“The Defeat of the Schools”

by Imraan

I’ve recently picked up my copy of Mortimer Adler’s great work – indeed, there are those that deride him for not being one of the great philosophers of the last century (and indeed he spanned almost the whole century), though he reached an audience, and actually said things of substance that most philosophers couldn’t dream to do – and he notes, very astutely, the failure of  teaching institutions to teach people to be good readers, lifelong-learners. I feel it is as true in the United Kingdom, as it was in the United States, over seventy years ago. I enjoyed the last of these paragraphs in particular:

“When I say that the arts are lost, I do not mean that the sciences of grammar and logic, for instance, are gone. There are still grammarians and logicians in the universities. The scientific study of grammar and logic is still pursued, and in some quarters and under certain auspices with renewed vigour. You have probably heard about the “new” discipline which had been advertised lately under the name “semantics.” It is not new, of course. It is as old as Plato and Aristotle. It is nothing but a new name for the scientific study of the principles of linguistic usage, combining grammatical and logical considerations. 

“The ancient and medieval grammarians, and an eighteenth-century writer such as John Locke, could teach the contemporary “semanticists” a lot of principles they do not know, principles they need not try to discover if they would and could read a few books. It is interesting that, just about the time when grammar has almost dropped out of the grammar school, and when logic is a course taken by few college students, these studies should be revived in the graduate school with a great fanfare of original discovery.

“The revival of the study of grammar and logic by the semanticists does not alter my point, however, about the loss of the arts. There is all the difference in the world between studying the science of something and practising the art of it. We would not not like to be served by a cook whose only merit was an ability to recite the cookbook. It is an old saw that some logicians are the least logical of men. When I saw that the linguistic arts have reached a new low in contemporary education and culture, I am referring to the practice of grammar and logic, not to acquaintance with these sciences. The evidence for my statement is simply that we cannot write and read as well as men of other ages could, and that we cannot teach the next generation how to do so, either.

“It is a well-known fact that those periods of European culture in which men were least skilful in reading and writing were periods in which the greatest hullabaloo was raised about the unintelligibility of everything that had been written before. This is what hap end in the decadent Hellenistic period and in the fifteenth century, and it is happening again today. When men are incompetent in reading and writing, their inadequacy seems to express itself in their being hypercritical about everybody else’s writing. A psychoanalyst would understand this as a pathological projection of one’s own inadequacies on to others. The less well we are able to use words intelligently, the more likely we are to blame others for their unintelligible speech. We may even make a fetish of our nightmares about language, and then we become semanticists for fair.”

Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education, (New York; Simon and Schuster: 1940), 85-7.

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