Sunday, November 15, 2009

Truth, Tradition and the Four Causes

Good post at Quiddity about progressive, traditional and classical education.
The sophist does not believe in a knowable universe, so he focuses on adapting to change. The modern version of this approach is progressivism.

The traditionalist believes that knowledge is embodied in a tradition, so he focuses on absorbing and perpetuating that tradition. Many variations of this approach are followed in contemporary schools, but the best of the traditional theorists is probably ED Hirsch with his Core Knowledge approach.

The classicist believes in a knowable world in which knowledge is perception and relationship.

I've been thinking recently about how "tradition" will look compared to (I suppose) "truth" (knowledge as perception and relationship) in the homeschool. Our charter school, as you know, uses a basically Hirschean approach.

So what are the "differentiae" (to use a cool new word I got from reading The Categories)? What, specifically, distinguishes the traditional from the classical education?

This sounds like a rhetorical question, but it's not; I don't have an answer for it.

To try to work it out I'll resort to the four "causes" -- the formal cause, the material cause, the efficient cause, the final cause.

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: -- the telos -- “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.

  • First, the matter, the material of the education.

    For a traditionalist, it is "tradition" -- acculturation, transmission of the cultural heritage. That is, the old things will be taught and learned. History and literature and how they relate to the sciences will be emphasized. (In a secular program, religion will be discussed but there won't be specific doctrinal or devotional instruction).

    For a classicist, how would it be different? The classical languages would probably be higher priority. Science would take a relative back seat.

    The Quiddity blogger says that to the classical educator, "knowledge is perception and relationship". I do not think the traditionalist thinks of it quite this way. From what I've read, knowledge is more directly factual and informative. I will have a hard time pulling out the distinction. I am getting the sense as I go through K12 that at the primary levels at least, the knowledge gained is at least partly "knowledge about" rather than "knowledge of". The core idea is that "knowledge about" paves the way for acquisition of more knowledge. But is it just "more" in the sense of "multa", heaps upon heaps? Or does it mean more understanding of the higher things? I haven't found much that speaks to that.

    Now for the formal aspect ---hmm, would that be the structure? Does form mean structure here?

    The traditionalist starts from the beginning. History is studied from Day One up to the present. The study of literature starts from the simple folk tales, poems and fairy stories of childhood and works up from there. The study of language starts with one's own and begins with letters and their sounds, and progresses to syllables and words and sentences. Science starts with the broadest and simplest ideas and becomes more specialized as the level gets higher. They all start with the particular and primary and go up towards more specialized and abstract. They all tend to have an analysis/synthesis approach. You distinguish, then combine.

    As for the classicist -- hmm, it seems to me it would be fairly similar. At least, many sites I've been to and books I've read seem to have said that.

    Now the efficient cause -- that one concerns which agent puts the thing into effect.

    For an education, that would be the teacher and the student.

    In progressive and classical theory, the student is the primary agent. That is, the student is the one who accomplishes the act of knowledge. The teacher may help (and HOW this is done and WHAT is done delineates the difference between the classicist and progressive) but the task of learning rests on the student.

    Is that true for the traditionalist as well? I think perhaps it has to be -- certainly, in effect it breaks down that way somewhat, because most traditionalists expect mastery of skills and content from the student. And that will not happen without some agency of the student. However, I think the teacher's role is more emphasized with traditional teaching because so much of what is to be learned is to do with transmission -- of skills and knowledge. The skills and knowledge reside in the teacher and are to be imparted to the student. (This is true in classical education as well, but there's a subtle philosophical difference, I believe).

    Now for the telos -- the purpose, the goal, the outcome or end:

    The traditionalist, I believe, is concerned with transmitting a heritage he believes in. For Hirsch, as I understand it, this is American citizenship at its finest. The model is the America of the founders, which was Enlightenment deistic rationalism. Students should be educated to meet their responsibilities as members of a Polis which has the highest expectations for its citizenry's reason, judgment and virtue. The model also dealt with traditional natural virtues like diligence and ingenuity and pulling one's own weight.

    Now for the classicist, at least for Aristotle, this political and civic end was of key importance too, though I don't think it was the highest. A man was his own end, not subordinate to the end of something else, not even the Polis. For the Christian, this civic end is subordinated to a still higher end -- citizenship in the City of God. But the higher end subsumes but does not contradict the lower one, properly understood. In other words, the best citizen will be the one who rises beyond mere law and order. Witness St Thomas More -- "I die the King's good servant, but God's first." and Antigone: "Behold me, princes of Thebes, the last daughter of the house of your kings,-see what I suffer, and from whom, because I feared to cast away the fear of Heaven! "

    I don't think the Hirsch-style traditional education has an essential problem with this (considering the founding of our country integrally concerned the rights of individual men above the law of the ruling government) but it does usually remain silent because in tune with our national ideal of religious toleration it prefers that religious instruction be a private and church matter.

    So to sum up where I am in thinking about this -- I see the Hirsch "traditional" position being concerned with temporal things whereas classical education is concerned with things outside of time and place, though because as Aristotle says all knowledge starts with sensation, the beginning of knowledge is always located in time and place. So there is some overlap, but classical education reaches higher. On the other hand, without the Antigone and More-type "City of God" perspective (or perhaps Socrates is another example of someone who showed love for his city by being willing to stand up to it), I question whether even the secular civic goals can really and truly be carried out.

    So it makes me wonder whether an education concerned strictly with secular goods, even the highest secular goods, can be somewhat of a distraction in its effects. Or can the "efficient means" -- the teacher and the family -- take the traditional matter and form and use them to point to higher things, considering that there is some overlap of matter, form and telos between the different styles of education? (again, not a rhetorical question -- it's something I'm obviously pondering quite a bit, and I don't have an answer)


    1. Just wondering if you saw this article about Core Knowledge in City Journal:

      One thing I notice in these types of articles is that the proof of efficacy is almost always test scores. I guess they have to have some way of documenting progress for large numbers of students, but it's certainly a different sort of telos than what Kern or Pieper would assert.

      I, too, wonder if the means affect the end. At least, I notice in our homeschool that every time I get wrapped up in "getting it all done," the relationship, which is supposed to reflect the higher end of man's nature, suffers. I have realized that most of what I say during the day lately is "Have you done your___________?" And I cringe. But I don't know the answer either, except that I am looking around for some way to recapture the wonder.

    2. Thanks for the link, Laura.

      Yes, I too notice that the proof is in the testing. I could probably write a whole post on that. I think it's a symptom of our system -- when Aidan's in the hospital, he gets his temperature taken every four hours, day and night. At home, we don't bother with thermometers unless he's acting sick. YOu can see why they do the monitoring in the hospital -- because kids are in there for a reason, and because the hospital itself has some infectious dangers that even a messy home like ours does not.

      Plus, I'm thinking "If public schools don't teach what can be tested, what CAN they teach?" In other words, I think it's creepy and dishonest to say you're educating kids and spend lots of money and time doing it and then not be able to point to any kind of results except "they are better citizens" or something very vague like that.

      A public school's only proper purpose is to teach core academics and some type of general civic knowledge. There is a lot of testing in K12. However, I'm so glad it's testing of content rather than something creepy like assessing good citizenship or good values or whatever. (I always used to hate those "personal" questions that were asked in religious classes and some literature classes back in the 70's. )

      About the wonder.... aye, I know. Part of my ambivalence is that I don't know how to teach wonder. I went to a very progressive school and then to a very traditional one and I learned wonder out of school hours. I almost think sometimes that there has to be a slight subversive element to successful schooling. The kids almost have to reflect critically on their education in order to get full benefit from it. But I'm not sure at all about that. It's just something I dust off and ponder once in a while.


    I would love to hear your thoughts on this!