Closing the Doors.
When René Descartes proposed a new approach to the study of physics–intending to displace the traditional Aristotelian thinking–he did not cite Aristotle’s work; indeed, he hardly acknowledged it, let alone any developments made in the intervening centuries. Rather, as he wrote in a letter to his friend Marin Mersenne, he hoped that his own system would become known and accepted before anyone realized that it confuted the Aristotelian approach. He desired no dialectic about the superiority, but only to supplant the old by the apparent practical applications of his mathematical way of thinking.
Most of the history of ideas follows a similar pattern: one idea does not defeat another–one does not “advance” an idea by “conquering” another–but rather one displaces or supplants another, and usually on the basis of the “new” idea seeming to improve our practical efficiency. The displacement rarely happens all at once, but usually unfolds one step at a time–such that those whose ideas are being displaced often believe they can argue their continued relevance, or otherwise withstand the coming change.
There are two kinds of education which one might receive in a university: the first is specialized training in a specific field of study, often requiring a mastery of technique–whether in the manipulation and use of tools or research methodologies, practice in a specific axiomatically-defined way of thinking, or any other such. The second is a generalized fecundation of the natural capacities of the human mind, present to all. The former we may call idioscopy and the latter cenoscopy. Both, properly understood, are truly scientific–yet the conventional divisions of study have lost sight of this truth–and both are of mutually-reciprocal importance to the development of human understanding. We need idioscopy to better our medical care, our technological capacities, our ability to discover new phenomena farther and deeper in the universe. We need cenoscopy to discover and nurture the meaning of the things discovered–not only future, but past and present; and to thereby live good lives.
Despite this requisite reciprocity, the displacement of cenoscopic education in the university by methods idioscopic has unfolding–step by step–for centuries. A misunderstanding of cenoscopy’s nature, even by the professors within it, has been no small part of allowing things to progress as far as they have.
It is difficult to convey, to someone who has not experienced it first hand, the thinly-veiled hostility prevalent in higher education, particularly between those who defend the “humanities” and those who would see them all-but-eliminated by the “sciences”–which latter is constituted less by the practitioners of modern science and more the administrators who adore their grant money and impressive-looking facilities and equipment This hostility, however, exhibits a pattern internecine, also, among those on the “humanities” divide: specifically over things like which courses are most important, in what order they should be taught, which authors must be read, how assignments ought to be given, and so on and so forth.
I have no interest getting into the weeds of academe, here (or anywhere, for that matter, having successfully extricated myself years ago). Rather, I want to voice a present concern: namely, the concern that the closing of university doors, due to COVID-19–for at least the Spring semester, likely the summer, and possibly the fall, as well–will see some of those doors never re-opened, or at least not very wide. I mean, of course, the doors of “humanities”. More education will move online and humanities courses cannot survive such a move: for the humanities is conveyed not simply through a transference of information upon which students are evaluated for their ability to retain, but within an environment and atmosphere of discourse and purpose.
Opening a Window.
Those who have become complacent seldom recognize it. That we have gone about education in the wrong way for quite a long time, because we have not had our hands forced otherwise, has seen blame placed on a declining quality of students, or support from the administration, or a subterranean cultural shift, or government interference, or any number of things other than ourselves. If it worked well enough for ourselves, it should work for our students, too! But did it work well for us–or were we fortunate? Did our educations perhaps work for us in spite of how things are structured?
Could it be that there are better ways to proceed today with a properly cenoscopic education? I think so. In a rather obvious way, this is what I have been trying to build with the Lyceum. I cannot, as yet, claim a superior quality to the instruction given on my platform–it is, after all, so far, just me, giving what I can. But I do think there is nevertheless a superior methodology at work. An undergraduate college education is four years, and presented as a preparation a means to some end other than what is gained therein. Conversely, the Lyceum is about a lifelong development of habit–wherein education, learning, and the virtues of the intellect are not sought for some further purpose, but for their own sake, as a part of that in which our earthly participation in happiness consists.
I hope that in the months and years to come, the Lyceum will grow: not only as more members join and become a part of the community, but also allowing other academics to find an intellectual freedom and fecundity in offering their knowledge and wisdom in lectures and seminars. I believe that a window has opened, where perhaps the doors of traditional academia are closing.
And you can help it grow.