Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 2

Image result for Richard FeynmanWe are discussing textbooks, starting here with some preliminaries and what textbooks are.  The remaining two questions are:

2. Who gets to say what’s in textbooks

3. Why do we need them

Who gets to say what’s in textbooks? First, let’s consider a fairly recent and I think representative example. Richard Feynman was once on a textbook committee here in California. (Aside: the link above came up when googled for the Feynman essay. The commentary at that site is also worth perusing.) While his experiences date back 50 years, the situation has only become worse. So, who says what in them?

You see, the state had a law that all of the schoolbooks used by all of the kids in all of the public schools have to be chosen by the State Board of Education, so they have a committee to look over the books and to give them advice on which books to take.

Feynman getting a say in what’s in science and math books? Famous, brilliant, Nobel-winning teacher? Sounds about right. Buuuut:

Immediately I began getting letters and telephone calls from schoolbook publishers. They said things like, “We’re very glad to hear you’re on the committee because we really wanted a scientific guy . . .” and “It’s wonderful to have a scientist on the committee, because our books are scientifically oriented . . .” But they also said things like, “We’d like to explain to you what our book is about . . .” and “We’ll be very glad to help you in any way we can to judge our books . . .” That seemed to me kind of crazy.

A nice lady who’d been on the committee before told him how it worked:

They would get a relatively large number of copies of each book and would give them to various teachers and administrators in their district. Then they would get reports back on what these people thought about the books.

But this is Feynman we’re talking about! So:

Since I didn’t know a lot of teachers or administrators, and since I felt that I could, by reading the books myself, make up my mind as to how they looked to me, I chose to read all the books myself. . . .

If you know anything about government committees, you may be able to guess what happens. Feynman is the ONLY person on the committee who read any of the books. In one case, there was a book being rated even though it was blank:

We came to a certain book, part of a set of three supplementary books published by the same company, and they asked me what I thought about it.

I said, “The book depository didn’t send me that book, but the other two were nice.”

Someone tried repeating the question: “What do you think about that book?”

“I said they didn’t send me that one, so I don’t have any judgment on it.”

The man from the book depository was there, and he said, “Excuse me; I can explain that. I didn’t send it to you because that book hadn’t been completed yet. There’s a rule that you have to have every entry in by a certain time, and the publisher was a few days late with it. So it was sent to us with just the covers, and it’s blank in between. The company sent a note excusing themselves and hoping they could have their set of three books considered, even though the third one would be late.”

It turned out that the blank book had a rating by some of the other members! They couldn’t believe it was blank, because [the book] had a rating. In fact, the rating for the missing book was a little bit higher than for the two others. The fact that there was nothing in the book had nothing to do with the rating.

Read the whole thing, if you have the stomach for it. Feynman noted many egregious errors and obvious failings in the books that did have stuff in them, so much so that one is lead to wonder if the blank book would not have been an improvement (hint: yes). The rest of the essay is about the corruption of the selection process, where the publishers wine and dine the committee members to get their support, but given the nature and quality of the books, that qualifies as a secondary scandal.

So, to answer the question: who gets to decide what goes in textbooks? it’s ‘educators’ with the ‘help’ of politicians. In the above essay, the recommendations of the committee are largely overturned by the politicians allocating the state budget. The committee was instructed not to look at cost, so they couldn’t recommend a set of books within any budget, or have a hierarchy of which books to cut first if the money wasn’t there. Didn’t matter anyway, as the Education Department simply did what they wanted once a budget was determined. Feynman, a legendary teacher himself, is there just for cover – it’s not like he get to decide, or even have much of a say, despite his expertise.

Two things should be obvious from this story: first, educators, a class of people that did not exist until about 200 years ago (people were teachers, back then) decide what goes into the books. State education departments are and have always been staffed by educators and political hacks.

But the second thing is more perhaps more shocking: it doesn’t matter what goes into the textbooks, so long as it fails to teach! It is not like there are not many people out there who can teach algebra, say, and who could write a good, usable textbook on the subject.  I ran across one such book many years ago, and it was night and day. After taking the usual high school algebra courses, I could sort of do the math, but my understanding was limited. Then, in my mid-20s, in a few pages of a book I stumbled across in a library  written by a guy who understood and loved his subject, it was a mini Eureka! moment. Algebra wasn’t a series of tricks and rules, but rather a complete logical system. The fragments made no sense; the whole was beautiful.

So, I know they’re out there. Textbooks written by people who understand and love their subjects are never used in the public schools, at least K-12. This is no accident. It’s not just the experts whose opinions are ignored. What parents might wish were in them is worse than irrelevant – it is to be actively shunned.

The compulsory, graded public school system was never envisioned as a means to educate. Fichte, Mann and their spawn hardly cared if the students learned traditional subjects. The system they dreamed up, realized and imposed with the police power of the state was intended from the beginning to form an obedient and docile population.  Textbooks that teach real knowledge do not help toward this end, and might hinder it. Better to not run that risk.

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Textbooks: An Unnecessary Evil pt 1

It has been the great tragedy of our time that people were taught to read and not taught to reason.

– Chesterton, of course

A fascinating comment on an old post that’s been getting some attention lately (by the lowly standards of this blog, anyway) got me to thinking about textbooks.

Three questions:

  1. What are textbooks
  2. Who gets to say what’s in them
  3. Why do we need them

After some preliminaries, we’ll treat each of these questions in turn over two or three posts.

Background musings: When reading a book, one is almost always forced, alas, to rely on some intermediary person’s understanding of the materials. Most works I read and want to read are compilations from other sources (almost all history) or are translated into English, or both. Works of fiction and the occasional first hand account written in a language you read are exceptions – in novels and front line stories, the writer is free, more or less, to tell it as he sees it, and you get to interact, as it were, directly with the writer.

Translations are perhaps the obvious challenge. I read a lot of books written in other languages, and am often acutely aware of being at the mercy of the translator’s understanding and biases. The couple years I spent studying German in high school left no trace; the 2 years of Greek and one of French in college (1) had the benefit of making me aware of how difficult the translator’s job is even with the best of intentions. Read any two translations of Dante, let alone Homer, and you will in places wonder if the translators are working from the same sources. I today read very, very little French and less Greek. And effectively no German. Sigh.

The intermediary in this case is the translator, who has a whole passel of challenges and temptations to deal with, not least of which is to simplify and gloss over stuff he may or may not understand. Some of the more intense discussions at St. John’s were occasioned by why Hippocrates G. Apostle (a well known and fabulously-named translator of Aristotle) had translated the same Greek word into more than one English word according to context, whether his assumptions about context were correct, and whether it was ever OK to read into a text in that manner. Many different translations were dragged out for comparison. “Sheer fantasy” was a comment made by one of the more linguistically skilled professors.

St. John’s College is weird. It also should be pointed out that reading anything like a literal translation of Aristotle is nearly as difficult to understand as it is for somebody with two years of Greek to try to read him in Greek. So, we were all sympathetic to Apostle, but I think we, in the end, didn’t much approve.

I tell the above story merely to illustrate how challenging translation can be, and how one must always exercise some degree of caution when reading translated works. In some cases, the translator’s introduction and footnotes can be very helpful in explaining his approach and sometimes biases, and in helping explain tricky words and passages. But sometimes not.

The other main intermediary is the compilers/re-tellers. When reading history especially, the reader is unpacking a Russian doll – there are the original sources which may or may not be brought to the fore, and all the other historians who have looked at the same materials whose influence may or may not be acknowledged. Exactly what you’re getting, particularly in popular histories where the writer is unlikely to let facts get in the way of the story, is difficult if not impossible for the lay person to grasp.

History is a challenging task, where the broad strokes may not be too controversial, but everything else is up for grabs. The trick is trying to capture both the telling details – and upon what criteria is this detail or that deemed telling? – while at the same time providing some context and overarching analysis without simply steamrolling those details.

Not easy – and that’s assuming you’re honest. Some are not, or at least their criteria for selecting and recounting details are biased to the point of lying. Gibbons and Wells spring to mind, the first applying the principle that anything the Catholic Church was involved in was by that fact alone evil, and the second deciding in advance that, according to Marxist principles, everything is marching forward in a completely non-religious way under the guidance of the totally not-God History toward a totally not a paradise myth Worker’s Paradise. In either case, any detail or even higher level events that failed to confirm their narrative, as the kids call it these days, was ignored or mangled until it did. (2)

Again, introductions and notes are often helpful or at least telling. When I read A History of Private Life a few years ago (well, most of it anyway) I had to deal with both translation – it was written in French – and marked biases among the various scholars who contributed. Some were openly Marxist, which means inclined to lie and ignore stuff the moment it becomes inconvenient to their pathology, while others had an Germanic, nearly obsessive fascination with details (I liked those guys – go figure). And some had no obvious agendas. Good series. It helped me at least to have a little heads up as provided by the introduction and notes.

That said, one’s main tool or defense in understanding and getting something positive from reading is having read and tried to understand lots of different kinds of books, particulary old books that introduce one to truly different cultures. (3) That’s what the exercise of a University education used to largely consist of – the reading and struggling with the ideas in books widely recognized as important. In no particular order, you learn or should learn:

  • Many old stories are beautiful. Our ancestors really knew a good story when they heard one, and how to tell it;
  • There are very, very few really new ideas;
  • Most of the really important ideas are thousands of years old, and never go away;
  • The smartest people today are not smarter than the smartest people of the past;
  • Using big words and plenty of them, and having good things to say are not the same thing.

There is a more complicated thing one might learn, about how an educated person sees the world. This is much harder to put into words. The effect is that one becomes aware of perspective, about how the world will look a certain way to someone who has had certain experiences and accepted certain premises. Crucially, one sees the interaction between beliefs, character and action. In many ways, great novels make this more clear than other types of books, although it’s a critical part of Homer and even of Aristotle. I suppose this is what is meant by being broadminded.

What are textbooks?

Simply put, and with notable exceptions, textbooks are meant to prevent learning any of the lessons a student might learn from good books.

Exceptions include attempts to condense and to some extent predigest the fundamentals of highly technical topics. Grammars, and some math and science texts fall into this class.  Textbooks of this type are sometimes highly original and creative in themselves. Euclid, for example, is sometimes considered a textbook on Greek mathematics, but the gradus ad Parnassum structure of the Elements, leading the student logically from simpler to more complex concepts and proofs, was at least perfected by Euclid, and is his greatest lesson.

Most modern textbooks are not exceptions. Consider the fundamental difference between modern textbooks versus the earliest textbooks use in America, say, McGuffey’s Readers. The Readers were literally textbooks, collections of texts written by what the compilers thought were great writers, typically expressing thoughts characteristic of the highest aspirations of the people whose children were to read them.  The readers are hard, at least much harder than the texts we expect children of similar age today to read.

Modern textbooks are not, as a rule, collections of challenging texts. Instead, the materials in them are fresh wrought. These materials tend to be very simple. This is one aspect of Pestalozzi’s methods (such as they are) that Fichte loved: all learning is to be broken down into atoms, and no student is permitted to move on to atom B until the teacher has determined that he has mastered atom A.

A child with the slightest interest in learning to read will get past the ‘See Spot run” level in at most a couple weeks. This step – giving kids simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words – seems to have, historically, been skipped. In America, large numbers of children learned to read from the King James Bible, which no one will ever accuse of being a collection of simple sentences made up of easily sounded out words.

The other feature of modern textbooks that must be noted: the answers are in the back or in the teacher’s edition. The answers are known, even in subjects such as ‘literature’ or history, where the meaning of any text or event is certainly not reducible to a single statement if it has any meaning at all. Even in math, people with any instinctual understanding of math recognize that while there may be one or one set of correct answers, there are usually many ways to get there. Yet the textbook will mark you wrong if you do not take the route described in the textbook. Even being correct isn’t good enough. Thus another defining feature of modern textbooks: by putting the acceptable answers in the teacher’s hands, textbooks place the teacher between the student and the materials, such that the materials to be learned are not allowed to speak to the student except as approved by the teacher

In general, excepting those textbooks that serve the purpose of collecting and organizing complex basics such as grammar and math, modern textbooks are collections of newly created materials, generally fragmented and simplified to some imagined lowest common denominator. They contain the often increasingly arbitrary acceptable answers to a set of predefined acceptable questions. These questions and answers are under the control of the teacher alone.

Next, we’ll discuss who gets to say what’s in them.

  1. Contrary to all expectation, including mine, I did pass the junior year French reading exam at St. John’s, so there was a brief period where I was a *certified* reader of French. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of St. Joseph of Cupertino? A man considered by his peers to be hopelessly stupid? Where, the story goes, in order to advance toward ordination, he needed to give a brief exposition on some scripture passage, and the examiner asked him about the Nativity narrative – the one point in Scripture upon which any of his religious brothers had ever heard him expound with any coherence. He passed, and ended being ordained a priest. Well, the St John’s College French test happened to be on a passage from de Tocqueville with which I just happened to be very familiar. (de Tocqueville also happens to be very easy French). As soon as I started trying to read it, I was all ‘oh, that passage!’ Luck? Divine Providence? You decide!
  2. Confession: it is unlikely I will live long enough to read Gibbons or Wells all the way through. I’m judging them here based on the snippets I have read and their reputations among people whose views on the matter I respect – e.g., Chesterton.
  3. I’ve long said that trying to understand the ancient Greeks and Hebrews is a greater and more fruitful cultural reach than trying to understand any current culture. The Greeks and Hebrews as deep beyond deep, and as alien in many ways as Martians. And yet, they are us!

A Further Thought on Politics & History

Yesterday’s post got off leash and wandered, going places I didn’t start out intending to go. Nothing wrong with that, or, rather, nothing wrong with it that isn’t also wrong with about 95% of the content on this here blog. That said, let’s take up the theme again, see where it goes this time.

I posited that there are two consistent themes in America’s political history, one of which believes that all problems can be solved if the right people – good, forward-thinking people – have overwhelming power. The power is required to be overwhelming, as there exist Bad People who must be overwhelmed. In fact, the problem definition of those who embrace this line of thought always, as in, always, contains the idea that it is only bad people who oppose them, that good people would never dream of opposing them.

Thus, we have a dichotomy: the rhetoric used by such people will always be about justice, fairness, the little people, and how their goals would be simply achievable, inevitable, even, except for the bad people who lie, bully and obfuscate in order to stop them. The rhetoric is ultimately moral; with all morality on the side of those on the team, and complete immorality the defining characteristic of the opposition.

But: the concrete actions proposed are always, as in always, a power grab; the methods are almost without exception immoral by any objective measure. The likes of Dewey and Alinsky even acknowledge this when they denounce any who would hesitate to lie, manipulate or do any other evil to further the cause. Freire, among others, makes it clear that there are no rights except those gained by commitment to the Cause. While life and property are the obvious targets – we kill you and take your stuff  being the logically inevitable next step of these self-appointed messiahs – the right one might imagine one has to be told the truth is, in practice, the first victim of effort. As Dewey, taking a break from re-architecting our modern school system, said in his defense of the Russian Revolution, the end is all that matters; the collective means everything, the individual nothing.

As, I think, Zinn, of all people, points out: the Puritans fled relative religious freedom in England and Europe in order to establish their own theocracy in America. Be that as it may, the founders of Harvard were graduates and professors from Cambridge miffed that that hoary institution wasn’t Puritan enough, but still tolerated less pure and Puritan ideas. So off to America they go, to set up a proper Calvinist state. Per Wikipedia’s article on Harvard: 

A 1643 publication gave the school’s purpose as “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”; in its early years trained many Puritan ministers. It offered a classic curriculum on the English university model‍—‌many leaders in the colony had attended the University of Cambridge‍—‌but conformed to the tenets of Puritanism. It was never affiliated with any particular denomination, but many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches.

The ‘never affiliated with any particular denomination’ is an odd claim – when the stated goal is to provide replacements for ‘our present ministers’ and the state is an arm of the Church, as it most certainly was in colonial Boston, what would ‘never affiliated’ mean? Also, one might get the impression from the way the above is worded that Congregational and Unitarian ministers were trained together at Harvard in a lovely gesture of ecumenism. What actually happened was that around 1800, a battle raged between the ‘almost certainly damned and there’s nothing you can do about it’ Calvinist Congregationalist and the ‘we’re all saved and there’s no way for us not to be’ Univeralists, which was ultimately won by the Universalists. Because Universalists, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, don’t really believe anything, Harvard quickly fell to the secularists. (1)

The point here is that, while what has proved to be the superficial aspects of religion have been shed, the core belief that, if only they were in charge, the leaders of the Harvard community would bring about some sort of paradise on earth has persisted unabated, and, having shed the restraints of even Calvinist Christianity, is even more hell-bent on the destruction of its enemies.

While really truly Calvinist Puritans despised all other beliefs, believing Methodists, for example, almost certainly damned, they shared with other Protestants a particular hatred of Catholicism. They (we) were the real enemy, the Church the whore of Babylon. Over the last century or so, many ‘good’ Catholics have fallen under the sway of Harvard, and will, as the price of sitting at the cool kid’s table, embrace the project.

Of course, not everyone gets to go to Harvard. But there are workarounds. Early in the 19th century, Harvard ditched its ‘classic curriculum on the English university model‍’ and refashioned itself into a research or Prussian-model University, after the then-new University of Berlin. In the 18th century, various president and scholars at Harvard had prided themselves on their mastery of Latin and the classics; commencement speeches were delivered in Latin. But this began to pass away, as Harvard lost its religious drive and replaced it with the Prussian model’s research drive. It became much more important to discover new things, to advance mankind, than to pass on old things such as Latin and the classics.

As the oldest and most successful University in America, and as the source of key faculty and administration to other American colleges, Harvard was the model to follow. Publish or perish. Get in line with Progress. We are centuries smarter than those old guys anyway.

Everybody learns this wherever they go to school in America. (2)

The dominant position of this take has made assuming those who do not share it are ignorant, stupid and evil as easy as falling down for those who accept it. You, the true believer, owe them nothing but contempt. Following Marx, you would assume there is practically no chance you can awaken them to the enlightened truth, although, out of the goodness of your heart you might try. That’s how it happens that we who disagree get lectured on what we believe by those hoping to convince us, and dismissed with ad hominems when we push back. You either get it and are woke, or you don’t and are broke beyond repair.

The other thread mentioned yesterday, the one championed by Washington and the writers of the Federalist Papers, is the ferocious commitment to being free from tyrants of any flavor. To such a one, the most pathetic belief possible is that today’s wannabe tyrant, arriving in the fullness of time and one the Right Side of History, cares, really cares, about Justice, Fairness and all that is good, and will only inflict the degree of harm on our enemies that is necessary to achieve the Good.

Having seen the world operate under tyrants, under Central Committees and Committees for Public Safety and Five Year Plans, having read about Athens and Florence and Paris and the whiplash of mob rule to tyranny to aristocracy and back, and all the innocents destroyed and all the wealth robbed and wasted, we aren’t buying that now, finally, it will work of only we put a nice man like Bernie in charge. He’ll only seize the wealth of those who have too much (presumably more than three houses and a net worth of a couple million, but I’m sure that’s flexible…) and give it to those who deserve it!

What could go wrong? We, the Enlightened, the Woke, simply won’t repeat the results of EVERY OTHER ATTEMPT THROUGH ALL OF HISTORY to anoint a secular savior. We just won’t, and you’re a meanie, an unenlightened bad  person to even bring it up.

Is it any wonder the Bern wants college for everyone?

  1. I’ve long noticed something I call the Christian Hangover, where those who have drunk deeply of Christian ideals typically stay drunk on them for a generation or even two, all the while claiming their behaviors are not based on Christianity. Thus, we often see rabid atheists, at least for the first generation or even two, behaving more or less like traditional Christian gentlemen. It falls to their children or sometimes grandchildren to reach the logical conclusion that gentlemanly behavior is stupid under their current beliefs. This is why it is a good thing atheists have so few children. Harvard kept up appearances until almost 1900. It went from demanding traditional moral behavior from its staff – a manifestation of its internalized Puritanism – to tolerating bad behavior if you kept it quiet, to tolerating bad behavior out in the open to, today, demanding the enthusiastic embrace of immorality as a condition of employment. Increase Mather’s corpse is doing about 1,000 RPMs.
  2. With, one hopes, the exception of the Newman List schools and some of the committed Evangelical schools. And maybe St. John’s College.

Two Schools

For those just joining us, to recap –  my main point about schooling: the graded classroom model is the problem. Segregating children by age, putting them into classrooms and teaching them all the same stuff at the same time regardless of what they already know or are interested in is such a crazy and destructive idea it could only have come from academia.

And it did.

But but but… people imagine there’s something logically or historically compelling about this barbaric practice, as if compulsory graded classroom schooling somehow represents a rational evolution in education. They imagine poor children, neglected by? parents? If not, who? who needed to be rounded up and MADE to sit in a classroom, for their own good. And that Science! had discovered, for example, that having 35 kids learn See Spot Run together was *better* than having them taught individually to read from the King James Bible on grandma’s knee. (1)

Were some kids in the bad old days neglected and uneducated? Sure – just as they are now, except now, it’s generally among those in school. Do you imagine kids in those ‘underperforming’ inner city schools are learning much? Before they drop out for good, as a majority in such schools do? Whatever horror stories the education establishment can cook up about homeschooled kids pale to insignificance compared to their failures as seen in the products of their own schools.

Horace Mann, after Fichte as taught in the University of Berlin, saw state run compulsory schooling not as a way to educate children in anything so trivial as reading, writing and arithmetic. Rather, he saw it as a way to morally educate children.  Fichte had floated the idea to the educated elites of Berlin that the problem with Germany wasn’t to be found in the mirror, but rather in the education of the children out there. Those peasants and shopkeepers imagine that their children are, you know, theirs. But all enlightened people, such as the Berliners who paid to attending lectures by Fichte, know that the individual only has value as a part of the state. Therefore, proper education destroys the free will of the child and replaces it with unquestioned obedience to the state. Proper education also removes the child as completely as possible from the influence of the parents. Fichte imagined that children would be seized at some very young age, removed from their homes to be educated by state officials.

Fichte says as a simple matter of fact that what a child most wants as he matures is the approval of his father, which desire can easily be transferred to the teacher certified by the state for just this task. Just so long as we get the actual fathers out of the picture early enough.  The compulsory state-run graded classroom model of schooling was invented specifically to implement Fichte’s ideas.

happy school
Fantasy, as presented by the Marketing Department. 

 

Reality. And this is a *good* school, the High School of Graphic Communication Arts, Hells Kitchen, NYC. Just so you don’t think I’m cherry picking, this was designed and built by fancy architectes and stuff, and won awards. 

 

Does anything going on today ring a bell? Schoolwork and activities eliminating family time? Fathers out of the picture much? Wide diversity of thought encouraged in school? Most of all, conformity to the opinions of your betters if you want to get ahead?

You can search the archives here for the source materials for the above. Today, I want to discuss the problem of what I’ll call the two schools. One school would be in an expanded sense a home school. Sometimes it indeed took place in the home, such as the above mentioned grandmother teaching a child to read on her knee. Other times, it would be schooling that supported what went on in the home, including the personal relationships of siblings, cousins and neighbors, such as the classic American one-room schools. For the upper crust, it would include all the tutors and even the academies provided for their children. These practices and institutions reinforced what a child would learn in the home – or the parents wouldn’t inflict them on their kids. They tend to be much less time and energy intensive than modern schooling.

The second school might be represented by the work of St. John Bosco. His schools were indeed centralized, highly structured affairs. The boys boarded there. The approval of the priests and brothers did indeed substitute for the approval the boys’ fathers. There was indeed a fairly rigid code of behavior rather strongly enforced. So one might be tempted – indeed, many seem to have succumbed – to think that modern schools are much like the best Catholic schools of yore.

But there is one great difference: in the first schools, more or less intact families operating within solid social structures and rules used very flexible and diverse means to educate their kids. Read the biographies of early American heros to see this in practice. Less rich or ambitious families might do less than the better off more ambitious ones, maybe going with apprenticeships and such at earlier ages, but the general pattern of seeing schooling as something done within and to reinforce existing social relationships is clear.

Don Bosco was dealing with abandoned boys. He understood that first, before any formal education could take place, he needed to provide some form of home to his students. Homes set examples, provide comfort and structure and enforce basic discipline. There were no fathers or mothers, so the brothers must step up into that role as much as possible. Thus, the practices of Don Bosco’s school were much more defined by needing to provide a home than a school. The schooling, while excellent (and directed toward getting the boys gainful employment and thus a place in their society) was by necessity very secondary.

Don Bosco found orphaned or abandoned boys begging and stealing on the streets, and, out of Christian love, wanted to help them.  His highly structured schools thus arose from a very different set of needs and goals than modern schools.

We must not get sucked into accepting parallels between modern graded classroom schooling and schooling that grew out of trying to care for orphaned and abandoned children. They might look very similar superficially, but the needs and goals are completely different.

Based on history and reason, the practices we should consider when thinking how schooling should truly be done are the practices of the first kinds of schooling, homeschooling broadly considered. We should assume family and culture as that within which education takes place. We should grow more comfortable with the freedom such educations provide to both the child and the family.

We should not be sucked in to imagining that modern schooling could be made to be more like the benevolent model set up by the early Salesians under Don Bosco. Both modern schooling and Don Bosco’s schools are trying to replace families. The difference is that modern schooling seeks to destroy the families that exist, while Bosco sought to stand in for families that should have been there but weren’t.

  1. One review I read of the remake of True Grit pointed out that the dialogue, being based on the language of the book, captured the KJV flavor of everyday communication in what was then the West. In literate households – and practically ALL households were literate in 19th century America outside slaves, former slaves and some new immigrants – the one book that was likely to be everywhere was the Bible. So the King James translators’ flavored the English in America for generations. Read some of the letters written during the Civil War, and you’ll see it.

Why (almost) Nobody Can Read

In a comment somewhere, I opined that if we consider literacy to mean not the mere mechanics of reading, but both actually reading and understanding what you have read, the percentage of people who are literate in America has got to be under 10%. I’m thinking probably well under. If you can’t read, in the sense of rendering those symbols on the page or screen into English, then of course you’re classically illiterate (and so of course aren’t reading this). But even if you can read in that sense, if you don’t read, it clearly makes no difference. The label ‘functionally illiterate’ should apply to people who don’t read as as much as those who can’t read.

Image result for readingThe bigger issue is understanding what you read. Recent reading and discussion, for example, show an almost complete misunderstanding of what the Constitution *is*.  That men wrote a document in order to establish and limit a national government seems almost entirely missed, as is the understanding that an unlimited government is by definition a tyranny.  Even the Bill of Rights is seen as somehow magically granting gifts to the People, rather than stating areas where the government shall not tread.

Recently tried to explain the Electoral College to a coworker, how it protects minorities – those who live in less populous states – from getting bullied by the majority, and how the Constitution very probably would not have gotten state approval without it – and he simply refused to understand, but continued to relish his anger at having the majority denied their will. I even added that revolts tend to come from the provinces, that the Founders knew this, and instituted the Electoral College as a way to mitigate this risk. Nope.

This accusatory finger here is pointed squarely at the mirror: hardly a day goes by when I don’t read something and realize I lack the context to understand it. What I do have, in addition to curiosity, is a liberal education – Great Books, some math and music, a little science and art and history. What that gives me is a skeleton like the girders that hold up a skyscraper that can be filled in, here and there, with more detail. That no man, let alone a poser like me, could ever fill it all in is beside the point. At least I have some context for the context, as it were.

Perhaps the most important part of a liberal education is a profound appreciation of how ignorant we all are. There is an effectively infinite set of things it would be good to know, and we most definitely have a finite amount of time and capacity. Further, no one with a functioning mind could come away from an encounter with Plato or Aristotle (or a host of others!) and still believe we moderns are way smarter than those stupid ancient people. No one (1) could look at the works of art – architecture, sculpting, painting, literature, music – and imagine we moderns are just way more sophisticated and smart than those old geezers. In fact, the feeling we’ve fallen far is hard to shake, that we couldn’t hold a candle next to truly great minds. Now, objectively, I believe there are any number of truly brilliant people around today in a thousand fields, as brilliant as anyone ever, but the image that springs to mind is of Dawkins and Musk with their hubris and gadgets trying to talk with, oh, Charlamagne and St. Thomas or Plato and Archimedes or even Jefferson and Newton. Always worth a giggle.

A liberally educated man will therefore be at least a little timid about his conclusions no matter how vigorous in his principles – and know the difference. The typical miseducated college grad is vigorous in his conclusions and vague about his principles – or would be, if he could tell the difference.

When I’m being careful and honest with myself (I try, but I’m only human), I’m somewhere between suspicious to pretty confident about what I’ve deduced from reading education history. I’m very confident about much of the framework items, such as Fichte’s role, the role of the Prussian models of universal and university education, and how compulsory graded classroom schooling spread in America – mostly because no one I’ve come across, critic or supporter, seriously disputes it. I’m a little uncomfortable with the contention that the Irish immigrants were the proximate cause of Mann getting Prussian style schooling approved in Massachusetts. I’ve seen this in 2 or 3 sources, and the timing matches, and the attitudes of Americans about the Irish certainly support it, but it’s not clear these sources aren’t really one source passed through time.

And so on, down to my complete lack of sources for the when and why the graded classroom model became the Catholic schooling model. It happened, that’s for sure, but I’d like some names, dates and arguments.

This is just an example, a place in the framework where I’ve managed to fill in some of the detail. I’m painfully aware of the effectively infinite number of empty spaces for every space I’ve filled in even a little. I’m aware I could be wrong. But I’m also aware that the enemies of truth and reason don’t feel (can’t say ‘think’) the same way about their positions, and don’t care. Can’t let legitimate minor doubts silence you in the face of irrational hatred.

In conclusion: I flatter myself imagining I read with some context and care. I fear, and unfortunately, the world seems hellbent to confirm it, that the number of people who can claim even this much is as a drop in a bucket. I hope I’m wrong.

  1. No one except Hegel. But boy, was he committed to getting the square peg of Reality into the round hole of his Theory.

More (or perhaps Moore) on Education

Any even half serious reading into education turns up a few themes over and over again. One of these is that not only is self-education the best education, it is the only education.

This truth is obscured somewhat by the occasional accident of education taking place at a school or university. Because there is often somebody lecturing and testing us, and it is possible (if unlikely) that we will learn something in the processes of taking notes and preparing for tests, we tend to associate what we may be said to have learned in a class with the mechanics of the class, rather than in our having applied ourselves to the the ideas presented in the books and by the teacher on our own initiative. We are trained to see learning as a result of having taken the notes and passed the test, rather than seeing the notes and tests as, at best, starting points for thought. Tests and notes might be helpful in some other context, where taking the notes is not merely a means to passing the tests and therefore the class. But in the context of a modern school or university, passing the classes and getting the Document of Approval is the goal – a goal which can demonstrably be achieved without any learning at all.

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Churchill, for example:

My education was interrupted only by my schooling.

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.

I began my education at a very early age; in fact, right after I left college.

 

The text we call Aristotle’s Physics has long been supposed to be some student’s notes to some of Aristotle’s lectures. If so, these are the kinds of lecture notes that can educate, because it’s work to think about them – they are meaningless without thought. A lot of thought. Working through the Physics or indeed any of Aristotle’s works exercises the mind – educates us, in other words – more than getting a PhD’s worth of passed tests and classes under our hat bands. The point here is that you might find yourself working your way through the Physics in the course of getting a PhD, even a PhD in Philosophy – but it is hardly necessary. If you had the typical Analytic Philosopher infesting academia these days as your thesis advisor, thinking hard about the Physics would probably be a career limiting move.

But you’d learn something. If your newfound knowledge included disdain for Analytic Philosophers, all the better.

Sometimes, the importance of self education is emphasized through disparaging of classroom education. Sometimes, the writer will retain the (vain) hope that the classroom could, if properly managed, impart some education, but despairs of what it is used for today.

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C. S. Lewis, from That Hideous Strength, on the effects of “education”:

Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles….He’s our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the high-brow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything.

The Greeks believed that true education was a form of and a result of true friendship. A friend, out of love, could educate his friend one on one. This individual encouragement is meant to inspire and aid the efforts of the student in self-education. (1) In other words, as in a platonic dialogue, the elder friend/teacher acted as a Socratic midwife to the younger friend/student, not as a lecturer in a classroom or even as a tutor of this or that subject. He would show the younger student what it was that the student needed to know, and guide and correct him – but as a friend. The younger student, out of love and gratitude (and ambition!) would study. That’s how you get a small town like Athens (less than half the size of the California suburb I live in) producing dozens of geniuses, building timeless monuments, writing hundreds of classic plays, poems, works of mathematics and philosophy, achieving a greatness seldom matched in human history, all over the course of a couple centuries. These United States have been around that long, have 500 times as many people, have vast technological advantages – have we done as well, proportionally? (2)

G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton, a self-educated man, takes a dim view of modern schools and their standardized outputs.

When learned men begin to use their reason, then I generally discover that they haven’t got any.

The purpose of Compulsory Education is to deprive the common people of their commonsense.

There is something to be said for teaching everything to somebody, as compared with the modern notion of teaching nothing, and the same sort of nothing, to everybody.

 

Catholics believe that each child is created in the image of God and is infinitely valuable in and of himself. This has tempered to some degree the evils inherent in classifying and controlling students through classroom schooling. The friendship model of education is much closer to the nature of the Catholic teacher/child relationship than graded classrooms, which defeat friendship and indeed personal relationships at every turn.

David Warren – and you should read him if you don’t already – yesterday made some comments that bear on this topic, so we’ll end with those:

I think of beloved old J. M. Cameron, who took me up as friend, mentoree, and “unregistered student” at Saint Michael’s College, back in those days. I once asked him directly, after he had been driven out by mandatory retirement, if there was anything all his best students had in common. He answered directly, “They were all self-taught.” In subsequent conversation I received a few mould-juicy anecdotes about how unwelcome they were in the universities, and how quickly most dropped out.

I think the reason our universities were so easily captured by the Leftist filth, was that they had already become institutes of planning; as opposed to education, which is risky and hard and in the fullest Platonic sense, personal.

  1. That this older successful men educate the younger promising men thing got competitive, where older men would vie to be the friend of the most beautiful (in the complete Greek sense of beauty) younger men and that these relationships sometimes became sexual was possible only because the Greeks believed such education based on friendship was essential to men becoming ‘excellent’ in the classic Greek sense. The whole sexual thing is probably overblown, and at least cannot be correctly understood within Freud’s insane and fraudulent schema.
  2. The Founders, who as a group are at least comparable to a generation of Peak Athenians, were also educated in what would today be considered a slapdash manner: little school here, some tutoring there, a whole lot of reading, and a huge dose of practical experience. Hey – let’s do that!

Science and ‘Scientific’ Education

When I’m cruising through my giant pile of education history books, the pernicious phrases  ‘scientific’ education and ‘scientific’ schooling keep popping up.

That word you keep using – I don’t think it means what you think it means.

Brief recap of the use of the word science: The ancient use of words ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ referred to the systematic and logical exploration of a topic. Only later did the ‘scientific’ method arise. Science in the original sense was developed from fragmentary origins by Aristotle into the method of inquiry he used, for example, in the Physics.

Aristotle’s standard formulation of his approach: we start with what is most knowable to us and move toward what is most knowable by nature. As with much Aristotle, this is stating an obvious, simple thing: if you want to know about, say, horses, you start with the actual horses at hand – most knowable to us – and move toward the generalized knowledge of horses as a genus – more truly knowledge. Aristotle will use examples like ‘four-legged’ to describe the sort of thing we’d learn from the horses at hand. We’d conclude that having four legs is natural to horses in general. Stuff about horses in general is more knowable by nature as follows: a particular horse may be brown and unusually skinny and short, but once you know enough individual horses, by the miracle of the human mind, you can understand something about horses in general. Horses can be many colors and sizes (but not all colors and sizes!) but all of them have 4 legs and eat grass.

Image result for weird horseWhen applied in this manner to natural objects, Aristotle’s ‘scientific’ approach is not much different in nature than what modern hard (read: real) scientists do, including the part about where all conclusions are conditional: given the horses we have looked at are really representative of horses in general, and that we’ve perceived what we think we’ve seen correctly, then horses are of such and such nature. Aristotle would have never asserted that what he knew about horses rose to the level of certain knowledge, such as can be achieved in mathematics and logic. But it was interesting, and not unworthy. Aristotle didn’t care much that it was also useful – the tamer of horses better know what horses are like! And the city-state needed horses! – that came later with the likes of Francis Bacon. To Aristotle, the satisfaction of knowing something was the short term reward; the goodness of cultivating one’s mind and the excellence that results from such cultivation were the long term benefits. Making a buck, not so much.

To get from Aristotle’s approach to modern science, three things were missing: experimentation(1) – the idea that one could tease out knowledge from nature by making it jump through carefully controlled hoops; math – the idea that many of the relationships so teased out could best be expressed through numbers and formulas; and motivation – that whole ‘conquer and subject Nature to Man’s will’ thing. The Franciscan friar and scholar Roger Bacon is often credited with adding experimentation in the 13th century, although this is disputed (historians love to view the ancients through modern biases – see? Bacon was advanced – like us!). Be that as it may, Bacon’s writings pointed in the direction of  the increased importance of careful observation of the natural world as a way to knowledge. (His contemporary Albertus Magnus, a Dominican friar and scholar, whiled away some of his time making careful observations and drawings of plants – much like Darwin 650 years later – so the successful ideas again prove to have many fathers.)

Once experimentation and math got added to the mix over the next couple centuries, and people like Francis Bacon (the bring-home-the-bacon Bacon, as it were) promulgated the dogma that the purpose of science is to be useful (2), we’d reached both what we’d recognize as the the modern scientific method – and a great divide.

Without the math and especially experimentation, and, for really modern science, without the need for discoveries to prove themselves useful and profitable in the real world, science could trundle along including any number of subjects and approaches. Many things might be thought of a science, loosely speaking, in the old sense of something thought about rationally and systematically, that are not at all science in the current sense.

On one side of the divide, then, we have science in the full modern sense of the term – a body of knowledge that was teased out by careful experimentation, generally expressed at least in part through mathematics, and which has proven useful in some sense. This usefulness may merely be as an aid to further understanding (such as astronomy or even Darwinian evolutionary theory) but most often it means cold hard cash. Maxwell’s equations are used to make sure the lights go on when you throw the switch; Einstein’s discoveries are used to give you your correct location when you use the GPS function on your phone. And people have made a lot of money making use of that science, and we are all better off for it.

Sorry (slightly. Very slightly) if I’m bursting any bubbles here: Systematic, mathematic and profitable. That’s the science to which we owe allegiance. Pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake is lovely stuff, I am a fan, but the crass truth is that we’re never as sure about the claims of science as we are when somebody puts it into practice – and nothing motivates that like cold, hard cash.

On the other hand, there is a form of envy? Ambition? Greed? that compels some people to put on the sacred lab coat of science and claim that their pet ideas are science, even if there’s no systematic, replicable experimentation behind it and no one has challenged or is even allowed to challenge their ‘discoveries’. They then claim their ‘science’ is owed the same allegiance we pay to the science behind all the wonderful tech and gadgets that have given us, among other things, cars and phones, clean water, lots of food and long lives. Some – Freud, for an egregious example – wanted to be famous SO BAD that they just make stuff up and call any who object bad names. Others – their name is Legion – infest our colleges and schools so that they can inflict their ‘insights’ unchallenged on callow children. No systematic, repeatable experimentation? No solid math?  Nobody making the world better by applying these discoveries? No science, no allegiance owed.

Phrenology springs to mind as an historical example – serious people worked up what they took to be a serious scientific theory about how different areas of the brain created or controlled ‘propensities’, higher and lower ‘sentiments’ and so on. Phrenologists had theories about how the physical configuration of the skull could tell us about the mental condition of the brain inside it. They had all sorts of case studies, after a fashion, which proved their theories to their satisfaction.

The idea that you’d need careful definitions and double-blind, controlled studies preferably conducted by non-believers didn’t really seem to occur to fans. As is so often the case with complicated ideas about human behaviors, it would be difficult if not impossible to concoct an experiment that illuminates phrenology’s claims. How does one define a propensity, say, such that anyone could do a double-blind a study  to shed light on what sort of correlation, if any, exists between skull shape (or brain configuration – there were different flavors of phrenology) and such a propensity, as compared to some other propensity? One can imagine an ‘instrument’ of some sort by means of which one person could gather information about subjects and some other person could judge from that information to what degree any particular subject had this or that propensity, and then other people could survey their craniums (inside or out or both, I suppose) and someone else could attempt to correlate skull/brain topography to various propensities – but nothing remotely like this was ever done, as far as I can discover with the minimum amount of research I’m willing to do for a blog post. Way too much work, I imagine, for the armchair pseudo-scientist.

All the foregoing is to simply show that the term ‘science’ in the modern world is used equivocally. There’s the science that’s *hard* in at least 2 senses of that word, the science that leads to the tech that leads to better living (or at least works!). Then there’s the ‘science’ that is a combination of wishful thinking and browbeating and child abuse (telling self-serving lies to 18 year old under pain of expulsion from at least the cool kids club and maybe college itself isn’t abuse?).

Which brings us to today’s point:  There is no science behind ‘scientific’ schooling. No careful studies were ever done showing that grouping children by age and feeding them all the same instruction at the same time regardless of what those kids already knew for hours and months and years on end is better than any other approach or even works at all. (3) No studies were ever done showing that this approach succeeds better than any other approach or even no approach at all. There’s no evidence to show compulsory graded schooling yields better results than 1-room aged mixed schooling, homeschooling, or unschooling or any other approach, for that matter.

There is NO science behind the modern schools. None. Nada. It’s ‘science’ in the same way Freud’s ad hominem harranges and phrenologists’s pretty diagrams are science. In other words, not science at all.

Modern schooling does demonstrably work considered as a tool for the destruction of the families and communities that might oppose the total state. There’s some science behind that idea, although not generally expressed in those terms.

  1. I’m saying experiment for the sake of brevity. Please include ‘careful, replicable observation’ under ‘experiment’ in this sloppy blog post. Yes, astronomy can be a modern science.
  2. Through the expedient of making scientists like Bacon rich and famous. Or maybe I’m seeing things through my modern biases?
  3. For example: control for parents: if a child has successful, happily married parents, does modern school contribute anything to the likelihood of that child’s future success? Similarly, if a child has a single drug-addicted parent and lives in squalor and neglect, does school help? Intervention might help – but is school the best or even a workable form for such intervention? Inquiring scientific minds would like to know.