Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fix Education: Bring Back Metaphysics!

In “The Lost Tools of Learning”, Sayers begins by criticizing the modern tendency to regard specialized talking heads as “authorities” on everything from morals to DNA. She tells us that the greatest authorities on the failures of modern education are precisely those who learned nothing. We can imagine chuckles coming from some in her audience and frowns on self-important academics. While Sayers is correct that we can’t “turn back the wheel” to the late Middle Ages when metaphysical exploration was still regarded as an objective of education, she nevertheless urges that we consider patterning education along those lines in order to restore the lost tools of learning. Sayers draws on her extensive knowledge of the medieval period to help us understand which tools are essential if students are to be life-long learners. She lays the groundwork by asking her audience to consider some “disquieting thoughts” about the direction of English society in the mid-twentieth century and identifies the following concerns:Irresponsible prolongation of intellectual childhood to justify teaching less in more subjectsConfusion of fact and opinion, or the proven and the plausible, in the media.Sophistry in public debate, rather than logical rhetoric.Committees addressing mostly irrelevant matters expected to form public policy.Failure to define terms and intentional abuse of language, making words mean whatever one wants them to mean.A society of adults who don’t know how to discern legitimate expertise from popular pulp and who can’t use the library.The tendency of some people to become so specialized that they can’t make connections between the disciplines.Scientists who fail to adhere to the basic principles of Aristotelian logic, thus presenting speculation as facts.

Sayers’ critique of the society in which she lived is relevant today, as these problems have become more pronounced in our time. In 35 years of teaching I’ve seen the materialistic worldview of empiricism come to dominate public education and inch by inch erode the more balanced offering of private schools, parochial schools and even Christian schools. Once metaphysics is excised from education, we are left with a mechanistic, materialistic, and blatantly false view of reality. And then we wonder why our students aren’t learning? Or why they seem unmotivated?

So what does Dorothy Sayers suggest we do? She suggests restoration of the two part syllabus of the Trivium and the Quadrivium, which together provide “one coherent scheme of mental training.” Sayers illustrates how modern intellectuals misrepresent medieval metaphysical education by pointing to how one such intellectual confuses location and extension, something that a classically trained high school sophomore would hardly stumble over, having learned the principles of Aristotelian logic.

Read Sayers' "Lost Tools of Learning" here.

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