The Canadian Red Ensign
Sunday, May 17, 2020
How the Universities Have Betrayed The Founding Principles of Academia
Last week, the local representatives of that quasi-official Ministry of Disinformation known as the press or the media got themselves all worked up into a tizzy over the provincial government’s revelation that it was cutting funding to public education. The bulk of the uproar had to do with the reduction of the University of Manitoba’s operating grant by five percent, four percent for this year alone, one per cent on an ongoing basis. Translated into a dollar amount this, according to the University’s president David Banard, amounts to a $17.3 million reduction of their budget. The University is now contemplating layoffs.
While Wab Kinew, the leader of the socialist party, has been wringing his hands in despair over how the government is "making everyone in the province of Manitoba worse off," my thoughts on the matter have fallen more along the lines of "well, its a start at least". Don’t get me wrong. I am not yet ready to forgive Brian Pallister for bringing Big Brother to Manitoba, especially since at the same time he announced these cuts he also increased the number of gestapo empowered to enforce his draconian rules against ordinary social behaviour. However, he would never have been able to get away with this if the education system, especially the universities, had not long ago betrayed its founding principles. The unhealthy cultural climate of the day, in which we are encouraged to shut off our brains and our common sense when an "expert" is speaking, accept what he is telling us no matter how ludicrous and easily debunked it may be, and obey his every command, is almost entirely to be blamed on this betrayal by our universities.
There were "experts" back when the foundations of the Western university tradition were laid two and a half millennia ago. The institutions in this tradition are collectively known as "academia" after the school which Plato founded in 387 BC and which took its name from the Ἀκαδημία in which it met, an enclosed olive grove outside the city wall of Athens and dedicated to the city’s patron goddess. A. N. Whitehead wrote that "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” (Process and Reality, 1979). This is very true, but if Plato built the Academy it was his own teacher, Socrates, who laid the foundation.
The founding of the Academy has been compared to the founding of the Church. The parallels are striking, although there is a danger of blasphemy if we press them too far. In the case of both institutions, the true founder was a teacher who stood out from the other teachers of his day with whom he was often in dispute, who was put to death democratically by the demand of a populace stirred up by his enemies, and whom we know primarily through the writings of his disciples. In both cases there was one particular disciple who more than all the others combined shaped how subsequent generations would view his teacher. In both cases, contemporaries outside of the founder’s own disciples often viewed him as a member of the group with which he is most often depicted as clashing in the writings of his followers. In Socrates’ case, Aristophanes famously depicted him in The Clouds as being a prime example of the sophists who are his chief opponents in Plato. (1)
The Socrates we know from Plato earned his nickname "the gadfly" in the agora – the Athenian marketplace and its social hub – by challenging the experts of his day. He would engage in dialogue with them, taking the position of a humble inquirer who lacks knowledge but wishes to gain it by learning from those who lay claim to it. The subjects vary, from the interpretation of Homer in the Hippias Minor to friendship in the Lysis. Most often they have to do with virtue, whether it be generic virtue as in the Meno, or specific virtues such as courage, temperance, and piety in the Laches, Charmides and Euthyphro respectively. His questions inevitably reveal that his interlocutors don’t really know what they are talking about.
Foremost among the experts of Socrates’ day were the aforementioned sophists. Most of the people whose ignorance he exposed, such as those who feature in the dialogues mentioned in the previous paragraph, were either minor sophists or young aristocrats who had studied under the sophists. In the Protagoras and the Gorgias, however, he tangled with the two leading figures of this school. These were the teachers whom the wealthy and noble families of ancient Greece hired to train their sons for their expected roles as statesmen, lawyers, and military leaders. The virtues which the Greeks prized and Socrates liked to talk about were an important part of this curriculum. The most important part, however, was the art of rhetorical persuasion. This is the subject of the dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias. It is also the art by which Socrates is depicted as corrupting Pheidippides in the Clouds. The criticism levelled against this art in the Gorgias – and the Clouds – was that its purpose was to make the weaker side of a dispute sound like the stronger side. Indeed, this is what the term sophistry suggests to this very day.
The significance and relevance of this will be made clear at the end of this essay. Let us know turn to the Western academic tradition that was built on the foundation laid by the Socratic school and especially Plato. Philosophy means the love of wisdom. Wisdom and knowledge, as has often been pointed out, are not the same thing. The Oracle of Delphi had proclaimed Socrates to be the wisest man in the world and his motivation, according to his account of himself at his trial in Plato’s Apologia, was to discover what this could possibly mean because in his own estimation he was ignorant. While that might suggest to some that the difference between wisdom and knowledge is such that wisdom can be found in the absence of all knowledge it can also be taken as pointing to a difference between true knowledge and knowledge that is not worthy of the name. Wisdom, by this latter interpretation, is either true knowledge as opposed to the lesser knowledge or it is something that is greater than true knowledge but which true knowledge leads to, whereas all the lesser knowledge in the world can never approach it. This, of course, is Plato’s understanding of the matter. His master disavowed knowledge because he placed no value on the lesser sort and was too humble to lay claim to the true knowledge, which humility indicated that he possessed it to a degree that justified the judgement of Delphi on the matter.
A full examination of the difference between true and less – not necessarily "false" – knowledge would require a longer and less polemical treatise than this one. To illustrate the aspect of the matter that I wish to highlight, however, allow me to pose the following question:
Who knows more: a) someone who knows a little bit about almost everything or b) someone who knows a lot about one small area?
If you answered a) then you are in sync with the great Western academic tradition established by Plato and his Socrates. If you answered b) you are more in line with the thinking of the Modern Age, especially the sort of modern thinking that produces scientism, technocracy, and the idolatry of the expert.
The justification for answering a) is that the person who knows a little about each of a lot of subjects is likely to have a far more accurate grasp on the "big picture", that is, truth and reality conceived as the whole into which everything fits, than someone who has devoted his life to accumulating massive amounts of information about one small part of that big picture. By the standards of the Great Tradition it is the knowledge that leads you to the big picture that is the true knowledge, and the other kind the lesser.
As Stephen Leacock put it in an essay that appeared one century, decade, and year ago:
The older view of education, which is rapidly passing away in America, but which is still dominant in the great universities of England, aimed at a wide and humane culture of the intellect. It regarded the various departments of learning as forming essentially a unity, some pursuit of each being necessary to the intelligent comprehension of the whole, and a reasonable grasp of the whole being necessary to the appreciation of each. It is true that the system followed in endeavouring to realise this ideal took as its basis the literature of Greece and Rome. But this was rather made the starting point for a general knowledge of the literature, the history and the philosophy of all ages than regarded as offering in itself the final goal of education. ("Literature and Education in America", 1909)
At the time the Canadian educational system was much more closely integrated with the British, with Oxford or Cambridge being the next step after obtaining a college or university degree here. In the intervening century the rival view of education that Leacock associated with America came to permeate the educational systems of Canada and the United Kingdom. Although Leacock would have lamented this development in Canada it would not have shocked him – by America he meant the continent not the country. By 1953, historian Hilda Neatby was already warning about how progressive educational reforms to the Canadian primary and secondary schools based on the ideas of American pragmatist John Dewey meant that these institutions were no longer preparing students adequately for the kind of university education described in the above quote from Leacock. (So Little For the Mind, 1953) The decline of classical education in the United Kingdom would have surprised Leacock more. One can only guess at his astonishment to learn that in 2020, technical experts of the type the American system was designed to produce would be treated with a greater, almost absolute, deference in Canada and the UK, than in the United States.
The roots of all this go back much further than the last century. Richard M. Weaver in his Ideas Have Consequences (University of Chicago, 1948), traced academia’s departure from this foundational understanding of knowledge back to the thirteenth century nominalism of William of Occam. Whether he was right in identifying the starting point or not is debatable. More germane to this discussion is how he traced through history the decline of the priority of the generalized education that leads to wholistic knowledge to where it took its last stand in the ideal of the Renaissance Man before being replaced by the ideal of specialized knowledge. Note that Weaver’s book was published three years after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Weaver was looking for the answer to the question of how a civilized society could arrive at the point where it would do something so barbarous as to invent such a device. He saw it as the result of the shift towards specialization in education. The scientists working on the project were so focused on the part of the task assigned to them that they missed the larger picture, including the ethical ramifications, of what they were doing.
The complete reversal of the Socratic/Platonic view of knowledge is clearly on display in the way the word "science" is now used. This is the Latin word for "knowledge." At one time even in English it encompassed knowledge of all sorts. The subjects studied by today’s "science" were then considered to be the "natural" or "physical" sciences, a mere branch of science or knowledge as a whole. Today science in the way it is ordinarily used does not include knowledge of all sorts, nor is it even to be taken as shorthand for the older sense of "the natural sciences" but refers instead to a particular methodology for studying the latter. This methodology, which could be described in layman’s terms as taking things apart to see how they work then trying to put them back together again, calls for the accumulation of vast amounts of information about smaller and smaller aspects of the natural world that have been subjected to minute scrutiny. It requires, in other words, the extremely specialized knowledge that can only be obtained at the risk of losing sight of the big picture that is the path to wisdom. Those who think that Modern science is the path to greater knowledge and wisdom are mistaken. It was never intended to be such. The end of Modern science, as Sir Francis Bacon spelled it out for us in the incomplete novel The New Atlantis that was published after his death, is the exertion of the dominance of the human will over the natural world. (2) There are two sides to this. Through pursuing this end science has been able to exponentially improve the tools by which he sustains his life in this world and makes it more bearable and comfortable. The flipside is that he himself becomes increasingly the subject of science’s drive for mastery which recognizes no limitations on the human will. For an excellent discussion of the implications and ramifications of this see George Grant’s essay "Thinking About Technology", the first in his Technology and Justice (Anansi, 1986). Note especially the contrast he draws out between the Modern scientific mindset represented by Robert Oppenheimer’s statement "when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it" and the ancient wisdom of a posse ad esse non valet consequentia. Unsurprisingly, totalitarian governments have always had a high regard for science. Even if they get the details astonishingly wrong, as in the Lysenko period of the Soviet Union, or Mao’s disastrous agricultural experiments in China, they understand the purpose of Modern science, probably better than anyone else.
Today’s "experts" are the products of an academia that has rejected its founding principles and embraced the specialization of education. Socrates expressed his scorn for people who had acquired a lot of information about one small thing and then claimed to be authorities on everything at his trial in Plato’s Apologia. Today our universities churn out such "experts" and teach everybody else to defer to such people to the point of giving them the kind of power over our lives that Hitler and Stalin could only dream of if their expertise is in the area of public health.
Yet it is even worse than that. It would be bad enough if the "experts" were people who really had mastered all the information in their small branch of knowledge. The evidence is growing, however, that the academy has been in decline in even transmitting this form of knowledge and has substituted instead the mastery of techno-speak, whereby someone is able to pass, to the public at least, as the master of a particular branch of knowledge, when he is really just a master of the specialized jargon, lingo, and rhetoric that is associated with the field. In which case, the academy has come full circle and restored the sophistry that had been demolished by Socrates to make room for the foundation of the edifice of the Western academic tradition that Plato would erect over the ruins.
A five percent reduction of their funding? That’s a start and it is only just considering that it is the experts they have been producing and telling us to listen to who have done so much unnecessary damage to the economy that supplies the government revenues that pay for their grants. It would be better to cut them off altogether until such time as they return to the principles of the Great Academic Tradition.
(1) Keep in mind that this example of the Old Comedy was what we would call a "roast" today. Aristophanes knew Socrates well, as Plato demonstrated in the Symposium, although judging from the Apologia‘s implication that The Clouds influenced the trial and execution of Socrates a quarter of a century later, he never really forgave Aristophanes for this slight against his master. It has been related since ancient times, however, that Socrates himself was present at the play’s first performance, where he sat in the front row laughing louder than everyone else and at the end stood up and took a bow to the audience.
(2) "The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible." The New Atlantis (1626)
Labels: Aristophanes, Brian Pallister, David Banard, experts, George Grant, Gorgias, Hilda Neatby, Plato, Protagoras, Richard M. Weaver, Robert Oppenheimer, Sir Francis Bacon, Socrates, Stephen Leacock, Wab Kinew