One of the readers of this blog asks a good question about last week’s post, “Why Can’t Johnnie Reason?”:
“So, Johnnie can't reason because he wasn't taught, because his teachers didn't learn or weren't taught. It's outside the scope of a brief post to trace the causal chain back to its source, but do you have a notion of what is responsible for the flight from reason broadly speaking? Because I assume that it began as a conscious rejection rather than as an inadvertently lost skill.”
That’s a tough one, but I think there are at least two great tangles or clusters of causes. One of these clusters has to do with sheer pedagogical sloppiness. The other, which has taken longer to develop, has to do with the rise of skepticism over the last seven or eight centuries. Untangling these mare’s nests will take a long, long time. Our children and children’s children will have their work cut out for them.
The skepticism of our day is quite different from the skepticism of most of the ancients. When Marcus Tullius Cicero called himself a skeptic, he merely meant that he was always open to new arguments, although in the meantime he would accept the opinion for which the best reasons could be offered.
Today’s more radical skepticism, which tends to deny the very possibility of knowledge, has a number of contributing causes, for example the irrationalism of Martin Luther, the vastly influential Protestant Reformer, who wrote in his last sermon in Wittenberg (1546), “But the devil's bride, reason, the lovely whore comes in and wants to be wise .... As a young man must resist lust and an old man avarice, so reason is by nature a harmful whore. But she shall not harm me, if only I resist her. Ah, but she is so comely and glittering .... Therefore, see to it that you hold reason in check and do not follow her beautiful cogitations. Throw dirt in her face and make her ugly.”
But a deeper and subtler cause is what philosophers call the “epistemological turn.” The wise approach to reality taken by thinkers like Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas set things before knowledge. They approached all kinds of things this way – material objects, volitions, qualities, whatever they may be – for no matter what we are studying, we have to know something before we can investigate how we know it. But in the modern era, we reverse this procedure. Before studying what there is to know, we insist on a critique of our ability to know anything at all. Extreme skepticism is but one of the bad results of this shift.
Of course even the skeptic has to assume that something is true; otherwise he has no way to decide what to do and how to live – the springs of action lose their springiness. In practice, then, extreme skepticism turns into its opposite, extreme conventionalism. For the supposed skeptic doesn’t really reject prejudice; he unquestioningly accepts every prejudice that has learned to put on skeptical airs.
Pedagogical sloppiness has causes of its own. Alexis de Tocqueville drew attention to the hurriedness of modern life, which leads to an intellectual demand that everything be made easy. First, books were made easier; now, with the rise of the technologies of glibness, students are losing the very habit of reading books. Another cause is the Pragmatist educational reforms of the early twentieth century, which held that facts keep changing and the only thing worth teaching is how to learn. You would think that “learning how to learn” would include learning logic, wouldn’t you? But no, Pragmatists think that even the rules of logic are no more than useful generalizations which at some point may cease to be useful.
Then there are all our destructive faux-democratic notions, for example that college should be a universal certifier (which requires dumbing it down so that even people who cannot genuinely benefit from higher education can be pushed through), and that students should evaluate their teachers (which punishes teachers who make their charges work). And let us not forget the disappearance of silence -- so that even if the student should take it upon himself to think about something, he can’t hear himself do it.