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

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