Two Principles on which to Build a Parallel but
Non-Institutional Style of Liberal Education
Why do we need a alternative system of liberal education?
Because public (i.e. state-sponsored) education, despite being almost continually in crisis, cannot be significantly reformed without a seismic change in Western intellectual culture. There is, however, a more immediate reason why the educational system defies reform: it forms a large part of a modern economy and too many livelihoods depend on keeping it as it is for the state to permit any tampering.
Public education is learning under the assumptions that the means for acquiring something called knowledge are scarce, and that knowledge is best acquired under the supervision of certified professionals (aka teachers). It therefore follows that education ought to be the marketable and expensive commodity that it is. The falseness of these assumptions is perhaps illustrated by the informal, painless, efficient, cost-free and universal acquisition of the native language, the knowledge of which nothing else we learn in or out of school can begin to compare in usefulness.
Why does liberal education need to be de-institutionalized?
Because institutional education (or school) is an age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum, a curriculum, moreover, on which the student will be tested. The student is given to understand that failure to perform satisfactorily on a series of exams (lasting as long as the educational process) will adversely affect the rest of his or her life—primarily in terms of income and self-respect. This makes education an inherently unpleasant experience for many people, and amounts to a gross violation of one of two fundamental intellectual principles. But before stating this principle (which from here on we will call The Practical Principle), an attempt will be made to explain why such intellectual principles are necessary. In the process, some light may be shed on the mystery of the widespread and persistent dissatisfaction with public education.
According to a medieval maxim, No useful discussion is possible unless both parties to the discussion start from the same premise. After all, people who can’t agree about anything can’t rationally disagree about anything. There has to be some common ground before meaningful debate can occur. Not surprisingly then, as a friend of mine pointed out in an email, ‘Almost all education systems, at all levels, had quite explicit points of view on values.’ And some of those values, in turn, depend upon underlying intellectual principles—or, if you prefer, vice versa.
Now for purposes of discussion between people from opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum—typically naturalists and supernaturalists—I think the maxim should be modified as follows: No useful discussion is possible, and enjoyable discussion is difficult, unless both parties to the discussion share a certain number of intellectual principles.
Needless to say, the hard part is identifying those shared intellectual principles. That such principles exist is easy to demonstrate. Nobody, for example, would dispute that you must not flatly contradict yourself in successive sentences (the underlying value here is consistency) or that you must not invent facts to support your argument (the underlying value is truthfulness). But these may be considered too trivial to inspire confidence in such an ambitious project. Very well then, here are the two intellectual principles on which this new style of liberal education depends. Later, additional principles will presented in the hope that they will be broadly acceptable across the philosophical spectrum. But if the two foundational principles are recognized and adopted—in spite of the fact they may at first appear very radical and perhaps utopian—I feel confident that many of the others will follow easily and naturally.
Paraphrasing the first phrase of something C. S. Lewis wrote about art —‘To interest is the first duty of art . . .’—and leaving the rest as is, The Practical Principle can be stated as follows:
To be enjoyable is the first duty of liberal education; no other excellences will even begin to compensate for failure in this, and very serious faults will be covered by this, as by charity [i.e., charity is such a great virtue that it more than offsets a host of lesser faults].
Before proceeding to a short philosophical defense of this principle, I think it worth considering what a variety of distinguished men thought and felt about institutional education.
[George Bernard Shaw’s] repugnance for all his schools was implacable. In an interview he gave in his eighties he said that he regretted having gone to school at all; that he valued nothing he had experienced there, and that the teachers, who came to hate their children as “instruments of torture,” were merely turnkeys hired “to keep the little devils locked up where they cannot drive their mothers mad.”
Michael Holroyd (biographer)
This interlude of school makes a somber gray patch upon the chart of my journey. It was an unending spell of worries that did not then seem petty, and of toil uncheered by fruition; a time of discomfort, restriction and purposeless monotony.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled youthful curiosity. For this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.
Speaking of the public school at which he boarded C. S. Lewis wrote, ‘I think that this feigning, this ceaseless pretense of interest in matters [school games] to me supremely boring, was what wore me out more than anything else . . . Never, except in the front line trenches (and not always there) do I remember such aching and continuous weariness as at Malvern.’
Almost immediately after starting Exeter I became miserably unhappy. The reasons for my unhappiness were totally obscure to me then and are still quite profoundly mysterious to me today. I just did not seem to fit. I didn’t seem to fit with the faculty, the students, the courses, the architecture, the social life, the total environment. Yet there seemed nothing to do other than to try to make the best of it and try to mould my imperfections so that I could fit more comfortably into this pattern that had been laid out for me and that was so obviously the right pattern. And try I did for two and a half years. Yet daily my life appeared more meaningless and I felt more wretched. The last year I did little but sleep, for only in sleep could I find any comfort.
M. Scott Peck
It is a simple psychological fact that the sight of a Greek capital [letter] still fills me with happiness, the sight of a small letter with indifference tinged with dislike, and the accents with righteous indignation reaching the point of profanity. And I believe that the explanation is that I learned the large Greek letters, as I learned the large English letters, at home. I was told about them merely for fun while I was still a child; while the others I learned during the period of what is commonly called education; that is, the period during which I was being instructed by somebody I did not know, about something I did not want to know.
G. K. Chesterton
I liked the students, as I had liked most of the students at my previous school, but I found the extreme regimentation and lack of privacy of a strict boarding school so jarring that I became almost compulsively insubordinate, though not as insidiously so as at Upper Canada [College]. . . .
In a final act of defiance to a school system that I had found almost unrelievedly loathsome for a whole decade, I withdrew from Thornton Hall in February 1962 and prepared myself for senior matriculation, which anyone who paid a refundable five dollars per examination was entitled to attempt in the required nine examinations at the old armoury on University Avenue.
I hated school with a passion, to this day. And when I think back on it, it was a curse.
The English writer Hesketh Pearson commented that he ‘derived a single advantage from my preparatory school: the worst things that have happened to me since leaving it have seemed relatively mild in comparison with those five years of helpless misery, and I would rather have died at any period of my existence than go through them again.’
I was a natural schoolboy—one who thoroughly enjoyed being at school and who would have enjoyed being at any school of even moderate decency and quite irrespective of its social status or even of its teaching ability. I enjoyed my time at Eton and wept unashamedly when I came to leave. But that was quite a different matter from approving of it. I do not think that even then I approved of it and I am certain that I do not approve of it now. Eton seemed to me, and seems to me, an absurd but lovable place, “a zoo” as it was recently called in the Eton College Chronicle. I find it difficult to take seriously the loyalty of those exuberant Old Etonians who really think that it is different in kind from all other schools. I remember an ex-schoolfellow who served a term of imprisonment. On his release he was asked how he got on there. “Splendid,” he replied in a burst of enthusiasm, “absolutely splendid. It’s just like a public school, just like being at Eton,” but then he added in a tone of reflection, “But of course it’s a bit tough on those who haven’t been to Eton.”
Philosophers have often posed the question: What is the good life? According to Aquinas, who built his system of thought from the ground up rather than from the top down, a thing must be defined not by its ultimate principle but by the proximate one. For example, the essence of virtue is not to do the will of God, but to do what is consonant with reason and appropriate to the situation. Following this approach, I would answer the above question as follows.
The good life does not consist in pursuing money, achievement, knowledge, or even the will of God or the love of one’s fellow man. To lead the good life one must aim at rational enjoyment, which, roughly speaking, means trying to maximize enjoyment both for oneself and for others over the long run. I admit that there are two difficulties with this conception of the good life: 1) rational enjoyment may be hard to identify; and 2) there will often be disagreement about it because what qualifies as “rational” is partly dependent upon one’s world view. Nevertheless, the fact that these difficulties can never be completely overcome should not deter us, provided the principle, when applied, proves its value and usefulness to the satisfaction of the majority.
The second of our two principles, which will be called The Philosophical Principle, is only fifteen words in length. But for reasons which will soon become apparent it is perhaps even more controversial than the first. We therefore need to build a clear and convincing case for its reasonableness.
Consider two senses of the word “prove” which have very little to do with one another. The strict meaning of “prove,” as understood by logicians and mathematicians, is to reason syllogistically such that the conclusion states explicitly something that was implicit in the premises. For example: If all men are mortal, and if Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal. Those ‘ifs’ are very important to include, otherwise the true nature of logic can easily elude us.
The ordinary wide (or colloquial) meaning of “prove” is to ascertain knowledge with a high degree of probability through evidence and reason. This is the sense intended in the phrase “to prove beyond all reasonable doubt” when used in a court of law.
‘It is idle to complain,’ wrote C. S. Lewis, ‘that words have more than one sense. Language is a living thing and words are bound to throw out new senses as a tree throws out new branches. It is not wholly a disadvantage, since in the act of disentangling these senses we learn a great deal about the things involved which we might otherwise have overlooked. What is disastrous is that any word should change its sense during a discussion without our being aware of the change.’ [my italics] Perhaps the two most notorious instances of this concerns the words “reason” and “logic.”
The English language allows us to use the word “reason” when, strictly speaking, we mean “logic.” Italicizing the word “reason,” here are two examples, the first coming from the greatest logician since Aristotle, Kurt Gödel:
Every error is due to extraneous factors (such as emotion and education); reason itself does not err.
The second is from contemporary British philosopher A. C. Grayling:
Reason is merely an instrument which, correctly employed, helps people draw inferences from given premises without inconsistency.
The English language also lets us reverse the process, i.e. use the word “logic” when, strictly speaking, we mean “reason.” Italicizing the word “logic,” here are two examples. The first is from Winston Churchill:
Logic is a poor guide compared to custom.
And the second is from American journalist Jonathan Alter:
Logic can convince, but only emotion can motivate.
It would be easy to find many other examples. Now it would be nice to think that the authors of these statements were very clear in their own minds about the different senses of “reason” and “logic” and vitally alive to the dangers of conflating them. However, given the state of Western intellectual culture, I believe that would be an unwarranted assumption. Both Gödel and Grayling may be guilty of doing something that the language doesn’t forbid and that human nature rather encourages, namely, mixing up the two together with the intellectually disastrous results that Lewis warned us about.
This is little or no harm in knowing many things implicitly (or unconsciously), but not explicitly (or consciously)—the meanings of most words for instance. There are some things, however, which it is very important to know both ways. I think the average person would see instantly that a fact, by itself, is neither logical nor illogical. He or she would readily agree that neither a real animal like a rhinoceros nor an imaginary one like a unicorn has anything to do with logic. Nor would it be necessary to laboriously explain the significance of such sentences as: ‘Accept my premises and I will lead you infallibly to my conclusions’ or ‘Logic: an unfair means sometimes used to win an argument.’ All this leads us to believe that most people implicitly know that the relations of logic to truth don’t depend on its perfection as logic, but on something that comes prior to logic. (However, trying to decide what name to give to the thing that comes before logic will probably be a very thorny business indeed.)
The trouble is that most people, including many highly educated ones, haven’t noticed that there is no logical link between the realm of external facts and the realm of mental relations; nor, as a consequence, have they grasped the implication that the only certainty that logic can give us is the certainty that a particular conclusion follows from particular premises. No less an authority than the famous logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell held that no collection of facts, or supposed facts, is either coherent or inconsistent, since no two facts can either imply or contradict each other except by virtue of some extralogical principle. In other words, we need principles beyond or outside logic! These are things that need to be emphatically brought to everyone’s attention by any serious form of liberal education.
Thus we come to the second of our two fundamental principles, henceforth referred to as The Philosophical Principle. It entails everything in the preceding paragraphs and then some:
Logic is infallible; reason, on the other hand, is not only fallible but error-prone.
The reason The Philosophical Principle is so controversial, as mentioned earlier, should now be clear: it implies a further and highly provocative principle. First, the short, mild version:
To try to establish by purely intellectual processes the truth of any particular philosophy is absolutely hopeless.
Now, the more rigourous and far-reaching version:
The attempt to prove (in the ordinary wide sense), to the satisfaction of every—the word ‘every’ is crucial here—honest, intelligent, well-informed person, the superiority of either the religious or the irreligious view of life is intellectually hopeless.
Note that it’s not merely hopeless because many people like their beliefs and opinions more than they like reason. It’s hopeless for purely intellectual reasons. If reason is error prone, then reason and truth will not always coincide. This is abundantly confirmed by our experience, which shows again and again that reason often leads to different or even opposite conclusions—even among those who hold the same world view.
Historically, almost no one has accepted either in theory or in practice this corollary of The Philosophical Principle. Many people still refuse to accept it. The attitude or subconscious reasoning responsible for their refusal seems to go something like this: My intellectual opponent seems to be honest, intelligent and well-informed, but since he holds a different world view from me or different opinions on politics and morals, that must mean there has been a failure of reason somewhere. However, I’m a strong advocate of the view that reason is the criterion by which to distinguish between true and false beliefs. It therefore follows that the failure can’t possibly be on my side!
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