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.
Advertisements

Reading, Writing: End of April Update

As noted in earlier posts, the Late Unpleasantness at our school has somehow unlocked whatever it was that was keeping me from writing fiction, as the recent flash fiction-alanche here demonstrates. (No claims to quality, here, just noting simple existence.) Today, after I impose on my long-suffering wife to do a final proofreading, I’ll be submitting a story for publication, a 4,200 word trifle. What’s not a trifle: overcoming my self-defeating self criticism long enough to hit ‘send’.

Wish me luck. Further notices as events warrant.

Moving from the ridiculous to the comparatively sublime, or at least from the whimsical to the mundane, writing up some basic marketing and business planning docs for a startup. This project also entails doing market research and honing a product idea to a scary-looking point. In other words, using the skills I’m institutionally certified to possess in order to eventually make money happen. What a concept!

It’s been surprisingly fun so far. Wish me luck, and even say a prayer or two if so inclined, please. Again, further notices as events warrant.

Next up, while I’m sleeping better than I was during Holy Week and Easter Week when all this gender theory nonsense was coming down at school, I still have some tossing and turning time to read in bed. But as I don’t want lights on in case they keep my beloved from sleeping, I’m stuck with choosing among the hundred plus books on my Kindle. Just as I read Honor at Stake late on night because it was there (it’s pretty fun – check it out), I’ve now begun A. Merritt’s The Metal Monster for similar reasons. The Prologue of this work is the proximate cause of the flash fiction trifle Prolegomenon to Any Future Old School SF&F Adventure recently posted here.

Or some purpler shade of purple.

Merritt’s prose pushes right past purple to solferino. But that’s cool – ultimately, writing is writing, and style or convention is far less important than having something to say and saying it well. I like Moby Dick and Last of the Mohicans not despite but because they are so over the top by modern standards. And I am indebted to Merritt for the word impedimenta, a fine, evocative and colorful term.

What the heck, here’s an extensive sample: sunset in Tibet, from the first chapter of The Metal Monster.

Then a silence fell upon us. Suddenly the sun dipped down behind the flank of the stone giant guarding the valley’s western gate; the whole vale swiftly darkened—a flood of crystal-clear shadows poured within it. It was the prelude to that miracle of unearthly beauty seen nowhere else on this earth—the sunset of Tibet.

We turned expectant eyes to the west. A little, cool breeze raced down from the watching steeps like a messenger, whispered to the nodding poppies, sighed and was gone. The poppies were still. High overhead a homing kite whistled, mellowly.

As if it were a signal there sprang out in the pale azure of the western sky row upon row of cirrus cloudlets, rank upon rank of them, thrusting their heads into the path of the setting sun. They changed from mottled silver into faint rose, deepened to crimson.

“The dragons of the sky drink the blood of the sunset,” said Chiu-Ming.

As though a gigantic globe of crystal had dropped upon the heavens, their blue turned swiftly to a clear and glowing amber—then as abruptly shifted to a luminous violet A soft green light pulsed through the valley.

Under it, like hills ensorcelled, the rocky walls about it seemed to flatten. They glowed and all at once pressed forward like gigantic slices of palest emerald jade, translucent, illumined, as though by a circlet of little suns shining behind them.

The light faded, robes of deepest amethyst dropped around the mountain’s mighty shoulders. And then from every snow and glacier-crowned peak, from minaret and pinnacle and towering turret, leaped forth a confusion of soft peacock flames, a host of irised prismatic gleamings, an ordered chaos of rainbows.

Great and small, interlacing and shifting, they ringed the valley with an incredible glory—as if some god of light itself had touched the eternal rocks and bidden radiant souls stand forth.

Through the darkening sky swept a rosy pencil of living light; that utterly strange, pure beam whose coming never fails to clutch the throat of the beholder with the hand of ecstasy, the ray which the Tibetans name the Ting-Pa. For a moment this rosy finger pointed to the east, then arched itself, divided slowly into six shining, rosy bands; began to creep downward toward the eastern horizon where a nebulous, pulsing splendor arose to meet it.

And as we watched I heard a gasp from Drake. And it was echoed by my own.

For the six beams were swaying, moving with ever swifter motion from side to side in ever-widening sweep, as though the hidden orb from which they sprang were swaying like a pendulum.

Faster and faster the six high-flung beams swayed—and then broke—broke as though a gigantic, unseen hand had reached up and snapped them!

An instant the severed ends ribboned aimlessly, then bent, turned down and darted earthward into the welter of clustered summits at the north and swiftly were gone, while down upon the valley fell night.

Wow.

The other many, many books I’m supposedly reading have been a bit back-burnered (Again! Alas!) because dead tree editions are not easily readable in bed late at night, and daylight hours are pretty much filled up at the moment.

Finally, our massive Easter Octave Pizza Party was fun. My Fitbit said I walked over 7 miles that day – that would be mostly walking around in the hundred square yards comprising the kitchen, patio and pizza oven. My feet were a little tired by the end. Made 14 pizzas, 4 roast chickens and a few pounds of steak in the brick oven, in addition to a vat of guacamole and a double batch of ciabatta rolls in the kitchen. Moderation and I don’t see eye to eye.

Happy Easter Season!

Great Books: A Paean and Cautionary Tale

As mentioned previously here, and as spelled out in more, and more current, detail at Rotten Chestnuts, college education has been made into a cesspool of idiocy, bad ideas and evil intent. I do not exaggerate: Just as I would have gladly let my children wander the street all day unsupervised than send them to the public schools of Fichte, William Torrey Harris, Dewey and Freire, I would rather they work as ditch diggers and sleep in hovels than attend any of our fine institutes of “higher education” except, maybe, to get job training in a technical RAD field.

Image result for old books

There are a few minor exceptions, of course: St. John’s College, where my beloved and I went to school, which, despite its name, is vehemently secular (and, as such, under tremendous pressure to conform, which pressure they are likely to yield to as they lack any dogmatic reason to resist). SJC graduate under 200 students a year; the UC system awards degrees to over 40,000.

Then there are the religious schools. Thomas Aquinas College, which two of our sons have attended, has about 400 students total, graduates maybe 75 a year. The Cal State system has just under half a million students and awards nearly 100,000 degrees a year.

And on and on. For every little college trying to get kids to look at real, substantive and lasting ideas and hone their minds trying to understand and discuss them, there is some giant university doing the opposite, cranking out 10, 100, or 1,000 times the graduates in Conformity Studies, who get their participation trophy for vomiting back whatever the professor wanted to hear. It ain’t pretty out there.

All good cults provide, first of all, a hermeneutic under which all opponents can be summarily dismissed. ‘They’ just don’t understand! They are unenlightened! They are eeeeeevil! They are trying to ruin it for you! They are on the wrong side of History! Thus, the non-RAD fields inculcate into their victims the absolutely essential idea of diagnosis: you don’t listen to what opponents say, you merely diagnose the disorder that would cause them to disagree with you. The diagnosis then supplies what ‘they’ really mean, removing from the enlightened the onerous task of actually trying to understand what an opponent is actually saying.

Once the them versus us dichotomy is firmly in place, the student is introduced into the gnostic mysteries that explain all things, without the bother of any actual thought. Thought, after all, might – barely – lead the student to have certain reservations or quibbles, and with such glorious goals – the goals of mindless fanatics are always so, so, glorious – almost within reach, such quibbles and reservations must be quashed with extreme prejudice.

The success of this project is awe-inspiring. To see how such success is not only possible but all but inevitable, contemplate the ramifications of Pournelle’s Iron Law. If I want to, for example, share my love of Dante with a bunch of ignorant, foolish 18 year olds, I will gladly leave as much of the admin portion of my job as possible to those who seem to want to do that sort of stuff. Over time, those people are sorting the resumes, manning the hiring committees, sitting on the tenure committees, constructing the school’s long-term goals and plans – in other words, my love of my subject and of teaching results in people who love running things having ultimate control of the institution. Soon, and very soon, nobody gets hired except those who pass the purity test of those people on the hiring committee; nobody get tenure except those who are with the program; new departments get set up to employ the otherwise unemployable products of this bureaucracy, with the goal of producing more like-minded (using ‘mind’ loosely) product. Eventually, You Are Here. We got ‘here’ about 30 years ago by my reckoning. Now, the holdovers from the previous regimes and those few who slipped through the cracks are aging out. It’s Studies Nazis all the way down. Your average chemistry professor, say, is cowed into silence if he hasn’t already taken an industry job.

The solution is two-fold, and it ain’t pretty: somehow, the colleges and universities must – must – be burnt to the ground, and the earth where they stood salted. There is no reform at this point. Funding must be withdrawn; all classes must be videotaped and posted where everyone can see them; all Studies fields must be challenged, mocked, belittled, scorned at every opportunity. And that’s not enough. Things may get – unpleasant. The option of standing by and watching has passed.

Then, we – you – must raise your children outside the K-12 system, which also must be burned to the ground. The education schools that produce the automata that staff K-12 schools are so, so Woke. You can educate your kids better than any certified teacher. Hell, your pet rock could. Yes, yes, you don’t know calculus too good – get over it. Samwise Gamgee is your goal. If your child is in that tiny percentage called to be real scholars, there are those little schools out there. If that’s what he wants and you have raised him well, he can do it. Same goes for job training, even the high-end stuff like medicine and engineering. If he really wants it, he can do it.

What about the Great Books? I love them and have even read them, some of them many times, some of them very poorly, but I’ve given them a shot. That experience, ongoing, creates in me a sort of humble pride or prideful humility: having measured myself against truly great minds, I am painfully aware that I am a second-rate intellect. There’s so much more work for me to do, and I won’t live long enough to do it. On the other hand, I am an intellectual, however second rate I may be. I do know how to think, how to read a book, how to reason and use logic, how to write a coherent sentence (not that I always do, but you get it). I have context.

That’s why when I hear a moronic marketing slogan like ‘everything’s a social construct, man’ I see a not very subtle transmogrification of a bad idea that’s at least 3,000 years old, and was already an old idea when Aristotle mocked it. The basic idea stated in a more intelligible form: there is no such thing as objective reality. All any of us have is subjective experiences. For each of us, reality is a creation of our own minds. The marketing spin is to introduce the idea of ‘collective’ or ‘society’ as the creator of the subjective universe. Having read all those books, and an inadequate but not insubstantial selection of history, I can see that this appeal to ‘the masses’ or ‘society’ is a painful ruse: ‘advanced’ societies, ones which are ‘woke’ as the kids say these days, are lead by Vanguards, whose consciousness is the society doing the constructing. But wait, there’s more! The Vanguards themselves are created and managed by leaders, world-historic individuals who are even more woke! Actual history (not the god that is not a god capital ‘H’ History) shows us those guys are not avuncular and kindly men like people imagine the Bern to be, but have always been guys like Pol Pot, Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Che – you know, sociopathic mass murderers. That the most blood-thirty and brutal ‘leaders’ rise to the top under Marxism is not an accident, but is required by the logic of the Marxist system itself – but you’d need to have honed your mind on some real thought to understand why that is so. The woke of today have been very successfully immunized against that!

Thus, the ‘society’ doing the ‘constructing’ is going to be one sociopath and his sycophants. The rest of you jokers? Useful idiots.

Well, this ramble got out of hand. So much for the Great Books, which are a good idea but not a panacea. If you children were raised to be Samwise Gamgee, a rooted, level-headed person well aware of his own limitations and intimately familiar with the lore and traditions of his people, which people, lore and traditions he loves with whole heart – well, THEN the Great Books would be an immense value to them. But all one needs to do is look at the Enlightment, many of the scholars of which knew the Great Books quite well, to see how such knowledge can be misused, perverted and ignored. For someone unconcerned with being modern, someone who hasn’t accepted the contrary-to-fact dogma of Progress, Locke and Rousseau, for example, are often quite idiotic. In Dr. Johnson’s famous assessment, they are both good and original. Where they are good, they are not original, and where they are original, they are not good. But if you have absorbed the chronological snobbery ubiquitous in today’s schools, you just know those two jokers are 2,000 years smarter than Aristotle!

But, alas! It would be a minor miracle if the products of our current K-12 system, especially if they had the misfortune of being good at it, could get anything out of the Great Books except a knowing, dismissive sneer.

Miracles do happen. And reading hard books is still far better than the predigested vomit served in schools today.

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.

March 2019 Reading Update

Having finally finished off Polanyi’s escrable The Great Transformation and a few smaller works (will wrap up reviews of William Torrey Harris’s 7-page long “book” of his lectures on the nature of education in the next day or two) I’m on to a couple other things, two general and one education-specific:

Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never read this. About 20% through. Echos of the Party’s turns of phrase and habits of thought are evident in the way the Bern and AOC and other adolescent Marxists (but I repeat myself) talk today. The imperviousness to information, the dismissal of all objections, the crusading zeal, the willingness to criminalize all dissent – yep, that’s what we find in Solzhenitsyn’s account of the people who murdered 25+ million people and tortured and imprisoned without trial many millions more. The bug-eyed smirking is perhaps reserved for our particular hell, maybe not.

Rousseau, Emile. There’d better be time off in Purgatory for reading this so you don’t have to. About 10% in, and, oh! my eyes! Emile is a profoundly influential work, mentioned and cited everywhere I look – Torrey Harris, for example – and, upon a few pages reading, a profoundly stupid book. And verbose and poorly written to boot. The post-revolution French are said to have set up their schools according to this book, but since the very idea of a school is denounced within a few pages, not sure what that could mean. Noble savage, civilization corrupts, blank slate – all that crap.

Billington, The Protestant Crusade. Another book that gets mentioned in older books – it was first published in 1936, seems to have enjoyed a few decades of relative prominence, then went down the memory hole. Billington chronicles the anti-Catholic fervor in America, and how it reached a sustained high level from 1800 to 1860. About the only thing that has united our Protestant brothers and sisters over the years has been their hatred of Rome; not clear if the general Protestant dissolution we’re seeing now is a cause or effect of a reduction in anti-Catholic fervor on the part of mainline Protestant sects? (I could quip that what’s for a Protestant to hate in the new Catholic Church we’ve been singing into being over the last 50 years – but that would be mean.)

Anyway, time to get on it.

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.