by Noah Kipply-Ogman, Shimer College
Augustine's Concerning the Teacher describes language in an interesting way, declaring that it simply indicates. A phrase, we could say, asks our partner in dialogue to open a door in his or her soul. Learning, the goal of language, is reminding of understanding that is present in the soul but perhaps hidden or forgotten. But we're not here at this meeting of the ACTC to muse philosophically; we're here to talk about texts influencing our lives, an aspect of these texts that we often miss in class. Augustine's dialogue asked a question of me: it asked me how I listen and it asked me how I speak and write. If we have Augustine's understanding of language then the way we use words needs to change. Augustine taught me how not to use words. I can illustrate my learning through an analysis of conversations with my mother - I use words worst when talking to her. I won't say that I'm perfect in every way or that I'm imperfect in every way, but I can reflect on my conversations. Similarly, it helps me reflect on conversations of the past - it's easier to point out their mistakes than to find my own. In exploring a 1937 dialogue between Robert Hutchins and John Dewey, two of the 20th century's greatest educators, I noticed that the root of their disagreement is their divergent uses of individual words. With an analysis of the way in which they use the words 'metaphysics' and 'science', I think I can illuminate the pitfalls of which Augustine warns. The lesson we must learn from the mistakes of the past and from my own imperfections is to choose our words carefully - our words ask our fellows to open doors in their souls.
Augustine begins his dialogue by asking his son Adeodatus what it is we wish to accomplish by speaking. In speaking, it becomes clear, we teach. After a lengthy dialogue about the nature of words, in which we learn that words are signifiers and that to speak is to remind and therefore all learning is remembering, Augustine begins to speak while Adeodatus listens. Augustine explains that "words possess only sufficient efficacy to remind us in order that we may seek things, but not to exhibit the things so that we may know them." "So," he continues, "when things are known the cognition of the words is also accomplished, but by means of hearing words they are not learned." This is important. Words themselves are only signifiers that allow a person to remember a piece of understanding that is already understood. After exploring the difference between knowledge and belief, Augustine must ask what knowledge is. And how can one gain knowledge, he asks, when the only way we can learn is from remembering? "Referring now to all things which we understand," Augustine writes,
we consult not with the speaker who utters words, but the guardian truth within the mind itself, because we have perhaps been reminded by words to do so. Moreover, He who is consulted teaches; for He who is said to reside in the interior man is Christ, that is, the unchangeable excellence of God and His everlasting wisdom, which every rational soul does indeed consult.
Todd Breyfogle notes that "if a sign cannot exhaust the meaning of a thing, and if we are largely idiosyncratic about how we understand signs, the miracle is that we can communicate at all." Our communication must be through the difficult process of reminding because nothing new can be created in words. In order to be successful in that miraculous communication, we must recognize the possibility for different understandings of the same signs and move away from a rigid etymology. In our moving away from rigidity, we'll necessarily have to explore the way in which our words affect our fellows and the way in which our fellows' words affect us and, from that understanding, build a more communicative dialogue.
Augustine takes this to the next step, determining that words don't even express the mind of their speaker. Augustine outlines the existence of a class of words
Which is involved when who speaks signifies the thing which is thinking, but for the most part only to and certain others, while does not signify the same thing to the one to whom speaks nor to some others.
I would like to focus on this last warning that Augustine sounds. I think that this is the point where Augustine's dialogue can pass from being an interesting bit of philosophical musing on the nature of words and signifiers into a work of practical significance. Both Dewey and Hutchins, whose disagreements I'll explore in a moment, think that education must inspire action in the world. If we appreciate Augustine's understanding of words and hold this principle of worldly action, the way we use language must change.
I read the Augustine last fall in Shimer College's Introduction to Alternative Education, a tutorial I took with a fellow student, Tillie Kriemelmeyer and our esteemed dean at the time, Steven Werlin. Ever since reading it, I've though a lot about how I communicate using words. I try to ask myself what a word means to me and whether it will mean the same thing for the person with whom I'm speaking. Or, rather, whether it signifies the same piece of understanding. I'm not particularly good at it, nor have I mastered a language for talking about this use of words, but I'll try, if you'll give me a chance. And try to appreciate the words I use with a less-than-rigid set of meanings. I think that's the way we can build a more perfect communication.
In a discussion of a draft of this paper with my mother on Tuesday, we discussed the possibility of a perfect communication. If I were to perfectly understand the way in which my mother uses words, we'd be able to speak in her language. And vice versa. But we won't perfectly understand each others' use of words. If we both are conscious of each others' possibility for misunderstanding, however, we can still dialogue effectively - it's a joint responsibility on the part of the speaker and the listener. I'll choose my words as carefully as I can; if you'll open the doors in your souls that I indicate, we'll be able to dialogue. I'll try and do the same for your questions and for my fellow presenters' papers.
Conversations with my mother are particularly fruitful for finding words with which both of us should be more careful - as in most child-parent relationships, we don't quite understand each other. But we do have a relationship that allows us to talk about almost anything. And I'm often asking the time-honored question 'am I normal'? She offers a great deal of insight, and it often involves the phrase 'developmentally appropriate'. I react strongly to such language, thinking it reduces me to a mechanistic system. But she doesn't mean development in a strict biological or physiological sense; she's talking about a broader concept of development that includes both social and biological factors. For her, there isn't a strict causal relationship between things, just a correspondence between particular actions and thoughts at particular times for people in the same biological and social systems. That understanding of the word 'development' is something that I can appreciate. And when my mother uses that word and I try to approach it in her way, I can see truth when before I was blinded by my strong reaction to the word. In order to build a more effective discourse that will lead to fewer arguments, my mother and I should work to understand that the words we choose are unimportant; what is important is the part of our souls that is illuminated by whatever external light is shed by our words. By letting go of a rigid understanding of the meanings of words and our proprietary meanings, we can lay the foundation on which to erect a stronger dialogue.
If you'll indulge me a bit, I'd like to talk about the topic in which I'm really interested. First, a little background. In the 1930s, the debate between progressive educational thought and a more traditionalist educational thought was alive and in the newspapers. The progressive thought was represented by John Dewey, who was not quite as much of a progressivist as we think. Similarly, the neo-traditionalist thought was represented by Robert Hutchins, who wasn't very rigid in his neo-traditionalism. Dewey didn't create the Dewey Decimal system - that was Melvil Dewey. John Dewey is widely seen as the quintessential educational philosopher and a founder of pragmatism - his educational philosophy has been at the root of reform movements throughout the 20th century. Hutchins was president of the University of Chicago and implemented what became the first Great Books curriculum with the help of Mortimer Adler. He's why we're here. And me in particular. Shimer adopted the Hutchins plan in 1950.
Hutchins, in 1936, published a book called The Higher Learning in America, in which he critiqued the structure of the American college system and asked for its replacement with a system based in the studies of classics. His university would be organized into only three faculties of Natural Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities, with a fourth faculty of Metaphysics set above them. Dewey offered a review of Hutchins's book in the December and January 1936-7 editions of the journal Social Frontier. Hutchins was asked to reply, and did so in the February edition. Dewey ended the discussion with a rejoinder in March.
Dewey's criticisms of Hutchins's reliance on authority are mired in misunderstandings of the word 'metaphysics' in a way that clearly illustrates the validity of Augustine's worry. Dewey, wary of any authority other than a democratic one, asks who in Hutchins's proposed system chooses which books are classics, a question Hutchins avoids in all his writings. Dewey asks also what role a faculty of Metaphysics will play in being above the other three faculties. The words that Hutchins uses or implies to describe the role of metaphysics, words like 'higher' and 'first' and 'fixed and eternal' imply control and power for Dewey, something anathema to the democratic organization of disciplines that would appeal more to him. Dewey asks what type of creative thought is possible if it is "assumed that fundamental truths and the hierarchy of truth are already known." He misses the point. Hutchins simply sees the faculty of metaphysics as being prior to the other faculties because it asks questions that are prior to those asked by the other disciplines. He preempts Dewey's criticism, writing in his book, "I am not here arguing for any specific theological or metaphysical system. I am insisting that consciously or unconsciously we are always trying to get one." Hutchins's Metaphysical faculty openly asks those fundamental questions and studies how they have been answered. Dewey reads the word differently. When he objects to a Metaphysical faculty, Dewey is objecting to a governing body that has all of the answers. "Implicit in every assertion of fixed and eternal first truths," Dewey writes, " the necessity for some human authority to decide just what these truths are." He clearly reads Hutchins's word 'metaphysics' as implying fixed, eternal and known, for Hutchins uses none of those words. Hutchins's and Dewey's mutual misunderstanding of the word 'metaphysics' gets in the way of their having an effective conversation. They could have had a meaningful discussion asking the question Hutchins refuses to ask - who determines what a classic is?
The word 'science' also enters into their conversation in a misleading way. Dewey sees experience as fundamental to education. Writing in The School and Society, Dewey describes the natural work of the child in the ideal home. "Participation in these household tasks," he writes, "becomes an opportunity for gaining knowledge. The ideal home would have a miniature laboratory in which inquiries could be directed. If we organize and generalize all this, we have the ideal school." HJ Kannegeisser has proposed that science, for Dewey, is exactly that: the creation of more and more accurate abstract models of the world as we enlarge our sphere of understanding. Science and education are therefore inextricably linked. Hutchins, however, understands the word 'science' in a narrow way. Science, for Hutchins, is the scientific method of building abstractions describing the world. In Higher Learning, he complains that "our erroneous notion of progress has thrown the liberal arts out of the curriculum overemphasized the empirical sciences." But the entire scheme of Hutchins's university is based around building models of the world, which is what Dewey means when he says 'science'. What are the social sciences other than a description of the world using a set of models? And the Humanities? Freud's conception of the mind, Eliot's metaphor and suggestive language, and Bohr's atom are all abstractions; all of them fit into Dewey's notion of science. But the two men get bogged down in the details of who believes science belongs where, ignoring that they signify different things with the same word - they've fallen into the trap about which Augustine warns us.
The debate between Dewey and Hutchins could have explored important ideas about education in a nuanced way, as both men do in their individual work, but instead, because the two men failed to take Augustine's warning about the nature of words, a chance for interaction between two of the greatest educational thinkers of the day was lost. We must learn from their mistakes, and, I suppose from my own, and from Augustine's accurate picture of the nature of language, remembering that words are signifiers, nothing more, and that we can communicate only through the signified. Our choice of words must take that into account; we need to choose our words in such a way that they signify what we intend to signify rather than holding onto a dogmatic etymology. We must choose our words carefully - our words ask our fellows to open doors in their souls.