Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Liberal Education and the Three Illiberal Educations

A liberal education must be rooted in grammar, logic, and rhetoric. (Not just these, but I'm only going to discuss these three). If any are neglected, you do not and cannot have a liberal education.

Education today is postmodern, meaning exclusively rhetorical, meaning illiberal. Almost all of our problems with education, from the general lack of knowledge to the rise of the social justice warriors, can be traced to this fact. Grammar and logic are both actively neglected, indeed outright discouraged. I have taught composition classes, and I know. I have been told explicitly not to spend more than a week on either grammar or logic, and most of the composition classes I have taught have even been titled "Rhetoric."

Grammar is of course more than just grammar in the narrow sense of the term, though is most certainly must include that as well. Stratford Caldecott in Beauty in the Word argues that grammar also includes mythos and memory as well. Indeed, ht points out that the ancient Greeks understood the arts as being products of the memory. We have to have an education founded in memory, in stories, in understanding the deep relations among things. With grammar, we see that each and every sentence is really a little story, and thus we understand the narrative structure of our thinking itself, insofar as that thinking is rooted in language. More, what are we remembering but tradition? Thus tradition is tied in with grammar.

Caldecott points out that a grammar education (and grammatical world view) is what dominated in the pre-Enlightenment era. With the Renaissance and the rise of the Enlightenment, we moved toward a more logic-reason based education and world view. Logic, thinking, and knowledge are what came to dominate, with the resultant rise in science. Logic is unconnected with tradition, and an over-emphasis of logic can result in a rejection of tradition. Naturally, we need an education in logic, broadly understood, as it helps us better understand what is true (and to reject what in tradition is not true), but its over-emphasis unbalanced us and resulted in a backlash.

Rhetoric emphasizes persuasion and it is deeply connected to community. What will persuade people? What will foster community? While Aristotle argues you need logos, ethos, and pathos, if rhetoric becomes overly dominant, it is typically logos which suffers (especially if it is logic which is specifically what people are reacting against). And while stories are typically used to persuade and create pathos, those stories are inevitably unconnected to tradition (or outright reject tradition). Ethos becomes emphasized over everything, which gets expressed in the postmodern world as 'I am good because I oppose racism and sexism and homophobia, so you should listen to me and do as I say.' While the first may be true (I think it is, anyway), the latter doesn't necessarily follow. More, it gets reversed such that people think that 'Because I am good, I am right,' meaning that if they are right then you are wrong, and if you are wrong then you are not good, and if you are not good you are racist, sexist, and homophobic. More, that ethos is based almost entirely on pathos, meaning how the person feels about something is what matters. This is where the social justice warriors come from.

The danger is that we react against rhetoric in the same way and return to either a pure grammar or a pure logic. Indeed, there are some indications that we are returning to a more grammatical way of viewing the world with complex systems theory. The good news is that complex systems theory is also a logic based on that grammar, and it is a recognition of the necessary fact of community in all things as well. A recognition of deep structures fostering ecological rationality in the creation and maintenance of community at all levels of reality is precisely what systems theory, or spontaneous orders theory, is all about.

To understand the world this way means we necessarily must start receiving a liberal education. A liberal education prepares us to understand the world as deeply complex, interactive, and interrelated. Each of the parts of liberal education contribute, but when they are individually emphasized at the expense of each other, education becomes deeply illiberal. Which is why education (and our societies) seem to swing between liberalism and various illiberalisms. Rarely do the three liberal language arts come together to reinforce each other, but when they do, we get a renaissance. Our current illiberal society is dominated by rhetoric. We need to reunite it with grammar and logic (and of course the other liberal arts) to rebuild our educational systems and renew our world.

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