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    Book Club: Poetic Knowledge {Chapter 4, Part 1}

    May 10, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    I briefly glanced over at Mystie’s blog to review the discussion questions, and I noticed that she brought up something that Si actually brought up to me when I was talking with him about this chapter on our trip {goodness, I wonder if he knew when he married me I’d try to discuss Descartes for an hour on our tenth anniversary!}–namely, that Descartes had good intentions. He was trying to defend truth, the ability to know absolutes {epistemology}, and so on, from the onslaught of the Skeptics.

    Unfortunately, we live with the aftermath of good intentions gone bad, though I must admit I sometimes wonder if it would have been worse. I mean, if there had been no Descartes, there is no one to do the defending, and the Skeptics win at the outset, right? That is what we’d call Not Good.

    This reminds me of what Charlotte Mason said about Darwin. Now, granted, she liked Darwin a lot more than I do, but still I think her point rings true:

    A Philosophy of Education (Homeschooler Series)[Darwin] no more thought of giving a materialistic tendency to modern education than Locke thought of teaching principles which should bring about the French Revolution; but men’s thoughts are more potent than they know, and these two Englishmen may be credited with influencing powerfully two world-wide movements.

    The same goes for Descartes. It might be said that Darwin and Dewey were the logical outcome of Descartes {at least given enough time}, and yet Descartes would likely be horrified by this. So I think we can discuss the negative contributions of the man–giving ourselves the necessary warning against them–without assassinating his character.

    Descartes Broke with Traditional Thinking
    The crux of Taylor’s argument is really that Descartes changed the way the world thought about everything, including the way it thought about thinking itself. This is sort of what I’m talking about in my talk at the Bakersfield Home Education Conference {which I wish with all my heart I were only attending rather than speaking at, but my Letter of Resignation was mysteriously lost in the mail}, so I’m going to call this blog post “research.”

    And here are my notes.

    Let’s compare and contrast what we learn of Descartes with the traditional assumptions about man {anthropology} and how he learns and knows {epistemology}. I am not, by the way, going to go through all of what is presented in the chapter.

    • Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of EducationDescartes: He resolved {due to the influence of Skepticism} to begin his philosophy from a place of doubt, including doubting his own being. He therefore placed man at the philosophical center {that is the ultimate force of cogito ergo sum, right? I know that I am because I think that I am, and no outside information is necessary}, beginning with the knower’s own mind as the first object of knowledge. The existence of the outside, and even of his own being, required “proof.”
      • Tradition: The first object of knowledge is outside of the mind. It was acknowledged that there were givens which do not require proof, for it is natural and human to know that they are. The outside world was not proven, but rather discovered or revealed–which is a sort of poetic knowledge.
    • Descartes: He elevated mathematics {dialectic} to the highest place and decided knowledge required the certainty which only mathematics could provide. The result of this was a rejection of authority {which, again, was probably unintended}–if knowledge comes from inside of myself and everything outside of myself is questionable {to be doubted}, no outside authority can inform my knowledge base. This is reason instead of authority.
      • Tradition: Before this, man knew that both he and the world existed first, because this was an unquestionable given of life, but also because it was reaffirmed by the Church. Being a Catholic, I assume that Descartes had a healthy concept of revelation–that some types of knowledge are revealed to us. As a Christian, I know who I am and what my purpose is upon this earth because Scripture explains it very clearly. Reason was also an accepted means of gaining knowledge, especially in certain branches of knowledge; therefore we can say that traditionally man knew through reason and authority.
    • Descartes: He “invented” the scientific method {good} and then desired to apply it to all knowledge {bad}. The accuracy of knowledge was then measured by the appropriate and rigorous use of the method.
      • Tradition: Man knew that there are different types of knowledge–he was aware of differences in quality as well as in kind. Different types of thinking were considered appropriate for gaining different types of knowledge. There were different ways of coming to truth, and the accuracy of the knowledge was rooted in the humanity of the knower–“the spiritual quality ennobling the intellect.” The object of study determined the certitude–man cannot know the certainty of justice in the way that he knows the certainty of 2+2=4.

    Dewey, the Great American Educational Influence
    Probably one man–John Dewey–has more impact than any other when it comes to what takes place in the average American classroom {both at Christian schools, and at public schools, I might add}. Taylor tells us that Descartes’ influence upon Dewey is indirect. Like Descartes, Dewey believed that knowing was an exclusively rational process {no room for the pre-rational knowledge that we’ve been discussing}. He adored the scientific method and believed that knowledge was the result {solely} of controlled experiments.

    The difference between Dewey and Descartes is marked, though. Descartes’ desire was to lead the way back to truth. Taylor calls this one of the world’s great ironies when he explains that Dewey took Descartes’ beloved method, and discarded all the metaphysics forever. At best, they were irrelevant. Instead, the method was to be used for problem solving and to bring about social change–in a word, Dewey made it completely pragmatic.

    Taylor doesn’t completely draw the connection, but I firmly believe this happened not because of Descartes, but because of Darwin. Dewey took Darwinism and applied it to the classroom {making Mason’s comment above even more applicable}. You will see shades of Darwinism as we go on.

    So let’s compare and contrast Dewey with traditional beliefs as well:

    • Dewey: Man is seen as a problem solver.
      • Tradition: Man is the knower of his world.
    • Dewey: The learner is an organism adapting to its environment. Or sometimes he is simply part of a species adapting to its environment–to the needs of a changing society. Learning takes on an extremely pragmatic hue, for the point of learning in the first place is to understand and meet social needs.
      • Tradition: The learner is {Taylor doesn’t say all of this–I am filling in some of the gaps based upon my broader reading and I may or may not represent here what Taylor actually believes} designed by his Creator to be. His learning is a growth in understanding and maturity and it may or may not have immediate practical value. The learner studies the Permanent Things of the world because underneath all semblance of change are the things that forever remain the same. The idea was that it is more important to understand what always is, rather than the things which are only temporary. The temporary is what is passing away; the permanent is what remains.
    • Dewey: Learning is always dynamic and active based upon experimentation using variations of the scientific method.
      • Tradition: Learning can be dynamic, but its foundation is passive and receptive. Poetic, pre-rational knowledge and love for the object of study is a necessary predecessor of real knowing and understanding. Perhaps that word–“understanding”–explains a lot. It seems to add a bit of depth to the idea of simply knowing.
    • Dewey: Schools were instruments of social change. They were preparing workers to meet the needs of the populace. Taylor explains that this is appealing to both the industrial capitalists as well as the Marxists, because both systems are functionally materialist–goodness, truth, and beauty are irrelevant because they are impractical. Taylor tells us that:

      Sooner or later, the education for a student under either way of progressive, materialist life will be informed by the dominance of the practical ends of the state.

      • Traditional: Schools were places where unchanging truths were studied. Also, schools were not the only place where learning took place. An example given by Taylor is that almost an entire book of Plato’s Republic took place in Cephalus’ living room.

    Why the System is Broken
    I think that breaking Dewey’s major impact down into a list like that is extremely helpful because it helps us understand why we as home educators tend to be so misunderstood. Ultimately, no matter what “method” you are using, you are likely spending a good amount of time on permanent things. I have even noticed this in regard to “secular” homeschoolers–studying subjects for love, rather than any practical result the study may have.

    The interesting thing to me is how short sighted this all is. With Dewey, we exchanged short-term practical for long-term impractical. Let me explain. A subhuman {or, as C.S. Lewis called it, “posthuman”} populace is very impractical. In educating children for solely practical ends, we have done as Lewis says and castrated their souls. We have created a culture of shallow, selfish, myopic citizens.

    Charlotte Mason fought this her whole life. There were men in her day who wanted to do something similar–they wanted a purely vocational and practical aim for their schools. Who cares if the miner has read Shakespeare? This was the thinking. In Chapter 4 of Volume 6 she writes:

    A Philosophy of Education (Homeschooler Series)A well-known educationalist lately nailed up the thesis that what children want in the way of knowledge is just two things,––How to do the work by which they must earn their living and how to behave as citizens. This writer does not see that work is done and duties performed in the ratio of the person who works: the more the man is as a person, the more valuable will be his work and the more dependable his conduct: yet we omit from popular education that tincture of humane letters which makes for efficiency! One hears, for instance, of an adolescent school with some nine thousand pupils who come in batches of a few hundreds, each batch to learn one or other of a score or so of admirable crafts and accomplishments; but not one hour is spent in a three or four years’ course in this people’s university on any sort of humane knowledge, in any reading or thinking which should make the pupils better men and women and better citizens. {emphasis mine}

    We may have initially gained a boom from Dewey–an increase in productivity due to the practical nature of the school. But we have suffered a great loss since, with every generation being less than their forebears. I have heard talk radio hosts refer to our youth as “the stupidest generation ever produced.” Sadly, the situation is worse than this. They are the least human generation ever produced. We, too, care about less than their counterparts a hundred years ago, we have less wisdom, less understanding, less love, less sense of the things which are noble and true and good. We are even, due to having been steeped in such a pragmatic environment, less open to the questions which have eternal weight.

    I don’t know Dewey’s angle. Like Descartes, he may have had good intentions. But the pragmatic emphasis of the average classroom {both public and private} in this country has created a populace that is a mere shadow of its former self.

    _____________________________
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    8 Comments

  • Reply Kelly May 11, 2011 at 9:26 pm

    You know, my mom hasn’t said it a while now — she’s 70 and starting to have trouble with her memory. Unfortunately I started losing my memory a lot younger than she did. Another example of the degeneration of the generations.

    I think I was going to say something about the way babies learn — the way they’ll pick up an object and feel of it, taste it, bang it, drop it, and repeat a thousand times. I’ve heard this characterized as a “scientific impulse,” but after reading this book I’m pretty sure that’s not right. Maybe it’s just a case of everything looking like science to a people who consider it the most respectable form of knowledge.

    Or maybe it really is true that scientists are people who’ve made a specialty of discovering things the way babies do. πŸ˜‰

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts May 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    Kelly, My mom used to say stuff like that but I have a haunting suspicion that she was wrong and my best thoughts have run off together, never to be seen by me again. πŸ™

    Shari, I agree with you that most homeschoolers I have met–regardless of the approach being used by the parents–have been exceptions to these cultural norms. That is a big comfort to me, but also a big red flag. I really do fear that we are creating a separate culture, one which will not be understood by the greater culture, and I often wonder what that means. I am plagued by a general sense of foreboding, but I do try to remind myself this is a good thing.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts May 11, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Willa, Yes I have to say that I was excited about the timing of the club. I knew I needed to go back through most of the book either way, and doing it with people is much preferred. Especially people who quote Acquinas or something. πŸ™‚

    I must confess I’ve never really spoken before like that and I would much rather go hide in a hole. However, I do think these ideas we’ve talked about in all of the book clubs are very compelling, and so I hope to introduce a small group of people to these thoughts for the first time. That is almost enough to get me over my fear. πŸ™‚

    I love what you said from Acquinas–that permanent things are more certain in themselves and less certain to us because of our weaknesses. There is wisdom there! I also loved what came across in the book–that underneath all appearances of change are the permanent things, making those permanent things the most important things to know…

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts May 11, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Silvia, I haven’t finished reading everyone else’s posts yet, but I look forward to them!

    I’m enjoying this book club, too. I really think we get a lot more out of books when we read them in community like this–so many different perspectives and background knowledge brought to the table!

  • Reply Shari May 11, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    I’ve printed out your post, Brandi, so I can ponder it more fully. I think your right about each generation being less than the one before (the exception being our homeschoolers, my kids are far and away ahead of me and my peers). I started homeschooling with the idea of something fun and less boredom inducing than my own schooling but I’ve ended up seeing the young citizens of our nation and and desparing of our electorate. How did we come to this pass? And can it be fixed?

  • Reply Kelly May 11, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Well, I had something intelligent to say but I hit the back button and got distracted reading your lasest post and I’ve clean forgotten it, so this post is just to subscribe to the comments.

    My mom would say if it was important it’ll come back to me.
    πŸ˜‰

  • Reply Willa May 11, 2011 at 4:05 am

    How timely that you were preparing for a talk! This post really rounds out the contrast between the traditional ideas and those of Descartes and Dewey. I spent part of yesterday trying to make a comparison chart but got bogged down so I am so glad you laid it out so clearly.

    I like the way you put the part about the outside world being discovered, not doubted.

    I read that Descartes distrusted authority and I can see why, since he saw how much people disagreed on the biggest subjects, but I hadn’t thought of how he would think of revelation and teaching authority.

    Aquinas says that the permanent things, particularly God and metaphysics, are more certain in themselves though less certain to our limited minds. And in the same line, he says that faith is more certain than reason because it rests on God’s authority, His Word, which cannot be in error.

    But whether Descartes intended it or not, he left no room for that kind of faith — faith becomes compartmentalized, a human quality, a sort of state of mind, rather than “substance” and “evidence” as St Paul called it in Hebrews 11:1.

    Best wishes for your talk!

  • Reply Silvia May 11, 2011 at 1:08 am

    I wrote my post before yours and Willa and I’m today amazed at the similar thoughts we’ve had.

    It gives me new courage and impulse and the assurance that I am not dreaming or crazy. Of course you all say it more elegantly. By the way, your lecture will be great. I could listen to all this for hours, same with Willa.

    I believe that CM today will not like Darwin as much. She did not live to see the messy legacy he left.

    To me you nailed it with the conclusions about our new generation of less human young adults and the problem with not looking at the permanent, and as you said before, not even starting from the knowledge that there is a truth but even doubting that…

    And very interesting that you say homeschoolers spend more time in the things they love versus the fragmented activities prevalent in schools. I do think that if you homeschool for a few years, and if you are truly receptive, (even if you don’t have a clue about all this), your children will guide you to this view of education and life, because modern education is only sustainable (and with lots of problems), in schools. It truly is difficult to proceed as in schools.

    Good luck in your forced participation, (grin). You have an easiness with thinking and writing. I enjoyed the passage I was thinking about quoted by you.

    I’m enjoying the effort of this book club. If nothing else, it has brought me the pleasure of meeting you, ladies, and knowing I’m not alone.

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