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The Order of Learning

Mortimer Adler

This address, delivered originally on April 19, 1941 at the dinner meeting of the American Catholic Philosophical Association's Western Division, was first printed in Saint Mary's own Moraga Quarterly (Vol. XII, n. 1, Autumn, 1941).

I. Introduction

I am deeply appreciative of the honor conferred upon me by your invitation to address you this evening. It is a great privilege to be able to attend two meetings of the Catholic Philosophical Association in the same year. I have been attending the Christmas meetings of the eastern division for the last seven years, and I think you will realize with what background and what sincerity I can pay you this compliment: I have never before seen so perfectly constructed a program--so unified, so comprehensive, so balanced. The officers and members of this division are to be congratulated. I wish they would come East some time and arrange our meetings for us.

I have a private reason for pleasure in the perfection of the program you have just completed. When I first read the announcement of the papers to be given during these two days, I was embarrassed by the fact that there seemed to be nothing left to talk about on the subject of education. It looked as if the only appropriate thing to do at this dinner was to get up and say Amen. But then I found another angle from which to view the proceedings and my place in them. Just because the program was so beautifully rounded and balanced, I could feel relaxed about my own final part in it. The program was so balanced, no harm would be done if I was unbalanced. All the major points having been made, all the important themes being covered, I could feel free to do a minor and unimportant job. I could indulge myself in a little tirade, expressing one of my pet prejudices about contemporary education.

The theme I have chosen to discuss is the order of learning. I am going to deal with the means of education, not with the ends. Nor am I going to consider the means in every way--but only with respect to their ordination to one another. I am concerned with the order of studies, on the one hand, and with the order of a teacher's activities to those of his students, on the other. The question I propose to answer is: Given ideally perfect ends, how shall the basic means be ordered? But even this question is too large for treatment after dinner, so I must restrict the matters to be considered somewhat further.

I shall limit myself to purely natural education--that is, education defined in terms of natural and temporal happiness, as its ultimate end, and the natural virtues, as its proximate ends. I shall neglect religious education entirely, not because it is negligible,--far from it, it is the least negligible part of education,--but for two reasons which I wish to state: first, because it is beyond the province of strictly philosophical discussion to consider such matters, regardless of the personal competence of an individual who may combine in his person the gifts of both the philosopher and the theologian. One may combine the gifts, but the gifts are never the same, and should never be confused.

I should like to take just a moment, in digression, to comment on two phrases that have been used during these meetings. One is "Catholic philosophy of education, and the other is Philosophy of Catholic education." Let me comment first on "Catholic philosophy of education."

The ends and means of religious education are supernaturally revealed and supernaturally instituted. The ends are known by the moral theologian, not the moral philosopher; the means belong to the sacramental office of the priest, not the secular office of the teacher. If we wish to avoid violating the basic Thomistic distinction between philosophy and theology, between the spheres of reason and faith, we must, in speaking of the philosophy of education, restrict ourselves to purely natural education, natural both as to ends and to means. There is a Catholic philosophy of education only in the same sense in which any other branch of philosophy can be Catholic: not in the peculiar status of any of its principles or conclusion, for these are all the work of reason, achieved by purely natural knowing, and as such they are logically independent of the articles of any faith. No, a philosophy is Catholic only in the order of efficient causality, only in the historical and psychological order of its becoming, not in the epistemic order of its being. We know, as a matter of historical fact, that certain truths which reason is able know, were not known by the great ancient pagans, and were only discovered later by the great Christian theologians. This is our factual basis for supposing that the light of faith, which the great Christian thinkers possessed, functioned psychologically to direct and help reason accomplish a work of discovery with respect to matters which nevertheless fall entirely within its province. It follows, therefore, that once a Catholic mind, possessing the virtue of faith as well as the power of reason, is able to discover these basic rational truths, they can become the property of any mind, even if it lack the gift of faith--for they are reason's property, and as such are proper to man's nature. Truths which pagans could not discover, can be taught to, and learned by, pagans, once Christians have discovered them. Philosophy can be called Catholic, then, only in the order of discovery, not in its logical structure, for as philosophy its ultimate principles are all rational and natural.

So much for a Catholic philosophy of education. No let me comment briefly on the question whether there is any philosophy of Catholic education. I suspect the answer must be negative. Catholic education can differ from a non-Catholic education founded on naturally true principles only by virtue of supernatural truths added thereto,--not merely added, of course, but effecting a profound transformation of the whole. In so far as it differs, the consideration of such education must belong to the theologian, not the philosopher.

There is one further restriction on my discussion this evening which I should like to announce. I shall neglect moral education entirely--a much more difficult, and also a more important, topic than intellectual education, to which I shall confine myself. I note that one of your papers was on whether virtue (moral, I assume, must have been meant) can be taught. I hope the answer was clearly negative. As I understand the essence of teaching, it simply cannot be the adequate or effective instrument for forming moral virtue. Plato and Aristotle were clear about this, and clearly in agreement. The intellectual virtues are preeminently teachable, as the moral virtues are not. With respect to them, we should be able to solve the problem of means, as no one yet has with respect to the development of moral virtues, if ever a solution will be reached. And so I address myself to the problem--interesting because narrow and solvable--of the means to intellectual virtue: the order of studies which aim to cause the perfection of the mind.

The intellectual virtues are the proximate ends of all truly liberal or intellectual education. (I shall use these two words interchangeably). Even here there is one last restriction. Prudence belongs with the moral virtues. It is formed as they are, not by teaching or by school work, but somehow mysteriously by practice, under guidance, in many ways. Hence, I am left with four virtues, divided into the arts, on the hand, and the three speculative virtues (understanding, science, and wisdom) on the other. And here certainly wisdom is the highest end and the controlling principle in any consideration of the means.

I think this problem is something Catholic educators should consider. I say "Catholic educators" because they alone today rightly understand the ends of liberal or intellectual education to be the four virtues I have named. They alone know this, and know what the virtues are. In this, they stand in sharp contrast to their secular colleagues who in the last hundred years have so misconceived the aims and ends of liberal education that it has almost vanished from the scene. But though our secular colleagues are wrong about the ends of liberal education, they are often quite sound about the means,--especially about the order of teaching as an art of using the means,--and this is most true, you will be surprised to hear me say, in the case of the extreme progressive educators who have unwittingly returned to some ancient truths about educational method. They do not use the means for good educational results, because they misdirect them through ignorance or misconception of the ends. But Catholic educators can, I think, be charged with an opposite fault: knowing the right ends, they frequently fail to achieve them because they misuse the means, because they violate the nature of the learning process itself.

I warned you this might become a tirade, expressing a pet peeve of mine. You may remember an article I published in The Commonweal several years ago, asking "Can Catholic Education be Criticized?" My answer was Yes--not about the ends, but about the means. Let me repeat there the conclusion I then formulated:
I can understand why a Catholic educator might be impervious to any critic who attacked the ends of Catholic education, because somehow these ends are implicated in the central truths of the Christian religion, and thus there is a dogmatic confirmation for the conviction of reason about them. But certainly this is not the case with the means! The truth of Catholicism in religion and philosophy, for example, is no warrant for the efficacy or intrinsic excellence of the way religion and philosophy are taught in Catholic schools. Only the liberal arts can provide the standard for judging excellence in teaching, for measuring the efficiency of educational means, or for inventing others; and the liberal arts are neither pagan nor Christian but human.

I am deeply concerned about this point, deeply disturbed by seeing the miscarriage of education in Catholic institutions, precisely because I know their ends are right. Furthermore, is not their fault a worse one than the fault of the secular educators? Is there not more excuse for the secular educators being mistaken about the ends, than for Catholic educators being mistaken about the means? Let me explain why I think so.

I said before that secular educators, especially the radical progressive group, were singularly right and eminently sound on many points concerning the means. I had in mind the fundamental soundness of the project-method (though I abhor the name), the method which stresses activity on the part of the learner as indispensable, which emphasizes the great importance of understanding the problem before knowing the answers, which places the acquirement of skills before the mastery of subject-matters in the domain of basic general education.

Now I say that all of these right procedures appear to be radical innovations only because they were forgotten or corrupted by the decadent classical education of the last century, against which progressive education rose in justifiable rebellion. Truly, all these procedures are founded on ancient insights about the order of teaching and learning, insights which every Catholic educator must possess if he understands the nature of man and of human teaching, according to the principles of the philosophy he generally affirms. Let me briefly enumerate some of these points. The Catholic educator knows:

  1. The difference between intellectual habit and sensitive memory. Hence he knows that verbal proficiency, which is a work of sensitive memory, must not be confused with the habit of understanding.

  2. The habits of understanding can be formed only by intellectual acts--acts on the part of the student, not simply acts by the teacher. Hence he knows that the teacher is always a secondary cause of learning, never a primary cause, for the primary cause must always be an act on the part of the learner's own intellect.

  3. That the intellect depends on sense and imagination, and also that it can be swayed and colored by the motion of the passions. Hence he knows that the discipline of the liberal arts must precede the process of acquiring the speculative virtues, for it is the liberal arts which rectify the intellect in its pursuit of truth--the arts of grammar and logic which protect the intellect against the deceptions of verbal and other symbolization, and all the wayward imagery of sense; the arts of logic and rhetoric, which guard against the incursions of passion, and the coloring of thought by irrelevant emotion.

  4. That the intellectual virtues are always a mean state between vicious extremes of saying too much or saying too little--dogmatic affirmations in excess, or skeptical denials in defect. Hence he knows that truth is always an eminent synthesis of false extremes, a sober resolution of false issues made by extreme positions; he knows that the truth can be genuinely possessed only by a mind which sees the truth always as a correction of manifold and divers errors, and never by the mind which tries to be alone with the truth in an artificially antiseptic environment.

The Catholic educator knows all these things, because they are fundamental truths in his philosophy of man. But, unlike his secular colleague, who may not acknowledge these truths at all, or certainly not know them so deeply, but who nevertheless seems to practice according to their meaning, the Catholic educator, who knows them, often violates them in practice by educational methods which

  1. Put a premium on verbal memory instead of intellectual habit.

  2. Proceed as if the teacher were the only active cause of learning, and as if the learner could be entirely passive.

  3. Neglect or wrongly subordinate the liberal arts to a supposed mastery of subject-matter.

  4. Try to do the impossible--namely, to give the students genuine possession of the truth without ever really perplexing them first by the problems or issues which the truth resolves--and this requires a vital experience of error, for genuine perplexity is usually killed along with the dummy opponents who have been made into straw men for quick demolition.

Before I proceed now to a brief statement of the order of learning, based upon these truths, let me anticipate one objection I have received from Catholic educators as to means. I am told that Catholic education must give its college graduates a fundamental body of truths for the guidance of their lives. I am told that this necessitates the covering of much ground. You can guess my response. I simply ask what is the point of covering ground, if the students' feet never touch it, if they never learn through independent exercise to walk by themselves, with head erect and unafraid of all intellectual opposition and difficulty. What is the point of memorizing truths, if they can really guide us only when they are genuinely possessed, if they can protect us from falsehood only to the extend that we understand them as fully refuting errors--real, live errors, not dummy ones concocted for the purposes of an easy victory. I would feel happier about the graduates of Catholic colleges if they really understood a few truths well,--understood them as solving problems which vigorously challenge the mind and perplex it,-rather than be able to recite, from merely verbal memory, a whole catechism of philosophical answers to problems they did not really understand or take seriously. I would be happier if they were merely disciplined in the pursuit of truth and in the rejection of error, rather than be, as they now are in so many cases, unable to give an account of what they know because it is known by memory rather than possessed by intellectual habit.

I shall proceed now to a brief discussion of the order of learning in the field of the intellectual virtues. I shall, first, consider the ordination of the liberal arts to the speculative subject--matters. I shall, then, consider the methods of teaching the speculative subject-matters. And, finally, I shall draw some conclusions and summarize my insights in terms of the state of philosophy in contemporary culture--for the present condition of philosophy is not unrelated to the way it is taught and learned.

II. Art and Subject-matter

My thesis here is simply that mastery of the liberal arts must precede the mastery of the fundamental subject-matters, which constitute the matter of the speculative virtues. Though wisdom comes first in the natural order of the virtues,--graded according to their intrinsic excellence,--the arts, least of the intellectual virtues, come first in the temporal order, the order of human development.

You may tell me that this order is now generally observed: that logic is a basic course in all Catholic colleges, and that it is a discipline preparatory for the study of the basic subject-matters. May I disagree, not with the facts, but with such interpretation of them? Logic can be taken, or given, in one of two ways: either as a speculative science itself, albeit a science in the second intention, in contrast to metaphysics and physics as sciences of the real (and hence in the first intention); or as one of the liberal arts, an organon, a body of rules for the regulation and rectification of the mind, not in itself, for in itself, the human intellect is absolutely infallible, and needs no art at all, but rather in its dependence upon sense and imagination, and in its subjection to passion. (I am saying that logic as a science, may deal with pure thought; but logic, as an art, is not an art of thinking, of pure intellectual activity, for such does not exist; it is always an art, necessarily conjoined with grammar and rhetoric, which regulates the operations of the intellectual imagination, thinking with symbols and against the impulse of passion.)

When logic is considered as an art, it cannot be divorced, you see, from the other two liberal arts of grammar and rhetoric. The three arts form a trinity, and each of the arts becomes corrupted and ineffective--an empty and meaningless routine--when separated from the others. This, by the way, is precisely what has happened to the liberal arts during the last four centuries. And scholasticism, with its arid logic, divorced from grammar and rhetoric, is as much to blame for this sad state of affairs, as the most anti-intellectual movements in education.

The teaching of logic in Catholic colleges,--as a science,-- is not a liberal discipline. The text-book logic which is taught, as a set of formulae without practice in the intellectual operations to which they are relevant, does not discipline the mind in writing, speaking, and listening. What good is it to know all the kinds of propositions, if a student cannot discover how many propositions are being expressed in a complicated sentence, and how they are related? What good to know all the principles of the syllogism if the student cannot recognize the congeries of syllogisms, or reasoning, that occur in a paragraph expressing a complicated argument? The proof of my point here is very simple. Though they are given a course in the science of logic, as their secular fellows are not, the graduates of Catholic colleges cannot read or write any better than their secular fellows. If they had been liberally disciplined, if the liberal arts had been acquired by them through years of exercise in their practices, then they would be vastly superior in the performance of all these liberal operations.

Furthermore, logic as a science is completely out of order when it is put first in the course of philosophical studies. Logic the organon, which really means the three arts of the trivium in complex conjunction, does come first; but logic the science comes last,--precisely because second intentions follow first intentions, are derived from them, and depend upon them.

Let me explain, therefore, that by a proper teaching of the liberal arts, I mean only a teaching of the fundamental practices which these arts regulate: the performance of reading, writing, speaking, listening, measuring and observing. Arts are habits. Hence they are not possessed at all by students who can verbally recite their rules. The rules are important only as regulating the performance of acts, which acts in turn, often repeated, then form the habits, which are the arts as vital transformations of the soul's operative powers. This can be done only in a scheme of education which orders learning in the following manner:

  1. On the elementary level: gives the predispositions for intellectual discipline, by the study of multiple languages, especially the highly inflected ancient ones; by the routines of mathematics; and by the cultivation of the senses and imagination as the intellect's most important adjuncts.

  2. On the secondary or collegiate level: spends all of the four years primarily on the liberal arts, and not on the mastery of subject-matters. In short, a liberal education, crowned by the Bachelor of Arts degree, should consist in an ability to read and write, speak and listen, observe and think. A college graduate should be a liberal artist, and nothing more--as if this were not enough to hope for, and strive for, with all one's, might and main.

Let me explain this last point, for it is likely to be misunderstood. First, let me say that I make no distinction between secondary and collegiate education. The B.A. degree should be given at what is now the end of high school, or at least at what is now the end of the sophomore year of our so-called colleges. After that comes the university. The three levels of education-and there is no place for a fourth--are rightly ordered when the first, or elementary, is seen as entirely preparatory and pre-intellectual, pre-dispositive toward liberal training; when the second, or general, is seen as entirely liberal, partly terminal and partly preparatory for the study of subject-matters; when the third, or specialized, is seen as devoted to the mastery of special subject-matters, to the acquirement of the speculative virtues. (I shall return to this point later.)

I do not mean that the liberal arts are ever ultimate ends, ends in themselves. On the contrary, they are only intermediate ends, and as such, means to further and higher ends. They are specifically the indispensable means to the speculative virtues as ends. The acquisition of the arts is for the sake of mastering subject-matters. But I wish to repeat one point: they are not only means, they are indispensable as means. Lacking real skill in the liberal arts, no one can become a master of any intellectual subject-matter.

In order to acquire the arts, the subject-matters must be used. This preliminary use of subject-matter must not be confused with the ultimate approach to it after the arts have been acquired. When the basic subject-matters are used at the collegiate or secondary level, they must be subordinated to the acquirement of the arts: they are then merely the matter on which the mind is being exercised to learn how think--not, then, to learn what to think. That comes later. This is not a misuse of subject-matter, as of course, it would be, if it were the only use.

The most concrete way to make my point here is, perhaps, to discuss the role of the great books, used, according to the St. John's scheme, as the representative formulations of all the basic subject-matters. President Stringfellow Barr has explained the role of the great books in the St. John's plan by comparing them to a large bone thrown to a puppy. For four years the puppy fights with the bone, tries to eat it, swallow it, devour it. At the end of the four years the result of all this agitation is not measured by looking at the bone to see how badly chewed up it is; rather, look at the puppy's teeth to see if they have grow sharper. Now, unless the bone is a real bone, a bone that can challenge the puppy to get his teeth in, there will be little agitation and even less sharpening of teeth. Of course, as Mr. Barr points out, the puppy must have the illusion that it is getting meat off the bone, or it won't play the game. So the student must be given the illusion that he is really mastering the great books, that he is really imbibing the great ideas, or he will not continue long at the process of exercising his intellect just for the sake of exercise. The faculty must cultivate this illusion, but they must know that it is an illusion. The worst educational horror occurs when the faculty get taken in by this illusion themselves. The fundamental point of this analogy between puppy and student, bone and great books, is that the arts cannot be acquired (teeth sharpened) unless the great books are used as the representatives of the subject-matter. Text-book representations of subject-matter simply will not work, for the simple reason that text-books are so written as not to require any liberal art on the part of the student. They try to make everything easy. They are pre-digested pap. How would the puppy's teeth ever get sharpened if he were continually fed upon mush?

May I conclude this section of my remarks by the summary statement that unless and until students become reasonably competent liberal artist, they are incompetent to approach or learn--really learn--any of the fundamental truths in the basic subject-matters, for the means of forming the speculative virtues are lacking. Teachers can indoctrinate students. Teachers can stuff their memories with pat verbal formulae,--in Latin or in English,-but they cannot teach them as if they were rational animals, instead of parrots, simply because their rational powers have not been sufficiently disciplined in the difficult arts of learning itself. The liberal arts, in my conception of them, are nothing but the arts of teaching and being taught. They are the basic skills of learning, and must, therefore, precede the effort of the mind to learn. Just as I would make mastery of the liberal arts,--the old, but not meaningless, degree,--the only requirement for one who wishes to teach the young in school or college (how many teachers would there be, if this standard were imposed?), so I would make bachelorhood, or a novitiate in the arts, the one test for admission to the university as the place where subject-matters are studied. This would close our universities down quicker than any military draft is likely to do.

To all of this, let me add a few brief comments. First, this is not a defense or apologia for the St. John's plan. What I am proposing is the fundamental order of the best ancient and medieval educational systems. It was the order, the very wise order, proposed by Plato in The Republic. It was the medieval order, which really put Platonic policy into actual practice; the work of the liberal arts faculty served to prepare boys for the universities, where under the auspices of the three basic faculties (law, medicine, and theology) they studied the subject-matters. Having become skilled in learning , which meant they could read and write with reasonable competence, they were now admitted to the status of competent learners. It was the original intention of the Jesuit Ratio Studorium, which has not,--may I be forgiven for saying,--been sufficiently retained in spirit, as well as in letter, by post Renaissance Jesuit institutions. And although it is this order which St. John's is trying to re-establish, that should certainly not stand in the way of Catholic colleges adopting it, for the idea is fundamentally a Greek and medieval idea. It was not invented by the proponents of the St. John's scheme. It is an idea that belongs to all the great traditions of Catholic education, and yet Catholic institutions today do not exemplify it in practice.

Second, this basic educational idea, about the priority of the liberal arts to the study of subject-matter, also has significance for the relation of all schooling to adult education. Real learning must be the work of more mature persons than boys and girls in school and college. Children are too young, too inexperienced, too unstable, to acquire wisdom. Hence, they should be given what they, at their age, are able to receive: the formation of the artistic, not the speculative, virtues. If they graduate from college liberal artists, then, whether they go on to the university or not, they will be able to continue the pursuit of truth throughout a life of adult learning, when maturity makes the formation of speculative habits possible.

Finally, there is the question, Where, institutionally, should the subject-matters be taught and studied? I have already indicated the answer: in the university. The answer is, of course practical, only if the B.A. is given earlier that it is at present. If Catholic educators say this is not possible, because of the opposition of the various accrediting agencies, I can only answer that until Catholic institutions throw off the yoke of the accrediting boards, and exercise a free judgment on basic educational questions, they will never be able to realize in practice any of the principles which belong to Catholic education.

We are now prepared to consider my second and last major point: the order of learning in the field of the speculative virtues, the order of studies at the university level. And here, to limit my discussion, I shall consider the teaching of philosophy as a case in point.

III. The Order of Teaching and Learning Philosophy--the Order of the Means to the Virtue of Wisdom

Here I have two fundamental points to make, which I shall try to make briefly. The first concerns the objective order of the subject-matters themselves; the second concerns the methods of teaching the subject-matters, with reference to the distinction between the order of knowledge and the order of learning.

By the objective order of the subject-matters I mean, of course, the order of the objects of knowledge secundum se--the order of things known according to their intrinsic knowability, rather than their relative knowability, that is, their knowability to us.

In the first place, it is necessary briefly to condemn all the Wolffian errors--all the false divisions of subject-matter, the wrong ordering of the parts of philosophy, invented by Christian Wolff, most unfortunately adopted by later scholasticism, and now dominating the philosophy curriculum of so many Catholic institutions. The correction of the Wolffian errors--the wrong divisions, the wrong orderings-can be made simply by anyone who understands the Thomistic theory of abstraction, which Wolff violates at every point. (I shall not concern myself further with Wolff--it is such a distasteful matter to discuss--but rather go to once to the right objective ordering of subject-matters.)

Theology is certainly first if the objective ordering be in terms of the object which is most knowable in itself, though not to us. This indicates at once that the objective ordering of subject-matters cannot be the same as the subjective ordering, for the latter must be in terms of what is most knowable to us as coming first, and, in these terms, theology would come last.

If we apply these principles to all the fundamental theoretic subject-matters, we will find that, just as in the objective order, theology precedes metaphysics, and metaphysics, the philosophy of nature, the philosophy of man, which is one of its parts, and the whole of philosophy, as dealing with essences, the whole of science, as dealing with phenomenal accidents; so in the subjective order, the members of this series are perfectly reversed: science should be studied before philosophy, and the philosophy of man before the philosophy of nature, and these before metaphysics and theology.

There are two other points of order, which I must mention in passing; (a) the priority of the theoretic to the practical (which, curiously enough, is both an objective and a subjective priority, for the theoretic is both more knowable in itself and to us); and (b) the priority of objectively constituted subject-matters such a metaphysics and the philosophy of nature, to such problematically constituted subject-matters as the philosophy of law, or of art, or of education, or of knowledge itself.

Now within each sphere of subject-matter, there is supposed to be an order of principles and conclusions. There is some truth in this, of course, but I think it has been excessively over-simplified by the scholastic acceptance of Aristotelian logic, as giving a true and adequate account of the intrinsic structure of bodies of knowledge. In this connection, let me make the following observations:

  1. Aristotelian logic is primarily the logic of philosophy, and not at all the logic of science; and in so far as Aristotle did not clearly distinguish philosophy and science, his logic is both confused and inadequate.

  2. Even as the logic of philosophical knowledge, it is restricted to the philosophy of nature, to what Aristotle calls physics. The Organon is totally inadequate as an account of metaphysical knowledge: its concepts, judgments, or purely analytical reasoning. The supposition that Aristotelian logic is applicable to metaphysics results in the false notion that metaphysics is exclusively, or even primarily, a deductive science, demonstrating conclusions from first principles.

  3. In general, the influence of the Posterior Analytics, as giving the picture of the structure of scientia--any scientia--is disastrous; for, in fact, the only science there pictured is mathematics, and primarily geometry. As Gilson has pointed out, Aristotle's logic, and especially the Posterior Analytics, cannot be applied to any of Aristotle's own philosophical works. His own Physics and Metaphysics violate the account of scientia given in the Posterior Analytics.

  4. The major errors which have arisen in the scholastic tradition, as a result of following Aristotle's Organon as if it were a good, a true, and an adequate logic, are these: an attempt to expound both physics and metaphysics in a too-simple deductive order, whereas in truth, these basic philosophical subject-matters are circular rather than linear in the connection of their propositions; a misconception of first principles, especially the law of contradiction, as if other truths could be drawn from them deductively, whereas they are merely regulative principles of other inferences; the failure to see the most of the basic truths of philosophy, being existential judgements, are the result of a posteriori inferences from fact, not deductive inferences from prior analytical principles.

All of these points, though they are primarily concerned with the intrinsic and objective order of knowledge itself, have some significance for the order of learning, and of teaching in relation to learning. But, certainly, one thing is already clear: the objective order of subject-matters,--of objects as knowable in themselves and apart from us,--does not and cannot determine the right subjective order of teaching and learning. We must find other principles, peculiarly relevant to the subjective order, in order to make these determinations. Let us proceed to them at once.

There are two basic principles which, it seems to me, help us determine the order of learning, and to adjust that subjective order to the objective order of subject-matters.

The first of these is the very nature of teaching itself. Teaching, like agriculture and like medicine, is a coöperative art, not a simply productive art, transforming the obediential potentialities of inert matter. Teaching, as a cooperative art, must work with the determinate potentialities of living matter--and the rules of teaching must be adapted to the very nature of learning. Let me expand a little on this point.

Hippocrates, who perfectly understood the nature of healing as an art coöperating with nature, distinguished three modes of therapy, and ordered them according to the degree in which they were cooperative--the best being the most cooperative with living matter, the worst being operative upon living matter as if it were dead and inert. He placed the control of regimen (the patient's diet, hours of sleep and work, climate, etc.) first; second, and as auxiliary to regimen, he placed medication, the introduction of foreign substances into the body to work as catalysts do; last, and recommended only as a last resort in extremity, he placed surgery, which is, strictly speaking, operative rather than cooperative, and therefore does violence to nature. Teaching is like healing. The basic modes of teaching can, therefore, be compared to the three types of therapy which Hippocrates distinguished. Indoctrination does violence to the mind, as surgery does violence to the body: one puts something in by force, as the other takes something out by force. Lectures and text-books are like medicine-only second-best as a method of teaching, and then good only as auxiliary to the prime procedure, which is the dialectical way, the way of teaching which conforms to the order of discovery in learning. The Socratic method is, in a sense, the only right method of teaching. Socrates is the prototype of the teacher, as Hippocrates is the prototype of the healer--for both had a proper respect for nature, and understood the subordination of themselves as artists. This is the meaning of Socrates' description of himself as a midwife in the birth of knowledge.

The second principle is the basic distinction between discovery and instruction as types of learning. Discovery is learning without a teacher; instruction is learning with a teacher's aid. But both are, as learning, essentially the same, and the order of learning must be essentially the same, therefore, whether the learner proceeds by discovery or by instruction. Furthermore, what is most important of all, since the teacher is always only a cooperative cause, and never a primary or sole cause of leaning, the intellectual activities which occur without aid in the case of discovery must be going on also in the case of instruction.

From these two principles, we can conclude that the order of teaching must follow the order of learning, and that this order is primarily the order of discovery, for, as we have seen, even in learning by instruction, the primary causes of learning are the same sort of acts which cause discovery, when the learning goes on without a teacher's aid. The significance of this point--which I think is of the greatest importance--may not be grasped unless it is put into contrast with the now prevalent error. Today, in most cases, teaching proceeds as if the order of teaching should follow the order of knowledge, the objective order of knowledge itself, even though we know that this objective order cannot be followed in the process of discovery. In fact, it is completely reversed. Instruction which departs from the order of discovery also departs from the order of learning, for the way of discovery is the primary way of the mind to truth, and instruction merely imitates nature in imitating discovery. The objective structure of knowledge in no way indicates the processes of the mind in growth.

Now the order of discovery is primarily inductive and dialectical, not deductive and scientific. Let me explain. The usual distinction between induction and deduction--going from particulars to universal or universals to particulars--has always seemed to be somewhat superficial, if, in fact, it is correct at all. Rather, it seems to me, the deductive order is going from what is more knowable in itself to what is less knowable in itself; and thus there is an objective foundation for less intelligible truths in more intelligible ones--the intelligibility being intrinsic to the object known, being secundum se, not quoad nos. In contrast, the inductive order is going from what is knowable to us to what is less knowable to us. Thus, the deductive order is the demonstration of conclusions from prior principles, or, where demonstration does not take place, the analytical expansion of prior truths in terms of their consequences; whereas the inductive order is the discovery of self-evident principles, on the one hand, and, on the other, it is the inferential procedure whereby every basic existential proposition is known--for no existential proposition (concerning God, or substance, or the diversity of essences) can be demonstrated deductively. All a posteriori inferences are inductive, not deductive, and these are among the most fundamental inferences of the mind in the discovery of truth about the things. The other fundamental step is the intuitive induction of first principles.

Therefore, the methods of teaching any subject-matter should be primarily inductive and dialectical, rather than deductive and simply expository, for the former method is a conformity of teaching to the order of learning, as that is naturally exhibited in the order of discovery, which teaching must imitate as a coöperative art; whereas the latter method is a conformity of teaching to the order of knowledge itself, and this is an order which should not determine teaching, for it does not determine learning. The practical implications of this conclusion can be quickly drawn:

First, for any subject-matter, and for philosophy preeminently (precisely because it is wisdom and the most difficult sort of knowledge to possess by way of speculative habit), teaching must be by the Socratic method.

Second, the Socratic, or dialectical, method is the only way to avoid the substitution of verbal memory for intellectual habit. It always puts questions before answers. It does not rest when a student gives a verbally right answer, but always tries to undermine the right answer to test it, for if it is just parrot-like speech, the answer will not stand the dialectical attack. It places the highest value on questions, rather than upon answers; for a question in search of answers is an educational dynamo, whereas an answer in search of the question it answers is an educational dud.

Third, it follows, of course, that lectures and text-books are taboo, for the most part, because lectures usually are deductive or analytical expositions following the order of knowledge, rather than dialectical inquires adapted to the order of discovery; and text-books are even worse than lectures as manuals for the memory, rather than challenges to the mind.

Fourth, right teaching must be done either without any books, if the teacher is a Socrates, or, if the teacher is not Socrates, the only books he can use to good effect are the very greatest books, on a given subject, which have ever been written, for only such books will be above both himself and his students; only such books will stimulate him to inquire and thus lead his students in inquiry; only such books will pose both teacher and students problems, rather than give them simply codified, and readily memorizable, answers.

Fifth, the simplest test for right teaching, --teaching well--ordered as an aid to learning,-is this: that the teacher should find himself actively engaged in discovery of the truth, at the same time that he is helping his students (though they be moving at a lower level) to make discoveries also, proportionate to their age and condition. When the teacher proceeds by the wrong methods--by lecture--expositions and quizzes on text-books or manuals-it seldom, if ever, happens that the teacher himself learns anything new. His state of mind is not an inquiring one. That shows he is not really doing the work of a teacher, for the work of a teacher must conform to the work of learning, and this can only take place if the teacher is really learning at the same time that he teaches.

Finally, it is only by such dialectical and inductive procedure, that the truth is learned, not in complete abstraction from the problems it solves or the errors it corrects, but in the context of complicated alternatives. This again is the trouble with text-books. They seldom make the problems live, or state the errors vigorously enough to make them real dangers and real obstacles to the mind.

IV. Conclusion

I should like to conclude with an observation on the life of philosophia perennis in the three great epochs of European intellectual history, for this has a bearing on the teaching of philosophy today.

In the modern period, we, like the middle ages, can do both sorts of work, and we must do both sorts for two reasons. (1) The old opponents have returned--the sophists, the atomists, etc. But the cultural situation has changed, because of science. Hence we must devise new arguments; the inductive work must be redone. (2) The advance of modern philosophy, like the advance of medieval philosophy, is proportionate to a cultural change. Medieval philosophy was improved by Christian faith--primarily in metaphysics and natural theology. Modern philosophy can improve in physics (philosophy of nature) and in logic, because of the great cultural achievement of modern times--the distinction between science and philosophy--unknown to the Greeks and the middle ages. In the spheres of physics and logic, "Modern philosophy" should be a term of praise, as Christian philosophy is in the spheres of metaphysics and natural theology.

We must not close our eyes to the fact that modern scholasticism has two defects. It fails to understand intrinsic opportunities of philosophy in the modern era; it fails to take a right pride in modernity. And it tries to do only one of the two kinds of philosophical work--the expository, the analytical and deductive, and not the inquiring, the dialectical and inductive. This is reflected in the way philosophy, and other subject-matters also, is taught in Catholic schools.

The reform of the methods of teaching (especially philosophy) is important, not only for the rectification of Catholic education with respect to means, as it works toward the right ends, but also for the sake of philosophy itself. Philosophia perennis cannot live unless it has living workers dwelling in its mansions, not just inmates and retainers. Live workers will come of age in any generation only if they are nourished by teaching which vitalizes them in all the ways of the life of thought. The prevalent teaching of philosophia perennis is truly disproportionate to its potential vitality. "When perennial philosophy shakes off the dead skin of scholasticism, and really comes to live in a modern metamorphosis, the event will be signified by a renewal of the dialectical enterprise with which philosophy originated in the Greek period, as well as by the renovation of the edifice which the Middle Ages raised upon Greek foundations. And each--the renewal and the renovation--will penetrate the other." That day, devoutly to be wished for, will not dawn without a basic rectification of the order of learning in Catholic institutions.

from an issue of the
EDUCATION BULLETIN
(1945)