Educational methods

The more so as it is the more strictly standardized, lower education is a line to be held. Those who are below the line may hope to be lifted up to it; those who are above the line must expect to be trimmed down even with it. Provided that it is peaceful and prosperous, I suspect that a country in which many minds fall below the line will have unusually many minds above the line. This has been one of the reasons for America's success. But unless the majority of people are close to the line, a country shall be neither peaceful nor prosperous

Those who believe that education is unnecessary are fools; but those who believe that a nation's aggregate intellectual capacity is measurable through test scores are also fools. Because it cannot be made into procedures, the truth goes unnoticed: that all education is self-education. Teaching cannot be brainwashing or downloading. No complex of government regulations can do more than bring the teacher to the halfway where he must meet the student. No stake on any test and no drug can do more than bring the student to the halfway point where the teacher should meet him.

I shudder whenever I hear talk of a new method in education. In the hands of a good teacher, who understands and shares its aims and principles, any method can succeed. In the hands of the rest, the shape and color of the prod do not matter: they will find a way to draw blood with it.

Sometimes a new method dredges the silt of habit which all teachers are prone to. Sometimes it solves a problem; sometimes is shows up a program in need of solving. But most methods try to reduce the teacher to catechist or technician. It is too painful for reformers of education to realize that good teachers are good, because they have good instincts. They have use for any method only when they can, as necessary, set it aside. When governments or school administrations enforce a particular method, they only waste good teachers and worsen bad ones.

The most basic question of method is whether to teach knowledge or critical thinking. I once read the difference analogized in the terms of computer programming—whether program or data be more important? It is a good analogy only because it shows the misguidedness of the question. The distinction of data and program, while momently necessary, is not essential or fixed. In the most sophisticated and subtle of computer languages, Lisp—made to allow computers to mimic human thinking—what is now data may become program, and what is now program may become data.

There is no skill of critical thinking and no capacity to learn, indifferent to, or severable from, knowledge. Classroom critical thinking, when it is the communal abuse of carefully stuffed straw men or the circling of out-of-reach questions, stops at inverting every statement into a question or cavil. That is the opposite of understanding; it is active ignorance.

Nor is knowledge absorbed directly. Words are symbols, and symbols represent what symbols cannot be. You learn not by absorbing a thought from another mind, but by private analogy. Beginning with what you already know or have experienced, you recombine by aggregation and dissection until you make a likeness of what is shown to you. You build outward year by year from the experience of the cradle—to the soul and the stars. But minds are not as different as their differentiating experiences. The building and building up of analogies, beginning in the isolation of the individual, converges on the common and communicable—that is sanity.

The mind is a fire, not an attic. You cannot burn anything without fuel, and you cannot fuel what is not burning. It takes a good teacher and a good student to set the fire; and it is the sign of good teachers to understand that whatever method does not bend to serve the burning mind will smother it.

In My Day

The old man rocked in his chair, puffed on his pipe, and began:

"You kids today never really see the Internet. Things have been different ever since Google came through. Nowadays, you get on your computer, enter your search terms, and expect to get there on your first page of results. And wherever you go these days, things are the same. Wherever you go, there's a MySpace, or a YouTube, or a Wikiwhatsit. You'd never know what keyword you were at if they didn't highlight it for you.

"Now when I was your age, nobody googled. You told somebody in my day you were googling them, you could expect a slap in the face or a sock in the nose. Back then, if you wanted to find something, you had to surf for it. Nobody was 'organizing the world's information' for you. When I wanted to do research online, I used to have to do a meta-search. You know what a meta-search is? Ask your parents about it. I won't be the one to tell you.

"I used to love surfing. You'd surf through all these little hosts with funny names. I remember this one, I think it was GeoCities—really? They still around? Back then people'd do just about anything to get you to stop and click on their banner or sign their guestbook. Everywhere you looked, something was blinking, flashing, spinning at you. Near jumped off the screen. And the guestbooks weren't like they are today—no girlies with no last names asking for it. You signed a guestbook, and when you saw your name or handle up there with all those others from all over the planet, you felt like you were part of something. I still sign them sometimes, but that's because I'm getting old and sentimental.

"When I was younger than you, my daddy took me once way back in the sticks. We were in his old DOS, so it was close—no windows, and I don't think that thing could do more than 8600. He took me to see Usenet. That was back when things online got quiet during the summer. He showed me all those empty newsgroups—spooky. Nobody was hawking sex or casinos or immortality rings at you then. Just a big quiet. Just a few old guys with their pants too high—yeah, like mine—getting misty-eyed about Arpanet. I guess that's just the way it goes out here."

Modern letters

What is considered serious in modern letters is what it is impossible to disagree with and take seriously. Most of what we read from the best modern essayists and critics, and in the best modern forums, is assembled from parting and passing shots, from the revelations of the esprit d'escalier. Everything shows the guerilla spirit of political pamphleteering; and if we view each camp from its opposite, the world seems made up of monsters and fools.

It is not principally the pamphleteer's spirit which subverts modern letters; it is the missionary's. In place of scriptural or ritual religion, our secular sermonists preach according to the unspoken but sovran idea of the historical revelation—some moving catastrophe which (like a sacred book) delimits the permissible range of serious controversy. Beyond lies irrelevancy (or heresy).

WWI was such a revelation for Europe—a message of horror and futility Europe found more powerful than the Gospel. That revelation has been superseded for them by the Holocaust. Even of a Christian, one may ask which is the more meaningful image: the Man of Sorrows or the men of Dachau? Until 9/11 the principle revelation of American history was Vietnam—either as a betrayal of the people by an overreaching government, or the betrayal of victory by a weak people.

Where religion has disappeared from state liturgy and private conscience, it has been replaced with the cults and rites of the day or deed of infamy. The world of letters, and the world at large, is divided into factions, each with some actuating atrocity for which it works to broaden the basis of outrage. Fanaticisms, nationalisms, and ideologies are secondary factors. It is faction which drives events. It is impossible to explain the world today in terms of beliefs and loyalties. Everyone sees how strange are the alliances behind the forces of our time; it is common outrage which brings and ties them together. Terrorism takes its strength from the outrage of Palestine. The two wings of American politics and thought are not left and right; but outrage over 9/11, and outrage over the mirage of WMDs.

The religious can, in principle, extend tolerance and decent behavior to members of other religions. Worship, where it does not become fanaticism, leaves room in the mind for other feelings. But outrage is not a moderable or containable passion. Once undertaken, it subordinates every other feeling, crooks every observation, breaks into every chain of thought. These factions are fully as mutually deaf and mute as the most extreme fanaticisms of religon as such.

Outrage drives out justice. The blindfolded statue of justice must puzzle moderns; our goddess of punishment has her eyes taped open. Factions cannot weigh the crime, the violation, and the loss, to calculate justice; they must parade grief and trauma, talk of closure or taking action as if these were answers. But grief has no closing, and there is no satiety in extracting satisfaction, nor revenge sweet enough to mask bitterness.

Factions so conceived cannot be satisfied with the fulfillment of finite goals. Outrage substitutes for religion like drugs substitute for achievement; outrage beguiles uncertainty like a hit or a high beguiles boredom or frustration. Both being poor substitutes, both tend to subvert and consume: as drugs subvert and consume one's life, outrage subverts and consumes one's voice.

But history as such contains no revelations. It has no pivots, no keys and no locks. The lessons of history regarding humanity are only of human weakness, human fragility, and human folly. Religion can embrace history; but history can be made to yield only perishable religions—their saints, made only once, all die in time and cannot be renewed. Looking at the Somme or Cu Chi, at Auschwitz or Ground Zero, some are driven to invent something analogous to Providence; they find a meaning commensurate with the loss; they contrive to be inspired where they cannot bear despair. But history is truth, not mythos; and things happen because of what went before them, not in order to change the world afterward. No one can speak for the dead, nor do the dead speak.

Our serious writing is reducible to the devotional and the penitential. What does one learn from our periodicals? How is one illuminated by them? No distinctions are introduced, no arguments are undertaken; we are expected to bow to the alternations of authoritative pronouncement and sly derision, or to be dazed by a handful of shiny statistics. The actual reading is redundant; from the forum and the subtitle you can usually deduce the contents of the article or essay in advance. You could write it yourself.

The professions of writing and reviewing seem increasingly to attract the ascetic or masochistic. Entry to the fellowship of enlightened readers is conditional to willingness to mortify one's mind with the literary equivalents of the scourge (the short story, the indigestible slice of alien life), the hair shirt (the clinically detailed novel, telling more than an analyst or confessor would dare ask), and the fast (lazy criticism, the pillow-fights of the tenured).

I cannot believe that our descendants will read our literature. Will even scholars delve it comfortably? A hundred years hence, I imagine, our literature will feel to our descendants like an old book of earnest and censorious sermons feels to us: claustrophobic and inhuman.


Not all curiosities are of scientific use or value; not all anomalies are indicative; but the habit of collecting curiosities, the gothic fascination which they cast, is the same as, or rises from the same disposition as, the scientific temperament. The philosopher may despise the aberrant as the defectively instantiated ideal; but to the scientist, as much as to the poet, anything out of the ordinary—anything curious, bizarre, monstrous, abstruse, singular, marvellous—whatever it proves to be on examination, in the first instance and encounter it seems the token of another world, carries the promise and scent of livid skies over far wastes, or far kingdoms with dizzying monuments and cruel ways and musical languages.

It was not in that first reaction, but only in its prosecution that scientist and magus diverged: the scientist applied Occam's razor, to find the place of the thing in the known world; the magus supposed that he could limn new worlds in the thing. Of course the scientist is sometimes wrong. It was difficult for scientists to accept the notion of meteors; now they journey to cold white wastes to find the meteoric traces of an occult commerce of planets. Wonder is properly inspired by awe at the vast—at the sky, the mountain—but there is an equal inspiration in the glamour of the small and strange: in the jests of nature; in the contextless banal illuminated and freighted with its foreignness; in the freakish, inexplicable, puzzling, or inscrutable. The wonder of the awful should not be dimmed by explanation, nor the glamour of the curious.


Stare hard enough at any one thing, and it becomes transparent; pull long enough, and any one thread unravels the world. This is the promise of philosophy.

Emerson said that "a false consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But a false consistency is one one with bad foundations, or confused in execution, to be demolished and replaced; and consistency itself is so far from the concern of little minds, that it is the only law which holds even for God. Aristotle said that "philosophy begins in wonder," which is true in history and sentiment; but practically, philosophy comprises only the pursuit of consistency—the mind building up, building out, and drawing together; the mind seeking in the system of the world that necessary Parminedean perfection which perishing matter cannot show, which perishing flesh cannot see.

Philosophy alone demands all the mind's resources, all its power, all its patience and devotion. It is the only work which concentrates and unites all the disparate abilities of the mind, which justifies the problematic endowment of human beings with more intellectual power than has any practical applicability—what we burn off in the mental pilot flame of entertainment. Even the coffee-fueled mathematician, who also seeks consistency, does so only within a model world where definition always precedes realization; but the philosopher, even choosing to deny or reform language, still must account for it.

The likeness of a philosopher, in relation to the arts and sciences, is a pathfinder, or the surveyor of a road. It is the philosopher's part only to find a way and to report on it; perhaps to guide the equally intrepid along it; but not to clear the way, nor to build the road, nor to conduct passengers. In this way, the contributing work of a philosopher, unless commemorated by a plaque or namesake (Plato's Highway, for instance, where most of the traffic of mathematics flows; or Aquinas's, the artery of Catholicism), goes unnoticed.

Mathematics has displaced philosophy in cultural and academic prestige. Mathematics is more approachable: both mystify the spectator, but mathematics's applications are obviously mathematical in character, while philosophy's are at second hand. Having been adopted as part of the mental equipment, ideas become invisible, hidden by (I would name it) the Idol of the Schoolroom: Obviousness in Retrospect. We like to believe that our stock of ideas is inevitable, natural, characteristic of all thinking beings or of our degree of progress; curiously, we even find it far more comfortable to regard an idea as the precipitation of an economic climate than the work of a specific person. Where we allow individuals a place in the history of ideas, it is not as discoverers, but as menus; so that hungry and talkative intellectuals may as well ask each other: do we eat French or Chinese? Be Aristotelian or Cartesian?

If not everywhere cultivated or respected, philosophy is everywhere present, though implicit and naïve—the nakedness under all intellectual or creative attire. We are in a fallow period—we may be near its end—as in the West, the Dark Ages stored up the fuel for the incandescent syntheses of Aquinas and Lull—one of the most rational periods in history, for Reason is not reasonable. Reason requires you to be able to entertain the thought that everything you know is wrong; what passes for reason in reasonable is merely the averaging of first impressions. For serious thinking, the Age of Reason seems continuous with the Middle Ages when viewed from our night of fatuous prosperity and academic needlepoint.

What are called good reasons are not enough; everything ever believed has been believed for good reasons, most of which prove to be irrelevant. Without the telescope or Foucault's pendulum, every good reason is for the Earth as center of the universe; without the effort of studying history, every good reason is for the inborn superiority of the enslaving race over the enslaved. Nor are institutions enough. Abdicating reason may be reasonable, but is not rational. Every crime and cruelty within human power has been institutionalized at some point—mostly in the XXth century and within living memory. An accumulations of answers is nothing; reason requires the accumulation of questions: the discipline of uncertainty. Reasonable though you may be, you have not become rational until you have learned to fear Descartes's demon.

It may be that philosophy is not neglected only because it is difficult, unrespected, even disreputable; but because the stocks of ideas of the several civilizations now otherwise closely connected have hardly begun to meet. The world of ideas is at present like an avalanche of rocks, which moves in fits: ideas collide, repercuss, shape or are shaped, sunder or shatter as they roll from one coign to the next, where they settle until some new idea being added, it sends them all rolling again. In this state, a philosopher must be an adventurer, and willing to climb—a rare disposition, as philosophers have ever been walkers.

We hear much of Eastern thought; but we have hardly been introduced to Eastern thinkers, and to the diversity of Eastern schools; and for the East the same is true of the West—Eastern thinkers no more think of Western philosophers apart from Western scientists, than Western thinkers think of Middle Eastern philosophers after Averroës. There is no door into philosophy by way of culture. The substance of philosophy is as much above culture as is the phenomenon of language.

Only a fool throws over East for West—or West for East, or any other recombination of regions and heritages. Only a fool lets his birth, the accidents of blood or language or geography, dictate a taste prevailing over thought. The West has but lately learned that it is not the only spring; nor, it must learn, is it only a drain for all the waters of the world. It is a spring among springs, and as the basin world fills all waters must mix. This is the only real meaning of the word humanism, the only one an Erasmus would recognize. It may be called cultural imperialism; if so, it is an unprecedented mutual conquest—all conquered and none conquerers.

Biologists protest that the idea of race is useless to them, because individuals within races can always be adduced who are as more diverse than typical individuals of different races (though one wonders, if individuals within æras are as or more diverse than across them, is time therefore unreal?). Philosophy will not be ready for a renascence until it has banished unphilosophical categorization by region; until it is generally appreciated that Berkeley is closer to the Madhyamika than Aristotle, that Mo Tzu (the Legalist) is closer to Plato (of the Republic) than to Confucius, that Spinoza is closer to Mullah Sadra than to Kant.