Monday, December 05, 2022

Bring Back Wonder Bread: The Dietary Industrial Complex and the Food Allergy Crisis

The other day, I opened my refrigerator to retrieve the cream to put in my coffee, only to discover that there was, in fact, no cream. Instead, I was confronted with oat milk. Someone had been staying at our house and there turned out to be legitimate reasons for it being there, but it reminded me of something I have been bellyaching about for a few years now: the current prevalence of food allergies.

It seems like every day I run into someone who has lactose intolerance, gluten intolerance, or a peanut allergy. Every food group seems to feature something that makes you break out in hives or restricts your breathing or sends you into anaphylactic shock.

You go to a restaurant and are warned on the menu that there is peanut oil used in the cooking of food;  you go to a coffee shop and are offered some sort of alternative to milk products; you must make sure you have something gluten-free on the menu of your dinner party to accommodate guests.

It's enough to make you hypersensitive to hypersensitivity.

I do not remember hearing of anyone with any kind of food allergy until I was in my thirties. Attending school in California in the 1960s and 70s (did I mention I am now allergic to California?), I cannot remember a single fellow student—elementary, middle, high school, college—who ever so much as mentioned that he was allergic to anything, other than possibly disco.

Movies and television contained no references to any kind of food insensitivity. If you watched "Gunsmoke," you never saw a chuckwagon cook offering a cowhand coffee with oat milk. Lucy never baked Ricky gluten-free cookies. The castaways on "Gilligan's Island" never complained that the bread was not gluten-free. And Jessica Fletcher never wrote about a murder committed with a dairy product.

I can just imagine what Ralph Cramden would have said if anyone had asked him whether he wanted almond milk in his smoothie (or, for that matter, whether he wanted a smoothie).

Did some weakness enter the gene pool over the last two generations?  What does it say about us that we are hypersensitive to so many things? Why do we all now feel like we must answer the question, "Do you have any food sensitivities?" with a list?

Has our food changed or have we changed?

I have a theory to explain this explosion of intolerances. It has to do with an underlying attitude about life that requires us to be intentional about everything, especially food. Food peculiarities have become a part of the modern obsession with the self. I realize that this will sound like I am demeaning those with legitimate food allergies, but I do think a lot of people seem to feel some kind of obligation to be allergic to something. In fact, it seems to be actually fashionable to have at least one food allergy. Not to have a food allergy marks you out as odd or anti-social. It is one of the things (along with exotic gender categories and colored hair) that we now think contributes to our uniqueness.

Having a food allergy today almost seems to be the dietary default position. We might as well just consider it a new party game to compare your food allergies with those others at your table.

Back in the Golden Age (defined as the sunny and superior period of history in which I grew up) you were expected to eat what was put in front of you and like it. And if you didn't like it, you pretended you did. No one asked whether the beef was corn fed: all we cared about was that it came from a cow. We never stressed about whether our vegetables were organic: We thought, strangely, that all vegetables were organic because, in fact, they were. By definition. Check out an old dictionary, before the biological definition for 'organic' was replaced by a dietary definition. If it was meat, or vegetable, or fish, it was organic. Ipso facto.

We did not consciously ask ourselves what we might be allergic to. Today, we are asked so often whether we have any kind of food allergy (I was asked twice just last week), we start to wonder whether we are in fact supposed to have an affirmative answer to the question and think it might be more polite to go along with it all and just make something up.

Part of the problem here is that we are way too aware of what our food contains. And we feel beholden to find out exactly how many calories, carbs, cholesterol, fat, sodium, and protein each spoonful contains. We now walk around (getting in our daily steps), with a running dietary count in our heads.

When I was growing up, food did not contain ingredients. A Coke was Coke. A sandwich was a sandwich. A twinkie was a twinkie. We did not think about what food contained or what went into its production. If people were trying to poison you, they would use poison, not genetically engineered corn. And if someone decided he was too fat, he would take the precaution of eating less. No one outside of the biology department at the local college had heard of carbohydrates or cholesterol. And if anyone had made mention of anti-oxidants, we would have wondered what an oxident was and why anyone would opposed to it.

Of course we all became morbidly obese and lethargic, but at least we didn't stress about it. Stress can kill you. Or so we are now told, although I try not to worry too much about it.

For health reasons.

And besides, we have exercise now to deal with the obesity problem. That was another thing we were innocent of back in the 60s and 70s. Then Jack LaLanne came along and ruined everything. Exercise. Don't get me started. It would require me to talk about Richard Simmons.

Then came the came the "health food" craze, which resulted in the catastrophic elimination of Wonder Bread. Wonder Bread was white, which as we all now know, is bad for a number of reasons. According to health authorities, when we eat white bread, the digestive system breaks down carbohydrate molecules into smaller glucose molecules which are then rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream via the stomach and small intestines causing blood sugar levels to rise resulting in the pancreas releasing insulin which triggers the absorption of sugar into the cells.

It's a wonder we survived at all.

In fact, we should ask ourselves why it is that, when everybody was watching the Wonder Bread commercials during the commercial break of the Andy Griffith Show and learning how Wonder Bread helped "build bodies 12 ways," at least no one was apparently allergic to half the food in the kitchen cabinet.

I wonder how much of this phenomenon is actually medical and how much is a dietary affectation.

The point is that we are all now slaves to the dietary regime which has solved the problem of people selling us unhealthy food by having the same people sell us healthy food, which, I'm willing to bet, is unhealthy food with a "healthy food" label on it. In fact, you can count on the fact that, if the past is any guide, everything we now think is healthy for us will one day be discovered to be fatal.

There are also the things which used to be bad for us that now, unaccountably, are good for us: Coffee, eggs, butter, salt, wine, beer, whole milk, chocolate, red meat. Twenty years ago they would have killed you. Now they are the secret to a healthy life. But that could change next week.

According to the dietary authorities, we are supposed to be eating beetroot, white kidney beans, bee pollen, whey protein, blueberries, vitamin B, and shark cartilage. Feeling low? Try ginseng, goji berry, grape seed extract, or green coffee beans. Vitamins have taken over the alphabet. There are probiotics, branched-chain amino acids, and glutamines. If aliens ever come to earth, these would undoubtedly be good things to feed them, since they all sound like they, too, came from outer space.

There are various specific foods that are supposed to be especially healthy for us.  I recently heard algae is all the rage.

Garlic is one of the most highly touted health foods. I understand it also serves profitably as a vampire repellant and my guess is that the scientific basis for both is about the same. In fact, the prevalence of dietary scams has to be one of our cultures least savory aspects.

Even water has not escaped the dietary onslaught. In the case of water they couldn't convince anyone it was bad for them, so they tried to convince you that it was so good for you that you had to drink lots of it. In order to get the full benefit of water you had to drink like a fish. Remember ten or fifteen years ago when everyone started walking around with water bottles strapped around their waists or dangling from lanyards around their necks? "Research" had "shown" that you needed to drink eight glasses of it a day. Then it turned out the so-called research did not really exist at all. No one could find the study that said you needed to drink eight glasses of water a day.

In the meantime, half your friends had died from drowning from the inside.

The irony here is that the original impulse that produced the health craze was a return to nature. But the Dietary Industrial Complex, instead of encouraging us to eat more fruits and vegetables, is now hocking products that "contain" fruits and vegetables. Why do we think that the most healthy way to eat healthy is to turn everything into a pill or a powder?

I have the revolutionary idea that we should eat healthy, basic natural foods when we're hungry, and drink water when we're thirsty. But that probably doesn't make anyone any money.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Our Royal Double Standard

I've always wondered what Queen Elizabeth must have thought of the modern world. She began her life as a member of the royal family with no clear path to the throne and probably no thought on her part that there would be. Then, through an event almost unthinkable in the world of royalty and in the world of that time—the abdication of a British sovereign—she became the heir to the throne, to which she succeeded upon the death of her father, King George.

In other words, it wasn't something she sought. Elizabeth didn't want the job. She didn't seek it; it came to her. I don't think it is out of the realm of possibility that she would have given it to someone else if she could have. Did it involve notoriety and glamour? Sure it did. But she seemed to be oblivious to this. For her it involved only self-sacrifice.

This is the thing about royalty that we moderns don't get: We think it is privilege, and in many ways it is. But that is far less to the point than the fact that it is not chosen. There is only one avenue to becoming a royal other than being born one and that is to marry one. That's the only element of choice involved in the whole process of royalty. We think that this makes the privilege royals have worse that the privilege of someone who, say, earned his privilege. But it seems to me that the case is exactly the opposite.

In fact, why shouldn't ancestry be more deserving of reverence than these other things? Who your family is tells us much more about your character than how much money you have, or how many people know who you are, or how many other people will do what you tell them to do. I'd have far more regard for someone who had "come from a good family" than for someone who had a large bank account or who had a popular TV show or who held a high political position.

Plato once proclaimed that "the state in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the state in which they are most eager, the worst." When it comes to choosing leaders, you want the person who doesn't want the job, not the one who does.

Willingness is a desirable qualification; enthusiasm is a definite deal-breaker. Our modern politics produces ten examples of this every day.

If privilege that is earned is better than privilege that is inherited, then why is it that we all subconsciously recognize that someone like Queen Elizabeth is infinitely superior to the boorish tech bro? 

We know what we really think of royalty because of the way we treat one of its members when he goes wrong. On the one hand there is Prince Andrew, who's close association with Daniel Epstein caused a stir a couple of years back. Underage sex is something we do not tolerate in any class, and there are a lot of legitimate questions about how it was handled.

But the high bar we set for the royals becomes evident outside of rare cases like that of Prince Andrew.
Prince Charles' fraught relationship with Diana is a case in point. They divorced. He cheated on her. She cheated on him. Megan Markle claims to have been ill-treated by the Windsors. The Charles and Diana fiasco, as sad and unfortunate as it was, is all fairly tame stuff in our modern, licentious culture, but it is a big deal because it involves the royals. What does it say about our attitude toward the royals that we hold them do a higher standard? We think the royals should act better because we think they are supposed to be better. Otherwise, our attitude simply doesn't make sense.

This is why Queen Elizabeth was such a big deal. She was a member of the nobility who acted nobly. She served as a model for the rest of us of what it means to be selfless, to do our duty, to be polite in the midst of social strife, to work hard, and to consciously be a model of what it is to live a good life—all the things we expect of royals as royals.

This is one of the reasons that we need royalty: so that we have something superior to look up to. That's the job of the royals and that's why everyone gets upset with they don't do that. They occupy an "office" in the way a priest occupies an "office": they take on a role and a responsibility that is, by definition, bigger and better than themselves. And if they behave badly, they disgrace the office. But the point is that disgrace is bad only insofar as it falls short of the dignity of the office. It's only because we think the office so good that we see the person who disgraces it as so bad.

If a president behaves badly, we call for the elimination of the president, not the elimination of the presidency. When we split an infinitive, it is our fault for splitting it, not the fault of grammar for prohibiting its splitting. If our steak is overdone, we blame the cook, not the cow.

In spite of all the calls now to reassess the necessity of the British aristocracy, when a royal behaves badly, it is the fault of the royal, not the fault of the royalty.

In addition, there is the flagrant double standard we democrats employ when we argue from bad royals to bad royalty. If the bad behavior of aristocrats justifies the condemnation of the aristocracy, then why doesn't the bad behavior of democrats justify the condemnation of democracy? For every misbehavior of a prince, there are twenty democratic scandals. I'll give you three corrupt investment bankers, two elected lawmakers on the take, and one chief executive having an affair for one divorced duke.

G. K. Chesterton was not much enamored of aristocracy, being a self-described "democrat." But he knew that the way in which we moderns had eliminated aristocracy was misguided:

Thus in the old aristocratic days there existed this vast pictorial symbolism of all the colours and degrees of aristocracy. When the great trumpet of equality was blown, almost immediately afterwards was made one of the greatest blunders in the history of mankind. For all this pride and vivacity, all these towering symbols and flamboyant colours, should have been extended to mankind. The tobacconist should have had a crest, and the cheesemonger a war-cry. The grocer who sold margarine as butter should have felt that there was a stain on the escutcheon of the Higginses. Instead of doing this, the democrats made the appalling mistake—a mistake at the root of the whole modern malady—of decreasing the human magnificence of the past instead of increasing it. They did not say, as they should have done, to the common citizen, 'You are as good as the Duke of Norfolk,' but used that meaner democratic formula, 'The Duke of Norfolk is no better than you are.'

The anti-aristocratic view has it that the nobility should be brought down to our level, rather than the rest of rising to the level of nobility. In making the king a common man we make it impossible to make every man a king. If we extinguish the nobility of the nobility then we have struck no great blow for the good things of this world. And, in fact, in replacing the inherited monarchy with the aristocracy of wealth, celebrity, and power, we eliminate the possibility of royals we can look up to, and leave only tech barons, reality TV stars, and political demagogues.

And whenever you hear a liberal casting aspersions on aristocracy, search around on the internet and find a recording of their cooing and fawning over the Kennedy administration, an administration which, for years, they openly called "Camelot."

There is a vacuum at the top that has to be filled. And if it is not filled with royalty, whose job is little other than to be a moral exemplar, then it will be filled by something else—hip hop stars whose lyrics advocate the abuse of women, sports stars who take performance-enhancing drugs, and politicians who say one thing before the cameras and then say exactly the opposite to their staff. 

The superiority of this new system is not self evident.

Chesterton attributes to Queen Victoria the development of Britain's unique form of monarchy, "in which the Crown, by relinquishing the whole of that political and legal department of life which is concerned with coercion, regimentation, and punishment, was enabled to rise above it and become the symbol of the sweeter and purer relations of humanity, the social intercourse which leads and does not drive":

By lifting a figure purely human over the heads of judges and warriors, we uttered in some symbolic fashion the abiding, if unreasoning, hope which dwells in all human hearts, that some day we may find a simpler solution of the woes of nations than the summons and the treadmill, that we may find in some such influence as the social influence of a woman, what was called in the noble old language of mediƦval monarchy, "a fountain of mercy and a fountain of honour."

Had Chesterton lived to see the reign of Elizabeth II, he would have seen that Victoria's invention had not been squandered.

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

Knowing the Liberal Arts

There are many ways to argue. One of them is not to argue at all. This seems to be William Michael's preferred method. Michael and I have been arguing about the definition of classical education (sort of), and whether anyone but him has any business talking about it. His preferred method for making his case seems to consist of making an assertion (e.g. that I don't know what classical education is) and then repeating it about five times, as if, through brute assertive force, he can conjure a sound argument. This is a curious thing to see in someone who claims the exclusive right to talk about the liberal arts, since one of the liberal arts is dialectic (in its most general sense to include the arts of argumentation), the art of discerning and making sound arguments and using them in a discussion. One would be tempted to conclude that, given his claimed expertise in all the arts, he would have mastered this one.

Since he has continually failed to state his case in as a logical manner, I have continually had to restate them in order to be able to make sense of them myself. Michael claims that I do not know what classical education is and so I therefore have no right to talk about it. This claim takes various forms.

The first form of his argument (if we can dignify it by that title) is to reduce the traditional definition of classical education that has prevailed for over 2,000 years to a very specific definition of his own, and then to ask whether the person understands classical education in this way. If he does not, then he does not know what classical education is and is advocating "fake classical education."

In a recent comment on my blog he wrote this:

Have you studied the classical Grammar or Varro, Priscian, Alvarez or Lily? Have you studied the six works of Aristotle's Organon? Have you studied the Rhetorical treatises of Aristotle and Cicero? Have you studied Nicomachus on Arithmetic? Euclid on Geometry? Boethius' work on Music? Ptolemy's Almagest?

In other words, classical education, which he narrowly defines as the study of the "classical liberal arts" (he talks as if the sciences are not a part of classical education, although the humanities seem to be a part of his own curriculum) necessarily consists in the study of certain specified primary texts. Michael makes a number of hidden assumptions in his case. His first is that there are certain texts one must know in order to know what that particular art is. The assumption here is very clear: If you have not studied these particular works, then you do know the relevant art.
Let's just take the case of the liberal art I know the most about: logic. Under his criteria, all those and only those who have studied Aristotle's Prior Analytics know logic. Now this assertion can quite easily be dispensed with by merely pointing out that there are people who have not read the Prior Analytics who know logic, and that there are people who have read the Prior Analytics who do not know logic (Michael himself seems to be included in this category).

Having studied Aristotle's Prior Analytics (part of his Organon) is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowing logic. Being neither necessary nor sufficient, it cannot be considered a criterion for knowing logic.

The other relevant observation here is that no logic teacher in his right mind would study logic using the Prior Analytics as his text. In fact, I have never even heard of anyone who did this. According to Michael's reasoning this is exactly what should done, indeed the only thing one should do, since the purpose of logic instruction is an understanding (and facility) with logic, and the only way to get this understanding (and facility), he thinks, is by reading the Prior Analytics.

Now I know he will probably say that the Organon involves much more than merely the formal reasoning laid out in other works included in the Organon. Fine. The same is true of all of them, the material logic in the Posterior Analytics, the topoi in the Topics, and so on.

This is also true of his Rhetoric. I am a great lover of that work, and have written an instruction manual to help step students through it. But I would never say that it was either necessary or sufficient for knowing rhetoric.

And it is true in all the other liberal arts--Varro, Priscian, Alvarez, and Livy in grammar, Aristotle and Cicero in rhetoric, and Nichomacus, Euclid, Boethius, and Ptolemy in arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. None are necessary for an understanding of the relevant art. There are people who know these arts whose knowledge is based on primary sources other than these or on secondary sources. To say one must know these particular ones in order to know the subject is just archaism.

Again, if Michael wants to make a case for this, he's welcome to go right ahead. But, as I have observed, he avoids giving any evidence or laying out clear arguments for his positions. He relies on assertions to bear the entire burden of his reasoning.

I'd love to hear his argument that only by reading Nochomacus and Euclid can one know mathematics. My father used mathematics throughout his career as an engineer. He designed the propulsion system for the Nike Zeus missile, headed the payload processing program for the shuttle, was on several shuttle launch teams, headed the program that put the first three spy satellites in space, and was the sole author of the design specifications for the nuclear centrifuge. Some of this he did through the use of a slide rule.

I'm sure Michael could tell my father a thing or two about mathematics.

Is it either necessary or sufficient that one know Heroditus and Thucydides in order to know history? Or Homer and Virgil in order to know literature? Again, I love the works of all these authors, and I think they are very important to know, but to say that they are in some way essential to an understanding of the subjects they exemplify is just nonsensical.

I'll address next what is required to know the liberal arts. But for now let's just observe that Michael's argument (if we can call what he does as "argument") is entirely unconvincing.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Were Homer's Works Taught in Classical Schools? A Second Rejoinder to William Michael

Of the seven points William Michael makes in response to my response to his critique, one of the statements he makes is this: "There is no evidence of anyone ever studying Homer as part of any school curriculum in classical or Christian history." 

I'll have to hand it to him: he's doesn't pussyfoot around. He comes right out and says what he thinks. 

I have read this assertion about the role of Homer in classical education. I have read it again. I have tried to think if there is something I am not seeing. If there is possibly a shade of meaning I have missed. I have looked for another statement nearby that might mitigate the definitiveness of the statement. But, no. There it is, with no qualifications whatsoever. He really means it:

Homer was never a part of any school curriculum in classical or Christian history.

Now this is what, in formal logic, is called a "universal negative," that is, a universal denial. There is no case in which Homer was taught in a school curriculum. And the only thing required to falsify a universal negative is one case in which the thing denied happened. Just one. That's all it takes. But this statement is so at odds with reality, and there are so many examples and statements from historians of education that directly contradict it, that we need not settle for just one example.

So my first response is to simply point out that this statement is completely, utterly, and demonstrably false. And it doesn't take much to establish that fact. I simply walked into my library and pulled out a few books, all of which say exactly the opposite of what Michael claims here.

1. Homer was explicitly taught in the schools of ancient Greece

Let's start out with Greece, and with one of that civilizations most exemplary figures. Plato explicitly calls Homer "the educator of all of Greece" (literally, Homer "has educated" Greece). Now his famous critique of Homer in the Republic does not detract from this fact, but only enhances it, since it is very clear that Plato is pushing back against practices then extant in Greek education. He wants to exclude Homer's account of the gods (and the accounts of other poets) from the education system of his Republic because they portray the gods as acting badly and god he thinks it reflects badly on them, and that, since God is good, this is a false portrayal.

And not only was he generally the "educator of Greece," he was explicitly taught in Greek schools.

Athens, notwithstanding this [Plato's] expulsion, continued to learn Homer by heart, and this ancient custom was continued far beyond the Athenian age. Even at the close of the first century of our era there were Greeks in the Troad [a reference to Troy] who taught their children Homer from the earliest years [emphasis added]. In fact, from the Athenian age to the present day, the study of Homer has never ceased. (John Edwin Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship: From the Sixth Century B. C. to the End of the Middle Ages, (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1906), p, 31)

There is a scene in Aristophanes "in which a father, who believed in the old-fashioned style of poetic education," who is "represented as examining his son as to the meaning of certain 'hard words in Homer'." (Ibid, p. 32) "[F]rom the days of Solon to those of Aristotle, Homer is constantly studied and quoted, and was a favourite theme for allegorizing interpretation and for rationalistic and rhetorical Treatment." (Ibid, p. 37) In Sparta among the efforts to "cultivate their children's minds Homer and Hesiod "were recited and committed to memory (James Bowen, A History of Western Education: Volume I: The Ancient World (London: Methuen & Co, Ltd., 1972), p. 54).

"According to Plato, Heroditus, Thucydides and Xenophon, as well as Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Nietzsche, Homer was the educator of the Greeks, the theoretical founder of classical civilization." (Peter Ahrensdorf, Homer on the Gods and Human Virtue (Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 2) The Sophists, says Sandys, "had naturally much to say of one whose poems formed the foundation of all education in Athens." "To be a Greek was to be educated, and the foundation of all education was Homer" (Ahrensdorf, p. 3)

Not only do we know that boys in Greek schools recited Homer, but they sang his poems. We even know what instrument was specifically used by students for the singing of Homeric poems: the lyre. (Sandys, p. 43)

2. Homer was explicitly taught in the Roman Curriculum.

The Latin poet Andronicus authored a Latin translation of Homer's Odyssey which was used as a "text-book" in schools when Horace was young. (Sandys, p. 169). 

And then we have probably the greatest educational mind Rome ever produced, Quintilian who puts it quite plainly: It is therefore an admirable practice which now prevails, to begin by reading  Homer and Vergil ..." (Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, (London: Harvard University Press, trans. H. E. Butler), p. 149) [Emphasis added].

3. The reading of Homer and other classical authors was part of the curriculum of European and early American schools.

The entrance requirements at the University of Virginia established in 1826 by Thomas Jefferson included "the ability to read Virgil and Horace and Xenophon and Homer, sight translation of Latin into English, and knowledge of basic algebra and plane geometry." (Stanley M. Burnstein, "The History Teacher," Nov., 1996, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Nov., 1996), p. 30) Other colleges of the time had similar requirements.

In other words, a reading knowledge of Homer was expected to already have been accomplished before entering the university, indicating that even secondary schools (at least the more elite ones) must have been teaching Homer. Jefferson also famously claimed that even American farmers read Homer, which is undoubtedly an overstatement. But the fact that he even claimed it is an indication that there were some farmers probably did, and that says something about the then current education in America.

At Yale the freshman class "read Latin out of Livy and Horace and Greek out of Homer, Hesiod, Sophocles, and Euripides..." (Lawrence Cremin, American Education: The National Experience 1783-1876 (New York: Harper Collophon Books, 1980), p. 404)

This education continued on at many English and American schools well in to the 19th and early 20th centuries, where schools were teaching the Greek and Latin poets, many times in the original languages. It is hard to believe that Homer, the chief of the Greek poets, was not represented in many, if not most them. This was still going on (and, in a handful of schools still is) in boarding schools when Simmons attended one. He can still hear him (I was there on one occasion when he did it) recite the first lines of the Iliad in Greek from memory. 

In have said nothing about continental European schools since the Middle Ages, nor of the education conducted in the Eastern Roman world, although there is evidence Homer was a part of the Eastern Christian Greek education. And Homer was not read in the Christian Middle Ages for the simple reason that the text was not available in the West, although the stories of Troy were available in a few other, secondary sources.

The only way in which Michael's claim could make any sense is if he is assuming a very restrictive definition of the term "classical Christian education." I have noted before that he seems to be assuming a definition that would confine the scope of classical education to some medieval iteration of it. And, indeed, on his website he commends to his readers a very specific version of classical education. It is the Ratio Studiorum of 1599, a Jesuit document which outlines in very fine detail how education should be done. "It is this very mission" he says about the document, "that we seek to serve and promote."

But here's the problem: P. 77 of the Ratio Studiorum, the statement that articulates the "very mission" Michael seeks to serve, contains, in the section on "Rules of the Teacher of Rhetoric," this passage:

The Greek prelection, whether in oratory, history, or poetry, must include only the ancient classics: Demosthenes, Plato, Thucydides, Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, and others of similar rank (provided they be expurgated), and with these, in their own right, Saints Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Chrysostom. During the first semester, orations and history are to be studied, but may be interrupted once a week by reading some epigrams or other short poems. [Emphasis added]

In other words, not only is the study of Homer a common and customary practice in classical education in Greek, Roman, English, and modern versions of classical education, it is a stated part of the very kind of education that he himself recommends on his website.

But all that one needs to do to prove it wrong is to point the actual practice of classical educators and, apparently, to Michael's own website.

Look, I am sure that a student would get a very fine classical education at Michael's school. But to prowl around the internet casting aspersions on those who are trying to classically educate their students and calling what they are doing "fake classical education" when your own claims are demonstrably false is not going to help anyone.

Monday, August 29, 2022

The Definition of Classical Education: My Rejoinder to William Michael

My last post was a response to William Michael, who critiqued a short promotional video I did for Memoria Press called "What is Classical Education?" Michael then published a rejoinder to my post. 

He begins his response by stating that I "ignored most of the content" of his video. Yeah, well, when responding to a video that is an hour and eleven minutes long (responding to my puny five minutes), it's kind of easy to leave a few things out. So I responded to what seemed to be his major points. 

But he has now laid out his case in seven discrete points. So I will respond to each, the first three on this post and the others in later posts:

1. I "dismissed" my own video despite the fact that it has been viewed over 33,000 times. I think it fairly self-evidence that I was contrasting the length of my video (about 5 minutes) with his response (1:11 minutes). I was remarking, first, on the disproportion between the sledgehammer and the fly. Should it really take that long to refute remarks so few and so short?

2. I was incorrect in my criticism of his manner of criticism. In order to avoid the infinite regress involved in criticizing his criticism of my criticism of his criticism, I'll simply point out that he repeatedly criticized positions he falsely attributed to me before he even heard me out. 

Just go to the beginning of his video, where he stops the tape before I get more than two or three sentences out of my mouth, and goes through an extensive critique of the great books set behind me in the studio and telling his audience: "This is an example of what I am talking about. This idea of the great books. This is just modern gobbledygook book publishing, a cool product that you can buy, and, you know, it looks impressive on the shelf, which is why it makes for a good backdrop, but this is not classical education." Now let's remind ourselves that I have said nothing about the great books up to this point (three sentences in). And, in fact, never say anything about them throughout the entire presentation. He's literally criticizing me for something I never say, and doing it because he has not bothered to listen to what I say. 

Now I think the critique he offers of the great books is nonsense, and that his assertion that the great books do not have a part in "classical Catholic" education is just misguided, but to launch off on a critique based on what books are behind me on a set would be like me judging what he has to say on the basis of the white paint on the walls in the hallway behind him on his video. No telling what I could infer from this. 

I'm just glad he didn't notice the old map of Greece behind me. Imagine the lectures that could be made on the mistaken geography that has been corrected in recent times that I could be accused of perpetrating on children.

3. I made false historical claims about the education of the past. I made the claim that the kind of education I described--schools that focused on how to think and what to do (wisdom and virtue)--had constituted the education of older schools. Training students to think and express themselves well. He then says that this is historically inaccurate. And accuses me of not addressing this. Note that he says that that is historically inaccurate. Not proves. Not establishes. Says

He nowhere shows that what I said was inaccurate. He just asserts this. What am I supposed to do? Assert back? If Michael wants to make a case that what I said was false, then he needs to do it. But he doesn't. He just shakes his head and grimaces into the camera ominously and condemns this clearly preposterous assertion I have made that he does nothing to refute. And until he does, I have literally nothing to say because there is nothing to respond to.

All I can do is lay down the gauntlet and assert it again. So let me be plain about what I was saying, so he has a clear target to shoot at when he chooses to actually engage in an argument, which he has not yet done.

I contrasted this classical vision of education with the two other primary educational purposes: that of progressivism (the political/social reform impulse) and that of pragmatism (the preparation of students to fill jobs). In other words I articulated a logical division of education according to final causation--a definition based in the purpose of a thing--the kind of definition Aristotle considered to be the most fundamental kind of definition. The purpose of classical education is to use schools to pass on a culture and to teach individual students to be wise and virtuous; the purpose of progressive education is to use schools to change the culture and teach children to be social reformers; the purpose of pragmatism is to benefit the modern industrial economy by fitting children to it.

This general shift in the definition of education is quite well documented by educational thinkers like Arthur Bestor, Jacques Barzun, and Lawrence Cremin. It was what education was thought to be by most people before the turn of the twentieth century.

The purpose of education was to pass on a culture and improve human beings as human beings. That is admittedly a broad definition of classical education, but it is not false or misleading for being general. If we want to be more specific and historical we can say that it is the system of education whose purpose was to pass on the specific cultures of Greece and Rome. That is why it has always been characterized by the teaching of Latin and Greek, a practice some have considered essential to this enterprise. 

The term classical Christian education is simply a reference to that system of education as it was transformed by the dialectical clash between the cultures of Athens and Jerusalem negotiated by Christian thinkers such Origen, St. Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa in the East, and Augustine in the West. It was characterized by a dual emphasis on the liberal arts of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy, and the theological, moral, and, later, the natural sciences. It also added the great works of the Christian writers to its curriculum.

This is what is articulated in R. W. Livingstone's A Defense of Classical Education in 1917, when the great debate over the value of classical education was taking place, a debate in which Livingstone was the representative, and most articulate advocate.

If Michael wants to refute this, he's welcome to it. But let's dispense with the unargued-for assertions.

Next up: An analysis of Michael's assertion that Homer "was never taught in schools."

Friday, August 26, 2022

Is Homer Classical? A Response to William Michael

You shouldn't mind being criticized as long as the person doing the criticizing knows how to criticize. If he doesn't, then you feel obligated, not only to respond to the charges, but to point out what a bad job the critic did in trying to criticize you, which, admittedly, is sort of like giving the guy who is shooting at you lessons in how to operate his weapon properly. Good criticism leads to some kind of enlightenment, both yours and the critic's; bad criticism only succeeds in making the critic look good--or, more accurately making the critic think he looks good--and alienating the discerning reader.

Several years ago, I taped a very short little promotional (around 5 minutes) for Memoria Press addressing the question of what classical education is. It has garnered some 33,000 views. It was a quick one-off, done to give people wanting to know what classical education is a brief, general overview. It was not intended to be complete, only accurate.

Now comes another Youtube video critiquing my five mine from a gentleman named William Michael, who runs, which offers a classical education program. This critique of my 5-minute presentation clocks it at a little over an hour and eleven minutes. He indicates in the video that this is some sort of series he is doing whereby he patrols the internet for people who articulate false definitions of classical education and sets them straight.

His method for doing this seems to be to take a presentation by someone else which he has not reviewed beforehand, set forth his conclusions about the video before he even starts, and interrupt to inject his opinion about what the person is saying before the person can even get it out of his mouth.

I hope he doesn't treat the books he teaches in his programs this way: judging them before reading them, putting words in their mouths, and placing on them the worst interpretation he can. This is the worst kind of critic: the one who doesn't listen, who prejudges you, who has his own Procrustean bed into which he will put you, even if he has to lop off body parts or stretch you to fit--and who attributes to the person he criticizes the worst motives possible.

Straw men don't stand a chance against a guy like this.

Before about ten words get out of my mouth, he stops the tape, something he does constantly throughout his critique, sometimes cutting me off before I say something that actually agrees with a point he has previously made, not knowing that I was going to address the same thing. This causes him to repeatedly have to change tactics throughout his criticism when he finds out that I don't do all the things he has already criticized classical educators for doing, not knowing yet (not having ever heard me address this issue or any other) that I don't believe those things.

The first interruption happens when his attention is captured by a set of Great Books of the Western World that is behind me as part of the set on which we are taping. This gives him the opportunity to issue a condemnation of the idea that classical education has anything to do with the great books at all. He takes his pointer and through each of the books behind me, exclaiming upon their shortcomings, which mostly consist of the fact that they contain erroneous opinions. Of course, the whole point of reading the great conversation is not agree with everything, but to assess everything, and judge it as we may. But clearly Michael is not much enamored of assessment. Condemnations must be issued at the beginning of any critical process, and of what use is judgment and assessment and evaluation when the works have already been condemned?

Of course, the only real reason the books were there was an aesthetic one: they look nice and give a generally academic feel to the set. But we must not sacrifice a single opportunity to critique the least little thing even when we have not bothered yet to find out why it is there.

He continues by giving his viewer a rundown of the problems he sees in how people in the classical education movement define what classical education is. He gives a litany of common misconceptions and mistaken definitions that characterize the rhetoric of classical education advocates. He's correct of course. Classical education is mis-defined frequently. I have attempted to correct this a number of times.

When I tried to nicely point out in the video that the two most frequently used definitions were not the historic definitions (after he referred to them as well in his intro, clearly not anticipating that I would know know them or to better than to use them myself), he has to change tactics. He seems surprised that I already know about them. So when he can't criticize me for using these definitions myself, he instead goes after me for saying that I "have no problem with these ideas," by which I mean that as ideas in and of themselves they are not necessarily erroneous. Although it is erroneous to say that classical education consists of stages of learning, it is not necessarily erroneous to say that there are stages of learning. Although it is erroneous to say that studying history in a certain sequence constitutes classical education, it not necessarily erroneous to say that history should be studied in a certain sequence.

But, as so often in his critique, he criticizes me for something I didn't say. He is too busy critiquing me for what he thinks I would say, but didn't actually say.

He not listening.

I could go on, but here are a few of the criticisms he makes:
  • He criticizes me for not going into detail on my sources. It's a five minute video, dude.
  • He critiques a curriculum he's never seen. If he can criticize me for things I didn't say, why can't he criticize a curriculum he's never seen?
  • After mentioning Homer, he asserts (without going into detail on his sources) that "Homer's writing was despised by ancient philosophers." (I think he is referring to Plato's banishment of the poets from his Republic. But not only is this misleading, since Plato elsewhere eulogizes Homer (so making that blanket statement is simply false, committing an error he accuse me of), but the study of Homer was by common scholarly consent at the heart of Greek education. If Michael wants to say Homer has nothing to do with classical education (which he doesn't say, but seems to imply), he's going to have to assume that Greek education was not classical, which is going to be hard to do because one of the legitimate definitions of "classical" is "having to do with ancient Greece." Classical is Greek by definition.
  • He asserts, with no evidence (the kind he constantly demands of me) that I champion what I call "classical education" for purely pecuniary reasons (My wife would laugh at that one). I can only say that that's a poor excuse for an argument. The only evidence to which I think he could appeal is that I am doing a promotional video for a company that sells a product, but if that is all it takes, then it would be hard for him to avoid the same charge, since his own video was done in promotion of his own program.

I could go on. But I want to address one major problem with Michaels entire presentation, which is this: He assumes (never argues for, never gives evidence for, never specifying any facts in support of--in other words, all the things he demands of me in a five minute presentation, but is himself unable to do in his 1:11 minute presentation) that classical education is specifically classical Catholic education, specifically the education for Catholic vocations, and more particularly that education administered in the medieval universities. That is, at least what he clearly implies in his critique.

Now obviously it is indisputable that this kind of education is classical, at least when its being done classically, which, I hate to inform Michael, it frequently is not. But Michael seems to suggest that it is the only definition of classical education. And my response to this is simply to say (and I say it as a practicing Catholic) that that is almost as misleading as saying it as three stages or that it is a particular way of studying history.

The words "classical" literally means "having to do with the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome." Literally. In other words, his definition of classical education would exclude the education of the classical cultures themselves, and would include only the education that characterized the non-classical culture of the Middle Ages.

That's not only wrong, that's preposterous. He has demanded of me evidence that my use of "classical" is accurate. I can only point to scholars like Edith Hamilton, Werner Jaeger, Gilbert Highet, and R. W. Livingstone. These were among the great classical scholars, and they use the term as I use it, not as Micheal does.

Now Michael has every right to use it this way (I "have no problem" with how he uses it--see above), but he has no right to demand that everyone use it in this narrow a specialized and largely unhistorical way. If someone wants to use it this way, go right ahead, but it will require a rejection of the common usage of the term as it has always applied to the European institutions that required students to learn Latin and Greek and study the works of the classical civilizations, as well as the American system of education that did the same in this country during the colonial and founding periods and that lasted in an increasingly weak form until the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was explicitly rejected by the progressives and pragmatists by its commonly accepted name (i.e., "classical").

I don't envy someone who champions a definition of classical education that classical scholars themselves do not use. But Michael can do that if he likes. I "have no problem" with it, except that it is quite simply mistaken.

Again, I don't mind being criticized, but I do mind when it's done badly. If it's done well, I can learn something by it and profit from it. But in order for that to happen, a critic should try not be needlessly uncharitable, he should be accurate in his criticisms, and he shouldn't commit very errors he accuses his opponent of.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Careful you don't get whiplash. Progressives are now against censorship again.

School Library
Censorship is acceptable when it restricts the free exchange of ideas, but not when it protects children from inappropriate material in a school library. 

In other words, they're kind of non-binary when it comes to logical consistency.

A Utah school district is removing a number of books that have little to do with the purpose of schools and at least some of which are clearly intended to familiarize children with the finer points of gender ideology, and the folks at Daily Kos are none too happy about it.

Among the books the elimination of which has scandalized the left-wing critics at Daily Kos, are Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens, This Book is Gay, and Two Boys Kissing. One of the books the Utah school librarian apparently thought was appropriate for children is Gender Queer, the same book Louisville parents have protested on the grounds (among other things) that it has explicit portrayals of two males, possibly minors, engaged in oral sex.

In other words, something that quite possibly constitutes child pornography.

No depredation dare stand in the way of the promotion of gender ideology.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Republicans pleading nolo contedere on social issues

The Achilles heel of the modern Republican Party is its unending attempts to avoid addressing all but the most pressing social issues in favor of a focus on abstract economic issues. The party still invokes the name of Ronald Reagan, but it has knocked off the third leg of the Reagan stool, which is one of the reasons it keeps tipping over.

Reagan emphasized three things: Smaller government, a strong national defense, and traditional values. Since the Reagan administration, Republicans haven't particularly distinguished themselves in any of these, but they at least give lip service to the first two. The third has been largely eliminated from their agenda.

The most egregious example of this tendency was in the 2012 election when Mitt Romney, the poster child for this type of Republican, would try to change the subject every time a social issue was mentioned. Abortion? Change the subject to economics. Marriage? Change the subject to economics.

If you want a good example of this, you can look at how the party is now responding to the same-sex marriage issue that has reasserted itself since the Dobbs decision. Republican senators are either voting in favor the so-called "Respect for Marriage Act," or remaining mum about it altogether. The "Respect for Marriage Act" (I call attention to the quotation marks) would basically enshrine same-sex marriage in federal law.

What can you say about a supposedly conservative party that cannot trouble itself to defend basic conservative institutions like marriage? In fact, some have pointed out that, if you can't defend the traditional view of marriage, there is little traditional you can be expected to defend.

The party notoriously bailed on the marriage issue when it really would have mattered in the two years leading up to the 2014 Obergefell decision. And now their reprising their cowardly performance of eight years ago.

When asked what their positions are on the "Respect for Marriage Act," they respond, in frightened tones, "I haven't read the bill." Haven't read the bill? Since when did that ever stop a lawmaker from voting for or against anything? I doubt if any lawmaker reads any bill he votes for, including the ones he has supposedly written.

This is why Republicans lose--because they deny what Democrats know all too well: that social issues provide the gut-level motivation for their voters to go to the polls. Economic issues only work when there is an economic crisis that the reigning party can't fix. We have one of those now of course, so Republicans will pick up seats in the midterms even as they avoid issues of the heart. But when the economy improves, they will need social issues to motivate their voters, and they will choose, once again to avoid them.

World without end, amen.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Five Central Books

There are five books that everyone who wants to become classically educated should aspire to read and understand. I have called them the "central" books because they seem to stand, historically, at the literary center of the learning of educated people in the English world. Here they are:

Homer: by which we mean the Iliad and Odyssey, the book (they originally formed a diptych) that told the story of Achilles (in the Iliad) and Odysseus (in the Odyssey), and in doing so, articulated the ideals and values of the Greeks, whose culture stands at the headwaters of our own. Homer's stories served as the national myth of the Greeks, the narrative through which they saw themselves as the masters of strength and intelligence.

The Aeneid, by Virgil. This is the story of Aeneas, the Trojan prince who flees the burning city of Troy and founds Rome on the banks of the Tiber River. It articulated the ideals and values of the Romans, who saw themselves as masters of the world. It is the national myth of Rome and articulated the twin virtues of order and piety.

The Divine Comedy, by Dante. Dante's story of his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven is the story of every man's spiritual journey in life. It articulates the values of Christian civilization, the baptized cultural offspring of Athens, Rome and Jerusalem.

The King James Bible. There are other versions, of course, but this is the original and greatest of all the Bible translations, and the translation whose phrasings have permeated English literature and thought for centuries. Long passages from it were memorized by generations of English and American people. Whatever the various views on which Biblical translation is the most accurate (the only really accurate version is in Hebrew and Greek), many consider the King James Bible as the greatest work in English.

The Plays of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's plays are second in literary influence only to the Bible itself. It's variety of distinct characters and their insights into human character and society have dominated the thought of generations of English and Americans. It has also influenced European cultures in a way that no non-English modern work has influenced the English.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Champions of Tolerance Go Medieval on a Louisville School

Over the last two or three days, the Tolerance Police have surrounded Christian Academy of Louisville, demanding that they give up their religious beliefs and come out peacefully.

The latest development in this tolerance-induced hostage crisis was a news story in today's Louisville Courier-Journal (in which I am quoted) that quotes several people who charge that a Christian school is engaged in teaching its religious beliefs to its students.

This is apparently a problem for a few people who have, it seems, only recently discovered that religious organizations actually teach the beliefs of their religion to their children.
This outrage has attracted the condemnation of a number of people only some of whom have even the most tenuous relationship to the school. In an opinion column today, another person who has no children at the school and is not related to it in any other apparent way weighed in on the crisis.

"Indoctrination and critical thinking can’t coexist," says Willie Carver, "since indoctrination is, by definition, 'the act or process of forcing somebody to accept a particular belief or set of beliefs and not allowing them to consider any others.' There is no room for criticism, for objection, for individuality of thought with indoctrination."

I don't know what dictionary Mr. Carver is using, but he needs a better one. Perhaps he should try Mirriam Webster, which defines indoctrination this way: "to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle."

In other words, indoctrination is the teaching of a doctrine. Now Mr. Carver may be ignorant of this, but the job of religious schools is to do precisely this. They are sectarian by definition. They have their own religious point of view, and they teach it to their students.

Is this indoctrination? Of course it's indoctrination. Religions have doctrines and they teach them. They also (and Mr. Carver might need some smelling salts near at hand before he reads this) have dogmas, which are authoritative doctrines. They do this on a daily basis and have done it from time immemorial.

Mr. Carver is apparently unaware that indoctrination is actually what religions do. They have them and they teach them to their adherents. That's what religions are for.

Someone in one of the stories charged that the religious conservatives who are now indoctrinating students are the very same people who have charged public schools with indoctrination, and implied that this is somehow inconsistent.

Is it? While the whole point of religious schools is to indoctrinate (precisely because they're religious), public schools are not supposed to be religious, and therefore they should be indoctrinating--not, at least, unless they want to admit that they have doctrines that should be, as Christian doctrines have for over 2,000 years, carefully examined.

And by the way, to say that indoctrination and critical thinking "can't coexist" is quite frankly boneheaded. Doctrines are themselves the product of long and serious philosophical consideration. Go read Augustine. Go read Aquinas.

Christians have views on sexuality (and other areas) that are constantly being discussed, inside and outside of the Christian community itself. They're put to the test of evidence and reason. But one of the chief characteristics of the sexual views of Woke religion is precisely its dogmatism, a virulent kind of dogmatism. The assignment at CAL emphasized the importance of charity in advocating Christian sexual ethics. You will be hard pressed to find that sentiment emphasized among the Woke scolds who seem to think that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but evil.

It's interesting to watch what happens when the champions of tolerance are confronted with disagreement. All of a sudden, their tolerance evaporates and they begin lecturing you on the evils of not agreeing with them.

It kind of defeats the purpose of being tolerant, doesn't it?