Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Classical, Conservative Worldview


Mottoes: 'Back to basics', 'keep to fundamentals', 'back to the (golden age of the) past', 'adhere to tradition', 'preserve the best in civilization', 'what is true is eternal'...

Time: 5th and 4th centuries B.C.

Place: Ancient Greece, especially the city-state of Athens

Pioneers and Heroes: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle

Mythic Figures: Apollo, Athena

Quote: "All humans naturally delight in the act of knowing." -Aristotle

Image/Feeling/Flavor: the world is nature as given, as we find it - a garden of forms that contains all kinds of things: rocks, trees, acorns, fish, roses, chairs, houses, pots, parchment, humans and the sorts of things humans naturally tend to do, from war to sports to sex to arguing to observing to politics... a world of rough and ready commonsense... the cosmos is the ordered universe of substances of different kinds, each with an inherent identity, stability and arc of development from birth to death (acorns don't become sushi!) ... the human mind, after appropriate study, can understand the structure of things, can know reality... the highest knowledge is philosophic (the final essence of things)... human action can and should strive for excellence in all fields of endeavor

Life Maxims of the First Organon: aim high; accuracy, exactitude and fidelity to the truth; know yourself; practice continually; know your materials and tools; be satisfied with nothing less than excellence

Some Contemporary Advocates and Champions: Adler, Bennett, Bloom, Hutchins, Hirsch


Metaphysics/Nature/Reality: the World-Story (Narrative): The world consists of a variety of substances, each of which has a defining form. Things change incessantly but there are indeed patterns of order. Things develop in orderly ways according to their natures. (No piranhas from acorns!)

"Surd"/"Devil"/Principle of Disorder/Source of Error: particularity, chance, fate, matter, ugliness, extremes, disproportionality, chaos, confusion (elements of something not blending into an ordered and satisfying whole, parts not being in harmony)

The Mind: The human mind is capable of grasping and understanding patterns of order. Thought is capable of penetrating appearances and coming to an understanding of the essence of things.

Primary Instrument: Logic or the right use of the mind, the study of the correct forms of reasoning; the clarification of concepts and ideas; the study of what constitutes a good argument or proof and provides a convincing or satisfying conclusion.

Essential Cosmic Dynamic: ordered change; development according to type; the movement from potentiality to actuality.

Personal Dynamic: optimal development of one's individual powers, abilities, talents.

Essential Learning Experience: the movement from habit to understanding - going from knowing how to do something to knowing and appreciating why.

Ideal Person: the fully developed person, free and responsible; the person of achievement ( was the mark of strength, virtue, excellence in any field); the active citizen and the life-long learner culminating in a kind of philosophic contemplation and aesthetic appreciation of life in the company of friends

Ideal Society: elitist; an assemblage of the best; a relatively small community or polity like a city-state; an interesting blend of hierarchy and democracy

Core Disciplines and Historical Curricula

Core Disciplines/ Historical Curricula: Philosophy, the study of the ultimate principle(s) of reality, dominated the core curricula of the first universities in the Western World, Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. The fact that things had distinctive forms - be they mathematical proofs, the composition of a good poem, the ideal shape of a beautiful statue, the biological structure of a species, the constitution of a city-state - was the basis for the higher studies, which eventually through the Romans became the known as the "liberal arts". Philosophy, literature and mathematics were the foundations. In the Middle Ages it took the form of the 'trivium' - grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the 'quadrivium' - arithmetic, geometry. astronomy and music ("the seven liberal arts"). These were the studies that the "free" or leisured classes pursued. They were also 'liberating' in the sense that their systematic pursuit brought contact with higher or deeper realities. Later, in the European Renaissance, in the form of the "humanities" they were considered splendid ornaments in the life of a courtier. As science and literature grew more estranged
in recent centuries, the elite education of the English gentleman in the Nineteenth Century, for instance, became more literary in character. In the Twentieth Century there has been a rebirth of interest in the 'core curriculum' of the classics, the 'great books' of the Western World in the great American universities - Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, etc.

= the slave who 'leads' the aristocratic child to school; a tutor
= a schoolmaster, a stuffy scholar
= the art, practice and profession of teaching; its principles and methods

Stages of Development = Stages of education: elementary, intermediate and 'higher' or advanced study [ originally meant 'to be eager, to be avid about, to be excited'] corresponding to the 'grammar' school, the 'high' school and the college (or group of scholars) or university (many kinds of study under one tent or roof).

The student: raw material needing to be shaped

The teacher: a figure of authority; the dispenser of knowledge; a molder of youth

Training and the process of learning: repetition and repeated exposure till the essential shines forth; sound training resulted in thorough intellectual and character development, in the formation of a complete human being ("paideia")

Text: "classics" - great examples in every genre that challenge and inspire; outstanding expression of an idea; a complete and orderly exposition of a theme with a proper beginning, middle (development), and end; the presentation of a thesis (that which is to be proved) and an argument (a convincing proof or compelling demonstration)

Main pedagogical avenue: drill and memory and habit are the main pathways of learning in this pedagogical orientation, the basis and foundation of understanding - not imagination, creativity, the senses, intuition, empathy, not experiment, not paranormal faculties or telepathy, not voluntary participation, not kindness or compassion, etc.

Central act of learning: abstraction and generalization - the perception of the essence of a thing or state of affairs, the formation of a concept from a multitude of examples

Elementary skills: reading and writing (literacy)

School: the specifically designed place where learning occurs

Standards: just as in sports great athletes determine the 'mark' to be beat, the standard of achievement, so too in academics great works in all fields determine what is good or bad or excellent or mediocre; a 'good' apple looks good: it has good shape, looks good, is red, ripe, crisp, juicy, delicious and nutritious

Evaluation: satisfactory performance; the inner reward of work well done; the outer reward of recognition of achievement

Reading, Writing and Mathematics

How to read: What is the author saying? (essence, thesis)
What is the order and development of the text? (main & supporting points) What is the cogency of the conclusion(s)? (are you the reader won over or convinced? or, are there more powerful counter-arguments?)(finding key terms, key propositions, and key sub-arguments as they compose the structure of the text - Mortimer Adler How to Read a Book)

How to write: same process as above: the clear, rational presentation of an idea or thesis through the development of a series of parts related to each other like the structure of an organism (each section should have a purpose, each paragraph should have a topic sentence and supporting sentences, etc.). The argument should address the main points at issue and should culminate in a convincing conclusion (e.g., "Therefore homeschooling is the best form of education in the late twentieth century"). Because the world is orderly, writing should be orderly. All writing should have a clear beginning, middle and end.

How to do mathematics: familiarity with elementary calculation (numeracy); practice in reasoning; practice in the perception of form, especially complex conceptual form or forms of higher generality; discerning the basic axioms, defining concepts and first principles of any field

Summary, appraisals and directions

In sum, the pedagogy of the classical worldview, based on ancient Greek and Roman culture, represents the 'heroic' conception of the world. It is based on great events and stories, great teachers, great texts. These texts give definitive and enduring ('classic') expression to great and challenging issues and inescapable human dilemmas. Its core disciplines are literature and philosophy, its core methodology is Aristotelian logic (- which in turn is based on the concepts of identity, difference and the notion of a linking or transitional middle term). Its main achievements are conceptual power (understanding and knowledge) and ethical power (virtue or personal power as the right use of individual energies and faculties).

Weaknesses, criticisms and problems with this orientation: tends to be tradition or convention bound, oriented to the past; tends to equate the customs of one's surrounding society or culture with the laws of the universe or the dictates of God; therefore is often parochial, provincial or narrowly nationalistic; with its 'back to basics' approach it tends to be literal-minded and fundamentalist and suspicious of innovative approaches and the creative spirit; tends to overemphasize the development of intellectual capacities over other aspects and facets of our human nature

Strengths: tends to emphasize individual responsibility, the value of community and high intellectual and moral standards

Future directions, promising lines of research, vision of success: the attempt to maintain stability, continuity and integrity in an always imperfect world; the best kind of research is always coming back to tried and true fundamentals; the ongoing defence against the forces of ignorance and trendiness the inherent rationality of the world, the importance of understanding, the intrinsic reward of virtue for its own sake, and the right ordering of society according to the timeless principles of reality and human nature

Select Bibliography

Mortimer Adler, The Paideia Proposal and How to Read a Book (the obstinate gadfly, the grand old man and the architect of the 'great books' program)
William Bennett, The Book of Virtues (real education = character education)
Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (a conservative critique of the revolutionary consciousness mindset of the 1960s-70s)
David Denby, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (a middle-aged New York movie critic goes back to his ivy league college for a year to restudy the great literary and philosophical classics)
E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Cultural Literacy (a common language and a shared fund of information is the foundation of a strong culture and society]
Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity (A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education)
Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind (The Greek Origins of European Thought)
Mark Van Doren A Liberal Education (a vigorous and lovely defence)