“Liberating Education” by Marsha Familaro Enright, is the final chapter in Common Ground On Common Core. This chapter discusses the history of education in the U.S. since the time of the Pilgrims, and what education would like in a fully free society and laissez-faire market. Click on the link to read the PDF of this chapter.
By Marsha Familaro Enright
President, The Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute,
sponsor of The Great Connections Program
The Economic Stage is Set
In recent decades, the creative destruction of capitalism has changed the face of the U.S. economy, destroying many former giants of industry like TWA and Montgomery Wards, integrating others into colossal conglomerates, like GE. Simultaneously, thousands of new, small businesses grew from the work and talent of retired, outplaced workers. These developments were made possible by the adaptability and creativity of Americans.
Thomas Friedman’s 2005 runaway bestseller about globalization, The World Is Flat, argues that our remarkably cheap, worldwide communications technology is changing the nature of work even further. Internet email, Web sites, satellite links, and the rapidly expanded use of computer technology to automate many functions are unleashing change as fundamental as that of the Gutenberg press.
At root, these changes are empowering individuals around the globe. Most apparent is the ability of millions of people with good technical skills in faraway lands to offer excellent work for half or less of U.S. labor prices. “Global Outsourcing for the Little Guy,” in the Chicago Tribune (5/29/2006) reports on this phenomena. Web site designs that cost thousands of dollars in the U.S. can be created for $750 in India. India’s system of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and the powerful ambition of its long-impoverished people make their huge population an awesome pool of talent.
Elance.com, a job-bidding Web site also mentioned in the article, empowers individuals and small businesses in the U.S., too. This website especially helps those with the creativity, adaptability, and great collaborative skills that have kept U.S. business in the forefront of innovation—and rich. These key ingredients enable individuals to offer unique skills and products to the market, thereby maintaining a market edge.
“The Gartner Group, the technology consultants, coined a term to describe the trend in the information technology world away from specialization and toward employees who are more adaptable and versatile. The group calls the employees ”Versatilists.” Building employee versatility and finding employees who are already or are willing to become Versatilists “will be the watchword for career planning. “…Versatilists are capable not only of constantly adapting but also of constantly learning and growing,” says Friedman. These are people who have the ability to master technical knowledge and can easily adapt and move from one area of expertise to another.
The highly adaptable Versatilist can effectively move from a job requiring one skill set to another, like Marcia Loughry, whom Friedman interviewed. As her former functions became outsourced or obsolete, she moved from an Electronic Data Systems (EDS) word-processing job in 1978 to four other jobs, taught herself Novell Netware and acquired other skills and knowledge. Eventually she rose to one of the highest positions at EDS—enterprise architect—all through curiosity, learning, excellent reasoning skills, and a willingness to adapt.
“The deep technical skills around math and science are going to get you in the door, but they are not what are going to keep you there or make you wildly successful. What will keep you there is developing a broader view,” said Loughry.
What fosters a broad view? The ability to continually learn. How can we use education to nurture young people so they will be well prepared for a life of versatility? At root, human developmental needs and psychological tendencies must be respected. Teaching methods honed to fit learning and development can make all the difference.
The Montessori Approach
This is not a new puzzle to those familiar with the Montessori Method. Maria Montessori used almost 50 years of observation and experimentation deeply informed by science to hone her ideas and methods on education. These methods stoke individual curiosity and ingenuity while ensuring that students master basic skills and effectively ingest huge amounts of information.
Although, in the U.S., Montessori schools are known mainly as preschools, many Montessori schools go through 8th grade and some even through high school. In the past 20 years, these schools have grown rapidly throughout the country, due to their superior system for producing knowledgeable, happy, highly motivated, and capable students.
University of Virginia psychology professor Angeline Stoll Lillard’s 2005 book, Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius, succinctly explains Montessori’s principles and the research evidence supporting them. The Great Connections’ approach grows out of the application of Montessori principles to the adult level of education.
“When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of education.” Maria Montessori
When it comes to attention and learning, Montessori could have been talking about anyone, not just the child. Without attention, there is no learning. Attentional resources (focus) are limited. They must be used well to efficiently learn the most possible.
Further, the developed ability to concentrate on work and goals and to self-maintain interest and focus allow a person to succeed in long-term projects and purposes. In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Jerry Kirkpatrick calls this “Concentrated Attention.”
In his studies on intensely productive and creative people, University of Chicago research psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi found that certain conditions elevate the ability to pay attention, and pay attention deeply for long periods of time. He also recognized that specially designed practices in Montessori classrooms provide these conditions throughout the school day. His research group, including the work of Kevin Rathunde, has found many exceptional outcomes from these Montessori practices.
The use of the Three-Period Lesson is a case in point.
Much scientific research shows that humans learn best if:
1. They are highly motivated to learn the material for some personal end.
2. They are physically engaged.
3. They understand the application of the material to their lives.
The classic Montessori Three-Period Lesson ingeniously engages human attention. With small groups of students, teachers (or “Guides” as we prefer to call them in Montessori) demonstrate learning materials specially designed to focus attention on an important concept, such as rates of change in calculus. Pictures, objects, sounds, and machines make the idea vivid. These Montessori materials engage the student’s whole intellect, sensory, motor, and conceptual, thereby powerfully imprinting memory.
The Guide gathers one to four students ready for the particular lesson, seats them in front of the materials, and then demonstrates their use with as few words as possible. For example, the Guide might use fraction circles to demonstrate the addition of fractions. (see picture below)
These are sets of metal, pie-shaped circles cut into different quantities of wedges with little knobs on each wedge. For example, one circle consists of 4 wedges, another of 12, to demonstrate fourths and twelfths. There are numerous kinds of problems possible with these circles, including all the operations of arithmetic. In the most basic, the child can literally see the relationship of different proportions to each other by taking the wedges out of the circles and putting them back in—in different combinations. Each lesson demonstrates one possible use of the materials.
During the lesson, the Guide speaks little, allowing the student to focus and observe the demonstrated examples carefully. The Guide encourages questions from the student; she also, models curiosity, and triggers discussion with questions of her own when students are not forthcoming. Truly successful teachers are exceptional at listening to students’ questions, surmising what students need to know, and modeling and encouraging thinking.
After the fraction demonstration, the Guide asks the student to explain what to do with the materials to solve the next example and moves the materials according to the student’s instructions. Finally, the Guide asks the student to demonstrate the material, turning student into teacher and thereby requiring a more complete level of understanding for the student’s performance.
After the lesson, the student is free to pursue more problems right then or use these materials later to practice until the material is mastered, at a time when the student feels interested in working on the material (on the principle that one learns best when one is intrinsically motivated). The Guide regularly takes notes while observing the children in her class and if she finds a child avoiding some material, she makes it her job to think of a way to interest the child in the work.
A key to the Montessori Method’s success is ensuring that the amount of material conveyed at one lesson is not overwhelming. More frequent, shorter lessons with follow-up exercises are preferable to one long demonstration. Of course, preparing shorter, pointed lessons is far more taxing to the teacher, but the Montessori Method has systems to make this aspect of teaching less time consuming.
The Three-Period Lesson can be fruitfully adapted to many college-level subjects. In fact, some college classes, such as chemistry, often use a version of the Three-Period Lesson, with the experiment as the final student demonstration. However, as with most excellent methods, the devil is in the details, which is why The Great Connections’ guides are trained in Montessori principles.
Lectures in Their Proper Place
If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject. The best lectures essentialize the subject matter conveyed by the lecture.
However, as a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow the teacher to recount his or her knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions and side issues from the listener. Although sometimes necessary, lectures are usually a difficult way to learn because they frequently run counter to human learning tendencies.
For several reasons, students must exert an enormous amount of effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures. A lecture requires the learner to mostly listen and look a little. Unlike learning methods that make learning easy, the lecture usually does not engage the whole mind, including vivid perceptions and imagination, or the body of the student. Listening and looking during a lecture involves little sensory-motor work, which normally helps cement learning in memory.
One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® are preferred for lectures is because they offer sensory stimulation, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed. Although, like books, lectures can have illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations in a lecture as long as he or she wants.
Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the student, but during a lecture, there is very little interaction between student and teacher. Often the lecture is aimed at a large or general audience and thus cannot address individual student goals, interests and comprehension difficulties.
A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation or replay what the lecturer said. Once confused, the student may find the rest of the lecture very difficult if not impossible to follow. Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture.
In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story. Stories incorporate drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax and resolution. Winston Churchill was a master at this. This method utilizes human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places and things more easily than abstract ideas.
Excellent lecturers use plenty of concretes to make the information vivid and connected to real experience and, at least in imagination, to stir perceptual memory and bodily feelings of the listener. Imaginative work and bodily feelings help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer MIT physics professor Walter Lewin spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable classes.
The best learners are active learners. They can gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn for their own reasons. They expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to concretize the ideas they’re hearing. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture.
Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture internal motivation and inherent interest in acquiring knowledge—qualities essential in the new global economy.
A long school career of lectures, drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs usually turns most students away from enthusiastic learning at school. They are only too often motivated mainly by external rewards of grades, adult approval, superior social position and the acquisition of credentials.
Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to, and psychologically painful for most students, that students work hard to avoid them. During lectures, young students often goof around; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” They are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.
Older students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple choice tests without attending lectures.
These students aren’t inherently bad, they are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They more profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.
Sadly, they often feel guilt, frustration and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education. Many students desperately need help to become “active learners,” interested in the material and in charge of their own education.
These are some of the reasons we at The Great Connections program are so bent on instituting the best learning environment possible. The best methods result not only in superior knowledge but also in the development of highly needed motivation and self-confidence.
What college graduates do with the information they learn will now, more than ever, determine their competitive edge. Consequently it is imperative that education teach how to think, create and integrate. Broad knowledge and capability to learn combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one’s repertoire is essential to the adaptable Versatilist. The liberal arts and sciences studied at The Great Connections program is specifically designed to develop these qualities in students, even if they’ve endured a lifetime of lectures.
Developing broad knowledge is directly related to the work of integration. Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind’s subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller’s 1956 psychological classic “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information“) If you’ve ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here’s the reason, and it’s one of the reasons for our limited attentional resources.
Ideas—abstractions—are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a single audio-visual concrete, a word or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of “baby,” and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You’ve saved a lot of time and energy.
Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas, like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like “mammal” make the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas and actions into skills is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.
The person who is a master at the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge is a highly effective thinker.
This is the reason the curriculum of The Great Connections emphasizes work on subject matter across domains of knowledge, studying books that integrate philosophy with economics, epistemology with poetry. Further, integration is encouraged by the consistent emphasis on asking students to relate what is learned in one class and course to another.
Integration of knowledge across broad ranges of subjects is a characteristic of creativity—and versatility. Research consistently finds that highly creative people tend to have very broad, as well as deep, interests and knowledge. They apply unconventional information and ideas to problems, integrating information in unusual ways across conventional subject areas.
Famed physicist Richard Feynman is a case in point. Think of his brilliant demonstration of the space shuttle temperature problem, Challenger’s O-Ring: by dropping an O-ring in an ordinary glass of ice water, he simply and directly proved it could not stand up to low temperatures. His demonstration integrated an esoteric, bedeviling engineering problem with a mundane experience.
He was also famous for his wide-ranging interests, which included samba bands and experiments on ants. He put no limits on his curiosity about the world. Feynman’s measured IQ was in the high range—124—but not what IQ test-makers consider genius (135+). Contrary to traditional thought but consistent with research findings, most recognized geniuses do not have IQ’s in the 135+ range. (No one knows how individuals acclaimed as geniuses because of their work, such as DaVinci and Newton, would have scored on the test. Given the findings with current individuals, the results of an actual IQ test on Newton might surprise us!) Measured IQs of people considered to be geniuses are 116 or higher, apparently making an above average IQ a condition—but not a sufficient one—for high creativity. (Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity).
“What I cannot create, I do not understand” Richard Feynman
Unfortunately, IQ tests—and most tests—cannot measure working creativity and intelligence. In other words, they don’t adequately measure how intelligence is put into life’s service by creatively solving problems .
The number of highly creative and successful business people who score average to low on SAT tests, for example, is indicative of the test’s inadequacy in measuring working intelligence.
Besides IQ, other conditions seem to be equally important to the development of creativity, conditions which we can create in educational settings, thereby enabling education to make a significant difference.
For example, the tendency to amass information from close, first-hand observation
is very important. Michael Faraday, pictured here, exhibited this tendency par excellence as a young man: he had no formal education and knew only arithmetic, but discovered the laws of electromagnetism through fascinated observation of and experiments on nature.
A mind that is curious and constantly problem solving is another characteristic of the creative. Take the inventor of VELCRO, George Mestral, for instance. He and his dog became covered with burrs during a walk. Examining how the burrs use microscopic hooks to stick to the loops of his pant fabric, he realized he could make a new type of fastener. A little nature hike turned into a billion-dollar industry.
What’s needed in education to develop creativity?
We cannot change what nature gives our students in terms of basic intelligence. However, we can offer a program that nurtures those abilities and habits of mind that are known to be needed for creativity and productivity such as:
- Develops their objective reasoning skills, not just in science and math, but all domains of knowledge, including such areas as art, history, and literature.
- Not only informs students, but provides them with a broad array of information, ancient and modern.
- Guides them in connecting information and ideas from one domain of knowledge to another (the way highly creative people do), by:
- Teaching through works that are cross-domain, like Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, a work of moral philosophy that founded the study of economics
- Guiding them to draw cross-disciplinary connections by example; pointing out examples of the way in which original thinkers do this.
- Encourages their curiosity by:
- Encouraging their questioning
- Modeling enthusiasm and curiosity in what is being studied
- Encourages their careful observation of the world through:
- Demonstrating careful observation and the relation of any idea to the facts on which it rests
- Questioning the observational/factual basis of their ideas
- A curriculum infused with deep questions about meaning and purpose, which connects knowledge to living by:
- Always asking what any given fact or idea means to human life
- Asking of any knowledge: to whom is this information valuable and how will it be used?
Using the Great Books, our curriculum schools students in timeless ideas, useful in any era or place, by the best thinkers in civilization. These works are extremely influential today. They include works from philosophy to economics, mathematics to literature, history to science and more. Simultaneously, the the Great Books’ authors and their ideas serve as examples of the highest in creative thinking skills.
Properly schooled to think deeply about these works, a student economically recognizes patterns, trends and influences everywhere in culture, from art to business, from job trends to medical discoveries.
One small example: Did you know that there was a time when people were confused about how something could be one thing now and another thing in the future? How could something be an acorn now and yet the very same thing is an oak tree later? They could not figure out how that worked. I’m sure you all take for granted the idea that something can actually be one thing yet potentially another—like a baby is potentially an adult human.
However, it took the genius of ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle to resolve this problem with the identification of the concepts of “actual” and “potential.” Try to imagine our world without these ideas—how could we think about science and technology, among many other things.
Our students learn about such great ideas as Aristotle’s breakthrough, along with the important fact that so much we take for granted in our great civilization was invented by creative individuals all through the ages. Further, reflecting on concepts that we take for granted raises the students’ analytic thinking skills. This is just one benefit of studying the Great Books.
Knowledge Across Categories
Through use of the Great Books coupled with assignments posed by our teachers, our classes purposefully integrate knowledge from one domain to another and encourage students to find connections between seemingly disparate material, just like creative thinkers such as Feynman and Mestral. Teachers urge students to constantly seek connections among these great ideas and between the ideas and our contemporary world. Unfortunately, most college curriculums and faculties make no attempt to execute these crucial tasks.
Discussing the place that a fact, idea or theory has in human life is a constant aim. Teachers consistently require—and offer–—proof for statements and beliefs and explicit logical arguments. Everyone checks their premises. Facts and truth, however unpleasant, are the standard. By modeling and emphasizing these practices, our faculty encourage our students to have excellent observational skills.
How to deal with unpleasant facts without denying them is also a highly encouraged skill. Teachers who model such thinking teach volumes. Our special teacher training ensures these aims.
Ultimately, students will learn the skills needed to think objectively.
Collaboration and Teamwork
With the special methods we use, an elaboration of Socratic Practice (Collaborative Inquiry methods), students learn to deeply understand others’ points of view and communicate their own clearly. These skills are crucial to successful teamwork in any profession, as well as life in general. Our Advisor Michael Strong is an international expert in this method.
When The Great Connections is implemented as a full time program, students will participate in collaborative research work and business internships throughout the year. Explicitly tied to the curriculum and to individual professions that students want to explore, these internships will greatly enhance teamwork skills.
These activities and more will give students a breadth of experience as well as a breadth of thinking so important to the creative Versatilist.
Lastly, the close, in-person interaction of students and faculty as well as outside experts and special guests in and out of class facilitate development of these skills and further nurture the kind of deep, thoughtful examination of ideas, thinking, purposes and assumptions that are so radically life-changing and empowering.
“First We Must Inspire, Not Just Inform”
By embodying great thinking, respect for independent judgment, and deep appreciation of individual freedom, the faculty model the very values on which the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute is founded.
The student is a “spiritual embryo,” with his or her own innate pattern of growth ready to unfold, delicately and amazingly, given the right psychological and physical environment. The teacher’s role in this unfolding cannot be underestimated.
Maria Montessori said: Teachers “have to conquer minds stirring up the great emotions of life,” to achieve real learning in students. In other words, teachers must tap into students’ deepest desires and values, such as love, joy, and pride, to motivate students. And, although Aristotle’s dicta “All men by nature desire to know” captures the human species’ trait of curiosity, curiosity can be squashed through ridicule or sapped through boredom by teachers—or coaxed into riotous flowering.
Great teachers are often transformative to the student, helping him or her learn to love knowledge and serious work, to acquire heightened reasoning skills, to look at many sides of a problem, to gather information from far-reaching domains in order to find solutions and to be self-reflective and reasonable – all important ingredients to future success.
Famed investor Warren Buffet, who did not want to go to college, said of his time achieving a master’s degree at Columbia University, “But I didn’t go there for a degree, I went for two teachers who were already my heroes.”
These principles necessitate teachers of the highest order: those with the utmost respect for their students, who can teach by example and guidance through difficult material.
While it is possible to be competent in communicating information and in conveying some of these traits long distance, in-person interaction is the most compellingly effective method. We actively seek technology of all kinds to creatively facilitate learning and collaboration and make scholars and public intellectuals from around the world accessible to our students. However, classes are in person with skilled and specially trained teachers.
Let’s examine some ways teachers influence students.
Teachers and Activation Energy
Csikszentmihalyi notes that human beings have limited mental resources and energy when it comes to paying attention (focusing on material), and these should be used wisely. Hence, our program keeps these factors in mind and seeks to facilitate attention.
A small group of people, like concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine, seem to find riveting interests when they are mere toddlers. This kind of person often barrels full speed ahead in what they want to do; but most people are not as definite or enthusiastic about any particular interest. Teachers can make a difference in the subjects in which students become interested and even their choice of profession.
Often, a passionate teacher triggers an individual’s interest in a new subject. A previously unknown, boring, or distasteful field becomes the person’s area of professional interest through their teacher. I’ve seen many a student with no previous interest in, or maybe even a repulsion to, cicadas or worms become enthralled with them after an enthusiastic teacher shows them the interesting parts of the worm or the weird way the cicada flies. The teacher fuels what research psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls “activation energy.”
Many complex and deeply engaging areas of knowledge and skill require an enormous amount of unrewarding work before they become enjoyable. Ballet dancing, mastering physics, or successfully managing employees are a few examples. Initially the learner must expend intense mental energy in order to focus on the learning: this is the “activation energy.” Learning a musical instrument is a good example: the student spends hours practicing physical movements and enduring awful sonic productions before acquiring enough skill to make enjoyable music!
In the early 20th century, Montessori noted the same phenomena and realized its connection to teaching: “I believed that at the start the teaching material had to be associated with the voice of the teacher which called and roused the [students] and induced them to use the material and educate themselves,” Maria Montessori.
A great teacher like the character of Edward James Olmos in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” or Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society,” helps students through difficult material with contagious excitement and the ability to make it dramatically interesting and well-related to students’ deepest needs and values.
Long-time Montessori teacher Pat Schaefer summed it up, “First: we must inspire, not just inform. Second: It is in relationship that the secret of [human learning] power is released.”
Teachers and Great Questions
On the precipice of full adult life, the college student needs answers to the great questions: “Why am I here?” ”How should I live?” ”How should I deal with other people?” “What should I do with my life?” If the student is not already asking himself these questions, it is his teacher’s job to show him how to ask them and how to find good answers.
Knowing how to pose the right questions can lead to a great awakening with unforeseen, amazing consequences. Forestry Consultant Charles Tomlinson often regaled friends and family with stories of his experience at The University of the South (called “Sewanee”) with “Abbo.” Charles claimed himself a rather complacent product of a middleclass Southern family when he encountered “Abbo,” English Professor Abbott Cotton Martin. Abbo spent considerable hours poking holes in everything Charles took for granted, from football to religion, with some English literature thrown in for good measure. This was Abbo’s stock-in-trade.
Abbo taught Charles to thoroughly question and examine what he thought he knew, as well as his beliefs. But Abbo didn’t just throw students in the water of quandaries, he made himself available to talk all during the week, not just during Sunday office hours. Charles learned to “check his premises” through Abbo’s prodding as well as reading Ayn Rand. The other wonderful teachers at Sewanee helped too. They inspired him to demand more of himself, leading to a long, creatively productive, exciting life.
This included deeply influencing many, many people, including Jaroslav Romanchuk, a major figure in the opposition to Belarus’ authoritarian government.
Active Listening and Independent Judgment
Discipline must come through liberty. . . . We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.
Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952)
Inspiration is the fundamental mission of the teacher, because of motivations’ deep importance to learning. Active Listening is a powerful teaching tool which promotes an inspiring relationship between teacher and student. For one thing, Active Listening conveys deep respect for the individual’s independence in thought and value.
“Be “careful not to ask [your] questions of the [students]. Only when [students] seek to answer questions which they themselves ask, do they commit themselves to the hard work of finding answers that are meaningful to them…give only as much guidance and encouragement as is necessary to elicit the [students’] interest.” Maria Montessori
Active Listening is a key skill enabling teachers to nurture independent judgment. The Active Listener authentically tries to understand what the other person means, empathizing with the other’s point of view by working hard to grasp his or her full context. This means trying to understand the other person’s level of knowledge about a subject, their age, what emotional issues may be affecting their thinking, and the set of ideas they are using to grasp the subject.
Used in teaching, this means the Active Listener asks clarifying questions about the student’s terms, respectfully allowing the student time to finish what he or she is saying before responding and, importantly, conveying an attitude of alert interest in what the student says.
The Active Listener must try to leave aside any personal feelings about the subject and squash the desire to assert and forcefully drive home the rightness of his or her own opinion. These actions only serve to distract a student from deep thinking and learning by bringing in issues of social hierarchy, personal power, and self-worth (i.e., do I know enough, what does the teacher think of me, he’s got more status than I, I should listen to him). These issues elicit powerful, distracting emotions.
Further, the Active Listener tries to sense any motives in the student’s statements beyond the informational. For example, if a student in a class on Freud asks “What if a son is extremely fond and affectionate toward his mother—does that mean he has an Oedipus complex?” The teacher needs to be aware that the student may be feeling anxiety about his love for his mother and respond with gentleness, general reassurance, and kindness.
Active Listening promotes the spread of truth. Only by Active Listening do we end up having a full idea of what the other person means and thereby gain the opportunity to respond with appropriate facts and reasoning.
Independent judgment is the well-spring of real choice, and true individuality and judgment is well-developed through good discussion. Unfortunately, these days teachers sometimes find it difficult to conduct good discussions because students have been led to believe all opinions are equal in value and everyone should open their mouths to babble whatever they wish, no matter how inaccurate or trivial. Resulting from the reign of the Post Modernist attack on objectivity, this belief cripples students’ minds by encouraging them to think that any opinion is acceptable, regardless of foundation, as long as it is theirs.
While stoking their egos by making them feel whatever they think is important, this practice stops them from learning that true, valuable opinion must be grounded in facts and good reasoning.
Postmodernist ideology further deforms a student’s concept of self by equating diversity with group membership. In the Post Modernist schema, one’s diversity depends on race or ethnic background or sexual preference rather than considered, ideological judgment. It promotes a concept of tribal or social diversity rather than true ideological difference.
In contrast, Active Listening in the classroom conveys a deep respect for the independence of the other person’s mind: the Active Listener takes the student’s ideological point of view seriously and tries to respond to it carefully. The aim is full understanding of what the other is saying in the service of arriving at truth. Just imagine the kind of productive political discussions we all might have if we used these principles!
Some people have a rare, natural ability or tendency to listen like this, but since it can be learned, there’s hope for the rest of us. It is also typical of the Montessori teacher, because of his or her deep training in careful observation of students.
“It is a sign of crudity and indigestion to throw up what we have eaten in the same condition it was swallowed down; and the stomach has not performed its office, if it has not altered the figure and shape of what was committed to it for concoction…Let the tutor make his pupil thoroughly sift everything he reads, and lodge nothing in his fancy upon mere authority…To the fragments borrowed from others he will transform and bend together to make a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment. His education, labor,and study aim only at forming that.” Michael Montaigne
Socratic Practice is a formidable method that, when used properly, incorporates Active Listening at its best. Some of you may have been to classes that mimic this style of teaching. In these, a teacher might ask a question like “What is justice?” and then proceed to tell students they’re wrong when they give an answer the teacher doesn’t want. Well, that’s wrong; Socratic questioning is meant to develop the student’s ability to think about a subject, not to test them and catch them when they are wrong or call them on the carpet for the right answer.
Teachers looking for the right answer encourage students to focus on pleasing the teacher, not on thinking for himself or herself. The excellent teacher aims at helping students learn how to find the right answer themselves. They help students use the facts and best theories available while learning to think well.
Teachers skillfully using Socratic Practice often have to spend time rehabilitating students after a lifetime of being told what to learn, what is the “right” answer— or that any answer is right, with no standard of truth. Students often view school as the place to feed back the answer the teacher wants to hear, not learn new knowledge in order to figure out the truth with their own powers.
Consequently, in the beginning of a program using Socratic Practice, the teacher (often called “tutor,” i.e. guide to learning) must work especially hard to shape the learning environment. Just as in any Montessori school, the prepared environment is a key to success in developing the thriving, independent-minded learner.
Physically, the environment must be quiet All participants are required to respect the appointed time of discussion, with no phone calls, text messages, etc. They sit in a circle facing each other. Attention must be on the discussion, and all participants are expected to have read the assigned text.
Psychologically, the tutor shapes the environment by many principles. He or she requires a formal politeness among discussants, to encourage rational, civil discourse. Sometimes participants must address each other by title and last name (e.g., Ms. Smith and Mr. Murphy).
Unless a student starts the discussion with a question about the study material, the tutor leads off with a thoughtful question about the reading—or often a factual question if the material is mathematical or scientific.
At our program, students are given extra, explicit instruction in reasoning skills and logic, to make them more consciously aware of how to reason well, both inductively (e.g., how to make an accurate generalization) and deductively (e.g., how to derive a conclusion from already-given facts and ideas). All these practices serve to develop student reasoning skills.
The tutor must walk a fine line, skillfully encouraging excellent reasoning while being careful not to discourage students from talking because they might have errors in their arguments.
Learning to reason objectively about complex material requires the willingness to entertain possibly incorrect ideas in order to examine them fully, to measure them against the facts, and to analyze their rational foundation.
If a student is too fearful of looking foolish or feeling humiliated when caught in an error, he or she won’t explore complex ideas thoroughly enough to find out if they are true.
On the other hand, students are not allowed to have bull sessions and their opinions are not all equal. Only those opinions arrived at objectively through facts and reasoning are considered worthwhile.
The tutor must skillfully encourage questions and comments evincing an earnest search for truth, while discouraging or disallowing talk in which the student is proving his knowledge or disingenuous agreement with the tutor.
During a seminar on Aristotle’s Politics, if a student who says “Richard McKeon says that Aristotle’s politics….” is deflected from this line of discussion by a question such as “Do you think that is true? What does Aristotle say that makes you think that?” The tutor aims to bring the discussion back to the facts of the text studied, plus the student’s own experience and reasoning. In this way, the tutor encourages observations of the facts, generalizations closely derived from the facts, and conclusions reasoned from the facts.
Our Advisor John Tomasi implemented this method in his hugely successful special program, The Political Theory Project at Brown University. He says: “Kids are sick and tired of being told what to think. They want to make up their own minds. They want to be challenged.” The kind of work done through Socratic Practice discussions of the Great Books does exactly that.
The Habit of Thought
Questions and questioning of a special type are central to great education. The evidence that the methods of Socratic Practice consistently applied increases cognitive skills is clear. Our advisor, Michael Strong, extensively discusses these methods in The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice.
Strong established remarkable programs in four high schools around the country. He measured program outcomes with the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a cognitive skills test correlated with performance on intelligence tests and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. Administering this instrument before, during and after a year at school, he found cognitive skill gains ranging, for example, from 30% to 84%. The mean score of one school’s 9th grade group moved from below the national 9th grade mean to above the 12th grade mean in one year, while one inner city student who scored at the 1st percentile on the initial test, scored at the 85th percentile by the end of four months. While more work is needed to fully validate his results, they were consistent from school to school. Any teacher would be proud to so deeply help students learn to think well.
Teachers and Observation
“Our care of the [student] should be governed, not by the desire to make him learn things, but by the endeavor always to keep burning within him that light which is called intelligence.” Maria Montessori
To be a good listener, a teacher must be a careful observer. Maria Montessori, the quintessential scientist, incorporated the scientific method into her teacher training program. She urged her teachers to spend time every day sitting back and watching the students work, interact with each other and deal with problems. In this way, teachers learn a great deal about each student, their interests, abilities and difficulties, enabling the teacher to guide him or her well. Observe, empathize, respect—these are the basics of good teaching.
The only way teachers can learn these methods is by intensive questioning and self-reflective experience. Guidance by mentors with great experience, knowledge and skill helps. Such training will be a key component of a special two-month teacher training course and apprenticeship for every teacher at the full-time Great Connections program.
In this course the teacher will both study and practice the programs specific methods, as well as experience the breadth of the ideas and the excitement and challenge of examining the great works used in our curriculum.
Teachers at The Great Connections
The in The Great Connections program are highly educated individuals, consistently willing to engage in discussions of the great questions inside and outside their domains of expertise. An excellent seminar leader asks intriguing, deep questions respectfully, keeps discussion on important topics but lets students diverge from the set topic if it means exploring something important and meaningful to them. Clearly, much art and judgment is involved, which is why extensive training is necessary.
Program focuses attention on human achievement and what makes it possible, both existentially and psychologically. We require our teachers to implement his or her best attributes: commitment to clearly knowing what he or she knows and doesn’t know (the first step on the path of objectivity); passion for learning new material and integrating it with other knowledge; commitment to modeling the highest virtues of the free person, including honesty, responsibility and respect for the rights of others; commitment to the restless pursuit of personal improvement and growth; willingness to submit to careful investigation and evaluation in order to improve. Through embodying these virtues, the teachers inspire students to the highest ends of the free man and woman.
As Scott Buchanan, architect of the Great Books program at St. John’s College, said: “Have you allowed adverse evidence to pile up and force you to conclude that you are not mathematical, not linguistic, not poetic, not scientific, not philosophical? If you have allowed this to happen, you have arbitrarily imposed limits on your intellectual freedom, and you have smothered the fires from which all other freedoms arise.”
The Delicacy of the Young Spirit
Achievement and success in life require the vision of the possible and the ability to weather the actual.
To navigate the stormy waters of life, the difficulties, the disappointments, the setbacks and the failures, students need cognitive skills and plenty of encouragement and emotional fuel. They need great examples of other human beings who have successfully dealt with many difficulties.
As the scientific findings of Positive Psychology have recently identified, knowledge and cognitive skills integrate with emotional habits and character traits. Healthy, successful, happy people tend to have cognitive habits that deeply influence their emotional tone in a positive direction.
Our curriculum teaches the works of the Classics “The best that has been thought and said” as well as modern science and the usually neglected works of the liberty movement. In addition, students do special work on the skills of logic, introspection, and self-knowledge, and the achievements of great human beings. Students are armed with inspiring and invigorating knowledge that help them achieve their goals. We apply philosophical principles as well as recent findings in scientific psychology and neuroscience. And these teachers and other staff are available to help students in many aspects of their lives.
To implement this plan, we seek individuals who are exceptional in their learning, their self-knowledge, in their passionate curiosity, and in their character, who can serve not only as guides but as inspiring examples to the students. To see the complete curriculum plan, see www.rifinst.org.
An earlier version of this article, predicting the outcomes of our curriculum and methodology, was published in 2009 online.
Written by Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, and edited by Enright, Ayn Rand Explained is now available at Open Court Books, Amazon, on Kindle, and in bookstores everywhere.
Ayn Rand and her ideas are in the news more than ever – 50+ years after her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, was published. What’s driving this rising interest and influence – even politicians like Paul Ryan and Barack Obama talk about her?
Who was this Russian fireball? Why do her ideas speak to the hearts of Americans generation after generation? How are her ideas giving courage to people of all walks of life, from business to art?
Ayn Rand Explained is an engrossing account of the life, work, and influence of Ayn Rand: her career, from youth in Soviet Russia to Hollywood screenwriter and then to ideological guru; her novels and other fiction writings, including the perennial best-sellers, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged; her work in ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics; her influence on—and personal animosity toward—both conservatism and libertarianism.
Merrill and Enright describe Rand’s early infatuation with Nietzsche, her first fiction writings, the developments behind her record-breaking blockbuster novels of 1943 and 1957, her increasing involvement in politics in the 1950s and 1960s, including her support for the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater.
Rand’s Objectivist movement was first promoted through the Nathaniel Branden Institute, headed by her young protégé and designated heir. The Institute advocated a complete worldview on politics, economics, religion, art, music, epistemology, ethics (“The Virtue of Selfishness”), and sexual relationships. For several years the Institute grew rapidly, though there were ominous signs as some leading members were ‘put on trial’ for their heretical ideas, and ignominiously drummed out of the movement.
In 1969, Branden himself was expelled by Rand, the Institute was shut down, and all members who questioned this ruling were themselves excommunicated and shunned by Rand and her disciples. Branden became a best-selling author of psychotherapy books, with a following of Objectivists who had dissociated from the official organization headed by Rand, and after her death in 1982, by Leonard Peikoff. One of Rand’s inner circle, Alan Greenspan, later went on to get his hands on the steering wheel of the American economy.
Objectivism offers a comprehensive package of beliefs encompassing the ethics of rational egoism and dedication to a consistently rational method of thinking and acting. This includes a rejection of all religion and outright atheism and a view of the arts as expressions of deeply held, mostly subconscious, philosophical views of the world. It also advocates personal freedom from political interference, a moral defense of laissez-faire capitalism, and radically limited government as a protection of the individual, positions deeply aligned with the project of the American Founders.
The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of Objectivism, with a jump in sales of Rand’s novels and the influence of Rand’s ideas in the Tea Party movement and the Republican party. While gaining membership, the Objectivist movement continues to be divided into warring factions, the two major groupings led by the Ayn Rand Institute (Yaron Brook) and the Atlas Society (David Kelley).
Ayn Rand Explained is a completely revised and updated edition of The Ideas of Ayn Rand, by the late Ronald E. Merrill, first published by Open Court in 1991. It includes not only new information about Rand’s rocketing influence, but new stories about her personal relationships, and new analysis of her life and ideas.
Here’s what people are saying about it:
“Ayn Rand is in the news now more than ever—but the media consistently misunderstands her. Read Ayn Rand Explained for a thorough and clear introduction to her ideas!”—JIMMY WALES, founder of Wikipedia
“Ayn Rand Explained takes us on an exciting exploration of Rand’s provocative worldview and expertly traces its huge contemporary impact on politics, economics, art, and culture. Marsha Familaro Enright provides much new information and probing, in-depth analysis. A surprising, intriguing take on a controversial writer.”—CHRIS MATTHEW SCIABARRA, author of Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical
“I immensely enjoyed reading Ayn Rand Explained. Packed with fascinating information, much of it new, the book is a real page turner—and a reminder of why Rand’s novels are continuously making their way onto best-seller lists.”—VERONIQUE DE RUGY, Senior Research Fellow, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University
“Co-authored by two thoughtful admirers of Rand’s, Ronald Merrill and Marsha Familaro Enright, this modest volume is full of new tidbits about her life, the evolution of her thought, under-recognized aspects of her ideas, the ongoing development of the Objectivist movement, and Rand’s influence on society. An updated revision of late entrepreneur Merrill’s “The Ideas of Ayn Rand”, educator-author Enright adds biographical details, sociological updating, and thoughtful summaries of Rand’s ideas to this little gem.
“Ayn Rand has penetrated our societal conscience. Deceased since 1982, her books continue to be best-sellers, decades after their original appearance. She is known to have inspired VP candidate Paul Ryan; a second movie based on her 1,000+ page magnum opus is currently in theaters; and she is even discussed in a current Rolling Stone magazine interview with the President. Her cultural presence is remarkably polarizing – she seems to inspire either deep-seated admiration or equally passionate resentment. The opinion-less commentator is as rare as the proverbial black swan or an independent voter. Love her or hate her, Rand continues to draw widespread attention for her passionate defense of rationality, self-interest, capitalism and atheism.
“For those interested in what “all the fuss is” about Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism — especially those afraid to commit to her ultralong novels — will find this concise summary of her life, ideas, and influence a godsend. Those who are already familiar with her life and work, but who are looking for a fresh perspective, will find that here, too.
“Enright is responsible for bringing novel material with the brand new first three chapters. They add excellent material on Rand’s life, her thought, and her impact on our society. This is especially helpful given that Merrill’s original book was published in 1991, so updating is welcomed. Also, Enright’s own experiences with the Objectivist movement from the beginning, including personal interactions with Rand herself, add intriguing material, interweaving these up-close observations with the development of the wider movement. The remainder of the book is a thoughtfully edited version of Merrill’s thoughts, intertwined clearly with Enright’s own insights, especially at points of disagreement, which are clearly delineated. It is a model of even-handedness.
“One welcomed aspect of this book, given the subject matter, is its consistent tone of critical admiration of Rand, her life, and her ideas. Too many books are either fawning, sycophantic cheerleading for Rand or harsh, condemning diatribes against her. This supportive volume, with a critical, independent touch where needed, is a welcome addition to the growing literature surrounding this unique Russian immigrant to America.” — William Dale, M.D., Ph.D.
Education As If Individuals Matter
Jerry Kirkpatrick, Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market in Education (Claremont, CA: TLJ Books, 2008), 212 pages, $18.95
Reviewed by Marsha Familaro Enright
Jerry Kirkpatrick, a professor of International Business and Marketing at California Polytechnic Institute, has come out with another book applying his passion for philosophy to the practical world.
Kirkpatrick says that his interest in education theory was launched when, as a high-school sophomore in the 1960s, he refused to cooperate with his teacher’s demand to “just memorize” an out-of-date biological classification system without an explanation of its meaning. This incident launched his quest to answer what evolved into the following question: What type of education properly suits individuals in a free, capitalistic society, preparing them for a life of productive work and the ability to pursue their own interests?
His answer: an educational approach that cultivates independence of judgment and action and that enables the individual to develop purpose in life.
In Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, Kirkpatrick lays out a theory of education that develops and respects the autonomy of the individual. It’s a product of hard study and deep thinking applied across a wide array of subjects, including history, psychology, epistemology, and sociology.
His resulting “Theory of Concentrated Attention” is deceptively simple. It proposes an education that fosters the ability to apply concentrated attention to tasks—an education that leads to independence and autonomy by encouraging the development of long-term purposes. Kirkpatrick argues that educators can develop this capacity in students by teaching according to the students’ interests, because individual interest drives attention and helps to create purpose. Simply put, if a student is interested in a subject or activity, he or she will be motivated to pay attention to it. And the student who learns how to pursue personal interests with concentrated attention will be able to find and pursue lifelong purposes, such as a career.
Ultimately, he argues that the Montessori Method, when properly implemented, achieves these aims of education. Along the way, Kirkpatrick finds that John Dewey’s theory of undivided interest and many of Dewey’s specific practical recommendations for curriculum and teaching integrate well with the proper aims of education in a free society. Of course, the devil is in the details, but Kirkpatrick gives us plenty of them.
Kirkpatrick shows how the coercion of bureaucratic government schooling sets the context for educational practices that undermine the development of student autonomy. It is impossible to consistently develop free, independent human beings under such a coercive system. Its structure and incentives are all wrong, producing followers ready to be told what to do, not autonomous personalities capable of living fulfilling and successful lives in a free society.
This is a little book packed with a wealth of thought and information, stemming from a deeply grasped and integrated knowledge of the nature and needs of education. Expect to hold onto your hat in reading it, because you will be drawn through a hurricane of information and ideas, some fairly arcane for the lay reader. The storm ends in sunshine, when Kirkpatrick lays out a detailed description of his excellent theory of education.
Then and Now
Kirkpatrick opens the book with a quotation from Adam Smith that summarizes the experience of many a student at today’s colleges:
In the university of Oxford, the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.
The discipline of the colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefits of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters. Its object is, in all cases, to maintain the authority of the master, and whether he neglects or performs his duty, to oblige the students, in all cases to behave to him as if he performed it with the greatest diligence and ability.
It is remarkable how little has changed in more than two centuries since this was written, which supports the author’s contention that educational practices are largely motivated by two factors: deep views of human nature and cognition, combined with a political context.
Kirkpatrick gives a fascinating, sweeping account of educational theory from Plato and Quintillian through the Jesuits, Locke, and Rousseau, to Dewey and Montessori—always with an eye to thinkers who recognized the need for concentrated attention. He does not examine current theoretical writing in any detail, but spends time on Locke and Rousseau because their thinking is seminal to modern theories of education, including those of Dewey and Montessori. “Locke refutes original sin and emphasizes the primacy of nurture. And Rousseau develops the notion of the organic child who must be left free to unfold.” In searching for those who understand the importance of attention to education, he hits the mark a number of times, including Locke’s statement “The great skill of the teacher is to get and keep the attention of the scholar.”
Dewey: Friend or Foe of Independence?
According to published comments, early in his intellectual career, Kirkpatrick attended private lectures in which John Dewey and the Progressive Method of education must have been excoriated. For this book, he started reading Dewey with great trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised at what he discovered. Throughout Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism, he refers to Dewey’s great knowledge of learning, his recognition of the importance of “undivided interest,” and his concern for the individual child’s well-being. And although Progressive education was roundly criticized for promoting method over content, Kirkpatrick found that Dewey himself criticized Progressive schools for their content-light approach.
However, I had to ask myself why, if Dewey’s ideas about education were so good, the schools following his philosophy have been so unsuccessful. I asked Dr. Kirkpatrick about this in a telephone interview. He posited that government-run schools make it impossible to implement the Progressive Method successfully. However, this doesn’t explain the same problems in private Dewey-Progressive schools, such as the University of Chicago Laboratory School, founded by Dewey in 1896. This school suffered “content-light” complaints early in its existence.
Perhaps the answer lies in the deeper philosophical foundations of Dewey’s theory, especially in his basic moral values. Dewey’s deepest philosophical debt is to Rousseau, revealed in “My Pedagologic Creed,” in which Dewey states, “I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs.”
Dewey’s Creed is straight out of Rousseau’s Social Contract, in which “personal desires must be subordinated to the General Will.” With this, Rousseau throws down the gauntlet against the individualism of the Enlightenment; Dewey picks it up in the late nineteenth century and implements it with the socialistic principles of twentieth-century Progressive education.
Like so many anti-individualist theories, Dewey’s addressed important issues and thereby seduced many to accept his whole package. For example, children are stimulated to develop many of their powers due to their social context: a normal human child will learn language without instruction, but only if placed among those who speak. And most toddlers are happy to repeat and repeat a new skill when they see their parents’ delight at the accomplishment. This lent plausibility to Dewey’s emphasis on socialization.
Another seductive aspect of his theory is his rebellion against the practice of learning abstractions removed from action, a tendency encouraged by the German philosophy that was so influential in nineteenth-century education theory. In the context of the high abstractions of German Idealism, such as Kantian thing-in-itselfism and Hegelian Worldwill, Dewey seems refreshingly sensible and this-world-oriented. His ideas seem appealing—until we remember that he was one of the founders of the philosophy of Pragmatism. In his writing, Dewey makes clear his Pragmatist view of human nature: that action precedes thought and action is what is most important. Action before thought? Perhaps the unruliness in Progressive schools is the logical consequence of this view?
As Dr. Kirkpatrick discovered, Dewey was a very insightful philosopher, teacher, and observer of learning processes. He enunciated many of the principles which enable successful learning to occur. Still, the larger political issue, which Kirkpatrick recognizes, is that Dewey wanted to use this knowledge to shape the child for social, collectivist purposes.
By contrast, though Maria Montessori was a political socialist, her goal was deeply individualistic: a method aimed at developing the individual mind of the student to create an independent human being. While she incorporates many principles and skills for social interaction in her program, every fundamental principle of instruction and action incorporates deep respect for the individual nature, needs, and aims of the child. Children emerging from Montessori schools know how to function well as productive, responsible, rational, civil, self-disciplined, and independent human beings who deeply respect the rights of others.
It’s therefore no accident that Dewey’s staunch adherent and highly influential follower, William Heard Kilpatrick, criticized the Montessori Method for its individualism in his book The Montessori System Examined. Still, Dr. Kirkpatrick’s experience in reading Dewey underscores the importance of first-hand knowledge in making a judgment about any thinker. A thinker’s odious purposes do not negate his real knowledge and accomplishments—or what we might learn from him. Nazi engineers achieved some amazing feats, for example, the V-2 rocket. (See the review of Von Braun in this issue. —Editor.) If the United States had ignored their discoveries simply because they used them for evil purposes, would we have gotten to the Moon?
The Roots of Education Theory
Kirkpatrick devotes considerable time presenting the philosophical and psychological ideas he believes underpin his theory of concentrated attention—a theory based on his view of the good life:
Success in human life requires the expert use of consciousness to guide one’s choices and actions. At root, therefore, education is intellectual, meaning that the knowledge, values, and skills acquired in school consist primarily in the accumulation of concepts and principles and in the application of these concepts and principles to concrete situations. “Intellectual” here does not mean that learning is an end-in-itself disconnected from practical action. It means that abstractions and, especially, their use in everyday life are prerequisites to living a happy, independent life in a free society; it means that mind and body are one integrated unit, but that bodily action is controlled and directed by the mind.
He emphasizes the active nature of the mind, and his arguments are anchored in Ayn Rand’s theory of concept-formation, which he explains at length. The abstraction and classification of data from awareness of concrete, specific things is an active process. The primary action of the conscious mind is differentiation, finding the differences between and among things. In contrast, the primary action of the subconscious is integration, a dynamic connection-making process. In this view, the conscious mind distinguishes one thing from another, while the subconscious discovers their relations.
According to Kirkpatrick, the subconscious tends to overgeneralize. Consequently, “the key to learning and, more generally, to the correct identification of the facts of reality, would seem to be differentiation . . . .[L]earning, therefore, can be described as a process of greater and greater differentiation, an act controlled by the conscious mind. . . [T]he crucial role of the conscious mind is to direct and control the subconscious.”
He goes on to explain the importance of “thinking in principles” and “thinking in ranges of measurement.” By the latter, he seems to mean the habit of keeping many examples in mind when thinking about an issue. In his sweeping account, Kirkpatrick also includes his views on emotions, values, and subconscious processing. He examines the problems of repression, defense mechanisms, how values are developed, how self-esteem is nurtured or crushed, creativity, imagination, and volition in their relationship to learning.
There are many valuable ideas and insights incorporated in this discussion of foundational ideas. However, I have questions about many of his claims. Just to name one area: his ideas on the nature of the subconscious, differentiation, and integration.
Primitive peoples, for example, are known to conceptualize only themselves as “people,” regarding everyone else as “others”—especially if the foreigners are quite physically different. Think of the Aztecs encountering Cortez and the Spaniards on horses, and their belief that the Europeans were some different kind of being, perhaps gods. Is this an error of integration? Or of differentiation? I think it could be argued both ways. Further, I’m not sure how consciously these people formed their concept of “people.”
That’s just one example. I don’t presume to know the answers to my own questions—that would require some difficult and extensive research on how people go about forming concepts and ideas. All I know is a case can be made for several different explanations of such processes, which Kirkpatrick does not address.
Don’t get me wrong: His exposition contains a mound of useful ideas and information. It’s not that his discussion of the subconscious and the psychological foundations of learning is generally wrong-headed. I merely think he sometimes overstates his case, not considering enough possibilities or offering sufficient evidence.
Learning with Purpose
After laying extensive groundwork, Kirkpatrick presents his views on the best principles, methods, and environment for learning.
“Three concepts—interest, attention, and independence—form the core of the theory and constitute the criteria of educational accomplishment. If successful, the education will have enabled the young to choose values that will give their lives meaning and significance,” he writes. “What drives concentrated attention is interest, and concentrated attention, in turn, drives independence . . . by directing effort to the achievement of a goal.”
Developing the capacity to pursue goals over extended periods of time enables an individual to attain life’s most important values, such as productive achievement, successful personal relationships, and even excellent health and well-being.
The biggest failure of traditional education is in capturing the interest, and therefore the attention, of the student, because traditional education uses external motivators—punishment and reward. Rather than a taskmaster demanding performance, in Kirkpatrick’s view the parent or teacher should be a kindly guide, showing the child the way to intellectual and emotional maturity. As Montessori puts it, parents and teachers should make their basic dictum “Help me to help myself.”
To that end, he proposes that parents and teachers provide an environment rich with the knowledge and activities needed for development, surrounded by “guardrails” of guidance. Within this environment, the child is encouraged to actively explore and absorb the mental and emotional nutrients required for excellent growth. The Montessori principle “freedom in a prepared environment” sums it up.
Further, he hones in on the inherent problems with the command-and-control approach to child-rearing and teaching. For example, the toddler who is constantly rebuked or slapped while exploring breakable objects implicitly concludes that he will get in trouble for pursuing his natural interests, and he can become withdrawn and passive. The rebellious teenager whose parents impose arbitrary rules instead of reasoned principles doesn’t have the chance to exercise her assertiveness appropriately if all she hears is “Go to your room! You’re grounded!” when she breaks adult rules. Nor does she learn how to resolve conflicts.
By contrast, concentrated attention is a superior means of learning because it integrates a child’s natural interests with his developmental needs. Kirkpatrick distinguishes this kind of attention from other intense forms, like meditation and what he calls “defensive attention,” i.e., in difficult situations, focusing on some object or activity like a videogame or book, to forestall feelings of fear and anxiety.
For me, Kirkpatrick’s Theory of Concentrated Attention immediately brought to mind the theory of “Flow.” That’s the name Positive Psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has given to that state of intense, complete concentration resulting from optimally enjoyable activities, activities pursued for their own sake. Indeed, Kirkpatrick recognizes “flow” as a form of intense concentration and accurately describes the theory. Though he acknowledges that “flow and concentrated attention have much in common,” he dismisses its relevance to his theory, saying that “the goal of education is not to achieve flow experiences; flow is just a pleasant consequence sometimes achieved as the result of concentrated attention.”
I think he might have missed the significance of flow to learning. Over time, the repeated pleasure derived from flow experiences becomes a driving force in maintaining a person’s interest in an activity. We cannot always account for a person’s initial interest in something—likely there are some inherent tendencies to fixate upon one object or activity over another, which vary from person to person. But individuals remain interested in an activity only if it brings some pleasure—or forestalls some pain. The experience of flow is a major motivator. It keeps a person coming back for more.
Montessori recognized this phenomenon about a century ago. She found that new students tended to flit from one activity to another until they hit upon something that caused them to become deeply engaged. She advised teachers to present new students with different activities and to observe carefully which caught and held their interest. Once the young student experiences deep involvement and attention in an activity, he becomes remarkably self-disciplined and purposeful.
Kirkpatrick turns to the intellectual conditions that result in optimal learning. He argues that real learning requires conceptualization, not just memorization—understanding the principles of the matter, not just remembering some facts or procedures. Students learn most from well-prepared presentations that help them focus on essentials. And self-correcting activities are the most valuable, because they prepare the student for adulthood. In adult life, there’s no one hanging over your shoulder, telling you when you’ve made a mistake; you have to figure that out yourself and learn how to fix it.
He also discusses the emotional and social environment necessary for good learning, an environment in which the student’s independence is supported and respected. Here he pulls together a bevy of ideas from insightful thinkers including Maria Montessori, Haim Ginott, Thomas Gordon, and Alfie Kohn.
As for the content of education, Kirkpatrick presents only an outline, stressing that any educational system should be content-rich and emphasize cognitive skills that can be used to acquire any type of knowledge. These include generalization, evaluation, application, introspection, and execution. Thinking in principles, thinking in ranges of measurement, and forming definitions are essential skills. So is learning logic. In addition, skillful introspection allows a person to be more fully in control of his consciousness—to know what he’s thinking, doing, and feeling, and why. And while all educational systems convey values, with a superior education, students become highly conscious of what values they are learning and why.
Kirkpatrick goes into more detail about the principles of learning and teaching than I can possibly convey here. My only regret is that he did not provide more concrete examples for his excellent discussion of the teaching and learning processes.
Bureaucracy and Education
After presenting his theory, Kirkpatrick shows how economist Ludwig von Mises’s theory of the nature of bureaucracy applies to education under government control. However, he points out that today’s private schools are subject to so many governmental regulations that they, too, are often deformed into bureaucracies.
From first to last, Kirkpatrick is opposed to government-run schools. Only a free market will truly serve children. Frankly, from my own study, I concluded that when public schools succeed, they often do so only through the drive and ambition of achievement-oriented families.
Kirkpatrick speculates that a real free market in education would produce a cornucopia of new approaches. However, it is unlikely we will see such a flowering, given the continued use of force through the gigantic, ever-consolidating government education bureaucracy we now have. Supported by taxes, its tentacles reach from preschool to graduate school. Centralization of power, bureaucratization of systems, and decreases in quality are the more likely future.
Kirkpatrick closes his book with a thoughtful consideration of the need for independent judgment in a free society—and an examination of the psychological reasons that people may have difficulty with independence. He contends that children need to learn “a healthy disrespect for authority” and “to be taught how to differentiate true expertise from the specious varieties and how to react to all forms of adult thoughtlessness, intimidation, and coercion.” The alternative—the mindset of obedience to authority—results in “mental passivity . . . a lack of ability and willingness to make first-hand judgments about the world, other people, and oneself and, more importantly, a lack of ability and willingness to stand by and act on the judgments made.”
Given what students will encounter in school, especially in college and graduate school, they need such abilities more than ever.
Picking a Few Nits
While I highly recommend this book as thought-provoking, original, and educational, I had a few difficulties in reading it.
For one thing, I’m not sure what audience Kirkpatrick is aiming for. The text is at a middle level of abstraction: neither crammed with specific detail, references, and factual research nor, for the lay reader, unapproachably abstruse. Consequently, the reader can follow Kirkpatrick’s reasoning—if he has his own adequate supply of examples or personal knowledge about the issues of education and factual experience of classroom practice.
One problem is that he makes many conclusive statements about theories and historical issues without a great deal of argument or factual support. Often, I agreed with his statements because I had sufficient knowledge of the issues to validate them or supply the qualifications that would make them more exactly true. Other times, I thought his statements were interesting and intriguing and sounded as if they could be right, but I wondered about their full justification, or found myself disagreeing.
Moreover, I wished he had cast his statements in a more persuasive style rather than the teacherly-academic tone he tends to use. Further, he chose to save many examples and references for footnotes, leaving the text somewhat dry. On almost every page, I had to stop reading the text to note his supporting data and mull his side-bar comments. This was distracting. It was as if he was torn between writing for the general public and writing for an academic journal. I think his story and arguments would have been more compelling if he had interwoven his many interesting facts and specific comments into the general text. Paul Johnson’s book The Renaissance and Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation are good examples of this style.
In the main, his argument is a philosophical/psychological one, supported by some references to developmental research and his own experience. Happily, the research evidence of which I am aware, plus my long Montessori experience, also support his theory. However, inclusion of more of the psychological research in his book would have bolstered Kirkpatrick’s arguments.
Finally, the book could have profited from some additional editing. On and off, I found slight syntactical mistakes, such as “newly unpublished” when he seems to have meant “new, unpublished.”
But these are minor flaws in comparison to his achievement in bringing together a vast amount of historical, philosophical, and psychological material to present a truly original theory of learning. Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism will educate you about the kind of education suitable to members of a free society—and educate you far beyond your expectations.
First published in The New Individualist, April, 2008.
This film celebrates the productive virtue, passion, creativity, and heroism of
entrepreneurs around the globe.
By Marsha Familaro Enright
The New Individualist, Jan/Feb 2008 — This past September, I was thrilled to see The Call of the Entrepreneur, a new documentary by The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, headed by Roman Catholic priest Robert Sirico. Beautifully filmed in high definition, with inspiring music and a riveting story, this documentary celebrates the productive virtue, passion, creativity, and heroism of entrepreneurs around the globe. It dramatically makes the case for the moral value of capitalism—and it’s about time.
Economic and political developments in the last thirty-odd years have proven the factual case for the superiority of capitalism, but the moral case remains to be won. The harnessing and molding of self-interest through capitalism towards creative, productive, life-enhancing, happiness-achieving ends must be trumpeted to the world. This documentary is a clarion call.
The film’s theme is the unstoppable energy, optimism, creativity, and productiveness of the entrepreneur, which has made our world possible. It starts with a dairy farmer in the small mid-Michigan town of Evart, interweaving his story of ingenuity, perseverance, and calculated risk with the thrilling and heart-wrenching story of communist refugee and media magnate in Hong Kong, and that of a self-made merchant banker in Atlanta. Each of these entrepreneurs is remarkable.
Jimmy Lai, founder of giant Next Media, recounts his journey from the desperate poverty of Guangzhou province in communist China to his position as a media mogul aiming to foster freedom through information. The son of a merchant family stripped of their wealth, Jimmy’s mother was sent to work in the fields all week while he and his siblings fared for themselves. The boy left school at the age of ten to work in a railway station, which changed his life.
The communists, he comments, painted China as wonderful in contrast to the nasty picture they presented of the outside world; but his eyes were opened by the travelers at the train station. Their dress, speech, and even the kind way they treated him gave him an education. “I was never treated so well before,” he recalls. After ravenously eating a bar of chocolate handed to him by a client, he resolved to go to where it was bought: Hong Kong. He had to beg his mother for a year before she would allow him the dangerous journey in the hold of a sampan to the freedom of Hong Kong.
Dairy farmer Brad Morgan was searching for a more cost-effective way to dispose of tons of cow manure when his undying curiosity and creativity led him to the compost business. Although he appears only moderately educated, Morgan skillfully uses scientific and business experts from far and wide to turn his farm into one of the largest and best composting businesses around.
Investment banker Frank Hanna describes how his father, rather than guiding his sons to sports or leisure on the weekends, would take them to various properties the family owned. Together, they performed all the chores and learned the processes involved in running businesses—lessons Hanna used well as he and his brother built their merchant-banking business. Hanna has combined this practical knowledge with a study of free-market economics, not only for his successful business but for philanthropy, as well. Recently, he was named Philanthropist of the Year by Philanthropy Magazine because of the thoughtful and principled approach he takes to charity.
In addition to these inspiring stories, the movie deftly explains some key economic concepts through simple illustrations, including the tremendous value that capital markets create—something Tom Wolfe’s bond trader in Bonfires of the Vanities didn’t seem to know. Experts such as Peter Boetkke from George Mason University andWealth and Poverty author George Gilder cameo with pithy explanations of economic principles.
From the opening, the movie attacks the ridiculous idea that capitalism is a zero-sum game, visually puncturing that argument with sweeping views of New York and Hong Kong. You would think that just one of capitalism’s nay-sayers would ask themselves the question: If it’s a zero-sum game, where did all this stuff come from? How did we travel from the caves to New York City?
In justifying the virtue of the entrepreneur, The Acton Institute emphasizes the other-oriented attitude of the entrepreneur in contrast to the view that entrepreneurship is merely about greedy wealth-acquisition. The documentary argues that the entrepreneur must focus on the needs and desires of other people in order to succeed. One of the film’s messages seems to be that entrepreneurs are virtuous because they work for other people, performing a kind of altruism. In fact, during a question-and-answer session after the movie, executive producer Jay Richards confirmed this, emphasizing that the “al” in “altruism” means “other.”
It’s unfortunate that Acton feels the need to justify the goodness of the entrepreneur by his or her ability to help other people. Helping others is a valuable benefit of what they do, but, clearly, that is not always the entrepreneur’s motive. Morgan, Hanna, and Lai are obviously working for the laudable motives of enjoying the exercise of their own powers, and for their desire to change the world for the better—according to their own vision. While entrepreneurs must focus on the needs and desires of others for trade, many entrepreneurs create products that others could never imagine, or imagine wanting, such as PCs or “pet rocks.” Like almost all creators, entrepreneurs often face unrelenting criticism and resistance. Most often, the entrepreneur has to be pig-headedly persistent—“kinda stubborn,” as Morgan calls himself—in his own vision to bring new values to the world. Although the actions of entrepreneurs wonderfully result in benefits to others, in order to succeed, they must cleave to their own selves, to their own vision. Sounds rather self-interested, doesn’t it?
Indeed, the film’s commentators express discomfort with the concept of greed and criticize John Stossel’s ABC specials that focus on greed as a positive force in the market. Unfortunately, in the moral wars, the film’s eschewing of greed could be seen as apologetics for the basic self-interestedness of the entrepreneur, a discomfort that can be attacked by those more consistently altruistic in the self-abnegating sense.
The problem lies in the loaded concept of “greed.” Conventionally, the concept of greed, like that of selfishness, emphasizes excessiveness—in this case, the desire to acquire or possess more than one needs. But what of the entrepreneur’s stubborn insistence on pursuing his vision when others want him to stop? Is that excessive? Is that greedy?What’s needed is a clearer parsing of the concept of greed. Greed to acquire and possess values is a strong human motivational tendency. A more neutral term for this tendency is “ambition.” It’s a good thing that humans have this tendency, or they might not be sufficiently motivated to survive and flourish. It’s a tendency that can be aimed toward good or ill. The primeval, undisciplined tendency of greed often results in the pursuit of fame, money, or power at the expense of integrity, honor, love, family or friendship. Each person needs to focus the aim of his or her greed toward productive values, not toward destructive ones. That makes the moral difference.
On the other hand, some self-defined individualists would do well to broaden their almost autistic concept of the well-lived life. As Aristotle said, man is a political animal. Humans tend to have a great desire to interact and affect others, even when pursuing their own interests.
This transformational power is a sacred ability, because it makes human flourishing possible. As George Gilder says in the film, “There is no reason to explain poverty—poverty is the natural human state” before the first entrepreneurs, the farmers, changed the world. Productive creativity should be celebrated with joyful sanctity—and this film goes far in that direction.
Given the religious orientation of The Acton Institute, the ultimate message of the film is that man becomes nearer to God through creativity. With stirring music and shots of Michelangelo’s “Creation,” the documentary’s climax testifies that man’s creative ability is God’s gift to man, granting man a special place in the universe. This is the religious idealism of former centuries—a view contrary to that of the radical environmentalists, who consider man and his reality-transforming reasoning powers to be an unnatural scourge upon the earth. Rather, this Scholastic religious doctrine sees man as closer to God than any other creature, by his participation in God’s ability to create. The commentators, including Father Sirico and George Gilder, affirm the inspiring nature of this relationship to God.
As a thoroughly committed scientist and a nonbeliever, I was struck by the topsy-turvy nature of this view. Man’s ability to create and transform reality rather than merely adapt to the given is fundamental to his survival powers, acquired through evolution. Man’s reason and imagination, exploratory tendencies, and especially the energy, persistence, and independence of the personality type that typifies entrepreneurs, allow him to remake the world to suit his purposes. Isn’t it interesting that men feel the need to capture the sacredness of this fundamental of human nature by projecting a god with the same ability—and making man his special protégé?
This transformational power is a sacred ability, because it makes human flourishing possible. As George Gilder says in the film, “There is no reason to explain poverty—poverty is the natural human state” before the first entrepreneurs, the farmers, changed the world. Productive creativity should be celebrated with joyful sanctity—and this film goes far in that direction.
The Call of the Entrepreneur is premiering around the country at small venues, through organizations like the Sam Adams Alliance. Acton hopes to get it onto PBS affiliates or commercial TV. Despite its philosophical shortcomings, I urge you to see it and to enjoy its dramatic celebration of the optimism and lavish productivity of the entrepreneur.
As September 11th approaches, Americans remember the morning in 2001 when the World Trade Center turned to rubble. It is a fitting time to consider the nature of the civilizations that collided that day—and how to defend ours.
In their quest to establish a worldwide caliphate, radical Islamists invoke morality, claiming they have God’s sanction for performing their barbarous acts.
To defend Western civilization, we, also, need to invoke morality. But although the world envies the wealth we’ve achieved, it is widely seen as the product of soulless materialism, of unbridled “greed,” of unscrupulous self-indulgence.
What moral claim, then, can we make for our way of life?
To understand the moral values of the West, let’s turn to its beginning. In her prescient 1943 work of political philosophy, “The God of the Machine,” Isabel Paterson chose as the symbol of Western man a figure from Ancient Greece: Pytheas. This enterprising merchant left his homeland to explore Britain and beyond, seeking tin to make bronze. Insatiably curious, Pytheas also discovered the relationship between the moon’s phases and the tides, and was the first to describe the aurora and other phenomena.
Pytheas epitomizes the Western spirit: a self-directed man whose free will determines his life’s course, a thinker who employs reason and science to understand the world around him, and a producer who seeks to sell goods in peaceful trade.
From its founding, America was intended to be the country where Pytheas could flourish—the first nation established to protect the life, liberty, and property of the individual. It did so by curbing government power over the peaceful activities of its citizens.
In this, the contrast between America and radical Islam could not be greater.
Whereas Thomas Jefferson exhorts us to “Question with boldness even the existence of a God,” militant Islam kills people for apostasy.
Whereas James Madison proclaims a man has “a right to his property” and equally “a property in [all of] his rights,” Palestinian Islamists strap suicide belts on five year-olds, seizing their young lives to fight ancient vendettas.
Whereas the Declaration of Independence affirms America’s devotion to life, Osama bin Laden declares: We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the difference between us two.
“The excellence of the West” lies in its “respect for the human being, the recognition of his individuality, the liberty it has granted him,” observes Saudi Shura Council member and Muslim reformist Ibrahim Al-Buleihi.
“Humans are originally individuals,” he continues, “but cultures (including Arab culture) have dissolved the individual in the tribe, sect, or state.” It is only “with the diffusion of philosophical ideas from [Ancient] Greece” that “the human being became an individual of value for himself . . . and not merely a means for others.” (Profile of Al-Buleihi, The Aafaq Foundation, July 6, 2010)
Thus, in our civilization, a person is born free to live for his own sake and to pursue happiness. In radical Islam, a person must obey a central authority and sacrifice his life to its aims. Which society is better?
Granted the West’s superiority, why is radical Islam advancing? Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim, cites “an active propaganda campaign” in which “the Saudis invested at least $2 billion a year over a 30-year period to spread their brand of fundamentalist Islam.” (Wall Street Journal, August 18, 2010)
Why aren’t we passionately defending our civilization? Certainly, money isn’t the obstacle. Is it because we don’t understand the nobility of our individualist foundation, including the virtue of private advancement and profit?
We must never forget that we’re the country of Pytheas: a people of free will, free minds, and free enterprise. Our spectacular prosperity is not our dishonor, but the glory of our liberty.
It is said that Ground Zero is “sacred ground.” In truth, all of America is sacred ground—because the individual is sacred here.
We must assert the moral superiority of our civilization—or lose it to our enemies.
Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States. Gen LaGreca is author of Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in health care today.
Originally published at The Daily Caller, 9/8/2010.
Capitalism has brought more wealth to more people than any other system in history. In those countries that have adopted capitalism, the standard of living since the Industrial Revolution has far outstripped all the growth of the previous millenia. Yet capitalism is often reviled as evil or, at the best, amoral.
What are the facts? Is capitalism good or evil? How do we determine its moral status?
In this course we will consider the facts and arguments concerning these issues and examine the question “Is there a moral basis for capitalism?”
- Plato’s Republic
- Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics
- Plutarch Lives, “Life of Lykurgus” (of Sparta)
- Locke’s Second Treatise on Government
- Voltaire, Philosophical Letters on the English
- Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations
- Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto
- Mill, Utilitarianism
- Menger, Principles of Economics
- Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
- Croly, The Promise of American Life
- Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class
- Mises, Liberalism
- Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy
- Hawley, Executive Suite
- Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
- Rand, The Objectivist Ethics, “What is Capitalism,” “Man’s Rights,” “The Nature of Government,” and Francisco’s Money Speech from Atlas Shrugged
- Rawls, A Theory of Justice
- Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia
- “The Call of the Entrepreneur” film by the Acton Institute
In addition to discussing these works in Socratic Seminars, the students have been assigned to interview four business owners about the owners’ view of their work, what value they are creating with it, and their moral view of themselves as business people. The students will give presentations based on their interviews.
Do You Love Atlas Shrugged And The Fountainhead? Would you like to Have More of Their Worlds In Your Life?
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