Heightened Senses

Hello. I'm Imraan. This is the only thing I own outright; I write from time to time, in the hopes that free-association might save a trip to a sanatorium.

Tag: Pedagogy

“The Defeat of the Schools”

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.

Evolving Education….the Insidious Tyranny of Science?

I’m intrigued by this piece reported by the BBC; we’re living in a rapidly moving postmodern world where the likes of ‘scientists’ or ‘naturalists’ (or however else they style themselves) seem to be dominating the discourse in the area of pedagogy, science, natural history, politics…

So when you read that schools might lose their funding from the Government because those at the helm do not necessarily favour Evolution by Natural Selection as the sole model for determining how complex biological life came into being (obviously without invoking a higher power/God), is it just me or is this where science gets dangerous?

For the past couple of centuries the ‘secular’ model of governing a state seems to have been the preferred one, especially after the Enlightenment, as it was deemed then that religion would  and already had become rather tyrannical and be inept at governing various groups of people fairly and without prejudice.

Yet I find myself living in a world now where the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection seems to have become the basic currency with which any discourse might be exchanged; now I have no problem per se with the theory of Evolution as a process for explaining to some degree of coherence the explanation for how life came to ‘be’ in the world – what troubles me is that Creationism is now being deemed as part of myth – i.e. religion.

(I must add here, of course, that it makes no sense to deem Creationism a mere folly – at its most basic level this lens suggests that there is a cause beyond this universe that at the very least, set our universe in motion. It does not necessarily mean that the world is some six-thousand years old as the Young Earth Creationists believe. I am happy to say that I am a Creationist who thinks life emerged, at least on the physical plane, out of a process of Evolution – remember of course, the gene-centered theory is now a minority position – but does that mean that I think that this is a necessary contradiction? I like the term Intelligent Design to sum this position up – what assumptions you make about my beliefs without questioning them, or by consigning them to mere myth  shouldn’t be a fault in me – rather it is the judgemental nature of science that we should take issue with (which ironically prides itself on being objective – something which modern studies in hermeneutics suggests is incredibly fallacious).

Moreover, I firmly believe that what defines ‘us’ as sentient beings has roots in something inexplicable by science – our ability to reflect on our own existence rather than be merely dominated by essentialist biological assumptions to me indicates that exists what Islam has always deemed the ‘fitrah’, that innate sense of the sacred essentially.

Is it just me or is science, of Scientism going to be come the new tyranny? I don’t buy that Science can be necessarily a moral agent for world, nor necessarily the prioritised objective lens through which we view it; historically it was the view of science and scientists that the world was created by a God which drove further explorations into His Mystery (forget the whole Galileo episode for a little while). Religion, or a God-oriented view of nature, as Professor Steve Fuller of Warwick University says, has been an instrumental driver of science – I am convinced that the meaning we ascribe to science was hermeneutically born out of the belief in God (just look at the science that came out of the Islamic world or in Europe); if we forget where science actually came from, and to how much it owes to religion, then science fails to have any significant meaning, nay, purpose, which scientists and apologists for Scientism suggest is a necessary agent for their work.

But science – more specifically the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection – shouldn’t have to be the modern meta-narrative of our world – the fact that we one day might be able to explain the physical processes that constitute our existence and the world that we observe around us does nothing to help us actualise in the world. Our purpose to understand or to know, or to create (all things that are certainly valuable things  -and as yet science cannot explain the need for our aesthetic agency) did nothing to stop the catastrophes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example; except to tell us that those that are weak (and now I mean this in a sociological sense) are doomed to perish, either at the hands of the strong or out of the actions of the strong.

Proponents of science today that are trying to systematically reject the normative narrative that religions have to offer fail to see that their commitment to pure, objective science that might some day explain the world is becoming a force that can be just as tyrannical. It is because of philosophy and religion that we endeavour to feed and clothe and heal the hungry, the homeless that exist far enough outside of our communities to have no impact on our own worlds and our abilities to thrive in them; according to science, altruism is merely a biological function and not a end-good, moreover Evolution by Natural Selection has its own normative process and agency – that the strong survive and that the weak shall perish. Though we see it happen in the animal kingdom we do not see it as a moral problem – yet when we see injustices and such cruel realities in our own, we find them morally and normatively abhorrent. Why? As Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr says – if indeed we are merely composed of atoms banging against one-another then our attempts at being ‘moral agents’ is pure ‘sentimentality’. So far I cannot think of an adequate argument against this.

Somehow it has come in vogue that invoking a deity seems to be something that is unscientific – as if to say that by invoking God one has just filled an empty space with an explanation, which in itself cannot be explained; yet the trouble is that within the philosophy of science, no-one can seriously claim that all explanations require further explanations for them to become true – in our cause and effect universe within which we find ourselves, that is tantamount to invoking an infinite regress.

Remember, Newton didn’t know what gravity actually was, rather, he was able to explain the effects of gravity were – does that mean that gravity itself doesn’t exist or is an inadequate explanation for what he observed? Of course not.

If indeed we emerged out of a slow process of biological evolution which by some miraculous chance allowed us to exist despite tremendous odds against that chance, does that mean that because we cannot explain the origins of the universe within which we are found, that same universe in which evolution could actually occur, does that mean necessarily that it is an unscientific explanation? Certainly not on this account too.

Now whether you favour a ‘naturalistic’ explanation to the cause of our universe, or whether you think that it is better explained by an uncaused cause – surely you should be allowed to offer both, or other explanations, as part of a scientific education. Moreover, surely educators should be allowed to express which of those theories they actually believe in.

In my experience it was those teachers that expressed their opinions in the classroom that had the most profound impact on my education, those who spoke out, who weren’t afraid to challenge the conventional wisdom (recall, this is constantly being redefined – not a hundred years ago were women considered cattle or the expendable commodities of men, not a few centuries was it certain that the world was flat, not a month ago was it believed that a supermassive black hole could ‘exist’ at the centre of a small galaxy etc). Today, science tells us that biological life for a given individual begins at the point when two gametes meet, yet that same science cannot tell us whether it is actually ethical to terminate that life, even though it increasingly provides us the means to do it.

As a student of history and politics at university, or as someone who has an interest in religion and philosophy – the theory of Evolution has done very little to change my approach to these disciplines; the notion of the survival of the fittest as a model for perpetuating life has very little to do with my studies of the past, or my ability to grasp theological positions. Moreover, having studied both the theories of Evolution and the case for ‘Creationism’ (argh I hate that term), I have come to a conclusion for myself. I do not think that scientists have the right to tell me what to believe  – knowledge has to come from a perspective of reflection. The obsession with purity or an arrogance of superiority is/are what were traditionally ascribed to organised religion; today as religion is increasingly dying in our society we see science filling that space. Nature does indeed abhor a vacuum, after all. But scientists cannot agree to it because they refuse to recognise their own fallacies.

We have thrived for millennia without understanding Evolution in the way science explains it –  I do not see it as the theory that will be our Saving Grace. For that, we need to look within ourselves, not merely at ourselves.

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Finally – it’s worth watching Steve Fullers short interview on Intelligent Design – it’s about 7 minutes long and worth every second, in my humble opinion.

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