October 7, 2009

Shelley on Poetry

"But poetry acts in another and a diviner manner. It awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world; and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it re-produces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it co-exists. The great secret of morals is Love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own. A man to be greatly good, must imagine in tensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination: and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.”

Percy Shelley, from A Defence of Poetry


Well, since school has started up for me you can see we've done a horrible job of keeping up the blog. Don't give up on us yet, though! I've been in Maryland starting my senior year at St. John's, and Mary has also been increasingly busy with her job at Teleos.

Though my life now revolves more around the soaking-up rather than the pouring-out kind of learning, I am getting the chance to stay involved with teaching in some small ways. I got a job tutoring high school students, mostly in SAT prep, which looks like it will be a valuable experience. Also—and this really wild—some kind souls at St. Anne's school here hired me along with two other guys to co-teach a lego robotics course in their after school program. Who knew that engineering and computer programming were in the cards for me? It's already been quite fun, if not a frenzy trying to stay ahead of our boys. We are preparing a team of 12 boys to build their own robot and take it to a national competition in January where it will complete all sorts of tasks and maneuvers for time.

So. Life is hectic for les deux right now. We'll be back soon though with pensees and questions and more sophistry. I'm sure Mary will have something quite perspicacious for us in time. Stay with us.

August 12, 2009

Philosophy and the Seven Medieval Liberal Arts

Nerdy, I know. But it's too cool not to share with you all. You can find descriptions of each art along with translations of the text here.

August 6, 2009

Verum, Bonum, Pulchrum: Why we study Latin at Teleos

[Text for the introductory lecture to Latin I for 7th and 8th graders at Teleos Prep]

Verum, Bonum, Pulchrum
Why we study Latin at Teleos

Who knows what the word practice means?

Good. We're all familiar with it as a verb, right? Practice basketball, practice piano, practice soccer, etc. Now does anybody know what practice means when we use it as a noun: a practice; thus-and-such is a practice.

Bene. I have here a definition of practice from a philosopher, whom I very much respect. Now he says that a practice is a coherent and complex form of cooperative human activity. Internal to that activity are some goods. That activity also has some standards of excellence. And when we try to achieve those standards of excellence we realize, or make real, those internal goods. The result of this whole endeavor is that we grow in an ordered way--we grow as human beings both in our ability to achieve excellence and in our conception of the goods and the ends involved in the practice.

Right--so we've got goods and ends. Goods... and Ends...(And when I say ends, I mean purposes and goals--ultimate destinations)

A practice has internal goods and those goods can be directed to internal or external ends.
An internal end would be a liberal end. Since the practice has an end in its self, an internal end, it is thus free (and so liberal) from any exterior purpose. An external end, on the contrary, would be a pragmatic end, for practical purposes.

Now, learning is a practice. Learning math, learning history, learning grammar, logic, rhetoric, etc. Learning is a practice. And no less, learning Latin is a practice.

And so, the practice of learning Latin has internal ends and external ends. So, the way I see it there are two answers to the question: Why do we study Latin at Teleos? The pragmatic answer and the liberal answer.

First, the pragmatic answer: the internal goods of the practice of learning Latin as applied to external ends. We study Latin at Teleos because it broadens our vocabulary, our English vocabulary. Between 60-80% of English vocabulary is derived either directly or indirectly from Latin roots. Thus learning Latin will better acquaint with English vocabulary and in particular the advanced sort of vocabulary you will find on standardized tests and so on.

We also study Latin at Teleos because it sharpens our grammatical analysis; You will learn parts of speech, the behavior of subordinate clauses, the proper use and function of any grammatical element. You will gain facility with the form--the nuts and bolts of language.

And these will culminate in the heightening of reading comprehension. You will learn to read syntactically--to think syntactically. You won't simply rely on familiarity, on instinct, on intuition--though all those things are incredibly important. Rather, you will understand the rules that guide our language and how to apply those rules and think critically about them. And so you will learn how to read better--again very useful on standardized tests.

That then is the pragmatic answer. Now on to the liberal answer.

Verum, bonum, pulcrum, Latin for the True, the Good, the Beautiful. And my liberal answer shows how learning Latin serves each of these since these are inherent in all our intellectual activities here.

Verum: Grammar is the structure of reality. Another philosopher, this one is one of my absolute favorites, Ludwig Wittgentstein said famously and I think aptly: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Everything you do, think, feel, say, every experience you have of the world requires some grammar to hold it up, to support it, to give it any meaning or comprehensibility whatsoever. Grammar is the structure of reality, or at the very least, which is in fact quite a lot, grammar is the structure of your experience of reality. And so in elucidating grammar, in making clear for yourself how grammar works, you make for yourself a clearer World, a clearer experience of the World. You thus enable yourself to see the World more truly. And that is how learning Latin serves the True.

Bonum: As human beings, you are properly learners--inasmuch as you are rational, social. and imitative animals (that comes from Aristotle). In learning Latin you learn how to become better learners and so better humans. The best "good life" that you can live right now is a life of learning. You are of the age that your proper place on the receiving of education and you are not yet called upon to be doers, you are appropriately learners. And learning Latin makes you better learners. It teaches you how to memorize and retain, how to analyze, how to synthesize, how to apply and evaluate. And so learning Latin makes you a better learner and so lets you lead better the best life you can lead as proper to you. And that is how learning Latin serves the Good.

Pulchrum: This is probably the most obvious of participations. Latin was once a living language--a language in which great works of epic and lyric poetry, politics, philosophy, and science were composed, spoken, and written. These works were written about the passing of nature, the love between husband and wife, mother and child, the duty to the city, the honor of the gods, the condition of Man. They were written all those centuries ago, in what is now a dead language, and they are beautiful. They are beating-heart, soul-brightening beautiful. And the only way to experience that beauty in all its purity and magnitude is to learn the language. Until you can hold these works in your bare hands, without the often brutish gloves of a translation, some part of its beauty will always be crudely hidden. Latin is the vehicle for all that beauty; it is the communicant for those works from classical Antiquity. And that is how learning Latin serves the Beautiful.

So those are the two answers to the question: "Why do we study Latin at Teleos?"

August 2, 2009

What do you do with a Meno?

Though for the past two weeks I have been with the young ladies and gentlemen whom I shall be teaching, I as yet have had no classroom experience. And so I cannot write about that. Yet.

I did, however, enjoy another lovely seminar on Plato. This time it was his Meno.

After we read the Meno, I don’t think we come away with the message: virtue cannot be taught. I think we come away with the message: virtue cannot be taught to Meno. And the reason virtue cannot be taught to Meno is because Meno isn’t interested in virtue.

The first question Meno asks is whether virtue can be acquired by teaching or acquired from experience or else something attributed naturally. Socrates does not answer this question but rather states that another question must be answered first. This question is “What is virtue?” Meno gives several answers to this question, none of which satisfy Socrates.

After the slave-boy demonstration, in which Socrates repeatedly pricks Meno’s ego, Meno nearly begs in exasperation that Socrates return to the first question and leave all this “what is” business. Socrates yields to Meno and takes up the original question about the teachability of virtue. The answer to which Socrates leads Meno is that one has a possibly decent guide in true opinion, but ultimately only the gods give virtue.

To me, the answer is unsatisfactory. But I think that’s because I’m not Meno, or a Meno, as it were. Socrates gives this canned and unsatisfying response to Meno because Meno is incapable (or at least unwilling) to pursue the more difficult route which goes by way of figuring out the nature of virtue before determining its qualities. Meno digs in his heels and refuses to trouble himself with that question, and so Socrates gives him the best answer—the best answer for Meno, that is. The answer is one that is least likely to tempt Meno to viciousness.

(N.B. I am not saying that Socrates made something up for Meno. I very much believe that Socrates’ final answer hold a great deal of truth, but the argument by which he got to that answer is hardly satisfying.)

I shall not spend the entirety of my post simply giving my argument for this reading of the Meno. In fact, I shall not give any more argument for it, but instead I want to think about what ramifications for educating this reading has.

Does Meno give up because he lacks the ability to understand or because he merely lacks the will? (This is simply a rhetorical question. There is evidence in the text to support both and determining a textual answer would be time-consuming). More importantly, how do you treat either case? That is, what do you do with a Meno?

What do you do if the student lacks the intellectual capacity to comprehend a subject? What do you do if the student refuses to exercise his intellectual capacity?

Do I, as a teacher, ever have the right to give in as Socrates does? Do I ever have the right to withhold the whole story? the big picture?

If the question is not about rights, then am I ever prudentially sanctioned to do as Socrates did?

July 27, 2009

A Tangled Situation

Yesterday I heard two little things that got me thinking. The conversation was between me, my ESL mentor teacher, and another TA. My ESL mentor teacher, who teaches in a public school in Massachusetts, mentioned that they have a day care on campus at her school to serve the 22 teenage mothers enrolled there. The school has something like 1000 students, I think. The TA who graduated from boarding school called Choate piped in, “Oh, those kids just disappear on 'medical leave' at my school.”

Two radically different approaches to the same sad reality. It was weird seeing them back to back. The Guttmacher Instistute, which conducts studies every year on pregnancy and abortion, found in 2002 (the latest stats) that about 4 out of every 100 girls are pregnant at some point between the ages of 15 and 17. Of this group, about 31% of girls end their pregnancy with an abortion, around 14-15% miscarry, and about 55% give birth. (FYI, girls who have abortions at this age have no obligation to inform their schools about it.) In 2002, this meant that there were nearly 139,000 girls that gave birth while in high school. In the 15-19 age range, though, about 13% of girls become pregnant. The good news is, the pregnancy rate has gone down 36% since its peak in 1990 and it looks like it will continue in that direction.

For schools, it must be quite a challenge to know how to deal with these students. The various options for these girls, I would guess, fall along socio-economic lines first of all, and secondarily according to whether they plan to keep the baby. For many girls in public school, having a baby means dropping out of high school. What I've found on the web says that while a few of these eventually get their G.E.D.s, the majority soon get on welfare and never graduate. To keep them in school, some public schools have set up day care services—a helpful offering, but also an odd thing to have in a high school. I wonder if this changes the attitudes other girls have about getting pregnant while in school. It keeps kids where they need to be, but also probably normalizes what shouldn't be normal. A third option I just heard about is Independent Study, where students make a contract with a school to meet certain requirements outside of the formal classroom. Regardless of the options, it's kids in public schools who confront this issue at its worst. It's most prevalent here, and as a result the stigma is not as severe.

On the flip side, if families have the money and decide the girl should not keep the baby (whether through adoption or abortion), they will take their daughter out of school or away to a different school for a year. I remember hearing of this back at Cambridge. This way the girl can avoid the social pressures and still continue with school afterward. What do they learn from it, though? I think it sets the precedent that parents are always there with the safety net in case I screw up too badly—a rescue mentality. For these girls, both the natural and social consequences are minimized so that life remains as normal as possible.

There are probably other options I haven't mentioned. Anyone know about charter schools?

How should schools mediate between the task of education and such personal issues as this? Or, should they at all? These questions probably lead into private v. public discussions and questions of how badly states would like their residents to be educated. It's certainly a mess of conflicting interests and natural constraints.

The million dollar question, of course, is: how can we teach kids to be responsible enough that they don't get pregnant unintentionally? Another tangle of parental v. institutional responsibilities.

July 19, 2009

Boarding School and Pluralism

Why does a family decide to send their kid away to boarding school? I've asked this question to myself in the last three weeks at Phillips and I've kept my ear to the ground for sounds. I can think of about four reasons:

1. Parents want the very best education for their children and they think boarding schools provide it.

2. They want their kids to get into top Ivy League colleges, and boarding schools feed students into these schools.

3. Kids struggling with disciplinary issues at day school are recommended that a more strict or structured environment at boarding school would be better for them.

4. The parents are sick of parenting for whatever reason and want someone else to deal with their offspring. (Boarding school = day care for teenagers)

There's room for adding to or condensing this list, but it doesn't serve my purposes here. What I find most interesting is the commonality in all these reasons. In every case, parents who make this choice essentially agree that what can be learned from day school in tandem with parenting is inferior to a boarding school education. They forfeit their roles as real parents for ¾ of the year, with the expectation that the boarding school will play both teacher and parent in a more conducive environment than at home and day school together. This is no small sacrifice for a parent, and I suspect those that make it conscientiously feel the full weight of the duties they are transferring to the institution.

Schools like Phillips, then, take on the in loco parentis status in true fashion. This brings with it all sorts of serious legal responsibilities designed to protect the students and the institution. First of all, it means no student should die in the school's care. The school is required to guarantee the safety and security of its boarders, even to the point of knowing the students' exact location at any given time in case a parent calls to check in. Household rules start to look mild in comparison to boarding school rules.

Now, take this scenario in the context of school that is idealogically pluralistic and postmodern. How can the school in its “parenting” dimension address the character development of students? How can it guide kids in the formation of virtue when it at the same time espouses a view that truth and morality are ultimately relative to each person's culture? The idea of teaching students how to become good or orienting them towards the good life reeks of dogmatism.

When boarding schools lose sight of such objective principles in favor of relativism, it is conformity to the law (both federal and state) that effectively becomes the summum bonum of all action within the community. It is the full-stop answer for all questions ethical. Since the larger, more meaningful ethical issues permit of disagreement, schools fall back on the indisputability of their legal obligations to parents as the guiding principle for action. Things that might result in lawsuits are clearly things that ought not be allowed.

The majority of school and dorm rules, then, are in the long run more for the sake of the school's liability coverage than about the way they are shaping kids' souls. This just doesn't do justice to the immense' responsibility schools take on as stand-in parents. What good is it to care for the body to the detriment of the soul?

We need schools that will not shy away from the challenge of character formation.

July 14, 2009

What's Love got to do with it?

Passion, then, is an incorrigible element of fine teaching.

Let us say passion or love and mean eros (we can haggle about semantics at a later time if we must). I have just re-read Plato’s Symposium for faculty orientation and thus have been contemplating love and its role in education.

And here I must offer warning in true Socratic fashion: I am in no way an authority on this text. It is my third time to read it and first with this specific slant. In what follows, there will be much halting and several uncomfortable moments of indecision. But as this is a mere blog post, I hope that I shall lose little sleep over ineptitude and that you will forgive me for it beforehand.

Like an Aristotelian drama, the Symposium has a beginning, middle, and an end. The beginning consists of the introduction to the twice-removed dialogue and the first five speeches made in honor of Love (eros). The speech-givers are supposed to proceed according to their seating arrangement. After the second speech, though, that order is upset, and to good and insightful purposes, I think.

The first speech-giver is young and bright Phaedrus. His speech in honor of Love is a literary one. His thesis is that love inspires great deeds and prevents shameful ones, but to back his claim, he calls upon mythological sources. By citing the deeds of heroes and the gods’ goodwill such deeds earned them as proofs, Phaedrus thus buries a promising notion amid a flurry of flowery allusions without much investigation.

The second speech-giver is older Pausanias. His speech echoes with tinny legalism. He introduces a distinction between common and heavenly eros and then uses that distinction to too-neatly divvy up love. On the common side is lust and heterosexual love, engaged in by the vulgar and condoned by those cultures with primitive customs. On the heavenly side is homosexual love and Athens.

The third speech-giver is supposed to be the comic Aristophanes but due to a coincidentally timed hiccup-fit, Dr. Eryximachus takes his place. Eryximachus’ thesis is that love is significantly broader than his fellow speakers have allowed. Medicine, farming, meteorology, astronomy, music and divination are all the “science of love on…insert appropriate subject matter here…” And thus is Eryximachus’ scientific account of love.

The now-fourth speech-giver is the newly-cured Aristophanes. His speech seems a throw-back to the lost field of natural philosophy. He says that we must first look to human nature to understand love. For humans, once two as a whole now split and lacking our natural partner, love is seeking our other half. Love is making whole wounded human nature.

Let us examine the progression: first, a literary account, built on stories and mythological citations; second, a legalistic account, drawing from customs and laws; third, a scientific account, utilizing one broad pragmatic example after another; fourth, a naturalistic account, set upon the inherent nature of human loving. I do see a progression here, a sort of genealogy of human intellectual endeavors. It seems also a progression which our students undergo. Beginning with stories, fables, myths; growing to see the morals (in an Aesopian sense) extrapolated from said stories applied; broadening then their notion of their place in the wide world; then turning inward to figure out their inborn nature and the ramifications of that nature.

So we arrive at Agathon’s speech with appetites whetted and feet eager for the next step. Agathon, the triumphant tragic-poet, begins his speech with an exciting promise: he is going to leave off talking about the effects of love, the powers of love, the instances of love. No no, he is going to talk about what love is. (Can you not see Socrates salivating at the words “ti esti”?)

And then he doesn’t.

And Socrates gets mad.

But that’s ok because Socrates does give us what we’re wanting. He tells us what love is: Love is pursuit of the Good and one loves by giving birth in beauty in both body and soul. His account is, of course, philosophical, turning on the absolute and perfect Forms of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And so for our students, the final step, after the stories and morals and science and human nature, the final step is to become little lovers of wisdom.

This means we, as teachers, need to make whatever the students are learning so irresistibly beautiful that they cannot but desire it, cannot but let it germinate, and cannot but at last give birth in beauty, thereby pursuing the good.

Every human intellectual pursuit, be it literature, law, science, or psychology (in the good ole’ Greek sense of the word), should be toward the end of engendering lovers of wisdom and thus pursuers of good.

I haven’t sufficiently thought about the end of the Symposium, but if I do, I will let you know.

July 13, 2009

The "How" of Teaching

The quote by Strauss above on teaching is sadly not a sentiment I can say I share with him—something I've inherited from his thinking. I chose it instead precisely because I do not yet grasp the wisdom of his remarks and would like to understand them better. Since learning that I would be teaching at Andover this summer, I've been wondering about the question of how one becomes a good teacher. I've put this question to some of my favorite former teachers, but not even my bullheaded curiosity was enough to seduce a satisfying answer out of any of them. I came back with surprisingly little, excepting one comment that I only understand in hindsight. This might make sense to those more experienced, yet it's frustrated me more than I thought it would. How is teaching so mysterious an enterprise that no one can give me an account of it?

Until this summer, I think I've assumed that being passionate about a subject and being able to teach it well are probably synonymous. After all, isn't this passion what one sees most of all in an excellent teacher from one's seat at the desk? Perhaps this can be refined by saying that loving a subject would be enough to become a great teacher. That is, it's a requisite for carrying a person through the teaching process, but not so powerful that it makes one good from the start. We could say it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for excelling. So, if a person already has the love of the subject, how does he gain the rest of what is needed to really excel as a teacher? Often, the choice is to pursue the route of education programs and degrees in “education.” I put this in quotes because I'm not sure these programs really teach education per se, i.e., its telos, its nature, or why it is worthwhile to devote oneself to it. My sense is that they teach methodologies, procedures, and management skills that could apply to any number of disciplines. Does this decrease the learning curve for teachers in any measurable way? I have trouble imagining that data received like this would be a substitute for the actual experience of teaching in real-time. It's like trying to address the question of how to ride a bike without ever touching the bike—it seems dubious to address the “how” question in this context. Why not spend these years instead in mastering a certain branch of learning and increasing your love for it all the more? In my very limited experience, this approach fails to understand the nature of the object; it suffers from the same flaw as my initial question.

The art of teaching, on another view, can't be captured in statements that are inherited or received as facts from those who know. This is precisely why we call it an art. What I had not grasped in my questioning is that teaching is more analogous to learning to play Tchaikovsky or to paint. We learn these through practice, and it is by virtue of this that we call them practices or arts. Teaching is none other than such a practice: it is learned only through continuous practice and development over a period of time. It seems that one has to experience the practice first and only afterward can it be understood. As with the virtues, we become good by doing good acts, and this though the constant work of aiming to do good. No wonder I was not getting satisfying answers.

The knowledge that teaching is a practice, then, still leaves one wondering how to proceed with the practice. The piano teacher, if asked, could give step by step instructions for a student who wants to progress from a beginner to a concert pianist. First learn this scale, then learn this arpeggio, then study this and that piece, and practice all of this many times over until you begin to gain proficiency. Where is the analogue in the practice of teaching? Even if there is no definite sequence to the process of becoming a good teacher (and I hope there is), how does one discern the guiding principles of the practice? The short answer for me is that I do not yet know. Thankfully, I've found myself in a place that acknowledges the value of the practice of teaching. For this summer my job is not only to assist my teachers, but to be mentored by them in the context of the classroom. As trite as it is, experience will be my guide—the experience of teaching for the first time, of observing a teacher who has experience, and of letting his experience inform my practice as we go along. The teaching art is mimetic art as it is with many of the others: it is learned by imitation. This is the same principle as in ethics, that becoming virtuous begins with imitating good men; we become what we model.

Knowing that experience and practice are so essential quiets the urgency of my initial curiosity. But this whole discussion, we should note, depends on a much larger question about the purpose of education generally. The questions about how to teach are actually subordinate and hence secondary to the larger question of the end of liberal education as a whole. The order of knowing demands that we confront the end at the beginning. It makes little sense to think about how to teach until we have decided on why we teach, on what result we hope to accomplish. Leo Strauss, a political philosopher and educator, takes this a step further by saying that the means is in fact only known through the end: “One knows [the how] once one knows what education is meant to do to a human being or once one knows the end of education.” How is it possible that the how is revealed once the telos has been demarcated? How is it that the efficient cause is contained within the final cause of education? I wonder what kind of gems lie embedded in Strauss' suggestion. The questions indicate to me that he might have in mind much more than an intellectual apprehension of the goal. I think I have some notions about the end(s) of liberal education, but less of a sense about how these are accomplished. On the other hand, I may be worlds away from really understanding these goals. For now, what I have learned is that 1) excellence as a teacher comes only with much practice, imitation, and failure (I am sure) and 2) that it may be fruitful to pursue this idea that the means is somehow implicit in the end. Here's to the lifelong pursuit of mastering the art.