Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Teaching Justice at Harvard - NOT!

"I went down to the Piraeus yesterday..." is how Plato begins The Republic, with the poetic description of Socrates descending into the lowest market place in Athens, before rising back up, out and forward, to discuss the meaning of Justice. If Plato were writing today, he might let the relatively sterile market place off the hook as his counterpoint setting, and instead begin with something far worse, such as "I went down to Harvard yesterday...".

When reading Plato, keep in mind that he was a poet before becoming a philosopher, or you might miss, as I did for so long, that his dialogues are just as much poetic as philosophic, which leaves you with much less than half the picture he sought to paint with you.

For Plato, traveling down to the harbor of Piraeus and the 'new' alien religious festivals of Bendis being celebrated there in place of the traditional Athenian beliefs at the older more respectable harbor of Phaleron, was for Athenians such as Socrates, the symbol of the new, crass, decadent imperial Athens; for us to experience the equivalent of that Athenian judgment, we might imaging ourselves descending down from the heights of the Founding Fathers… to Gov. Blagojevich; from Thomas Jefferson attending church services in the capital, to the WA Gov displaying an atheists insulting manifesto next to a Christmas display; from Madison vetoing a bill with "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents" to Paulson telling the leaders of the nations leading banks that they will sell the Gov’t shares in their corporations, paid for by our politicians embezzling of a trillion dollars of the taxpayers money, in order to pull off a defacto nationalization of wall street and probably Detroit too.

That is the sense which "I went down to the Piraeus yesterday..." should evoke.

An equivalent descent into the muck today, can be had by any lover of wisdom who attends a lecture on Justice at one of our 'prestigious' universities. The gulf separating the tightly integrated and wide ranging true education offered at colleges such as Princeton, Yale and Harvard in our Founding Fathers day, and the disintegrated, particularized drivel dished up on today's college campuses, is horrifying.

Horrifying, if you take into account what Abraham Lincoln said,

"The philosophy of the classroom today will be the philosophy of government tomorrow"

, and when you consider that while the education the founders received, produced... well... the Founders themselves, you have to then realize that the education we are delivering today is producing scum such as Blagojevich ... a product of recent decades education... but the real rotten fruits of todays crop, will fall upon our heads in the next couple decades hence.

As I said, horrifying. If you take a look at this lecture by a Professor Sandel on "Justice A journey in moral reasoning", you'll soon see what I mean. When I first happened across the page, it seemed like it might be quite a find, a rare nugget on the net:

"Hundreds of students pack Harvard's Sanders Theater for
Michael Sandel's "Justice" course—an introduction to moral and political
philosophy. They come to hear Sandel lecture about great philosophers of the
past—from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill—but also to debate contemporary issues
that raise philosophical questions—about individual rights and the claims of
community, equality and inequality, morality and law."
Wo! Count me in! (yeah... I'm that bad) I wasn't much deterred by the second paragraph,

"Despite the size of the course, Sandel engages students in lively
discussion on topics including affirmative action, income distribution, and
same-sex marriage, showing that even the most hotly contested issues of the day
can be the subject of reasoned moral argument. This film, which contains
excerpts of several classes, is part of a project to make this legendary course
an educational resource that reaches beyond the Harvard classroom."
Yeah, well, difficult to get away from the multi-culti today, I thought, even so, still looks like my idea of a fun time! At least until the first minute of it had unreeled. Then I felt I was in on watching the deliberate mangling of hundreds of innocent students minds, souls, and their ability to ever even recognize Justice.

The opening credits roll promisingly with snippets from the lecture,
"What is the supreme principle of reality?... Suppose that individual rights and liberty were at stake... is that a natural way of thinking about justice?... is that the right thing to do?... we need some answer to these questions everyday."

Cool! This is going to be good! Sandel then walks out before hundreds of gazing students, and launches directly into:

"This is a course about justice, and we begin with a story. Suppose you're the driver of a trolley car, and the trolley car is travelling down the track at 60 mph, and at the end of the track you notice 5 workers working on the track, you try to stop but you can't, you feel desperate because you know that if you collide with the workers, they will all die. Let's assume that you know that for sure. You feel helpless, until you notice that, to the right, a side track, and at the end of the track, there's one worker working on the track. Your steering wheel works. So you can turn the car if you want to, onto the side track, killing the one, but sparring the five. Here's our first question: What's the right thing to do?"

This is lifeboat ethics, even the very scenario of Marc Hauser that I noted in Dehumanism, and it is truly nothing but unethical. Having hamstrung them right off the bat and asked for a show of hands and explanations, he then launches into

"What if you were instead standing on the bridge above, and a fat person is next to you who you know will stop the train if shoved over the rail, and save the 5 workers, what would you do?"

The express purpose of such a scenario, is to put the student into a situation where he has no time to think, and must just react, in order to 'do the right thing'. Somehow.

Look at that again.

A philosophy course, an introduction to philosophy, the study of wisdom, and in this case focused upon the central point of the jewel of Justice, which seeks to resolve issues into what it is good to do and what is wrong to do... dealing with the highest concepts and truths, requiring the most deliberate and refined practice of reasoning... and as an example of entering into this, the most concentrated form of thinking, of reasoning upon vital life changing issues, we are given, as the introduction, your 'first impression' which you never get a second chance to make, and as the choice made for setting the tone for the entire course, is chosen, chosen, a situation designed "to put the student into a situation where he has no time to think".

Where, I want to ask, is the Justice in that? He then rolls on with questions of Marxist derivation, and anti-justice thinkers such as Rawls… the students rapt attention at the entertaining philosophical vivisectionist at work upon them… horrifying.

This is very much representative of the 'teaching' professors employ in philosophy classes today.
My oldest son just finished an intro to philosophy class at our community college, an introduction to the vast expanse of philosophical thinking, ranging from its roots in ancient Greece, where all of the significant questions in philosophy were first conceived and answers to them first proposed by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others, and following those ideas in their journey to the present, passing through and over Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Descartes, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, James, Dewey, Heidegger, Popper... and... Habermas? Habermas. Wiki notes:

"Jürgen Habermas considered his major achievement to be the development of the concept and theory of communicative reason or communicative rationality, which distinguishes itself from the rationalist tradition by locating rationality in structures of interpersonal linguistic communication rather than in the structure of either the cosmos or the knowing subject"

A currently popular but insignificant little pipsqueak of a modern philosophical scribbler, who only partially escaped the nazi & marxist frankfurt school of thinking he was raised in, by fusing together some contrived glop of marxist, hegelian, pragmatist and linguistic goo.

It is unjust enough that someone like Habermas was even mentioned among that list of heroes (and villains), but to add insult to injury upon Sophia... the question on Habermas in the final exam for his course was worth 50% of the grade.

Love of wisdom? Justice? With apologies to Juliet, Wherefore art they that?

I've been reading back through Aquinas and Plutarch this week and others , getting ready for my next posts I want to cover on Law, and in doing so it just wallops me upside the head, how obvious it becomes, that when juxtaposing our past thinkers, against the most recent, how unaware the moderns are of not only even the proper meaning of Law, but that they are utterly unaware of the meaning, or apparently even existence, of Justice – though they throw the word around… liberally.

It's enough to make you sick. Does anyone really dare ask why the world is as it is?


julie said...

Oddly enough, in my mind, at least, your post ties in rather horrifically with this (warning - contains an extremely disturbing video; I don't know whether it's real, but the actions represented therein most assuredly are).

Students are routinely presented with extreme scenarios such as the ones you mentioned, or the story (I forget the author and the name, but you've probably read it, being a standard disturbing college (im)morality lesson) about the utopian town that only survives so long as a nameless child is kept starved, isolated and degraded in a dank basement. They are given the extremes so often that they lose the ability to deal with reality, and when (or rather, if; they all seem to think that tribal life is the utopian ideal) they hear of a place where such extremes are both very real and part of everyday life, they shrug their shoulders and call it a merely different (but not bad) way of living. Or even argue that it should be protected from Westerners (especially Christians) who wish to offer them something better than infanticide.


Unknown said...

What I wonder is when the educational system went off the rails so to speak. It is like you mentioned Van our founding fathers were educated a certain way and if I am understanding you and several others it seems like the quality of and system of education has been going downhill ever since. What do you think caused this?

Van Harvey said...

Lance said "What do you think caused this?"

WO... That's biting off more than I can carry here, let alone chew, but as an inadequate answer, yet correctly pointing in the right direction, the errors theme would be discarding the idea of an Education as being a general means of grasping life as an integrated whole, with the better the education indicated by the greater the overall and evenly distributed depth that whole grasped (as opposed to a specialized and thorough knowledge of a single thin slice), and it's vital tie to morality.

*The motive power - not sole source or cause, but motive power which changed the style and method of teaching, was Rousseau, particularly as put out in Emille - the influence that evil little book has, and still has, upon educational theory, is immense

* Enlightenment Rationalism - The English empiricist view was flawed and heading for problems, but the rationalist view (what seems right in theory, must be right, and theory is more important than experience) as spiked by Rousseau, and given an acceptably plausible meaning (too long to decipher, but with enough examples to snow people) by Kant, which established an intellectually acceptable view that reality was unknowable - and irrelevant

* Pragmatism - a reaction against the incomprehensible (as Nietzsche said "They muddy the waters to make them appear deep") metaphysical distancing of any ability to understand of principle (and the accepted understanding that even if grasped, would be irrelevant), completed it by discarding principles in favor of disconnected actions which seemed like they'd work ultimately meaning 'feeling' and emotion, over reason) , think less, act!

Make a comparison of documents written in the 17th & 18th and current documents, and you'll readily see the differences on these scores. I was reading through Adam Smith's lectures on Jurisprudence today, and the striking difference in style of language, method, purpose in comparison to Stephen Breyer... or even Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., leaps out at you. And one big reason can be found in what they were taught, and how they were taught it.

The 'scholastic' style of teaching comes in for a lot of grief in the progressive literature (Rousseau on), but aside from the fact that they had some facts wrong (due to the incomplete knowledge of the time, not intrinsic to their method), and some mixing of literalistic religious teachings with material facts, it was far and away a superior method of teaching. It involved a rigorous method of learning to grasp an issue by its essentials, in oral debate, to incorporate the principles which gave rise to them into the whole of your knowledge, through challenge and response method of either defending a topic and position, or arguing for it.

They would not tolerate or suffer mere pedestrian regurgitations of factoids and dates, you had to fully understand not only the principles of issue at hand, but how it integrated into the rest of your knowledge. As a result, when James Otis stood up and argued against the crowns position, the vast implications resonated throughout all the educated and semi-educated people of the colonies, which John Adams later noted as the true start of the American revolution. For them, there could be no such thing as "Well, we're going to apply an income tax, but it will only be upon the very rich", they would immediately have grasped the inescapable (inescapable on the level of principle that is) implications for the freedom, independence and liberty of every inhabitant of the land, and would have recognized the tyrannical nature of those proposing it (whereas we are hard pressed to even wonder if it would be fair to do so for those making less than $150,000?)- and probably would have tarred and feathered the fool who mouthed it.

Montaigne described a proper education as being that which imparted such an understanding of history, philosophy and literature which would make one worthy of and able to be free, liberated - a liberal education. Now, it is described as one which enables you to earn a living - and awareness of particular causes that are popularly popular. A college graduate today is adrift in the present, and easy prey for demagogues. It is an awful state of affairs.

There's a book I obtained, out of print now, that goes into detail what an education consisted of in their day, and the days which led up to their day, and is an enlightening read all it's own, called:
"Education of the founding fathers of the republic" by Walsh, James Joseph
"scholasticism in the colonial colleges; a neglected chapter in the history of American education"
Published in 1935, Fordham university press (New York)

I though I'd found it on pdf somewhere earlier this year, but don't see more than excerpts now - if you can get it, it's worth reading.

I did find a link to some content on Google Books, but it's difficult to read in the format, might give you a glimpse though.

Van Harvey said...

(My inability to type coherently in a comment box? Modern educations fault)


Van Harvey said...

Julie, that's ghastly. Reminds me of Shirly Jackson's (?) short story "The Lottery"... but that was a horror story, not pedagogical theory.

julie said...

Van, yes, it is ghastly. One of the later commenters on that post said it was a re-enactment (which I suspected, but obviously it's based in a horrible reality). The commenter actually adopted the little girl whose story was being shown. She also had this to say:

"This is the story of Hakani – whose name means "smile" – one of hundreds of children who are targeted for death each year amongst Brazil's 200 plus indigenous tribes. Physical or mental handicaps, being born a twin or triplet or being born out of wedlock – all are considered valid reasons for taking a child's life.

A growing number of indigenous people are rising up to fight this practice. But when they seek help from the government, they are told that their children are not protected by Brazilian or international law, and that preserving culture is more important than saving individual lives." (emphasis mine)

So the question is, how did we get here? How can large swaths of our culture, made up mainly of people who consider themselves "citizens of the world," defend infanticide?

I think the answer is, in part, due to those types of logical exercises in extremism, wherein the only reasonable answer is to sacrifice the individual for the good of the whole. Practice it enough and you stop seeing an individual life as being something of value, something worth protecting and saving.

As to how our education system got there? That's tougher to answer, though I think some of the answers lie in that list of goals for the increase of communism (I forget what it's called - helpful, aren't I?) is a good place to start.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent post, Van!
I especially enjoy how you write these posts, with principles in mind, and why Kant or whatshisname is wrong, or how Aquinas is still very much applicable today since timeless truth's are...well, timeless.

Although I believe that I can say I hold these truth's to be self evident, there's a lot behind how those truth's came to be, or rather, how they were discovered and used by our Founding Fathers that I don't know.

The processes they used to create our Constitution, and the debates they had (I hope you cover the Federalist papers. I would love to see your take on them), which would put Hannity and Colmes to shame (no offense to Hannity, but he gets focused on the wrong things too much, which, although may be true, are frivolous or shallow. Of course, compared to Colmes, Hannity is a freakin' genius).

If our Founding Fathers were hear today, they would make the vast majority of our elite wackademics look like the idiots they are in the area of philosophy, law, justice, history, liberty, etc. The only subjects they would be weak in would math and the sciences.
But they had the proper principles to utilize that knowledge responsibly, unlike the bail-out crew in Congress and the President I'm sorry to say.

Professors like Dr. Sowell are very rare nowadays, and it's a pity our politicians don't listen to men and women like him!

Anyhow, I appreciate the education, 'cause I'm deficient in this area to say the least, and thus much of what your teachin' here is new to me, you gno? :^)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you n' your Family, Van!
I hope you have the bestest one evah!