Against Best Practices and Unintentional Philistinism

PEG has penned another fine rejoinder to my last, rather tedious, reply. I appreciate his patience and willingness to add details and nuance that, in many cases, have convinced me that my initial critique was, in some ways, unwarranted or aimed at the wrong side of the argument.

For instance, I am no longer concerned about PEG’s insistence on method. He has swayed me with his appeal to holism. I would only add the following: holism as a method is not what many methodologists means by the term today. I would also mention that (and I expect PEG to agree with me about this) holistic methods can never be separated from the prudential judgement required to use them. This is what I took to be his point in referring to liturgy. His example is a good one, and one I would extend into the liturgy of everyday life — the life of the domestic church. This quickly loses the seam of method, even when it is present in the holistic way.

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At this point in the exchange I think it is important to continue looking for fundamental differences and make counter-points as symmetrically as possible to the points raised by PEG. I think he very forcefully articulated at least one of claim, at the end of his post, regarding the question of whether education is an art or a science. There are two less crucial points raised that I should address as well, regarding the PEG’s defence of “it.just.works” and his plea for empiricism. I will treat each in what follows under a claim made into a subheading, in reverse order. I will wrap up the post with a cautionary conclusion, in identical style, based on PEG’s astute sense of the differences between the world and the Church operating in this discussion.

What does PEG mean by empiricism and how does he cut the cookie?

When PEG use the word ‘empiricism’ I think he means it in a very ordinary way, i.e., an empirical account of something is based on what we are able to gather from our senses from what is there to sense in the first place. If this is true, then, I am unsure about how he leaps between empirical and theological issues. I have raised this question before (in this article) regarding Thomas Kuhn’s account of scientific observation, which Kuhn contends (and I agree) is never empirical in the ordinary sense, but I’ve never encountered it juxtaposed to theology. The closest I can think of would be Jean-Luc Marion’s phenomenology of givenness.

All this to say that I am not too sure what to make of PEG’s plea for empiricism for reasons that may be because (a) I don’t know what PEG means by the term ‘empiricism’ (this is not me trying to be obtuse; the term is loaded with uses from Locke to my beloved James and more or (b) while I may understand what PEG means by the term ‘empiricism,’ I don’t see how it divides so neatly the theological from the empirical  (in political theory, for instance, I am usually trying to marry the two, not separate them) or (c) I do understand what needs to be understood here, but PEG is really just using this term and his distinction to say that he thinks the US bishops and the Church in general can be rather stupid (here we agree, of course, but not for any of the reasons he outlines).

Now I also, in addition to everything I’ve mentioned, suspect that ‘empiricism’ is meant to be a synonym or companion to ‘science,’ ‘scientific method,’ and the other terms he has invoked. If this is the case, then, it would be helpful to see a clear treatment of them all.

(Here’s your first chance to talk about Baconian science, PEG!)

What works doesn’t work because it works.

PEG rightly nailed me for rhetorically employing the same term when I said that “what works” doesn’t work. Fair point. What that much-too-clever sentence meant to say was something like the following: we often get the best results when we are as open as possible, even to something other (but not entirely other) than the intended result. Everything except, or something like that. This is the logic in the Christian paradox of death to self: we save our life by losing it.

In a very accessible post on the man who wrote Against Method, Paul Feyerabend, reflecting on one of PEG’s own heroes, Galileo, Sam Charles Norton quotes Feyerabend:

 …the fact that a model works does not by itself show that reality is structured like the model. This sensible idea is an elementary ingredient of scientific practice…

This “sensible idea” cuts right through what I see as seductive but faulty, even on scientific terms, in the “it.just.works.” premise.

Furthermore, there is a consequentialist danger lurking in an “it.just.works” approach. Sure, there are many deontological “pie in the sky”problems sitting on the other side, but there is nothing that the practice itself cannot work out. Consider PEG’s prickly claim that “Catholic Tradition paints a pretty reliable picture of what virtue and holiness is,” for instance. Holiness is union with God, sure. Theosis, right. But that picture is not a moral or pragmatic (here we must get off the pragmatism train) verity, it is simply the way things are and must be lived. There are signs, but the signs always draw us deeper and closer and far away. This seems to be the deeper lesson in PEG’s moving and beautiful description of the (true, which is a big proviso) Montessori classroom.

About his claim that “in many ways, the Church is still in a pre-Galileo age”: the Pontifical Academy of Sciences would strongly beg to differ.

Education is a mystery; teaching (and science) is an art. 

Until this point, PEG and I have not significantly disagreed. Now we do.

The problem I have with PEG’s rather hasty set of claims regarding education as science, not art, is twofold: (1) he has not consistently described education in an uncontroversial way and (2) he has not read my book. (The second is a joke, of course, but reading my book would help to some degree here.)

Before I offer my own position on the science/art distinction, let me show one that is not in vogue at all and is in fact against the current of present psychologistic trends in school policies and curricula. The quote is from William James’ Talks to Teachers on Psychology. James, the father of empirical psychology, says the following about psychology and teaching:

I say moreover that you make a great, a very great, mistake, if you think that psychology, being the science of the mind’s laws, is something from which you can deduce definite programmes and schemes and methods of instruction for immediate schoolroom use. Psychology is a science, and teaching is an art; and sciences never generated arts directly out of themselves. An intermediary inventive mind must make the application by using its originality.

PEG does not so much say the opposite as much as he gets his wires crossed. To assert that “teaching is an art” is not the same as making the more nebulous claim, “education is art.” Again, education cannot be wholly equated with teaching, even though they have significant overlap.

I happen to disagree with PEG and James mainly because I think they both sell short the very real sense in which science is an art, too. But what James seems to understand that PEG rather hastily scoffs at is this: the associative human capacity to link things together, “an intermediary inventive mind,” will always put teaching (and study) within the domain of judgement, and this domain is where the artist in all of us does its work.

Now, about the claims that it has been demonstrated that education is science, not art, and the waxing Martin Luther King Jr. There is not a single universally accepted theoretical, empirical, or otherwise, description of what the thing “education” is. None. From Plato to Augustine to Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, to Piaget and Vygosky, to Dewey to the present. No field or approach from epistemology to anthropology to psychology or neuroscience has settled the matter. There has never been a single agreed upon conception of “education” or even a single use of the term “education,” in recorded history. Sure, there are assumptions and platitudes that rule the day as “common sense,” but the closest thing to a unified understanding of education goes back, as most things, to Plato and the relationship between desire and education.

I will again refer to the Meno, where an ethicist was forced to admit that he did not know what virtue really was. This is what I fear PEG has fallen into, with his bravado about education and dismissal of the fact that for most of human history education has not so much failed as it has not been burdened by compulsory schooling or other institutional and social debts, some for good others for ill. Education remains a mystery, an enchanting entity that, like the cosmos or being itself, we all experience daily but never quite understand. To say that education has simply been obfuscated over time is to not take it seriously for what it is and might be.

Here I will offer a bold refrain of my own: Anyone who has it in their hand, please, present a clear and uncontroversial description of the thing that the term ‘education’ refers to and I will quit my job as a philosopher of education and go do something else. In many ways, I would thank you. I do my work largely motivated by the vexing weight of all that we do not seem to understand about education. To have that weight lifted would free me and my time to think about other things or, perhaps, to work to clarify and sharpen the description that has won the day.

None of this is to suggest that one cannot do a good job at something, like teaching or studying, without understanding it fundamentally. We can go to the moon with Newtonian physics. But to say that because we can go to the moon we now fully understand gravity, deep time, and quantum mechanics would be silly and false. So yes there are knowable things out there, even what is unknown is still, technically, knowable — mysteries are knowable and even in one sense “known unknowns” — but there is no need to, while confusing one thing (teaching) for another (education), also try and force the square peg into the round hole. (Forgive the cliche, please.)

In the “world,” PEG might not like his (STEM) friends.

I think PEG rightly scolds me for making arguments that have more traction in the world than in the Church, although, as I noted above, the Church is not exactly in the pre-Galileo state PEG thinks it is. (I think that PEG simply thinks that the Church often make bad arguments, which I agree with). Insofar as this is true — and it is, because I do my work in the secular academy — then it might be worthwhile for PEG to also be attentive to how his own views play out in the world. Of course, he may not care at all about this, and I am not trying to force him here or there, but I am mindful of the ways that PEG may not realize where his ideas would follow in the educational discourse outside the Church today.

Right now (and for some time before the acronym got invented), STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is all the rage for curriculum and “best practices” are the thing to do for administration and teaching. Both of these movements are built on so-called “science-based” research, which are usually quantitative social science research. Here “method” refers to research methodologies or to “best practices” for use in behavioural and classroom management. In this world, there is no holism and the Montessori approach is too risky to be “successful.” Scientism and psychologism are what feed and poison the mind about education and these arrogant refrain often assert that there is nothing mysterious about education, it is just a matter of resources, data, and results.

I could go on and on, but I am sure that PEG would much rather hang out with a postmodern-sounding annoyance like me than with Philistines like these. My worry is that, without realizing it, he is creeping very close to sharing a family resemblance between his terms and ideas and their own.

He can of course fix this, but it would then require that he be much, much more clear about what he means to say when he invokes science above art and empiricism above theology and make muscular claims asserting full knowledge of what education is and that (real, not all the fake stuff of which we are not told how to distinguish between one or the other) Montessori is the answer. On my view of the matter, he can still champion Montessorianism, but he would do so without risking its demise.


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