“All Men Desire to Know” (3)

In the previous installment, I argued that:

“All men want to know.”  Indeed, but there are frequently worlds of difference wrapped up in that seemingly simple word want. As classical educators, we should be far more invested than we are (as a rule) in discerning and disciplining not only the wants of our students, but of ourselves as well. Before we can even discuss what we want to know – a discussion that easily draws our minds to curriculum and lesson plans and grades and classroom management skills and the like – we first need to ponder for a while the very nature of this want that directs the phrase “want to know.”

For if we do not want the right things, we will go looking for the wrong ones to supply the lack implied by the want – and to sort of fuse a bit of Socrates with a bit of Dante, on a misbegotten quest like that, we will invariably find that desire isn’t only the root of every good thing in life, but also of every evil thing.

The blunt truth of the matter is that not every student “wants by nature to know” reality in terms of “the causes of things” – those combined phrases being Aristotle’s definition of the goal of education, Wisdom.

Indeed, as any teacher (classical or no) who pays close attention on a daily basis can readily attest, a great many students show over long periods of time that they don’t want to know causes, don’t want to engage reality beyond the most superficial of levels, don’t want to pursue or acquire Wisdom.

Rather, many students are quite happy, just like animals, merely with repetitiously and merely sensorily perceiving the world and just reacting with no thought and little to no concern for or consultation with connected experience. This is one reason why review has become for far too many students not what it is supposed to be – a way to train and polish the memory – but, paradoxically, a way to avoid exercising the memory at all. Why bother learning the 1st Declension Latin endings when the teacher will always “review it” before the test or “because it’s hard to remember it all” just allow you to consult your notes on a test? Why not just complain about how weird the names in The Epic of Gilgamesh are, and so too difficult to recall, and how crazily hard it is to remember the main characters and events of Antigone when it’s been a few weeks since you read it?

Real knowledge is not what the merely sensory student is after – nor what the “classical” teacher is after whose pedagogical approach to reading and scope-and-sequence can be summed up with the metaphor of the firehose. (Yes, “classical” teachers are also a big part of the problem, most especially when they fallaciously believe that reading lots of pages very quickly is going to produce, evidently by some vague, osmosis-like aggregate of “exposure,” real understanding in anyone. I have long suspected that the very much unclassical frame of mind many “classical” teachers exhibit when talking about and applying the books they teach may be due to themselves being the sort of “firehose” readers just described.)

The Philosopher properly corrects us on this point of sensory overload in terms of rapid, ill-connected experience of individual items in the world: “Again, we do not regard any of the senses as Wisdom; yet surely these give the most authoritative knowledge of particulars. But they do not tell us the ‘why’ of anything – e.g. why fire is hot; they only say that it is hot.”

What we have to realize is that the simple, raw immediacy of sensory experience is a major reason why an education, whether or not (but especially if) it is called “classical”, that doesn’t rigorously interrogate the wants of both the teacher and the student before, during, and after a given book or topic is studied will never reach the standard of Wisdom-pursuit that is the actual goal of education. And this is because an education driven by sensory experiences (How many books have the students read this year? How many words have they written? What kinds of tests have they taken? How can we get their grades up before report cards come out?, and so on) never touches the crucial matter of the wants of everyone involved.

The simple, raw immediacy of sensory experience not philosophically moderated will never produce anything but sophistic imitations of knowledge: think here of Plato’s metaphor of the Cave, especially how the things that most lead the prisoners astray are the shadows they see. The eyes are made to receive light, and they will receive light of whatever shade or hue or intensity as often as it is presented to them. But it is only the active, questioning, judging mind that can process the images passively received by the eyes.

The eyes of the teacher may thoroughly enjoy the sight of 800 pages of Herodotus, but if he wants to just plow through it in a few weeks so he can say he has “studied classical literature” and met some administrator’s bureaucratic concept of scope-and-sequence, he’s missing the point entirely. Likewise the eyes of the student gape in dismay at the sight of those 800 pages, and wearisomely pass over line after line after line of unrealistic quantity-based reading assignments because he wants to say he’s “finished the work” and his parents want to say they’re providing him with significant engagement with the classics.

But why is nobody in this scenario prioritizing a want to understand the causes of the Persian Wars the way that Herodotus himself tried to do? That’s the real point of reading Herodotus, and not gratifying some artificial hoopla about how students involved in “classical education” are “reading” 50 serious books in one year, only one of which is Herodotus. For if the point of reading Herodotus was indeed to understand the causes, no one would be so silly as to try to standardize that process by insisting that the whole thing must be crammed into 4 weeks so that a test can be taken and the class can move on to sample the next intellectual dish in the sensory-smorgasbord.

Judging from my long experience in classical classrooms (experience to which I know many other teachers can relate) the action of young people dutifully carrying out such assignments as “Read 150 pages of The Iliad by next class time and answer these comprehension questions for our Socratic seminar” will all but certainly accomplish no more than bewilder the students and frustrate the teacher when he finds that his charges “know” next to nothing about what they spent a week “reading.”

Again, blame can go around liberally, here: poor students cause many problems, but so do unclassical teachers, that is, teachers whose own wants have not been properly disciplined by their own Arts.

What the former example (an unrealistic Iliad reading assignment) illustrates about work students do independently can also be confirmed by work they do in the teacher’s presence. Think about it, teachers. If you’ve ever seen a student day after day after day hastily scribble his name on a worksheet and proceed to mechanically fill it out item-by-item (usually with liberal breaks between “problems” for chatting, laughing, and otherwise being amused and distracted), if you’ve ever had to explain repeatedly to a student that there’s no way she really “read” three paragraphs of Latin or a few pages of Livy in 5 minutes (so she’s “completed” her homework), if you’ve ever had to spend any amount of time trying to prove to either students or parents that next-to-last minute “extra credit” grade-boosts bear zero relation to actual mastery of a piece of a body of knowledge, no further proof of either Aristotle’s distinction between types of people (sensory or philosophical) need be given.

Back to the last part of this question arising from Aristotle, then: What content do all men by nature want to know? Quite obviously, many – perhaps most – want to know only the content of ephemeral experiences. Their want for knowledge extends only so far as the effort required to quickly scratch an itch or indulge the munchies or enjoy a spot of amusement.

Only a few start with the experiences and, with these as raw matter only, begin to exercise, to whatever capacity they are able, real arts and reasonings because they want to know the causes. To root my thoughts once again in Aristotle, many students will never attain to real knowledge, let alone wisdom, because they don’t want it. While it is not proper, obviously, for a teacher to attempt to pigeonhole his charges, he does need to remember the categories I’ve been walking through as he interacts with students and evaluates them.

T.S. Eliot says somewhere that although a Liberal Arts education will not be acquired to the same degree by everyone who gets it, the Liberal Arts will ennoble everyone fortunate enough to gain significant exposure to them. This is a solid argument, especially in a Republic, for ensuring that everyone has access to a proper (that is a Liberal) education.

And yet there is a very important sense, which I think Aristotle excellently helps us to get at, in which we really do have to say that the Liberal Arts are not actually “for” everyone, because not everyone wants to be truly free. There is, in fact, a really existing class of human beings – each member of whom makes himself or herself into part of that class by how they respond to training and admonition – who will always be content with surface appearances, never truly seek the why (causes) of things, and so never gain the full benefit of the Arts.

We as teachers should never stop trying to train the young to seek virtue and wisdom, but neither should we ignore Jefferson’s sapiential words to John Adams in a letter dated October 28, 1813:

…there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents…The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society.

“All men want to know,” indeed. The question for teachers, especially if they wish there to be any substance to their use of the adjective “classical,” far less concerns what do men want to know (curriculum, scope-and-sequence, testing results, etc.), and far more regarding what do men want, and how may their wants be best trained so that they focus on the True, Good, and Beautiful instead of the mere phantasms of unconnected, unreflective sensory experience.

[NB: A conceptually related post (which approaches the matter of natural distinctions between people that affect what they seek and how they seek it, may be found on another of my sites under the title “Toxic Equality.”

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