“In fact, modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. The entire contract can be summarized in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” – Yuval Harari, Homo Deus
“Whatever liberates our spirit without a corresponding increase in self-control is pernicious” – Goethe
“We have entered the age of meaning. Now that most of us has had our basic needs for food, lodging, and security met, we long more than anything else to make a meaningful contribution to society….Many people long for community, tradition, ritual, structure, and meaning in their lives. We (including most emphatically Socratic intellectuals such as myself) have ripped traditional societies and norms to shreds. We had to do it. There were gross injustices and bigotries. We must now re-build more humane, tolerant, decent replacements for those earlier meaning systems.” – Michael Strong, The Creation of Conscious Culture Through Educational Innovation”
I’m in the process of re-thinking how I teach. Specifically, I’m interested in how schools affect student character and overall well being. Do I help students find meaning in their lives, or am I another treadmill with a face, opaque to peer culture that is more and more leading to mental illness governed by social media algorithms? Am I a promoter of human excellence: intellectual integrity, courage, determination, humility, love, and creativity?
I became a teacher largely in reaction to what Charles Taylor called the Malaise of Modernity – there is a general feeling among youth that their lives should mean something, they want to make a contribution. But they’ve been fed doses of moral relativism that hijack their ability to think and act with integrity, and play into the maelstrom of material desire curated by capitalism. Hegel noted that one of the strongest human desires is for recognition – and we’re seeing this play out on every social media platform. Facebook is just another example of the “culture industry” that has led to this malaise – their entire business model is to monetize the desire for recognition and the meaning we create about our lives.
Public schools have almost nothing to say to this phenomenon – they don’t teach how find meaning, and they leave students captive to “the shallows” of vulgar consumption. At best, school principals hope that teachers are passionate about what they teach, and can pass on this enthusiasm to students to keep them engaged. There is little articulation about what intellectual virtue really is, or how it’s cultivated, or even why it matters.
I don’t want to make this a post on John Dewey, but it is clear that his democratic vision of education explicitly downplayed intellectual virtue as a way to find meaning in life, and enshrined a more economically useful “problem solving” in its place. The problem is that the world needs less drone workers and more courageous innovators. These new leaders need to explicitly cultivate intellectual and other virtues more now than ever before, because there is a vacuum of agreed upon institutional and cultural norms.
The “inquiry” trend in mainstream schools, led by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in the 70s, was an attempt to remain democratic while learning to think freely in the face of an increasingly powerful culture industry of mass media. Postman’s first book, “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” was followed ten years later by “Teaching as a Conserving Activity”.
The “inquiry” buzzword has never been a clear articulation of intellectual virtue for me. I knew that I wanted to do this, and to increase the integrity of students’ discovery of the world. I didn’t have a clear conception of intellectual virtues, like an Aristotelian five-fold division with the theoretical and practical. However, I soon fell in love with debate as a tool to quickly introduce students to theory, or the fundamental philosophic alternatives. But debate doesn’t exactly lend itself to intellectual humility, and its competitive nature is such that students don’t master material for its own sake. They need more intellectual humility and time to pursue the truth content of their own positions out of the spotlight.
In the classroom I’ve experimented with Philosophy for children, using Socratic discussions in 6,7, and 8th grade. In Middle school, I based discussions on Peter Worley’s The If Machine. Worley is the director of the Philosophy Foundation, where you can find all kinds of free resources to develop intellectual virtue. Kids love talking about justice, friendship, the ring of Gyges, whether or not they would rather be happy pigs or unhappy princes, whether or not they are free, and the ship of Theseus paradox and personal identity. The main difficulties for me, especially with older students, were how to tie discussions to curriculum, and the lack of text to come back to as an anchor for interpretation and a guide for discussion.
I’m slowly learning the art of full-blown Socratic discussion – putting more and more of the cognitive load on students, learning to get out of the way with my own ideas, and creating a culture of integrity – where students own up to their ideas. Students feel that, appreciate it, but also wonder why we only do the discussions once a week. I’ve read some Plato with gr 8 and 10 to kick-start this culture of inquiry. Some of it was spine tingling, and of course other times painfully disappointing. Real Socratic discussion is not the literary version where every student shares an opinion, but a guided discussion where one specific train of thought is followed for an extended period of time.
What I haven’t done is convert an entire class into 3 or 4 days a week of exclusive socratic practice. My school has small class sizes – so this is a real possibility. Furthermore, QSI schools are theoretically character based education, promoting the following qualities: independent endeavor, trustworthiness, responsibility, concern for others, kindness and politeness, and aesthetic appreciation. None of these qualities are necessarily intellectual, though you could apply them to intellect.
I’m very excited to use more of my classroom for Socratic discussions based on Michael Strong’s suggestions in The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. Strong is the founder of a number of very successful charter schools in the US, and a graduate of St. John’s great books program. You can read his extensive bio here.
After attending Harvard and the University of Chicago (thesis under economist Gary Becker was “Ideas and Culture as Human Capital”), he began training teachers in Chicago public schools how to lead socratic seminars, and later founded successful middle school Montessori and charter schools. His latest project, along with Ko School in Austin, Texas, is The Academy of Thought and Industry in San Francisco, that explicitly highlights the need for students to articulate their own system of virtues. In the course of preparing for AP Seminar this year, Michael was gracious with his time and answered many questions I had about implementing Socratic seminar in my classroom.
In The Habit of Thought, Strong makes a great case for why Socratic education develops intellectual virtue. One area is intellectual integrity. By requiring students to defend their views, they own up to their opinions in front of their peers. This influences peer culture, which is generally more powerful than teacher or parent directives.
Aside from intellectual integrity, there is the need for humility. Often the well-adjusted straight A students are fine with parroting answers, but it takes intellectual integrity to acknowledge you are wrong, seriously listen to alternatives, and patiently discuss to the end of the journey. This atmosphere of inquiry takes weeks, if not months to develop, but can radically change students’ lives. Michael Strong says that at Ko School, his students even create their own after school clubs to continue discussions they’ve had during the day. This is a phenomenal achievement – the transformation of malaise to an earnest pursuit and discovery of meaning.
I witnessed some of this transformation in Grant Park’s Philosophy Cafe nights in Winnipeg, and later in the summer of reading Plato’s Republic. I was excited to recently meet Lancelot Fletcher, a St. John’s graduate and retired teacher who lives Tbilisi. Every weekend he reads Plato’s Republic with Georgian public high school students. He told me his group is the best he’s experienced in his lifetime – that is saying a lot, and tells you something about the potential of transformation in post-soviet societies.
I think one of the reasons students don’t develop this ability to have serious discussions is the hidden curriculum of modern liberal education. Since the state cannot dictate to teachers what they should teach about the good life, government curriculum remains agnostic about “values”. The result is a general fragmentation of meaning.
Public school is a series of subjects (up to 8 a day!) with seemingly little relation, bells that interrupt flow, and a reward system for the diligent and clever, not necessarily the virtuous. The idea of “grit” as character has stepped in as a replacement for virtue, but we also know that grit is strongly correlated with the Big 5 trait of conscientiousness – which may be a predictor of success in many cases, but these cases often involve disciplines where liberal, or free, thinking is discouraged: how well future cadets do an extremely mind-numbing test with no meaningful value is correlated with success in the military, for example. This is what public schools and AP programs generally aim for. The problem is – I’ll say it again – that the world needs less drone workers and more courageous innovators than ever before.
In my experience, even 6th graders have been conditioned to believe that there is no such thing as justice or right or wrong, only opinions (as explained in this NYT column: Why Our Children Don’t Think There are Moral Facts). The result can only lead to parlysis and malaise on issues of highest social and personal significance.
The end result is that after 12 years of school, we undermine the very democratic dialogue we hope to foster. I think school does this because modern liberal education must remain agnostic about ends, but not means. If you can agree on definitions of human nature – that we’re rational political animals and one of the ends of human existence is to fulfill this nature – then logic and character suddenly become more important. For a great contrast from how public schools view human nature, read Cicero, On Duties. In this letter to his son, he talks about how our rational nature requires us to deliberate about moral actions, and not just accept dogmas.
Intellectual virtues are habits. And building good habits is required for living a good life. Some habits, lauded by the “grit” movement, are excellent in promoting success in economic progress, but don’t necessarily lead to a happy life. These are all the things tough teachers love instilling: discipline, punctuality, deadlines, and determination (do it again, it isn’t good enough!).
But are we teaching kids other virtues aside from those that have utilitarian value? Every teacher knows that part of what they are delivering is a way of life, and a way of viewing the entire world. There is a reason the real heroes of teaching are the ones that cultivate relationships with students and teach them life lessons – people like Rafe Esquith who throw common core out the window and teaches Shakespeare to 5th graders.
To me it’s obvious why the great philosophers have focused equally on the meaning of “good life”, and on education. Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile place education at the pinnacle of their philosophy, because humans are rational animals and the good life means cultivating the best possible human nature. Pierre Hadot’s study What is Ancient Philosophy? shows that the early philosophical schools were communities of friends pursuing spiritual disciplines as a way of life – what they thought was the best life.
Michael Strong is calling for a free-market revival of the Greek academies of virtue. In his 26 page manifesto written 10 years ago, The Creation of Conscious Culture Through Educational Innovation, Strong makes a powerful case for a free market of what he calls “enculturation technologies” – or schools that address how to live a good life in general. It’s very compelling. The main assumption here is that education is a transmission of culture, or a way of life. Just because education is a utilitarian gamble doesn’t mean you can stop educating for virtue. It’s assumed that families partner with public schools to foster this, but it isn’t working.
Strong argues that the current cultural transmission in K-12 public schools is on the whole negative – students are jettisoned onto a world of destructive peer culture informed by materialist advertising. He calls for a wide swath of freely chosen “enculturation” schools to address this issue, since modern liberal education by definition must remain agnostic on character education, and inevitably leads to a distorted or at least lop-sided indoctrination of some sort.
The key says Strong, is that schools must be freely chosen in a free market. Some of these enculturation type schools, like Montessori, Waldorf, and Catholic schools, are already on this trail, but there remains a lack of supply for the demand that is out there. I’ll discuss his manifesto further in future post, but for now, I’ll leave this segment of his manifesto, which points out what psychologists like William James, and philosophers like Alain de Botton have been saying: humans are moral beings who need to develop a guidance system in order to flourish:
All cultures prior to modern European culture were virtue cultures in this sense. Humans were raised understanding that they had a role and standing in society and that their entire life was a reflection of how well they fulfilled that role. Each culture had a vision of excellence. The very texture of day-today life provided a consistent, coherent template that taught young people how they were to behave. From time to time, a member of the society was sanctioned or expelled in a manner that made it perfectly clear what types of behaviors were not condoned by the community. Young people werebrought up in a set of cultural circumstances that allowed them to practice the requisite virtues of that society, allowing them to naturally become respectable adults in such a society.Western civilization has been seeking liberation from these sorts of “intolerant” virtue cultures for some 500 years. The social rebellions known as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment in their resistances to traditional authorities unwittingly provided the foundation for the more radical liberations of the 20th century. In the 1920s and the 1960s it appeared as if radical individual freedom was the final goal.What none of the liberators seems to have realized is the truth of Goethe’s insight that “Whatever liberates our spirit without a corresponding increase in self-control is pernicious”. I continue to be committed to the liberation of the spirit; and I havegradually come to realize that as I liberate spirits, I have an absolute obligation to simultaneously provide training in self-control. Otherwise I am responsible for disasters.Traditional cultures did not seek to liberate the spirit. By and large, they sought to constrain the spirit within very well-defined cultural boundaries. As a consequence, they were often bigoted, shaming, and sometimes cruel: Zorba the Greek contrasts Zorba’s own liberated spirit with the cruel stoning of a young widow. Few people who are truly knowledgeable about traditional cultures would want to return to their brutal stasis, conformity, constraints, and judgment. And yet many people long for community, tradition, ritual, structure, and meaning in their lives.We (including most emphatically Socratic intellectuals such as myself) have ripped traditional societies and norms to shreds. We had to do it. There were gross injustices and bigotries. We must now re-build more humane, tolerant, decent replacements for those earlier meaning systems. There are four reasons why the most urgent issue in the United States today is to transform our existing K-12 educational institutions by means of universal school choice, through vouchers or tax credits, with minimal constraints concerning curriculum, staffing, or structure of schooling:1. Because of the relentless pressures of global competition, those in our society who are not currently receiving a great education will find life in the 21st job market harsh and unforgiving.2. Because of the collapse of common norms of culture, including those norms that prevent addiction, constrain sexuality, support industriousness and thrift, and provide a foundation for long-term meaning and purpose, many in our population already find life harsh and unforgiving.3. Because people at all levels of our society crave greater meaning, purpose, and community in their lives, and yet they find themselves immersed in a society which lacks structures for providing new models of meaning, purpose, and community in which gambling, pornography, addictive substances, sensational entertainments, consumer culture, and other types of short-term satisfactions are cheap and ubiquitous.4. By administering K-12 education through government, a clunky, impersonal agent, we have created a society in which it is easier for entrepreneurs to innovate and market short-term stimulations such as gambling and pornography than it is for entrepreneurs to innovate and market sources of long-term well-being such as wisdom and compassion.Government control of education—through public schools or through excessive regulation of charter or private schools—amounts to granting control over the young human soul to all those who produce short term stimulations. Either real human beings, with distinctive intentions and ways of life, are allowed to create cultures with integrity—by means of minimally regulated school choice—or bureaucratic rules prevent the formation of appetites in the young, and marketeers of all sorts thereby prey on the unformed souls of the young. Educational freedom, rather than government control, is the sine qua non for the creation of happiness and well-being for all. Consider the following twenty propositions on education and wellness:1. Culture, habits, and attitudes are the most important prerequisites to education.2. Historically traditional cultures have varied widely; that variability is currently being lost through the force of those technology-based monocultures that are sweeping the world.3. Over the course of 13 years of formal education, the average high school graduate is exposed to 14,000 hours of K-12 schooling. It is possible to have a considerable impact on the habits, attitudes, ideals, aesthetics, aspirations, and culture of the students over that time if that were to become the primary focus of educational institutions.4. Habituation in new cultural norms may be successfully cultivated in the young only when they are educated by adults who consistently support the new forms of habituation and personally exemplify the new virtues. In order to do this, the adults themselves must exhibit a consistent form of habituation. New cultures can not be created by innovations in textbooks or software.5. Except for those few educational approaches that have distinctive teacher training programs (Montessori, Waldorf, and some religious school systems), existing teacher training does not even begin to ensure consistent habituation. The most consistent habituation faced by K-12 students in government schools today is habituation in passivity and dependence.6. Cumulatively, deliberately inculcated habits and attitudes may provide a foundation for new cultures. The Jesuits deliberately created a more disciplined and intellectual European culture out of the chaos of medieval education. Montessori and Waldorf education are nascent examples of new cultures being formed today.7. The existing government-controlled education system acts as a monopolistic standard with a market share greater than that held by Microsoft’s Windows standard. Unlike the Microsoft standard, the government schooling standard is enforced legislatively and financed coercively.8. Only when this dominant standard collapses will great educational innovations be launched.9. Freedom has been necessary for innovation in the world of ideas, the world of technology, and the world of entrepreneurship. If Galileo had been more effectively censored, Newton and modern physics might not exist. If government had regulated the invention of electrical devices in the 19th century, Thomas Edison’s “invention of invention” would never have come into being. If tech entrepreneurs had needed government licenses to do their work, Silicon Valley, the microcomputerand the internet would be a pale ghost of their present selves if they existed at all.Likewise, educational freedom will be necessary for educational innovation.10. Only visionary organizations, designed and built by a commitment to a distinct vision, can consistently create distinct cultures that are powerful enough to compete with the teen culture defined by the media. A distinctive, long-term vision can only be implemented institutionally in a self-regulated institution. Visionary leaders must be able to hire, fire, and promote faculty based strictly on their own perception of quality.11. Markets will supply those goods desired by consumers.12. Parents want their children to be healthy, well, productive, and happy.13. Therefore in a free educational market there will be a demand for schools that can supply a healthier culture.14. Innovative educators employed by private, visionary organizations will gradually develop increasingly healthier and more positive versions of teen culture.15. Peer culture is a more powerful influence on teens than are parents. Currently teen culture is the biggest obstacle to parental ability to raise their children well. Conversely, a positive teen culture could compensate for many of the weaknesses of poor parenting.16. Culture produces “neighborhood effects,” or externalities; once we have created more sources of positive teen culture it will spread to those who don’t originally pay for it or even choose it.17. We develop critical habits as teens; a healthier teen culture leads to a healthier adult culture.18. “Healthier” is broad; the foregoing analysis applies to any positive cultural characteristic.19. Cumulatively, the long-term effects of an innovative, competitive market for adolescent well-being may produce cultural consequences as profound as, or more profound than, the long-term effects of technological innovation.20. Cumulatively then, just as technological innovation has had a dramatic impact on the economic standard of well-being, so too cultural innovation will have a dramatic positive impact on our social, emotional, and moral standard of well-being.