I have taught high school and college-aged kids for many years, and am very often lobbed the relevance question. The logical coherence of the concept of God. Theories of space and time. Classic questions in epistemology and metaphysics. "How is this relevant," they ask. It annoys me. I make an impotent gesture toward the intrinsic value of knowledge, but am always left frustrated by having to defend what is so obvious to me --and to everyone else prior to the mid twentieth century--the indelible importance of these topics. Maybe you can help me out?
I don't know how much help I can be, but here are some thoughts.
1. The philosophy teacher has a problem the calculus instructor, say, does not. The latter does not have to show the relevance of his subject or motivate an interest in it. Perhaps two thirds of the students before him are engineering majors who need no convincing of the relevance of higher mathematics to their career goals. They are interested in mathematics, if not for its own sake, then for the sake of its use. The philosophy teacher, however, has not only to teach his subject but also, unlike the mathematics professor, to argue its relevance and motivate interest.
Philosophy is an end in itself. This is why it is foolish to try to convince philistines that it is good for something. It is not primarily good for something. It is a good in itself. Otherwise you are acquiescing in the philistinism you ought to be combating. [. . .]
To the philistine's "Philosophy bakes no bread" you should not respond "Yes it does," for such responses are patently lame. You should say, "Man does not live by bread alone," or "Not everything is pursued as a means to something else," or "A university is not a trade school." You should not acquiesce in the philistine's values and assumptions, but go on the attack and question his values and assumptions. Put him on the spot. Play the Socratic gadfly. If a philistine wants to know how much you got paid for writing an article for a professional journal, say, "Do you really think that only what one is paid to do is worth doing?"
3. "I make an impotent gesture toward the intrinsic value of knowledge, but am always left frustrated by having to defend what is so obvious to me . . ." Most of the people who need to have this explained to them are not equipped to appreciate any explanation. So we humanists are in a tough spot. One of the conclusions I came too early on was that philosophy simply cannot be a mass consumption item at the college level. Although I didn't mind, and actually enjoyed, teaching logic courses, which can be of some use to the masses, I loathed teaching Intro to Philosophy and other philosophy courses designed to satisfy breadth requirements.
Part of the problem is that college level is so low nowadays that it has become a joke to speak of 'higher education.' People are not there to become educated human beings but to garner credentials that they believe will help them get ahead economically and socially. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but then why waste time on the pursuit of truth for its own sake? The average person has no intellectual eros; what he wants and needs is job training.
4. There is an irony here. People like you and me and thousands of others would never have had the opportunity to make a living from teaching philosophy if the level had not sunk so low, not so much because our level is low, but because there would simply have been no jobs for us if 'higher' education had not metastazised in the 1960s and beyond. So while we complain about the low level of our students, we ought to bear in mind that we have students in the first place and are not selling insurance or writing code because of the democratization of 'higher' ed.
5. I am an elitist, but not in a social or economic or racial sense. Everyone who has what it takes to profit from it ought to have the opportunity to pursue real education -- which is not to be confused with indoctrination in leftist seminaries -- in institutions of higher -- no 'sneer' quotes -- education. Equality of opportunity! But of course there will never be equality of outcome or result because people are not equal.
Philosophy -- the real thing, not some dumbed-down ersatz -- cannot be a mass consumption item. It is for the few. But who those few are cannot be decided by criteria of race or sex or age or religion or national origin. High culture is universal and belongs to all of us, even though we individually and as members of groups are not equal in our ability to contribute to it.
I can't believe that this old 16 September 2004 post from my first weblog languished there so long before being brought over, today, to my newer digs.
My cat Caissa – named after the goddess of Chess – was feeling under the weather recently, so I took her to the vet for some blood work. The twenty-something receptionist at Caring Critters was nice enough but she stumbled over my name. But I was in a good mood, so I didn’t mind it too much. She didn’t even try to pronounce it which I suppose is better than mangling it. I don’t cotton to being called Valenzuela, Valencia, Vermicelli, Varicella, Valparaiso or Vladivostok. Don’t make me into an Hispanic. In these parts, if your are not Hispanic you are an ‘Anglo.’ That doesn’t sit well with me either.
Perhaps I should be happy that I do not rejoice under the name of Znosko-Borovsky or Bonch-Osmolovsky. Nor do I stagger under such burdens as Witkiewicz, Brzozowski, or Rynasiewicz. The latter is the name of a philosopher I knew when he taught at Case Western Reserve University. Alvin Plantinga once mentioned to me, sometime in the late '80s, that he had been interviewed at Notre Dame, except that ‘rhinoceros’ was all Plantinga could remember of his name.
Actually, none of these names is all that difficult if you sound them out. But apparently no one is taught phonics anymore. Damn those liberals! They’ve never met a standard they didn’t want to erode. I am grateful to my long-dead mother for sending me to Catholic schools where I actually learned something. I learned things that no one seems to know any more, for example, grammar, Latin, geography, mathematics. The next time you are in a bar, ask the twenty-something ‘tender whether that Sam Adams you just ordered is a 12 oz or a pint. Now observe the blank expression on her face: she has no idea what a pint is, or that a pint is 16 oz, or that there are four quarts in a gallon, or 5,280 feet in a mile, or 39.37 inches in a meter, or that light travels at 186, 282 miles/sec, or that a light-year is a measure of distance, not of time.
Even Joan Baez got this last one wrong in her otherwise excellent song, Diamonds and Rust, a tribute to her quondam lover, Bob Dylan. The irony is that Joanie’s pappy was a somewhat distinguished professor of physics! In a high school physics class we watched a movie in which he gives a physics lecture.
I was up in 'Flag' (Flagstaff) a few years back to climb Mt. Humphreys, the highest point in Arizona at 12,643 ft. elevation, (an easy class 1 walk-up except for the thin air) and to take a gander at the moon through the Lowell Observatory telescope. While standing in line for my peek, I overheard a woman say something to her husband that betrayed her misconception that the moon glows by its own light. She was astonished to learn from her husband that moonlight is reflected sunlight. I was astonished at her astonishment. One wonders how she would account for the phases of the moon. What ‘epicycles’ she would have to add to her ‘theory’!
William J. Bennett and David Wilezol, Is College Worth It? (Thomas Nelson 2013), p. 134:
Knowing that students prefer to spend more time having fun than studying, professors are more comfortable awarding good grades while requiring a minimum amount of work. In return, students give favorable personal evaluations to professors who desire to be well received by students as a condition of preserving their employment status. Indeed, the popularity of the student evaluation, which began in the 1970s, has had a pernicious effect.
I would say so. Here is an anecdote to illustrate the Bennett thesis. In early 1984 I was 'up for tenure.' And so in the '83 fall semester I was more than usually concerned about the quality of my student evaluations. One of my classes that semester was an upper-level seminar conducted in the library over a beautiful oak table. One day one of the students began carving into the beautiful table with his pen.
In an abdication of authority that part of me regrets and a part excuses, I said nothing. The student liked me and I knew it. I expected a glowing recommendation from him and feared losing it. So I held my tongue while the kid defaced university property.
Jeff H. and I had entered into a tacit 'non-aggression pact.' (And I got tenure.)
The problem is not that students are given an opportunity to comment upon and complain about their teachers. The problem is the use to which student evaluations are put for tenure, promotion, and salary 'merit-increase' decisions. My chairman at the time was an officious organization man, who would calculate student evaluation averages to one or two decimal places, and then rank department members as to their teaching effectiveness. Without getting into this too deeply for a blog post, there is something highly dubious about equating teaching effectiveness with whatever the student evaluations measure, and something absurd about the false precision of calculating averages out to one or two decimal places.
Jones is a better teacher than Smith because her average is 3.2 while his is only 3.1? Well, no, but if the chairman is asked to justify his decision, he can point to the numbers. There is mindless quantification, but it takes someone more thoughtful than an administrator to see it.
I strongly recommend the Bennett-Wilezol book to anyone thinking of attending college or thinking of bankrolling someone's attendance. Here is a review.
Home-schooling is illegal in Germany. So, "In 2008, Uwe and Hannelore Romeike left Germany with their five children and came to the United States asking for refugee status as an oppressed minority."
So they left Germany to seek asylum in Left-Fascist Amerika. There is a touch of irony here. Well, we are not as far gone as the "land of poets and thinkers." (Heinrich Heine) Not yet, leastways.
The reason for the disallowance of home schooling is that the powers that be don't want the formation of "parallel societies" (Parallelgesellschaften). That's a real knee-slapper given the green light to Muslim immigration and the Islamization of Germany. No "parallel societies" unless they are politically correct parallel societies.
The Pee Cee, you see, are 'inclusive.' Even unto their own extermination. The Germans seem especially PC-whipped.
It is perhaps not irrelevant that the Romeikes are Christians. Nor that ". . . one of the oldest universities in Germany inaugurated the country's first taxpayer-funded department of Islamic theology. The Center for Islamic Theology at the University of Tübingen is the first of four planned Islamic university centers in Germany." (Ibid.)
Read about the Romeikes here. It turns out that their request for asylum was denied.
I said a few entries back that liberals lack common sense. Here is further proof, as if further proof is needed:
This week, the Los Angeles Unified School District—the second-largest in the nation—decided to end the practice of suspending or expelling students for "willful defiance," starting this fall. District officials said the practice disproportionately affects minority students' education and leads to more disciplinary problems for students down the line.
Both the policy and the justification for it are insane. That the policy is crazy is self-evident to anyone of sound mind. The justification too is completely crack-brained. It assumes that the only reason minority students are disproportionately affected by the old expulsion rule is because they are unjustly discriminated against on the basis of their skin color. But that is obviously false: the minorities are disproportionately affected and 'overrepresented' among the ones expelled because they are disproportionately trouble-causing. It is not their skin color, but their bad behavior that explains why they get expelled and suspended more often.
Liberals cannot see this because they are blinded by their politically correct notion that all groups are equal in every respect and so differential outcomes have to be chalked up to racism. Too many liberals are willfully stupid people in willful defiance of common sense and we ought to expel them from the precincts of the reasonable before they do any more damage to educational institutions.
Contemporary liberals have something like the opposite of the Midas Touch. Everything King Midas touched turned to gold. Everything a liberal touches turns to dreck.
Teaching is the feeding of people who aren't hungry.
Teaching philosophy is the feeding of people who are neither hungry nor know what food is.
Teaching is like agitating water in a glass with one's forefinger. As long as the finger is in motion, the water is agitated; but as soon as the finger is removed, the water returns to its quiescent state.
Philosophy, like a virgin, is wasted on the young.
The classroom is a scene of unreality. No one takes it quite seriously. Not the students, from whom little is expected and less demanded. Not the teachers, who waste their time in discipline and remediation.
According to an apocryphal story about George Santayana, one day, while lecturing at Harvard, he suddenly intuited the absurdity of teaching. Stopping in mid-sentence, he walked out of the classroom never to return. The truth is less dramatic: he dutifully finished the semester, turned in his grades, resigned his professorship, and embarked for Rome where he spent the rest of his life in cultured retirement.
"I would rather eat dry bread than teach." Franz Schubert, quoted in Maurice J.E. Brown, Schubert: A Critical Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1988), p. 233.
"I would rather sweep the streets than teach children!" Ralph E. Hone, Dorothy L. Sayers: A Literary Biography (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1979), p. 24. Hone is quoting Sayers.
The quotations borrowed from Dr. Gilleland, antediluvian, bibliomaniac, and curmudgeon.
At a gathering of Boston academicians some years back, by way of a conversational opener, I said to Professor X, "I understand you teach at the University of L." The good professor replied, "I conduct classes at the University of L." I found that to be a very good distinction, one borne out by my own experience.
60 Minutes last night did a segment on the Khan Academy, an online source of short tutorials in mathematics, science, and other subjects. A wonderful resource for homeschoolers and anyone interested in filling in the gaps in his education. I viewed a couple of algebra and a couple of probability lectures last night and found them to be of high quality. Recommended by Bill Gates.
I once had a graduate student with whom I became friends. Ned Flynn, to give him a name, one day told me that after he finished high school he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and get a job with the railroad. His mother, however, wanted something 'better' for her son. She wanted him to go to college, which he did, in the desultory fashion of many. He ended up declaring a major in psychology and graduating. After spending some time in a monastery, perhaps also at the instigation of his Irish Catholic mother, and still not knowing quite what to do with himself, he was accepted into an M.A. program in philosophy, which is where I met him. After goofing around for several more years, he took a job as a social worker, a job which did not suit him. Last I saw him he was in his mid-thirties and pounding nails.
His complaint to me was that, had he followed his natural bent, he would have had fifteen or so years of job seniority with the railroad, a good paycheck, and a house half paid for. Instead, he wasted years on studies for which he had no real inclination, and no real talent. He had no discernible interest in the life of the mind, and like most working class types could not take it seriously. If you are from the working class, you will know what I mean: 'real' work must involve grunting and sweating and schlepping heavy loads. Those who work on oil rigs or in the building trades do real work. Reading, writing, and thinking are activities deemed effete and not quite real. When my mother saw me reading books, she would sometimes tell me to go outside and do something. That use of 'do' betrayed her working class values. What she didn't realize was that by reading all those fancy books I was putting myself in a position where I could live by my wits and avoid the schlepping and grunting. Of course, the purpose of the life of the mind is not to avoid grunt work, with which I have some acquaintance, but to live a truly human life, whether one fills one's belly from it or not.
Overeducation' is perhaps not the right word for cases like my former student Ned. Strictly speaking, one cannot be overeducated since there is and can be no end to true education. The word is from the Latin e-ducere, to draw out, and there can be no end to the process of actualizing the potential of a mind with an aptitude for learning. Perhaps the right word is 'over-credentialed.' It is clear that what most people in pursuit of 'higher education' want is not an education, strictly speaking, but a credential that will gain them admittance to a certain social and/or economic status. 'Education as most people use it nowadays is a euphemism for a ticket to success, where the latter is defined in terms of money and social position.
My library extends through each room of my house, except the bathrooms. (I suspect that in the average household, where the only purpose of reading could be to inspire excretion, it is the other way around.) If I weren’t pro-Israel I would say that my library commits territorial aggression against my wife’s ‘Palestinian’ books; her few shelves are either occupied territories or under threat of occupation. My bibliomaniacal blogger-buddies would turn green with envy if ever they laid eyes on my library. So I shall have to protect them from descent into this, arguably the deadliest, of the seven deadly sins.
Many of my books were acquired on the cheap from used bookstores in college towns such as Boston-Cambridge and Bloomington, Indiana. I used to really clean up when disgruntled graduate students packed it in, dumping costly libraries purchased with daddy’s money into the used book dens.
Among the used books I scored were plenty of copies of philosophical classics used in undergraduate courses. I always used to get a kick out of the marginalia, if you want to call them that. Mostly it was the absence of marginalia that caught my eye, an absence corresponding to the paucity of thought with which the reading was done. The rare marginalium was usually pathetic. Here is a passage from Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason (1794):
Revelation is a communication of something which the person to whom that thing is revealed did not know before. For if I have done a thing or seen it done, it needs no revelation to tell me I have done it or seen it, nor to enable me to tell it or to write it. (LLA, p. 13)
That’s not the best writing in the world, but the thought is clear enough. Our brilliant student’s comment? "Word Play!" ‘Word Play!’ is ever on the lips of boneheads who cannot or will not comprehend any piece of well-constructed prose. The litany of the blockhead: Word Play! Semantics! Hairsplitting!
One good thing about student marginalia was that it never extended very far since the reading never extended very far: the obscene magic marker underlining typically ceased three or four pages into the text.
One of the many drawbacks of teaching is that one could never get the little effers to do the reading especially if one used primary sources, refusing to dumb things down with comic books, audiovisual 'aids,' etc.: once they saw that genuine effort was demanded, they wimped out. All my preaching about being athletes of the mind availed nothing, falling on dead ears, like pearls before swine. Or am I being too harsh?
Harsh or not, it is blissful to repose in my Bradleyan reclusivity, far from the unreality of the classroom.
I am enjoying teaching quite a bit now that I no longer do it. With some things it is not the doing of it that we like so much as the having done it.
One day in class I carefully explained the abbreviation ‘iff’ often employed by philosophers and mathematicians to avoid writing ‘if and only if.’ I explained the logical differences among ‘if,’ ‘only if,’ and ‘if and only if.’ I gave examples. I brought in necessary and sufficient conditions. The whole shot. But I wasn’t all that surprised when I later read a student comment to the effect that Dr. V. can’t spell ‘if.’
An eager young nun and a wise old nun were discussing teaching over lunch. The young nun was waxing enthusiastic over the privilege, but also the responsibility, of forming young minds. The old nun took a glass of water, inserted her forefinger, and agitated the water. Suddenly she removed her finger and the water immediately returned to its quiescent state.
Regarding your post about Cantor, Morris Kline, and potentially vs. actually infinite sets: I was a math major in college, so I do know a little about math (unlike philosophy where I'm a rank newbie); on the other hand, I didn't pursue math beyond my bachelor's degree so I don't claim to be an expert. However, I do know that we never used the terms "potentially infinite" vs. "actually infinite".
I am not surprised, but this indicates a problem with the way mathematics is taught: it is often taught in a manner that is both ahistorical and unphilosophical. If one does not have at least a rough idea of the development of thought about infinity from Aristotle on, one cannot properly appreciate the seminal contribution of Georg Cantor (1845-1918), the creator of transfinite set theory. Cantor sought to achieve an exact mathematics of the actually infinite. But one cannot possibly understand the import of this project if one is unfamiliar with the distinction between potential and actual infinity and the controversies surrounding it. As it seems to me, a proper mathematical education at the college level must include:
1. Some serious attention to the history of the subject.
2. Some study of primary texts such as Euclid's Elements, David Hilbert's Foundations of Geometry, Richard Dedekind's Continuity and Irrational Numbers, Cantor's Contributions to the Founding of the Theory of Transfinite Numbers, etc. Ideally, these would be studied in their original languages!
3. Some serious attention to the philosophical issues and controversies swirling around fundamental concepts such as set, limit, function, continuity, mathematical induction, etc. Textbooks give the wrong impression: that there is more agreement than there is; that mathematical ideas spring forth ahistorically; that there is only one way of doing things (e.g., only one way of construction the naturals from sets); that all mathematicians agree.
Not that the foregoing ought to supplant a textbook-driven approach, but that the latter ought to be supplemented by the foregoing. I am not advocating a 'Great Books' approach to mathematical study.
Given what I know of Cantor's work, is it possible that by "potentially infinite" Kline means "countably infinite", i.e., 1 to 1 with the natural numbers?
Such sets include the whole numbers and the rational numbers, all of which are "extensible" in the sense that you can put them into a 1 to 1 correspondence with the natural numbers; and given the Nth member, you can generate the N+1st member. The size of all such sets is the transfinite number "aleph null". The set of all real numbers, which includes the rationals and the irrationals, constitute a larger infinity denoted by the transfinite number C; it cannot be put into a 1 to 1 correspondence with the natural numbers, and hence is not generable in the same way as the rational numbers. This would seem to correspond to what Kline calls "actually infinite".
It is clear that you understand some of the basic ideas of transfinite set theory, but what you don't understand is that the distinction between the countably (denumerably) infinite and the uncountably (nondenumerably) infinite falls on the side of the actual infinite. The countably infinite has nothing to do with the potentially infinite. I suspect that you don't know this because your teachers taught you math in an ahistorical manner out of boring textbooks with no presentation of the philosophical issues surrounding the concept of infinity. In so doing they took a lot of the excitement and wonder out of it. So what did you learn? You learned how to solve problems and pass tests. But how much actual understanding did you come away with?
Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1929) begins with this paragraph:
Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art. We have to remember that the valuable intellectual development is self-development, and that it mostly takes place between the ages of sixteen and thirty. As to training, the most important part is given by mothers before the age of twelve. A saying due to Archbishop Temple illustrates my meaning. Surprise was expressed at the success in after-life of a man, who as a boy at Rugby had been somewhat undistinguished. He answered, "It is not what they are at eighteen, it is what they become afterwards that matters."
That few today understand what education is is betrayed by the readiness of all too many to use 'educate' in place of 'inform.' Suppose you tell me about some petty fact. You have not 'educated' me, you have given me a scrap of information. The educated person is not the one whose head is stuffed with information, but the one whose experientially-honed judgment is capable of making sense of information. To become well-informed is not difficult; to become well-educated is a task of self-development for a lifetime.
The following is from Theodor Haecker's Tag-und Nachtbücher 1939-1945, translated into English by Alexander Dru as Journal in the Night (Pantheon Books, 1950), pp. 114-115.) I have made a couple of corrections in the translation. The following entry was written in 1940 in Hitler's Germany. The National Socialists seized power in 1933 and their 'one thousand year Reich' collapsed under the Allied assault in 1945. Haecker, a Christian, was bitterly opposed to the Nazi regime. Haecker's Journal provides keen insight into a dark time when an entire society went off the rails.
Some 37 percent of American adults cannot figure a 10 percent discount on a price, even using a calculator. (Emphasis added.) The same percentage cannot read a bus schedule or write a letter about a credit card error. According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, last taken in 1992 by the Department of Education, 14 percent cannot total a deposit slip, locate an intersection on a map, understand an appliance warranty, or determine the correct dosage of a medicine.
This is astonishing, if true. One thing that struck my conservative eye was 'Department of Education.' One wonders what the percentage of incompetents was before the inauguration of this behemoth agency. I'll bet it was less.
In one sense a philosophy is a set of conclusions, systematically set forth, on ultimate matters. To appreciate the conclusions, however, one must appreciate the arguments and counterarguments the sifting of which first led the philosopher to the conclusions. But to understand the arguments and counterarguments one must understand the issues and problems that they revolve around. Appreciation of the issues and problems, in turn, is rooted in wonder the presupposition of which is a contemplative detachment from the taken-for-granted.
And so we must distinguish: doctrines, arguments, problems, wonder. Philosophy as the study of the doctrines of the philosophers is philosophy in its most superficial sense. Studying that, one is not studying philosophy, but philosophies, and them in their most external form. Philosophy as the grappling with the arguments whose conclusions are the doctrines is closer to the real thing. Philosophy as the exfoliation and penetration of the problems themselves, under suspension of the need to solve them at all costs, is closer still to philosophy's throbbing heart. This is philosophy as aporetics. But without wonder there can be no appreciation of problems, let alone solutions. Thus we have it on the excellent authority of both Plato and Aristotle that philosophy begins in wonder.
Upshot? Teaching philosophy is well-nigh impossible. One can of course teach the lore of the philosophers, but that is not what philosophy is in its vital essence. And although argumentative and logical skills are impartable to the moderately intelligent, the aporetic sense, the feel for a philosophical problem, is not readily imparted regardless of the intelligence of the student. A fortiori, the wonder at the source of the aporetic sense is a gift of the gods, and nothing a mere mortal teacher can dispense.
So I propose to go Kant one better. Somewhere deep in the bowels of TheCritique of Pure Reason, he remarks that "Philosophy cannot be taught, we can at most learn to philosophize." I say that neither philosophy as doctrinal system nor the art of philosophizing can be taught. For there is no one extant doctrinal system called philosophy, and neither the aporetic sense nor the wonder at its root can be taught. As I used to say in my teaching days, "Philosophy cannot be a mass consumption item." Logic perhaps, philosophy no.
Or to paraphrase a remark I once heard Hans-Georg Gadamer make, "Just as there are the musical and the unmusical, there are the philosophical and the unphilosophical." One cannot teach music to the unmusical or philosophy to the unphilosophical. The muse of philosophy must have visited you; otherwise you are out of luck.