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The Teaching Method of Respect for Texts
Someone might say—and libertarians skeptics often do—that classes in philosophy and literature are given a quite an arbitrarily inflated value by according them credit. Do away with the credit system and give degrees based on real demonstration of measurable competencies valuable in the 21st century marketplace, and you'll find out what studying Plato’s Republic is really worth. I admit that's a humbling thought, one that I'm sure my college's administrators would like me to have at least once in a while. And I've heard that our professors of finance and accounting and computer science (and even the political SCIENTIST) think I should be having it a lot more often than that.
Now to be fair to libertarian techno-skeptics, they almost all believe (and many have discovered for themselves) that it's really worthwhile to read the Republic or Shakespeare. It's just that you can do that on your own time and for free.
Well, I agree you should do that on your own time and for free. But it's pretty hard—if not quite impossible—to know why you should spend your precious time that way without a good teacher. It turns out that openness to books—and so openness to the truth—usually depends on trusting a personal authority to some extent. That person—your teacher—has to earn your trust. And in some ways that's harder than ever.
Alexis de Tocqueville explains pretty well why Americans have an "issue" with trusting personal authority—especially personal intellectual authority. The Americans, he says, are Cartesians who've never read a word of Descartes. They hit upon the "Cartesian method" because it's identical to the "democratic method." If you want to reduce that method to one word, it would be "doubt." That means being really, really skeptical of the words of other persons. If I trust you, then I let you rule me. And ruling myself is what democracy means for me. I have to think for myself.
Thinking for myself, so understood, is a mixture of anti-authoritarian paranoia and a kind of unwarranted or excessive self-confidence in one's own "critical thinking skills." We techno-Americans tend to believe there’s a method for everything, even or especially, as Descartes said, thinking. But the question remains: what should I think about? Surely I’m stuck with thinking about who I am and what I’m supposed to do. And just as surely it’s asking too much for me to answer that “who” and that "what" question all by myself. Even God himself didn’t create himself out of nothing.
Now there's something admirable and something ridiculous in this "hermeneutic of suspicion." It has a noble Protestant origin, after all, in the determination to trust no one but myself—and not those Satanic deceivers who call themselves priests—in interpreting the word of God. But even choosing to read the Bible depends on taking someone's word that the Bible is God's word. And to submit even to the word of God, after all, is undemocratic. Christianity might teach we're all equal under God, but we won't really be free until we free ourselves from being under God's personal thumb.
So at a point certain democrats dispense with the Bible and other people and try to find God in themselves. But the religion of me—all alone—turns out to be pretty empty, and certainly not the foundation of much "critical thinking"—toughly judgmental thinking—about who I am and what I'm supposed to do. It's this personal emptiness, Tocqueville explains, that causes democratic religion to morph into pantheism—or the denial of real personal identity.
Obviously we'd know more about ourselves if read the Bible as if it might be true—or not from the point of view of detached tourists who believe that what this or that "culture" once believed has nothing to do with us these days—or, more precisely, with me these days. And obviously Americans would know a lot more about what genuinely critical thinking requires if they read Descartes. But to privilege his book on method over others requires submitting to the personal authority of those who have read and recommend it. We democrats really see the despotic danger of such submission. We’ve all read, for example, that Leo Strauss got his “neocon” students to read Plato to impose his own personal agenda on them.
It's easy to respond that to not read the Bible or Descartes is to be even more thoroughly or thoughtlessly dominated by those books. The personal egalitarianism that drives most moral thinking today is full of Biblical premises, and to think with those premises with no awareness of their foundation is, obviously, not really to think for yourself. We defenders of “human rights” assert that every human person is unique and irreplaceable. But we have no idea why. Certainly most of modern science is incapable of even beginning to explain why.
The same goes, of course, with Descartes' audacious choice of the modern technological project. Every transhumanist is a Cartesian, whether he knows it or not. If you actually become liberally educated, you can actually start to make connections between the Bible and Descartes. Then you will actually start to think clearly about how techno-liberation both depends on the Bible's view of the person while being a rejection of the Bible's personal and relational God. A critical thinker full of theological and philosophical content might exclaim: "How reasonable is that!?"
The big point here is the excessively resolute determination to doubt personal authority doesn't really lead to freeing oneself altogether from authority. What rushes in in the absence of personal authority or relational personal identity is impersonal authority. It's too hard—too dizzying and disorienting—to think all by yourself. Because you don't know who you are, you really don't know what to do. So what fills the void and makes action possible, Tocqueville observes, is usually either public opinion—or trendy opinion—or the impersonal expertise of science.
When we defer to public opinion, we, in fact, become relativists. We say there’s no standard—when it comes to truth, beauty, justice, and so forth—higher than what sophisticated public intellectuals assert these days. When we defer to experts and what their “studies” or “data” show, find ourselves in the thrall of scientism. We too easily believe neuroscience or evolutionary psychology or rational-choice theory as explorations for everything, as the definitive sources of knowledge of who we are and what we’re supposed to do. It’s not denying the truth and utility of science to be aware that scientism is the ideology that’s the result of popularizing scientists speculating authoritatively beyond the limits of what they can really know through their methods.
Both deferring to public opinion and deferring to “popular science” are ways of denying what you really can see with own eyes about you are and what you’re supposed to do. It’s, as the philosopher Heidegger and the novelist Walker Percy observe, surrendering oneself to what “they”—to what no one in particular—say.
Public opinion, let me emphasize, doesn't only mean what the majority thinks. It means the opinion of your public. As Rousseau incisively pointed out, sophisticated intellectuals in democratic times flee from "the vulgar" by being witty and fashionable—and so by not being critical of what the witty and fashionable believe at any particular time. We can see now, for example, that neuroscience as a comprehensive explanatory system—that incorporates, for example, neurotheology and neuro-humanities—peaked out as scientism about 2008. But the progress in the real science of neuroscience continues, even if it's given less attention by the witty and fashionable.
Insofar as scientism affects the teaching of the humanities, public intellectuals, and even our art and literature, we find, as our theologian-novelist Marilynne Robinson observes, "persons understood as having radically limited self-awareness, a minimum of meaningful inwardness, very little ability to choose or appraise their actions." What we find, in other words, is the denial of real personal identity. Personal responsibility, if you think about, depends on personal authority.
In Robinson's words: "The flourishing of these [impersonal] ideas, of neo-Darwinism in general, would not be possible except in the absence of the vigorous and critical study of the humanities. Its 'proofs' are nothing except the failure of education, in the schools but also in the churches." Neurotheology make sense only to someone who hasn't really attended to what the Bible, St. Augustine, Calvin (especially in Robinson's case), Shakespeare, Melville, and so forth really say about who we are. So the return to "real books" is, for us, the only way to be saved from being deformed by degrading nonsense promulgated by experts, not to mention by the despotism of fashion.
Studies show, E.D. Hirsch (the cultural literacy guy) has reported, that the key to flourishing in the world as someone with a strong personal identity in touch with the world as it actually is and ready to take responsibility for himself and others is to have a huge vocabulary and an exact and imaginative understanding of what those words mean. The only way to achieve this competency reliably in primary and secondary school is through reading lots of "real books." And another study shows that a very reliable clue to how a child will fare in school and life is the number of book shelves his parents have at home or, in other words, whether his parents have raised him in a seriously "bookish" environment, in a home where reading is privileged as a form of civilized enjoyment.
What "teaching method" works best to inculcate that respect? That's a topic for another time. But here's a beginning: There should be nothing in the classroom except a professor, students, and a great or at least really good book (a Supreme Court opinion or a classic political speech count as a really good book). No PowerPoint, no laptops, no smart phones, and so forth. And the professor should be calling constant attention to the text, reading aloud and dramatically, from time to time. At least the occasional class should be devoted to a single page or even a single paragraph, just to make clear how much there is for us to know.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.