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An Engaging Retirement: On Norms and Nobility

English: Doubling the square as in Plato´s Men...

English: Doubling the square as in Plato´s Meno ?esky: Zdvojení ?tverce v Platónov? Menónu (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since my 1991 printing of Norms and Nobility is falling to pieces, I have acknowledged that it is finally time to put it out to pasture. I shall wrap it in a proper sheath and set it in its place of honor, whereupon I shall begin reading it again in a new printing. I’ll miss the old one, because it is the only one that I’ve found with a picture on the cover.

To commemorate this moment, it seems fitting to highlight the chapter I think (today) most clearly reveals the “point” of the book. Chapter 6, intriguingly titled On the Necessity of Dogma is probably the beating heart of the whole treatise.

If so, then pages 72 and 73 are probably the most vivid expression of the blood flowing through that heart. If you have Norms and Nobility, go to page 72 and read the three paragraph description of the teacher who presented Plato’s Meno to 14 year olds. “From the beginning,” Hicks tell us, “this teacher’s unintentionally analytic approach to the Meno thwarted his goal.”

That might be the thesis of the whole book put in its negative form.

The teacher drew back from his analytic approach to prepare the students for the text. Since the Meno is built on the issue whether virtue can be taught, he set aside the text and asked his students to “define virtue as they found it in themselves or in someone they admired.”

He continues:

The next day in class, they debated with some fervor their dogmatic definitions of virtue. As they argued among themselves, one began to feel the old charisma of the Ideal Type filling the room.

That first sentence might well be the thesis of the treatise put in the positive form of a type (in this case, an example).

I have been teaching for a long time. I was an inveterate and irresponsible teacher even as a child. I’m obnoxious that way. One lesson I’ve learned, maybe the one lesson I’ve learned, is that when students identify themselves with a position (a dogma) and then argue about it intelligently (dialectic), “the old charisma of the Ideal Type” fills the room.

Meanwhile, in our diverse, tolerant, progressive public and private schools, dogmas are not welcome (or admitted), and all thought is treated as relative. Students are taught to approach everything analytically, and when a teacher or school brings in the normative, there might be flashes of brilliance but they are rapidly marginalized. They are not safe.

This is true of the secular schools and of the religious schools. One could argue that the secular school practices the dialectic without the dogma and that the religious practices the dogma without the dialectic. As a caricature it works, but it leaves a great deal unexplained.

To practice dialectic without dogma is to play tennis without a ball. To insist on dogma without dialectic is to make the tennis players put the ball in their pocket and grow fat, weak, and lazy.

If you believe your dogma, believe it. If you don’t think it can stand up to review and criticism, don’t say you believe it. If you spend your students’ years protecting the dogma from review and criticism, don’t be surprised when the students don’t understand the dogma, don’t experience its force, don’t make it their own, and don’t have any confidence in it when they travel the wide seas.

Children need to come to believe what they believe for the right reasons. Only dialectic can strip away the wrong ones.

If this unnerves you, you might have a misplaced confidence or you might fear the wrong things. There is no safe path. We are all pilgrims, and we can make no progress without confronting our ignorance, fears, and weaknesses.

David Hicks provides one of the most profound and useful guides to this pilgrimage I have ever found, especially as it relates to education. If you haven’t read or don’t have this book, get it. Read it. Engage it.

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