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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to Lecture III.

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Science! Strikes Again: Saving the Theory from the Data

An amusing headline: For 35 years, the Pacific Ocean has largely spared West’s mountain snow from effects of global warming. A “study” by “scientists” is used to explain what, in a saner world, might simply be stated as follows: “Western mountain snowpack shows no evidence of global warming over the the last 35 years.”

In the article, we learn that models predict that snowpack in Washington’s portion of the Cascade Range, for example, should have fallen by 2% – 44% over the the last 35 years, but in fact have shown no significant decline. Now a crass, narrow-minded person, clearly not in the cool kids club, might leap to the conclusion that the data here contradicts the model, therefore – you’re sitting down, right? – the model is wrong. The whole purpose and entire source of validation for a model is predictions. You build a model hoping to capture some aspect of the real world. You use this model to make concrete, measurable predictions that can be checked against the real world, to see if your model is useful. If the facts don’t match the predictions, you throw out the model and start over. This is called science.

Here, instead, the study invokes a cause not in the model. We know this cause was not in the model since, if it were in the model, the model would have presumably produced useful predictions.

“There were a lot of discussions within the department of the surprising stability of the western U.S. snowpack, because it went against the predictions,” said co-author Cristian Proistosescu, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.

The discussion did not, evidently, include the obvious conclusion required by basic science: our model is wrong. Nope, this inescapable conclusion is masked behind an appeal to additional causes. Natural variations in the Pacific Ocean kept the snowpack stable, it is asserted.

Stop right here: if your model needs to appeal to factors outside itself, factors not built into the model, that means your model is wrong. Call it incomplete if you want, but the short, English word for that state where the model does not provide useful, validated predictions is ‘wrong’. Throw it out. Build a new model that includes the newly-discovered (!) causes, if you want, make some more predictions, and see what happens. But clinging to a model that’s been proven wrong by real world data is pathetic, and patiently anti-science.

It’s not just the Western U.S. mountains that fail to validate those models. It’s not like the hundreds of different climate models floating around have some sort of sterling track record otherwise, so that we’d lose predictive power if we just tossed them all. No, they all predict that the earth would be much warmer now than it actually is. The Arctic would be ice free by 2000 2013 2016 2050. (Pro-tip: always make your predictions take place out beyond your funding cycle, to mitigate the slim chance people will remember you made them by the time the next grant proposal needs filing.)

A slightly – very slightly – more subtle point: we all know there’s such a thing as ‘natural variations’ in all sorts of areas. In practice, especially when building models, natural variations are nothing more than a collective name for causes we don’t understand well enough to build into the model. Even admitting the existence of natural variations that affect the thing being modeled that are not included in the model is to admit the model is at best incomplete.

One might leave out potential causes on the assumption that, while they might theoretically affect predictions, in practice they are not material. When we say acceleration under gravity at the earth’s surface is 32’sec^2, we leave out air resistance (and air pressure variations, and humidity, and no doubt a bunch of other things) because that formula has proven to be useful quite a bit of the time. Only in very fussy situations do we need something else, as long as we’re testing near the earth’s surface.

We know we can ignore some complexities only because we used our model to predict outcomes, measured those outcomes and found them good enough. To admit there are natural variations that render a model’s predictions useless is to admit that the phenomenon being modeled is beyond our skill as modelers. No amount of statistical sleight of hand can make this go away.

Another issue is the baseline question: this study considers 35 years of data. With few exceptions, the mountains of the Western U.S. have been there, experiencing snowpack and natural variations, for at least several hundred thousand times that long. This data covers something less than 0.00001% of the potential dataset.

Well? Is that enough? Can we justify any conclusions drawn from such a tiny sample? Can we say with any confidence what ‘average’ or ‘normal’ conditions are for snowpack in these mountains? The natural variations we know about include ice ages, glaciers and glacial lakes. Precipitation levels almost certainly vary wildly over thousands, let alone millions, of years. On what basis should we conclude that the snowpack should stay the same, grow, shrink or do anything in particular over a given 35 year period?

Enough. The monotonous similarity of these sorts of “studies” in their steadfast resistance to apply even a little basic science or common sense to their analyses tires me.

Participation Trophy and The Cool Kid’s Club

As mentioned in previous insufferable biographical posts, I am a blue collar kid. Dad grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and worked in sheet metal, mom was the granddaughter of Czech immigrants whose father, coincidentally, also worked sheet metal – most all her relatives were farmers, so she got a full set of farm skills, too. (1) Neither had more than a high school education, apart from dad doing a lot of night school – he was certified in all types of welding and learned bookkeeping, etc. He was a real go-getter, with that farmer’s mentality that, if there was something to do, spending 16 hours a day doing it was how life worked.

The adults I knew as a child leaned strongly toward welders and other blue collar folks, and housewives. Later, when I was a teen and dad had made a successful go at running his own little company, he started hanging out a bit – golf (his doctor told him to get some exercise), that sort of thing – with a doctor friend and the pastor at our church. But I never got to know these people. I knew Billy Joe, Roy, Jose and Delbert down at down at dad’s shop. Guys who got their hands dirty. Starting at age 12, I spent many of my Saturdays and much of my summers working for my dad with these men, so these guys were my adult male role models.

Ah! This is like looking at pictures of the old neighborhood! The tools in dad’s shop were much cleaner, otherwise it’s a match.

Nonetheless, I managing to get into St. John’s College. They were pretty desperate, back then – basically, if you showed the initiative needed to complete the application essays, they’d give you a shot.

College was different. Not at all like my first 18 years.

I dimly expected college to be filled with smart people, at least, smarter than the folks I’d grown up with. Isn’t that what everybody thinks, having heard it from the cradle? Instead, I met lots of people not noticeably smarter than the people I knew from my childhood, but with markedly different expectations. The sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers and other professionals came to college so fully convinced that college was how they cemented their place in the ‘smart’ world that it never rose to the level of consciousness. They might agonize over whether to become a lawyer before or after doing a stint in the Peace Corps, or even consider becoming an artiste, or living the life of the communist agitator – all perfectly within the realm of smart people careers – but they didn’t consider becoming bricklayers, say, except as some form of protest (irony as a goal had not yet reached St. John’s as of the late 70s).

No, whatever course they chose, their place among the professional elite was assured. Of course, there are exceptions – me, for example – but we exceptions, insecure of our place in that particular world, lacking the automatic graces and attitudes growing up like that seems to create, we – I – really didn’t and don’t assume we have any place among these folks. (2)

In highschool – and St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs, CA, considers itself college preparatory – there were still plenty of people who did not expect to be part of the elite. One of my basketball buddies, for example, got his girlfriend pregnant in his senior year – and graduated, married her, and got a job. That an 18 year old dude would get married and have children and get a job to support them was not out of the realm of acceptable behavior, circa 1975, in my little bubble. (Getting her pregnant before marriage was frowned upon, but much less than people now imagine – that he did the right thing afterwards made it only a minor, easily forgiven and forgotten slip up.)

I remember this dude because he was clearly smart, easily as smart as the typical St. John’s student. His expectations were wildly different, however.

Let’s talk about those experiences, whatever it is that corresponds in the lives of the sons and daughters of the professional class to my experiences of growing up with blue-collar people. I acknowledge up front that I’m arm-chair psychoanalyzing people here, because, obviously, I don’t know firsthand. The appearances do seem to support this analysis.

  • There’s the simple assumption, possibly unspoken but possibly not, that the people in our house and our friends are smarter than the people we hire to fix it when it breaks.

This can also take the form of false comradeship: we are brothers with the workers. That they don’t recognize it is because they are unenlightened. No, no, no – you think we’re insufferable snobs, and maybe that you hate us, but you really only hate the *bad* rich people! We’re your buddies! Nobody really believes this.

  • There are certain jobs approved of in our social network. They are the better, more worthy jobs held by the better, more worthy people. The classics would be doctor and lawyer (and college professor), but the right kind of politicians and businessmen are also admired, as well as do-gooder fields that make us feel good about ourselves. Community organizer, say.
  • We prove our own virtue and goodness by how we encourage and welcome the little people into our ranks.

This attitude has been institutionalized in colleges and universities. Look at all the gyrations colleges go through to get ‘diverse’, how the question: “would this person benefit from what we offer?” never really gets asked. Of course they would! What kind of nut wouldn’t want to be one of us!

Since it’s painfully obvious they belong to an exclusive clique, these members of the professional class are desperate to show they don’t, to keep that cognizant dissonance at bay. That’s why a character like Obama, who I have accurately described as a ‘towering mediocrity,’ gets canonized in advance of any actual positive achievement (for which we are still waiting). He’s the proof! See how good and sharing we are! It’s also worth noting in this context that it’s all optics – I’m closer to being from the ‘hood than O is. Dude grew up overseas and in Hawaii, for crying out loud! He’s the son and grandson of the 2nd most privileged class (to use language with which they are familiar) in America: academics. These are the folks that think, for example, they by rights can simply redefine any words they like – for our own good. Talk about power and privilege.

That’s why they are much, much more committed to getting black kids into Harvard than they are to helping black kids get some jobs training. Black kids with jobs and families don’t reinforce the professional class’s goodness, while sending people to college in order to welcome them into the tribe does.

  • Low, low risk economic environment. I’ve long thought of wealth as being most accurately measured by how big a problem, expense wise, you can take care of without it destroying your standard of living. Most people live in the 4 to 5 figure range: Need 1st & last for a new place? Need a new car? Need bail money? These can usually be taken care of by most people without breaking the bank, maybe through borrowing from mom. Need $200K to go to college? We have many people today who fully expect mom and/or dad to spring for this. Real economic want is just not a concern. Then, they’ll eventually inherit a house or two worth maybe 7 figures, which they will at worse have to split with one sibling (and maybe a few half-siblings).

These attitudes are absorbed with their baby formula. As Chesterton said, it’s the things simply assumed that are the most reliably learned.

  • Membership is the achievement, such as it is. Since it is just expected that the sons and daughters of the professional class will become professionals themselves as a consequence of being in the group, actually getting that career is more an affirmation of group membership than an actual achievement. Just as Uncle Billy can get you a job down at the docks if you show up on Thursday, 6 a.m. sharp and dressed to work, Uncle Chad has a spot at the law firm ready for you, if you check the right boxes. Every effort will be made to help you check those boxes. (3)

Thus, we get the participation trophy culture we now live in. It’s not a new thing brought about by mush-headed and guilty parents, but rather a simple expression of the true nature of the world, as they see it. There is little if any achievement in their lives. It’s all just group membership. Their college life, their careers, perhaps even their families are not experienced as an achievement, primarily, but rather as the all but inevitable outcome of group membership. (4)

We also get – or don’t – a whole set of group signifiers. In my day, the late 70s, the college boys owned a sports coat, some khaki slacks and a few button down collar shirts – except for the few of us who would have never had an occasion to wear that sort of gear prior to college. One of the young ladies I knew commented that her boyfriend at the time was the only man she knew who kept his $10,000 wardrobe on the floor. (She, presumably, kept her $10,000 wardrobe hung neatly in the closet.) I think I could have replaced every item of clothing I had with me at school for under $500. (This, even though my dad by that time was probably worth as much as most of their dads, after 15 years of 16 hour days at his shop. It really isn’t about money. He got his hands dirty.)

More subtle signs: what I will call a New York Times Book Review approach to learning. If you subscribe to the NYTBR and skim it every week, you will know what the cool kids are talking about and – more important – what the New York Times considers the proper attitude towards those books. You’ll have something to say when another group member (who, himself, is unlikely to have read the book) name drops. This confirms group membership while conveniently reinforcing you shared world view, giving you predigested acceptable responses while avoiding the risk of meaningful exposure to opposing ideas. (5)

  • Outcomes are essentially irrelevant. For people secure in their group membership and not having any real sense of economic risk, failure emotionally means something like having to borrow money from or move back in with mom and dad. It’s sad it didn’t work, but you gave it a good shot, that’s what matters! Next time, it will work! Thus, it’s bad form to harp on how everything from civil rights legislation to affirmative action to Prohibition to Obamacare to Communism have failed. As long as it reinforces group membership, it can’t fail, or, more to the point, it doesn’t matter if it fails. (6) Supporters of Obamacare truly did not care if it had any chances of providing what it promised to provide, even less that that whole ‘you can keep your plan’ was a bald-faced lie. The important point was that we good people support everybody getting healthcare. That the actual bill did nothing of the sort means nothing, and you’re a bad person and not of the tribe if you keep pointing that out. Just move along.
  • A corollary: real successes, real improvements in people’s lives are also dismissed or simply ignored insofar as such successes happen outside the bubble. When one is so uncool as to point out the direct correlation between free markets and improved welfare of the poorest people under such systems, as opposed to the relationship between communism and extreme repression and poverty, one get a knowing smirk or some sort of outrage, similar to what one gets if the similarity between fascism and communism is pointed out. Nope, the group accepts that the economy must be managed by the good, smart people – for the sake of the poor! – and that Nazis and Commies are *totally* different, so you must be crazy, evil, or both to suggest the opposite.

In some sense, our current little culture war is the reaction of people who accept this group membership as the obvious goal (if the the question ever reaches consciousness) of all good, enlightened people. Who doesn’t want to sit in the front of the class? Who wouldn’t want to be a lawyer or doctor or elected official from the proper party? Who doesn’t want to be behind all the progressive steps on the right side of history. Who would not want to have their thinking done for them by our hive mind?

The pain, the cognitive dissonance, of having to face a world of people who reject all of that is too much! Such people must be Eeeevil! They must be Literally Hitler! The weaker members flee for their literal (or figurative: college) safe spaces. The less weak roll their eyes hard when they’re not expressing group-approved heartfelt fear for the Future of the Nation. Beneath this range of reactions is the cultivated disbelief that anyone smart could possibly really disagree.

Heads are exploding. Bring popcorn.

Final note: perhaps we are on the verge of a collapse into barbarism, during which all the infrastructure, both physical and cultural, upon which civilization is built, will be destroyed by the mob. Dark Ages, cannibalism, cats and dogs sleeping together – you know the drill. Could be. But it also could be a Soviet Union style collapse, where the rot just got to be too much, so much so that a former B actor and a Polish bachelor in a funny hat could end it just by standing up to it and pointing. Recall how unlikely that scenario looked before it happened. Unfortunately, if there is a just God, that outcome is much, much better than we deserve.

  1. Mom could reduce a live animal to dinner with surprising alacrity. Glad she was on our side.
  2. Yet, by attending college, we lose our standing in the blue collar world. Was once a volunteer on a construction site, in college. I approached one of the foreman, who started speaking, in Spanish, before he’d turned around to see who it was. “Sorry, I thought you were one of the boys.” I am clearly not one of the boys (although the boys couldn’t do much of anything I couldn’t do). That 3 second encounter has stuck with me for 40 years now.
  3. Met a charming gentleman last week, who told how he, another son of the working class, had applied to illustrious Wall Street firms upon graduation, thinking: shoot for the top. He discovered that all the other men in his area were sons of prominent political or business leaders, CEO of this, cabinet secretary of that. For him, that job was a huge achievement; for them it was an entitlement, just another step in world they belonged to.
  4. Also, this may explain the odd deification of the tech geek billionaires, who are pretty much exclusively from this class. They are forward thinking, progressive and brilliant! They talk not about their vast wealth, but about how they are going to change the world! Good Lord, spare us from these people!
  5. Had this happen to me the other day, which is why I’m reading Polanyi’s Great Transformation: in catching up with a long-time college buddy, I asked about Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, I’ll admit it, to tweek him a bit. He asked if I was aware of Great Transformation. Later, in the course of reading and subsequently reading about that book – silly me, I thought that’s what one did! – I ran across the NYTBR review of Deneen. And – surprise! – the reviewer pretty says Deneen is way behind the times, that Polanyi explained all about how Liberalism, understood as Capitalist free markets, failed and continues to fail. So, we can safely dismiss any concerns over liberalism failing, because that’s not what we mean – we mean the good stuff! The NYT says so! Chances this buddy of mine has read Polanyi? Too close to zero to measure.
  6. Knew a man who said he always voted for the party that promised to take more of his money. The idea that that party might do either good or evil with the money thus taken didn’t enter into it.

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

Turns out my man William Torrey Harris never wrote a book on his philosophy of education, but after the manner of Fichte, delivered himself of a lecture series on the subject. Given in 1893, they are a mercifully short series of mercifully short lectures. Harris gave 5 short lectures. I’ll take them one at a time.

LECTURE I. January 7th, 1893. THE LITERATURE OF EDUCATION

It’s tempting to quote the lecture entire, as it is so short. Instead, please go read it at the link provided, if you’re interested.

Harris begins with a brief description of how various cultures educated their children, with a variety of goals in mind:

The first and most important of all educational literature is that showing the ideals of a people the literature on which they are brought up generally the sacred books which reveal what the people regard as divine ; consequently what is the highest ideal to be realized. China, for example, has Confucius and Mencius, showing the family as the type of the social whole. These writings furnish the contents of the mind of the Chinese minute observances of etiquette ; how to behave towards one’s elders and superiors in rank ; towards one’s inferiors or juniors ; towards one’s equals. Chinese schools are almost exclusively devoted to filling the memory of the pupil with the ethical maxims of these sacred books, so that the mind shall be full of family etiquette. The aim of Chinese education was to teach the young how to behave ; that of the Persians, how to ride, shoot, and speak the truth a faculty not much thought of by the Hindus. The Persian differs from the Buddhist in that the latter wishes to get rid of the world, while the former attempts to conquer the real. The Phoenicians, again, furnish a contrast to Chinese education. Their object was to wean the child from the family ; whereas the Chinese endeavor to educate the young so that they will become submerged in the family. The Phoenicians aimed to create a love of adventure. Their children were educated in myths. The stories in Homer’s ” Odyssey ” must have been derived from the tales of the Phoenician sailors, which were calculated to engender a hunger and thirst for adventure, so that the young Phoenician would gladly get on board ship and go to the ends of the world in the interests of trade. The Greeks were imbued with the new world-principle of a spiritual and beautiful individuality. They thought more of the games which they practised in the evenings on the village green than of the tasks by which they earned their bread. They learned history and geography from the second book of Homer’s “Iliad.” They thought not of commercial education, like the Phoenicians, but of that heroic individual who furnished a beautiful ideal. Later on, Greek education became more scientific and more reflective. The Roman concentrated his whole mind on the will. He went beyond the circle of his city, and studied to cause even foreigners to live under the same laws with himself. Freedom meant more to him than to any of the Asiatic nations. It meant the power of the individual to hold, alienate, and devise property.

It’s tempting, and perhaps justified, to dismiss this as just more Hegelian claptrap. Instead, I’ll attempt to show how it is Hegelian claptrap. First, much of what he says is true. Different cultures do educate their children differently. Hegel-style is to start with truisms, to which any challenge will appear as nit-picking pedantry. But among the truisms, stick in some stuff that sounds like what you’ve already introduced but does not in fact stand on the same common-sense foundation. Thus, we can accept the notion that the Chinese build their culture on family, since it doesn’t contradict anything the typical educated Westerner knows about China. We then slip in stuff about Phoenician education, about which, to my knowledge, very little is known. I mean, I have read a good bit about Greek educational practices, and the documentary evidence before 500 B.C. is very sparse. Much more Greek writing survives than Phoenician. Therefore, it would be curious bordering on fantastic if there somehow existed substantial historical support for any theory of Phoenician educational practices.

Curious, I googled ‘Phoenician Education’ and the first thing that popped up was this:

Education
Based upon their way of seeing the world (cosmogony), the Phoenicians focused on fulfilling their mission of being inventors and discoverers and spreading their knowledge all over the world.

Not that this proves anything, but this site at least isn’t pointing at any writings. Following the same approach as Harris, we back into what their educational goals were based on their ‘cosmology’ and what they did, which is presumed to result from that cosmology, then extrapolate way, way past the data to imagine they were motivated by a desire to fulfill a ‘mission’ of ‘being inventors and discoverers and spreading their knowledge all over the world.’

Here, again, we see the fell effect of Hegel and Marx: the atomic explanation is rejected out of hand in favor of the vast, irresistible movement of Spirit and History. The atomic explanation, built up from what the units of society – people, families – do without any reference to presumed inexorable historical forces, might be that successful trade lead to more successful trade, and that kids grew up in families and cities engaged in trade, leading to educated opinions about everything from ship building to accounting getting passed on and refined from generation to generation. Hegelians/Marxists refuse to admit such explanations, as History or Spirit are dogmatically assumed to exist as the cause of all things, people being mere double-predestined puppets.

And this is before we note that there’s nothing in the behavior of the actual Phoenicians we know about to make us imagine they were motivated by much of anything beyond an immediate desire to get and hang onto wealth and power, and show off their wealth and power. People being people, in other words.

We do know that the Phoenicians were great sailors and traders. We can, perhaps, use this fact to support the claim: Phoenicians were sailors and traders, therefore their educational practices may have been directed toward producing traders and sailors. Or, more likely and humbly, their educational practices did not prevent a good number of men becoming sailors and traders.

Harris then lays down a ‘must have’ : “The stories in Homer’s ” Odyssey ” must have been derived from the tales of the Phoenician sailors, which were calculated to engender a hunger and thirst for adventure, so that the young Phoenician would gladly get on board ship and go to the ends of the world in the interests of trade.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, this form of statement reminds me of the Von Daniken books I read as a tween, wherein he’s always making statements about how this or that must have been caused by space aliens. Even back then, this triggered a ‘must it have?’ reaction on my part. Also note the word ‘calculated’ – Harris wants to imagine that the education of Phoenician youth was something somebody calculated, and that these calculations resulted in choosing adventurous myths as the curriculum. In other words, he anachronistically imposes what he is up to on people living millennia ago in very different cultures (Punic culture was not homogenous over time and space. No culture is.)

And so on. Dubious claims, some fairly outrageous, most often taking the form of generalizations easy to square with the idea that Spirit or History is *causing* people to do things, are tucked in between truisms and bland deductions. This also sets up a field rich in opportunities for Motte and Bailey defences: when you question something doubtful, your interlocutor can defend something obvious nearby. That’s for when they don’t just dismiss you as unenlightened, which is Hegelians and Marxists favorite argument.

This first lecture contains the infamous quotation, which in context doesn’t sound nearly as ominous on first pass:

Education is meant to give one an insight into the genesis of these things, so that he can detect an element of each in the threads of his civilization. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people in every civilized nation are automata, careful to walk in the prescribed paths, careful to follow prescribed custom. This is the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual under his species. The other educational principle is the emancipation from this subsumption. This is subordinate, and yet, in our time, we lay more stress upon it than the other. Look at the French Revolution. What a prodigious emancipation that was.


Harris is asserting ALL ‘substantial’ education reduces 99% of EVERYBODY to automata. What makes such education ‘substantial’ is the content – this is Hegel-speak – which, as he has shown above, varies from civilization to civilization. He then allows for one other, subordinate, educational principle: escape from this subsumption of the individual. More Hegel: contradictions are said to be suspended and subsumed in a synthesis, which syntathis become the thesis for the next movement of the dialectic. So: individuals have wants and needs (thesis); so does the society within which those wants and needs are best met (antithesis). The individual is subsumed as an automaton in the synthesis, which is a society to which he sacrifices (and yet does not sacrifice) his individuality for the sake of having existence and meaning. The next step, which is subordinate in that it stands upon the society (synthesis) created in the previous subsumption, is for the individual to understand and somehow be emancipated from his status as an unconscious automaton, while at the same time remaining suspended as automaton.

Harris sees this emancipation as the movement of the Spirit in our current phase of History. In a chilling bit of foreshadowing, he’s not very explicit or concerned about the millions of deaths that resulted from the French Revolution and the wars it gave birth to, but rather sees a ‘prodigious emancipation.’ Pay no attention to the Committee for Public Safety!

Conclusion: in context, this quotation remains terrifying, just not in the exact sense in which I have seen it used, and have used it myself.

Comenius taught the emancipation of the individual from the printed page. Spencer says that the modern school system is all wrong, and has a tendency to get away from science and cause students to waste time over the dead languages. Emancipation has now become the important side of the educational question. But the student of advanced education must first avail himself of the wisdom of the race, and learn how not to be limited by it. He cannot progress unless he is a free man, for he must not be so much subsumed that he cannot investigate scientifically, and with safety to himself, all problems that present themselves.

The goal for education Harris sets out in this first lecture is for a student to first learns his own culture, with all its rules, standards and aspirations, and then get free enough from them to investigate scientifically (i.e., as an Hegelian) all problems that present themselves.

Sounds nice. A decade after Harris gave these lectures, Woodrow Wilson addressed a graduating class from Princeton’s School of Education, explained how the schools need to fit the vast bulk of people for labor. The little people must forgo the luxury of a liberal education (which is at least plausibly what Harris has in mind) in order to be fitted to do their jobs. Wilson is clear that this whole emancipation thing is not for everybody – automata is the end-state for the masses.

Next up: Lecture II – Problems peculiar to American Education.

Concrete Sins: Update

In the comments to the previous post, Richard A linked to this, this, thing, playfully nicknamed Our Lady of Minas Morgul, and I had to share:

I’m somehow not surprised that this is a real Catholic church building, St. Francis de Sales (who is doing 1,000 RPMs in his grave at the moment) in
Muskegon, Michigan. I was surprised, although I should not have been, that googling this structure yielded many articles *praising* this building. A fine example of Bauhaus, Modernism, Brutalism – you know, just what the typical Catholic in the pews wants in his church building.

While a comment at the above link mentions the obvious goal is evangelization of the orcs, I had to surf around a little to find some pithy, real world reactions, such as these from reddit:

  • “It looks like the Borg assimilated a group of Lutherans.” (I laughed)
  • “This looks like where you fight a final boss”
  • “This could literally be a building in 1984”
  • “Looks like exactly the type of place you would serve the flesh and blood of someone to others.” (ouch!)

Going back a few posts to those discussing the heresy of Americanism. In 1899, Archbishop Gibbons answered the Pope Leo XIII’s concerns about Americanism with firm assurances that nothing of the sort was going on; by 1964, a parish in Michigan is hiring a famous Modernist architect to design its church. (Aside: where does a parish get the money to hire a famous German Bauhaus architect? And the money to build the monstrosity?)

I’m sure there’s no connection.

Here’s a slightly more flattering picture of the interior:

Image result for st francis de sales in muskegon

And a quotation from William Torrey Harris: “The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places…. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world. ” The purpose of school is, according to Harris, making obedient automata out of the students. So, what is the purpose here, in an environment so suited to Harris’s ideal?

As for praise, no less an oracle than Concrete Construction Magazine assures us that this building “fully demonstrates the architectural potential of cast-in-place concrete construction.”   Who could doubt it?

So, any of youse guys got anything ‘better’ than this?

Concrete (and Wood and Steel) Sins

May God forgive us for modern church architecture.

Have we turned the corner on terrible church buildings yet? I sometimes think we have, but that may be just me putting the blinders on so I don’t have to look at this:

There is nothing to recommend this building. It is preposterous and ugly by any standards. That it claims to stand in the line of the many noble and glorious cathedrals around the world is an insult to our intelligence.

Or this:

Image result for san francisco cathedral
This building, on the other hand, is not so terrible in and of itself – it would make a daring convention center – and has been enholied by the beautiful masses celebrated there, especially by the current archbishop. But in and of itself, as a church? Not so much.

Or this:

Oak Cathdrl 1.jpg
Wouldn’t this make a great Apple Store? The bomb-shelter greenhouse look will come back into vogue some day, eventually, and we’ll be ready for it! Not so ugly in and of itself, but insulting when compared to the thousands of much-beloved churches around the world.

and pretend they are anything other than hideous abominations, insulting to both God and man.

Ya know? Or this:

Image result for newman hall holy spirit parish
Berkeley Newman Center. If it weren’t for the sign out front, you’d be hard-pressed to identify it as a church. Looks like a detail from rejected plans for the Maginot Line.

The bomb shelter look was big. I remember reading about the Los Angeles Cathedral, how they took care building it to last 500 years at least. This is achieved by deploying thousands of tons of concrete and steel. Unlike many ugly parish churches, which probably have a 50 or so year life expectancy before the repair/tear down calculations starts to get (mercifully) interesting, these monstrosities are built to last. If the goal was to burn through the Church’s money while saddling her with repulsive buildings for generations or centuries to come, the outcomes would not have been any different.

The L.A. Cathedral is in a class of its own – there’s just no redeeming it, artistically. It is a giant, $200,000,000 middle finger to the Catholics of L.A. To get rid of it is almost impossible. I fantasize that a billionaire might come along, buy land next door, and build a huge beautiful Neo-Gothic or Romanesque Revival church, seamlessly incorporating influences from Mexico, the Philippines, Asia, Africa and so on in order to honor the remarkably world wide nature of L.A.’s Catholics, and then offer it to the diocese. The underlying tensions would thus be exposed. And L.A. would get a nice church.

At least in San Francisco and Oakland, one gets the feeling they were trying for something good, even if they went about it under the constraint that whatever was built must rebuke the pre-Vatican II church. The unhealthy compulsion to be different, which has lead to many bad fashion decisions and questionable tattoos on a small scale, leads to stuff like this when writ large:

These are a few of the approximately 800 louvres, I guess you’d call them, that make up the walls of the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

Louvre mania! And an imposing image peeking past the cables and braces!

These features appear to be slabs of laminated 2 x 12s, bolted to laminated uprights(1) with some seriously industrial looking galvanized hardware and bolts. They would make excellent work benches and picnic tables. Here? Oh, I’m sure there’s an artist’s program somewhere that describes how they are meant to let in the light in some deeply meaningful way that only a uncultured peon would fail to understand.

The effect is just weird. Like I say, not irredeemably ugly, just – weird. With 2,000 years of church architectural experience to draw on, this is what you do? Only if hell-bent on rejecting all that collected experience and wisdom.

I cherish my visit to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, and my many visits to Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College, as both buildings are very beautiful and built in the last decade or so. Beautiful and appropriate churches can still get built, if people want to build them.

Obligatory note: over the centuries, many people have pushed and pulled church architecture in many different directions with greater and lesser success. Gothic, after all, was an innovation at one time. I’m not wedded to any particular style or approach, as long as it strives to embody the true, the good and the beautiful. For a century now, many architects have actively rejected those ideals. Such should not be let anywhere near a church design project.

Final funny (at least to me) moment: Youngest son and I were visiting the Oakland Cathedral for a Boy Scout function, when a mom came up to me (I was just sitting there! Minding my own business! I swear!), pointed at the huge image of Christ Enthroned, and asked: “What is He doing with his right hand?”

Somebody thought a 70 foot tall heavily pixelated image of Christ partially obscured by structural members was a good idea, the dominant and central statement of the building. Right.

I answered honestly that he was giving a blessing, and that such images – Christ enthroned giving his blessing – are quite common. She was hesitant to accept this, but eventually gave in. “I thought he was flashing a peace sign. I was afraid they’d gone hippy on us.”

“I have no comment.” I smiled.

  1. I have to think the external frame, or a steel core to the uprights, or most likely both, are actually holding this thing up. Those louvres have got to be heavy.