Education and Culture · Philosophy of education · Progressivism · Uncategorized

Blogging as story telling: unveiling the progressivism at the heart of the trivium and quadrivium

This is the third blog, in a series of three, about story- making.

Let me make it clear when I use the word “story” I am not making a judgement on the truth, or otherwise, of the content rather I mean that the message is conveyed using story telling techniques.

The first blog describes how cognitive scientists use clever discursive techniques, such as analogy, to bring evidence from one field into the discourse of another. In other words construct stories to convey arguments.

The second blog was a thinly veiled story about the adoption of Christianity by Rome thus enshrining the Christian scriptures as the legitimised stories of the West. In order to protect its stories the church consolidated the distinction between the transcendental, or the power of the possible, and the material creating a discursive gap.

In this blog I want to show how Greek philosophers cast a veil over the use of analogy, or story making, changing the original meaning of a classic education. Also to show how power seeks to use tradition to protect itself from criticism and that far from being the best that has been thought and said tradition is, in reality, the out workings of power both for good and ill.

Phew, in 1200 words. Blogging as story telling indeed.

The power of analogy and the fall of the Trivium

Imagine a time when speaking skills, quick wit and the ability to engage in purposeful discourse had equal status with logic and knowledge. Soft skills had a place at the table. No we are not talking of a golden age prior to Michael Gove but of Greek society over two and a half thousand years ago.

The intellectuals of the time, the sophists, had a mixed reputation. Intellectuals, then as now, were considered to practice both sophistication and sophistry. The power of persuasion, and analogy, used to convey a proposition, was as important as the logic of the proposition. They taught the skill of being able to see the substance of the argument hidden behind the veil of sophistry as logic is drawn into discourse. The sophists, were also pragmatists. They believed that there had to be a point to the argument; a moral purpose.  At its heart the classic tradition of education is pragmatic, holistic, infused with moral purpose and based on the unified power of the word. In other words progressive.

Of course, there were those who disagreed. Let us call them (cue drum roll)……. the Greeks, ta da. The  sophists were Greek too but anyway this is a story not a history lesson. Socrates, was one, a Greek that is, as was Plato. They both believed that logic was the higher form of thinking and knowledge was important as a “thing in itself”. You can already see, two and a half thousand years later, the schism that is developing into the progressive / traditionalist dichotomy.

Some might say, “what has this to do with the here and now?” The answer is quite a lot actually because Christian scholars were heavily influenced by Plato. Remember Plato placed an emphasis on ideas the “inner”, which is a helpful proposition for a priesthood who are claiming super natural events in the material world.

Another Greek, Aristotle, had a resurgence in the medieval West as Islamic scholars most notably Ibn Rushd grappled with the philosophical implications of Islamic exegesis. Aristotle placed more emphasis on the experiential and the material world. In other words  the “outer”. Islam with its rigid monotheism had clearly anticipated the dangers of Greek metaphysics. The prophet of Islam was most certainly not the son of God nor was God in three forms. Islam also had little time for catholic transubstantiation; no water was turned into wine.

The church, or at least part of it, banned Aristotle. They did so presumably because the last thing a church would what is the truth of the material world, and by inference the claims of the church, being revealed by scholars as opposed to, say, divine revelation. I say presumably because the actual reasons are open to question.

The ban did not really stick nor was it universally applied. The church has always engaged with the intellectual life of the community it serves. It also has to vie, and find compromise, with other power groups. What emerged from this medieval maelstrom was the trivium and quadrivium. The trivium, “the inner” , concerned itself with “the word” and the quadrivium, “the outer” (see fig. 1 above), with representations of the material world such as math and geometry. You could say, crudely speaking that the former is how to think and the latter how that thought can be validated in the material world. The trivium is therefore studied first and the quadrivium second. The quadrivium now considered the higher of the two.

Therein lies the secret of the trivium and quadrivium. if you lift the discursive veil you will not find the means to develop critical thinking but exactly the opposite. It is a means to control who thinks what and how that thought is legitimated in the material world.

The word is no longer the art of story telling. Dialogue, or the dialectic, is replaced by strict didactic grammarians teaching Christian dogma. Study focused on the literal interpretation of the bible. The Western canon developed as a way of divorcing knowledge from the knower and inculcating the knower into the legitimated discourse of Christianity.

Math and the methods used to explore the experienced world put on a pedestal not because of its inherent qualities but because there is a need to control who can know it and how they use it. Evidence, logic and proof become important because it is difficult to establish most things that are not of the material world.

The result is that the church can argue  that it is both in favour of progress and at the same time insulate the transcendent, or the stories of the church from criticism. What the church wanted to do, whether rightly or wrongly, was fill the discursive gap between the “inner” and the “outer”, with the sacred “Word” of the scriptures.

The moral of the tale

The point of the three blogs is to try and show how knowledge and story-telling is intertwined. If we look at education today we can see the gap between the sacred and the profane. Academics with their impenetrable discourse have created a significant discursive gap between the sacred knowledge of research and the profanity of practice. As much as they like to protest otherwise. A gap filled by the pseudo research, and the story making of think tanks and lobby groups.

Individual subjects are strongly classified, that is to say, physics is not chemistry, mathematics or whatever. The vocational is strongly separated from the academic  Another tradition inherited from medieval times as the emerging state distinguished that which needed to be controlled from that which could be left to the family.

Neo-platonic forms of truth are still regarded as being the primary means of investigating the truth. We can also see that legitimated stories are often based upon mathematical or empirical evidence drawn into discourse. It is a fact, after all, that eight out of ten cats prefer Whiskas. A lack of empirical evidence is often cited to undermine arguments for progress.

On the other side of the coin we can see that many seem oblivious to the reality that analogy and argumentation, stories, are skills employed to sell concepts and construct the factual. Knowledge is accepted as fact when often it isn’t.  In effect, what we can see is that far from improving the quality of arguments the logic of the Greeks simply casts a veil over the the stories used to sell concepts.

The power of blogging is premised upon its story telling. It has the power to tell the stories of teachers in educational practice. Its influence is upon the discursive gap. Unfortunately those stories are up against some pretty stiff competition. Discerning the good and the bad is a skill in itself. Sadly too many seem to think that a likely tale, and a few statistics,  constitutes more than the practical experiences of teachers. As often as not it isn’t. I blame the Greeks.


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