Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Dorothy Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Gene Veith, Andrew Kern and Public Classical Education

An Academic Institution should never be grounded in Anecdote. 

The seductive polemics of these four populist authors boils down to their assertion that "Truth is what we believe it to be."  Basically they exhibit the very kinds of arguments Socrates loved to take down. 
While there exist many readily available populist accounts which praise and encourage a need for Classical Education, the difficulty for Public Schools wishing to adopt a Classical Curriculum lay in that the majority of these essays and books are inadequate.  While they often raise good points, they rely more heavily upon Rhetoric to persuade while lacking both Logic and substance.  
In recent decades, the majority of published works on Classical Education are based neither in academic research in cognitive development, nor are they informed through rigorous academic scholarship which utilizes critical examination of Classical sources through historical methods and textual reception.   More often than not, these works are limit the variety of Classical thought -- cutting away significant primary sources which challenge the convictions of the particular market to which they are trying to sell their product.(ironically this strategy alone --i.e. forgoing the pursuit of truth and holding customers in ignorance by marketing for the sake of personal profit -- seems quite contrary to the values of Classical Virtue Ethics)

The fact is, many Classical schools which promise to instill life long learning and critical thought  have founded their educational philosophy upon texts which have not been critically examined.  

A school which is built upon such foundation of empty Rhetoric alone does not stand up to scrutiny. Some populist works which have been cited in the modern Classical Education movement include two 1940s era speeches by British fiction authors: Dorothy Sayers', The Lost Tools of Learning and C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.  While I personally find their rhetoric inspiring for an audience already convinced of the need for classical education, and as such remain recommended reading, their arguments raise a number of "red flags" to student of Logic, their historical accuracy is a bit sketchy for the student of Classics, and their misrepresentation of progressive education is unfair an a quite a bit overblown. 

So a list such as this (Suggested Readings for Public Schools) is intended for a school committee to move well beyond these more populist works,do the hard work and delve deeper into rigorous academic research to provide a more substantive base which will hold up to Academic scrutiny.
As a start, I recommend the following anonymous critique of a C.S. Lewis argument in one of the chapters of The Abolition of Man.  It is entitled, CS Lewis Men without Chests, a Critique.  While this may not be a perfect critique, the author does point out some of Lewis' more obvious logical fallacies.

Critique of the Gene Veith / Andrew Kern book
The work Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America by Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Andrew/Kern is a short readable book intended persuade the general audience, who are not versed in academic scholarship. The authors appear to be neither Classics scholars nor educational theorists.  Dr. Veith holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Kansas, and Andrew Kern, holds a BA From Concordia Univeristy, though he does not indicate in what field.  

Their work focuses on the various ways the new Classical Education movement, begun in the later half of the 20th century, has been implemented throughout the United States. There exist much to be admired in their easy to read approach. It serves as a good starting point for some casual discussions. It provides quick uncritical descriptions of the Trivium and Quadrivium in the Liberal Arts curriculum of the Middle Ages; its shares the common frustrations held by many of us who teach in the humanities; and as a source for those looking for a particular kind of Liberal Arts college curriculum.  As a foundational text for establishing a public state funded charter school however, this work should not be considered without some serious reservations. 

As the work focuses on modern schools,  a number of works cited are written by those have proposed methods and started their own Classical Education schools,  A critical examination of the End Notes reveal a serious lack of primary Classical sources and critical evidenced-based research in education.  As such it ignores the majority of core philosophical topics discussed by the ancients.  These sources are essential to bring fully informed discussion of Classical ideals to the foreground.. Tbe work relies on secondary sources such as newspaper editorials and articles from official sounding journals.

The result is a biased opinion intended both to politicize and to market Classical Education to a "family values demographic who are skeptical of academics engaged in critical evidence based research.

Veith and Kern reel in the casual reader with the common frustrations in contemporary education.
If Veith and Kern stopped with these points, This book would serve as a perfect introductory guide for a public state funded school
Once hooked, the authors subtly misrepresent other educational methods.  They do this by building upon the unnecessary fallacies begun by Lewis and Sayers deriding and equating extreme straw man stereotypes.  What is left is a narrative that dishonestly confuses such concepts as Multiculturalism, Post Modernism, Dewey, Progressive Education, Evolution, Evidence based scholarship etc.  For them, these concepts are not only separate from but also destructive to Classical Education and their adherents serve as oppressors to "Free thinkers" in higher education.  Dr. Veith uses the term Fascist to characterize those who do not adhere to his vision of Classical Education.  For more in his own words view:

He sounds friendly and sincere, but his strategy is to vilify, a common rhetorical strategy utilized when an author, who cannot present a logical or substantive argument, wants to persuade the mob.  It is far easier to play the victim of "post-modernists" (p. 112) when an author wishes to justify their avoidance of utilizing critical research and peer review.

Veith and Kern's Classical Education serves as an excuse to attack Classical scholarship and evidence based research.. Because of their omission of actual primary sources, They remove the process and methods essential to Classical Philosophy from the center of Classical Education,  To fill this void, he favors one particular strand of belief.  In their case, this clears the way for a definition of "Truth" that is exclusively Bible-based, universally supportive of free enterprise, and Intelligent Design.

All other historical criticisms to that view, they brand as "Post Modern" or "Dewey" influenced. Here is a link to Kerns anti-Dewey, Anti-Darwin polemic:

Anyone who spends so much time bashing the Socratic influenced methods of inquiry practiced by John Dewey has clearly never read Plato, OR Dewey,...or the vast bulk of Classical philosophical dialog for the past 2,500 years. Then someone like Veith who refers to Academics who actually engage in peer review and historical research methodologies, as "Fascists" who discourage "Free Speech" This Cult of Sayers, Lewis, Kern, and Veith is poisonous to Classical Education -- (don't even get me started on their straw man fallacies against Analytic Philosophy.)

I should not have to point out the irony, that if questioning the values of Western Civilization were in conflict with Classical Education, we would have no Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, Hildegard von Bingen, Martin Luther, Galileo, John Adams, Thomas Jeffereson, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr.     Finally, at the risk of committing a few logical fallacies myself it should be noted that  1) Schools which require a signed Statement of Faith, such as Patrick Henry College where Dr. Veith teaches, limit freedom of inquiry required for Classical Education; 2) The book itself is published by a conservative think tank, Capital Research Center  --

In the end, we have to wonder who benefits? It is merely an excuse for them to say, We don't need to abide by Scientific Method, We'll just sell books to a like minded mobs, using Anecdotes instead of legitimate sources. 

No comments:

Post a Comment