What is Schooling For? Part 1: Ephebia

What is schooling for? Trickier question than it seems on the surface.

When the Greeks set up schools for their young men coming of age, they were addressing the need to train them so that they would be ready to fight if there were a war. The Greeks knew that a key part of being a good soldier is wanting to fight. A man can have all the training in arms and all the physical conditioning in the world, but it will mean little unless he also is willing to kill and risk death for his city-state. Therefore, a major part of the training received at an ephebia was in Greek culture, why it was something to be loved and a thing worth dying for. In this sense, Pericles’s famous funeral oration as related by Thucydides is the epitome and completion of the training of the ephebes – the young men – as it is meant to show that those who died did not do so in vain, and that the city would show its gratitude by caring for the families left behind.

Such schools, called ‘ephebia’ were part of a cultural whole – the ephebia, the army, the city – all were intertwined and supported each other. Pericles was performing an ancient duty when he gave his speech, something leaders of Athens had performed after battles for centuries. He was reinforcing what had been taught to generations of Athenians: that they should be proud to be Greeks, and proud of their sons who gave their lives in the service of their city.

Alexander, student of Aristotle, believed being Greek was a matter of culture, not of blood. Therefore, when he conquered, he both put worthy locals in charge and established ephebia that would accept as students not just the sons of the Greeks but the sons of the conquered as well. By these means, Alexander managed to build an empire without having to leave large garrisons in all conquered territories. More impressive still, he managed to instill a culture across vast areas from Macedonia to Egypt and east  to India that survived the collapse of his military empire.

Koine Greek became the language of commerce and eventually of everyday life in most of that empire. If you learned Greek, you could communicate with millions of people across thousands of square miles – the Greek world was a much larger world for all the conquered peoples. Jewish scholars in Alexandria had even translated the Hebrew scriptures into Greek within a century of Alexander’s conquest. This, despite the Jews resistance to Greekification, as recounted in Maccabees.

Alexander created and spread a culture that spoke a common language, valued personal merit above mere blood, held beauty and truth to be loved and excellence to be striven for. The Apostles traveled this world, able to communicate with Jews and pagans alike, and able to quote the Septuagint to make their points.

The ephebia began as military schools, and seemed to have always retained some of that character in most places. Around age 17, young men (1) would attend a year or two of  intense training, including physical training. This included all the usual Greek competitive sports – wrestling, running, javelin, and so on.(2) Yet passing on a culture not as a specimen to be studied, but as a set of shared passions to be lived, was always an indispensable part of these schools, so much so that, over time, as the military aspects waned, the cultural schooling if anything increased.

Ephebia date back probably to at least 500 B.C., and continued on in various forms for a thousand years. They existed for centuries before anyone bothered to write down much about how Greeks educated their sons before sending them off to boot camp. One comment by Plato via the mouth of Socrates expresses one attitude: Anyone who charges money to teach children what any competent adult knows is committing fraud. By Socrates’s time, it seems, people had set themselves up as teachers of children – and this seems to be some sort of departure from tradition.

Ephebia were often funded by a prominent citizen as an honor. A rich man could do nothing more patriotic than supporting the training of the youth. The headmaster was most often the gym teacher – physical training of future soldiers was a key aspect of this schooling. Even in later centuries, when the military aspect had shrunk, the headmaster retained his gym teacher title.

How Greeks taught their younger children reading and writing is less well understood, since, at least in the earlier days, no one thought it worth writing about. But that they could read and write seems to have been a given. A hint or datapoint may be found in  St. Jerome’s advise to Laeta on how best to teach her daughter to read. He was advising a literate mother on how to best pass that literacy on to her own child. There was no discussion of sending the child to school. Disintermediation, as it were.

Jerome lived very much toward the end, perhaps past the end, of the ancient Greek tradition of ephebia, although the spirit of that tradition does seem to have lived on into the Eastern Empire for a few centuries at least.

At least early on, the ancient Greeks devoted little ink to describing how one would get their younger children ready for future schooling in the ephebia. They expected a small body of experts to train their teenage sons in military discipline and patriotism in one or two years – and these expectations were met. Alexander spread this concept to his conquered territories, and extended it to include the sons of the worthier barbarians. Thus, Greek language and culture were spread all through the conquered territories, so much so that even Jews, highly and passionately protective of their own culture, learned to speak Greek and translated their Scriptures into it.

Eventually, the Greek-speaking culture extended from Rome to India and the Black Sea down to North Africa, even though the conquests that had started this change happened centuries earlier, and the empire they created had long since been conquered itself or dissolved or both. This spread of course depended on the military conquests, but was unlikely to spread and stick the way it did without a formal method of passing it on open to many of the conquered. And we should never forget the power and beauty of the Greek culture itself, which, excepting the Jews, seems to have impressed and attracted many of the conquered.

Ephebia were designed to create soldiers and pass on culture to ensure the city had a competent, patriotic military. Greek genius recognized that you could not separate the physical from the cultural training if you wanted young men who were willing to risk death to defend their city. Some level of literacy and probably numeracy was assumed in the young men attending these schools. At least, there is no evidence that the three Rs made up any of the curriculum.

References:

A History of Education in Antiquity by Henri Marrou. Source of most of the information.

Also, various biographies of Alexander the Great that are sitting on the shelves at home, 1 Maccabees, background on the Septuagint that I googled – obviously need to tighten up the scholarship around here.

  1. Similar schooling for young women was indeed present, just not always as widely or consistently as for young men. Women also needed to understand their culture to be good Greek daughters, wives and mothers. As far as I can figure, the position of women in Greek culture varied widely over time and space. Sometimes, women and girls were treated as property, but it seems more often that free women, at least, held positions of some honor and respect. It does seem true that it is hard to develop a very admirable culture in any broad sense that doesn’t honor women.
  2. As recounted in 1 Maccabees, Greek sports, done in the nude, were one thing that pushed the Jews over the edge: “14 They built in Jerusalem a stadium like those in the Greek cities. 15 They had surgery performed to hide their circumcision, abandoned the holy covenant, started associating with Gentiles, and did all sorts of other evil things.”
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In Today’s Education News

Via Twitter:

First Things has a little piece on the always interesting Camille Paglia – she’s not down with special snowflakes, and thinks kids need to learn some history:

 “‘Presentism’ is a major affliction—an over-absorption in the present or near past, which produces a distortion of perspective and a sky-is-falling Chicken Little hysteria.”

and

[students have not had a] “realistic introduction to the barbarities of human history . . . . Ancient history must be taught . . . . I believe in introducing young people to the disasters of history.”

This only reinforces my bad habit of asking people sympathetic to Marx and Communism if they’ve read or even heard of Gramsci or the Fabian Society. I’ve yet to find one who had even heard of them, let alone was familiar with what they did. (Not hanging out in the faculty lounge these days, I must admit. I’m not entirely sure it would matter.)

And then there’s this, where I back Dr. Paglia by noting that the abundant good times we live in perversely enough seem to get in the way of our recognizing that we live in abundant good times.

Is better education the solution? Can virtue be taught? Whatever else are we supposed to try? A good many saints seemed to have died in something of despair – of this world, not of the next. Still, we’re not allowed to give up – on people, that is. All institutions are as grass, all we think so compelling in this world today withers tomorrow.

And how do we learn this? How teach it?

 

Some Links & Thoughts

A. Here is a collection of quotes from writers about their education. Some are better than others.  Here are a couple I like:

“Schools and schoolmasters, as we have them today, are not popular as places of education and teachers, but rather prisons and turnkeys in which children are kept to prevent then disturbing and chaperoning their parents.”  –George Bernard Shaw

 

“Let none say that I am scoffing at uneducated people; it is not their uneducation but their education that I scoff at. Let none mistake this for a sneer at the half-educated; what I dislike is the educated half. But I dislike it, not because I dislike education, but because, given the modern philosophy or absence of philosophy, education is turned against itself, destroying that very sense of variety and proportion which it is the object of education to give. No man who worships education has got the best out of education; no man who sacrifices everything to education is even educated. . . . What is wrong is a neglect of principle; and the principle is that, without a gentle contempt for education, no gentleman’s education is complete.”  –G.K. Chesterson in The Illustrated London News, 1930

 

“You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”  –Ray Bradbury, in an interview with Sam Weller

Bradbury was my favorite writer in grade school and into high school; Chesterton is probably my favorite writer now.

It’s interesting to note that paeans to one-room schools exist in some numbers, as mentioned by Wayne E. Fuller in this book. (1) Country kids often remembered their non-age-segregated, highly personalized and relevant schooling, schooling most often managed by an amatuer over many fewer hours than now, with great fondness. Does anyone in the last, say, 50 years write about how wonderful were his experiences at PS Whatever? Praising a particular teacher or coach, sure, but the experience as a whole? Maybe kids away from the big urban centers?

B. I’m getting a little bit of a jilted lover thing over SciAm’s enthusiastic backing of gender theory, which is somewhat less scientific than phrenology and astrology and much more virulent & harmful. SciAm – I used to love you! Why? WHY? But mostly, I have a sort of bitter admiration of the ability of the anti-science Marxists – but I repeat myself – to take over a venerable magazine with just the right name from a propaganda perspective and turn it so deftly. It’s akin to my dark admiration for Rahm Emanuel, LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover – vile men, all, but remarkably good at what they did and do. What they did and do will most likely end up with them rotting in Hell, but, boy, are they good at it.

The argument fails at every point – is the subject matter amenable to study using the scientific method? No. Or, to put it another way, are the conclusions something that could even in theory be produced using science? No. Handwavium all the way down.

But millions will  be swayed and have their feelings on the subject validated. In a better world, people committing this sort of abuse of the word ‘science’  would be locked up as enemies of the Republic and peace. They are enemies of truth.

C. Quoting William Tory Harris & myself from a few months back, but this just needs to be harped on:

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.

This wisdom comes from William Torey Harris, the fourth United States Commissioner of Education, from 1889 – 1906. Note the phrase “subsumption of the individual” – Harris was an enthusiastic Hegelian, and subsumption is a term of art.  In a dialectic, the thesis and antithesis contradict each other, and the contradiction is not logically resolved but rather ‘subsumed’ in a dialectical synthesis – they remain in contradiction, but, in the synthesis they exist in a new creative tension that is revealed in concrete History to be true in some greater sense, the law of  noncontradiction be damned (explicitly – see Hegel’s Logic).

In this case, the contradiction to be subsumed is between the idea that people, including children, have rights, among which is the right to pursue happiness however they see fit, and the idea that, in the words of Trotsky, the individual is nothing, only the goal – conforming to the successive unfoldings of the Spirit for Hegelians, the Worker’s Paradise for Marxists – gives any meaning to any individual’s life.

Harris, and all Hegelians and Marxists, needs to have the concept of individual rights eliminated – subsumed, in their usual dishonest and evasive language – in order to achieve the great future History they have been so privileged and enlightened to see. They thank their gods they are not like other men!

And this need to destroy the individual is alive and well TODAY. There was never a reform of the reform, where Harris and his evil ideas were rejected. Woodrow Wilson, an elitist, racist pig if ever there were one,  was down with this, as was Dewey, a ‘can’t make an omelet’ apologist for the slaughters of the Russian Revolution, as were and are all the major gatekeepers to power in the education system. Gender theory is just a flavor of Critical Theory, which is just applied Marxism. As mentioned in an earlier post, Freire’s application of critical theory to education is required reading in all the prestigious schools of education. After the usual fluff, wherein Freire tries to gain our sympathy and tells us how much suffering will be alleviated if only we follow his plan, he gets around to mentioning that, of course, there are no such things as innate human rights, that people who reject and oppose Marxism have by that fact alone no rights, but that people who accept Marxism gain rights in proportion to the degree of their enlightenment. Thus, with perhaps a mitigating tear in our eyes, we can do anything we want deem necessary to our opponents in order to further the revolution – take their stuff goes without saying, but locking them away or murdering them are options completely on the table.

You want to be a teacher today? Chances are you’ll be required to study Freire by enthusiastic acolytes, and it’s a given that you superiors will either actually believe this or, at best, be exactly the kind of useful idiots such a system requires.


The thing missed today is that IT WORKS! We peons are not of the 1%, but are of the 99%! WE are the automata, “careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom”. Sure, many of us have our doubts and even rebel on some level, but it’s pretty depressing to see how much we all – most definitely including me! – fall in line. With alarming frequency, we identify as members of a political party; we don’t talk about things we know we’re not supposed to talk about, and remain silent in the face of things that should call us to arms, at least figuratively. We accept random things as Gospel – both Chesterton and Lewis point out that it’s the assumptions of schooling that we absorb and make foundational more so than anything actively taught.

We send our kids to school.

D. Finally, all this has me thinking of 1984. Two things: Winston Smith is made to say that 2+2=5, not because his torturers believe it, but to make sure he will agree with anything they say. That’s the level of control sought – total control.

Finally, Orwell, though a socialist himself, was not blind: he names the government under Big Brother Ingsol – short for English Socialism. I’ve long thought and said that it’s a tragedy that we paint all Nazis as monsters – sure, plenty of monsters at the top and even among the rank and file. But the vast majority were not materially different, morally, than you and me. But if we somehow absorb the idea that because the person in front of us does not appear to be a monster, he simply cannot be promoting or supporting evil, we become ripe for supporting evil ourselves. A bunch of perfectly nice people – your dentist or college professor was as likely as not a Nazi if you were a German in 1935 – enabled the Holocaust. That’s the real lesson to be learned.

So Orwell makes Big Brother the end game of what he saw among the people – English Socialists – that he most likely knew best! It’s not going to be skinheads or even Antifa that enable the evil – it will be college professors and doctors and (understandably) frustrated Bernie supporters who open the door for growing evil.

Man, I need to take a walk!

  1. The blurb from One-Room Schools of the Middle West: An Illustrated History: “The Midwest’s one-room schools were, Fuller observes, the most democratic in the nation. Located in small, independent school districts, these schools virtually wiped out illiteracy, promoted democratic values, and opened up new vistas beyond the borders of their students’ lives. Entire communities, Fuller shows, revolved around these schools. At various times they were used as churches, polling places, sites of political caucuses, and meeting halls for local organizations. But as America urbanized and the movement to consolidate took hold in rural counties, these little centers of learning were left at the margins of the educational system. Some were torn down, some left to weather away, some sold at auction, and still others transformed into museums. Despite its demise, Fuller argues, here was a school system that worked. His book offers a timely reminder of what schools can accomplish when communities work closely together to educate their children.” Yep.

St. Jerome’s Tips on Teaching a Child to Read

Via Twitter:

403 A.D., St. Jerome instructing Laeta how she should teach her daughter Paula to read. Over 1500 yrs later I got the exact same education.

First, this is utterly charming, especially given Jerome’s well-earned curmudgeonly reputation. Second, a literate woman teaching her daughter to read is given encouraging advise by a Church Father – those evil misogynistic Catholics at it again! Almost as bad as Francis de Sale’s obvious care and affection for “Philothea”.

But third, here is clear evidence that people believed that a mom could teach her own young daughter to read.  Everybody in every culture always believed that any responsible adult could teach their own children anything that similarly competent adults knew – reading, say, or basic math. Plato, 2400 years ago: Charging money to teach children what every competent adult knows is fraud.  The amazing thing: over the course of 150 years in the West, the newly developed class known as educators have managed to convince hundreds of millions of adults that they are *incompetent* to teach their own kids much of anything at all.

Recall that Horace Mann’s complaint, following Fichte, wasn’t that kids were deficient in reading and writing – they were *morally* deficient. No, really.

So, professional educators, from Day 1, with more or less personal awareness on the part of the personnel involved, have been committed to the *moral* education of our kids. Mann found out that this idea was repulsive to the citizens of Massachusetts, who would not vote for compulsory, tax-funded schools – for their kids. Once the Potato Famine sent a million Irish Catholics their way, then the good solid Americans were ready to make *those* people, patently morally inferior to *our* people,  attend moral reeducation camps – schools. In order to sell this, people had to be convinced, or at least cowed into silence on this issue, that parents, grandparents and so on are incompetent to teach their own children. Talk ‘performing to grade level’, don’t talk about educators’ more or less conscious contempt for the morality of the peons. See: the current phase of the sexual revolution, or critical theory, or ‘truth is relative’ or – you get the drift.

What constitutes morality may have changed, but the puritanical zeal of our betters to educate us, the unwashed masses, in it only keeps growing.

Couple Links: Education

Things have come up. You know, things. So not sure how much blogging I’ll be doing for the next few weeks. Anyway:

A. Mike Flynn, who I am beginning to suspect hides a curmudgeon behind all that good cheer and erudition, posts about this delightful chart:

To sum up: adjusted for inflation, school costs have more than doubled in 25 years, despite a mere 22.6% increase in the number of students. Librarians – imagine! – are the only ‘instructional staff’ to have decreased in number – absolutely, not just in proportion to the increased number of students.

Commenter Sean points out that the biggest part of the increase is in the ancillary staff needed to comply with federal regulations that insist everybody be mainstreamed. Thus, where in the 1960s a school could be run with one teacher per classroom, one principal, a secretary and a janitor – a total of 3 people who didn’t teach full time – now the other people involved outnumber the teachers significantly in all schools.

This phenomenon of always growing staff provides a nice segway to a general observation about how you get, hold, and grow power: you need your guys in place everywhere you might be challenged. A clumsy or arrogant man might start by trying to replace those he cannot control with those he can. Somebody with the power to do something is very likely to notice this. (1)

A more sophisticated operator starts by merely making sure his people are there, waiting for attrition to take care of his opponents and making sure his people get the main gatekeeper roles so that he can eventually replace his enemies with his people. This insertion of loyal hacks is easiest to achieve if the pool of potential positions is growing – you don’t have to eliminate your enemies, just outflank them. Therefore, would be tyrants are often in favor of anything that requires more staff.

Only once this process is well underway does the would be tyrant risk out and out attacks to remove opposition. This is why education is in a constant state of ‘reform’, needing ever new programs and staff.

This is the state of education in America today. The ‘educators’ – a new class that didn’t exist until well into the 19th century – started by establishing education departments in the states and education schools in the colleges.  Virgin fields, as it were, with no established power to unseat. At the time – first half of the 1800s – education was delivered by very many largely independent sources, from the one-room schools on the frontiers, to myriad religious and private schools in the cities, to the local parson who educated Jefferson. Learning to read from the King James Bible and how to cipher figuring bushels and pecks with daddy on the farm – these many approaches were how America produced the generations that won the War of Independence and drafted the Constitution.

As Socrates pointed out, charging to teach something any competent adult could do is fraud. Before you can even try that scam, you must somehow convince Grandma she can’t teach reading and Dad that he can’t teach math. Convincing American adults of their educational incompetence took over 100 years.

Within a generation, these new educators, from their positions as gatekeepers at the state and college level, began to insert their people into the newly-created and ever-expanding education bureaucracies. The cities fell; the rural school boards and one-room schools took longer. Subterfuge and lies have always been the main tool of destruction.

Which leads to:

B. This video is all sorts of chopped up – don’t know why – but in the few minutes here, John Taylor Gatto describes the process by which the education establishment mops up the last feeble pockets of educational freedom:

 

This is essentially how they destroyed the one room schools in the first place. Bait and switch fueled by outright lies. Seems a few remote one room schools still exist, and that the locals love them dearly. They can see with their own eyes that the schools produce better educated, more sane students and, besides, this is New England, land of town hall democracy. So the education department gets the school buildings condemned, and claims it will take as much to bring them up to code as to build a new school to replace them. Trouble is, that new school will be a typical modern school under the complete control of educators.

  1.  A colorful example: in 410, Olympius the master of intrigue had gotten his guys inserted into the leadership of the Legions in Italy. Sarus, the Roman Gothic general, noticed, and, not being too prone to overly subtle moves, gathered a 100 picked men and attacked an encamped Legion on horseback, getting past the defences and fighting his way through thousands of armed and skilled troops until he’d killed Olympius’s 20 or so men and those he suspected of supporting them – and got out alive. As a master of palace intrigue, that’s the sort of thing you’d want to avoid.

 

The Filtering of Teachers

There is a kerfuffle riling up Twitter subscribers to Patrick Madrid, a popular Catholic apologist, regarding Maria, a teacher facing disciplinary action for refusing to teach current gender ideology to the 7th graders in her charge.

Poor woman. While I wish her well and offer up prayers for her, I mention this here as merely a particularly current, clear and egregious example of the filtering that goes on with public school teachers. The system of teacher education in this country is designed to make sure people like Maria – people who have beliefs they hold more dear than even their jobs as teachers – don’t get to teach.

As Orwell describes in 1984, people are broken and conformity enforced by making it mandatory to spout lies. It’s no good getting people to spout nonsense they agree with – they might conceivably still entertain some loyalty to the truth, and merely be mistaken. No, one must be made to avow stuff one is clear is a lie – we have always been at war with Eastasia – to prove that one is completely under control, that one is no threat. But before that level of control can be achieved, we must make sure that only liars are allowed to teach.

Lobster
Is it getting warm in here? 

The schools have largely so far have taken the ‘boil the lobster’ approach, softening their targets by making sure only those who are willing to put up with patently pointless bureaucracy and at least nod in the direction of manifestly stupid curricula ever make it into a classroom. I’m guessing the emergence of Trump as the (however appalling!) face of the Opposition has forced them to accelerate the program. Thus, the gender ideology that was fringe at the beginning of Obama’s reign has become central now. The shibboleth must be in place NOW, so the troops can be counted on to fight off any attempts at reform through the usual combination of lies, noncompliance and passive-aggressive posturing.

Just as good Muslims keep their ideology going, allowing and supporting the so called radical Muslims, “good” teachers are enabling the ideology that has been successfully turning our kids into ignorant, stupid robots for decades now. Lest we forget:

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.

This wisdom comes from William Torey Harris, the fourth United States Commissioner of Education, from 1889 – 1906. Note the phrase “subsumption of the individual” – Harris was an enthusiastic Hegelian, and subsumption is a term of art.  In a dialectic, the thesis and antithesis contradict each other, and the contradiction is not logically resolved but rather ‘subsumed’ in a dialectical synthesis – they remain in contradiction, but, in the synthesis they exist in a new creative tension that is revealed in concrete History to be true in some greater sense, the law of  noncontradiction be damned (explicitly – see Hegel’s Logic).

In this case, the contradiction to be subsumed is between the idea that people, including children, have rights, among which is the right to pursue happiness however they see fit, and the idea that, in the words of Trotsky, the individual is nothing, only the goal – conforming to the successive unfoldings of the Spirit for Hegelians, the Worker’s Paradise for Marxists – gives any meaning to any individual’s life.

Harris, and all Hegelians and Marxists, needs to have the concept of individual rights eliminated – subsumed, in their usual dishonest and evasive language – in order to achieve the great future History they have been so privileged and enlightened to see. They thank their gods they are not like other men!

And this need to destroy the individual is alive and well TODAY. There was never a reform of the reform, where Harris and his evil ideas were rejected. Woodrow Wilson, an elitist, racist pig if ever there were one,  was down with this, as was Dewey, a ‘can’t make an omelet’ apologist for the slaughters of the Russian Revolution, as were and are all the major gatekeepers to power in the education system. Gender theory is just a flavor of Critical Theory, which is just applied Marxism. As mentioned in an earlier post, Freire’s application of critical theory to education is required reading in all the prestigious schools of education. After the usual fluff, wherein Freire tries to gain our sympathy and tells us how much suffering will be alleviated if only we follow his plan, he gets around to mentioning that, of course, there are no such things as innate human rights, that people who reject and oppose Marxism have by that fact alone no rights, but that people who accept Marxism gain rights in proportion to the degree of their enlightenment. Thus, with perhaps a mitigating tear in our eyes, we can do anything we want deem necessary to our opponents in order to further the revolution – take their stuff goes without saying, but locking them away or murdering them are options completely on the table.

You want to be a teacher today? Chances are you’ll be required to study Freire by enthusiastic acolytes, and it’s a given that you superiors will either actually believe this or, at best, be exactly the kind of useful idiots such a system requires.

Stanley Fish: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along

In 1996, Stanley Fish wrote an article for First Things called Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, a link to which was washed up on my beach via Twitter. This fairly dense and densely reasoned essay touches upon a subject of some interest here on this blog: how did our colleges and universities arrive at the disastrous state we’ve reached today? I’m going to have to pick a few of many worthy thoughts to comment on, since this is a blog post and I don’t have a week to research and write a reply. Please read the whole essay, as I am not going to be able to do justice to the full scope of his very interesting argument.  The reasoning here will not be as tight as the subject deserves, for which I apologize to Dr. Fish and my readers. The line of challenge and pursuit is I think important to get out there, however imperfectly.

First, Fish is a college professor, and thus, when he talks about how Americans think, he’s talking about how people in colleges and the penumbra of colleges think. When this battle was being fought back in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, less than 10% of the population attended college; as late as 1945, less than 30% graduated high school. As late as Harry Truman, America could elect as president someone who attended no college – and not feel particularly bad about it.

I mention this because Fish doesn’t concern himself with the downward push of these ideas from the university to the vast bulk of the citizens. That these ideas were cultivated among a small and very self-conscious elite and inflicted on their presumed inferiors is, I think, an important and telling aspect of the process, as is the fundamental difference in mindset between the children and grandchildren of Calvinist Puritans who founded Harvard and a typical American farmer. (Most Americans lived on farms until almost 1900, and most lived in close proximity to farms until maybe 1940.) Employing the sort of reasoning prefered by Fish, it could be said that certain unconscious assumptions made by a farmer and by a Harvard grad would be mutually unintelligible, and thus kill the possibility of free discussion a-birthing. I would add: minds are not that open; minds simply cannot be that open and remain rational. Thus, what is to be imposed is not rationality, but a belief system.

But Fish’s essay is not about how liberal open-mindedness got promulgated and eventually swept the field, but rather is about its dogmatic intolerance. He gets close to the heart of the matter when he notes that no reasoning can begin without premises, and that such premises cannot be the result of reasoning. Thus, he rejects the idea that articles of faith can be judged by their reasonableness, and calls no less a witness than Augustine.

Is this true? That I’m asking this question reveals my own premises, most important of which are that truth matters, is knowable and can be reached or at least approached by reason. Fish calls Augustine to the stand to defend the idea that articles of faith are by their nature unreasonable (or, perhaps, a-reasonable, after the immoral/amoral distinction) and thus sticks to the Platonic side of the pool. By omission of the arguments from the Aristotle/Thomist (deep) end of the pool, Plato stands as the type of the only line of reasoning to be considered.

Like Augustine, Thomas would reject the idea that one could reason his way to the Resurrection (to stick with Fish’s example), but he would consider it completely correct, required, even, to understand that the claim that Christ is Risen is not unreasonable.  One who holds to the Perennial Philosophy would expect all revealed truths to be confirmed by all other truths however arrived at. They would expect all Truth to be One.

A book or two would be required to spell out how, say, knowing the melting point of iron points to the Incarnation. For now, it is enough to insist that rational discussion is not possible if we admit the idea of multiple contradioctory truth into the arena. I contend that the fundamental premise that all truth is one, that no truth arrived at one way can stand unchallenged by a contradictory truth arrived at some other way, is not only tacitly assumed by people with any claim to being reasonable, but is required for any rational discourse whatsoever. Contradictions are not acceptable. Something’s afoot. We must look harder.

Image result for tevye
Horse sense? 

Avram: (gestures at Perchik and Mordcha) He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.

Tevye: You know… you are also right.

My fundamental objection to Fish’s otherwise sympathetic analysis is his shying away from examining which premises support the activity of rational discourse, and which defeat it or, rather, preclude it. In this regard, I find it odd that Marx gets mentioned indirectly and in passing once, and Hegel not at all. Yet I think it indisputable that the premises of Hegel and Marx have replaced the Enlightenment premises as expressed by Jefferson and company as the foundation upon which the current ideas of open-minded discussion, so called, are built.

And I think Fish agrees, on some level. Discussing George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief , Fish says

The answer has many components, including the Jeffersonian project of softening sectarian aggressiveness and establishing a general religion of peace, reason, and morality, the identification of common sense philosophy with Christian morality within the assumption that each supported the other, the rise of the cult of the expert whose skills and authority were independent of his character or religious faith, and the substitution for the imperative of adhering to an already-revealed truth the imperative of continuing to search for a truth whose full emergence is located in an ever-receding future.

This last was particularly important because if truth was by definition larger and more inclusive than our present horizons declared it to be, obedience to traditional norms and values was no longer a virtue, but a fault, and a moral fault at that.

“The higher truth was an ever progressing ideal toward which the human community . . . always moved, yet never reached. Since truth was by definition always changing, the only thing ultimately sacred was the means of pursuing it. No religious or other dogmatic claim could be allowed to stand in its way.”

It is not the business of a university, declared Charles Eliot of Harvard, “to train men for those functions in which implicit obedience is of the first importance. On the contrary, it should train men for those occupations in which self-government, independence, and originating power are preeminently needed.” (Or, in Satan’s more succinct formulation, “self-begot, self-raised.”)

We see here Hegel’s idea of the Spirit unfolding itself through history, an idea that conquered Harvard in the early 19th century, and infused all top-down educational efforts from that point forward. This idea – that men are not given to know divine truths unless and until the Spirit comes to know them in concrete History – held great appeal to Protestant and recently Protestant minds. Rather than an indictment, they could reframe the radical fracturing of Protestantism over time and space as the necessarily messy workings of the Spirit, and the Church’s claim to being the repository and defender of unchanging Truth to be the height of ignorance and hubris.

Win-win.

Princeton’s Francis Patton declared that “the rationality or rather the reasonableness of a belief is the condition of its credibility.” That is, you believe it because reason ratifies it, a view Augustine would have heard with horror, one that John Webster, writing in 1654, rejects as obviously absurd. “But if man gave his assent unto, or believed the things of Christ . . . because they appear probable . . . to his reason, then would his faith be . . . upon the rotten basis of human authority.” By the end of the nineteenth century, human authority has been put in the place of revelation; or rather human authority, now identified with the progressive illumination afforded by reason, has become the vehicle of revelation and of a religion that can do very nicely without any strong conception of personal deity.

This realization was not instantaneous nor universal by any means. Up until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for various Protestant leaders (Francis Patton, for example) to cry anathema on other Protestants and Christian sects for the heresy of disagreeing with established dogmas. These firebrands still believed that there were revealed truths that *required* our assent if we were to be saved. Since then, and especially over the last 5 or 6 decades, it has become moot to wonder what an American Episcopalian or Lutheran, say, would have to do to be a heretic by the lights of the leaders of their own denominations. Still, among the sheep, there are those who believe that it is possible to be wrong – but, practically, among the leadership? I’ve seen no evidence.

Once Christianity fades entirely and Hegel’s Spirit is laughed off the stage, Marx substitutes his strangely efficacious History into the Spirit’s slot (it fits once Hegel is flipped on his head). Marx renounces Hegel’s considered modesty: we, in the person of Marx, no longer need to wait for Spirit/History to unfold itself, it has unfolded itself to the end! We know where we’re going – and the only foolishness is to be on the wrong side.

Hegel considers what he calls ‘propositional reason,’ which is what Fish is calling simply reason in this essay, to be useful to the little people such as scientists and mathematicians, but of no use to real philosophers doing the hard thinking of real philosophy. For such lofty person pursuing their high and lonely destinies, the law of noncontradiction does not apply, neither do they attempt to work from true premises using valid logic to new states of knowledge. No, like Freud attacking his critics from within his theory (they only disagree because they are repressed, you see), reason is based on some form of unassailable enlightenment. It doesn’t have to be consistent; it doesn’t have to make sense. In any case, it is beyond the reach of mere logical discussion.

The attentive reader will note that such premises are not only as dogmatic and more than anything claimed by Calvin or Luther, but that they serve at least as well the purpose of ending discourse, or hope of discourse. You either get it, or you don’t.

It’s not like people didn’t notice, even at the time:

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Yale’s Noah Porter scoffed at the supposed neutrality and evenhandedness of secular educational theory, which, he pointed out, was its theology: “The question is not whether the college shall or shall not teach theology, but what theology it shall teach”theology according to . . . Moses and Paul or according to Buckle and Draper.” By the beginning of this century it was all too evident which of these directions had been taken by American education. In tones recently echoed by conservative polemicists, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine complained in 1909 that

In hundreds of classrooms it is being taught daily that the decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils . . . that the change of one religion to another is like getting a new hat; that moral precepts are passing shibboleths; that conceptions of right and wrong are as unstable as styles of dress.

“The neutrality we have,” thundered William Jennings Bryan in 1923, “is often but a sham; it carefully excludes the Christian religion but permits the use of the schoolroom for the destruction of faith and for the teaching of materialistic doctrines.” From a quite different perspective, Walter Lippmann agreed: “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.” What this means, as Marsden points out, is that “two irreconcilable views of truth and education were at issue”; but of course the issue was never really joined, because the liberal establishment thought of itself as already reconciled to everything and anything and therefore was unable to see how exclusionary its policy of radical in clusion really was: “Groups that were excluded, such as Marxists and fundamentalists, often raised the point that they were being excluded by liberal dogmatism, but they were seldom heard.”

That they were not heard is hardly surprising, since what they were saying was that a state of “warfare” existed, and warfare ”deep conflict over basic and nonnegotiable issues” was precisely what liberalism was invented to deny; and it manages that denial by excluding from the tolerance it preaches anyone who will not pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.

The point being missed: an Hegelian or Marxist will very easily “pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.” They have already done it. They’ve been doing it for a century. They are doing it now, most notably at Berkeley. War is Peace. Speech is Aggression. Beatings and Intimidation are Freedom. Gramsci and Alinsky would nod approvingly.

On an intellectual level, we must challenge the premises that preclude rational discussion. While on a strictly logical basis, Fish is correct that premises cannot be chosen rationally – you have to have premises to reason in the first place. But the logical outcomes of our premises can be examined, and contradictions can invalidate certain combinations of premises as being incompatible. Thus, I cannot defend open-minded discussion without some sort of assumption that truth matters, that truth is knowable at least to some degree, and that words carry meanings that can be communicated between interlocutors.

It is not merely a question of this or that indifferent premise being enforced because we like it better for pre-rational reasons, so to speak. Some premises support conversation and some defeat it. Any society worth defending supports the free expression of ideas. To do so, it must hold up to scorn and refuse to enshrine in law or custom any premises that defeat communication  by their nature.

Things have only gotten worse since Dr. Fish wrote this essay. When we allow thugs to shut down speech, when we are ‘tolerant’ of views that defeat the very idea of tolerance, when we cede the field to those who claim the very idea of  logical consistency is irrational, we are not furthering this grand experiment. We are less, not more, free.