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 still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
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Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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