Keeping the Ignorant Ignorant: The Destruction of Core Curricula in American Colleges and Universities

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English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Americans are known world-wide for their ignorance of basic history, geography, and natural science. More than half of Americans totally deny biological evolution (other than perhaps microevolution). A significant number do not believe that the earth revolves around the sun. In one classroom experiment, only about 10% of students could identify the state in which they were living while in college or university on a map. Students are abysmally ignorant of the Bible, one of the major influences on Western civilization. Many cannot tell the difference between Plato and Play Dough. Despite such ignorance, there is a major push to either eliminate or to curtail core requirements in colleges and universities. Sometimes administrators lead the push, and the majority of faculty go along with radical decreases in core requirements, including requirements in the humanities, the natural sciences, and foreign languages. Why would faculty at American universities be so ignorant as to approve the destruction of a basic liberal arts education for college and university students? There are several reasons–none of them are good.

“Follow the money.” As majors in technical fields proliferate and as the hours required to fulfill such majors increase, students often spend more than four years in college. Since many students realize they cannot afford to stay more than four years, they avoid the so-called four-year degrees and go either to community college or technical school or try to get a job when they graduate from high school. In an increasingly competitive academic environment, colleges and universities seek students like mosquitoes seek blood. Students are much of the financial food for American colleges and universities, especially those without state support or without large endowments. Any policy that discourages students from attending college or staying there the full-time alloted for a degree is questioned, no matter how sensible that policy might be. Some students complain that they do not like liberal arts courses–they are difficult for students because they demand study and reading in areas in which the students are either not interested or do not believe will give them “job skills.” The fact that good communication skills and critical thinking as well as basic knowledge of the world around them is essential for jobs is lost on them. College administrators and sympathetic teachers, especially in such departments as Business and Education, support eliminating liberal arts courses to allow more hours for their major field courses without overburdening the “customers” that furnish a ready source of income for the college.

A second factor in gutting core curricula is accreditation agencies and their allies in the social sciences. accrediting agency staff, often holding weak Ed.D. degrees or degrees in the social sciences, prefer a strictly quantitative and utilitarian approach to core curricula. They push the idea of a “common core” across all degrees, which sounds good on the surface but in practice encourages a sparse core. The emphasis on outcomes-based education combined with a purely quantitative approach to evaluation is not friendly to the wisdom one can gain from a good liberal arts education, a wisdom that goes beyond the mere quantitative. Plato and Aristotle both recognized that qualitative knowledge is essential. Accrediting agencies do not deny this, of course, but they insist on quantitative measurability for qualitative criteria, a narrow approach fitting sciences such as psychology which remain stuck in a Newtonian mechanistic framework long surpassed by the natural sciences.

A third factor is the increasing role of corporate models in American institutions. Corporate models have already taken over hospitals, even non-profit hospitals, to the detriment of the fundamental ends of medicine to help sick persons in need. Business tends toward a utilitarian approach to reality in which the bottom line and “customer satisfaction” are what is most important. Considering college and university students to be “customers” is a major category mistake. If we are wanting “customer satisfaction,” why not eliminate the liberal arts all together and offer students only the courses they want to take. Those few students interested in a traditional liberal arts education can have their “consumer needs” satisfied at a college that focuses on the liberal arts. For the other customers there is a token core so college administrators and sympathetic professors can deceive themselves and pretend that their college offers a liberal arts education when it is doing no such thing.

Citizens who are woefully ignorant of history are not the kind of citizens needed in the limited democracy in the United States. Such citizens cannot place decisions of national import in historical context. They do not know enough basic economics to say anything coherent about the budget crisis. They are like the ancient barbarians who destroyed the Western Roman Empire–ignorant and uncouth, as monks struggled to keep the dregs of civilization from burning out. The saddest thing in American colleges and universities is that the barbarians–in the form of college administrators, accrediting agency staff, and many college professors–are within higher education. With the roots so rotten, the tree will inevitably die.

The Super-Nanny of New York

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening ...

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg opening the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At http://politicker.com/2013/01/bloomberg-slaps-down-criticism-of-painkiller-restriction-plan/ is an article focusing on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to restrict the number of painkillers in emergency rooms. He argued that the increasing abuse of pain pills required mitigation, and that restricting pain pill supply would be an effective method to reduce such abuse.

Mayor Bloomberg, like many liberals, sees himself as a nanny–in his case, a super-nanny–who is there to protect the people from their own foolish decision-making. He apparently believes he is Plato’s philosopher-king who knows what is good for the ignorant masses. This behavior was seen in his restricting the size of cola drinks in order to reduce sugar consumption and thereby reduce obesity. Even at a practical level, that will do little good–someone can buy several two liter colas at the local grocery or convenience store and drink away.

Bloomberg’s actions may not only hurt the poor who use the ER as a primary care facility; it may also harm other patients who require painkillers when the allotted supply runs out. The fact that some addicts take advantage of a ready supply of painkillers does not entail that the supply should be limited. There are always going to be people who take advantage of the medical system to feed their own addiction or to meet their psychological desire for attention. Does Mr. Bloomberg have the medical expertise to tell hospitals what to do? The answer is self-evident. Such a decision smacks of totalitarianism of the kind found in Huxley’s Brave New World.

If anyone wishes to see the future of the United States under President Obama, take a look at Michael Bloomberg’s actions. Mr. Obama has put forth federal regulations at a record level. They supposedly meet a particular need–for example, as a university professor I have to turn in my textbook list for the following semester by a particular date or the school could theoretically be fined. The idea is to give prospective students the price of an education, including book costs, at a particular college or university. When colleges and universities take federal funds, they are subject to federal regulations–but other than the required statement on the syllabus for students with disabilities, this is a rare time that a regulation has directly affected me as a professor. In addition, I must use the university’s e-mail address due to abuse by degree mills. I do not mind doing that, though I like my account through a major search engine provider and use it more often–the point is the depth to which the federal government is getting involved in what a professor puts in his syllabus. How many more regulations will come from this administration? The New Deal of FDR and the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson created the modern nanny state in the United States, Mr. Obama seems intent on outdoing both of them. To the mammoth state, citizens are like children–and people treated like children tend to behave like children. Aid means control–that is one principle the recipients of benefits from the welfare state forget. Given the decline in character resulting in the childification of people in the United States, I doubt they will protest–most people, like a frog in slowly heated water, will accept their enslavement without a whimper.

Ideology as Platonism

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English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I was responding to a Facebook post regarding same-sex marriage. As usual, I was irenic, I presented the classic natural law arguments against that practice, and since the person to whom I was responding was Christian, I presented the arguments from Holy Scripture and from Catholic tradition. Instead of engaging in a reasonable discussion over an important societal issue, my respondent (who is homosexual) proceeded to say I was demeaning her, that made her feel less than a person, that she despised people like me. In other words, she resorted to an abusive ad hominem attack instead of rationally responding to my arguments.

The homosexual rights movement is one of many ideologies that came out of the 1960s and early 1970s. Feminism is another and womanism still another. All these ideologies shared a Marxist interpretation of reality in which the group advocates represented was the oppressed and society at large was the oppressor. Recently, homosexual advocates have begun labeling those who disagree with their lifestyle “haters.” Now this is a characteristic of an ideology–no matter how much compassion I show for homosexuals who are “advocates” (note that not all homosexuals agree with their “representatives”), I am, by definition, labeled as a “hater.” It does not matter that I do not hate homosexuals–the ideology accepts the following syllogism:

All persons who believe that homosexual activity is morally wrong are haters.

This person holds that homosexual activity is morally wrong.

Therefore, this person is a hater.

Given my respondent’s ideology, she had no other way to respond.

All ideologies are Platonic in the sense that they propose overarching visions of reality and apply them from at top-down perspective. That is, like rationalism in general, they do not look to sense experience for justification. The only justification is in terms of the axioms of their system, which are taken to be self-evident. Thus if one axiom says that “Anyone who believes that homosexuality is morally wrong hates homosexuals,” then that axiom applies by definition to all people in that class and cannot be questioned. As is the case with Plato’s transcendent Forms, Descartes’ Cogito, or Leibniz’s monads, reality is forced into the mold of theory instead of the theory being checked by reality.

Some versions (not all) of feminism function the same way. If, by definition, all classic literary works reflect male dominance, then scholars needing publications for tenure can search through texts for code words and sentences that reflect such male domination. In the case of Marxist ideology concerning the economic system, those who are in the bourgeois are, by definition, exploiting the proletariat. Mr. Obama’s use of class warfare recognizes the power of such a position (even though he has been more of a Chinese-style “state capitalist” than a dogmatic Communist). Envy is a powerful emotion, and if it can be justified by definition, then government should “make the rich pay their fair share” (whatever that might be).

Platonic political philosophy supports a top-down view of government–the same government is best for all people–the rule of philosopher kings (and queens). Such a position is held by Neoconservative and social democratic ideologues who desire to “spread democracy to the entire world.” The geography, history, and culture of a particular state is ignored in a naive attempt to mold the state into the pattern preferred by the Neocons or social democratic hawks.

Ideology has a convenient way of resorting to ad hominem arguments when its basic principles are attacked. After all, if they are self-evident, the person who does not recognize them is, at the very least, ignorant–and possibly reprobate as well. This position cuts the ground from under rational discussion of important societal issues and dangerously divides people into hostile groups. Ideology is, as Nietzsche recognized, a form of the “will to power,” and in a society only filled with ideologues the fundamental ethic becomes “might makes right.” This is a prescription for societal chaos. If people feel forced into a corner because of ideological labeling, and rational discussion is out of the question, what is left but assertion of raw physical force?

Aristotle recognized, in theory at least, that understanding the world requires a bottom-up approach. While all observation is “theory laden,” this does not abrogate the fact that knowledge of reality arises from the senses. Thus, unlike Plato, Aristotle placed forms in things, and held that states should follow the system that best suits their history and culture.

As Alasdair MacIntyre recognized, the only way for communities with different values can rationally discuss issues is by having the person in one community “put himself in the shoes” of someone in another community to understand that community’s values. Once that occurs (and it must be a mutual process), then rational discussion can take place. Agreement may not be reached, but there should remain a feeling of mutual respect.

Russell Kirk famously said that conservatism is not an ideology, meaning that the form that conservatism takes in a particular state will depend on the history and culture of that state. Conserving key societal values is not a matter of imposing them, Platonic-Formlike, from above–most likely one will only come up with one’s own a priori values to apply to everyone. Rather, conservatism should have a deep respect for the way things are in the actual world. There may be need for change, but this is done slowly and with appropriate concern for the history of a people.

God forbid that American society melt into a soup of competing ideologies. The end of the United States as we currently know it (what’s left of it, at least) will most likely result.

Accreditation and the Tyranny of the Social Sciences

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Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

College and university accreditation and re-accreditation has become a nightmare. Accreditation agencies demand “continuous quality improvement” to be documented by quantifiable data. Following a model that has wreaked havoc with teachers in the public school system, specific departments at a university and the university as a whole must not only form a mission statement, but formulate a series of goals and objectives to meet those goals. The objectives must be measurable in a quantitative way. Some departments require not only a list of goals and objectives for the course, but also for each week of the course. Standardized group final exams are becoming more common in certain fields, such as the physical and social sciences. The comprehensive portion of the final exam may have some of the same questions year to year so that a department can track “improvement” in students’ ability to answer certain questions covering key goals of the course.

Such a social science oriented quantitative approach to education works neither in the physical sciences nor in the humanities, and I doubt it works in some social sciences either. Science involves critical thinking, something that is more than a quantifiable measure and often involves “abduction,” an inference to the best explanation that is as much an art as it is a science. The “social science approach,” a fortiori, does not work in the humanities. Students must do some memorization of facts in the humanities as in any other field,  and they can be “objectively” tested over such facts. The humanities, however, are about critical thinking, forming a world view, interacting with the great events and texts of history, reading Plato, Aristotle, and other great philosophers who sought wisdom. Wisdom uses knowledge, but refers to the practical wisdom (prudence, or what Aristotle called phronesis) to make the best decision about how to live the good life in a specific situation. A conception of the good life implies a world view, a vision of how all things fit together into a whole. World views are by nature qualitative, not quantitative. They demand weighing different and sometimes contradictory perspectives. That is why it is important in philosophy to allow faculty to use the textbooks and the approach they choose, rather than having a “cloned” approach to teaching a course. The trend toward conformity in academia has been accelerated by pressure from aggressive accrediting agencies.

There is a line of thought in the social sciences, which is also present among some scientists who work in the natural science, that nothing is real unless it is quantifiable, including knowledge (I doubt that this line of thought has room for “wisdom”). Many psychologists, especially, take a totally quantitative approach to what they are studying. As the most conservative of sciences, psychology tends to fit better into nineteenth century though rather than into twentieth and twenty-first century thought. The situation seems like the revenge of Jeremy Bentham‘s often criticized “hedonic calculus” that tried to quantify an exact measure of pleasures and pains. The basic idea of quantifying everything has been broadened to the idea that one can operationally define any learning task and test to determine whether students have actually learned. Can Plato’s view of the Forms be operationally defined? What about the significance of World War I in the development of interwar continental philosophy? Can wisdom be operationally defined? What about truth, beauty, and goodness? The accrediting agencies are attempting to destroy what is most valuable about education–becoming wiser, with a better ability to think critically and to make judgments, exposure to different world views, the privilege of discussing differing positions with a professor. To say that qualitative measures are allowed is disingenuous since even those “must be measurable”–how? There must be a quantitative rating scale. Hopefully college and university faculty will encourage accreditation agencies to re-examine this current trend toward a bad social science model of evaluating educational quality.

Universal Terms and Reality

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The problem of universals is one of the oldest problems in philosophy. From Plato and Aristotle to Boethus, Abelard, and the other medievals to the modern and contemporary periods philosophers have discussed whether universal words such as “man,” “dog,” “oak tree” or “water” exist in themselves, are mere labels for objects we group together for our convenience, or do not refer to things, but to objective similarities between things. Extreme realism, such as held by Plato, holds that universal terms such as “dog” refer to the Form “Dog” that exists in a spaceless, timeless world separate from the empirical world, and which is known by reason, not by sense experience. The opposite view, extreme nominalism, associated with Foucault and Derrida (although whether this is their actual position can be debated) holds that “dog” refers to what any society labels particular animals they wish to group together as “dogs.” There is no essence of dogness, no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for dogness to which the term “dog” refers. Finally, moderate realism (the position of Abelard (perhaps–I think so), St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Blessed Duns Scotus, asserts that universal terms refer to objective similarities between natural kinds of the same type, to a set of, say, necessary and sufficient conditions that make a dog a “dog.” The trend since William of Occam has been toward conceptualism, such as Occam’s notion of universals as labels that refer to similarities between entities that have some basis in extramental reality. He sounds like a moderate realist; some interpreters call him a “realistic conceptualist.” In his own day he was interpreted as a nominalist, and whatever his position may have been, philosophers after Occam gravitated toward nominalism. This trend accelerated the split between faith and reason that ended the Medieval synthesis. The end stage of this process is found in Nietzsche’s work, which supported nominalism in the sense that all meanings are culturally constructed and do not have an objective basis in extramental reality. Contemporary English Departments at many universities, especially in the United States, tend toward a radical nominalism and linguistic constructivism in which universal words refer to whatever fits a particular society’s interest. Even though I agree with the notion that meaning is flexible, since I accept the medieval four-fold model of meaning in Biblical interpretation, there remain limits to the scope of meanings that a word can have. Meaning occurs in context, and a particular context may both increase the number of possible meanings of a term, but it can also lower or eliminate the possibilities of other meanings. “I am going to the bank” makes sense if the person saying that also adds “to go fishing.” If he says, “I am going to the bank to withdraw money,” that eliminates the the other meaning of “bank” as “bank of a river.” Natural kind terms clearly refer to entities that are objectively similar. Sure, a beagle does not look like a Rottweiler, but they are both carnivores, they both bark, they can interbreed, and they have similar genetic codes and similar causal powers. There is no need to posit the existence of “Dogness” in any transcendent world independently of actual dogs. “Dogness” might exist in individual dogs in the sense that it refers to the set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions to make a dog fall under the universal term “Dog” (or another term, such as Canis, used in another language. Thus my own sympathies are with Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ moderate realism: universal terms refer to objective similarities between things that are necessary and jointly sufficient for an entity to be the kind of thing it is. Universal terms may also hint at universal ideas or patterns in the mind of God through which He created the universe and the things in it. This view, dating back to Augustine, was picked up by the Medieval philosphers such as Aquinas, and did not fade until William of Occam denied it in the fourteenth century. Moderate realism evades the problem of arbitrariness found in postmodernism as well as the over-transcendence of Plato’s world of the Forms. I am hopeful that it will be adopted by philosophers outside the Thomist school, since as Richard Weaver pointed out in his fine book, Ideas Have Consequences, nominalism helped lead to the idea that nature, including human nature, is infinitely malleable by human ingenuity. Realism, whether ultra or moderate, helps to form a stable society in which human nature and nonhuman nature are both respected. Moderate realism avoids the problems of Plato’s doctrine of participation by placing the entity to which a universal term refers “in” the individual substance. Now substance, I believe, following Fr. Norris Clarke, is “substance-as-relation,” so that the intellectual content of the object observed would “seek” (metaphorically speaking) to communicate itself as far as possible–and the observer would strive to communicate was much as possible. Through such joining of information the mind becomes “intentionally one” with the object perceived, and thereby knows it, not exhaustively–but the actual information he receives is accurate to a degree. If this is the way communication between being and mind takes place, there is no need for transcendent Forms, but there is a need for “forms” with a small “f” to guarantee stable behavior patterns among natural kinds.

The Tragic Shooting in Tuscon

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Gabrielle Giffords, Democratic nominee and gen...

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Like most people, I was shocked at the shooting spree in Tuscon that killed six people and wounded many others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords. I pray for the families of those so brutally murdered and for the recovery of Rep. Giffords and the other people wounded. The shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is clearly mentally ill; it is almost impossible to predict the behavior of someone so deeply disturbed, and we will probably never know what pushed him over the edge into violence and murder. There has been a great deal of concern expressed that extremes of political rhetoric may have led to this tragedy. This claim goes beyond the evidence, but political debate should be conducted in a rational matter using good arguments rather than ad hominem attacks. Both the right and the left have been guilty in this regard. However, I am not sure that in issues involving politics or religion that debate will ever be conducted without some people making personal attacks. Politics deals with the nature of government and what makes up a good society, something that affects us all. Religion deals with one’s overall view of the world. For many people, religion and politics are part of their very identity, and they feel threatened when their religious and/or political views are attacked. In addition, many people in society have been infected with the postmodern disease of not believing that reason can resolve political issues (and by “reason” I primarily mean “practical reason” in Aristotle’s sense). Distrust of reason only leaves room for emotion–and while emotion is necessary for our survival and is probably necessary for good cognition (as the work of Damasio suggests), emotion tends to go to extremes without the balance of reason. Without reason, all that remains in politics is emotional attacks that quickly degenerate into personal attacks and even into violence. Such a view ends up leading to “might makes right.” That is sophism of the kind Thrasymachus accepted as Plato portrays him in The Republic. Thrasymachus wished to attack people personally, even threatening them physically, to push forward his views. The kind of violence seen in the earlier attacks on Rep. Giffords’ office, or the vandalism of the Rutherford County, Tennessee Republican Party Headquarters (twice) is the result of such an ethic.

Concern about political rhetoric should not be used as an excuse to limit freedom of speech or to cut off debate on controversial issues. Even nasty political rhetoric, as long as it does not involve slander or libel or physical threats, is protected speech. Political debate today is nasty, but is nowhere near as nasty as it was in the nineteenth century. Yes, we should be more civil in political debate. But even those who are uncivil have the right to be uncivil. The terrible tragedy in Arizona should not obscure this fact. Sadly, the sheriff in Tuscon and many in the media have tried to politicize this tragedy or blame specific people or movements for the crime. This is the very kind of political rhetoric that is unhealthy. Ultimately, there is only one person who is guilty of the murders and assaults in Tuscon, and that is Jared Lee Loughner.

The Politics of Thrasymachus

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My Philosophy Bookshelf(top)

It is a regular habit, even among people who should know better, to call a person an insulting name rather than answering that person’s argument for a position. Terms such as “hater,” “racist,” or “sexist” are tossed out carelessly by the radical left to attack those who hold positions with which the left disagrees. Given the damage such false labels can cause, the radical left should avoid slandering people. But since it lacks clear argumentation for its positions it resorts to slander and insults in an attempt to bully conservatives into capitulating. This is especially true on social issues such as abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and sexual ethics.

In behaving this way the radical left is behaving like a character in Plato’s REPUBLIC, a young Sophist named Thrasymachus. The context is a discussion over the nature of justice. Thrasymachus believes justice is simply power–the power of the strong over the weak, and that whatever the strong calls “justice” really is justice. When Thrasymachus enters the conversation, he behaves consistently with his principles, approaching Socrates and his party aggressively, engaging in name-calling, and making it difficult for Socrates to get a word in edgewise. Socrates corrected Thrasymachus on his bullying, though Thrasymachus never yielded to Socrates or changed his own position.

Both radical-Marxist influenced academics and hot-headed “lay radicals” share Thrasymachus’ view of justice–that justice is a matter of power. They tend to interpret power in terms of identity politics, focusing on the power of selected races, classes, gender, and sexual orientation. The rest of us, according to the radicals, had better go along or else. While these Marxists might not go as far as Mao’s “revolution at the barrel of a gun,” they have no problem ruining careers or reputations with spurious charges. Often this tactic does not work, but when it does, the results can be disastrous. I know personally of a faculty member who was fired for defending, at a faculty meeting, the teaching of Western culture. Thankfully, things worked out for him–he got another job and compensation for violation of academic freedom–but he should not have been fired in the first place. I have heard of several other conservative academics–and these are not raving Fundamentalists–who were fired because of the “political incorrectness” of their conservative positions. This is the politics of the bully, of the sad soul who has no self-esteem and no support for what he believes, so he lashes out at those he perceives to be weaker. The people I know personally who have those tendencies differ little personality-wise from dogmatic Fundamentalists of the Christian or Muslim stripe.

The problem is not only with the slander and harm that those who follow Thrasymachus’ methods cause. Another problem is that such individuals destroy the opportunity for rational discourse, an imperative in a democratic society. There is an irony here–in the name of liberalism and democracy they attack both by their actions. They are the true weak people–too weak to be able to argue for their positions reasonably. Like all bullies, they are cowards. Those who oppose them must stop them in their tracks before they cause harm instead of doing damage-control after a person has been harmed. Just as a child needs to stand up to a bully threatening to beat him up, conservatives and true liberals should stand against the followers of Thrasymachus when they threaten freedom, academic and otherwise.

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