May 21, 2014

Adler: Teaching, Learning, and Their Counterfeits

Teaching, Learning, and Their Counterfeits
By Mortimer J. Adler

Everyone knows, or certainly should know, that indoctrination is not genuine teaching and that the results of indoctrination are the very opposite of genuine learning. Yet, as a matter of fact, much that goes on in the classrooms of our schools is nothing but indoctrination.

How can this have come about? How can we have so misunderstood the nature of teaching and learning that their counterfeits rather than the genuine articles are rampant in our schools?

The answer lies in the loss of three insights about the nature of teaching and learning, in consequence of which three mistakes are made.

1. It is mistakenly supposed that the activity of teachers is always the principal and sometimes the sole cause of the learning that occurs in students.

When it is said that all learning is either by instruction or by discovery, it is mistakenly supposed that what students learn by instruction is something they passively receive from their teachers.

3. The failure to distinguish genuine knowledge from mere opinion, together with the failure to distinguish impressions made on and retained by the memory from the development of understanding in the mind, arises a third mistaken supposition─that genuine knowledge can be acquired without an understanding of what is known.

These three mistaken suppositions are so integrally related to one another that if any one of them is made, the other two will be made also. It is, therefore, not surprising that all three have been made by the reigning education establishment with the inevitable consequence that indoctrination has been accepted as genuine teaching instead of being abominated as a vicious counterfeit of it.

Nor should it be surprising that the three basic insights, by which the mistaken suppositions can be corrected, are also so integrally related that the understanding of genuine teaching which derives from any one of these three insights will be accompanied by an understanding of genuine teaching derived from the other two. In addition, with that threefold understanding of genuine teaching will come an understanding of genuine learning as a development of the mind, not a formation of memories, and as a acquisition of knowledge and understanding, not an adoption of indoctrinated opinions.

The first of the three insights makes it clear that teaching, like farming and healing, is a cooperative, not a productive, art.

The second insight is that all learning is by discovery, either by discovery alone or be discovery aided by instruction, but never by instruction alone.

The third insight is that bits of information or matters of fact retained by the memory with no understanding of the information or the facts remembered is not knowledge, but mere opinion, no better than prejudices fostered by propaganda or other sources of indoctrination.

Let me now present a slightly more expanded statement of each of these three insights.


Among the useful arts, only three are cooperative arts. All the rest are productive. The three cooperative arts are farming, healing, and teaching.

In the case of such useful arts as shoe-making, ship-building, and cabinet-making, the results produced would not come into existence were it not for the activity of the artist or craftsman─the shoemaker, the shipwright, the carpenter. The materials out of which shoes, ships, and furniture are made, left to themselves, would not naturally tend to produce those things. Such useful products emerge only when craftsmen intervene to shape or transform raw materials into the desired objects. Here human productive activity is not only the principal, but also the sole efficient cause of the result achieved.

Now consider such things as the fruits and grains we eat, the health we possess, and the knowledge or understanding we acquire. We might call these things, respectively, the products of agriculture, of medicine, and of education.

In the case of the fruits and grains, as well as edible animal organisms, prehistoric people were hunters and gatherers.

This means that the edibles they consumed were all products of nature, which they merely picked or killed in order to consume them. Farming began when human beings acquired the skill of working with nature to facilitate the production of fruits and grains and also edible animal organisms. Farming thus became the first of the cooperative arts.

Long before the art of medicine came into existence, human beings possessed health as the result of natural causes. Medicine or the art of healing emerged when humans acquired the skill of cooperating with these natural processes to preserve health or facilitate its recovery after a bout of illness.

Finally we come to teaching, and here it is Socrates who first depicted teaching as a cooperative art. He did so by comparing his own style of teaching with the work of the midwife. It is the mother, not the midwife, who goes through the pains of childbirth to deliver the child. The midwife merely cooperates with the process, helping the mothering in her efforts, and making childbirth a little easier and a little more hygienic.

Another way of saying this is to point out that teachers, like midwives, are always dispensable. Children can be born without midwives. Knowledge and understanding can be acquired without teachers, through the purely natural operations of the human mind.

Teachers who regard themselves as the principal, even the sole, cause of the learning that occurs in their students simply do not understand teaching as a cooperative art. They think of themselves as producing knowledge or understanding in the minds of their students as shoemakers produce shoes out of pliable or plastic materials.

Only when teachers realize that the principal cause of the learning that occurs in a student is the activity of the student's own mind do they assume the role of cooperative artists. While the activity of the learner's mind is the principal cause of all learning, it is not the sole cause. Here the teacher steps in as a secondary and cooperative cause.

Just as, in the view of Hippocrates, surgery is a departure from healing as a cooperative art, so, in the view of Socrates, didactic teaching, or teaching by lecturing or telling rather than teaching by questioning and discussion, is a departure from teaching as a cooperative art...


If in genuine learning, the activity of the learner's own mind is always the principal cause of learning, then all learning is by discovery.

It may be either a) unaided discovery, when the activity of the learner's mind is the principal, but also the sole cause of learning, or b) aided discovery, when the activity of the learner's mind is the principal, but not the sole cause of learning.

When instruction is not accompanied by discovery, when instruction makes impressions on the memory with no act of understanding by the mind, then it is not genuine teaching, but mere indoctrination. Genuine teaching, in sharp distinction from indoctrination, always consists in activities on the part of teachers that cooperate with activities performed by the minds of students engaged in discovery.


The Greek word for mind, nous, identifies it with understanding. What we do not understand at all is possessed by us only as an item remembered. Memory is a by-product of sense-perception; understanding, an act of the intellect. Statements that are verbally remembered and recalled should never be confused with facts understood.

Correlated with this distinction between mind and memory is the distinction between knowledge and opinion. To know something as opposed to holding a mere opinion about it is to understand it in the light of relevant reasons and supporting evidence.

How do students come by the opinions they hold, especially those acquired in the course of schooling?

They have adopted them on the naked authority of teachers who acted as if they were productive, not cooperative, artists─teachers who indoctrinated them by didactic instruction that was not accompanied by any acts of thinking or discovery on their part.

I have used the phrase "naked authority" to signify the authority arrogated to themselves by teachers who expect students to accept what they tell them simply because they occupy the position of teachers. The only legitimate authority is the authority of the reasons relevant or the evidence supporting whatever is to be understood.

Opinions remembered, with that memory reinforced temporarily by "boning up for tests," are opinions for the most part soon forgotten.

The understanding of ideas once acquired, has maximum durability. What is understood cannot be forgotten because it is a habit of the intellect, not something remembered.


The conception of the teacher as one who has knowledge of information that he or she transmits to students as passive recipients of it violates the nature of teaching as a cooperative art. It assumes that genuine learning can occur simply by instruction, without acts of thinking and understanding that involve discovery by the minds of students.

May 12, 2014

The Lost Tools of Learning

By Dorothy L. Sayers

THAT I, WHOSE EXPERIENCE of teaching is extremely limited, should presume to discuss education is a matter, surely, that calls for no apology. It is a kind of behavior to which the present climate of opinion is wholly favorable. Bishops air their opinions about economics; biologists, about metaphysics; inorganic chemists, about theology; the most irrelevant people are appointed to highly technical ministries; and plain, blunt men write to the papers to say that Epstein and Picasso do not know how to draw. Up to a certain point, and provided the criticisms are made with a reasonable modesty, these activities are commendable. Too much specialization is not a good thing. There is also one excellent reason why the veriest amateur may feel entitled to have an opinion about education. For if we are not all professional teachers, we have all, at some time or another, been taught. Even if we learnt nothing─perhaps in particular if we learnt nothing─our contribution to the discussion may have a potential value.

However, it is in the highest degree improbable that the reforms I propose will ever be carried into effect. Neither the parents, nor the training colleges, nor the examination boards, nor the boards of governors, nor the ministries of education, would countenance them for a moment. For they amount to this: that if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Before you dismiss me with the appropriate phrase─reactionary, romantic, mediaevalist, laudator temporis acti (praiser of times past), or whatever tag comes first to hand─I will ask you to consider one or two miscellaneous questions that hang about at the back, perhaps, of all our minds, and occasionally pop out to worry us.

When we think about the remarkably early age at which the young men went up to university in, let us say, Tudor times, and thereafter were held fit to assume responsibility for the conduct of their own affairs, are we altogether comfortable about that artificial prolongation of intellectual childhood and adolescence into the years of physical maturity which is so marked in our own day? To postpone the acceptance of responsibility to a late date brings with it a number of psychological complications which, while they may interest the psychiatrist, are scarcely beneficial either to the individual or to society. The stock argument in favor of postponing the school-leaving age and prolonging the period of education generally is there is now so much more to learn than there was in the Middle Ages. This is partly true, but not wholly. The modern boy and girl are certainly taught more subjects─but does that always mean that they actually know more?

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

Have you ever followed a discussion in the newspapers or elsewhere and noticed how frequently writers fail to define the terms they use? Or how often, if one man does define his terms, another will assume in his reply that he was using the terms in precisely the opposite sense to that in which he has already defined them? Have you ever been faintly troubled by the amount of slipshod syntax going about? And, if so, are you troubled because it is inelegant or because it may lead to dangerous misunderstanding?

Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected), but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things? Or who cannot handle a library catalogue? Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages relevant to the particular question which interests them?

Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a "subject" remains a "subject," divided by watertight bulkheads from all other "subjects," so that they experience very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon─or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?

Are you occasionally perturbed by the things written by adult men and women for adult men and women to read? We find a well-known biologist writing in a weekly paper to the effect that: "It is an argument against the existence of a Creator" (I think he put it more strongly; but since I have, most unfortunately, mislaid the reference, I will put his claim at its lowest)─"an argument against the existence of a Creator that the same kind of variations which are produced by natural selection can be produced at will by stock breeders." One might feel tempted to say that it is rather an argument for the existence of a Creator. Actually, of course, it is neither; all it proves is that the same material causes (recombination of the chromosomes, by crossbreeding, and so forth) are sufficient to account for all observed variations─just as the various combinations of the same dozen tones are materially sufficient to account for Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and the noise the cat makes by walking on the keys. But the cat's performance neither proves nor disproves the existence of Beethoven; and all that is proved by the biologist's argument is that he was unable to distinguish between a material and a final cause.

Here is a sentence from no less academic a source than a front- page article in the Times Literary Supplement: "The Frenchman, Alfred Epinas, pointed out that certain species (e.g., ants and wasps) can only face the horrors of life and death in association." I do not know what the Frenchman actually did say; what the Englishman says he said is patently meaningless. We cannot know whether life holds any horror for the ant, nor in what sense the isolated wasp which you kill upon the window-pane can be said to "face" or not to "face" the horrors of death. The subject of the article is mass behavior in man; and the human motives have been unobtrusively transferred from the main proposition to the supporting instance. Thus the argument, in effect, assumes what it set out to prove─a fact which would become immediately apparent if it were presented in a formal syllogism. This is only a small and haphazard example of a vice which pervades whole books─particularly books written by men of science on metaphysical subjects.

Another quotation from the same issue of the TLS comes in fittingly here to wind up this random collection of disquieting thoughts─this time from a review of Sir Richard Livingstone's "Some Tasks for Education": "More than once the reader is reminded of the value of an intensive study of at least one subject, so as to learn the meaning of knowledge' and what precision and persistence is needed to attain it. Yet there is elsewhere full recognition of the distressing fact that a man may be master in one field and show no better judgement than his neighbor anywhere else; he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it."

I would draw your attention particularly to that last sentence, which offers an explanation of what the writer rightly calls the "distressing fact" that the intellectual skills bestowed upon us by our education are not readily transferable to subjects other than those in which we acquired them: "he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it."

Is not the great defect of our education today─a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned─that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils "subjects," we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything, except the art of learning. It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play "The Harmonious Blacksmith" upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized "The Harmonious Blacksmith," he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle "The Last Rose of Summer." Why do I say, "as though"? In certain of the arts and crafts, we sometimes do precisely this─requiring a child to "express himself" in paint before we teach him how to handle the colors and the brush. There is a school of thought which believes this to be the right way to set about the job. But observe: it is not the way in which a trained craftsman will go about to teach himself a new medium. He, having learned by experience the best way to economize labor and take the thing by the right end, will start off by doodling about on an odd piece of material, in order to "give himself the feel of the tool."

Let us now look at the mediaeval scheme of education─the syllabus of the Schools. It does not matter, for the moment, whether it was devised for small children or for older students, or how long people were supposed to take over it. What matters is the light it throws upon what the men of the Middle Ages supposed to be the object and the right order of the educative process.

The syllabus was divided into two parts: the Trivium and Quadrivium. The second part─the Quadrivium─consisted of "subjects," and need not for the moment concern us. The interesting thing for us is the composition of the Trivium, which preceded the Quadrivium and was the preliminary discipline for it. It consisted of three parts: Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric, in that order.

Now the first thing we notice is that two at any rate of these "subjects" are not what we should call "subjects" at all: they are only methods of dealing with subjects. Grammar, indeed, is a "subject" in the sense that it does mean definitely learning a language─at that period it meant learning Latin. But language itself is simply the medium in which thought is expressed. The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to "subjects" at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself─what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language; how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument. Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language─ how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively.

At the end of his course, he was required to compose a thesis upon some theme set by his masters or chosen by himself, and afterwards to defend his thesis against the criticism of the faculty. By this time, he would have learned─or woe betide him─ not merely to write an essay on paper, but to speak audibly and intelligibly from a platform, and to use his wits quickly when heckled. There would also be questions, cogent and shrewd, from those who had already run the gauntlet of debate.

It is, of course, quite true that bits and pieces of the mediaeval tradition still linger, or have been revived, in the ordinary school syllabus of today. Some knowledge of grammar is still required when learning a foreign language─perhaps I should say, "is again required," for during my own lifetime, we passed through a phase when the teaching of declensions and conjugations was considered rather reprehensible, and it was considered better to pick these things up as we went along. School debating societies flourish; essays are written; the necessity for "self-expression" is stressed, and perhaps even over-stressed. But these activities are cultivated more or less in detachment, as belonging to the special subjects in which they are pigeon-holed rather than as forming one coherent scheme of mental training to which all "subjects" stand in a subordinate relation. "Grammar" belongs especially to the "subject" of foreign languages, and essay-writing to the "subject" called "English"; while Dialectic has become almost entirely divorced from the rest of the curriculum, and is frequently practiced unsystematically and out of school hours as a separate exercise, only very loosely related to the main business of learning. Taken by and large, the great difference of emphasis between the two conceptions holds good: modern education concentrates on "teaching subjects," leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one's conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along' mediaeval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tool became second nature.

"Subjects" of some kind there must be, of course. One cannot learn the theory of grammar without learning an actual language, or learn to argue and orate without speaking about something in particular. The debating subjects of the Middle Ages were drawn largely from theology, or from the ethics and history of antiquity. Often, indeed, they became stereotyped, especially towards the end of the period, and the far-fetched and wire-drawn absurdities of Scholastic argument fretted Milton and provide food for merriment even to this day. Whether they were in themselves any more hackneyed and trivial then the usual subjects set nowadays for "essay writing" I should not like to say: we may ourselves grow a little weary of "A Day in My Holidays" and all the rest of it. But most of the merriment is misplaced, because the aim and object of the debating thesis has by now been lost sight of.

A glib speaker in the Brains Trust once entertained his audience (and reduced the late Charles Williams to helpless rage by asserting that in the Middle Ages it was a matter of faith to know how many archangels could dance on the point of a needle. I need not say, I hope, that it never was a "matter of faith"; it was simply a debating exercise, whose set subject was the nature of angelic substance: were angels material, and if so, did they occupy space? The answer usually adjudged correct is, I believe, that angels are pure intelligences; not material, but limited, so that they may have location in space but not extension. An analogy might be drawn from human thought, which is similarly non-material and similarly limited. Thus, if your thought is concentrated upon one thing─say, the point of a needle─it is located there in the sense that it is not elsewhere; but although it is "there," it occupies no space there, and there is nothing to prevent an infinite number of different people's thoughts being concentrated upon the same needle-point at the same time. The proper subject of the argument is thus seen to be the distinction between location and extension in space; the matter on which the argument is exercised happens to be the nature of angels (although, as we have seen, it might equally well have been something else; the practical lesson to be drawn from the argument is not to use words like "there" in a loose and unscientific way, without specifying whether you mean "located there" or "occupying space there."

Scorn in plenty has been poured out upon the mediaeval passion for hair-splitting; but when we look at the shameless abuse made, in print and on the platform, of controversial expressions with shifting and ambiguous connotations, we may feel it in our hearts to wish that every reader and hearer had been so defensively armored by his education as to be able to cry: "Distinguo."

For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary. By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word. By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words. They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects. We who were scandalized in 1940 when men were sent to fight armored tanks with rifles, are not scandalized when young men and women are sent into the world to fight massed propaganda with a smattering of "subjects"; and when whole classes and whole nations become hypnotized by the arts of the spell binder, we have the impudence to be astonished. We dole out lip-service to the importance of education─lip-service and, just occasionally, a little grant of money; we postpone the school-leaving age, and plan to build bigger and better schools; the teachers slave conscientiously in and out of school hours; and yet, as I believe, all this devoted effort is largely frustrated, because we have lost the tools of learning, and in their absence can only make a botched and piecemeal job of it.

What, then, are we to do? We cannot go back to the Middle Ages. That is a cry to which we have become accustomed. We cannot go back─or can we? Distinguo. I should like every term in that proposition defined. Does "go back" mean a retrogression in time, or the revision of an error? The first is clearly impossible per se; the second is a thing which wise men do every day. "Cannot"─ does this mean that our behavior is determined irreversibly, or merely that such an action would be very difficult in view of the opposition it would provoke? Obviously the twentieth century is not and cannot be the fourteenth; but if "the Middle Ages" is, in this context, simply a picturesque phrase denoting a particular educational theory, there seems to be no a priori reason why we should not "go back" to it─with modifications─as we have already "gone back" with modifications, to, let us say, the idea of playing Shakespeare's plays as he wrote them, and not in the "modernized" versions of Cibber and Garrick, which once seemed to be the latest thing in theatrical progress.

Let us amuse ourselves by imagining that such progressive retrogression is possible. Let us make a clean sweep of all educational authorities, and furnish ourselves with a nice little school of boys and girls whom we may experimentally equip for the intellectual conflict along lines chosen by ourselves. We will endow them with exceptionally docile parents; we will staff our school with teachers who are themselves perfectly familiar with the aims and methods of the Trivium; we will have our building and staff large enough to allow our classes to be small enough for adequate handling; and we will postulate a Board of Examiners willing and qualified to test the products we turn out. Thus prepared, we will attempt to sketch out a syllabus─a modern Trivium "with modifications" and we will see where we get to.

But first: what age shall the children be? Well, if one is to educate them on novel lines, it will be better that they should have nothing to unlearn; besides, one cannot begin a good thing too early, and the Trivium is by its nature not learning, but a preparation for learning. We will, therefore, "catch 'em young," requiring of our pupils only that they shall be able to read, write, and cipher.

My views about child psychology are, I admit, neither orthodox nor enlightened. Looking back upon myself (since I am the child I know best and the only child I can pretend to know from inside) I recognize three states of development. These, in a rough-and- ready fashion, I will call the Poll-Parrot, the Pert, and the Poetic─the latter coinciding, approximately, with the onset of puberty. The Poll-Parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. The Pert age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent), is characterized by contradicting, answering back, liking to "catch people out" (especially one's elders); and by the propounding of conundrums. Its nuisance-value is extremely high. It usually sets in about the Fourth Form. The Poetic age is popularly known as the "difficult" age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness; a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others. Now it seems to me that the layout of the Trivium adapts itself with a singular appropriateness to these three ages: Grammar to the Poll-Parrot, Dialectic to the Pert, and Rhetoric to the Poetic age.

Let us begin, then, with Grammar. This, in practice, means the grammar of some language in particular; and it must be an inflected language. The grammatical structure of an uninflected language is far too analytical to be tackled by anyone without previous practice in Dialectic. Moreover, the inflected languages interpret the uninflected, whereas the uninflected are of little use in interpreting the inflected. I will say at once, quite firmly, that the best grounding for education is the Latin grammar. I say this, not because Latin is traditional and mediaeval, but simply because even a rudimentary knowledge of Latin cuts down the labor and pains of learning almost any other subject by at least fifty percent. It is the key to the vocabulary and structure of all the Teutonic languages, as well as to the technical vocabulary of all the sciences and to the literature of the entire Mediterranean civilization, together with all its historical documents.

Those whose pedantic preference for a living language persuades them to deprive their pupils of all these advantages might substitute Russian, whose grammar is still more primitive. Russian is, of course, helpful with the other Slav dialects. There is something also to be said for Classical Greek. But my own choice is Latin. Having thus pleased the Classicists among you, I will proceed to horrify them by adding that I do not think it either wise or necessary to cramp the ordinary pupil upon the Procrustean bed of the Augustan Age, with its highly elaborate and artificial verse forms and oratory. Post-classical and mediaeval Latin, which was a living language right down to the end of the Renaissance, is easier and in some ways livelier; a study of it helps to dispel the widespread notion that learning and literature came to a full stop when Christ was born and only woke up again at the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Latin should be begun as early as possible─at a time when inflected speech seems no more astonishing than any other phenomenon in an astonishing world; and when the chanting of "Amo, amas, amat" is as ritually agreeable to the feelings as the chanting of "eeny, meeny, miney, moe."

During this age we must, of course, exercise the mind on other things besides Latin grammar. Observation and memory are the faculties most lively at this period; and if we are to learn a contemporary foreign language we should begin now, before the facial and mental muscles become rebellious to strange intonations. Spoken French or German can be practiced alongside the grammatical discipline of the Latin.

In English, meanwhile, verse and prose can be learned by heart, and the pupil's memory should be stored with stories of every kind─classical myth, European legend, and so forth. I do not think that the classical stories and masterpieces of ancient literature should be made the vile bodies on which to practice the techniques of Grammar─that was a fault of mediaeval education which we need not perpetuate. The stories can be enjoyed and remembered in English, and related to their origin at a subsequent stage. Recitation aloud should be practiced, individually or in chorus; for we must not forget that we are laying the groundwork for Disputation and Rhetoric.

The grammar of History should consist, I think, of dates, events, anecdotes, and personalities. A set of dates to which one can peg all later historical knowledge is of enormous help later on in establishing the perspective of history. It does not greatly matter which dates: those of the Kings of England will do very nicely, provided that they are accompanied by pictures of costumes, architecture, and other everyday things, so that the mere mention of a date calls up a very strong visual presentment of the whole period.

Geography will similarly be presented in its factual aspect, with maps, natural features, and visual presentment of customs, costumes, flora, fauna, and so on; and I believe myself that the discredited and old-fashioned memorizing of a few capitol cities, rivers, mountain ranges, etc., does no harm. Stamp collecting may be encouraged.

Science, in the Poll-Parrot period, arranges itself naturally and easily around collections─the identifying and naming of specimens and, in general, the kind of thing that used to be called "natural philosophy." To know the name and properties of things is, at this age, a satisfaction in itself; to recognize a devil's coach-horse at sight, and assure one's foolish elders, that, in spite of its appearance, it does not sting; to be able to pick out Cassiopeia and the Pleiades, and perhaps even to know who Cassiopeia and the Pleiades were; to be aware that a whale is not a fish, and a bat not a bird─all these things give a pleasant sensation of superiority; while to know a ring snake from an adder or a poisonous from an edible toadstool is a kind of knowledge that also has practical value.

The grammar of Mathematics begins, of course, with the multiplication table, which, if not learnt now, will never be learnt with pleasure; and with the recognition of geometrical shapes and the grouping of numbers. These exercises lead naturally to the doing of simple sums in arithmetic. More complicated mathematical processes may, and perhaps should, be postponed, for the reasons which will presently appear.

So far (except, of course, for the Latin), our curriculum contains nothing that departs very far from common practice. The difference will be felt rather in the attitude of the teachers, who must look upon all these activities less as "subjects" in themselves than as a gathering-together of material for use in the next part of the Trivium. What that material is, is only of secondary importance; but it is as well that anything and everything which can be usefully committed to memory should be memorized at this period, whether it is immediately intelligible or not. The modern tendency is to try and force rational explanations on a child's mind at too early an age. Intelligent questions, spontaneously asked, should, of course, receive an immediate and rational answer; but it is a great mistake to suppose that a child cannot readily enjoy and remember things that are beyond his power to analyze─particularly if those things have a strong imaginative appeal (as, for example, "Kubla Kahn"), an attractive jingle (like some of the memory-rhymes for Latin genders), or an abundance of rich, resounding polysyllables (like the Quicunque vult).

This reminds me of the grammar of Theology. I shall add it to the curriculum, because theology is the mistress-science without which the whole educational structure will necessarily lack its final synthesis. Those who disagree about this will remain content to leave their pupil's education still full of loose ends. This will matter rather less than it might, since by the time that the tools of learning have been forged the student will be able to tackle theology for himself, and will probably insist upon doing so and making sense of it. Still, it is as well to have this matter also handy and ready for the reason to work upon. At the grammatical age, therefore, we should become acquainted with the story of God and Man in outline─i.e., the Old and New Testaments presented as parts of a single narrative of Creation, Rebellion, and Redemption─and also with the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. At this early stage, it does not matter nearly so much that these things should be fully understood as that they should be known and remembered.

It is difficult to say at what age, precisely, we should pass from the first to the second part of the Trivium. Generally speaking, the answer is: so soon as the pupil shows himself disposed to pertness and interminable argument. For as, in the first part, the master faculties are Observation and Memory, so, in the second, the master faculty is the Discursive Reason. In the first, the exercise to which the rest of the material was, as it were, keyed, was the Latin grammar; in the second, the key-exercise will be Formal Logic. It is here that our curriculum shows its first sharp divergence from modern standards. The disrepute into which Formal Logic has fallen is entirely unjustified; and its neglect is the root cause of nearly all those disquieting symptoms which we have noted in the modern intellectual constitution. Logic has been discredited, partly because we have come to suppose that we are conditioned almost entirely by the intuitive and the unconscious. There is no time to argue whether this is true; I will simply observe that to neglect the proper training of the reason is the best possible way to make it true. Another cause for the disfavor into which Logic has fallen is the belief that it is entirely based upon universal assumptions that are either unprovable or tautological. This is not true. Not all universal propositions are of this kind. But even if they were, it would make no difference, since every syllogism whose major premise is in the form "All A is B" can be recast in hypothetical form. Logic is the art of arguing correctly: "If A, then B." The method is not invalidated by the hypothetical nature of A. Indeed, the practical utility of Formal Logic today lies not so much in the establishment of positive conclusions as in the prompt detection and exposure of invalid inference.

Let us now quickly review our material and see how it is to be related to Dialectic. On the Language side, we shall now have our vocabulary and morphology at our fingertips; henceforward we can concentrate on syntax and analysis (i.e., the logical construction of speech) and the history of language (i.e., how we came to arrange our speech as we do in order to convey our thoughts).

Our Reading will proceed from narrative and lyric to essays, argument and criticism, and the pupil will learn to try his own hand at writing this kind of thing. Many lessons─on whatever subject─will take the form of debates; and the place of individual or choral recitation will be taken by dramatic performances, with special attention to plays in which an argument is stated in dramatic form.

Mathematics─algebra, geometry, and the more advanced kinds of arithmetic─will now enter into the syllabus and take its place as what it really is: not a separate "subject" but a sub- department of Logic. It is neither more nor less than the rule of the syllogism in its particular application to number and measurement, and should be taught as such, instead of being, for some, a dark mystery, and, for others, a special revelation, neither illuminating nor illuminated by any other part of knowledge.

History, aided by a simple system of ethics derived from the grammar of theology, will provide much suitable material for discussion: Was the behavior of this statesman justified? What was the effect of such an enactment? What are the arguments for and against this or that form of government? We shall thus get an introduction to constitutional history─a subject meaningless to the young child, but of absorbing interest to those who are prepared to argue and debate. Theology itself will furnish material for argument about conduct and morals; and should have its scope extended by a simplified course of dogmatic theology (i.e., the rational structure of Christian thought), clarifying the relations between the dogma and the ethics, and lending itself to that application of ethical principles in particular instances which is properly called casuistry. Geography and the Sciences will likewise provide material for Dialectic.

But above all, we must not neglect the material which is so abundant in the pupils' own daily life.

There is a delightful passage in Leslie Paul's "The Living Hedge" which tells how a number of small boys enjoyed themselves for days arguing about an extraordinary shower of rain which had fallen in their town─a shower so localized that it left one half of the main street wet and the other dry. Could one, they argued, properly say that it had rained that day on or over the town or only in the town? How many drops of water were required to constitute rain? And so on. Argument about this led on to a host of similar problems about rest and motion, sleep and waking, est and non est, and the infinitesimal division of time. The whole passage is an admirable example of the spontaneous development of the ratiocinative faculty and the natural and proper thirst of the awakening reason for the definition of terms and exactness of statement. All events are food for such an appetite.

An umpire's decision; the degree to which one may transgress the spirit of a regulation without being trapped by the letter: on such questions as these, children are born casuists, and their natural propensity only needs to be developed and trained─and especially, brought into an intelligible relationship with the events in the grown-up world. The newspapers are full of good material for such exercises: legal decisions, on the one hand, in cases where the cause at issue is not too abstruse; on the other, fallacious reasoning and muddleheaded arguments, with which the correspondence columns of certain papers one could name are abundantly stocked.

Wherever the matter for Dialectic is found, it is, of course, highly important that attention should be focused upon the beauty and economy of a fine demonstration or a well-turned argument, lest veneration should wholly die. Criticism must not be merely destructive; though at the same time both teacher and pupils must be ready to detect fallacy, slipshod reasoning, ambiguity, irrelevance, and redundancy, and to pounce upon them like rats. This is the moment when precis-writing may be usefully undertaken; together with such exercises as the writing of an essay, and the reduction of it, when written, by 25 or 50 percent.

It will, doubtless, be objected that to encourage young persons at the Pert age to browbeat, correct, and argue with their elders will render them perfectly intolerable. My answer is that children of that age are intolerable anyhow; and that their natural argumentativeness may just as well be canalized to good purpose as allowed to run away into the sands. It may, indeed, be rather less obtrusive at home if it is disciplined in school; and anyhow, elders who have abandoned the wholesome principle that children should be seen and not heard have no one to blame but themselves.

Once again, the contents of the syllabus at this stage may be anything you like. The "subjects" supply material; but they are all to be regarded as mere grist for the mental mill to work upon. The pupils should be encouraged to go and forage for their own information, and so guided towards the proper use of libraries and books for reference, and shown how to tell which sources are authoritative and which are not.

Towards the close of this stage, the pupils will probably be beginning to discover for themselves that their knowledge and experience are insufficient, and that their trained intelligences need a great deal more material to chew upon. The imagination─ usually dormant during the Pert age─will reawaken, and prompt them to suspect the limitations of logic and reason. This means that they are passing into the Poetic age and are ready to embark on the study of Rhetoric. The doors of the storehouse of knowledge should now be thrown open for them to browse about as they will. The things once learned by rote will be seen in new contexts; the things once coldly analyzed can now be brought together to form a new synthesis; here and there a sudden insight will bring about that most exciting of all discoveries: the realization that truism is true.

It is difficult to map out any general syllabus for the study of Rhetoric: a certain freedom is demanded. In literature, appreciation should be again allowed to take the lead over destructive criticism; and self-expression in writing can go forward, with its tools now sharpened to cut clean and observe proportion. Any child who already shows a disposition to specialize should be given his head: for, when the use of the tools has been well and truly learned, it is available for any study whatever. It would be well, I think, that each pupil should learn to do one, or two, subjects really well, while taking a few classes in subsidiary subjects so as to keep his mind open to the inter-relations of all knowledge. Indeed, at this stage, our difficulty will be to keep "subjects" apart; for Dialectic will have shown all branches of learning to be inter-related, so Rhetoric will tend to show that all knowledge is one. To show this, and show why it is so, is pre-eminently the task of the mistress science. But whether theology is studied or not, we should at least insist that children who seem inclined to specialize on the mathematical and scientific side should be obliged to attend some lessons in the humanities and vice versa. At this stage, also, the Latin grammar, having done its work, may be dropped for those who prefer to carry on their language studies on the modern side; while those who are likely never to have any great use or aptitude for mathematics might also be allowed to rest, more or less, upon their oars. Generally speaking, whatsoever is mere apparatus may now be allowed to fall into the background, while the trained mind is gradually prepared for specialization in the "subjects" which, when the Trivium is completed, it should be perfectly will equipped to tackle on its own. The final synthesis of the Trivium─the presentation and public defense of the thesis─should be restored in some form; perhaps as a kind of "leaving examination" during the last term at school.

The scope of Rhetoric depends also on whether the pupil is to be turned out into the world at the age of 16 or whether he is to proceed to the university. Since, really, Rhetoric should be taken at about 14, the first category of pupil should study Grammar from about 9 to 11, and Dialectic from 12 to 14; his last two school years would then be devoted to Rhetoric, which, in this case, would be of a fairly specialized and vocational kind, suiting him to enter immediately upon some practical career. A pupil of the second category would finish his Dialectical course in his preparatory school, and take Rhetoric during his first two years at his public school. At 16, he would be ready to start upon those "subjects" which are proposed for his later study at the university: and this part of his education will correspond to the mediaeval Quadrivium. What this amounts to is that the ordinary pupil, whose formal education ends at 16, will take the Trivium only; whereas scholars will take both the Trivium and the Quadrivium.

Is the Trivium, then, a sufficient education for life? Properly taught, I believe that it should be. At the end of the Dialectic, the children will probably seem to be far behind their coevals brought up on old-fashioned "modern" methods, so far as detailed knowledge of specific subjects is concerned. But after the age of 14 they should be able to overhaul the others hand over fist. Indeed, I am not at all sure that a pupil thoroughly proficient in the Trivium would not be fit to proceed immediately to the university at the age of 16, thus proving himself the equal of his mediaeval counterpart, whose precocity astonished us at the beginning of this discussion. This, to be sure, would make hay of the English public-school system, and disconcert the universities very much. It would, for example, make quite a different thing of the Oxford and Cambridge boat race.

But I am not here to consider the feelings of academic bodies: I am concerned only with the proper training of the mind to encounter and deal with the formidable mass of undigested problems presented to it by the modern world. For the tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command. To learn six subjects without remembering how they were learnt does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh; to have learnt and remembered the art of learning makes the approach to every subject an open door.

Before concluding these necessarily very sketchy suggestions, I ought to say why I think it necessary, in these days, to go back to a discipline which we had discarded. The truth is that for the last three hundred years or so we have been living upon our educational capital. The post-Renaissance world, bewildered and excited by the profusion of new "subjects" offered to it, broke away from the old discipline (which had, indeed, become sadly dull and stereotyped in its practical application) and imagined that henceforward it could, as it were, disport itself happily in its new and extended Quadrivium without passing through the Trivium. But the Scholastic tradition, though broken and maimed, still lingered in the public schools and universities: Milton, however much he protested against it, was formed by it─the debate of the Fallen Angels and the disputation of Abdiel with Satan have the tool-marks of the Schools upon them, and might, incidentally, profitably figure as set passages for our Dialectical studies. Right down to the nineteenth century, our public affairs were mostly managed, and our books and journals were for the most part written, by people brought up in homes, and trained in places, where that tradition was still alive in the memory and almost in the blood. Just so, many people today who are atheist or agnostic in religion, are governed in their conduct by a code of Christian ethics which is so rooted that it never occurs to them to question it.

But one cannot live on capital forever. However firmly a tradition is rooted, if it is never watered, though it dies hard, yet in the end it dies. And today a great number─perhaps the majority─of the men and women who handle our affairs, write our books and our newspapers, carry out our research, present our plays and our films, speak from our platforms and pulpits─yes, and who educate our young people─have never, even in a lingering traditional memory, undergone the Scholastic discipline. Less and less do the children who come to be educated bring any of that tradition with them. We have lost the tools of learning─the axe and the wedge, the hammer and the saw, the chisel and the plane─ that were so adaptable to all tasks. Instead of them, we have merely a set of complicated jigs, each of which will do but one task and no more, and in using which eye and hand receive no training, so that no man ever sees the work as a whole or "looks to the end of the work."

What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers─they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.


Read about Dorothy Sayers at The Dorothy L Sayers Society

Two Essays on Docility

By Mortimer J. Adler
From the The Commonweal (April 1940)

1. Docility and Authority

IN HIS Treatise on Temperance, Saint Thomas discusses the virtue of studiousness and the vice of curiosity. The virtuous pursuit of learning must not only be moderate, but rightly motivated. Studiositas inclines a man to be serious and steadfast in the application of his mind to things worth learning. In contrast, the zest with which many men devote themselves to scholarship and research seems to express curiosity rather than a virtuous exercise of the desire to know.

Now there is another virtue—not explicitly discussed by Saint Thomas—which disciplines us in the life of learning.[1] Docility is the virtue which regulates a man's will with respect to learning from a teacher. Studiousness concerns a right attitude toward subject matters. If men learned only by discovery—each seeking out the truth entirely by himself—studiousness would be sufficient. But men also learn by instruction; in fact, that is the way most men learn for the most part. Therefore, they must adopt a right attitude toward their teachers, to the instruments as well as to the matter of instruction. It is through docility that we recognize the teacher as a doctor, and respect his authority as we respect that of a physician working for our health.

I place docility in the group of virtues annexed to justice, for it consists in rendering to teachers what is their due. As we owe piety to God as the source of our being, and to our parents as the source of our becoming, so docility is a kind of piety toward teachers as among the sources of our learning. There is also an element of gratitude in docility, responsive to the charity of teaching; and an element of humility, because through docility we are rightly ordered to our superiors. We cannot be instructed by our peers, or at least not in the respects in which there is peerage or equality in knowledge. Unless the teacher has an authority which comes from greater knowledge or skill, he cannot justly be our master, nor need we be docile as his students.

In order to define the vices of excess and defect—which I shall call subservience and indocility—it is necessary to discuss the nature of the doctoral authority. When Saint Thomas says that "the argument from authority based on human reason is the weakest" (Summa Theologia, I, 8, Reply to Objection 2), he is obviously not recommending indocility, for that would belie the practice of his whole life as a respectful and grateful student of Aristotle and Saint Augustine. What he is saying is simply that the weakest ground for affirming a conclusion is the fact that it has been affirmed by another, even if that other be the master of those who know or a father of doctrine. If we affirm a principle that is supposed to be self-evident, without its being evident to us, or a conclusion that is supposed to be demonstrated, without being able to demonstrate it, merely because another man has said it, we are being subservient, not docile. We have acquired an opinion, not knowledge; and if we persist in it through a sort of verbal memory, rather than a truly intellectual penetration of the truth, we have been indoctrinated, not instructed.

But, then, wherein lies the authority of teachers? We must distinguish between the intrinsic possession of such authority and its extrinsic signs. With respect to all teachable matters, a man has as much authority intrinsically as he is able to speak the truth. Strictly, it is the truth alone which has the authority over our minds in the realm of knowledge as opposed to the realm of opinion. Whereas opinion is an affirmation by the intellect as moved by the will or the passions, knowledge is a motion independent of the will. To know is to judge entirely in the light of reason. The truth as we see it in such light compels our judgment. If the authority of a teacher consisted in nothing but the truth he spoke, then we could justly recognize his authority only to the extent that, by the natural light of our own reason, we could independently discriminate between truth and falsity on the point of doctrine. There would be no need for docility toward him as a man.

The need for docility arises from the supposition that a student lacks knowledge or the skill to get it and that a teacher, having what the student lacks, can help him. Although the student must never accept what the teacher says simply because he says it, neither can he reject it on that ground. In the field of natural knowledge, the student must ultimately make up his own mind in the light of natural reason, but until he is able to do that finally he should try to get all the help he can from those who offer to teach him. Docility is needed, therefore, to dispose him to seek and to use such help wisely and well. If a teacher claims to demonstrate something which the student cannot see at once to be the case, docility requires that the student suspend judgment—neither accept nor reject—and apply his mind studiously to the teacher's words and intentions. He must, with patience and perseverance, continue to submit his mind to instruction, which means nothing more than that he suffer the teacher to continue cooperating with his own active intellect.

Unless there were extrinsic signs of authority, which marked the proper objects of docility, the student would be unable to direct himself properly with respect to available instruction. Such signs are not wanting. Assuming that an educational system is wisely administered, those who hold the office of teacher are signified as having sufficient authority for the grade of student allotted to them. Unlike the political office, which has a certain authority in itself even when held by a bad man, the doctoral office is truly emptied whenever students who have exercised docility discover its occupant to be unworthy. If the de facto rule of a usurping despot is tyranny, the de facto pressure of an inadequate teacher can only be effective as indoctrination, and that, as we have seen, is a kind of violence. Docility requires the student, nevertheless, to respect the office of the teacher until his incompetence is unmistakably revealed.

There are other extrinsic signs. Quite apart from his office, a teacher may command respect because of his past performances. A teacher who has succeeded in bringing us to the light many times in the past despite our intransigence, is one who deserves our patience in the present instance where we are still in the dark. This is the mark which honors the great teachers of all times. In the tradition of European learning, some men have been the teachers of many generations, of many epochs. The fact that these men are so generally honored by the tradition as great teachers—men who both know and can communicate—is the most compelling extrinsic sign of an authority to which we must respond with docility.

I have elsewhere developed the distinction between dead and living teachers. The living teachers—the local embodiments of learning—are seldom the great teachers. The great teachers are usually dead, though, in another sense, they are eminently alive for us as teachers through their books. Books are instruments of instruction, and obviously call for docility in those who would learn from them, as much as living teachers do. The virtue is essentially the same, whether exercised toward the book of an absent teacher or toward the ministrations of one who is present. When I speak of a "great teacher" or a "great book" I mean one who merits the extrinsic marks of teaching authority because possessing that authority intrinsically, by virtue of a great store of knowledge and great power to disseminate it.

It would be a mistake for those of us who are teachers to suppose that the problem of achieving docility is a problem only for our students. To the extent that we, too, are students, the moral problem exists for us as well. It exists for anyone and everyone who is actively engaged in the life of learning. Those who understand the obligations of that life do not give up learning when they begin to teach. On the contrary, a good teacher is usually one who is himself an active student of the subject matter in which he gives instruction. Authority and docility will be combined in him, for he is both a teacher of those who know less than himself and a student of the masters of his subject matter. One might even guess that there will be a certain proportion between his attainment of authority and his exercise of docility.

I want to consider the problem of docility as it exists for all of us, whether we be merely students in the early stages of our education, or teachers who have realized the need to continue study. The problem, it seems to me, has significant implications for education under modern cultural conditions, precisely because modern culture is so ambivalent about tradition. In its horror of subservience, the modern mind tends to the opposite vice of brash indocility. On the other hand, those who deplore modernism and try to combat it too often return to the first extreme, mistaking subservience for docility.

The opposition of these extremes is the prevailing tension between the mood of secular and Catholic education. These two systems of education have contrary vices, each a reaction to the other—too little or too much respect for traditional authorities. I might add that the attitude which is characteristic of secular or Catholic faculties toward the great teachers of the past is reflected in the attitude of secular or Catholic students toward their living teachers. The one is usually indocile, the other subservient. (The subservience may be merely outward. I speak only of appearances.)

The temper of a culture with respect to its intellectual tradition underlies its educational efforts. If docility is indispensable to sound educational policy and practice, we must rectify the culture itself in terms of this virtue. How shall this be done? We are frequently told that historical scholarship is the way. We are told that the proper study of philosophy, and even science, is impossible without thorough historical orientation. Both modernism and its equally bad opposite, "modern scholasticism," spring from corrupt history, or the lack of historical insight. In their enthusiasm, the exponents of history as the magic open sesame tend to identify the historical attitude with docility. They soon become infected with historicism, which is simply the error of making historical scholarship, truly enough a necessary condition of rectitude in learning from the past, into a sufficient condition.

I propose, therefore, to examine the service of history in the life of learning, by considering its relation to the achievement of docility. But before I can discuss these larger implications of the problem, it is necessary first to consider docility from the point of view of the individual person who is trying to be virtuous in his attitude toward teachers and books.

For most of the moral virtues, the mean between the extremes of excess and defect is a subjective mean. The mean in the case of courage, lying somewhere between foolhardiness and cowardice, is not objectively ascertainable, and as such the same for all men. It is rather a mean that is relative to the individual temperament of each man who tries to be courageous, a mean which a man's own prudence must appoint after due consideration of the conditions of his life, the complexion of all his natural tendencies, and the circumstances of particular acts.

The mean of docility is subjective in this sense. The definition of docility as the right amount of respect for the authority of teachers (or books) is by itself insufficient to determine action. It is a truth too remote from the exigencies of practice to direct us in the particular decisions we have to make. In this particular case—with this teacher or book, in view of my temperamental weaknesses, my tendencies to be indolent or impatient, and in connection with this point of doctrine abut which I have strong feelings—what is the right amount of respect due those who are trying to instruct me? There is the practical question. And I cannot cultivate the habit of docility unless I can decide such questions prudently time after time as they arise.

Aristotle gives us two practical rules to guide us in the casuistry of applying moral principles to particular cases of action.

"As it is difficult to hit the mean exactly, we must take the second best course, and choose the lesser of two evils, and this we shall do best in the way we have described, i.e., by steering clear of the evil which is further from the mean. We must also observe the things to which we are ourselves particularly prone, as different natures have different inclinations, and we may ascertain what these are by a consideration of our feelings of pleasure and pain. And then we must drag ourselves in the direction opposite to them; for it is by removing ourselves as far as possible from what is wrong that we shall arrive at the mean, as we do when we pull a crooked stick straight" (Nicomachean Ethics, II, 9).

Let us consider the second suggestion first. If by temperament we tend to be impatient of authority, we should pull ourselves in the direction of subservience, for by so doing we shall be going toward the mean. If our temperament is of the opposite sort, we should struggle against our reluctance to exercise an independent judgment. Such counteraction of our natural weaknesses assists us to make a prudent determination of the mean relative to ourselves.

But if the mean of docility is hard to hit exactly, which is the better error to make, the worse vice to avoid, subservience or indocility? I, for one, cannot answer this question absolutely, that is, without any reference to circumstances. But it can be answered relatively by considering the generality of cases of different type. Thus, I would say that for modern culture generally the aim should be to avoid indocility; for Catholic students, in contrast to those in our secular colleges, the motion should be away from subservience; and, in general, it is worse for those who are in the early stages of study to be indocile than subservient, whereas, on the contrary, for those who are mature and who should assume a responsibility of independent judgment proportionate to their competence, it is worse to be subservient.

The casuistical questions which a man faces in trying to be docile are more difficult than those which arise in the field of other moral virtues; but these are always the most difficult questions, not only for each of us to decide for ourselves, but for anyone to prescribe ways of answering for others. Perhaps, therefore, the best thing I can do is to put down some of the considerations which weigh heavily with me when I am trying to read a book with docility.

In the first place, I try never to forget that the only ultimate factor which can decide my judgment—whether I shall agree or disagree with the author who is my teacher—is the natural light of my own reason. Remembering this, I will not assent to anything I do not see, be it principle or conclusion or the reasoning from the one to the other. I know, of course, how often I have failed to abide by this precept, how often I have adopted, for example, statements by Aristotle or Saint Thomas, because of emotional predispositions rather than intellectual light. I respect them so much as teachers that I have often permitted them to indoctrinate me—the fault being mine, not theirs, the respect being excessive, rather than right. For many years, I affirmed, and repeated to my students as if I knew it to be true, the Aristotelian error about natural slavery. If it is the error I now see it to be, it could not have been a truth I saw. As I review my own life on this point, I realize that I never did see the point. I merely accepted it because Aristotle had spoken.

In matters of natural knowledge, no human authority should prevail against the light of your own reason. But we know that our thinking is fallible. We know how often we suffer the illusion that we see the truth, only to discover later that we have judged too soon. Hence the second maxim I try to follow is this: one should suspend judgment long enough to be sure that one really understands what the teacher is trying to say before agreeing or disagreeing with him. Life being short, and the responsibility for making up one's mind on important questions being urgent, how long is long enough? This is a matter which everyone must determine for himself in conscience. If to disagree rashly leads to indocility, to agree without reservation, without making the effort to be sure one really knows what is being agreed to, is subservience. Docility demands sufficient suspension of judgment so that when I judge I shall be acting in the light of reason, and not in terms of passionate devotion or equally passionate opposition to the author I am reading.

There are a number of factors I consider in estimating the delay of judgment proper in a given case, the amount of effort to understand which should precede making up my mind. One is the degree of extrinsic authority that tradition has accorded the teacher. I should be less impetuous in judging Aristotle and Saint Thomas than in the case of some nineteenth, or even sixteenth century scholastic textbook. If there is a probable correlation between the extrinsic signs of authority and its intrinsic possession, then certainly it is sound to say that the more authority a teacher seems to have, the more pause he should give you. This maxim should operate in the case in which you are, for whatever reason, inclined to disagree, as well as when you are favorably predisposed. Here, too, my biography is full of faults. So much of what David Hume says was repugnant to my reason fairly early in my study of philosophy, that I tended to reject him in entirety without due consideration of the extrinsic authority he certainly has in a large area of the modern tradition. I now know that I went astray here, failing through indocility to see the contribution of Hume's positivism for the understanding of empirical science, as through subservience I have parroted errors from Aristotle and Saint Thomas.

The rule of practice must, therefore, be sharpened on both its edges, for it must cut both ways. Wherever I am emotionally, or even intellectually, inclined to agree, I should suspend judgment before concurring, lest I merely indoctrinate myself. Wherever my disposition is of the contrary sort, I should hesitate to disagree, lest I reject without understanding what greater patience would have made intelligible and acceptable to my mind. And, in both cases, my conscience must determine the degree of patience due the author by reference to the marks of extrinsic authority he bears. I must add here that, in addition to the reputation which tradition has conferred, the degree to which I have come to feel his authority because of his previous successes as a teacher in my own life ought also to be considered.

This first factor is qualified by two others. On the one hand, I must take into account my own position in the scale of learning. Thus, in a given subject matter I may have achieved competence to a greater or less degree. In proportion as I have competence—which means, in proportion as I approach peerage with the great teachers in that field—I am entitled to make up my mind more quickly. What would be indecent impetuosity in the beginner may be protracted deliberateness in the learned. On the other hand, I must know myself as a creature of passions and prejudices in order to make due allowance for every sort of waywardness that could interfere with a prudent determination of the mean of docility in this case, as conditioned not only by the author's authority in relation to my knowledge, but also by my idiosyncrasies in relation to the author.

In this process of casuistry, it makes a difference whether I am a student being instructed by living teachers, or at once a teacher of students as well as a student of the dead masters. If I am in that middle position—which should be the position of every good teacher, modest enough to recognize his limitations—the duty of docility is more heavily incumbent upon me, for I have the obligation to exhibit it in my teaching, as well as practice it in my studying. I shall return to this point in a later discussion of the bearing of docility on the role of the teacher.

One other thing makes a difference. When I am dealing with the great teachers of the past, I must bridge the gap of time. The continuity of tradition is not perfect. I must be deeply conscious of my own place in cultural time, in order to realize that the author I am reading lived and thought in a different climate of opinion. If my cultural location confers certain advantages on me, I am not indocile if I take advantage of the superiority which modern birth gives me over the greatest teachers of the ancient and medieval past. If I exaggerate that advantage, I am, of course, lacking in true docility; but a vicious subservience results equally from minimizing it.

This last point raises the whole question about the dependence of docility, in an individual teacher, in an educational system, or in a whole culture, upon the cultivation of a historical sense—a sense of the present as moving into the future, as well as a sense of the present growing out of the past. This point, too, I shall discuss in a subsequent essay.

2. Docility and History

The attainment of docility is, as we have seen, a personal problem which each of us must solve in his private life of learning. But there is also an institutional problem of docility, involving the curriculum and administration of studies in an educational system. I am thinking of the two points which in my prior article were left for further consideration. The first has to do with the relation between living teachers and dead ones (books) as instruments of instruction. The second concerns the precise place of scholarship, and historical orientation generally, in learning from the past.

The curriculum of St. John's College, Annapolis, has generated controversy bearing on both these points. Some critics have questioned the advisability of placing the great books in the hands of the young, without definite instruction by living teachers that explicitly discriminates between true doctrines and false. When such critics follow out the implication of the amendment to the St. John's plan, they usually end up by suggesting lecture courses, textbooks, and manuals, devised for putting blinders on the students and leading them along the straight and narrow path to the truth. This is not an amendment of the St. John's plan, but an abolition of it. It substitutes the way of indoctrination for the discipline of docility.

Other critics have wondered whether the paraphernalia of historical scholarship can be so cavalierly dispensed with. The program of getting the tradition to reveal its secrets by going directly to the books seems to underestimate the importance of the philological approach to past cultures. Even though the books are read in chronological order, little effort seems to be made to place each book precisely in its cultural setting, to read the mind of each author as a product of complex historical determinations. Paradoxically, an educational program which exudes so profound a respect for the past seems to have little or no respect for the historical methods by which men try to relive the intellectual life of prior epochs.

I would like to consider these two points, not only as they bear on the St. John's curriculum, but in their educational implications generally.

The critics who fear a shallow eclecticism, or, what is worse, sophistry and skepticism, as the inevitable result of making the great books the students' only teachers, cannot be lightly dismissed. Their error lies not in their insistence that sound educational policy requires living leadership, but rather in their misconception of the role the living teacher should play. The tradition of great books contains both truth and error, mixed in varying proportions in different cases. This holds for ancient and medieval authors, as well as moderns. The student who reads both Plato and Aristotle and does not recognize the obligation to decide between them on crucial points is not learning from the past, but merely about it. The same can be said for issues which put Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas on opposite sides. The objective is to know the truth about God, man, and nature, and the ends of human life, not what anyone, however great his authority, thought about these matters. The deviation from a right aim is even greater if it be supposed that students should become acquainted with the sheer diversity of opinions on major questions in order to become, through the conflict of authorities, emancipated from authority itself.

There are two extremes here. One position, which may be taken by some of the exponents of the St. John's plan, is to make the living teacher merely a liberal artist, merely a dialectician, whose only office is to sharpen the student's wits as a reader of the books. While I would certainly insist that it is the teacher's business to cultivate in every way the student's skill in reading—analytically, interpretively, critically—I would also insist that that is not enough. For, as Plato teaches us, dialectic cannot be distinguished from sophistry as an intellectual method. It differs only on a moral count—in virtue of its use as a means toward the truth. If the reading of the great books is merely for the sake of making liberal artists of the students, they will end by being sophisticated, but not learned or wise.

At the opposite extreme is the position, embodied in much of Catholic education, that the shortest way to the truth is the best. Why take the long and devious path that leads through the great books, with all their difficulties and conflicts, if a living teacher can present the right doctrine in lectures supported by textbooks written by himself or his colleagues; or if he can assign a textbook and get the students to repeat what it says instead of doing that himself in lectures? If the great books should be read, let the teacher do that in the course of his own education or in the privacy of his study. Let him cull the truth from the errors, and feed the young the unblemished fruits.

Here the opposite error is made. Students who are not trained in the liberal arts—and apart from the discipline of reading great books they cannot be—are incapable of the activity of being taught. They are entirely given to the passivity of being indoctrinated. They are not trained to be docile, for docility is required only in the active exercise of one's intellectual powers. Only when independence of judgment is encouraged (more, demanded), must docility be cultivated. Textbooks and lectures elicit memorization and, with it, instill subservience. Furthermore, the supposition that the living teachers are the refinery through which the riches of the past are purified before they reach the student in the form of lectures and textbooks is open to question. Teachers are usually the product of the educational system in which they serve in their turn. If the system is one in which they do not read great books with their students, it is unlikely that their teachers read great books with them. Hence it is likely to be the case that their lectures or textbooks are condensations or repetitions of other textbooks and lectures, rather than magnificent renditions of the tradition.

The solution, as always, is a union of the half-truths drawn from the extremes. The living teacher must not only be a disciplinarian of the liberal arts; he must also argue for the truths and against the errors that he himself has found, or finds, in the books he reads with his students. He must be both doctor and docile. The assumption is that the person who conducts a reading seminar is more mature than his students—more skilled in reading, and hence able to initiate them into its intricacies, as well as more learned in doctrine, and hence competent to discover the truth to those who seek it in the books. The living teacher is truly a mediator between the novices in learning and the masters of knowledge, through being himself in a mean state between them. On the one hand, he participates in the role of teacher through possessing more of the knowledge the great books contain, than do his students. To this extent, he has some authority in his own right, is entitled to instruct and deserves docility from them. On the other hand, he participates in the role of student through being still engaged in the search for knowledge at its fountainheads. To this extent, he must exhibit docility to his students, for only by manifesting it in his own practice of the liberal arts, can he genuinely persuade his students to follow in his footsteps.

The solution thus avoids two errors: the fallacy of supposing that a curriculum which makes the great books the major teachers must completely exclude doctrinal judgments on the part of the minor teacher; and the mistake of making the minor teacher the chief source of doctrine, permitting him to masquerade as a major teacher, usurping an authority not rightly his. The latter error is made by any educational program which substitutes manuals and lecture courses for the great books. It forces a teaching personnel, that might be able to function well as mediators, to exceed their powers, to offer themselves as repositories of learning. It cannot breed docility, failing so signally to exhibit it, for the pretense by which the minor teacher becomes an oracle instead of a medium is a counterfeit made possible only by subservience or indocility.

What I have said of this second error applies equally, though perhaps differently, to Catholic and secular institutions. If the first error is made at St. John's, then the program is subject to one of the charges brought against it. I wish to argue only that that error is entirely accidental to the program. That being so, there is no excuse for Catholic educators in not separating essence from accidents, and not adopting what is fundamentally sound in the St. John's plan.

With respect to the role of historical scholarship, there are also two false extremes. For the sake of sharpening the point within the brief scope of this article, let me consider the relation of history to the study of philosophy. For one thing, the problem of docility is much more acute in seeking philosophical wisdom than in acquiring scientific knowledge; and this is related to the fact that textbooks are much less pernicious in science than philosophy. For another thing, the history of philosophy—if fact, the history of culture, and of science also—appears to have a certain philosophical significance which the student of philosophy cannot well ignore. The student of science suffers less from ignorance of general cultural history. Hence, education in philosophy is a good field for the examination of the relation between docility and history.

At one extreme are those who claim that history is irrelevant to the study of philosophy. Curiously enough, these are usually the same people who try to teach philosophy systematically, out of textbooks or manuals. Philosophical knowledge consists of a set of doctrines which are timelessly true and which, therefore, can be expounded without any regard for the historical accidents of cultural time and place. If I understand them correctly, the students of M. Gilson have attacked the simplemindedness of this position as a root cause of error and superficiality in modern scholasticism. But, it seems to me, they go to the opposite extreme, and in doing so go further than their leader himself. They commit the error of historicism. Though all they affirm is that history is an indispensable instrument in the discovery of philosophical truth, they become so enamored of the instrument that in practice, if not in theory, they subvert the end to the means. The philological study of texts, the delineation of affinities between minds separated by centuries, the tracing of streams of influence and divergence—all these things become more important than bare philosophical argument.

I am extremely sensitive to the difference between scholarly competence and expertness in philosophy, to the difference between seeking to penetrate the truth by thinking, and seeking to get inside the minds of other men, to think their thoughts by acts of historical imagination. Partly this may be due to my own acknowledged incompetence in historical scholarship. Life being short, I have made what seemed to me an inevitable choice between scholarship and philosophy. I doubt if anyone's energies are ample enough to permit an adequate devotion to both. To take eminent examples, Gilson and Maritain, it seems to me, have made opposite choices, though each, of course, enjoys some competence in the other's field.

But my sensitiveness here is due even more to the fact that I have seen so many young men start out to become philosophers and end up as historians or philologians. I would say that they gave up the harder task for an easier one. Truly it is easier to "speculate" about what Aristotle thought, even if such speculation must be supported by the most careful adduction of evidences, than it is to speculate, as Aristotle did, about the nature of things. (Perhaps this is why many philosophy departments in both secular and Catholic universities direct their doctoral candidates into fields of historical research rather than encourage "young men" to undertake genuine philosophical work.) Not only is it easier, but one's fundamental intellectual integrity is less affected. To have one's scholarship corrected does not get into one's soul as much as to have one's philosophical judgments refuted. Those who substitute scholarship for philosophy avoid sticking their necks out in a way that invites serious intellectual challenge. The scholar may have his own philosophical opinions, but he usually manages to bury them in his interpretation of other men's thought. He has effaced himself behind what other men stood for and thus avoids standing too openly for anything himself.

Observe that I marked the word "speculate" when I spoke about historical research. For this, it seems to me, is speculation in the sense of conjecture, not speculation in the sense in which philosophy is speculative knowledge. In fact, history at its best stands to philosophy, as opinion does to knowledge. No matter how perfectly all the historical techniques are employed, it is impossible to know with certitude what Aristotle or Plotinus thought about anything. In contrast, the philosophical thought of Aristotle and Plotinus is either certainly true or false. It is either knowledge or not knowledge, but never probable opinion. The reason why cultural history is opinion should be obvious. It is an effort to reach a decision about the singular mind of a particular man in terms of such contingent and inadequate data as written documents. To indulge in scholarly disputes about what a dead philosopher meant by his words seems to me a poor substitute for philosophical controversy about a truth in issue. For if agreement is reached in the one case, the disputants rest only in opinion; whereas in the other they share a common knowledge.

But scholarship and history need not be substituted for philosophy. Therein lies the reconciliation of the two false extremes. So long as the means are properly subordinated to their end, no disorder results from the use of historical scholarship as an aid in the reading of great philosophical books. Just as we correct an error which may occur accidentally in the execution of the St. John's program, by insisting that the reading of books be ordained to the end of acquiring doctrine as well as skill, so we correct the excess of historicism by placing scholarship in the service of an intelligent reading of books. When this ordering of means to ends is clear, historicism is as effectively avoided as eclecticism.

It may be said, however, that it is not historicism, but its opposite, which a program like St. John's must avoid. The problem here concerns the relation between the liberal arts and historical techniques as components in the complex skill of reading books. May I suggest a solution briefly? There are two major steps in reading: interpretation and criticism. One must do one's best to understand an author before agreeing or disagreeing with him. Historical scholarship bears exclusively on interpretive reading; when it is properly subordinated as a means, its end is exegesis; all of its techniques are of service to the grammatical art. But exegesis is not the end; nor is grammar the highest art. Exegesis is for the sake of a fair critical judgment, grammar for the sake of logic and rhetoric. A liberal education must, in short, include historical scholarship as a supplement to grammatical art in reading, and just as surely must it subordinate these techniques to the ultimate purpose for which logical and rhetorical skill is exercised—the independent judgment of a mind about the living truth. When history and grammar dominate the process, docility is confused with the effort to achieve a "sympathetic understanding" of dead men's minds.

There is another aspect of the relation between history and docility. To the extent that we engage in learning from great teachers of the past, a well developed "historical sense"—a sense of the motion of history—gives us the perspective and orientation needed for docility. We in the modern world have this historical sense much more highly developed than any earlier epoch of European culture. We owe it to the technical achievement of modern historical scholarship.

The truth is timeless, but human thought, intricately conditioned by its concrete cultural situation, is dated. Historical relativity cannot be avoided, but through acknowledging the limitations imposed upon any thinker by his time and place, we can disengage the truth from its historical accidents. The imagery which embodies thought, and the language in which it is expressed, are always local. By discerning these externals as belonging to a cultural moment, we can transcend them a little, and find the timeless in the heart of time. The truth itself, whenever it is achieved or however it is embodied and expressed, is not explained by history. But history does explain the errors men have made in the search for truth. The truth our ancestors won belongs to us as much as to them. History helps us to possess it by enabling us to transcend the cultural accidents which separate us from them. The errors our ancestors made are theirs alone. We shall make others, perhaps, but we should not repeat theirs. History helps us to reject such mistakes by showing us their causes in the cultural limitations of past epochs. Aware that we are subject to similar limitations, we should be able to look down at the past without pride.

Historical relativity is greater in some fields of thought than in others, in politics, for instance, more than in ethics, in the philosophy of nature more than in metaphysics. To disengage the political truths of Aristotle and Saint Thomas from the accidents of local imagery and language, as well as from the fallacies that surround them, requires much more historical insight than a similar effort in ethics. Unless we have such insights, we are likely to be subservient, accepting errors because they accompany truth, or we may be indocile, rejecting the truth because of the errors, or because the truth is strangely garbed in foreign dress.

The modern student should be able to attain a greater docility precisely because he has better historical perspective and orientation. The ancient and medieval worlds lacked the historical sense. To the extent that their works reveal them as students of their predecessors, we can see how Aristotle and Saint Thomas suffered from this privation, characteristic of their times. With greater historical knowledge, Aristotle might have been less indocile toward the pre-Socratics, and Saint Thomas might have been less subservient toward Aristotle.

The historical sense is not simply a sense of the past. It is even more a sense of the future, and an awareness of the present as a point in motion between past and future. Through realizing the slow, and often imperceptible, progress of history, we can take advantage of the respects in which our present cultural location elevates us above the past, and at the same time we can appreciate the limitations of the present as we look forward to the future. Thus we can combine gratitude toward the past on whose shoulders we stand, with humility toward the future. Neither fawning nor unduly self-reliant, we recognize ourselves as creatures of time. Through a docility thus fortified by a historical sense, we are emancipated both from the dead hand of tradition and from the provincialism of the present moment. Only the docility of the living present can make the tradition live and perpetuate itself through myriad transformations.

If I were asked to name the virtue which most singularly distinguishes Jacques Maritain as a philosopher, I would say his docility. All of its manifestations will be detected by those who see how deeply his Thomism is motivated by a sense of the future. Philosophy is perennial for him, not as a monument which endures the ravages of time, but as a living thing which enjoys time as its dimension of change and growth. The dead bones of philosophy are not building materials. Not a reverence for relics, but for the spirit they have disembodied, is the docility which encourages Maritain to regard Saint Thomas as a cooperator in the work of preparing for a philosopher greater than Saint Thomas, as he was greater than Aristotle.

We have considered all the impediments to docility, the difficulties to be overcome in ourselves, in our educational systems and in our culture. It would be wise, in conclusion, to remember a point that is central in the whole theory of virtue, namely, the integration of the virtues. No one of the cardinal virtues, nor any of their parts, can be possessed in isolation from all the rest. Whether it be considered as a part of prudence, in relation to practical matters, or as a part of justice, in relation to the theoretic life in which there are doctors and students, docility is impossible apart from fortitude and temperance. One may be docile by natural temperament, but that is not the true virtue which belongs only to those whose will is rectified by the simultaneous possession of all the principal virtues.

It has become sufficiently clear how courage is indispensable to docility. Perhaps a word more is needed to indicate the need for temperance also. It may suffice to recall that a part of temperance is the virtue most closely related to docility, studiositas. No one can be docile who is not rightly directed in the matter of pursuing knowledge. Studiosity opposes the vice of curiosity. It appoints the right end of all our intellectual labors. The means of learning will be well used only if they are used for the right end. As Saint Thomas tells us (Summa Theologica, II-II, 167, 1), we must avoid studying for the sake of taking pride in our knowledge, for by so doing we fall easily into error"; we must make a proper estimate of the worth of various subject matters as these are disposed in a true hierarchy of studies; and the due end, to which all our efforts in research must be referred, is the knowledge of God.


1. St. Thomas does not discuss docility in connection with the life of learning and as a companion virtue to studiositas. He considers it only as an integral part of prudence, as a willingness to take counsel concerning practical matters. "In matters of prudence, man stands in very great need of being taught by others, especially by old folk who have acquired a sane understanding of the ends in practical matters" (S.T., II-II, 49, 3). And he goes on to say: "Even the learned should be docile in some respects, since no man is altogether self-sufficient in matters of prudence" (ibid., Reply to Objection 3). I am here considering docility differently, not as a part of prudence, but as a virtue indispensable in the theoretic life. I have generalized St. Thomas's conception of docility as "readiness to be taught" anything. St. Thomas agrees with an objection which says "docility is requisite for every intellectual virtue," though he maintains in opposition that "it belongs chiefly to prudence." On this point, I side with the objector, distinguishing two meanings of docility. Docility toward counsel in practical matters belongs chiefly to prudence. But the docility requisite for every intellectual virtue, docility in the life of learning, is a moral virtue which seems to me most properly associated with justice. The only other alternative is that there is a kind of "artistic prudence" needed for the exercise of the liberal arts, and that docility in theoretic matters is a part thereof.

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