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."


William C. Michael said...

Mr. Cothran,

In your first response, you admitted that it is erroneous for anyone to say that Dorothy Sayers' use of the terms "Grammar", "Logic" and "Reasoning" as names of "three stages of learning" have anything to do with the historical arts of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric that made up three of the seven classical liberal arts. That was helpful.

Based on your responses and past work, it does not appear that you have studied the classical liberal arts.

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?

These works contain the seven classical liberal arts, which have been taught for centuries of Christian history.

Have you studied these works? A simple "Yes" or "No" would suffice. This is a very simple, objective question. And, if you have never studied these works, how have you spoken of the "seven liberal arts" as a teacher and advisor for all these years?

Thank you,
William C. Michael
Classical Liberal Arts Academy

Martin Cothran said...

Mr. Michael,

Let me get some clarification here. Are you suggesting that if, say, one had not read the entirety of Aristotle's Organon, that he cannot know the system of formal logic? What if Aristotle's Organon had been lost? Would that mean that no one could know logic? What if we only had secondary sources on something--writings by those who had read the Organon? Could we not come to at least an accurate understanding and possibly even a mastery of the subject logic on which Aristotle wrote?

Are you not assuming here that the only way someone can know the definition of something (its general nature, purpose, origin, basic composition) is to be an expert in it? Or that in order to advocate something, one must have mastered every aspect of it and read its greatest exponents.

I drive my car, having little familiarity with the life and thought of Henry Ford. I am sitting here typing at my computer and conducting all of my professional and personal business on it having little or no knowledge of Alan Turing or his work. I don't refrain from voting--or publicly advocating who one should vote for--simply because I never finished reading the Federalist Papers. I don't only listen to and appreciate music which I myself can play.

The next time I fly, should I make sure to first have read the schematics of the plane the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk?

I question this assumption that a person must have read all the major exponents of something and mastered all its intricacies in order to know what it is, or that it is valuable and worthwhile, or even to discuss it intelligently.

Also I should note that this tu quoque reasoning seems to be characteristic of the larger ad hominem nature of many of your comments. It seems to me that your case would be more logically convincing if you confined yourself either to making arguments, pointing out what the fallacy is in the arguments you contest, or questioning the factuality of evidence rather than questioning the integrity or legitimacy of people you disagree with.

Questioning people's motives and qualifications, for example (which you have done repeatedly), isn't going to do the work of real argument.

William C. Michael said...

I'll take that as a "No". You have not actually studied the classical liberal arts.

Martin Cothran said...

I've read most of Aristotle's Organon, all of his Rhetoric, a number of Cicero's dialogues, some of Euclid, and Boethius, but not his book on music.

But your argument seems to be:

No one who has not read all these authors is qualified to engage in or advocate for the liberal arts.
_______________ has not read all these authors.
Therefore _____________ is not qualified to engage in or advocate for the liberal arts.

The major premise here would, of course, not only disqualify me, but also several of the authors you mentioned in it, since they could not have read the others mentioned in the premise, having lived prior to them. So it is quite self-defeating.

But I suppose you could refute me merely by pointing out that I am applying one of the liberal arts (logic) to your argument about the liberal arts, an argument which disqualifies me, apparently, from using any of them, not having read all these authors you say I must read in order to do this.

I'll have to admit that your position has the advantage of being impregnable.

William C. Michael said...

No, my argument is very simple. You have presented yourself to Christian families for almost 20 years (?) as an expert on "classical education". You speak of the "seven liberal arts", giving the impression that you have studied them, but you have never studied the seven liberal arts. Really, you have no idea what the seven liberal arts consists of and, consequently, what classical education consists of since you yourself define "classical education" as the study of the classical liberal arts and literature.

You have here admitted that what I accused you of is true. As I said, I can tell from what you write and say that you have not studied the subjects you speak of.

Martin Cothran said...

You continue to refuse to actually engage in an argument, preferring to settle for assertions without evidence. And when I state your argument for you, and point out where it is flawed, as I did in a previous comment, you simply ignore it.

Your argument, as I pointed out, is that no one who has not read certain authors who have written about the liberal arts can have any knowledge of the liberal arts. I pointed out your reasoning and pointed out that it not only makes an unsupported assumption, but is self-defeating.

You simply assert that I do not know what the liberal arts are with, again, with no sound argument to back it up and no supporting evidence--except that which bolsters your major premise which you refuse to acknowledge and which contradicts itself.

It seems to me that someone who claims to know so much about what the liberal arts are would actually practice them. Dialectic is one of the liberal arts. Why do you refuse to engage in it?

I have written countless articles on classical education and the liberal arts over twenty years. It would be easy to take something I have said and try refute it or to question some assertion I have made. I'm sure if I went back I could find a few things I might change a few things myself. But you have not even attempted to do this. You just keep making unsupported assertions.

In fact, I am beginning to doubt that you have read the Prior Analytics at all. If you had, you would be able to engage at some level in a logical argument.

Syllogisms are nothing to fear. They not only provide a trustworthy mechanism for engaging in deductive reasoning, they also relieve you of the felt need to engage in ad hominem fallacies. Trust me on this.

William C. Michael said...

Asking, "Have you studied the seven liberal arts." and you answering that you have not is not an "ad hominem" argument. It is proof that what I said of you is true, and that you are not qualified to advise anyone on the study of those seven liberal arts.

To pretend that somewhere buried in the art of the syllogism is some justification for misleading people to think you have expertise in the seven liberal arts isn't going to help you out of this.

I'd like to know how many people you've advised over the past 20 years have known that you have never studied the arts you were advising them on.

The fact you refer to Aristotle's Prior Analytics as "Dialectic" only further reveals your ignorance. You really don't understand these subjects. You can call that an "ad hominem" argument, but it's not. It's the truth.

"Dialectic" refers to the earlier Platonic method of reasoning, which Aristotle teaches in the Topics. Aristotle established the Analytics, which teach the art of Demonstrative reasoning, not Dialectical reasoning. You'd have to study these works to understand these things.

If you're not going to admit that you have pretended to be an expert in the liberal arts without studying them, there's nothing more to talk about.

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