Monday, March 18, 2013

A Few Thoughts on the Dangers of Schooling

After a recent discussion with some friends about my distaste for traditional methods of schooling, I wanted to write something organized about the threat school can pose to education. Sadly, the best I had time to do was throw together a few scattered thoughts:

-In school we tell students they must learn or face a stiff penalty. Children are great game theorists, so they understand what this means. They know that when we provide an incentive for them, we are doing so because we think they won’t cooperate without that incentive. School teaches students that learning is something that normal people are reluctant to do; after all, why else would everyone need to be forced at grade-point to do it? We are perhaps entitled to be disturbed that so many students view education as a burden. We are not entitled to be surprised.

-Consider what Mister Rogers has to say about education:

Mister Rogers’ basic message is simple: learning is organic. It’s like gardening. Schooling, however, works in an entirely different way. Schooling is not organic; it is mechanical. Schooling treats the mind more like a machine than a garden. Schooling is designed to build a machine to store information and perform tasks, not to cultivate ideas.

-Thinking of education as an organic process does not mean letting children run free and do whatever they want. Cultivation takes effort and structure. Educating children means helping them to learn the kinds of discipline necessary to garden their minds.

-Schooling places the teacher in front of the student, handing down truth from on high. Organic education places the teacher alongside the student. This gives the teacher more dignity, not less. On the organic model, the teacher is much more than a source of information. The teacher is a master gardener of the mind, the student an apprentice.

-You might wonder whether there is anything wrong with the mechanical model of education. “After all,” you might object, “people need jobs. What’s so wrong about giving people the kind of training they need to get employed? Schools create good employees. What’s wrong with that?” This objection is problematic for two reasons. First, it’s not clear that its central assumption—that schooling produces good employees—is true. Schooling creates people who are capable of learning skills, retaining information, and, above all, responding to threats from people with power (or “obeying authority,” as it's usually called). You might think this makes for good employees. A century or two ago, when this model of education developed, that may have been true. In the twenty-first century, however, this kind of employee is becoming obsolete. Most schooling aims to produce the ideal factory worker, not the ideal google employee. Second, we should be concerned with the kind of people we are raising, not just the kind of employees we are producing. Work is not an end in itself. We work for the sake of something else. If we raise people who are able to work and stay alive, but do not have the tools to even begin to grapple with the question of what it is they’re working and living for, we’re missing the point.

-Yes, what I've said here raises more questions than it answers. The fact that this tends to leave us frustrated instead of intrigued is a symptom of the kind of schooling I've been criticizing.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

On Christianity, Libertarianism, and Political Philosophy

In a recent post on the Acton Institute blog, Joe Carter expresses his puzzlement at the idea of being a “Christian libertarian” and speaks as if the onus is on people who marry Christianity and libertarianism to show why this is a coherent combination. I’m not so sure I really count as a libertarian and hate labeling people, especially by their political views (I'm with Derek Webb: "there's no categories, just long stories waiting to be told. Don't be satisfied when someone sums you up with just one word"). And I don’t really care either to defend libertarianism or to give some grand argument to the effect that Christianity and libertarianism are in fact compatible. But I do want to challenge Carter’s starting point: the claim that there is some prima facie conflict between Christianity and libertarianism. Carter is puzzled at the idea that Christianity and libertarianism are compatible. I’m puzzled at Carter’s puzzlement.

To begin with, Carter doesn’t tell us how he is using the term “libertarian.” The broadest, simplest use of the term refers to a family of views about policies. In this sense, libertarians are roughly those of us who think that government interference in both our social and economic lives should be minimal. Generally, then, libertarians are more worried than left-liberals by government intervention in the economic sphere and more worried than social conservatives by government intervention in our moral and personal lives. This use of the term, of course, is rather course-grained. If we know someone is a libertarian in this sense, we know very roughly the kinds of policies he supports. But we know nothing about why he supports them. Libertarians have a broad range of reasons for their political views. It is these justifications that may or may not be compatible with Christianity, not the policy conclusions.

But what does it mean for Christianity and a political view to be compatible? Apparently Carter thinks that Christian's political philosophy ought somehow to follow from the commitments of Christianity. He writes:

Christians, on the other hand, must start with principles derived from the Bible and/or Christian tradition and work their way forward toward a coherent political philosophy. Again, I may be wrong, but I don’t see how starting from Biblical principles you’d end up with any political philosophy that resembled American-style libertarianism.

This is a highly questionable and contentious methodological claim. I don’t see how starting from Biblical principles you’d end up at any particular political philosophy. Sure, Christianity might conflict with certain political views. But at most it’s going to provide constraints on the views Christians can consistently hold; it’s not going to give us a particular view. Christians can and should begin doing political philosophy just like anyone else, by asking questions like "what is the function of government?" or "how can we successfully and peacefully live together with people who disagree with us about what it means to live well?" One's answers to these and other fundamental questions of political philosophy may be informed in certain ways by one's faith, but one cannot look up chapter and verse to find an answer in the Bible. There is no substitute, for the Christian or anyone else, for serious political philosophy.

When someone claims that they have the truly “Christian” political view, it usually stems in part from hidden assumptions that have nothing to do with Christianity. Naïve versions of social conservatism, for example, sometimes assume something like the principle of legal moralism—which holds the function of law is to make anything immoral illegal (less extreme versions usually just apply the principle only where convenient). While advocates of such views speak as if they’re just preaching Christianity, they are in fact preaching legal moralism. They may get much of the content of their moral beliefs from Christianity, but the claim that the function of law is simply to enshrine morality is a contentious (and I think implausible) claim about political philosophy that doesn’t follow from Christian doctrine. The same, of course, goes for libertarian principles. Libertarianism simply isn’t going to fall directly out of Christianity.

This means, of course, that it isn’t a good idea for Christians who are libertarians to walk around labeling themselves as “Christian libertarians.” This label suggests that the latter follows in some way from the former. And if “Christian libertarian” refers only to people who believe this, then I share Carter’s puzzlement at Christian libertarians. Unlike Carter, however, I reject the assumption that Christians’ political philosophies must be more or less directly derived from their theology, so I can conceive of a different kind of libertarian who is a Christian—one for whom the two views are compatible without one entailing the other.

At this point I think I’ve given plenty of reason to question Carter’s assumption that there is some sort of prima facie conflict between Christianity and libertarian political thought. I also think, however, there is good reason to think that the spirit of the two in fact fit quite well together. The core principle of both seems to me to be something like that real change is heart change. Unfortunately, busyness prevents me from spending the time to explore that idea here. If you’re interested in the thought, however, you can take a look at chapter 3 of No Fear in Love, a (now abandoned) book I tried to write before I began grad school. It’s not especially well-written, is under-argued, and it’s only an excerpt, but it should give you some idea of how I think about the theological and political import of the notion that real change is heart change.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Being a Philosopher

People who teach, study, and write about philosophy routinely refer to themselves as “philosophers.” Lately I have become deeply ambivalent about this language. At first glance it seems weirdly pretentious. If someone asks me what I do, I don’t answer “I’m a philosopher.” I do not expect my discomfort with this label to decrease the more I have written and the longer I’ve taught. Now I am a graduate student of philosophy. Eventually I hope to be a professor of philosophy. But a philosopher?

But as I've mulled over my discomfort, I've come to think it is far deeper than worries about apparent pretentiousness. The uneasiness I feel, however, is not with the notion of being a philosopher itself, but with making “philosopher” a professional term—as if one only need to teach and write on the right topics to be doing philosophy. Being a philosopher is not an academic accomplishment. After all, as Pieper reminds us, anyone can do philosophy:

Anybody can ponder human deeds and happenings and thus gaze into the unfathomable depths of destiny and history; anybody can get absorbed in the contemplation of a rose or human face and thus touch the mystery of creation; everybody, therefore, participates in the quest that has stirred the minds of the great philosophers since the beginning.

When is someone a “philosopher?” Maybe that’s not an important question. Maybe the better questions are "what is philosophy?" and "am I doing philosophy?" (doing philosophy, whatever exactly it amounts to, doubtless means more than teaching or writing about it)? And if the answer to the latter question is “yes,” or at least, “I’m doing my best,” that is all that matters.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Communication, Community, and the Internet (Re: SOPA)

A remarkable thing happened this week. The internet was threatened by unprecedented government intervention and this threat was met with an online protest of unprecedented size. During all of this, I began reading Josef Pieper's Faith, Hope, Love, not having an inkling the two could have anything to do with one another. But when I ran across this passage in Pieper's discussion of belief, I couldn't help but think of this week's events:

I refer of course to the life of our fellowmen under the conditions of tyranny. As we all know, under such conditions no one dares to trust anyone else. Candid communication dries up; and there arises that special kind of unhealthy worldliness which is not silence so much as muteness. This is what happens to human intercourse under the peculiar pressures of dictatorship. Under conditions of freedom, however, human beings speak uninhibitedly to one another. How illuminating this contrast is! For in the face of it, we suddenly become aware of the degree of human closeness, mutual affirmation, communion, that resides in the simple fact that people listen to each other and are disposed from the start to trust and "believe" each other. We do not wish to rhapsodize about this, and grand words should always be used with caution. Still, we do well to recognize that everyone who speaks to another without falseness, even if what he says is not "confidential", is actually extending a hand and offering communion; and he who listens to him in good faith is accepting the offer and taking that hand. This very advertence of the will, which, admittedly we cannot quite call "love", though it partakes somewhat of love's nature—this sense of mutual trust and free interchange of thoughts produces a unique type of community. In such a community he who is hearing participates in the knowledge of the knower. (40-41)

The internet makes an astonishing amount of communication possible. As Pieper points out, anywhere where there is uninhibited communication, there is a kind of community. Just think about the kind of things social media makes possible. The protests against SOPA are themselves evidence of the power of the internet to connect people around ideas. The threat of SOPA was that it would hinder such open communication. Websites designed for content sharing could be punished because of the behavior of a few of their users. Given the high cost of carefully policing users, many such sites could be forced to shut down. More importantly, new sites driven by content-sharing would be difficult to get off the ground. And to what end? SOPA was aimed, as the end of the video below points out, at making internet users into consumers, so the entertainment industry can make a few bucks.


This video suggests we should be aware of future threats of the same kind. After all, the entertainment industry has long been trying to acquire giant, blunt legal instruments to protects its intellectual property. I don't discourage such awareness, but I would also recommend a different kind of vigilance. One rather disturbing aim of SOPA was to make us into lazy consumers, ready to watch or listen to whatever the entertainment industry puts in front of us. The best way to combat this is to take advantage of the internet's many ways of allowing active communication and community. Go find music you'd never find on the radio (for example, you can get all kinds of free, legal, new music at noisetrade.com). Learn about something you wouldn't pick up at work or in class (learnliberty.org, for example, is a great way to get introduced to classical liberal ideas about economics and politics). Make and make use of things that are only available because of the kinds of things that SOPA threatened. You can become just as passive an internet user as a tv watcher. Don't.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Snow

As I walked from my apartment to my office this morning in the softly falling snow, it did something to me that it is difficult to describe. It brings to mind a passage from Josef Pieper:

How splendid is water, a rose, a tree, an apple, a human face—such exclamations can scarcely be spoken without also giving tongue to an assent and affirmation which extends beyond the object praised and touches upon the origin of the universe. Who among us has not suddenly looked into his child's face, in the midst of the toils and troubles of everyday life, and at that moment ‘seen’ that everything which is good loved and lovable, loved by God! Such certainties all mean, at bottom, one and the same thing: that the world is plumb and sound; that everything comes to its appointed goal; that in spite of all appearances, underlying all things is – peace, salvation, gloria; that nothing and no one is lost; that [as Plato says] "God holds in his hand the beginning, the middle, and the end of all that is."

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pieper on Teaching

This weekend I read Josef Pieper's The Silence of St. Thomas and ran across the following passage, in which Pieper describes Thomas Aquinas' approach to teaching:

Teaching, for Thomas, is something other and greater than to impart by one method or another the "findings of research"; something other and greater than the report of a thinker on the results of his inquiry, not to mention the ways and by-ways of his search. Teaching is a process of that goes on between living men. The teacher looks not only at the truth of things; at the same time he looks at the faces of living men who desire to know this truth. Love of truth and love of men—only the two together constitute a teacher. (23)

A good reminder at the beginning of a new semester of teaching!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Being Three-Dimensional

Yesterday, I read Wendell Berry's "How to Be a Poet". As I often find myself doing with his work, I spent some time chewing on it. While his advice is ostensibly about how to write poetry, much of it applies, it seems to me, to living well in general. Take, for example, the second stanza:

Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

The bold passage was especially thought-provoking. How, it made me wonder, can I better live "a three-dimensioned life?" In particular, it got me thinking about the importance of being aware of the people around me. When you live in a world that is abstract and two-dimensional (like mine, in which I spend much of my day focused on a computer screen or a book), it is easy to forget the people that inhabit the three-dimensional world you live in. Between mulling over this and the usual reflection that comes with a new year, I began writing a series of injunctions to myself. A bit like Berry's poem (subtitled "to remind myself"), they are for me, but I figured I'd share:

-Don't let your work distract you from the people and places around you and then pretend it's because your work is important. Your work only matters because people matter.

-Write like you’re in a place—like you’re in a room talking to people. Think of your audience as listeners, not readers.

-When you choose to write about something, ask yourself: why does this matter? Focus on saying things that are important, not clever or sophisticated. It’s fine to fill in gaps in the literature, to expose a poor argument, or make an interesting point, but these are not ends in themselves. Pedantry is overrated. Be a human being, not an academic.

-Treat your body right. Get and stay in shape. Eat right. Quit living like a dualist. You are not separate from your body. Stop treating your body like your car. The soul is the form of the body, not its driver. Your body is not something that is external to you. Don't treat it like that.

-Get in a rhythm. Work when the sun is up. Relax when the sun goes down. Sleep enough.

-You have time. Everything can't happen tomorrow. Technology has trained you to seek instant gratification. Don't; you won't find it anyway. Very few things of any importance happen overnight.

-You are not in control. Stop trying to be God and quit whining every time you realize you aren't.

-You have nothing to lose. Nothing. Real treasure is not stored where moth and rust destroy. So quit worrying about moths and rust. Your citizenship is in heaven.