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    Book Club: Ideas Have Consequences{Chapter 3}

    July 25, 2012 by Brandy Vencel
    Ideas Have Consequences
    by Richard Weaver

    Chapter Three is called Fragmentation and Obsession, and the applications for the realm of education are everywhere, because one of the major themes is specialization, which is something we see a lot of in the modern school. I remember a couple years ago I was talking with someone who proudly told me their child was attending a “progressive” high school where he would be required to choose a major his sophomore year, and would then have all of his elective classes focus on his major.

    From a purely practical perspective, I cannot tell you how thankful I am that I did not have to choose my “major” when I was fifteen years old! The life I would have chosen for myself then is not the life I want now, if that makes sense.

    We have to remember that generalization was the name of the educational game for millenia. The new education, where students good at math study math {but not literature}, where some are allowed to declare that they are “not math people” is a brave new world indeed:

    Specialization develops only part of a man; a man partially developed is deformed…

    Or consider this:

    By far the most significant phase of the theory of the gentleman is its distrust of specialization. It is an ancient belief, going back to classical antiquity, that specialization of any kind is illiberal in a freeman. A man willing to bury himself in the details of some small endeavor has been considered lost to these larger considerations which must occupy the mind of the ruler.

    You know what a broad view allows for? Perspective. The most dangerous {or simply stupid} decisions are based upon a perspective that is myopic.

    Charlotte Mason advocated a broad education. She characterized it as a table, laden and varied, where students might feast. She saw the damage that specialization could do to a man:

    We know how Darwin lost himself in science until he could not read poetry, find pleasure in pictures, think upon things divine; he was unable to turn his mind out of the course in which it had run for most of his life. {source}

    Some of us may read this and think well, who cares that Darwin could not read poetry? I cannot {or do not like to} read poetry, either. First, I would consider whether this is a result of over-specialization in my own life, and second, I would consider the idea that the ability to read poetry, find pleasure in art, or think upon the divine, is distinctly human. What Miss Mason is saying is that in his extreme specializing, Darwin lost his soul {in more ways than one}. He was, for all practical purposes, no longer fully human.

    Miss Mason contrasts this to the great Renaissance men:

    In the great {and ungoverned} age of the Renaissance, the time when great things were done, great pictures painted, great buildings raised, great discoveries made, the same man was a painter, an architect, a goldsmith and a master of much knowledge besides; and all that he did he did well, all that he knew was part of his daily thought and enjoyment. Let us hear Vasari on Leonardo,––

    “Possessed of a divine and marvellous intellect and being an excellent geometrician, he not only worked at sculpture . . . but also prepared many architectural plans and buildings . . . he made designs for mills and other engines to go by water; and, as painting was to be his profession . . . he studied drawing from life.”

    Leonardo knew nothing about Art for Art’s sake, that shibboleth of yesterday, nor did our own Christopher Wren, also a great mathematician and master of much and various knowledge, to whom architecture was rather a by-the-way interest, and yet he built St. Paul’s.

    Why is Specialization so Dangerous?

    I think Weaver gives us the answer to this question when he says that

    [F]ragmentation leads directly to an obsession with isolated parts.

    It’s as if we think that we can look at the world solely through a microscope and come to a complete understanding of it. What is interesting is that when we have the broad view, then the use of the microscope and other such tools adds to our knowledge. But if said microscope becomes the only tool, we ourselves become so limited in scope that our knowledge is only useful in a very small sphere to very few people.

    The scientist, the technician, the scholar, who have left the One for the Many are puffed up with vanity over their ability to describe precisely some minute portion of the world.

    One of the blessings of motherhood, I think, is that we really are not allowed to become specialists. The job requires varied knowledge: cooking, cleaning, diapering, nursing, laundering, preparing for the future, curating the past, and so on and so forth. And then upon the basics, we often expand. You might create amazing things with your hands. I bake bread and raise dairy products.

    To be honest, if left to myself, I would probably drink coffee and read and think and that is about it. But because God placed me in this life, I own a petting zoo and raise children and all of this has a balancing effect upon my soul.

    We are possibly the last true generalists.

    Another Way to Specialize

    Weaver points out that we can also specialize in time:

    Allen Tate has made the point that many modern people to whom the word “provincial” is anathema are themselves provincials in time to an extreme degree. Indeed, modernism is in essence a provincialism, since it declines to look beyond the horizon of the moment, just as the countryman may view with suspicion whatever lies beyond his country.

    This is why history is so important! It is a gift of perspective that we can give to our children.

    It has been interesting to observe the impact of Plutarch upon my oldest. When he overheard adults debating about John Roberts switching his vote on Obamacare at the last minute, his response was fascinating to me. Whereas the adults {and I include myself in this} were speculating about why he’d change–most of which amounted to little more than gossip–my son’s response was to be offended and disappointed in Roberts. Didn’t Roberts know that great men give up their own comfort for the sake of their country. Didn’t he know that men of the past have sacrificed their money, property, safety, children, and even selves for the greater good?

    He showed me the power of perspective given by a broad education.

    History and universal truths give us just such a perspective. Thankfully, we are never too old to learn!

    Read More:
    More book club entries linked at Mystie’s blog
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  • Reply lindafay August 6, 2012 at 5:18 am

    Hi Brandy,

    I have been reading this book but didn’t join the club because I am not posting my thoughts on my blog. It has been an interesting read. G.K. Chesterton talks about these issues in a more down to earth way in his book What’s Wrong with the World. He agrees with the privilege we mothers have as generalists. I am trying to pass these encouraging thoughts down to my adult daughters who are also generalists but tempted to specialize in obscure fields because of the enormous pressure from friends, family, media and even the church.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts August 7, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      I really haven’t read as much Chesterton as I’d like. I’m putting this on my Wish List–thanks for the suggestion!

  • Reply Pilgrim July 26, 2012 at 4:14 am

    Your microscope metaphor is great. I also appreciate your thoughts about mother’s as generalists – they dying breed. I think that is probably true. Possibly this is why people don’t appreciate what we do because we aren’t “experts” in one thing we end up being a “Jane of all trades”. It also might be why we always feel like we are unable – because it requires so many different skills to be “successful”. We don’t get to sit around and just hone our strengths. Our audience also tends to be pretty demanding.

    The other thing I am thinking about is fragmentation in relation to ADD. Without teaching a coherent framework and focusing on small details is ADD part of the psychosis he forecasted? I really don’t know.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts July 26, 2012 at 6:13 pm

      Gosh, I have so much angst over the ADD/ADHD thing. On the one hand, I have seen children treated very effectively with dietary adjustment, and so one part of me thinks it is a biological problem.

      But then there is the other hand! There is CM, who said that attention was a *habit* that we could train into ourselves and our children. There is the research that shows that memorizing lots of stuff increases attention span, even in the “learning disabled.” And then there is the obvious difference between children who are raised thoughtfully–with less TV and more coherence to their day—and the children who are at the full mercy of the culture, with TV and commercials and highly overstimulating technological influences and being carted from activity to activity and not getting enough sleep and I think goodness! Raising a child like that really IS a logical result of the culture.

      I saw a science “textbook” for early elementary once that confirmed that ADD is as present in the textbooks writers as it is the students! It was ridiculous.

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