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Sophistry or Classical Education

John Dewey argued that Charles Darwin put an end to the western approach to education. According to Dewey, western education (i.e. classical education, for Dewey dismissed the Christian element as a tag along) was fundamentally flawed for two reasons: one, it regarded species as unchanging, and therefore, two, it sustained an obsession with things that are changeless and eternal.

In Aristotle, Dewey tell us, “The conception of eidos, species, a fixed form and final cause, was the central principle of knowledge as well as of nature. Upon it rested the logic of science.” Indeed, “Nature as a whole is a progressive realization of purpose strictly comparable to the realization of purpose in any single plant or animal.” [6]

In other words, western thought was directed by the quest to know permanent things, such as purpose and the “forms” or ideas that lay behind the changing world of experience. Science was the pursuit of those unchanging ideas.

But the trouble is that the world is obviously in a state of constant change – generation and decay, creation and destruction, birth and death, making and breaking. How, in such a world, is the quest for the changeless to be conducted?

“Science is compelled to aim at realities lying behind and beyond the processes of nature, and to carry on its search for these realities by means of rational forms transcending ordinary modes of perception and inference.

There are, indeed, but two alternative courses. We must either find the appropriate objects and organs of knowledge in the mutual interactions of changing things; or else, to escape the infection of change, we must seek them in some transcendent and supernal region.”

On Dewey’s model, Aristotle followed Plato and Socrates and found the “appropriate objects and organs of knowledge” in “some transcendent and supernal region” where truths were unchanging and the human soul had the requisite organs of perception to perceive it.

But a revolution took place with Darwin, one that, Dewey shows, had been long prepared,

The beginnings of the revolution are in the physical science of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. When Galileo said: ” It is my opinion that the earth is very noble and admirable by reason of so many and so different alterations and generations which are incessantly made therein,” he expressed the changed temper that was coming over the world; the transfer of interest from the permanent to the changing. When Descartes said: ” The nature of physical things is much more easily conceived when they are beheld coming gradually into existence, than when they are only considered as produced at once in a finished and perfect state,” the modern world became self-conscious of the logic that was henceforth to control it, the logic of which Darwin’s ” Origin of Species ” is the latest scientific achievement. Without the methods of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and their successors in astronomy, physics, and chemistry, Darwin would have been helpless in the organic sciences. [8]

The changed temper that Dewey was celebrating in this essay, and on which he based his entire philosophy and pedagogy, was introduced as far back as Galileo. Dewey summarizes that changed temper as “the transfer of interest from the permanent to the changing.”

In addition, Dewey explained the logic that guides this new temper. The modern world “became self-conscious of [this] logic” when Descartes expressed it. He could, he argued, better understand the nature of a physical object if he thought of it “coming gradually into existence” than if he thought of it as perfectly formed from the beginning. This, rather obviously, from our late perspective, is the logic of evolution versus creation, and Darwin’s “Origin of Species” is, in Dewey’s day, “the latest scientific achievement” of this logic.

However, a barrier was presented to the advance of this logic by a special problem: life. It was no great problem for the modern mind to remove God from the cosmos and the material realm, because these realms, they felt they had shown, did just fine without God. But how did life come about?

The problem of life held back the influence of Descartes’ evolutionary logic, preventing it from breaking through to the way normal people lived and thought and ordered their societies. If this challenge could be overcome, nothing could remain untouched by the logic of “the new scientific method.”

Dewey says,

But prior to Darwin the impact of the new scientific method upon life, mind, and politics, had been arrested, because between these ideal or moral interests and the inorganic world intervened the kingdom of plants and animals. The gates of the garden of life were barred to the new ideas; and only through this garden was there access to mind and politics. The influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition, and thereby freed the new logic for application to mind and morals and life. When he said of species what Galileo had said of the earth, e pur se mouve, he emancipated, once for all, genetic and experimental ideas as an organon of asking questions and looking for explanations.

Henceforth, there could be no limits to what the scientist could explore with his new organon.

This post is not about Darwinism, but about Dewey’s application of Darwin to education and mind. In the foregoing, Dewey has been very clear about what he sees as the shortcoming of western education. It believed in unchanging, permanent, eternal things. This, he argues, is not a religious, but a scientific problem. It prevents thinkers from engaging in a more sound mode of thinking , a mode of thinking in which change is accepted as reality and adaptation is accepted as the purpose of thought.

In another post, perhaps, I can explore whether Dewey’s leap is philosophically justified. In this one, I want to address the practical impact of Dewey’s interpretation of Darwin on education, specifically classical education.

Even in the ancient world, there were two main education streams, each reflecting an impulse in the human soul. There was the sophistic stream, represented by Gorgias, Protagoras, and their company, and there was the “realistic” stream represented by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and their followers.

The sophist argued for three basic principles, as expressed, perhaps mischievously or rhetorically by Gorgias:

  1. There is no truth
  2. If there is a truth, you cannot know it
  3. If you can know the truth, you cannot communicate it to others

Socrates, as presented by Plato, is devoted to showing that each of these three points is wrong. By the time we get to Aristotle, two generations later (Socrates had taught Plato and Plato had taught Aristotle), the “realistic” tradition had identified certain key principles:

  1. Truth is
  2. Truth is perceived by the mind through the senses, but not by the senses
  3. An eidos or species remains unchanged through all the changes that a particular material object endures, therefore something can be known as true
  4. Language can be truthful when it corresponds to the reality outside of the mind, and that reality is knowable because of the eidos or species
  5. In addition to being a certain kind of thing (an eidos or species), each thing has an intrinsic purpose, is made of something, and comes into being by forces or powers acting on matter and guided by the idea and purpose.

This tradition is called “realistic” because it believes species, eidos, ideas, or kinds to be real things.

Dewey might well give too much credit to this tradition, for by the 1st century BC the western mind was quite skeptical about the knowability of the world around us. But it is true that this tradition endured through all the challenges of thought and politics. This is the philosophical tradition that the church fathers found honorable when arguing about the faith with their contemporaries.

It is rather obvious that Christianity will come down on the side of the “realistic” tradition and reject the sophistic ideas. That is why Christianity renewed classical education rather than eliminating it. The story of the winnowing of classical thought by the church is quite fascinating, though beyond the scope of this post. But what I can state here without fear of contradiction is that the church sided decisively with those who acknowledged the knowability of truth and the supreme value of the unchanging and eternal things.

This raises a question that might seem peripheral at first, but is not, and that is, “why did the Christians find so much of value in Greek thought and philosophy and so little in, for example, Egyptian or Babylonian thought?” One might be tempted to say, “because they were Greeks” but that ignores the Egyptian, Libyan, Antiochian, and Assyrian churches, all of whom found much to value in Greek thought, though not without caution.

I would argue that it had a great deal to do with the Greek Olympian deities. While most ancient cultures worshipped hippos and crocodiles, the Greeks worshipped gods in the form of humans (I am not ignoring the more natural, chthonic deities, but noting the place of the Olympians). This at least gave them permission to interact with the natural world as what it was: trees and rivers, rather than deities. (Needless to say, they never quite settled this issue, as they did often fall into worship of natural objects, but they had, as it were, permission not to.)

Some have argued, and I can see the sense in this, that Greek philosophy arose on this foundation. In effect, by not worshipping the natural world, a vacuum of explanation was created and they had to fill that vacuum. If it is not divine, where did it come from?

They had two options, and Dewey expressed them above: change or a transcendent region. Either all is change, or there is some explanation not limited to the natural realm.

The sophists arose on the acceptance of change as ultimate. The realists were guided by reason, they insisted, to the “transcendent region.”

When Christianity brought revelation into the equation, the realistic tradition was acknowledged and even corrected, but it was sustained, and that is a crucial point.

Christianity has always been the best friend of classical education. Without Christianity, it is questionable whether classical education, in the sense it was used for many centuries, can survive. It seems to drift into skepticism or even cynicism, and from there into sophistry, and once sophistry is accepted, nothing remains stable.

In my view, the great enemy of the mind and of human society is sophistic thought. Today we call it relativism. It turns on the idea that change is ultimate, that “perception is reality”, and that language is inescapably a means to power and influence, a way of appearing to be what your audience will respond to.

If this is true, then happiness and human society are not possible except by ignoring the truth.

Man, Protagoras famously said, is the measure of all things, by which he meant that we measure ourselves against each other (as in standardized testing) and that truth itself is determined by the perceiver, who determines what is true for him. There is no truth “out there” that we can know and that guides our conduct. All is adaptation.

When you do not believe in knowable truth, when you do not believe in species (ideas, truths, natures) you are bound to relativism. When you know the nature of what you are teaching (art, science, and child), you do not need to be a relativist, though in a relativistic age it does take more than common courage to resist.

Dewey’s take on Darwinism makes him the champion of relativism and sophistry in the modern world. The impact of his thought on American education and society is, I am prepared to argue, catastrophically destructive. If Darwin truly showed that there are no species, then what he showed is that the human soul is not made for this cosmos.

I know that some Christian sects argue that very point, especially fundamentalist aberrations who are overly influenced by Platonic thought, but they should read Genesis one and two more closely. In the end, you only have two options: either sophistry or classical education.

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