Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Education, Logic, and Values: Part III

This may be my last post for a while.  With Emily's due date coming up (June 9 -- or perhaps June 2, according to a recent ultrasound) and with our big move and my summer job with CTY ... I don't have much spare time these days.

In this post, I'll just try to wrap up the loose ends from my last one ...  The question was:  how do you teach logic using modern textbooks without indoctrinating your students with the relativistic notion of value that modern curricula encourage?  How do you respect a diversity of views among your students without making them believe that values can be chosen arbitrarily?

Imagine sending your child to school and having him or her learn that it is okay to admire Hitler, that racism is a valid point of view, or that murder -- though criticized by many -- might be an acceptable way to resolve conflicts depending on your chosen system of values.  You would be justifiably angry.  Fortunately, our educational system doesn't have this problem -- any teacher in their right mind will stress that Hitler was a bad man, racism is unacceptable, and murder is wrong.  In other words, objective value is already taught in our schools, and we unanimously agree that this is the right thing to do.

As I see it, the problem with teaching modern logic is of the same kind, if less obvious.

You might be thinking, wait now -- but isn't logic a value-free subject? 
Hardly.  For example, Confucius' teachings include the following analects:

"True virtue rarely goes with artful speech and insinuating looks."

"The higher type of person is catholic in his sympathy and free from party bias; the lower type is biased an unsympathetic."

"The wise man does not esteem a person more highly because of what he says, neither does he undervalue what is said because of the person who says it."
Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC)

These are only a few examples of the sorts of values taught not only in logic but also in philosophy and religion.  There are dozens of more relevant sayings in the Confucian Analects, all of which are relevant to the search for truth, unbiasedness, and objectivity. 

So, even though logic teaches unbiasedness, this unbiasedness is itself a virtue, which means that logic does teach values, including Truth, Honesty, Sincerity, and Justice.  There is no contradiction here -- logic does not teach unbiasedness in everything, but only in the process of determining the truth.

The question that remained for me was this:  how do I teach my students these virtues in an explicit way without confusing them?  If I start talking about Confucius and honesty and sincerity on the first day, they're going to have no idea how any of it is connected, for example, to the mathematical symbolism of logic. 

Why not just play it safe and teach the usual curriculum, however flawed?  Obviously, I'll be teaching these kids before they have a chance to form their character for good -- so not everything is at stake.  On the other hand, it is common for former students at the Io Institute to say that II changed their lives forever, inspiring them to choose their future careers and so forth.  It should also be kept in mind that I will have a single group of kids for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week for 3 weeks.  This means it will be approximately an entire college semester's worth of material.  So I do think I have a fairly large responsibility to my students.

As I contemplated this I ran across the following analect in Confucius:

"Let a pupil join with you in self-cultivation before you let him approach the general truths of philosophy, but let him approach these general truths before he is allowed to form his character for good. He should have formed his character for good before he is allowed to make exceptions to a general rule."

Here was the whole thing in a nutshell.  I'll discuss this analect one phrase at a time.

"Let a pupil join with you in self-cultivation before you let him approach the general truths of philosophy ..."

Before I can teach my students any general principles of virtue, I must allow them to cultivate these virtues by practice.  This is true in any discipline.  Before you can learn the deepest laws of nature in physics, for example, you must learn how to problem-solve and develop your physical intuition.  It will take years of practice in creative writing before a novelist can explain to you the secrets to writing great literature.  So the plan I've come up with for my logic course is to focus on logical problem-solving to begin with.  You would think that this would be common practice, but it is not anymore -- logic now generally follows the tendency of modern mathematics education to teach by means of "exercises" and to label real problems "story problems." 

I was a math tutor for a time, and it was my job to fix the brains of poor students that had been led seriously astray by this way of teaching.  For example, I had one college student who could solve problems like "If you have 65 dollars and you pay Ted 38 dollars, how much is left?" and could do the symbolic problem 65 - 38 = ? but had no idea that he was doing the same thing in both cases!  Math education is a whole different subject that I could rant about -- but I'll leave that for another time.  For now I just want to explain why I'm done teaching my II students primarily by means of symbolic "exercises."  Intead, I'll start by giving them puzzles, riddles, and paradoxes (I'm actually using "What is the name of this book?: The riddle of Dracula and other logical puzzles" by Raymond M Smullyan as one of my texts this year).  And to further distance myself from the notion of mechanical exercises and drills, I'm going to make sure that a few of the puzzles I offer them will be unsolvable.  It will be their choice what to work on, and I'll be sure not to let them waste too much time on unsolvable problems, but I think it will do them a world of good to have a little practice the hardest lesson in logic:  how to tell when you're stumped.  Logic is just as much about moving on and accepting your ignorance as it is about applying the principles of reason.

"... but let him approach these general truths before he is allowed to form his character for good."

Then after we've had plenty of class discussion, debate, and paper-writing on these puzzles and paradoxes, I'm hoping the students will have had enough experience with logical controversy that we can move on to discuss more general principles, rules, and (yes) values that logicians hold to.  This is also where I'll be discussing the limitations of logic, both theoretical and practical. (Smullyan has a nice discussion of Godel's Theorem for the layman in his book -- simple enough to be understandable but also rigorous enough to be meaningful.)

"He should have formed his character for good before he is allowed to make exceptions to a general rule."

Finally, I'll try to avoid the twin perils of either (a) teaching my students to avoid all controversial topics -- a strategy that destroys values be skirting around their existence or (b) plunging right into philosophical debates over the objectivity of values and the relativity of truth -- a strategy that asks the students to fly before they can walk.  Instead, the focus will be on how logicians can maintain their objectivity even when tackling controversial subjects such as the existence of God or global warming.  Rather than shy away from these topics, I'll encourage my students (around the third week) to tackle them in as honest and independent a way as possible. 

Anyway -- this is solution I've come up with over the past few weeks.  Of course, things never work out in practice as they do in theory -- I'm sure to learn as much or more than my students over the two three-week sessions I'll be teaching this summer ...

Meanwhile, it's farewell for the next few months.  Thanks to everyone for following my blog so far, and hopefully I'll have time again next September to share some more thoughts!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Education, Logic, and Values: Part II

My plans for the Io Institute course on logic I'm teaching this summer are coming together.  It was one of Confucius's Analects that finally snapped me out of my abstractions, and led me to outline a practical plan.

The dilemma I've been facing is this.  During all of my years of education, including 9 years of university schooling, I was led seriously astray.  I was made to believe that the rational progress of society is the ultimate purpose of thought and life, and that the rest is mere gibberish and sentimentality.  Certain people reading this blog may want to argue that I've been wrong to reject this doctrine -- but that is beside the point.  The point is, rationality and progress are values themselves.  So shouldn't they be left out of public education?  Or is it even possible to leave values out of learning?

As these questions were haunting me, I stumbled across a passage in John Michael Greer's The Ecotechnic Future discussing the tendency of modern society to "sanitize" everything -- to favor dead mechanism over dirty biology.  He suggested two of C.S. Lewis's writings on the subject:  a set of lectures called The Abolition of Man and a novel called That Hideous Strength.  I've finished the first and as of today I'm most of the way through the second.  These writings, it turns out, go much, much deeper than the biology/mechanism duality, directly grappling with modern Western society's odd hang-ups concerning values and reason.  In essence, Lewis argues that our obsession with sterilization has led us to try to sterilize the mind itself, as if we could scrub away all traces of value-judgement.

I highly recommend both of these books. Lewis's The Abolition of Man is especially concise and insightful.  (There's an online version -- just Google it.  It's short for a book.)

The problem Lewis is discussing may sound abstract, but it is actually very concrete.  "The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book," Lewis says concerning a textbook he discusses, "must be the destruction of the society which accepts it."

I don't think Lewis is exaggerating here, but I'd rather not belabor the point.  Whether or not we are in a "declining" civilization, it seems to me that our society has stumbled much further down the path that Lewis declared a dead end back in 1947.  This should be clear if we look at a couple of examples from Lewis's book.  In the following example he discusses a passage from the English textbook he happens to despise (The Green Book mentioned above):

In their second chapter Gaius and Titius [Lewis's pseudonym for the authors] quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall.  You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it 'sublime' and the other 'pretty': and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust.  Gaius and Titius comment as follows: 'When the man said That is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall. . . . Actually . . . he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings.  What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word "Sublime," or shortly, I have sublime feelings.'  Here are a good many deep questions settled in a pretty summary fashion. ... They add: 'This confusion is continually present in language as we use it.  We appear to be saying something very important about something:  and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings' (The Abolition of Man, p. 1-2).

Lewis goes on to criticize these authors for downplaying the importance of emotion wholesale.  From this passage and others like it, he argues that children are being increasingly taught that feelings and subjectivity have little or no role to play in writing, literature, or (consequently) life.  He then goes on to say that without any notion of the "Sublime" or that which is higher, our children will be left without any way to connect their reason to their passions, that is, to know what sorts of emotions are more noble than others.

At first it struck me that many of the problems Lewis finds with the textbooks of his time had been largely corrected since.  I don't remember ever being told in school that emotions or values had no place in my writing or in literature.  In fact, we were taught strategies for recognizing emotive language, as well as metaphorical language (another literary device that was poo-pooed by many in Lewis's day). But then it struck me that this is pretty much all I remember from my English and literature courses in high school and college -- literary devices.  Metaphor and simile, and later "voice" and "modernism."  If I had encountered it in high school, the upshot of the story about Coleridge might have been that "sublime" is used in a hyperbole, and that Coleridge approves because it is more poetic.  In college, the point might have been to argue that Coleridge's reverence for nature marks him as a romantic, or, more "interestingly," the idea might be to do a meta-analysis and ask whether C.S. Lewis's defence of Coleridge commits him to any part of the "project" of "romanticism."  Nowhere in any of this would we have been encouraged to believe that Coleridge's judgment was necessarily in the right.  On the contrary, we would have been encouraged to analyze and dissect the story, and then (at best) to decide for ourselves what we thought about it.  Chances are the instructor would have treated Coleridge's "romantic" views as quaint. 

For even stronger reasons, few professors today would endorse C.S. Lewis's view that there are objective values that should be honored in education.  The very notion of "objective value" is currently doubted by most academic philosophers in the West.  If this doesn't seem strange to you, it's probably because you were born after 1950 in the United States or Europe.  At almost any other time or place you almost certainly would have been taught that there are sacred values that you should always honor and defend.  The reason for this is that throughout recorded history, religion has almost always gone hand-in-hand with education, helping to connect everything that is learned within an coherent and fully-fledged world-view and system of values.  In today's world, where every subject is supposed to be taught so that it is compatible with any system of values, this does not seem to be possible.

But what has made our culture so unusual in this way?  That's a good question ...

... to be continued ...

Read Part III