The Crossroads considers the real possibility that the forces of darkness currently engulfing our world cannot be defeated without a price, not only of personal pain and suffering, but of a likely breakdown of civilised order as has happened in the past when civilisations collapsed.
In the case of Rome, its end was a “long descent” followed by a crash as the Northern barbarians destroyed what had become a decadent and corrupt society. But breakdown for us is likely to be quicker, following the “bigger they are, the harder they fall” principle. A quicker collapse though offers a greater chance for rebuilding because there will still be some human and material resources suitable for rebuilding.
Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell in his book “The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch” (Bodley Head, London 2014) gives a fascinating science-based discussion of how the survivors of a global catastrophe (say a hyper-pandemic or asteroid strike) could rebuild civilisation. His basic starting point is that if the scientific method is preserved (observation, experiment and testing), knowledge can be regained in all fundamental areas including agriculture, food, clothing, substances, material, energy, transport and communication. This is very much a scientist’s approach to the issue and largely ignores the social, cultural and linguistic dimensions.
Preservation of culture is just as important as the preservation of science and technology because culture is the social glue holding societies together.
In saving, if not rebuilding a culture, where does one begin? Here I will briefly review some informative works that can help us on our journey. Dorothy L. Sayers in “The Lost Tools of Learning” (1947) is an important document for any rebuilders of civilisation because she deals with basics. Her discussion begins with education towards the end of the Middle Ages “the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object”, giving us some idea of how long the rot has been well, in rotting away.
Sayers says that today young people are often kept in a state of continued childhood, right up until finishing university, nowadays in their mid-twenties.
In Tudor times, university was long completed before reaching 20 years of age and responsibility assumed for the conduct of their affairs. Even in 1947, Sayers had also observed that education at the time failed to endow students with a developed sense of critical reasoning and thinking. Indeed, “the intellectual skills bestowed upon us by our education are not readily transferable to subjects other than those in which we acquired them: “he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it”.”
The art of learning has been lost, which is the teaching of how to think, the methodology of thought. That was true in 1947 and it is true today in 2015. It contrasts thought with the syllabus of the Middle Ages. This syllabus was divided into two parts: the Trivium and the Quadrivium
The Quadrivium consisted of various subjects such as arithmetic, and our contemporary syllabus is essentially a Quadrivium. However the Trivium was comprised of three parts in this order: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. These fields of knowledge are very broad and basic and aimed to teach the student the tools of learning and of thinking. This grammar taught about the structure of language, how language was composed and how it worked.
Dialectic taught how to use language, to define one’s term, make statements and construct arguments, and to analyse fallacies of reason.
Rhetoric was concerned about expression in language, how to communicate clearly, precisely and persuasively.
Mastering grammar, dialectic and rhetoric enabled the student to not only write and defend a thesis, but also to do so verbally and to be able to stand one’s ground in debate. This skill is seldom seen even at university today where students, even in law, are ill-equipped to give talks and defend their thesis from criticisms.
In short: “modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along; mediaeval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature”.
It is of course, not possible to go back to the Medieval period in the sense of time travel, but it is in the sense of correcting an error insofar as the Medieval period represents a philosophy of education. Sayers believed that the student should first begin with grammar and as he/she ages and matures, proceeds to dialectic and then to rhetoric. I, however, believe that it is best to dive in on all three from the beginning and establish a firm foundation, building on all of them.
She supports the teaching of Latin at an early age and this too is a good idea. Learning Latin is a good way of grasping the essentials of grammar, and of understanding the English language at a deeper level.
Sayers discusses science and mathematics, but sees science as a subject and sees mathematics (algebra, geometry, advance arithmetic) as part of logic. Although this view is defendable (that is, mathematics is just logic) and has weighty mathematical defenders (e.g., A.N. Whitehead and B. Russell), today it is generally rejected. Mathematics has an intimate connection with logic, but it is not itself logic. The arguments for this are highly complex (e.g., Godel’s theorem) and as a former mere high school teacher (only year 8 and 9 maths), I don’t understand them. But it is plausible to suppose that mathematics is sui generis, independent, with its own methods of reasoning.
Thus I differ from Sayers in believing that from an early age something like a methodology of mathematics (baby metamathematics) and elementary set theory should be taught.
I recall in my Year 1 impressing my teacher when we began set theory with “attribute blocks” (different coloured blocks with different shapes) and hoops, and I discovered the intersection set by crossing the hoops to form a common space. At that point I had grasped the concept of a set.
Science itself is as basic to human thought as grammar. The scientific method of observation, theorisation, experimentation and testing can be introduced to students from an early age. They will learn to think “empirically” and to test hypotheses and statements as far as possible by observation, testing and confrontation with reality.
It is a defect in all education systems, both classical and modern that something of a two culture problem develops where there is not an integration between socio-cultural knowledge and scientific knowledge. However the scientific mode of thinking can interact and enrich socio-cultural knowledge: thus one can approach English literature essay using an analytic evidence-based approach: what evidence is there in a text for a particular theme? Too much of so-called “creative writing” and expression is just a flow of words and fine phrases but it need not be. The end of this cross fertilisation would be a creative critical thinker.
By the age of 16 the young person would be able to tackle university, and having learnt how to learn, would be able to undertake the learning of new subjects. Most importantly once again young people would become citizens, free and creative individuals rather than brainwashed masses.
Anthony Esolen in the Foreword to Stratford Caldecott’s “Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education” (Angelico Pess, 2012), a book following the same lines of thought as Dorothy Sayers, says in an important passage that the reason for having such a holistic view of education is “that a human being is made not for the processing of data, but for wisdom; not for the utilitarian satisfaction of appetite, but for love; not for the domination of nature, but for participation in it; not for the autonomy of an isolated self, but for communion”. (p.4)
At present modern education is drowning in political correctness and outright hatred of Western traditions. Relativism is embraced – the idea that there is no objective truth and all points of view (except, of course, those of white western men) are equally valid. As Caldecott notes in opening his treatise, the search for truth has been lost, and with this has gone the quest for freedom as well.
But education should not be about mouthing ideologies or even remembering information: it should be about obtaining freedom of the mind from acquiring the ability to think and learn. From this ability comes wisdom, the ability to understand the world and live in harmony with it.
Reviving a classical education, enriched with modern science and technology is a big task, perhaps an impossible one for our present education system. Report after report has shown the poor quality of teachers and their lack of basic skills, especially in mathematics. Education should involve hard work and hard thinking, such as athletic ability requires intense training: no pain, no gain. This is not so for our modern crop of teachers who have had a soft path to roll upon. Nevertheless home schooling is an option. Laura Berquist, “Design Your Own Classical Curriculum” (Ignatius Press, 1994) is written as a guide to Catholic home education, and will be useful for anyone seeking an alternative to the oppressive “total Institutions” that modern schools have become.