Turning quite liesurely away

Lately I've been toying in class with an important distinction. It arose from a question that a student asked a few weeks ago when we were reading Aristotle. In Book I of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes a point about the difference between arguing from or to first principles. A student had asked about this passage and wondered why it mattered. I kind of took a deep breath and explained that it did matter. In fact, it matters a lot.

Last Wednesday in the first-year honors seminar, for example, we started King Lear after completing Paradise Lost. We've spent the last few weeks watching Milton "assert eternal providence/And justify the ways of God to man." You might even say that Milton began with a first principle. He argues God's in his heaven and everything is going according to plan. In other words, Milton already knows the truth and is now casting about for evidence and arguments to fit evil and human suffering into it. Despite his genius, he gets himself into problem after problem because his facts will not always square with his thesis. So he just argues harder, uses fancier footwork, says it's all a mystery and urges us "to be lowly wise." It's quite a show and I am amazed at his skill in this game.

But now we've started reading Lear and Shakespeare seems to work in the opposite direction. He's not trying to assert anything (least of all providence). He's just saying, "Here's some examples of the way the world works. Cordelia loves Lear, but so what? Edgar loves Gloucester, but so what? Since when does any of that matter? The good are seldom rewarded. The bad aren't necessarily brought to justice, lying often works, and an honest man usually suffers for being honest. Now what can we conclude about the design of the universe from these facts? Let's not do any special pleading. Let's just look at the world as truthfully as we can and see what we make of it. In short, Shakespeare's play--in as much as it argues anything--works to first principles. It's important to point out here that the play doesn't rule out faith as a response to human suffering, but it sure undermines any notions that faith in providence is an easy matter.

This dichotomy between arguments to and from first principles is everywhere these days: global warming, healthcare, economics. Just recently I read something that said the scientific method was a set of rules that keeps scientists from lying to each other. A good education ought to do something like that as well. It ought to imbue in people a willingness to be uneasy, to possess what Orwell called "the power of facing unpleasant facts." Unfortunately, we seem to be going the other direction. I read an op-ed in USA Today last week on education reform. It was a great example of what I mean:

America's education system needs an injection of innovation — which is just what entrepreneurs do. We need two different public school programs: one for employees and one for entrepreneurs. The way to train entrepreneurs is almost exactly the opposite of the methods used to train employees.

Another common thread about Ford, Gates and Jobs is that they all dropped out of school. This is not to say education is not important, but training entrepreneurs is different from training people to be employees.

In other words, education is only about money and jobs. There isn't even a tip of the cap toward creating free citizens who possess the dignity of thinking for themselves, who ask tough questions, demand well-reasoned answers and prefer unease to turning leisurely away from disaster. No'p, you're either a Master of the Universe or one of the Master's grateful employees. Talk about arguing from unexamined first principles.

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