What does the "rejection of a Promethean vision of the human being" imply for education? Here I offer a few first thoughts on how the technological mindset helps and hurts education, particularly economics.
While online courses pose a number of difficulties for teachers and students, the reality is that they are becoming increasingly popular among departments. I’ll be teaching online courses for the first time this fall, and I am particularly concerned about how I can best engage a group of students whose interaction will be completely virtual. I will be using the Desire to Learn (D2L) system through the University of South Dakota—a technology similar to Blackboard. I also have the option to use Elluminate, a system which allows for live classroom discussions as well as a forum for pre-recorded lectures (with power-points and other images). I have used discussion boards (through Blackboard) in conjunction with on-campus courses before and found them to be useful. But I am still looking for suggestions for how to best facilitate community, engagement, and free discussion in a strictly online course. Can anyone offer suggestions or lessons learned from personal experience?
How to evaluate a liberal-arts college's teaching excellence? As I see it, it must strike the right balance between philosophical questioning and the existentially open mindset this requires, and religious and metaphysical truth, which must constitute the institutionally embodied telos of the college, for truth is the telos of the mind, and truth about God is the telos of this telos, as it were.
The first criterion for evaluation is the rigor and sophistication with which the college trains the student in the liberal arts. How well does the particular college teach, and not just give the appearance of teaching, grammar, logic, rhetoric, and dialectic; history, mathematics, and philosophy? The second is the rightness of the end, purpose, or telos for which the liberal arts are taught, around which they are hierarchically integrated, and in the light of which the pedagogy is ordered.
Excellence or rightness in either of these criteria by itself does not make for excellent teaching, for both together are required for the effective teaching of the liberal arts. Taught without sufficient rigor, the liberal arts become jejune exercises in sentimentalism or self-expression; taught without the right telos, they become sophistical and rhetorical skills to gain power for oneself and over others, one the one hand, or mere tools for the "vastly more important" art of praying to God, on the other. The latter is religious fundamentalism, the former is secular fundamentalism. The ability to think clearly and accurately about reality so as to be capable of knowing the truth is the point and purpose of the liberal arts, and when this end is eclipsed, ignored, or denied, through either religious fanaticism or power-pragmatism, the liberal arts lose their character as true arts.
The need for rigor is easy enough to see, but determining the right telos, securing the proper integration of the liberal arts around this telos, and recognizing whether a particular college has it all put together right is a bit more obscure. One studies the liberal arts because they are necessary to provide us with a clear and comprehensive understanding of the world in which we live, and the capacity to think about reality accurately and act accordingly for the fulfillment of our nature. This intellectual understanding can and should lead eventually to the securing of material and worldly goods, like wealth, prestige, practical skills, and reputation, goods constitutive of and necessary for our temporal vocations and careers. Yet, we must remember that the study of the liberal arts is first and foremost an activity good in itself.
Whatever the worldly prestige of the liberal-arts school, no matter how proficient the professors and sophisticated the rigor with which the liberal arts are taught, if the right telos is absent, they will be taught without the proper orientation and integration, and so they will not be taught well. The liberal arts are ends in themselves, but they are not all equal: grammar is ordered to logic, grammar and logic are ordered to rhetoric, the trivium is ordered to the quadrivium, all seven liberal arts are ordered to philosophy, and philosophy itself is ordered to and informed by revealed theology. In turn, theology must be fecundated, enlivened, purified, and penetrated by philosophy and dialectics—with St. Thomas’ Summa Theologiae as the model—indeed by all the liberal arts, else the queen of the sciences become rigid, dogmatic, graceless, and fundamentalist—in a word, anti-liberal.
Nevertheless, simply having the right theological telos does not guarantee the effective teaching of the liberal arts. That which is “lower” than theology can be glossed over and given short-shrift due to a fanatical religious zeal leading to a theologically totalitarian mindset. If either Socrates or Christ is banished from the liberal-arts college, the liberal arts will suffer, for an imbalanced theological totalitarianism or dictatorship of relativism will arise to supplant the loss. Both extremes display an anti-dialectical, reactionary, “answers without questions” stance, whether the answers are the true ones of Divine Revelation or false ones of some secular ideology. Such a college, if Christian in affiliation, may offer true answers, but at the expense of the dialectical, questioning, Socratic ethos (see Neil Postman’s work) that is indispensable to render true answers the answers to real questions.
So, how to strike the right balance between dialectical questioning and dogmatic answering, between seminar and lecture, between Socrates and Christ? "Dialectical traditionalism" seems a good term with which to start a discussion of what the right synthesis is and how best to obtain it personally and institutionally.
I had many stimulating conversations during the two weeks at the Lehrman Center Summer Institute. In this post, I would like to expand on some thoughts related to a few conversations with John Mueller, Sophia Aguirre and a third colleague—a fellow participant whom I will not mention by name. Any especially bizarre ideas or errors are doubtless my own, while all praise should be directly to these three.
Is it possible to get students excited about primary sources by helping them learn how to read them properly and "translate" them into terms they'll understand better? I'm hopeful that a translation of the Declaration of Independence might help students to better understand the motivations of the Founders (and incidentally help them become better readers of primary source documents).
Beyond Secular Reason
There was a time when liberals would decry liberalism's transformation into a tradition as a betrayal of liberalism, a reversal of the Enlightenment, a corruption of pure reason by irrational belief. Well, as Mr. DeHart points out in his excellent post, "Doing Political Philosophy after the Enlightenment's End," things have changed. We have moved “beyond secular reason.” The era of Enlightenment, modern, foundationalist, universalist, idealist liberalism has been displaced by post-Enlightenment, postmodern, anti-foundationalist, particularist, pragmatic liberalism. The most sophisticated and honest of contemporary liberal theorists have not only admitted liberalism’s traditionalist identity, but have defended it precisely as such. Tom Bridges summarizes the raison d’etre of the traditionalist liberal project:
If liberalism is to survive the collapse of Enlightenment culture, liberals must now attempt to de-universalize or contextualize their political language, to learn to explain and advocate liberal democratic moral ideals in a vocabulary that can express the particularism of liberal political norms without thereby invalidating them.
And Jeffrey Stout, perhaps the most sophisticated spokesmen for postmodern liberalism, writes:
There is much to be gained by abandoning the image of democracy as essentially opposed to tradition, as a negative force that tends by its nature to undermine culture and the cultivation of virtue. Democracy is a culture, a tradition, in its own right. . . . To put the point aphoristically and paradoxically, pragmatism is democratic traditionalism.
Enlightenment secularism is dead. As Jurgen Habermas stated in the remarkable 2004 exchange between him and the former Cardinal Ratzinger, western culture is now “post-secular.” Liberalism, due, I would argue, in part to Alasdair MacIntyre’s powerful and influential critique, now accepts that it is culturally contingent and historically particularist, that is, a tradition. The post-modern, traditionalist liberal has sloughed off the impossible burden of identifying his philosophical system with reason itself, and thus can defend liberalism in the same manner as Christians defend Christianity: as both our tradition, and the best tradition, as both good for us and for others, as historically limited in origin, embodiment, and intelligibility, but timelessly universal in scope and significance.
This traditionalist turn in contemporary thought necessitates, I think, a radical change in strategy for the Christian political philosophers. While we generally endorse integrally Christian practices and discourse, we deem it prudent to doff our particular practices and discourse whenever we depart Christian precincts. For those outside our tradition, and for the secular public sphere in general, we offer a mere translation. We secularize, intellectualize, moralize, and politicize what in our tradition is supernatural, mystical, spiritual, and theological, both in doctrine and in practice, so as to render it intelligible to non-Christians and practically effective for secular society.
This strategy appears quite reasonable, but it presupposes two fundamental ideas whose plausibility, in light of the traditionalist turn, needs to be reexamined. The first is that there is such a thing as the “secular public sphere” at all. The second is the separability of theoria and praxis, that one can effectively strain out from the concrete practices and particularist discourse of any tradition a secular, universally accessible remainder intelligible to all regardless of particular traditional allegiance.
Regarding the first: The Enlightenment claimed an ideologically neutral, universal, public world accessible to and based upon a universal public reason, abstracted from the practical and speculative particularities of any one tradition. But, as is now readily admitted by the Enlightenment’s own disciples, this claim is no longer credible. But if the Enlightenment is no longer tenable, isn’t the alternative even less so? If there is no objective, public reason, then do not all claims to truth become subject to the postmodernist “hermeneutics of suspicion,” whereby any affirmation of truth or goodness is unmasked as either mere idiosyncrasy or the will to dominate? There is a another alternative. According to MacIntyre,
Either reason is thus impersonal, universal, and disinterested or it is the unwitting representative of particular interests, masking their drive to power by its false pretensions to neutrality and disinterestedness. What this alternative conceals from view is a third possibility, the possibility that reason can only move towards being genuinely universal and impersonal insofar as it is neither neutral nor disinterested, that membership in a particular type of moral community, one from which fundamental dissent has to be excluded, is a condition for genuinely rational enquiry and more especially for moral and theological enquiry.
MacIntyre’s term for this third-way between Enlightenment rationalism and post-Enlightenment irrationalism is “tradition-constituted rationality.” It is only through active participation in particular authentic traditions that men are rendered capable of discovering and achieving their ultimate good; for it is only by going down, as it were, through a particular tradition that we rise up to universal truth. As body and soul composites, our encounters with reality are mediated by bodies, which are themselves mediated by history and culture. Even the words and concepts we use to interpret and make sense of the brute facts of reality originate and develop in what MacIntyre calls “traditions of rationality.” All men are necessarily habituated into a particular tradition, even if it is a rationally incoherent and morally defective one like the tradition of liberalism. Outside of one tradition or another coherent and accurate knowledge of man’s good is quite difficult, and perhaps impossible. We are, in MacIntyre’s improvement on Aristotle’s classic definition, “tradition-dependent rational animals,” or as Paul Griffiths puts it, we are, willy-nilly, “confessional”:
To be confessional is simply to be open about one’s historical and religious locatedness, one’s specificity, and openness that is essential for serious theological work and indeed for any serious intellectual work that is not in thrall to the myth of the disembodied and unlocated scholarly intellect.
Regarding the second problematic assumption, the separability of theoria and praxis, MacIntyre articulates a dilemma:
The theologian begins from orthodoxy, but the orthodoxy. . . becomes too easily a closed circle, in which believer speaks only to believer, in which all human content is concealed. Turning aside from this arid in-group theology, the most perceptive theologians wish to translate what they have to say to an atheistic world. But they are doomed to one of two failures. Either [a] they succeed in their translation: in which case what they find themselves saying has been turned into the atheism of their hearers. Or [b] they fail in their translation: in which case no one hears what they have to say but themselves.
Is there a solution to this dilemma? I think so, but the indispensable condition for its realization is the recognition of the inescapable intertwining of theoria and praxis in all human activity.
What this intertwining could teach us is that there is no such thing as “pluralism” in the public sphere, only the domination of one tradition over another, and no such thing as “liberalism,” if that means a sphere of reason or action that manages to escape the particularism and exclusivity of tradition. And since traditions of rationality are distinguished by the particular way they grapple with matters of ultimate concern, all traditions are ultimately religious. In short, the “religious pluralism” of American public life is an illusion. David Schindler expresses well the political upshot of this tradition-and-praxis-constituted understanding of rationality: "A nonconfessional state is not logically possible, in the one real order of history. The state cannot finally avoid affirming, in the matter of religion, a priority of either “freedom from” or “freedom for”—both of these priorities implying a theology."
As Cardinal Ruini, Cardinal Vicar of Benedict XVI, has recently argued , we, as individuals and in society, must live either as if God exists or as if God doesn’t exist—there can be no neutrality in action, including political action. This is something Christian political philosophers need to broadcast from the housetops—and in the classroom.
Kant directly confronts political realism in To Perpetual Peace. The preface confronts the pragmatic politician who dismisses the theoretical speculations of the political theorist who offers his wisdom concerning international affairs. The pragmatic politician cannot defend what counts as his pragmatism or utility, and his Realpolitik threatens the dignity of human beings as free and rational beings. The "law of the jungle" that constitutes contemporary international affairs makes us all beasts.
I confess that after much reading and reflection it is still hard to nail down the essence of a great leader or statesman. Justice Potter Stewart’s comment on obscenity and pornography is easily applicable to statesmanship: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it.” While it may difficult to pin down the core of statesmanship, one knows it when one sees it.