocates for progressive, modern, compulsory schools have long claimed their approach was scientific. That word they keep using – I don’t think it means what they think it means.

“The education of insight” is a very interesting phrase. Part of Hegel – a part most beloved by Marx – is the idea of speculative philosophy being a growing, progressing series of insights. Philosophy doesn’t advance through hashing things out via observations and logical deductions, but rather the Spirit/History reveals the next stage via revelation to the enlightened few. These revelations are called ‘insights’ and contradict the unenlightened stage of History currently prevailing, until both are subsumed and suspended in a new synthesis. The curious part: those lacking the insight cannot understand those who have it. Under Hegel, at least, the insight will slowly spread out from the chosen prophets until the consciousness of mankind is raised – or something. Marx is all about exterminating the unenlightened as the means by which enlightenment spreads.

Here Harris is talking about what normal people call understanding. Does a kid understand what he is taught (insight) or merely parroting what he’s heard (authority)? It would seem Harris is thinking schooling can impart insight in a non-authoritarian manner. Kids who in his view have become mindless automata via accepting everything they know on authority, will at some point, somehow be brought to the freedom of individuality (1) through – compulsory standardized schooling!

When this kind of education is acquired, it frees the individual from the authority of the other. Under the system of education by authority when told, for instance, that the sum of three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, this will be blindly believed only as long as authority sanctions this belief; but when an insight into the reason for this geometrical truth is obtained, no change of authority is able to make the individual doubt.

Really? Harris imagines a teacher, with grim authority, simply telling a kid that the sum of the angles in a triangle equals two right angles, and the kid just buying it, no questions asked. The kid, having been told this, simply does not or cannot try to understand it? I did not think math instruction had universally ‘advanced’ to this point as of the late 19th century. Nowadays, of courses, grade school teachers of math who understand or even just don’t loathe math are the exception.

I think, rather, that kids are curious, and try to understand things, at least until it is beaten out of them by a decade or two of schooling. It’s not a switch waiting for some enlightened adult to throw.

But there is this danger in the system of education by insight, if begun too early, that the individual tends to become so self-conceited with what he considers knowledge gotten by his own personal thought and research, that he drifts toward empty agnosticism with the casting overboard of all authority. It is, therefore, necessary that this excessive conceit of self which this modern scientific method of education fosters, be lessened by building on the safe foundations of what has been described as the education of authority. The problems of the reform movement centre, therefore, on the proper method of replacing this authoritative or passive method of education by education through self-activity.

This is the thing about education theorists such as Fichte, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Mann and here Harris: they frame the problem wrong. Harris really thinks that a kid who learns how to exercise his curiosity in a constructive way is going to be conceited and unmanageable? The result of this is “empty agnosticism with the casting overboard of all authority”? Again, did this man know any children? Somehow, a kid who sees Euclid’s proof that the sum of the angles in a triangle add up to two right angles is going to get conceited, if he sees it too early? Or might he not gain a respect for the genius of ancient Greek geometry, and an appreciation of rigorous reasoning?

We see here the outlines of a plan: Harris would have education by authority practiced from kindergarten (he was a big advocate of the kindergarten movement) without any contamination by ‘insight’. The little dears must learn to OBEY. Then, at some later date (Harris was also a huge factor in establishing compulsory high school) such well-trained automata will be ready to accept insights. But this form of education is a synthesis: both the automaton and the free individual exist in a creative tension, neither contradicting nor obviating the other.

So, how do you foster this creative tension, where students are both obedient to authority yet free to gain insights? Text books! No, really:

There is another problem that of the method of study. Germany advises us to teach by oral methods, by giving pieces of information and insight orally by word of mouth. But the American educators have blundered upon what may be defended as the correct method, namely, the text book method. It was merely the outcome of an unconscious trend. The method is of course liable to very serious abuse, but the good points greatly outweigh the bad. It has the advantage of making one independent of his teacher ; you can take your book wherever you please. You cannot do that with the great lecturer, neither can you question him as you can the book, nor can you select the time for hearing the great teacher talk as you can for reading the book. And it is true that nearly all the great teachers have embodied their ideas in books.

Germany, implementing Fichte, had as its educational goal to replace the father with the state, on Fichte’s theory that what a child desires more than anything is the approval of his father. It’s a simple matter, per Fichte, to remove the child from the family and replace the authority of the father with the state in the person of a state appointed and certified teacher. Thus trained, the child will be unable to think anything his teacher does not want him to think.

Textbooks, from a German perspective, might interfere with this instillation of blind loyalty to the state, as the kid might learn something without the explicit approval of the state/father. Thus, the student learns only what the teacher explicitly tells them.

While it seems Harris has here in mind more general books, as he explicitly mentions “nearly all the great teachers have embodied their ideas in books,” he was himself a producer of what we now call textbooks: books specifically produced for use by school children. It is unclear, at least at this point, what exactly Harris means here. Does he was students to read Euclid and Rousseau, say, on their own? Or does he mean text books to be mere extensions of the teacher’s authority, mere receptacles of approved ‘insight’?

The greatest danger of text-book education is verbatim, parrot-like recitation; but even then from the poorest text-book a great deal of knowledge can be gleaned. Then there is the alertness which in any large class will necessarily be engendered by an intelligent understanding and criticism of the results arrived at by different pupils in discussing a certain piece of work given in his own words. And then there is the advantage to be found in the fact that with the text-book the child can be busy by itself.

It remains unclear to me what Harris means by text books. Modern textbooks, with the possible exception of some more advanced math and science books, are characterized by predigestion: they have taken the subject and determined what correct thoughts about it are, as evidenced by the presence of questions at the ends of chapters, with the correct answers in the teacher’s edition. Nothing so open-ended as what Harris suggests – “intelligent understanding and criticism of the results arrived at by different pupils” – if he, indeed, intends to encourage free discussion.

Lastly, there is the problem of discipline. There should be very little corporal punishment ; the milder forms of restraint should be used. The child that is brought up accustomed to the rod loses his self respect, and may become the man who must have police surveillance. Silence, punctuality, regularity and industry are fundamental parts of a “substantial education” as much as the critical study of mathematics, literature, science and history is a part of the ” education of insight.” These two kinds of education, that of authority and that of self-activity, should be made complementary.

One can make the case that Harris is making simple common-sense observations, that kids need discipline enough to be quiet, show up regularly and work hard in order to learn anything, and that these must be inculcated prior to any particular subject matter. He calls this basis ‘substantial education’ and holds that it – discipline and enculturation – make one a mindless automaton. Yet, unless you achieve this level of discipline and conformity, you cannot hope for a liberal education, what Harris calls an “education of insight”.

I hear echoes of Pestalozzi here, where a child is to be lead step by step down a path designed by his teacher, not allowed to move on until a given step is mastered, as well as echoes of Fichte and the Blank Slate contingent. Harris’s prescriptions may sound good, but it flies in the face of experience with actual children. Kids learn different things in different orders at different speeds, and their native curiosity and intellectual capacities vary enormously. Their appreciation for and capacity to conform to behavioral norms, such as when be quiet, how hard and long to work on something, how to pay attention also vary, so that one 6 year old might sit quietly working for an hour with no trouble, while another can’t hold still for 5 minutes.

Self control and cultural norms are learned at home. Fichte saw this as a problem to be solved by the state. Don Bosco, working with boys who didn’t have a home, understood that he must supply some of what his boys lacked in order for them to succeed, but never imagined the home to be the source of all social ills. Rather, he saw the lack of a home as the problem.

Harris clearly seems to think school – and he was huge force in making compulsory, state-run K-12 schools the norm – is the place where civilization is learned, not home. He advocated for the forced removal of American Indian children from their homes, in order to inculcate in them a
“lower form of civilization” suitable for their inclusion in society. For completely benevolent reasons, of course.

On to Lecture III.