September 20, 2004

Principles of education (#17)

We should teach our students to think well. It is very hard to say what
thinking well means or how it can be taught. I doubt it can be taught
– by courses on thinking well, for example – but maybe it can be
taught indirectly, by having students undergo educational experiences that
transform the way they think.

L'homme n'est qu'un roseau, le plus faible de la nature; mais c'est un roseau pensant . . . Travaillons donc à bien penser: voilà le principe de la morale.
[Man is but a reed, the feeblest thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed . . .
Let us work to think well: that is the whole basis for the right-ordering of our lives.]
—Blaise Pascal

We should teach our students to think well. It is very hard to say what
thinking well means or how it can be taught. I doubt it can be taught
– by courses on thinking well, for example – but maybe it can be
taught indirectly, by having students undergo educational experiences that
transform the way they think. Two kinds of educational experiences seem
to me especially apt:

1. The mastering of practical skills and rigorous disciplines (and of
rigorous content in all disciplines). In these cases thinking wrong (with
respect to the disipline's internal norms) leads to failure of some sort
(the theory or model is not verified by data, or the foreigner does not
understand what you're saying in his language). These instances of
– much more effectively I suspect than any explicit instruction
– gradually train the learner to transform his thinking by adopting
modes of thought that produce success. Maybe these improved habits of
thinking can somehow spill over into tasks for which immediate checks on
the rightness or wrongness of thinking are lacking (interpreting a poem,
conceiving God); Plato at least appears to have thought so, as he made
math a prerequisite for everything else at his school, the original

2. Learning foreign languages. By language I mean a set of concepts
attached to signs, with rules governing the manipulation of those concepts
and signs to accomplish certain results. All our disciplines and
subdisciplines operate to some degree through peculiar languages of this
sort. Which of these languages are most foreign
– that is, farthest
removed from the colloquial jargon and thought-modes members of our tribe
use to muddle through every-day life
– it is hard to say; the most
obviously foreign seem to me those of math and the sciences (in proportion
as they are purely scientific) and of course foreign languages in the
ordinary sense (French, Spanish); and it is perhaps no coincidence that
the GER's in math, the natural sciences, and foreign languages are
precisely those that generate the greatest student recalcitrance.

I think it is very difficult for someone who knows only one language (in
this expanded use of the term)
– the ordinary words and thought-modes he
learned as a child and through which he began to think and acquired
– to avoid, however clever he may be, a certain debilitating
form of intellectual hebetude, which it is very hard for me to explain,
but has something to do with the assumption that one's concepts are simply
realities, and with an obliviousness to the syntax through which one
manipulates those concepts. The process of learning after childhood a new
language (medieval theology, Japanese, Euclidean geometry, baroque
counterpoint) produces first pain and dizziness, as easy older
thought-habits are surrendered and assumptions come unmoored, but gives
rise ultimately to a sort of enlightenment, or at least a corrective
transformation of one's thinking, that could perhaps have been achieved in
no other way.

A central question in curricular revision is of course that of free choice
or compulsion. I favor compulsion. Increased freedom will permit
students to steer around precisely those painfully rigorous and foreign
lines of study that would most effectively transform their thinking. The
truly essential part of any student's curriculum may perhaps be defined as
that which he is destined initially to hate and resist, hatred and
resistence being a symptom of the discomfort of having to think in an
unaccustomed way. Everything worthwhile I've ever done (learning to swim,
eating vegetables, reading Pascal, writing this) I was initially compelled
to do. But I believe our system of requirements might be reordered, by
replacing isolated courses with meaningful groupings, to ensure that in
their encounter with new disciplines students make it beyond the level of
pain to that of enlightenment.

This is what I had to say. I think it is insufficient in many ways,
especially these:

1. It addresses thinking well, but not feeling well. Should we – can we
– teach students to feel esthetic and ethical beauty, and to emulate it in
creative or moral deeds of their own? On the one hand I come close to
believing that this is the only truly constructive thing we can do, as I
suspect that thinking well must ultimately issue in an acknowledgement of
ignorance; and I can't help feeling that the modern university curriculum,
when it evolved into something rigorously and exclusively critical,
amputated its heart. On the other hand I fear that the effort to impart
moral values or esthetic enthusiasms tends often to short-circuit,
generating in those to whom it is directed cant and half-conscious
hypocrisies. Further, I wonder if the positing of certain truths as
principles of our education is consistent with thinking well, which surely
means thinking freely. If the rightness of sympathy is made a principle
of the curriculum, will I be able to think freely with students about
Nietzsche, who contends that cruelty is noble, sympathy base? And if not,
will we in fact have limited the potential strength of students' ultimate
attachment to sympathy, as they will have this value served to them,
rather than thinking with full freedom about Nietzsche and the gospels and
many other things and eventually choosing sympathy for themselves?

2. It does not address the need to prepare students of the 21st century
to play some role in, or at least experience lucidly, what seems to be an
unfolding transformation of humanity and its habitat. I have acquired
from superficial journalism the impression that mammals can now be
reproduced by a method different from the only one available for the
previous hundred million years; that my disgruntled co-worker may before
long have an atom bomb at his disposal; that instead of experiencing the
passions of the soul tragically or philosophically I may now suppress them
with drugs and eventually through genetic techniques; and so on. I
probably know less about all of this than any of you, having spent much of
the last decade reading books in dead languages. But it occurs to me that
an education for 21st-century elites of the world superpower should
somehow take into account this prospect
– reality or illusion – of some
looming immolation or apotheosis. I have no idea how to do this. How,
for example, does one use ethics, which assumes some constant human
nature, in deciding whether to change human nature? I confess that
without some powerful stimulus or help, I'm likely to ignore the whole
problem. "Nous courons sans souci dans le précipice," says Pascal in
another thought, "après avoir mis quelque chose devant pour empêcher de le
voir." ["We run without worry toward the cliff-edge, after putting
something in front of our eyes to keep us from seeing it."]


Posted by love at September 20, 2004 08:46 AM
Discuss this proposal in the forum, or leave a comment below!