On the Nature of Things

August 29, 2008

I was looking for a reference in Lucretius’ epic philosophical poem, On the Nature of Things, as I prepared my classes for the fall school start up. Lucretius, and his muse, Epicurus, expect materialism to inspire confidence. No longer need we fear death, those two say, because where we are, death is not. That is, when we are dead, there will be no consciousness to register the fact, so, as Bobby McFerrin sang some 2,000 years later, “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

My own brush with mortality leads me to believe otherwise; Death and I once spent an intimate and exceedingly unpleasant moment together in the shadow of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. We may argue endlessly about whether this near-death experience was in fact real or merely some hallucination, brought to life, as many tell me, by my Western Christian prejudices about dying and the afterlife. If I am deluded, then my delusion is complete, for although I cannot offer any conventional proof that things happened as I claim they did, they are the surest things I lay claim to knowing. But never mind here, let us just register that this happened.

Notwithstanding my own experience then, it is hard to take inspiration from or to find confidence in a way of thinking that emboldens me to pursue nothing. If it is true, Lucretius’ story frees me from ultimate fears, and being mortal I feel most gratified to anything that can do that; but whether or not it is true, the story does not free me for anything in particular, or at least nothing of particular importance. Being good to one another and living by modest means is a very fine way to go about the world; and no doubt it seemed especially fine to a Roman in the violent years of the waning Republic. But I cannot help thinking that cows also live modestly and benignly, if not exactly kindly. Not many people have jumped out of an airplane and had the misfortune of parachuting into a pasture full of happy cows. But those who have will tell you that you can yell “Cow! Cow! Watch out!” until you’re blue in the face but the cows will not budge one step. They will look left and right rather stupidly and go back to jawing cud; it just doesn’t occur to them that something of consequence might come down from above.

Of course, all may indeed be the blind destiny of matter. We may quite properly look to the grass at our feet instead of the stars over our heads for meaning. But at this moment I do not want to consider the relation of materialism to the truth. My objections here are psychological. The road marked by materialism is far more contracted than the narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Roman Catholic Church can say sorry to Galileo and still be a church, but Lucretius cannot say sorry to God without his whole world coming undone. And for Plato’s philosopher kings, 40 years of the most intensive study will neither enliven life’s journey nor take them anywhere else but to a bleak dissolution. Materialism’s grey philosophy leaves out first causes and instead deals only with simple or efficient causes and thus succumbs to all the deadening effects of mere efficiency. Ironically, what is missing from Lucretius’ poem is poetry—and hope, initiative, inquisitiveness, striving, resolution…all that is human.

The Sound of Silence

August 25, 2008

This story, How Do you Teach Kids to Pay Attention, appeared in Pajamas recently.

For two years now, I’ve scheduled so-called Silent School mornings, several times a year. After our morning announcements, the whole school goes quiet. No one speaks a word and the doors to the office are closed so the students and staff aren’t interrupted by phone calls. All teaching is done silently–usually this means the students are working on projects and other works in progress. But I once had my grade 6 math class construct a huge 3′ x 5′ times table wall chart out of a hundred or so bits of coloured paper without anyone saying a word.

The first time we ran this was an odd experience in a school full of 11- to 14-year olds. Part way through the morning it started to snow and I thought all was lost. You could feel the students vibrate with excitement. But no one said a thing. At lunch they all walked down to our meeting room, quiet as monks and nuns, and waited for me to speak again.

The students loved the exercise: most said they could concentrate better and that they finished far more work than they usually do. I found they asked better questions because they had to think first before going to the trouble to write down their problem. Indeed, a significant number of students wanted a weekly Silent School day. We haven’t gone that far. Not yet.

I go to TED whenever I need inspiration. Whatever their personal interests, all the speakers at the TED conferences show remarkable, infectious passion.

Conductor Benjamin Zander‘s talk is great in itself; but its also a model of how to teach. All teachers face the problem of how to reach a room full of people who believe they are uninterested in the subject at hand. Watch how Zander does it–so well.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Benjamin Zander on music and passion …“, posted with vodpod

First Things

August 23, 2008

Not surprisingly, since Descartes threw away our theories of everything, we find it slippery going when it comes to our discussion of these two ideas: metaphysics and education. We seem unable to imagine that religion, for example, may indeed speak a truth, and we seem unable to get our heads out of the clouds when we talk education; and that because we have no philosophy either to draw our eyes heavenward or to give us something firm on which to stand. Says G. K. Chesterton, everything matters except our theory of everything:

We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature.  A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter.  He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe […] (Heretics).

Now, it is one problem that philosophies, first principles, metaphysics, faiths, beliefs—for now let us use these interchangeably—are not taught in schools, generally speaking. Philosophy is rarely taught in high schools, let alone the middle years. Religions may be taught here and there, but only as historical phenomena, or in comparative studies, not as sources of truth. Probably such philosophies cannot be taught for what they are, except in denominational schools, simply because they are beyond the competency of most teachers; depending on how we see the relationship between schools and family, first principles may be beyond the jurisdiction of most schools, too. Certainly, in any case, no single set of principles could be taught over another in a pluralistic society, not in state-run schools anyway. But, it is another, much bigger problem that first principles are not taught to matter, whatever they might be.

In Canada, they are not taught to matter because we falsely believe that the way around the problem of promoting, or proselytizing, is to say nothing. An entrenched political correctness effectively neuters the teaching of metaphysics, as it does with most discussions in the public square. Beliefs are regarded as, well, mere beliefs, akin to tastes, and exclusively private possessions without play in the public domain, except so far as the right to hold them is constitutionally protected. However, this supposed neutrality of Canadian authorities, such as the Charter, the courts and the various political jurisdictions, cannot be securely held for long. As Thomas Nagel says, there is no view from nowhere, and our refusal to acknowledge one kind of thinking amounts to affirmation of another. What appears as neutrality is really a bias toward secularism—a misunderstood secularism.

We should note that our understanding should be of what faith claims belong in the discussion, not whether they should be there or not. If we each had a philosophy, a real and substantial one, we could have a real and substantial talk about education—or any other matter—instead of inconclusive chatter about grade inflation or where our country ranks on standardized math exams or methodologies; for we can only disagree in a meaningful way about really big ideas. People do not seriously argue that red cars are better than blue cars, but they do seriously disagree about whether we should drive cars at all. First principles matter. First principles govern all we do. We may do “in the name of God” or in the name of the almighty dollar, but in either case we are doing because we believe in something that we do not empirically prove: that God exists or that God does not exist. Even the coldest science rests on metaphysical assumptions; that matter exists, for example, or that we can trust our senses. So we may speak, without distortion, of both religious and secular faiths. Aldous Huxley brings us to the point:

It is impossible to live without a metaphysic. The choice that is given us is not between some kind of metaphysic and no metaphysic; it is always between a good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic, a metaphysic that corresponds reasonably closely with observed and inferred reality and one that doesn’t (Ends and Means).

While we can make a solid case that teaching particular religious or metaphysical views over others is beyond the competency and jurisdiction of public schools, as I said earlier, it is not outside the purvey of schools to tell students that they should search for one. Neither is it beyond the scope of public schools to provide the tools for evaluating metaphysical claims, just as they give tools for evaluating scientific claims. At the very least we need to redress the implicit bias toward scientism in contemporary education. If faith—a belief in one metaphysic or another—is this primary fact of life, then we do disservice to children if we characterize the human project as an argument between faith and fact, as we have since Galileo.