Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Classical Education, Logical Fallacies, and Mushrooms

Ok, time to poke the hornet's nest again. :-)

A couple of posts ago Jarrod, one of my regular readers, drew my attention to an article entitled The False Promise of Classical Education. This article is written by a private school educator, Lisa VanDamme, who is profoundly disturbed by the state of public education in this country. But she believes that the Classical Educational methods often proposed as a fix to these problems--especially popular within the homeschooling movement--are an intellectual blind alley. She presents a long and detailed critique of the various Classical Educational approaches.

One of the targets of her critique is the method outlined in The Well Trained Mind, which my wife and I are using.

The critique is long and involved; the author is obviously very well informed, and has put a lot of thought into it. I felt I needed to take a close look at the argument and chew on it for a while.

I'm done chewing.

Now mind you, my answer here is nowhere near as long or involved as the critique. It's not intended to be; I'm just a daddy with a day job, trying to do right by my children, and only writing semi-coherent blog posts late at night when I have a little time. I have neither the time nor inclination to offer a complete point-by-point rebuttal. What I offer here is merely a description of the points where I think there are some logical holes in the foundation of the argument. What then happens to the logical edifice built upon that foundation is left as an exercise to the reader.


It appears to me that VanDamme places extremely high importance on eliminating the Appeal to Authority fallacy from the educational process. Appeal to Authority, of course, is an attempt to prove a point by citing the opinions of someone who is supposedly trustworthy. In a simple form, it looks like this:

Q. Why do you think the earth revolves around the sun?

A. Because all the great scientists from Copernicus to Galileo to Kepler, and everyone since, have said so.

Appeal to Authority is of course one of the classic logical fallacies. The fact is, Nature doesn't give a hoot what Copernicus, Galileo, or Kepler thinks; Nature is what it is, and does what it does, whether or not Four Out Of Five Dentists Agree. A thousand scientists can be wrong, and the lone dissident right; in fact, we we recognize Galileo as a great scientist precisely because he bucked the (incorrect) consensus.

So how do we know the earth revolves around the sun? The correct answer is that this model fits our astronomical observations better. Planetary orbits, which were complicated epicyclic curves under the Earth-centric model, become smooth, orderly ellipses under the solar-centric model. Furthermore, these ellipses themselves were easily explained a few centuries later, as consequences of a simple, elegant set of gravitational laws with tremendous predictive power.

In short, we know the earth orbits the sun because we have evidence.

VanDamme is setting forth the argument that all real knowledge must derive from experience, and be attested to by available evidence. Appeal to Authority is described as an utterly illegitimate basis for true education.

Regarding the Trivium model, she says:
Like Hirsch’s Core Knowledge catalogue, The Well-Trained Mind fails to differentiate facts at various levels of abstraction. Facts are simply the automatically given raw material from which logical conclusions are drawn and impassioned arguments made. In the first years of schooling, the child is supplied with all the facts known to man—no matter how these facts actually came to be known, and thus regardless of how these facts can be truly understood firsthand. In the logic stage, he learns how to relate and interconnect the facts to form arguments. In the rhetoric stage, he learns to use his catalogue of facts and skill at argument to create new ideas and present them in a compelling manner. How is he to know that the said facts are facts? The answer is that he simply does not know; he is to accept them as facts because an authority says so.
If I'm understanding her argument properly, she's saying that the grammar stage program of filling the little minds with facts is faulty, because it constitutes an appeal to authority (which she explicitly states in the next paragraph). No fact should ever be taught, unless the concrete evidence upon which that fact is based is presented first, with the fact itself representing the conclusion. In this view, all legitimate education can be viewed (greatly simplified) as a collection of syllogisms: premise "A" (a fact or set of facts that we can see with our own eyes) implies premise "B", which in turn implies premise "C", and so forth from first grade up through college. All knowledge is drawn from direct personal observations, or is built upon previously established (and evidentially supported) knowledge; nothing is ever presented in a vacuum, supported only by the teacher's good word.

The Trivium's emphasis on teaching facts during the Grammar phase (Grades 1-4), and reasoning during the Logic phase (Grades 5-8) is disparaged. If we aren't going to teach any fact without giving the evidence first, then the student must learn some logic right at the beginning. It's not enough to explain to your kids how the Egyptians lived and leave it at that, because the kids have no way of knowing whether what you told them was truthful or not. If they accept your word, then they have fallen for an Appeal to Authority. You could theoretically feed them all kinds of junk, and they would have no idea. No; it's necessary, for the kids to get a true education, that the kids learn not just how the Egyptians lived, but how we know how they lived. What is the evidence? Well, we have the tombs and mummies, and we have all the architecture; there are the tools and weapons, and the written records of both the Egyptians and the other peoples of the ancient world who wrote about the Egyptians. Only after all this evidence is presented, can a teacher legitimately claim that the Egyptians lived this way, as a conclusion from the evidence.

This is my understanding of VanDamme's point, for what it's worth.

I think there's some good food for thought in this approach, but I'm skeptical.

It's not that I'm skeptical about Appeal to Authority being a logical fallacy; it most certainly is. And the educational model that VanDamme appears to champion has undeniable intellectual appeal; it is nothing less than the Scientific Method fully incorporated into the foundation of the curriculum.

Here's the best way to explain my skepticism:

Daddy: Don't eat this thing. It's Called a Death Cap, and it'll kill you.

Precocious Youngster: How do you know? It looks pretty yummy to me, and it's got a nice aroma.

D: See that slight yellow-green tint on the top of the cap, and the skirtlike veil?

PY: Yeah, yeah. But how do you know it's poisonous?

D: It just is. I learned that from my Daddy.

PY: So who has it killed?

D: Oh, lots of people. Mostly Southeast Asians, who mistake it for edible varieties from the Old World.

PY: Did you know them personally?

D: No. I just read about it.

PY: You shouldn't believe everything you read. Have you ever personally known anyone who died after eating one?

D: No.

PY: I think someone's pulling your leg.
On one hand, the Precocious Youngster is right: Daddy is attempting an Appeal to Authority on him. On the other hand, one gets the feeling that Precocious Youngster isn't long for this world.

Yes, Appeal to Authority is a logical fallacy. The trouble is, there are times when it's the best tool around. There are just some kinds of knowledge out there that are either really difficult to get at, or downright dangerous to get at, or frankly inaccessible. You can pay so high a cost acquiring a nugget of knowledge that you destroy yourself or your society in the process.

For example, consider (as I've written about before) the sexual mores of a society. I think it's pretty self-evident that the sexual attitudes possessed by a society have a huge impact on the future trajectory of that society. After all, sex is (among other things) the mechanism by which the next generation comes into existence, so what we think about sex determines how big the next generation is, and the circumstances under which they're born and raised. If you get sex wrong, you can wind up going extinct like the Shakers (extreme example, I know), or you can wind up losing your open and tolerant society, as appears to be happening in the capitals of Europe, as the sexually liberated native Europeans are simply being outbred by immigrant communities with much more traditional sexual mores--and a contempt for the social contract that made the tolerant society possible in the first place.

Note how this European state of affairs came about. The sexual rules come, by and large, from the religious sphere, and are thus based on Appeals to Authority--the authority in this case being religious authority derived from the scriptures of Islam and Christianity. But Christian Europe has played the role of the Precocious Youngster, and by and large rejected traditional Christian morality as based on illegitimate Appeal to Authority. And as a result, its population is in steep decline across much of the continent; while the Muslim immigrant communities, which did not reject their Appeal to Authority, appear set to inherit the land.

The Precocious Youngster ate the mushroom.

The sad fact of the matter is that those who listen to Authority have a way of surviving into the next generation better than their precocious peers--and this is true both at the individual level, and at the societal level.

And simply from a biological level, this means that our kids are designed--or, if you prefer, evolved--to listen to and learn from Authority. It's bred in our genes. If it wasn't, if we were mentally built to reject every premise until it was well and truly tested, we may well have eaten the mushroom too.

So while the Appeal to Authority is a recognized logical fallacy, it nevertheless has a legitimate role to play in human affairs. That role involves (among other things) keeping us alive until we're old enough and wise enough for our intellect to become a reliable guide. At what age does this happen? I'm not sure, but I suspect the Trivium model--which has the Logic phase running through the end of the eighth grade--probably has it pretty close.


So why is it that VanDamme is so worried about the prevalence of Appeal to Authority in our educational systems? I think she's concerned about more than simply our embrace of a logical fallacy.

It's apparent from the website presenting the critique that the author is an Objectivist, a member of the philosophical movement founded by Ayn Rand. Objectivism is a huge subject, much more than I could possibly cover in this blog post, so any summary of its philosophical holdings will necessarily leave out a whole lot.

But among many other things, Objectivists hold that all the evils of society--from war and slavery, to all forms of collectivism (fascism, communism), to poverty and oppression, are the result of unreason. That is, if everyone in society was fully rational--only accepting the reality of that which can be seen and measured, and testing all courses of action against a full and objective understanding of human history--then these problems would go away. Objectivists believe that Reason, together with objective observation of the human condition, can form the basis of a coherent system of morality that protects the dignity of the human individual, without the need for belief in the supernatural.

In this system, Unreason is the source of society's evils--and religions, being at their cores Appeals to Authority (and thus based on fallacies)--are inherently susceptible to evil. At this point the Objectivist will typically cite the litany: the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Thirty Years' War, the Church's prosecution of Galileo, and so forth. Indeed, VanDamme saves her most intense criticism for the Christian varieties of Classical Education:

Nothing is more destructive to a child’s (or an adult’s) ability to reason than to be fed dogma and to swallow it. Reason functions by logically integrating observable facts of reality into a non-contradictory whole. In regard to every idea, a reasoning mind must ask: Is this supported by the facts of reality? And: How does this integrate with my other factual knowledge of reality? When a rational person spots a contradiction, he knows that at least one of his premises is wrong.

But what is he to do with the Bible—which, if taken literally, provides him with an endless stream of absurd falsehoods and unscientific assertions? Can a bush talk, as is claimed in the Old Testament? Can a man walk on water or turn it to wine, as Jesus is purported to have done? Was everything created ex nihilo in six days? Was man created in his current form? Have Christians not caused major atrocities throughout history—and are these atrocities not sanctioned by the Bible?

An education that places primacy on the observable, provable facts of reality can teach a child how to think and integrate; one that does not, short-circuits his mind by telling him to accept that which makes no sense and contradicts that which he knows.

Strong words.

But there are some problems with them. I am not convinced that pure Reason--unconnected from any subjective or Spiritual value system--actually constitutes the basis of a coherent, universal system of morality that upholds the dignity of the individual. I've heard plenty of atheists make this claim, but I've yet to hear even a definition of "dignity of the individual" that's purely rational in origin, let alone the argument for a moral system upholding it. And while the Objectivists certainly claim that Reason supports their views, there are all kinds of collectivist atheists (such as Marxists, and Fascists in the Mussolini mold) who make the countering claim that Reason supports their collectivist ends, which are very different from those desired by the Objectivists.

While there are many horrible examples of Christians doing terrible things in the name of Christianity, I think it's pretty clear--and Objectivists would agree--that there have been several terrible things that have been done by people who said they were acting through Reason.
  • The French Revolution was run by people who believed that people are not born evil; but since there are obviously evils in society (poverty, oppression, etc.), it means that something along the way is corrupting the populace. They decided that, if they wanted to eliminate these evils the reasonable thing to do was to purge the corrupting influences from society. They were convinced they were doing what was Reason-based; the result went down in history as The Great Terror.
  • Marxism holds that inequality and privilege, and the envy they engender, are the primary driving forces of societal conflict in history. They reason from this that the way to make a peaceful, prosperous society is to remove inequality and privilege; and since these exist as a natural consequence of private property, the latter must be abolished. The Marxists believe that everything they do is guided by Reason; they even call themselves "Scientific Socialists".
  • The late 19th- and early 20th-century eugenics movement was seen by its adherents as Reason-based. The idea was, with advances in modern medicine, industrialization, and social stability, unhealthy people who would previously have been weeded out through natural selection (diabetics, the nearsighted, etc.) are now surviving to pass on their genes. This means that inferior genes are now being passed along, and that our race is fated to go into genetic decline unless we start managing our procreation along scientific lines, through breeding programs similar to what is done with livestock. All of this was Reason-based, according to its adherents.
Now, the Objectivist will argue that all these movements get their Reasoning wrong.

But then, I can argue that the Crusaders got their Theology wrong; and I could point to book, chapter, and verse in the Bible to back me up. The Objectivist would consider this a cop-out answer....

...and would probably be right. The Bible can be interpreted all kinds of ways. But judging from the above examples, so can Reason. In fact, Reason will arrive at whatever conclusion you want it to, depending on how you select your starting premises. And these starting premises are clearly not universally accepted among atheists of different stripes.

I believe that this problem cannot be solved without some kind of Appeal to Authority. Without a Divine Justice, there really isn't anyone to judge whether the Marxist is right or the Objectivist is. And while the latter may truthfully claim an empirical record of failure for the Marxist, the Objectivist has no record to run on, since no Objectivist societies have been formed yet. While I am highly sympathetic to libertarianism in general, my own guess is that a purely Objectivist society would quickly become a land of precocious mushroom-eaters doomed to collapse in a generation or two.


So whither Classical Education?

I suspect it'll work. Is it the best educational model? I don't know. But I suspect that it's plenty good enough. Children are a whole lot more resilient to imperfect education that we give them credit for. Witness the un-schooling branch of the homeschooling movement (which I do not mean to imply is imperfect); they give them little or no formal training, but instead immerse them in an intellectually stimulating lifestyle, and most of these kids do just fine, driven to learn by their own curiosity.

And how will I handle Appeals to Authority?

I'm not going to worry about it during the lower grades, since I don't think their brains are designed to handle analyses of cause-and-effect at that age. They're designed to learn facts, like "Some Mushrooms Are Poisonous." We'll start working the cause-and-effect stuff in--the historiography, the Scientific Method, so forth--when they get into the Logic stage around fifth grade or so.

But we will make certain to teach them about Basic Human Dignity, which is an invariant that cannot be reasoned away--because it comes from our Creator.


silvermine said...

I don't think anyone has the time to, basically, do the "proofs" for every bit of knowledge.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I think that science in college (as I had it) was great, because we did go through all of the great experiements and we learned how all these things were proven. And got a good dose of experimental design and such with it.

But how can you prove to a 5 year old that the Egyptians existed? Does this person really propose that all knowledge has to wait until you're old enough to understand how it was discovered? Should no child use a radio until they can understand all the physics involved?

That's just ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I would say that the weakness of The Well Trained Mind (and similar programs) lies in two places. Firstly, it's based on a non-scientific view of child development. Not an outmoded view (such as that the Waldorf programs are based on), but one that never existed as a child-development theory. Sayers was not, and never claimed to be, a psychologist or educator or child development specialist - or even an experienced mother. Her stages are non-existent. Little kids imitate - so do adolescents and adults. Young adolescents argue - so do little kids and adults. Older teens are idealistic and use fantasy to make sense of the world. So do little kids and adults.

The second issue is that the program is extremely verbal, book oriented, and linear. If you have a kid who has a mind that works that way, it can be fine. Many kids are more visual or kinesthetic in their learning styles. For such kids, the program isn't going to be ideal. At best, with the right kid, it's art and science weak - but extremely strong on history.

You place your bets and try. The only wrong move would be to cling to what isn't working.

Anna said...

Our family's rule of thumb, so to speak, is usually, "What are the consequences?"
Surely, I am a big supporter of first-hand knowledge. In my experience, the best tool for teaching a cat will scratch is to... let the cat scratch her. The consequence is less than the lesson learned.
When looking at the big picture, in education theories, one could ask the same question.
The consequence of using a Classical Education are pretty benign, I think. Especially if one is willing to switch gears when it doesn't work.
The consequence of VanDamme's theories are much more severe. At least, from what I gather from your post.

Jarrod J. Williamson, Ph.D. said...

Tim -- of course you know also, that there is a big difference between the logical error of "appeal to authority" vs trusting in the credibility of the witness. There are plenty of times when it is perfectly appropriate to just take the witness' word for it.

If I read you right, this is essentially what you are saying.

The critic of the Well Trained Mind does not seem to make this distinction.

My training and education is in chemical engineering. Ther5e are an often lot of properties of the elements on the periodic table that I just "took the witness' word for it." Would I have been much more educated if I examined every piece of data about all the elements I was using, or every experimental proof of quantum mechanics? Absolutely!

Would I still be doing this rather than having finished my dissertation and made the scientific contributions that I have? Yes, I would still be studying and I never would have gotten anything done.

Timothy Power said...

Good comments, all.

Kitmf, I think your critiques actually have some weight to them. I make no claim to being an expert on child development theory, and I'm open to hearing the case that the Trivium model doesn't perfectly track the development of real-world kids. I can only say that the model made sense to me when I first read it. The idea that kids at different ages have different strengths doesn't seem "out-there" to me; after all, language acquisition is much easier for young kids than for those in their teens; while abstract logic is much easier for the latter than the former. Perhaps the Trivium model doesn't match the typical child-development cycle as well as it could; but I'd need to see that case made, and I'd need to see an alternate curriculum proposed that takes into account the superior model.

And I think that I agree with you as to The Well-Trained Mind being weak on art (and possibly on science, at least in the early grades). But this is not a difficult problem to remedy; Tonya and I have made some adjustments in our curriculum plans to deal with this fact.

And yes, the TWTM curriculum is heavy on the bookish topics, and may well not work with highly kinesthetic or visual learners. This is not a problem if your kid is like ours, though.

I think Anna's rule of thumb is the right one: what are the consequences if we've decided things wrongly? In our case, I don't think the consequences are particularly bad. Let's say that kids really are capable of rudimentary abstract logic starting in the second grade, instead of the fifth. We lose three whole years teaching formal logic to our girl! There goes that full ride to MIT. :-)

(After all, I never had formal logic until I took a high-school elective class in the subject.)

As I said in the post, kids can be quite resilient when it comes to sub-optimal education methods, so long as they have good, intellectually stimulating environments. So what if we mistakenly leave out the "explanation" parts of her curricula? We give her plenty of explanations in every other aspect of her life.

I think this should lead us to a philosophy of pragmatism. If something isn't working that the theory says should, chuck the theory and try something else; if something is working that the theory says shouldn't, chuck the theory and keep at it.

I suspect that the Trivium model is well-suited to our kids--especially the firstborn. Are we completely wedded to it? Well, we're committed enough to plan our curriculum on it; but if, after several months, we decide that this just isn't working, we'll scrap it and try something else, and that's completely OK.

Michael M said...

"I believe that this problem cannot be solved without some kind of Appeal to Authority. Without a Divine Justice, there really isn't anyone to judge whether the Marxist is right or the Objectivst is."

Oh, but there is someone -- you.

Unfortunately, you are too busy rationalizing your usage of Appeal to Authority to cover your flight from the responsibility to think. The main thrust of your skepticism about Ayn Rand and Objectivism, is that many other contradictory movements have said that they were Reason-based, and you are unwilling and/or unable to judge which, if any, is right. In other words, you are attempting to cast doubt on the validity of Objectivism by citing your own self-nurtured incompetence to judge.

Your hope that Divine Justice will rescue you from this unfortunate position is driving you into a huge self-contradiction. Who, after all, is to say which of the countless versions of "Divine", if any, is the real one? If you are unable to handle such a simple distinction as Marx vs. Rand, how will you choose among all the contradicting Gods and Demons roaming the history of man?


"I am not convinced that pure Reason -- unconnected from any subjective or Spiritual value system -- actually constitutes the basis of a coherent, universal system of morality that upholds the dignity of the individual. I've yet to hear even a definition of 'dignity of the individual' that's purely rational in origin, let alone the argument for a moral system upholding it."

Having avoided the task of judgment, you don't even realize that this thing you cannot find is a description of Objectivism. You have not read enough to realize that it offers precisely what you long for. It shows in your use of the word "unreason" as the source of evil, as opposed to the more fundamental and specific breach of reason: mysticism.

In a reason/mysticism dichotomy, Marxism and Christianity are not opposites. They are on the same side. Marxism demands faith in a collective that cannot be measured. Christianity demands faith in a supernatural being that cannot be defined. Therefore, neither is able to place the use of physical force under objective control, because truth to each is subjective. In the hands of either, governments inevitably embrace tyranny.

Mark Wickens said...

You might be interested in this ndw interview with Lisa Van Damme:


Timothy Power said...

Michael M, Sorry I didn't get back to you yesterday. I usually only have time to blog in the evenings, after kids go to bed; but my wife had monopolized the computer for a game of Civilization IV.

You say: "The main thrust of your skepticism about Ayn Rand and Objectivism, is that many other contradictory movements have said that they were Reason-based, and you are unwilling and/or unable to judge which, if any, is right."

Oh, but it's much, much worse than that. ;-)

How does one tell whether some premise, Z, is true? Well, one can reason with a syllogism: if some premise Y implies Z, and Y is true, then we can conclude that Z is true.

But how do we tell that Y is true? Well, we look for X such that X is true and X implies Y. But how do we tell that X is true? We look for W, and so on, ad infinitum.

Eventually we have to find a starting point, some premise that is accepted without further proof.

Basically, there are two classes of these starting premises: objective observations of the real world, that any intellectually honest person can verify; and subjective value judgments along the lines of "This thing is desirable, that is undesirable." Different people with different tastes may value totally different things, and we accept this without expecting Reason to play much of a role here. After all, if Howard prefers Chocolate, he's nevertheless not going to accuse Dominique of Mystical Unreason if she prefers Vanilla.

The trouble is, these value judgments--which are not based on Reason, but personal preference--extend far beyond our choice of ice cream. What is the value of a human life? What is the value of your freedom? What is the value of community?

Fact is, people do not agree on the values of these things, any more than they agree on the best flavor of ice cream; and pure, unadulterated Reason has no answer to the community where the people prefer to live collectively. Does such a community violate human rights? Does it curtail freedoms? Does it result in a lower level of material wealth than a freer society? Look around: there are many people in this world who absolutely are willing to accept these consequences, because they choose to value the Majesty of the Community over the Dignity of the Individual. And Reason won't dissuade them--not because they're acting irrationally, but because they're thinking: "If we wish to establish a collective society, Reason tells us that these are the things we need to do." Neither my preferences, nor yours, nor anyone else's, derive from unadulterated reason. There's always a personal preference, a value judgment call, at bottom.

You choose to value the dignity of the individual; and so do I. The big difference, simply stated, is that I actually recognize that this comes from value judgments. The problem with the Nazis was not that they were guided by Mystical Unreason--it was that they chose to devalue the human. And when they did that, Reason provided no philosophical defense against them. Why not carry out human experiments, if the lives of the people in question are of no use to you?

(Note: Reason did continue to provide a practical defense against them, but it was more along the lines of, "where do we land our troops to give us the best chance of a successful beachhead?")

It's not so much that I'm avoiding the task of moral judgment, it's that my Reason tells me that the tool you want me to use is inadequate.


You also say, "You have not read enough to realize that [Objectivism] offers precisely what you long for."

Believe it or not, I'm actually going to cop to that charge. :-)

But again here's the problem (and it's another limitation of Reason, in my opinion): there's way, way too much out there to read. Think of every religion, every philosophy, every worldview out there trying to tell us, "We're it! Everyone else is a bunch of losers!" You yourself ask, "Who, after all, is to say which of the countless versions of "Divine", if any, is the real one?" and "how will you choose among all the contradicting Gods and Demons roaming the history of man?" Indeed. Just add to this list Marx, Nietzche, Rand, Kant, Schopenhauer, Beard, and a bunch of others.

Simply stated, there's no way that any of us, you or me included, can make our way through that entire list, reading every holy text, reading every major philosophical treatise (let alone the minor ones!), so that we can have a fully informed view of the world. You believe that Christianity is irrational. Well, have you read Augustine? Aquinas? C.S. Lewis? St. Anselm? Perhaps you have, but most people haven't. Should I call someone uninformed who decides to reject Christianity without having read and understood all of the above?

Fact is, there's way too much stuff out there to read and absorb, to be fully informed in every philosophical or religious movement there is. At some point we simply have to say, enough, commit to a philosophy of life that seems to make sense, and just get on with our lives; recognizing that we have incomplete information, and recognizing further that this puts us in the exact same boat as the rest of the human race. I have chosen to follow the Christian faith in which I was raised (which, if you can't differentiate morally from the Crusaders, then you have no standing to accuse me of mistaking Marxists for Objectivists). I have chosen to accept it in part on a "By their fruits ye shall know them" basis, as a mode of belief that (in most cases) produces people who value their freedoms, and general human rights, who care about their neighbors, and which supports the kind of civil institutions that make for a more-or-less stable society across generations.


Anyway Michal, thanks for dropping by, and be assured that your comments are welcome here. Sorry for making you read through this huge response. I don't exactly subscribe to the "Victory through overwhelming word-count" school of blogging argumentation, but I do tend to get a little wordy....

Dana said...

That is why it is important to teach a child to judge the arguments of others and the credibility of those offering arguments.

No one can be an expert on everything.

To think that you can raise a child who can discover all the knowledge built upon by thousands of years of inquiry is ridiculous.

But that is just based on my understanding of your understanding of what someone else is trying to say. :)

Anonymous said...

Tim, I don't actually dislike the program outlined in TWTM. What I dislike is people overtrusting it. Just as a lot of good teaching happens in Waldorf schools even while the discussion of child development they push is outdated, the Sayers article is no more than a faculty rant - of which more get published in every generation. I'd tweak the recommendations made by Jessie and Susan some. For example, I can't imagine ever recommending Saxon math. But on the whole it's a solid program. It's just that a lot of what they are suggesting are just choices. There is no developmental or subject matter basis for doing world history in three four year repeats. There is no real reason *not* to do so either. Your typical primary school kid doesn't really understand time well enough to get the sweep of history, but they can understand stories about great men and women and events. You've got to get that stuff in sometime. On the other hand there is nothing wrong with primary civics (aka Our Community Helpers) and you've got to teach that stuff sometime too. If if works with your child, go for it. I wouldn't push formal logic much younger than TWTM has it, but you can teach logic - and should - much younger. Generally it's called "thinking skills" or "critical thinking" and you can't do a lot of math or history or problem solving without it. The Center for Gifted Education at William and Mary has some discussion on their web site of the framework they use and it's excellent. http://cfge.wm.edu/curriculum.htm#paul
Asking such questions about a topic of investigation can begin much much younger than a formal logic course, and is far more important to do.

Michael M said...


"Oh, but it's much worse than that."

On the contrary, after reading your reply, I am considering a retraction of my accusation that you are engaged in a flight from the responsibility to think. I now suspect that you are using skepticism as a safe haven that buys you time to get a grip on the truth thing. That is exactly what I did myself 42 years ago -- devout but increasingly bored by sermons, unable to define the word "philosophy", compulsively argumentative, always the devil's advocate, ever the counterpoint, never required to commit myself firmly in one intellectual spot. Yet somehow I was driven in pursuit of the unholy grail of absolute truths provable by reason.

In the fall of '65 I scratched an itch to see New Foundland. As I waited to board the coastal boat that was the lifeline of the fishing villages when the Newfies had no roads, I picked up a copy of Ayn Rand's small and easy collection of essays, "The Virtue of Selfishness" that was then hot off the presses. It is amusing now to thumb through that fragile, yellowed paperback and see the slash-marks of my penciled in marginalia retorting, "How could you?!, "Don't be ridiculous!", and "What about the roads?!" But in the last essay of the book she carefully and thoroughly walked me through the logical fallacy I had committed with my pencil and taught me how to recognize its most nuanced forms in all the future debates I would have or witness for the rest of my life. I disembarked from that ship onto a different journey, chasing what else she might have to offer, and it has not ended since.


"Eventually we have to find a starting point, some premise that is accepted without further proof".

Sort of like this?

"An axiomatic concept is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be analyzed, i.e., reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given and directly perceived or experienced, which requires no proof or explanation, but on which all proofs and explanations rest.

The first and primary axiomatic concepts are “existence,” “identity” (which is a corollary of “existence”) and “consciousness.” One can study what exists and how consciousness functions; but one cannot analyze (or “prove”) existence as such, or consciousness as such. These are irreducible primaries. (An attempt to “prove” them is self-contradictory: it is an attempt to “prove” existence by means of non-existence, and consciousness by means of unconsciousness."

[Ayn Rand: Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 73]


"Basically, there are two classes of these starting premises: objective observations of the real world, that any intellectually honest person can verify; and subjective value judgments along the lines of 'This thing is desirable, that is undesirable.'"

Now I'm confused. Previously there was the W, X, and Y dilemma. Now you speak of objective observations that can be verified. Is this the Achilles' heel of your skepticism I am looking for?

And why should identifying what is or is not valuable to our lives and arranging those values in a hierarchy be any different from identifying any other fact of reality and integrating it into our cache of knowledge? You appear to be saying that value judgments are different because few people can agree on them. But there are plenty of examples in history of serious disagreements over facts (Galileo et al.)

You may not write the efficacy of reason out of a whole class of identifications (value judgments and personal preferences) just because some people sometimes choose not to use their rational faculty in them. At the same time, you may not personify reason and damn it for failing to rise up and overwhelm evil (of the Nazis). Reason is just the process of isolating and integrating our sensory perceptions of reality to form the abstract concepts that are our knowledge. It is not magical. It is a normal functional aspect of our bodies. But it is also not automatic. Its use is a matter of choice: the all-important choice to think or not to think.


"... there's way, way too much out there to read."

No doubt about it. And I would not criticize you for having failed to read more of Ayn Rand before you stumble on an answer she provides to some question that's burning a hole in your brain. However, you chose to use Objectivism to bludgeon your opponent even though your grasp of the philosophy is scant at best. There is no excuse for such behavior.

Though I'm sure you did not know of it when you wrote your article, the Ayn Rand Institute has published a free copy of "The Ayn Rand Lexicon" on a website of its own. There are hundreds of quotes and excerpts from all of her books and writings on almost every subject arranged in an alphabetical index. You have instantaneous access to a glimpse into every corner of Objectivism with a click of the mouse. It also puts a sizable dent in your excuse that there is way to much to read.

Go to: http://www.aynrandlexicon.com/ and click a letter, any letter.

Timothy Power said...

Michael M, I haven't forgotten about you. I owe you a response, and I'll have it up tomorrow. But I had some serious insomnia last night and was almost entirely non-functional today, and I need to get some rest or my response will be complete gibberish.

More than usual, that is. :-)

Michael M said...

Timothy, As long as you can sustain an interest in this topic, do, but please do not feel pressured to write boomerang replies. I plant native trees for a living. I know how to wait.

Timothy Power said...

Michael, I've written my response. I decided to put it in a new post, though, as it's pretty long. You can find it here.

Please forgive any typos, misprints, or garbled syntax on my part--it was pretty late when I finished it.

Kim said...

Actually, I do my best to use the heirarchy of knowledge (that would be another description for the pedagogy that Lisa VanDamme encourages). I like to think of myself as an Objectivist and I like how honestly you approach the topic.

The way I see it, not having read or studied epistemology as extensively as Lisa VanDamme, is that we don't have to go through every little teeny detail or actually personally experience or experiment and discover, or even go through an archeological dig with our kids for them to have a good basis of information.

But let's talk about the general learning experience. Have you ever heard in a class, or read from a book, some conclusion and thought to yourself "How could they know that? They could have just guessed that. Maybe they had a lucky guess that hasn't been proven wrong yet." I certainly felt that way a number of times in high school. For instance, when the teacher told us that everything really just consisted of tiny little particles with a lot of space between them even though the desk looks solid and hard.

That kind of information is called a 'floating abstraction' in the parlance of epistemology. It means you've been given the idea by someone else (you read it, or heard it) but because you don't know how anyone figured it out, you have very little actual knowledge of what it TRULY means. You just have that name with the definition taking up brain space but you can't do much with it. Even if you can solve your homework, you're working with a handicap.

What if, instead of just being told the final idea of atoms, you actually read or learned about the experiments done that prove their existence? First we found that electricity is a form of radiation that comes from matter (thus the idea of "electrons"), and the experiments that show how scientists discovered the size of the electron particle by seeing how much the electricity bends with a magnet--also showing that electricity and magnetism are part of the same effect. Then the electrons are shot toward a sheet of gold--most make it through, but some are stopped by even larger particles in the gold. Thus the nucleus of the particle is discovered. With all of those discoveries known, we then find out that uranium emits three types of 'radiation'--one that bends in a magnet just like electricity (the electons from the atoms), alpha radiation that bends in the opposite direction of the electrons in the magnet, but doesn't bend as much because it's much larger (the protons of the nucleus--that's how we know it has a larger mass and it has the opposite charge of electrons) and the last radiation, gamma radiation, that doesn't bend in the magnet and thus has no charge (the neutron).

We didn't have to recreate every experiment, but it does increase our CERTAINTY of the concept 'atom' and with an increase in certainty we gain a more in-depth understanding of the concept itself. It's not just a guess. It was proven. We can understand ourselves how the conclusions were drawn.

Not only do we 'get' the final concept we SEE HOW it was discovered. This puts a stopper in the debate of 'thinking skills' versus 'information.' There needn't be one without the other. We can learn how to 'think' by learning how brilliant, dedicated people discovered the knowledge we need to know anyway! Presenting information in a heirarchical (one discovery building on another) fashion means passing on the info AND a great example of thinking all at once.

One needn't explore all of the historical documents in the world to understand history, but the kids ought to know that we know about history SOMEHOW! We shouldn't just through information at them without explaining at the outet of the course that we obtained this information from historians who lived at the times, manuscripts recovered, archeological digs, etc. One needn't reproduce every document.

When it comes to poisonous food, it is enough for the kid to know that someone somewhere died from it and as long as they know you tell them the truth to the best of your ability, they should have no reason to doubt your judgement. Of course, with your story of the mushroom, one is reminded of the story of the tomato being considered poisonous for a long time.

It isn't about actually redoing every experiment and it isn't about never trusting what someone else says. It's about understanding HOW we know what we know--not just having the big final conclusions memorized.

Timothy Power said...

Kim, that was a very well-written summary. Thanks; you make a good case.

I actually like the idea you (and VanDamme) describe, in teaching science in a historical way--following the discoveries as they are made through history, and showing how each builds on top of the previous. And I think it would work just fine within the Classical Education framework; when my girls start to get into the Logic phase, I'll be strongly considering finding (or constructing) a curriculum along these lines.

I think my skepticism comes on two points. First, there is the one I covered in my post: that there are just some subjects that don't lend themselves well to this approach. For one example, I'm currently in a big debate over at this post over the question of whether Reason and human experience, by themselves, form the basis of a coherent, universal code of morality.

Second, there's the question of what age a child becomes capable of understanding the abstract causal relationships. TWTM, and the Trivium model, put it at about age 10, and say that before this kids should work on stuffing as much factual knowledge into their heads as possible, since that's what their brains are designed to do. KITMF is obviously skeptical about this, thinking that it's based on an unsupported model of child development.

(My wife just pulled out a book on child development that referenced the work of Jean Piaget; and he actually posits that there is a change around age 11 or 12 where the kids start to gain abstract reasoning skills. So, yes, there is at least one model out there...)

Anyway, good comment; very well reasoned. Much food for thought.

Kim said...

I would actually debate your second point. I feel there is no need to debate the first point--not every topic needs to be taught historically, though all topics need to be taught heirarchically--which may correspond to historical discoveries in a number of cases.

I won't be dealing with universal codes of morality. I've decided that the whole of Objectivism works for me, as well as I can implement it. I don't think someone trying to find the best way to homeschool their kids needs to buy into the whole philosophy. If one's personal philosophy (which not having read your blog extensively, I'm assuming it's basically your religion) offers no more guidance in epistemology than accepting mystical insight, I don't feel one needs to change a lot of fundamentals in their thinking to follow the pedagogy we've described. In other words, I'm not here to change your mind in anything. I just want to explain how I think the pedagogy that comes from an Objectivist epistemology would be beneficial to anyone's learning.

Of course, it may be that the belief in God that leads one to be Christian implies that all knowledge should be accepted without evidence. For most Christians I've met, however, it seems to me they feel that applies to knowledge that leads to moralty and the belief in God exclusively. Maybe that is because (as I've heard some state) they feel they have evidence to believe in God. There are examples of the opposite too--faith without evidence being the goal and there would be no reason to compartmentalize one type of knowledge over another (ethical vs. scientific).

In the second point, you state that the brain is designed to absorb information and it should be stuffed full and that abstract reasoning would not occur developmentally before 10 or 12. Objectivism posits that the brain is fundamentally a conceptual faculty. That means that the brain takes perceptual information and organizes it into categories. The categories (or concepts) are as few or as many as needed to describe the world the child knows.

The concepts are necessary and required because we do not have infinite memory or data storage areas. We need to find the commonalities and throw away the excess. In talking with parents of children with high functioning autism, one can see how impaired conceptual formation is debilitating. High functioning autistics have loads and loads of 'data storage' and, thus, less need of concepts. They can memorize and replay but have a very difficult time generalizing. It is our concepts that allow us to generalize because that is exactly what concepts are: generalizations that can be made concrete again in different ways. We can apply the concepts validly because we've learned to integrate the essentials into concepts.

When considering the whole of human knowledge, there is a lot of stuff to know, as you said. The child's mind is always abstracting perceptions (concretes) into concepts. What needs to be considered, however, are the level of the concepts we expect from children and why some believe that abstract reasoning doesn't start until middle school age.

I believe that context can help us. Noone's concepts are formed in a vacuum. They are formed from experience. That experience is the context. Taking context and heirarchy into account, we can see why kids may not really begin to understand complicated ideas without a lot of stuff crammed into their heads--they're building context and continuously trying to fit that into the concepts they already have, redefining them, and forming new ones as their experience expands. They are then trying to figure out if they've got a strong enough understanding of a concept to move from induction (the forming of the concept from concretes/experience) to deduction (taking the definition they've figured out for themselves and then trying to apply it in new, as-yet-unexperienced ways).

With weakly held concepts, such as floating abstractions, they have a harder time being certain of their own knowledge, and thus a harder time using the concept. It had been Lisa Van Damme's experience that children with well-formed and concrete-based concepts (as would be provided from a heirarchical presentation of knowledge) come up with the types of abstractions not expected for years. This is due to a better grasp of the concepts presented as well as being able to draw examples of abstract thinking they were presented along with the information--since it was presented heirarchically.

Anonymous said...

Just passing through and wanted to say that I enjoyed your post on VanDamme's article.

don said...

I appreciate your dedication to critical thought, but you've really wheeled out the cannons to kill a gnat. Your mushroom example is really not predicated on an argument from authority. You do not ask your child to avoid the mushroom simply because someone else said so or thinks so. You ask her to avoid it because someone else died from eating one. That is an empirical assertion, not an Argumentum ad Verecundium. Of course, I understand your underlying concern - the child is asked to accept the argument on faith - but this is a problem born of hearsay more than appeals to authority - in other words, the child is not herself eyewitness to the event. She does not actually observe someone dying after eating the mushroom. Nevertheless, she is supplied with an empirical assertion that could be falsified by anyone who had the temerity to reproduce the experiment. As a result, when you teach your child in this way, you are ironically living up to the very maxim that you are trying to rebut. You supply her with an emprical hypothesis - a falsifiable theory, or conceptual paradigm (it's a very basic but still recognizable biochemical axiom) - before encouraging her to imbibe the factoid. But this is not blind faith. It is simply a logistical necessity (as well as a safety issue, of course). Life is short; we cannot reproduce every experiment that is cited to us. The important thing, however, is that the student learns to see academic disciplines as ways of thinking rather than lists of facts. Here, your child is taught that, if she cared to, she could reproduce the experiment that forms the basis for your admonition against eating the mushroom. Until she directly replicates the experiment, she does not know "truth" for certain. And, of course, we are all always one experiment away from falsifying today's "truth." But these epistemilogical limitations are not the same thing as telling a child to believe something just because someone else says so.

Anonymous said...

I am also a homschooling father with less time than I would like. I also read the Van Damme article and filed it away with other negative articles on homeschooling (which are often opinion without facts). Van Damme offers long intellectual arguments against the classical method without offering a single shred of scientific data to support her conclusions.

If we are left to fencing with foils of personal experience, my personal experience has been that little kids are better at learning facts and trusting Mom and Dad than they are at understanding underlying principles or formulating theories and intellectual arguments. Hence the traditional use of the classical model where they first learn a bunch of stuff as kids and then start to think about it in junior high school and draw conclusions and challenge authority in high school and college. Memorization usually proceeds understanding for me, this was aspecially true in college chemistry classes.

The mushroom analogy is excellent!


Sabrina said...

I am a homeschooling mom of 3 (ok two really, the two year old is still a little young). We are beginning our third year, and I follow the Classical Education model, having discovered it in Well-Trained mind and having one of those "ah-ha!" moments. You see, my degree is in European History, and the classical education model revolving around history made so much sense to me I couldn't not do it. I am curious to know if you are still using this model and how it is going for you. I also wanted to say thank you for writing this blog post. I just read the VanDamme article for the first time last week and it has really been gnawing on me. It made me feel doubt my reasons for following classical education, what if I made the wrong decision etc., my poor sleep-deprived mommy brain being actually to tired to come up with a logical argument as to why VanDamme is wrong, and I and the many followers of the classical education model are right. So I googled the article and some random words about right or wrong and got your blog post, and there it was, you obviously have had more sleep than I in the last decade or so, or are (probably) smarter than I am because you put into words what I knew was wrong with her arguments against WTM but have been unable to articulate until now. So thank you again.

Timothy Power said...


Thanks for your comment! It's always nice to hear that someone read what I wrote (so long ago--five years!?) and benefited from it.

You ask if we're still using a Classical Education approach. Yup, we are--although we're a little less structured now than we were back then. This is something common with homeschoolers--we tend to start out highly structured, and then as we get some experience we tend to become a bit more free-form, maybe a bit less doctrinaire in our approach. But our approach still aligns pretty closely with TWTM (though we've put a little more emphasis on math & science in the grammar stage than what they recommend), and it's working out pretty well academically.

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Anonymous said...

I've not read Rand and am only vaguely familiar with Ms. Van Damme. As a Christian identifying with libertarianism, and as a classical educator, my interest was piqued by this discussion/article.

My questions for objectivists are numerous but include: What is a human? Does a human have a soul? A spirit? Of what are those comprised? Is "faith," the ultimate appeal to authority, beneficial to a human creature? Why or why not?

The original article by VD seems to smack of what I call deconstructionism and seems rather unnecessary to boot because, as anyone who has children knows, they naturally go through a "how do you know" period.

The question for me as a classical parent is, "What end do I have in mind for my children?" It would seem objectivists value reason over things like compassion, kindness, service, and brotherly love. Is that the type of child I want to raise? Absolutely not. My children, I hope, can balance reason with these other Christian virtues.

I also wonder where does the objectivist obtain their morality? I do not know but I know enough about Rand's life to know I don't want my children modeling hers.