Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Education Machine

A few weeks ago in class, I got to talk about one of my favorite subjects: the medieval educational curriculum. Justifying a Roman outline by the words of Solomon in Proverbs 9:1, the medieval scholars adopted the seven ancient liberal arts as their seven pillars of wisdom. Beginning with the Trivium (whence our trivial, originally meaning “elementary”), students in the Middle Ages mastered Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic. In other words, they learned the mechanics of language so they could read and write, they learned to write eloquently and persuasively, and they learned how to think clearly. The graduate of these courses could call himself a Bachelor. Once books and rational argument were opened to them by these arts, students proceeded to the Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy. These mathematical fields revealed the way in which the world works and holds together, and the conqueror in these fields earned the title of Master. These seven pillars in turn supported four different doctoral programs: Philosophy, Theology, Medicine, and Law (the sources of our Ph.D., D.D., M.D., and J.D., respectively).

The system fits together so nicely, like a well-tuned machine that graced medieval Europe as a lovely, noble, and useful institution for a thousand years. Every piece plays a part, and the whole circumnavigates the world of knowledge. True, the curriculum has no place for practical arts such as engineering and architecture, painting and dance. But virtually any other field a present-day college student can major in is there, at least in spirit. Physics falls under Astronomy, Political Science under Philosophy. Communications corresponds to Rhetoric, and History can be found in Grammar, since much of what the student of Latin Grammar practiced on were the chronicles of Caesar, Livy, and so on.

This past week, I read two short works that praised universal systems of learning only to pull up their foundations. Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost begins with three young scholars ready to sign an oath to study the great books with the King of Navarre for three years and make his court a “little Academe.” The problem is, the agreement includes one clause prohibiting girlfriends and another that insists on a weekly fast. As young Biron explains while he hesitates to sign, a woman’s beauty and a good meal are two subjects most worthy of study, so why ban them from the academic discipline? And, he goes on, a walk in the night is no more pleasant for knowing the names of the stars. Now I disagree with Biron on that last point, but if the pompous Don Adriano de Armado represents the goal of study, then he and his friend the King of Navarre would do well to quote Ecclesiastes to each other three times every morning: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

Love’s Labour’s Lost is the least accessible of all of Shakespeare’s works. The scholars in its story are made dangerous by their little bits of knowledge, and the middle acts with their relentless badinage of topical puns and misquoted philosophy just don’t make much sense anymore. I’d read Titus Andronicus five times before I read LLL again. Descartes’ Discourse on Method, on the other hand, speaks readily and charmingly to today’s reader. The French scientist and rationalist describes near the beginning of his tract how much he loved school when he was young and recognized his studies’ value:
I was aware that the languages taught in them are necessary to the understanding of the writings of the ancients; that the grace of fable stirs the mind; that the memorable deeds of history elevate it; and, if read with discretion, aid in forming the judgment; that the perusal of all excellent books is, as it were, to interview with the noblest men of past ages, who have written them, and even a studied interview, in which are discovered to us only their choicest thoughts; that eloquence has incomparable force and beauty; that poesy has its ravishing graces and delights; that in the mathematics there are many refined discoveries eminently suited to gratify the inquisitive, as well as further all the arts an lessen the labour of man; that numerous highly useful precepts and exhortations to virtue are contained in treatises on morals; that theology points out the path to heaven; that philosophy affords the means of discoursing with an appearance of truth on all matters, and commands the admiration of the more simple; that jurisprudence, medicine, and the other sciences, secure for their cultivators honors and riches; and, in fine, that it is useful to bestow some attention upon all, even upon those abounding the most in superstition and error, that we may be in a position to determine their real value, and guard against being deceived.
But, as he goes on to explain, he became dismayed at the rampant disagreement among experts on any ideas outside of mathematics. So he set himself on a mission to lay aside all his opinions and look for a new starting place for knowledge, an idea that he could not possibly doubt. He discovered his foundation in the thought that he, this Descartes doing all this doubting, must exist.

The first time I read the Discourse, many years ago, I concentrated on Descartes’ discipline of systematic skepticism and rational discovery. This time through something different jumped out at me: the safety net he provided for himself while he leaped across his abyss of ignorance. Descartes gave himself four rules to live by while he searched for truth:

(1) To obey the laws and customs of his country and the Christian faith, and to act according to the most moderate opinions (so as to avoid the most extreme errors).
(2) To stay true to a course of action once chosen so as to get somewhere rather than to remain lost.
(3) To be content, knowing that a man can change his thoughts more easily than he can change most external circumstances.
(4) To live the life of a philosopher with no regrets.

These rules suggest that Descartes held other indubitable truths without recognizing them. It appears to me that he believed that truth and error exist, as well as a moral right and wrong. It also seems that he couldn't escape the notion that pain is to be avoided (except, of course, in the interest of a greater good). Finally, and perhaps most obviously, he believed that finding the right way of life was a worthwhile pursuit.

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