Cultivating Wisdom and Eloquence
American education seems to focus almost entirely on specialization and minutiae at the expense of general knowledge and vision. We need to reacquire a style of thinking that our public education system generally abandoned several generations ago. The reason I have hope that a solution to our dilemma can be meaningfully addressed is that that approach to learning was a hallmark of Western education for over two thousand years. In fact, the indictment of neglect holds true only for some institutions of higher education, because there are a significant number of schools that have never departed from teaching that tradition. I refer to the liberal arts approach to education, and it is still practised in a good many private (liberal arts) colleges. (There is, in fact, a move afoot to revitalize classical learning in K-12 education.)
Education is usually either technical in its thrust, or liberal. We must be sure what is meant here by the word “liberal.” The Greeks had three divisions of education: the productive arts, the industrial arts, and the liberal arts. The productive and industrial arts were taught to slaves in order to equip them to use and maintain tools and to produce things with those tools. Those arts constituted that education appropriate to the slave. The liberal arts consisted of those branches of knowledge requisite to equip the free individual for the active life; hence, the word liberal. The classical liberal education curriculum included grammar (as in grammar school) rhetoric and logic to equip the student for learning. The latinists eventually tagged these subjects “the trivium.” The trivium were taught to young developing minds in order to equip them to deal in ideas and, ultimately, to see the relation of one body of knowledge to another. These studies were viewed as the tools necessary to prepare the mind to learn in an integrated (or holistic) fashion and to be at home in the realm of ideas. The students then applied their faculties to subjects such as astronomy, physics, geometry and so on. A wise 19th century educator, John Henry Newman, once wrote that a person who has learned to reason in this way:
[W]ill be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings . . . with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is stranger. . . . I say that a cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful and to a greater number.
Such cultivation involves acquiring at least three mental habits:
- the ability to identify assumptions
- to follow a line of argument or a train of thought, and
- to evaluate conclusions with the “big picture” in mind.
Unfortunately, we are caught in a dilemma: Americans need to cultivate these intellectual abilities, yet, according to virtually every report on education, from the Nation at Risk survey to the Carnegie Report on Excellence in Education, American students are not, by and large, taught practical reasoning.
So, what is practical reasoning? In short, it is the ability to:
1. Identify and evaluate assumptions.
2. Spot contradictions and faulty logic.
3. Follow an argument to its conclusion.
4. Draw appropriate distinctions.
5. Avoid extremes.
In the broadest possible sense, cultivating ones intellect by learning the tools for practical reasoning equips one to interpret experience. All the above abilities enable one to excel in the realm of prudential conduct. In other words, the tools described below were, for over two millennia, considered critical components of equipping the mind for both wisdom and eloquence.
Aristotle and Plato laid the foundation for the art of logical thought and self-expression. The most essential tools for practical reasoning, that is, for cultivating the intellect, are three in number. Those three tools are:
1. A basic knowledge of syllogistic logic. Syllogisms are the foundational tool for instructing in reasoning processes. Knowledge of syllogisms is useful in teaching individuals to draw valid conclusions, and identify assumptions. But what is one supposed to do with an assumption once he gets ahold of one? Knowledge of syllogistic logic entails knowledge of validity, but what of truth? That is, how do we evaluate the truth value of assumptions? Is there a way, other than by means of intuition, to tell if a given assumption is right or wrong, or a little of both? Evaluating assumptions requires instruments other than education in syllogisms.
2. For the classically trained mind, the dialectical process is the instrument by which we spot contradictions. Dialectic, or the “Socratic method” as it is more commonly known, should be understood as “A process of criticism wherein lies the path to the principles of all inquiries” (Aristotle, Topics, 101b 4). As we know, rooting out and eradicating contradictions in assumptions is the starting point for resolving the lion’s share of misunderstandings and conflicts. Unfortunately, many people have never been trained in identifying and rectifying contradictions. In the classical liberal arts education, the hunt for contradictions was taught directly, through mastery of dialectic.
3. Familiarity with the Common Material Fallacies. These commonly occuring errors in logic, categorized by the Scholastics (church schoolmen) in medieval times, have been used for generations to help individuals identify faulty arguments. A common example is the “post hoc” fallacy (“The rooster crowed and the sun arose. Therefore, the crowing of the rooster caused the sun to rise.”) Familiarity with the post hoc fallacy helps one identify a faulty assertion of a causal relationship where no such relationship exists. There are whole encyclopedias full of these examples of faulty reasoning processes.
The above tools form a complement that, when taught together, equip people to think about, critique, and express ideas. The tools are, of course, very basic–they amount only to a saw, hammer, and pliers–but they are the most essential tools for cultivating the intellect. But its utility ought not be the most compelling reason for educating people along the lines discussed above. If we consider the ethical aspect of cultivating the intellect our conception of this matter will be relatively complete.
The most compelling reason for educating people in the manner I here propose is that it accentuates their humanity; it gives them a chance to be People (with a capital P!) and not just cogs in the machine. It boils down to ethics. Cultivating the intellect, and then providing meaningful opportunities for students to practically apply that knowledge, allows them to be fully human. The ancients had a conception of excellence that went something like this: Every creature has something for which it is uniquely equipped better than any other creature, and its excellence is realized in doing that for which it is uniquely equipped. The excellence of the cheetah is, for example, to run; it is built for speed. So, for the Greeks, every creature had its particular excellence. Of course, the excellence of humankind, the “rational animal,” is to think and to reason; to analyze and contemplate ideas. This is a vision of mental culture that is foreign to much of contemporary American public education.
Rather than attempting to cultivate the intellect through imparting theoretical wisdom, it seems that the best modern education has to offer is a smorgasbord of pop-psychology techniques for “out-of-the-box thinking” and problem solving skills. Now, problem solving skills are helpful little tools, but they fall short of the sort of excellence attainable by cultivating the faculties of critical thinking and practical reasoning. The former are techniques for sharpening ones mental alertness; the latter constitute the theoretical approach to cultivating the intellect. The former are performance based; the latter are theory based. The one imparts a skill, the other habituates the mind to assimilate profound knowledge. Teaching people to think theoretically humanizes; giving them technique alone dehumanizes.
This essay does not, of course, pretend to teach the tools for practical reasoning in such a brief treatment; that is a course of study that takes some time to initiate and a lifetime to complete. This essay is merely an attempt at suggesting a useful and time-tested instrument for cultivating practical reasoning skills. The actual journey is entirely another matter.
James M. Tallmon, Ph.D.Professor of Rhetoric © 2000