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Monday, November 28, 2011

The Liberal Arts: House of Intellect or of Questionable-Repute?

True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.-- Socrates
It’s been some 2500 years since Socrates persuaded the denizens of the Academy to accept one of the world’s grandest absurdities: the belief that successful practitioners, in general, do not “really know” what they are doing. This cooks down today to the common academic prejudices that
a. practice, hands on experience, or apprenticeship, is an inferior approach to learning; and
b. seat time in a lecture hall provides a superior education; and
c. the glibbest person on a topic is likely the most knowledgeable, and consequently, the most authoritative.
To “know something” – according to Socrates -- is to be able to articulate it or demonstrate it in the manner of a geometrical proof. Contrary to popular belief, Socrates was not engaged so much – if at all -- in reflective critical thinking as in cultural warfare. Most important for us today, Socrates and followers provided a criterion of membership in what in modern times would be called the Intelligentsia.

A second tragedy was Socrates’influence on religion, via Plato and then Aristotle. Early Christian Aristotelians, pressured by Constantine for uniformity in order to morally legitimate state interventions, invented “Rational” theology. Statements of belief were formulated and could now become became a matter of life and death. “Creeds” had to be memorized and recited for admission to one or another competing congregation of true believers. Acquaintance with theology defined a religious Intelligentsia as opposed to the merely pious plebians.

How many millions of people have been sacrificed on the altars of the Intelligentsia, both religious and secular? Lenin, for example, considered himself, as well as Marx and Engels, members of the bourgeois intelligentsia, destined to lead a generally "falsely conscious" working class into revolution. Like Stalin, Hitler suffered through a fairly standard religious education as a child, but each man pursued his own phantasm of doctrinal purity: economic vs racial.

ACTA, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, has resolved in 2011 to ensure that college graduates
“… have the skills and knowledge they need in math, science, American history, and economics.”
Why these subject areas? Behold the Non Sequitur!
“Students can’t think critically, and succeed professionally, if they don’t have anything to think about.”
Is there a logical connection here? Is this really a concern for critical thought; or, a sales pitch for a particular type of education?

Ought we to believe that if people can’t get a college cafeteria meal, they’ll likely starve to death? If they don’t work out in a college gym, their muscles will likely atrophy? If they don’t learn to sing Gaudeamus Igitur they, growling, will likely devolve into feral animals?

Even though it is still considered a sign of advanced educational achievement, wisdom, even, to tip one's hat to Socrates' despair about the possibility of knowledge, in reality many, if not most, people hold (more wisely) to the following:
Inarticulate knowledge must not be despised: we grasp theoretical ideas only if we have sufficient experience to give them meaning.-- Stephen Toulmin Return to Reason (2001,174)

To pursue these and related issues, see Moral Education: Indoctrination vs. Cognitive Development?

--- EGR