“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see”.
— Henry David Thoreau
“Scholarship is to be created not by compulsion, but by awakening a pure interest in knowledge.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Once upon a time, in a crazy mixed up world, mostly in Europe, people were curious about why things in the world were the way they were. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church and other “noted experts” had told them a perverted version of the truths as they thought they knew them to be.
The Earth is flat. Stars are crystal balls mounted on celestial shelves. Bloodletting was modern surgery. Humans were here only for God’s bidding and had no reason to be reasonable. Accept the fiats on faith.
During the periods we call The Renaissance, The Scientific Revolution, and The Enlightenment, human beings began to understand the basis for nature and human nature by studying the natural and physical sciences without reliance on religion. Some called this the Age of Reason. All processes could now be understood through evidence and proof. Enlightenment writers were all the rage. Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Locke, and our ever mis-interpreted Adam Smith, influenced all walks of philosophy and politics, leading to the American and French Revolutions.
But we must understand that even the most radical of rational and “data driven” revolutionary philosophies form that era (especially in the United Kingdom and United States) were tempered by “Common Sense” (pardon the Paineful pun) as these cumulative effects of these eras in Western history led to revolutions in politics, government, economics and other new found social sciences…even education.
The foundation of these beliefs was that rational, scientific, data based laws could describe social as well as biological behavior, and that these types of knowledge could be used to improve public policy. Enlightenment thinkers coupled those beliefs with great interest in technological change, for greater prosperity was also a valid and achievable goal. Many began to firmly believe that models of human behavior could both achieve this new prosperity and change human societies for what they thought was the better.
If that sounds familiar, it is my point. I believe we are in the throes of a backlash against data collection and computer algorithms as the sole judges of how education policy should be made.
We all know of the significance of Locke’s and the French philosophes’ mostly positive influences on our own Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. But this set of philosophies also heavily influenced men like Danton, Robespierre, and de Sade; the leaders of the French Revolution, and of course The Reign of Terror (and the “Reign of Error” in education today as noted by Diane Ravitch).
Philosophers, artists, and writers started to question the questioners. Had these Enlightenment writers and provocateurs become a new set of leaders with their own unapproachable dogma? Had they tried to create too brave of a New World?
As always happens in history, there began an “equal and opposite reaction”.
Immanuel Kant, for one, was very critical of the Enlightenment extremes. While appreciating science and reason, he dutifully attempted to shift thought, and therefore policies, back to a more common sense position without reverting back to religious dogma. For example, he agreed with John Locke on the sensual acquisition of knowledge but felt strongly that this had to interpreted by the mind’s abilities to sort and record experience based on experience.
Kant concluded, as had the mathematician, Rene Descartes, that some truths were not derived through scientific study. Beyond the material world was a realm unapproachable by science. Reason, according to Kant, went beyond the mere interpretation of physical realities, or “data”.
Abstract reason, apart from science and its laws, was a valid source of judgment and interpretation. Pure reason, the highest form of human endeavor proceeded from certain subjective senses, built into human nature. The conscience, according to Kant, originated in the person’s thinking nature. Notice how many of our new data driven politicians and education wonks don’t seem to have one.
In the late 18th through the mid 19th century the Romanticist/Transcendentalist movements rose up as a backlash. They believed that the advances made by the Enlightenment were creating a deeply unequal, oppressive, and conformist society – and that science and rationality could never hope to truly understand the world and the human personality.
In the US, the most prominent were the writers Thoreau and Emerson. They were very concerned with the impact of science on the human condition. They relied more on intuition, common (natural) sense, and emotion. They favored choosing “a path less traveled”, the exploration of humanity, creativity, and innovation beyond the scientific. They felt the conformity caused by these “data driven” approaches of their day, which they felt replaced “church driven” conformity to some extent, was to be rejected. As Emerson puts it, “If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it… under all these screens I have much difficulty to detect the precise man you are”. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance and Other Essays
In other words, Emerson believed that any conformity to any standard of society whatsoever is indicative of an empty, meaningless personality. Isn’t that the type of society our test driven COMMON CORE thinking education policy is producing?
I agree that both reason and science are good and wonderful things. I believe in evolution and climate change. However when blind faith in data collection, as the only means of scientific study, clouds the vision of those in power, disillusionment, discontent and a new “revolution in thought” begins to spread.
To many historians and Americans Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president. One of the reasons is that he realized he must change his thoughts and then fought against the biggest dogma of his day, slavery, in order to save American society.
“Lincoln’s ability to whittle down a complex issue to one key principle, or central axiom, directly informed his political message during the second half of the 1850s, when we might say he took a vexingly complex issue, slavery, and whittled it down to a simple issue: the humanity of the slaves.” http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0023.104/–old-fashioned-nationalism-lincoln-jefferson?rgn=main;view=fulltext
What most people don’t know about Lincoln is the extent to which the Romantic writers on whose work he grew up influenced him. In fact he was not only the Great Emancipator, he was the great Transcendentalist. Gary Wills, in his noted book, LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG The Words That Remade America, continuously examines Lincoln in that light, as one who was critical of his contemporary society for its unthinking conformity, and urged that each person find, in Emerson’s words, “An original relation to the universe”.
Haven’t we had our fill of scientifically enlightened, data driven policy wonks?
Why aren’t we looking for our next Lincoln who will both criticize “contemporary society for its unthinking conformity” and change it to a society that at its core understands, as he did, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next”.