Thursday, January 18, 2007

Equal education for unequal students equals uneducated students?

Charles Murray has an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal today, mentioning in passing a subject that's very dear to me, and which I've written upon from time to time: the value of genuine Humility, and the role it plays in one's accumulation of wisdom. In fact, his piece touches on so many points that we have talked about in our posts here at Covenant Zone, in our weekly meetings, and through correspondance with readers via email, I felt that it would serve as an effective candle for our one-year anniversary... meeting every week since January of last year:

Aztecs vs Greeks

...The problem with the education of the gifted involves not their professional training, but their training as citizens.

We live in an age when it is unfashionable to talk about the special responsibility of being gifted, because to do so acknowledges inequality of ability, which is elitist, and inequality of responsibilities, which is also elitist.

And so children who know they are smarter than the other kids tend, in a most human reaction, to think of themselves as superior to them. Because giftedness is not to be talked about, no one tells high-IQ children explicitly, forcefully and repeatedly that their intellectual talent is a gift. That they are not superior human beings, but lucky ones. That the gift brings with it obligations to be worthy of it. That among those obligations, the most important and most difficult is to aim not just at academic accomplishment, but at wisdom.

The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education. It requires first of all recognition of one's own intellectual limits and fallibilities--in a word, humility. This is perhaps the most conspicuously missing part of today's education of the gifted. Many high-IQ students, especially those who avoid serious science and math, go from kindergarten through an advanced degree without ever having a teacher who is dissatisfied with their best work and without ever taking a course that forces them to say to themselves, "I can't do this." Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall, just as all of their less talented peers do, and that can come only from a curriculum and pedagogy designed especially for them.

That level of demand cannot fairly be imposed on a classroom that includes children who do not have the ability to respond. The gifted need to have some classes with each other not to be coddled, but because that is the only setting in which their feet can be held to the fire.

The encouragement of wisdom requires mastery of analytical building blocks. The gifted must assimilate the details of grammar and syntax and the details of logical fallacies not because they will need them to communicate in daily life, but because these are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.
The encouragement of wisdom requires being steeped in the study of ethics, starting with Aristotle and Confucius. It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.
The encouragement of wisdom requires an advanced knowledge of history. Never has the aphorism about the fate of those who ignore history been more true.

All of the above are antithetical to the mindset that prevails in today's schools at every level. The gifted should not be taught to be nonjudgmental; they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of Aztecs and Greeks; they should focus on the best that has come before them, which will mean a light dose of Aztecs and a heavy one of Greeks. The primary purpose of their education should not be to let the little darlings express themselves, but to give them the tools and the intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults.

In short, I am calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty. If that sounds too much like Plato's Guardians, consider this distinction. As William F. Buckley rightly instructs us, it is better to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. But we have that option only in the choice of our elected officials. In all other respects, the government, economy and culture are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose. That is the reality, and we are powerless to change it. All we can do is try to educate the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, its obligations. For years, we have not even thought about the nature of that task. It is time we did.

Speaking for myself, attending Covenant Zone's Blue Revolution meetings for an entire year has been a tremendous education for me, as I've been tested and challenged like never before by my fellow blue scarf covenanters. I emerge with many new facts and figures, but most importantly, I look back and see a way to become a better person, in the ways that matter most: through strengthening of character.
It all comes back to character, that mysterious uniqueness separating us so gloriously from the other living things with which we share our world.
Having knowledge is one thing, but how you use it, the things you choose to do and especially, the things you choose not to do: this is the difference that schools are at pains to teach its students. Is it even their business? Probably not, for the decisions we make as growing and changing human beings, on subjects that matter the most, Family, Faith, and Fortune, must come from teachers whose credentials are the lives they themselves have lived... credentials no "school" can match.
Entering these three arenas, we approach their individual challenges recognizing the confounding mystery that surrounds each of them, that no school can fully resolve for us. These three puzzles require a lifetime of experiences, relived again and again by those around us, to even begin to be understood. Therefore the more we compare our notes with our fellow gladiators in the arena, generation after generation, nation after nation, covenant to covenant, the more we can dare to believe that we continue to march towards further penetration of their mystery.
The nearer we get, the more we realize: all three are, somehow, all the same thing.

I read Charles Murray's editorial today through the eyes of a student of a year's worth of blue scarf gatherings, and I discover I am seeing a different article than one I would have read had I never gathered the nerve to attend that first meeting so long ago. The degree of difference I perceive in myself, between then and today, is due to two gifted teachers, who never made their pupil feel like he wore a dunce cap no matter how unequal his status may have been.

Happy Anniversary, fellow blue revolutionaries!


Anonymous said...

I tend to support the idea of streaming and agree with the above argument somewhat. Yet one should note some of the dangers of consciously molding an intellectual elite. It is often said that with rights come responsibilities, though this could just as easily be flipped around. If you want to instill in the elite that they have an exceptionally strong obligation to better society with their gifts, the assumption of political equality will begin to erode. We may lack an explicit culture of noblesse oblige; however, we also lack, for the most part, an institutionally privileged aristocracy. This may be taking the streaming argument a bit farther than your suggesting. It is, I think, still an important consideration.


truepeers said...

While there is no questioning our fundamental intuition of human equality, this has to go in hand with our knowledge that no society succeeds without some people taking the lead in re-presenting the evolution of its ethical self-understanding and organization. To the extent that a leader had some "aristocratic" virtue, democracy and aristocracy must always go together, in some shape or form. It's never an either/or.

But today we have an elite class that pretends it isn't one, that continually tries to dissimulate its own centrality by patronizing all outsiders as victims of the centre they represent even as they pretend (by "deconstructing" it) not to. Since, for them, the normal is the source of all oppression, they end up modeling an aristocratic anti-normal politics defended as therapeutic expertise. Their idea of democracy is everyone being an expert-king or victim-king in his own rightful domain. And so there must be an awful lot of rightful domains; in this massive bureaucratic construction, the common shared truths that underpin our humanity and that we must remember if we are to know the good are frequently lost.

There is another idea of democracy in which the true aristocratic spirit is the noble defender of the normal, of the covenant by which ordinary people can come together, negotiate their differences, and rule themselves without need of constant arbitration by the experts whose role should be not so much to lead or legislate, but more to reflect, defend and judge. Murray is right that there is going to be a cognitive elite that tends to get the top "judicial", policing, or bureaucratic jobs in any society. But we should not confuse this with the politics in which anyone who has a commitment to renewing the covenant can take the lead by putting himself in a place where something new needs to be said, some experience symbolized.

So yes, it would be a good idea to bring our judicial-bureaucrat elites back in touch with fundamental human truths, or fundamental experiences in search of true symbols, that incessant specialization and the differentiation of knowledge that goes with it obscures or forgets. After all, if we tend to think a sense of nobility should attach to their elite jobs and responsibilities, it is probably because a nobility has to attach to their jobs if they are going to do them effectively, given the risks, or self-sacrifices, or hard choices, that certain kinds of covenant-protecting jobs require. Soldiering is only the most obvious example of this.

Northrop Frye once wrote that the university of today, with its technical training of experts, does not make us better people; it merely makes bad people more dangerous. The embrace of the good may be something that has to be increasingly taught in other places, like churches or some equivalent for our committed secular types.

Thanks, Charles.

Charles Henry said...

The trick, I think, is to find a way for the gifted child/adolescent to keep from seeing themselves as above the normal rules.
I think of the Kennedys (JFK, RFK, and Teddy), their undeniable work ethic and spirit of public service; they all worked, despite being born to wealth... they could have chosen an idle life, but instead chose to work. Yet that noble spirit was so corrupted by the very elitism that nourished it. Clearly, they saw (or, with teddy, still see) themselves as beholden to a vastly different set of rules than the mere mortals whom they felt duty-bound to serve.
I think the mitigating factor that keeps excellence from leading to a sense of elitist entitlement, is humility; the recognition that excellence means better at some things, but not better at everything. And that no matter how excellent, there's always been, and soon will be again, someone able to become better still.
If excellence is seen as a temporary status, destined to be eclipsed by the expertise of others, then things could be better placed in effective balance.
This long-term, big picture view, is maybe the missing piece of the puzzle right now.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like the goal is a self-conscious elite, dedicated to serving society, humble enough to be displaced by other rising elites, yet not claiming any institutional privilege despite the higher expectations put on them. Alright. Nice enough idea, if a bit utopian. The concept of a social group that entirely negates its own self-interest strikes me as naïve.

TP: It sounds like what you’re really pissed at isn’t an unconscious faux aristocracy as much as it is a perceived culture of victimization. I don’t see how the former causes the latter. More importantly, I don’t necessarily agree that a classical education will prevent the victim culture you appear so set against. Let’s look across the pond for a second. Britain has more of a self-conscious elite that we do. For the most part, the elite class receives a classical education from ‘Oxbridge.’ And yet, the victim culture flourishes to some extent (as evidenced by the ‘Londonistan’ period). I’ll defend the merits of a classical education, but I have limited expectations about society’s ability to mold an elite class committed to service and self-sacrifice.

truepeers said...

Well, I hope I'm not a utopian, but it's an ever-present risk in social criticism.

My position, as i understand it, is that human beings are fallen creatures who can never be perfect. But recognizing this is not a reason not to posit some horizon (largely personal, i.e. formed in moral conversation with God, or a secular equivalent, but by extension social as we all inevitably act as models for others) of what we should aim towards. What is good that we can orient ourselves towards is only possible because we begin (and will always be in this world) as imperfect.

Yet whatever our many failings and steps backwards, I do think humanity demonstrates an evolving, but never-ending, ethical progress and self-understanding over the long term. And our willingness to recognize the truths this evolution reveals is the source of intellectual honour and other forms of nobility including the more martial ones.

The concept of a social group that entirely negates its own self-interest strikes me as naïve.

-no doubt this is true; but I think an elite can and does assert its self-interest by maintaining the virtuous standards that justify its presence. In any imaginable world, no doubt many will always be corrupted by attempts to maintain their positions at all costs; but this corruption has consequences that must eventually be addressed by the elite if it wants to continue. For example, right now, I would not dismiss a politcian who suggested we explore ways of radically reducing the numbers of professors and students the state funds in the humanities and social sciences. I am a half-baked product of the humanistic disciplines which I value highly, but I don't think these disciplines and the truths they contain are well-respected by many professors today. The acdaemy has lost what Jim Kalb calls its honour, that comes from a comittment to speaking truth in face of ideologues and being willing to pay the price. And I think that honour is necessary to scholarly work and that it will only re-emerge in force from a present retreat to a relative position of marginalized weakness. Many other people are fed up with the fantasy politics of our professors. We may well see that what is left of an "elite" is cutting its own throat by not sustaining the values without which its elite status cannot be justified.

In other words, the human situation is always unstable. We are always less than perfect and acting in ways to address this imperfection that sometimes undermines us more, sometimes takes us a little forward ethically, if not morally. It is a good thing for individuals to aspire to true aristocratic values as they develop their morality; but it is no sure thing that this will make a great or immediate difference in society. The only thing that sustains the good is faith that it is necessary, that without it things will get a lot worse before they get better from a real pressing necessity to know truth and the good.

So I imagine an elite that knows that some degree of self-sacrifice is necessary to its elite status. This is paradoxical as you have pointed out, to be sure; but it is a paradox that has been lived by many before. It can be lived by a person of good faith who puts his nation or God first as the true source of his very being ; an individual who, less truthfully and honourably, sees truth as fundamentally located in individual or class power, as opposed to communal or national power, is an ever-present phenomenon that we cannot dismiss with a utopian wave of the hand. But it is ultimately a position that is wrong. Human ethical or historical evolution cannot be explained in terms of conspiracies of class or individual power, but only in terms of the expanding freedom and reciprocity that is enjoyed within a social system as a whole (howevermuch some enjoy or suffer this freedom more than others). The Marxist world view has ultimately been a great failure - it's simply untrue - and has done much to harm the West and common notions of "common sense".

TP: It sounds like what you’re really pissed at isn’t an unconscious faux aristocracy as much as it is a perceived culture of victimization. I don’t see how the former causes the latter. More importantly, I don’t necessarily agree that a classical education will prevent the victim culture you appear so set against. Let’s look across the pond for a second. Britain has more of a self-conscious elite that we do. For the most part, the elite class receives a classical education from ‘Oxbridge.’ And yet, the victim culture flourishes to some extent (as evidenced by the ‘Londonistan’ period).

-Yes, there is no doubt truth in what you say about England which is today deep into politically correct fantasies. But I would say the West is not simply the product of our classical traditions, but also of our Judeo-Christian and even tribal pasts. If America is any healthier than Europe, it is because it remains more religious. A lot of the British elite may spend a few years in youth at Oxbridge but they are increasingly immersed in a confused managerial culture that has little to do with classical traditions. And the traditional aristocractic class, while not yet invisible, has been largely pushed aside from top power positions by the Tony and Cherie Blairs of the world. The Brits' problem is that they remain a society that is full of class consciousness - a deference to authority that mitigates (though not as much as in other European countries) against individual and local self-ruling responsibility - but are increasingly lacking a true aristocracy in local or national leadership and so the whole thing is falling apart. They need to rediscover the self-ruling virtues of the "nation of shopkeepers" but in a world where the virtues and freedoms that stem from respect for private property are marginalized by the predominance of bureaucratic salaries and wages (and taxes) as the source of most peoples' wealth, this is going to be a hard struggle that requires sacrifices or renunciation of what is sacred to managerial power. In the long run, Britain may only remain a part of the West if it returns to some core Judeo-Christian religious truths alongside the classical and perhaps tribal.

Your attempt to isolate what has me really pissed doesn't make a lot of sense to me. It's not an either/or case of faux aristocracy vs. victimary culture; the two are inherently bound together. As for causal mechanism: I see history as essentially a question of evolving ethical, or organizational, sensibilities. The victimary ethic has a necessary relationship to actual social organization and differences since ethics evolve as our resentment (both ethically true and delusional resentments) of established social conditions erodes an existing order and forces us to rework our organization in recognition of the competing forces of freedom and equality. The problem with our victimary culture is not that is has never been without its genuine revelations (the genuine is what truly expands human reciprocity) in the period since World War II - I don't think we should appeal the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s - but that we have taken it too far (as we do with all things that first do good) and now have a bureaucratic leadership that is all about identifying "oppression" and "inequality" in every possible social relationship at the cost of denying the freedom and differences which are necessary for innovation, leadership, and renewal. Essentially, our therapeutic aristocracy are afraid of risk and change because this means someone has to take the lead and this necessarily creates some new asymmetry in peoples' relations to new centres - both centres of power and of self-denial in loving recognition of what is becoming sacred. The managerial elites do not have faith that we can turn new freedoms and asymmetries (a new form of aristocracy, if you like) into new forms of reciprocity, nor do they recognize that this is what humanity must always do if it is to survive its resentment of existing limits.

I am not a hardcore traditionalist - there is no going back to the aristocracy of old. Yet I believe we find a true basis for renewal by attending to and respecting the noble truths that have been revealed in what is good and true in our cultural past. "Deconstructing" these revelations as the products of self-interested heterosexual white male oppressors and their suburban nuclear families is just too stupid and should result in a lot of our falsely ennobled professors, judges, journalists, etc. being retired. They think, bless their foolish souls, that they are expanding human reciprocity, but they no longer are. They are living a righteous gnostic fantasy.

Whatever mix of aristocracy and democracy emerges in future to replace the present order will in turn be eroded and corrupted by those who will discover its limits, and so it will sometime be in need of renewal and/or replacement. It is the nature of things on earth.