November 5, 2004

Education, Democracy, Moral Idealism, The Church, and Academia

There are lots of current events I could be blogging about right now (I still haven't commented on the election results, and two news items totally made my day today: John Ashcroft is retiring and Yasser Arafat is dying. Also, Dr. Faustus opened this evening). However, none, of them is particularly inspiring at the moment. Instead of venturing into the wacky world of real politics and the present (which I have done too much of the last few months leading up to the election), I've decided to venture backward in time some 2,500 years, and comment on Plato's Republic, its ideas of the connection between education/philosophy and the ability to rule well, and what that has to do with America. Enjoy the ride.

Plato famously claimed that "Until philosophers rule as kings in cities or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide ... cities will have no rest from evils" (473d). What Plato means, is that people who rule, in addition to being practical, need to understand theory, and be interested in abstract truth, and truly love learning. They must prefer knowing their errors and being brought closer to truth rather than appearing to be right all the time (ok, so I guess I am talking about current events and contemporary American politics). They must have a firm grounding in every kind of knowledge, in order to understand all of the diverse interests of the people they rule. Plato goes on to claim that no one who has a "philosophical nature" will seek to rule a city, and thus that no one capable of becoming a ruler (under the present system) should be allowed to do the job (a principle humorously picked up by Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker's Trilogy in which a man who lives alone on a far away planet is completely unaware that he is actually the ruler of the Universe).

Fast forward 2,000 years. It is now AD 1776. John Locke has come and gone, and the seeds of discontent and "classic liberalism" have been sown. An idea is running through the Western world that perhaps people have individual rights which come directly from God, and aren't merely priveleges granted to them by some divine-right monarch acting as an intermediary. A militia man in Massachusetts fires his rifle. And now, for the first time in some two millenia, we have an attempt at implementing Plato's idea.

"Wait just a minute!" you object, "Plato favored an oligarchic system based on the idea that the majority has no idea how the city should be run, and only the few have the ability to truly practice philosophy or care for the truth." Good point. But let's look at what those crazy Americans did, shall we? Because those starry-eyed idealists had this idea that everyone could practice philosophy. John Adams once said "I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain." As a result of this sort of thought, and the influence of philosophers like John Locke, these people decided to found a country based on the ideas "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happines, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," etc. These are all philosophical principles! Suddenly, we are not concerned, in organizing a government, with Thrasymachus' "advantage of the stronger" but with basic philosophical principles, life, liberty, and property (aka "the pursuit of happiness"), which purport to be fundamental truths about the universe, about absolute right and wrong. People who care about truth for it's own sake are founding a nation-state.

What's more, these same people believe that everyone can practice philosophy and thus that everyone should have a say in the government (yes, I realize that only male property owners were allowed to vote, but there is an explanation for that, and it wasn't that no one else could practice philosophy: There was a further division of the government of the land into units of households, each household being governed internally however it wished and getting a single vote which the male head was to cast as its representative. Was this actually what the founding fathers intended? How should I know?! It makes sense to me anyway). This is extraordinary! It even worked for a while...

What happened? We stopped caring about education, the way we once did. We stopped viewing voting as a responsibility to exercise with the utmost deference and caution, not applying our voice until we were certain we were making the correct decision. We traded our ideals in for "practicality" and thus lost the philosophical nature. Today we make decisions without looking at the bigger picture, or at the abstract. Pro-choice activists hold to Roe v. Wade as to their very lives, not paying attention to the fact that the Constitution gives the federal government no authority over issues such as abortion, freeing the states to make whatever laws they choose about it, and furthermore that that decision is not based on sound legal reasoning: it claims that laws against abortion somehow violate privacy. They trade in their idealism for practical result. Likewise, people across this nation vote for the "lesser evil" between the two major parties, choosing a result they think might possibly be a little closer to what they want, rather than using their vote for what it is: A feedback mechanism to inform the government of the political preferences of the populace. They've lost their idealism. Politicians get elected by pandering to special interest groups and seeing which demographics they can win - they can't get elected any other way. We've all lost our idealism. We don't care about the U.S. Constitution. 31% of the population believes America is becoming a police state, but the country nevertheless raises not a finger to protect free speech and the right to privacy, because we fear terrorists. We've lost our idealism. "Give me liberty or give me death!" Patrick Henry once shouted. It looks as though that may be the very choice we are faced with: The choice to die in liberty rather than live in relative security in a police state. I'm an idealist. Give me death. I'll gladly keep my free speech at the expense of dying in a terrorist bus bombing in the morning, thank you. Because we've lost our idealism and our concern with the abstract, because we vote based on "what works" rather than what is morally right (and don't tell me that the election results show that we vote based on what is morally right - the election results show that people vote based on what will lead to the nation behaving outwardly in the fashion they see as most moral, but these people have not had their "philosophical nature" cultivated and can't see that this is not necessarily the most moral way to make laws for the nation). We shrug off the few dreamers, not realizing that the theoretical, the a priori, the abstract is what formed this nation the way it was formed, and it's the only thing that can preserve our freedom. Without the philosophical nature, we will have "no rest from evils," just as Plato says.

What's the solution? First and foremost we've got to stop the war between academia and the Christian Church. Both sides are in the wrong, at least to some degree. The academics are right to universally condemn any church that asks its members to hold views that it admits are blatantly contrary to reason. This is not faith. This is lunacy. C.S. Lewis once said "Faith ... is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods." Holding on to beliefs against all evidence and all reason is no virtue. It is, in fact, a terrible vice. This is not to discount the fact that most Christians, myself included, hold their beliefs due to evidence which is purely subjective, that is, their own life experience. This is not fundamentally irrational, for the same reason that if I clearly saw the Sasquatch or Loch Ness Monster at a time when I had every reason to believe that I was in my right mind I would be perfectly rational to believe in whatever thing I had seen. Of course, I must not expect anyone else to believe if this is all the proof I offer (although the testimony of many such witnesses, when all of the witnesses were trustworthy and respectable might be sufficient to persuade a rational individual).

The Church, on the other hand, is right to universally condemn academics and institutions who are dogmatic and closed minded - the very things said academics accuse the Church of. How can I claim academics are dogmatic and closed minded? At most institutions throughout the country, those who don't agree with Darwin's theories, or who question prevailing leftist political thought, or who believe in absolute morality, or in some extreme cases even those who believe in any absolute truth at all, are ridiculed. Now, I think that this is sometimes exaggerated, but the fact remains that many academics would do well to remember that 500 years ago Ptolemaic (Earth-centered) astronomy was at least as well established as Darwinian evolution is today, and natural philosophers almost unanimously believed it to be correct. Copernicus and Galileo met with extreme opposition in their challenge to this theory. In order to truly advance science we must have biologists willing to question Darwin, physicists willing to question Newton and Einstein, and computer scientists willing to question java (I don't like java. Why are all computer science departments switching to java?).

Now these two issues aren't the whole problem. For instance, Evangelicals feel betrayed by our theologians who are far more liberal than the average member of our faith. There is also an environment of immorality at most universities (this has been the case since the invention of the university in the middle ages - it comes from gathering lots of young people who have just escaped their parents, just began drinking alcohol, and have lots of hormones together in the same place for several years at a time).

Furthermore, ending the war between the Church and academia won't solve everything. The Church alone cannot create a culture of learning. America already sees itself as having a strong culture of learning, but it means learning what is concrete and practical. Everyone goes out and gets a degree to get a better job and make more money. Philosophy departments across the country remain all but empty, or if they are filled they are filled by students who think it will help them get into law school rather than by students who simply love learning. Students in other disciplines often don't study any philosophy at all (to be fair we should expand this to include theoretical education in general, rather than what is now called philosophy, but the point stands). And what of what is taught before college? The government has too much control and is seeking to standardize everything, leaving everyone, eventually with the same background, and much less to learn from each other. We need diversity of view-points and diversity of educations if we are to become a productive and functional democracy again.

I could go on much farther, but I'm going to stop and go to bed now, as it is approximately 1:30 AM. Good night.

Posted by Kenny at November 5, 2004 1:41 AM
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