Tuesday, June 27, 2017


Recently I came across an article in my hometown paper from about a year ago. It concerned the renovation of a building that once housed the Preston Academy in Kingwood, West Virginia. (West Virginia. was part of Virginia at the time). The first four paragraphs tell the story of Preston Academy's early days:

"In January 1841, the Virginia Assembly incorporated the Preston Academy, to educate the youths in what was then a young town.

"In 1844, youngsters began attending classes in the red brick building, paying $5 for 20 weeks of instruction in the primary department and $7.50 in the junior department.

"Older students paid as much as $20. Classes included grammar, geometry, geography, philosophy, history, chemistry, botany, algebra, surveying, civil engineering, trigonometry, rhetoric, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, drawing, painting, and music.

"Students boarded with local families so they could attend the academy."

(I would have provided a link to the story, but at the moment I have not renewed my subscription.)

When I read the curriculum of Preston Academy, especially the inclusion of philosophy classes, I was reminded of remarks made by Sen. Marco Rubio concerning the study of philosophy. In the first 2016 Republican primary debate, Sen. Rubio said this concerning philosophy:

"Here is the best way to raise wages. Make America the best place in the world to start a business or expand an existing business. Tax reform and regulatory reform. Bring our debt under control. Fully utilize our energy resources to reinvigorate manufacturing. Repeal and replace Obamacare. And make higher education faster and easier to access, especially vocational training. For the life of me I don't know why we stigmatize vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers." (HT: The Weekly Standard)

I can endorse all the practical solutions Rubio proposed here. And I must confess that philosophy is not my favorite subject. I once wrote a paper for a philosophy class for which I received a high grade. How? I have no idea. A week later, I could not remember how I came to write what I wrote. The Founding Fathers, whom I greatly admire, considered themselves not to be philosophers, but practical statesmen. In forming the Constitution, they consulted historians much more than philosophers. Almost to a man, they hated Plato. Patrick Henry claimed to have cried as he tried to read him. In his old age, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams that reading Plato's Republic was "...the heaviest taskwork" he had ever undertaken. Elaborating, Jefferson wrote," His foggy mind is forever pursuing the semblances of objects, which, half seen thro' a mist, can be defined in neither form or substance." (HT: Dumas Malone, The Sage of Monticello.) I much prefer the study of theology and look with some suspicion upon attempts to the mix the study of philosophy with theology. I agree with Jefferson when he wrote to Adams: "I am not fond of reading what is merely abstract, and unapplied immediately to some useful service." (Malone)

"So," you may ask me, "if you share Jefferson's sentiments concerning philosophy, surely you can have no problems with Rubio's remarks on the subject, can you?" But I do have a problem. Rubio's attitude towards the study of philosophy is totally utilitarian, completely pragmatic. It is a pragmatism not shared by those Americans living during the early Republic. Those who attended schools such as Preston academy lived on farms. For most, the curricula of such schools was the only formal education they ever received. The overwhelming majority never attended college. When their education was complete, they returned to their rural homes. Those that did leave the farm for the city worked in occupations which did not require a formal education. Yet their parents did not share the utilitarian view Rubio has concerning education. They decided that what these schools had to offer was worth the cost. They saw value in the study of philosophy, history, languages, and the arts. Philosophy may not be my favorite subject, yet there are too many testimonials as to its worth for me to conclude it's study isn't time well spent.

Schools such as Preston Academy formed the character of early America. Americans got their hands on as many books as they could. Abraham Lincoln had less than a year's formal schooling. The content of his reading included the King James Bible, Euclid, Shakespeare, Aesop's Fables, William Scott's Lessons in Elocution (the study of public speaking), William Grimshaw's history of the United States, and the Revised Statutes of Indiana. The scarcity of books determined Lincoln's method of reading. "Both the paucity of books and his own intellectual bent led Lincoln to repeated reading of a relatively small number of books. He did not skim across the top of a thousand books but immersed himself in a dozen or two." (Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography, William Lee Miller)  As a young man he studied, "Kirkhams grammer and the Arithmetic, then Natural Philosophy, Astronomy & Chemistry, then Surveying, and Law, In the meantime read history other books, the newspapers of the day, in fact any and all books from which he could derive knowledge...Would alternately, entertain and amuse the company by witicisms jokes &c, and study his lesson." (Miller quoting Robert Rutledge) As to the fruition of such studies in Lincoln's life, from which the whole nation benefited, Miller writes, "It is not every president who would get books on military science from the Library of Congress, studying the subject in order to deal with generals. Lincoln would develop rare powers of concentration, and he would use them all his life. He developed a confidence that he could dig in books for what he wanted, and would do so repeatedly in the years ahead. And that confidence in his powers of understanding what was written on the page seems to have encouraged a broader self-confidence, in his judgement and critical powers-let us call it a moral self-confidence."

I once heard a quote from someone who was a kid in the late 19th century. As a young student, he had to memorize speeches of great Americans like Lincoln, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster. He didn't see the value at the time. However, when America fought in the second World War, all those speeches he was made to read as a child concerning America then made sense to him. Those speeches gave him a greater understanding of his country and the values it stood for. Absent such an education, love of country degenerates into empty bravado celebrating America as number one. Or that love disappears altogether. A liberal arts education is like a delivery system. It preserves and passes on knowledge and skills which bear fruit in the lives of those who follow us. Remember what Miller wrote concerning what it did for Lincoln: "... Lincoln would develop rare powers of concentration, and he would use them all his life. He developed a confidence that he could dig in books for what he wanted, and would do so repeatedly in the years ahead. And that confidence in his powers of understanding what was written on the page seems to have encouraged a broader self-confidence, in his judgment and critical powers-let us call it a moral self-confidence."

There are those, including some in my own family, who look down on the liberal arts for two reasons. One, they believe such an education has little value because other disciplines like science and engineering are more rigorous. Also, they view an arts education as not producing anything of practical value. Senator Rubio's comments in that debate assume this second point.Yet many in the sciences and technical fields don't see things that way. David Gelernter, a well known professor of computer science at Yale, was interviewed by Conor Friedersdorf. Here is the first question Friedersdorf asked Gelernter, followed by Gelernter's response:

"The Founding era has as significant a scientist and inventor as Benjamin Franklin playing major parts in the revolution and experiment in self-government. What might a science advisor offer elected officials today?

"I think the lesson of Franklin is not that a science adviser can tell you all sorts of things about government and diplomacy and human nature, but that thoughtful people are almost never defined by a pre-existing intellectual shoe box. The best scientists aren't the dedicated drudges who have no other interests. The best take after Newton, Einstein, and tens of thousands of lesser lights in their devotion to science and other things too. As a scientist handing out advice on the study of science, something I do as a college teacher, one of my main messages is you can't be an educated human being on the basis of science alone; another main message is that, sometimes, you can't even be a scientist or technologist on the basis of science alone.

"If I were loosely gathering topics of study into categories, I might call them arts, religion, scholarship, and science. As important as scholarship and science are, arts and religion are more important...Arts and religion define, in a sense, a single spectrum rather than two topics. And this spectrum is where you find mankind's deepest attempts to figure out what's going on in the universe. A student who doesn't know the slow movement of Schubert's B-flat major op post sonata, or the story of David and Absalom, needs to go back to school and learn better.

"The best scientists are often the ones who are plainest about their non-scientific interests. Feynman's intro physics books are the best of all physics intros in part because he talks freely about beauty. Here is a beautiful theorem. Here's a beautiful fact. My own small contributions to software were guided at every step by my search for beautiful designs. More important, as I argue in my recent book on the spectrum of consciousness, who knows most about the human mind? Today its John Coetzee, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick. That's why the book turns to novelists and poets at least as often as to neurobiologists and psycologists..."

Yes, college is not for everyone. Vocational schools should play a vital role in helping students find a livelihood. Yet even if one doesn't pursue a college degree and saddle oneself with crippling debt, public schools should be the place where all students should be educated in the liberal arts. I didn't have an American history class till the 9th grade. Before that, my classmates and I were taught social studies, where we had to learn such useful things as the rate of sugar production in South America. I didn't have a literature class till the 12th grade. My education was not first rate because of the absence of the liberal arts. If I was educated in early America, I would have received a more well-rounded education. Do you scoff? We may think we know more that those early American parents who insisted that their children be educated in the arts. But they and their children are the ones that formed this country. If Marco Rubio's utilitarian view of education prevailed back then, this country would not have been a better place.

Here is an older article on the subject of the liberal arts.

The writer of the newspaper article on the Preston Academy was Kathy Plum.

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