Tuesday 20 October 2009

New book by Alasdair MacIntyre

I was just alerted to an important new book by one of the great educational philosophers of our time. Called God, Philosophy, Universities. It is a kind of introduction to the Catholic philosophical tradition, based on an undergraduate course that MacIntyre teaches at Notre Dame. An informative review by Mark Eckel may be read here. Eckel writes: "Key to a Christian university is the unity of the universe and the underlying unity of all subjects of study.... The origin of division (begun in Genesis 3) is dualism – separating the human person into pieces and parts – which destroys 'the unity of the human being,' and is antithetical to the Christian view of unity." An article by MacIntyre on Newman and education can be found here.

Friday 16 October 2009

Education in the Family

Anyone who wants to discuss the educational implications of Beauty for Truth's Sake can now do so at our discussion board under EDUCATION. In connection with this you might like to read an article I wrote some time ago in Communio called Towards a Distinctively Catholic School. But these ideas on education are not just for Catholics - and not just for schools and colleges. Parents are the primary educators of their children, and the home is the natural place for a revolution in education. If you want to be involved in the discussion with and among homeschoolers you can append a comment here, send me an email, or post something in the education forum.

Recently I also became aware of a growing Catholic UNSCHOOLING movement inspired by the work of John Holt. According to Suzie Andres, the author of Homeschooling with Gentleness, "St. Thomas and Aristotle both clearly affirm the following four educational principles: 1) education should be for the good of the learner; 2) all men by nature desire to know; 3) the learner is the principal agent in learning; and 4) different learners are fitted to learn different things at different times." These principles underpin the case for "unschooling", the "Little Way" of homeschooling as she calls it, which is based on trust - trust that a child will seek out and learn what he or she needs to know, when he needs to know it, without coercion, without school or school-type methods, in the freedom and safety of his family. The role of parents is to facilitate this exploration of the world.

This won't work for some families and some children, but I can imagine it working for others. After all, every subject is connected to every other, and one thing leads to the next. Give a child a globe for Christmas, and it may lead to an interest in geography, or history, or astronomy. Start them on a musical instrument, and it might open up mathematics or history. Drawing a circle or triangle points to architecture or theology. In fact the principles of unschooling are very close in some ways to the idea of my book, which is all about interconnectedness and lifelong, self-motivated learning.

Picture by Rose-Marie Caldecott. Rights reserved.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Theories of Evolution

A letter published in The Catholic Herald points out that in my analysis of the challenge of evangelization in that paper (October 2), I ignored the "elephant in the room", namely Evolution. It says that my piece was "fine as far as it goes, but, like so many Catholic commentators on the decline of belief in this country, he is either unable or unwilling to take the necessary final step and identify the elephant in the room: namely, the Darwinian world-view that underpins our secular culture." It continues:
As Mr Caldecott says, we have lost a sense of who we are and how we fit into the cosmos. There is no mystery about why this has occurred: it follows naturally from the Darwinian view that we are merely the product of blind forces, rather than the deliberate creation of a loving God. The key is not, as he suggests, to highlight the complementary relationship of the arts and sciences, their common search for beauty, and the attraction of elegant solutions that please the heart: much of Darwinism’s superficial attraction lies in the fact that it appears to satisfy all these criteria, while clearly leaving no room for religious belief. Rather, we should be highlighting the latest research in such diverse fields as information theory, biochemistry and cosmology, which provide compelling evidence for traditional Catholic teaching on mankind’s unique status within God’s creation. Until we (and the Church generally) grasp this nettle, it will not matter one jot how many “humane and intelligent alternatives to the increasingly oppressive secularism of our schools” are devised: our children will continue to regard religious belief as fundamentally irrational.
I don't entirely agree. In an article called "Theories of Evolution" I suggest that Darwin does leave room for religious belief. We do not have to take Richard Dawkins at face value, nor ignore the presence of respected theistic evolutionists such as Simon Conway-Morris (Cambridge). Darwin himself seems to have lost his faith for other reasons than the theory of natural selection. Atheistic evolutionism is a symptom and result of the split in our culture that I was writing about in that article and in my book - the three-way split between science, art, and faith. Unfortunately the debate on evolution too often gets bogged down in the discussion of atheism vs creationism or intelligent design. It needs to be broadened out, with reference also to psychology, neurophysiology, the nature of the soul and the human person. Religious believers have nothing to fear from facts discovered by modern science, although we must be wary of some of the interpretations that may be placed upon them.

Materialist theories of evolution in fact make sense only to people who lack a sense of spiritual forms or essences. If that whole dimension is closed to our minds, if there is no conception of what might be meant by “vertical causation” (formal and final causes working together with material and efficient ones), then naturally there is nowhere else for species to come from than below, through a combination of chance and necessity. The successive temporal unfolding of species does not prove the truth of the theories that are adduced to explain it. The inner form that makes a species what it is exists eternally, however it comes to be manifested in space and time.

Saturday 10 October 2009

The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Beauty for Truth's Sake echoes in places that cult philosophy book of the 1970s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, which you can read online here. (Coincidentally there is a conference in Oxford this October comparing Pirsig's ideas on Quality with those of the art historian Ernst Gombrich.) In the course of his Chautauqua, the author seeks to resolve what he calls the "classic-romantic split" in our culture - the world of technology and science, and the world of feeling and art. He finds a solution in the notion of Quality. Phædrus... felt that the solution started with a new philosophy, or he saw it as even broader than that - a new spiritual rationality - in which the ugliness and the loneliness and the spiritual blankness of dualistic technological reason would become illogical.

Friday 9 October 2009

Recent article

In the Catholic Herald recently I published an article arguing that the task of "evangelizing" - that is, communicating the Christian faith - is made more difficult by the split between arts and sciences. "Faith became detached from reason, and reason turned against faith, as a result of the scientific and technological revolution. The intellectual elite accepted the philosophers' suggestion that truth has nothing to do with goodness or 'facts' with 'values'. Art was reduced to entertainment, and science to the quest for power over nature. But reductionism never worked completely: there was always something important left out. In reality, both art and science never stopped searching for beauty, and that is an important clue to the healing of education. Beauty leads beyond the surface of things, into their hidden depths. Human beings are made for more than science or art can offer on their own, and once we recognise that both point to a meaning beyond the world, the religious question is opened up once more, and the gospels begin to make sense."