Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Why David Quine is wrong about classical education

David Quine, the author of the Cornerstone Curriculum popular among some homeschoolers, has produced a video critical of classical education that is unfortunately plagued with historical inaccuracies and logical fallacies. I have met David on a number of occasions and he’s a nice fellow, but I think this particular presentation doesn’t do him or his academic program much justice.

The chief problem is his penchant for taking one particular example of something some author writing about classical education says that he disagrees with and using it as justification for implicating classical education as a whole for this error. This is the fallacy of composition: attributing a characteristic of a part to the whole. In addition to this, he picks only the evidence that confirms his claim and ignores any evidence to the contrary, an example of special pleading.

The video starts out with part of a presentation by Josh McDowell, a popular evangelical speaker, who quotes a study that allegedly found that only 4 percent of American young people belief in absolute truth. I have tried unsuccessfully to locate the actual study, which, it turns out, was conducted by a group called “People Can Change,” a ministry to homosexuals. I don’t know much about the organization or how it conducted the study. It is unclear what questions they actually asked and whether it was actually conducted scientifically, which always makes me skeptical, since the phrase “a study has shown” is probably the most abused expression in the English language. But for the sake of argument, let's grant McDowell's claim.

McDowell’s presentation itself has nothing to do with classical education, but it is clear that Quine is implying that classical education has something to do with this. Quine then goes on to talk about five things that many American’s no longer believe:

  1. The reliability of Scripture
  2. The Resurrection
  3. The deity of Christ
  4. Absolute truth
  5. Salvation through faith 

What does doubt concerning these things have to do with classical education? Does classical Christian education somehow undermine these things?

Quine gets to the meat of his argument (such as it is) by setting forth four propositions. Concerning the classical curriculum, he says:

  1. It is an academic curriculum, but at the loss of personal discipleship
  2. It is a scholarly curriculum, but at the cost of the reliability of Scripture
  3. It is a rigorous curriculum, but at the expense of the joy of learning
  4. It is a comprehensive curriculum, but at the forfeiture of the Grand Story

Let’s take these one at a time. When we do, it will become readily apparent that Quine has not only not established his point, but committed numerous factual and logical mistakes along the way that do nothing but undermine his credibility on these topics.

Does classical education undermine discipleship?
In arguing for the first point—that classical education is somehow inconsistent with personal discipleship, Quine quotes Presbyterian pastor and writer Douglas Wilson—whose book Rediscovering the Lost Tools of Learning was the chief catalyst for the modern classical education movement among Christian schools—as saying that many parents “are simply not equipped to home school.”

Again, for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that Quine’s clear assumption here that Wilson is wrong. Let’s say it is a moral obligation for every family to home school their children. How, then, does the fact that one advocate of classical education takes this position on home schooling demonstrate that classical education itself is somehow inconsistent with discipleship?

Clearly Quine believes that home schooling is necessary for proper discipleship (we’ll grant him that as well, again, for the sake of argument). What in the world does this have to do with classical education? Why should we believe it has anything to do with it at all? Wilson also has a beard. Does that have something to do with his advocacy of classical education as well? This is the first example of the Fallacy of Composition, although there are more to come.

This charge is also an example of special pleading, since there are plenty of people who engage in classical education at home and plenty of people who practice competent discipleship with their children and use a classical curriculum. In fact, my own experience speaking at home and private school groups would indicate that most classically educated students are educated at home. And these examples are secret to Quine either, but he just pretends as if they don't exist.

Does classical education undermine the reliability of Scripture?
His second point is that classical education undermines the reliability of Scripture. His argument? That Susan Wise Bauer, author of The Well-Trained Mind, a popular book among home school families, doesn’t include the creation story in her history of the world books. Again, let’s grant Quine his facts in this case: let’s say that Bauer’s book of history incorrectly leaves out the creation story. We are left with the same question: What does this have to do with classical education per se? Quine is again selecting one advocate of classical education (one who has produced a self-professedly secular book) and inferring that this says something about classical Christian education itself. Once again, it is the Fallacy of Composition.

Plenty of homeschoolers (probably the majority) use a classical Christian curriculum that covers the creation story. Some of them even use Bauer’s histories and supplement them with the creation story from other books.

Quine asks the question, “What are the roots of classical education?” He gives the viewer a timeline of the historical origins of classical education which features Greece and Rome at the left and a horizontal arrow, pointing from left to right, going to the Renaissance. But wait. What happened to the Middle Ages? Oh, wait, here comes the fade in and we have … the Middle Ages, but in vertical, not horizontal text like the other periods, as if it was not a real historical period or didn’t take up as much historical space. And the text doesn’t actually say the “Middle Ages.” It says “Middle” above the time line and “Dark Ages” below, as if the entire Middle Ages were coextensive with the Dark Ages--a very bad mistake to make when you are trying to correct the historical errors of others (remember the problem with the creation story?) If Quine’s graphic arrows are to be believed, classical education derived solely from the Renaissance, which itself was a “rebirth” of Greece and Rome, with nothing (or little) in between.

It is hard not to conclude that Quine considers the Middle Ages as irrelevant to the development of classical education. In fact, the Medieval period is not only important, but essential to understand the development of classical education. The seven liberal arts, the central intellectual skills of the classical curriculum were first enumerated in the Middle Ages, and the whole Christian transformation of classical thought and education was conducted in this period.

Quine’s analysis here is not only flawed, it is fatally flawed. You have to understand something in order to legitimately criticize it, and what Quine criticizes here isn’t even true classical education, much less classical Christian education. It is a version of it he has invented for the occasion, and cherry-picked to suit his purpose.

In defense of the Sistine Chapel
The video then takes us to two paintings in the Sistine Chapel: the portrayals of Jeremiah and Joel. In the next slide, he shows the two paintings (which are painted on opposite walls) of the Delphic and Lybian sybils. He then quotes Francis Schaeffer: “The Renaissance elevated the Greek-Roman gods, goddesses, and sibyls (prophetesses) to the same level of authority as the prophets of God through art, literature, philosophy, and religion.”

One of the problems in some evangelical circles is that Schaeffer himself sometimes seems to have been elevated to a similarly high level of authority, a tendency that produces some unfortunate results. I have already commented on Schaeffer’s misrepresentation of St. Thomas Aquinas, one which has a deadly effect on his analysis of modern thought. I would hope that his ability to criticize art was on more solid ground than his interpretation of Aquinas, but it’s hard to tell. In any case, to say simply that the sibyl’s position opposite the prophets is proof that they are on the “same level of authority” as the prophets is idiosyncratic enough to at least warrant some kind of argument, an argument Quine never gives. The more prevalent opinion of art critics seems to be that the sibyls were put there for a very Christian reason: because they were believed to have unwittingly prophesied the coming of Christ, and to symbolize the dominion of Christianity over even the pagans’ ignorance.

John Henry Newman articulated this perhaps better than anyone in his great chapter in The Idea of the University:
The old saws of nations, the majestic precepts of philosophy, the luminous maxims of law, the oracles of individual wisdom, the traditionary rules of truth, justice, and religion—even though imbedded in the corruption or alloyed with the pride of the world—betoken His original agency and His long-suffering presence. 
Even where there is habitual rebellion against Him, or profound far-spreading social depravity, still the undercurrent, or the heroic outburst of natural virtue, as well as the yearnings of the heart after what it has not, and its presentiment of its true remedies, are to be ascribed to the Author of all good.  
Anticipations or reminiscences of His glory haunt the mind of the self-sufficient sage and of the pagan devotee. His writing is upon the wall, whether of the Indian fane, or of the porticoes of Greece. He introduces Himself, He all but concurs, according to His good pleasure, and in His selected season, in the issues of unbelief, superstition, and false worship, and He changes the character of acts by His overruling operation.  
He condescends, though He gives no sanction, to the altars and shrines of imposture, and He makes His own fiat the substitute for its sorceries. He speaks amid the incantations of Balaam, raises Samuel's spirit in the witch's cavern, prophesies of the Messias by the tongue of the Sibyl, forces Python to recognize His ministers, and baptizes by the hand of the misbeliever.
He is with the heathen dramatist in his denunciations of injustice and tyranny, and his auguries of divine vengeance upon crime. Even on the unseemly legends of a popular mythology he casts His shadow, and is dimly discerned in the ode or the epic, as in troubled water or in fantastic dreams.  
All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful, all that is beneficent — be it great or small — be it perfect or fragmentary, natural as well as supernatural, moral as well as material, comes from Him. [emphasis added]
In other words, God is sovereign--even over the pagan and his actions. And to admit anything less is to limit the power and purpose of God. To a thinker of Quine’s Reformed bent, that cannot be an unimportant consideration.

Oh, and in one curriculum, says Quine, children of 4 and 5 years old pretend to be gods. Let’s put this in an enthematic argument:
One curriculum has children pretending to be gods
Therefore, the classical curriculum undermines the reliability of Scripture 
Could there possibly be some necessary assumption missing here?

Quine argues that because the classical curriculum draws from both the classical and Christian worldviews the Bible “begins to be marginalized into “a Word of God.” [rather than “the Word of God”] This is another giant step of reasoning that is not filled in. In fact, Quine never states it explicitly, but at this point in the presentation you realize what his basic argument is, even though he doesn’t state it explicitly: Quine is arguing that the reason for modern relativism (which is the whole emphasis of the Josh McDowell lecture at the beginning) is the revival of paganism in the form of classical education.

Really? How so?

Relativism certainly had its defenders in ancient times, but it also had its enemies who were the more prominent philosophers and the ones who had the greatest influence on the later classical Christian worldview of the Middle Ages. Plato was not a relativist; in fact, he articulated one of the great refutations of moral reltivism in his dialogue Theaetetus. And Aristotle was certainly not a relativist of the kind McDowell indicts in his presentation. And since Plato and Aristotle between them constitute the greatest part of the so-called “pagan” philosophical influence descending from ancient times, one wonders how you could possibly argue that paganism is at the root of modern relativism.

The kind of relativism we see today was most definitely not the product of the revival of classical learning. The revival of classical learning came in the 11th and 12th centuries, and classical education was not only the primary, but the only kind of education that existed until the mid-to-late 19th century. The reason Quine thinks it is the product of classical learning is because he thinks classical learning was a product of the Renaissance, a period which added things to the classical curriculum (some good--like the introduction of Cicero, some bad), when, in fact, the basic classical curriculum as we know it came from the Christian Middle Ages.

In fact, what is at the root of modern relativism is modernism. The rejection of the great philosophical and theological synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas and the onset of nominalism in the late Middle Ages unplugged human behavior from its classical and Christian roots, as Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out in in his great book After Virtue. The problem with much of the evangelical thought traceable to Schaeffer is that Schaeffer seems almost completely unaware of the debate over universals in the late Middle Ages and its ramifications in later thought and doesn’t even seem to know about William of Ockham at all.

The debate over universals in the Middle Ages is central to any competent analysis of the decline of the Christian West and any analysis (no matter how many times it repeats the word “worldview”) that neglects it cannot pretend to offer a reasonable account of the problem. In fact, the origin of the problems McDowell talks about at the beginning of Quine's video are to be found in Ockham.

Does classical education detract from the joy of learning?
And what about classical education detracting from the joy of learning, Quine’s third point? The only evidence he offers for this is a quote from Marlin Detweiler, owner of Veritas Press, a classical publisher, to the effect that the classical methodology requires five to seven hours of formal education per day for 2nd through 6th graders. Again, Quine has taken the view of one advocate of classical education and illegitimately universalized it.

Does Quine have evidence that this view is shared universally among classical educators? If so, he doesn’t present it in his video. I would guess that most classical educators would disagree with this view. In fact, I disagree with it. And is there some necessary connection between time spent in study and the joy one gains in it? For some that is undoubtedly so. On the other hand, don’t people who like to do something generally like to do it for a longer, rather than a shorter period of time? Quine simply presents these assertions which are fraught with dubious assumptions that he doesn’t take the time or effort to justify.

Does classical education "forfeit the Grand Story"?
In his final point—that classical education “forfeits the Grand Story”—Quine simply revisits his first point, and commits the same fallacy: that the neglect of the creation account in some materials that are labeled “classical” is evidence that classical education itself is essentially anti-Biblical. This is a blatant example of special pleading: picking the evidence that supports your thesis and ignoring evidence (in the case, the much more prevalent evidence) that disagrees with it.

It seems to me that if you are going to champion the truth publicly, you have a special responsibility to make sure that what you say reflects that concern in what you yourself say. One way to do that is to stick to legitimate history and avoid fallacious reasoning. The other is to make sure that you don’t say more than your evidence and reasoning can justify. Quine would have been on much more solid ground had he argued that there are some factions in classical education whose neglect of certain Christian truths undermines the Christian cause. He might have had some success there. But he paints with a brush that is way too broad.

The irony of Quine's argument
Finally, let me point out a glaring irony in Quine’s alleged correlation between classical education and modern relativism—a position, I might add, that is confused even more by the fact that his curriculum is advertised as being classical!—which is that, if there is any correlation between classical education and modern relativism, the correlation is in the exact opposite direction of that which Quine asserts. It is an inverse, not a direct correlation.

Classical education was practiced almost universally until the late 19th century. It extended from the classical period all the way down to the turn of the 20th century. It was the education of the Puritans and the Founding Fathers. It was thrown out over the period from about 1870-1920 and replaced by the modern progressivism and modern pragmatism that dominates schools today. If Quine is looking for the culprit in the rise of relativism, he’ll find it in these modern education ideologies; he won't find it in classical education.

Classical education bolsters, rather than detracts from the belief in moral absolutes. I think this was the point Leo Tolstoy makes in his novel Anna Karenina, when during a dinner conversation, his character Karenin remarks that classical education (as opposed to the modern form of education, which was already rearing its ugly head in mid-19th century Russia) was "anti-nihilistic."

Quine's employment of the fallacies of composition and special pleading prevent him from even coming close to demonstrating the correlation he asserts. In fact, the historical evidence is all to the contrary.

If you’re going to try to lead the charge in the defense of absolutes, it’s best to know who it is your enemy is. And Quine has got that point all wrong.

3 comments:

Barnet said...

"This is the fallacy of composition: attributing a characteristic of a part to the whole. In addition to this, he picks only the evidence that confirms his claim and ignores any evidence to the contrary, an example of special pleading."

Martin, the above quote applies to most of your posts on science.

Martin Cothran said...

How?

Mary Cartwright said...

Thank you so much for politely articulating why Mr. Quine is so wrong about Classical Christian education. May I also point out that he seems not to understand the trivium aspect of Classical Schooling? People uninformed about the three stages of Classical schooling will often accuse the grammar stage of 'taking the joy out of learning'. When in fact, young children very much enjoy memorizing facts. Later, we move into the logic and rhetoric stages, so we are not asking tweens and teens to memorize long list of facts (okay, maybe in Latin).