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.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.
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?
PY: I think someone's pulling your leg.
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.
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.
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.