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.

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