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The Simplest Case for New Education

Human nature is biased towards dissatisfaction, which is understandable—and excusable, up to a point. For the average person, life, in spite of its many pleasures, diversions and interests, is unsatisfying and sometimes hard. But that’s a problem for philosophy. At the very least we need a philosophy that keeps us from becoming exasperated with life, including of course many of the people in it; but the crisis in education is our concern at the moment and not the purpose of philosophy. Closely related to our bias towards dissatisfaction is our tendency to find fault. Benjamin Franklin famously called man a tool-making animal, but I think that a more accurate way of characterizing man is by calling him a fault-finding animal. No animal finds fault with other animals, or with the world, or with itself.

Now among the innumerable things in life that we find fault with are the opinions of other people, even the opinions of great thinkers. And yet all articulated thoughts are equal in the sense that they are all strings of words. When we hear or read a string of words that doesn’t satisfy us, the belief implicit in our attitude is that somewhere there exists another string of words that would satisfy us. Or would satisfy us more—if only we could find it. For our attempts to produce a better string of words usually leaves us still dissatisfied, and this dissatisfaction often causes us to ramble. We ramble because we feel we haven’t done ourselves or our subject justice. But how could we, given the vagueness and treachery of language when combined with a failure to have given the matter any sustained thought?

The great thinkers however, whose opinions we often find flawed, have given their subjects serious and sustained thought. Of course that’s no guarantee that their views are the truest or the most satisfactory. Given the limitations of language and the richness and subtlety of concepts such as faith, reason, love and knowledge, anything anyone says about something important is sure to be deficient to a greater or lesser degree. But is it realistic to think that we can say something on the spur of the moment that is wiser and deeper than the best known sayings of Plato, Aristotle, Pascal or Samuel Johnson? We might be able to improve on what they said by paraphrasing it or by expanding on it, but I submit that it’s rather unlikely that we can produce something better merely by relying only on our own intellect and experience.

Suppose we take six topics that are personal, practical, and of general interest. My choice of topics from this category are:

Beauty & Pleasure
Emotions & Feelings
Eros (the love between the sexes)
Work & Leisure.

Now we know that millions of things have been said about those topics, tens of thousands of which have found their way into books of quotations because the editor thought they were especially true or clever or because the author was a famous person. Of those, hundreds have become popular and are frequently quoted. Suppose from that small subset of aphorisms—aphorism is a term I use for any compressed unit of thought—we acquired twelve that we considered the best (two for each of the six topics), using nothing but our private judgement to guide us. If a young person were then to ask us, “Based on your experience and your reflection on that experience, what are the two most important or useful things you can tell me about each of those six subjects?”, how confident would we feel that we had something of value to offer? I think we’d feel very confident.

On the other hand I doubt that even a person who was highly educated, widely experienced and emotionally intelligent would be able to come up with much that was concise and memorable if he or she merely talked off the top of their heads. It’s much more likely they would ramble. But if we were to take the trouble to acquire from great minds and famous writers the aphorisms that appeal to us, then (I submit) not only would these compressed units of thought help us articulate ideas, but they would inspire us to produce aphorisms of our own. That is the theory. If practice confutes theory, then theory must be revised because practice is the empirical check on theory. So on to practice.

Click HERE for a collection of sample aphorisms. The first half-dozen or so have to do with important intellectual principles or maxims. They are followed by less weighty subjects that tend to become more philosophical towards the end.

Here’s a list of well-known people whose opinions I think deserve consideration, if not agreement:

Lord Acton, Woody Allen, Aquinas, Aristotle, Matthew Arnold, W. H. Auden, St Augustine, Jane Austen, J. M. Barrie, Hilaire Belloc, Robert Benchley, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Ambrose Bierce, William Blake, Niels Bohr, Jorge Luis Borges, George W. Bush, Samuel Butler, Lord Byron, Albert Camus, Thomas Carlyle, Dale Carnegie, Fidel Castro, Charlie Chaplin, Anton Chekhov, Lord Chesterfield, G. K. Chesterton, Noam Chomsky, Churchill, Cicero, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Confucius, Joan Crawford, Dante, Charles Darwin, Robertson Davies, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Dawson, Descartes, Marlene Dietrich, Benjamin Disraeli, John Donne, Dostoyevsky, Fredrick Douglass, Arthur Conan Doyle, Will Durant, Einstein, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Havelock Ellis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Epictetus, Anatole France, Benjamin Franklin, Freud, Milton Friedman, Eric Fromm, Robert Frost, Northrop Frye, Zsa Zsa Gabor, John Kenneth Galbraith, James Garner, John Gielgud, Goethe, Emma Goldman, Stephen Jay Gould, Gracian, Graham Greene, Germaine Greer, J. B. S. Haldane, Thomas Hardy, Sam Harris, Stephen Hawking, William Hazlitt, Hugh Hefner, Hegel, Ernest Hemingway, Katharine Hepburn, Adolf Hitler, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, A. E. Housman, David Hume, Aldous Huxley, Michael Ignatieff, Ivan Illich, Dean Inge, William James, Thomas Jefferson, Jesus of Nazareth, C. E. M. Joad, Johnson, Carl Jung, John Keats, John F. Kennedy, Maynard Keynes, Kierkegaard, Henry Kissinger, Martin Luther King, C. S. Lewis, Thomas Mann, Sommerset Maugham, Mary McCarthy, Marshall McLuhan, H. L. Mencken, John Stuart Mill, Molière, Montaigne, Mary Tyler Moore, Malcolm Muggeride, Vladimir Nabokov, Napoleon, Jawaharlal Nehru, John Henry Newman, Isaac Newton, Nietzsche, Richard Nixon, Flannery O’Connor, George Orwell, Pascal, M. Scott Peck, Plato, Edgar Allen Poe, Alexander Pope, Pol Pot, Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Bob Rae, La Rochefoucauld, John Ruskin, Bertrand Russell, Carl Sagan, Schopenhauer, Walter Scott, Seneca, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Fulton Sheen, Shelley, Adam Smith, Socrates, Herbert Spencer, Spinoza, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jonathan Swift, Publilius Syrus, Mme de Staël, Stendhal, Tacitus, Henry David Thoreau, Alexis de Tocqueville, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Peter Ustinov, Jean Vanier, W. B Yeats, Gore Vidal, Voltaire, Kurt Vonnegut, Evelyn Waugh, Beatrice Webb, Simone Weil, H. G. Wells, John Wesley, Alfred North Whitehead, Oscar Wilde, Woodrow Wilson, Virginia Woolf, Emile Zola

The opinions of these people and of many others, famous and not so famous, can be found at the link below.

Click HERE for an organized collection of quotes and aphorisms
from the famous and the not so famous.
For more theory click HERE.