Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Education, Logic, and Values: Part I

It's been one of those weeks when dozens of ideas occur to me every day, but I just don't have the time to write them all down.  I've talked about writing another section in my new book, and about reviewing a book I've been reading.  Over the course of the week I've also considered writing about logic and values, education, flaws in the idea of civilization, and so on.

So you may have to bear with me here.  The one idea that has obsessed me most over the past week is this: that modern education has perhaps gone seriously astray.  I'm talking about the system as a whole -- which is based on the bizarre idea that the best way to educate our young is to have them sit through dozens of disconnected courses on various topics (algebra, history, etc.) without giving them any idea of how or whether they connect to one another.  We provide no context, no worldview, no set of over-arching values or purpose.  Of course, this is unavoidable because teaching values at school would be teaching religion, and that is supposed to be up to the parents.

To make these doubts more concrete, let me explain some of my own difficulties in the teaching I've been doing. Over the past couple of summers I've been teaching at a summer camp for gifted kids.  My first summer I tought nuclear physics. Last summer, and this coming summer, I've been teaching logic.  The idea is to teach college-level material to junior-high kids who seem to be ready for it, hopefully catapulting them into an even more spectacular academic career.

Overall, I think it's a good program, and I've had mostly good experiences -- despite how exhausting the work is.  To avoid making it sound like I'm criticizing any specific program, let's call this summer camp the Io Institute (or II).

Though I enjoyed teaching Nuclear Physics the first year, and the kids learned a lot, I went home with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, as if I hadn't really done any of them any good.  Perhaps it was because I was leading them into a field -- physics -- that I myself have found empty of human significance.  When I was asked to come back the next summer, I gave this feeling some more thought, and came to the conclusion that I could do these kids much more good if I taught them something philosophy- or humanities-related.  So I sent in another application and requested a change of subject.

As a result, I taught "Logic: Rules of Reason" last year.  This course seemed perfect for me, because I was allowed to split the curriculum 50-50 between mathematical logic and "informal logic," which is the art of reading and writing philosophical argumentation.  In other words, the course is 50% math, 50% philosophy.  What course would have the freedom to be more broad-ranging and well-rounded than this?

My initial course plan was perhaps a bit over-enthusiastic.  It included Taoist writings, theology, and a number of philosophers more poetic than logical.  But once I entered the daily grind of teaching, these are the first materials to be skipped when we fell behind.  It was just too difficult to integrate them and explain their logical significance to my 13-to-15-year-old students.  The best I was able to do was explore "the limits of logic," bringing in the writings of Lewis Carroll, Plato, and Wittgenstein.  In discussing how many philosophers have tried and failed to make logic encompass all of thought, I was at least able to convey that logic was not the end-all and be-all of subjects (as most of them seemed to assume at first).  In fact, if anything perhaps I went too far in the other direction.  At times students would ask me "well then what is this math even useful for?"  When I explained that computer programmers and mathematicians still find logic to be useful sometimes, it didn't seem to do much to raise their spirits.  I shouldn't have been surprised, given that on the first day when I asked them what they hoped to do with logic, most of them responded by saying "I hope it will help me make my big life decisions," or "I'd like to use it to find a job that will make good money."  Formal logic will certainly not do much for you in these departments, and our society should be ashamed for teaching our children otherwise (for example, through fictional heroes like Spock and Sherlock Holmes).  Sure, it pays to be rational and to be able to think rationally, but there is no more a mathematical formula for rationality than there is for "agility" or "kindness."  Philosophy has already proven this through centuries of failing to find a mathematical logic that would solve most of its problems, or even its most serious ones.

This summer I'll be teaching logic again.  Ideally, if the money weren't so important, I'd strike out on my own and offer my services as a private mentor and tutor.  By interacting with the parents directly, and the child one-on-one, I could get a better idea of what is wanted and needed to get the child on the right track towards a well-rounded education.  At the Io Institute, the tuition for one student is about the same as the amount one teacher gets paid.  However, there are an average of 15 students per teacher! 

This means that, if I charged half-price, I could work one-on-one with two students, each for 3 hours a day, have more spare time for myself, and probably teach the students more!  This actually occurred to me last summer, but I'm still considering how I might put such a plan into action ...

As it is, I'm stuck in Io's framework for now.  I'm still trying to figure out how to teach these kids logic and philosophy without ruining their taste for truly edifying reading, such as literature or religion. 

Nevertheless, by the end of the second session last year, I felt like I had had some success.  Because I fostered an open environment, there were a number of students who did their final projects on theology or the history of philosophy.  Now I don't want to give the impression that I pushed anyone into these topics -- in fact there were a number of students who did projects defending science or evolution from religious critiques.  The interesting thing was that I actually avoided all these topics in the curriculum to prevent any controversy -- it was the students' own interests that led them to work in these areas.  And I strove to push them not toward one position or another in these debates, but toward developing logical arguments in their writing.

Despite these few successes, I still feel like I'm swimming against the tide.  To give you an idea, last year they gave me a number of syllabi from previous logic instructors.  Almost every syllabus featured topics like, "The Logical Unsoundness of the Existential Proof for God," or "Intelligent Design as Pseudo-Science."  While I agree that God cannot be logically proven, and that Intelligent Design has serious scientific flaws, focusing on all these ways in which science has won against religion tends to foster the impression that our civilization is progressively moving away from religion and towards a scientific worldview.  It leads to an overall degradation in our children's taste for topics such as morality and ethics.  This has been going on for over a century now in academic learning, and in my view it has been devastating for our culture as a whole.

I'm not the first to point this out.  If you're interested in reading something by someone who noticed this trend more than 60 years ago, I suggest reading The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. 

I'm currently in the process of reading this and about a dozen other books ... when I do I'll come back and write Part II ...  (Incidentally, it was Our Ecotechnic Future that suggested The Abolition of Man -- another important book that I'll be discussing once I finish it.)

Read Part II

1 comment:

  1. Well said! I really admire how true you are to your principles.