Vico. I haven’t thought about him since I was an undergraduate. One of my philosophy profs in a “great books” program was writing a book on Vico, who he believed was hugely underappreciated, and so Vico seemed to creep into everything we read, from Homer to James Joyce, though I would be exaggerating if I suggested I understood the prof well enough to agree or disagree.
Now here comes Mark Signorelli at the invaluable Front Page web site talking about Vico’s argument about “the inescapably probable nature of our knowledge concerning human affairs, and the importance of educating youth in a way that prepares them to accept verisimilitude as a proper standard for political and ethical debate.” Maybe now I’m ready to understand what he was talking about.
We have allowed the success of science to forget older understandings of truth and knowledge that are more fitting the needs of our lives as persons among other persons. Over time, this has made life in relationships, including in civil communities, difficult for us: “Our young men, because of their training, which is focused on these studies, are unable to engage in the life of the community, to conduct themselves with sufficient wisdom and prudence; nor can they infuse into their speech a familiarity with human psychology of permeate their utterances with passion.”
Signorelli says that “by exalting the Cartesian standard of truthfulness into a universal standard, teachers were effectively undermining their students’ ability to reason on matters of an ethical or political nature, where the neatness and conclusiveness of science can never be reproduced.” He sees our current “imbecility” about political and moral matters as a consequence of applying the wrong standard of truth to such matters:
Exactly as Vico feared, we take the scientific standard of truth to be the sole and universal standard of truth; whatever is not scientifically verified, we assume, is not really true. One symptom of this intellectual disease is that the modern mind indulges in the recurrent fantasy – played out every day in Psychology and Sociology Departments across the land – that an application of scientific methodology to human experience will somehow provide us with conclusive and substantive knowledge about ourselves. And when this delusion falls apart, as it inevitably does, we swing just as wildly to the opposite extreme and declare that nothing true can be asserted regarding ethical or political topics. Thus we oscillate endlessly between positivism and relativism – between sociobiology on the one hand, and post-modernism on the other – without ever discovering the grounds on which to establish some form of civil agreement.
The moral confusion that results has been incorporated into our teaching. Schools, governed more by fashion and politics than by philosophy, have responded to the age’s lack of moral clarity by abdicating moral education, except for slogans amenable to the diversity regime or those aimed at eliciting compliance with various school rules. “Respect” at school means complying with rules about wearing hats, and “responsibility” mean turning in homework on time.
This doesn’t seem to be working very well. Lost in Transition : The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Hilary Davidson, Kari Christoffersen, Christian Smith, Patricia Snell Herzog explores in some detail the moral confusion of young Americans. This sociological study from Oxford University Press is based on “in-depth interviews with a broad cross-section of emerging adults (ages 18-23) to investigate the difficulties young people face today, the underlying causes of those difficulties, and the consequences both for individuals and for American society as a whole.”
The findings that have gotten most attention are the author’s claims about the vacuity of moral reasoning among today’s young people:
We asked emerging adults to tell us about any experiences they have had facing moral dilemmas recently and how they went about resolving them. In the context of a larger discussion about moral rights and wrongs, goods and bads, we asked this question: “Can you tell me about a specific situation you’ve been in recently where you were unsure of what was right and wrong?” Their answers were revealing. First, one-third of the emerging adults who we interviewed (33 percent) simply could not think of any moral dilemmas or difficult situations that they had personally confronted in recent years. . . .Two-thirds of the emerging adults we interviewed (about 66 percent) proved simply unable to engage our questions about moral dilemmas in their lives. . . .The rest either think they do not face any moral conflicts or uncertainties, think that they do when in fact they really do not, or do not understand what “moral” means.
. . . the adult world that has socialized these youth for 18 to 23 years has done an awful job when it comes to moral education and formation. Moral individualism and relativism are simply intellectually impossible and socially unsustainable positions. Any college sophomore philosophy major should be able to handily deconstruct them both. Yet the majority of American youth have entered emerging adulthood committed to moral individualism. And a substantial minority of them have done the same with moral relativism. On these two elementary points, these emerging adults are simply lost. They are morally at sea in boats that leak water badly. That is not an acceptable situation. . . .
Schools are one of the most powerful socializing institutions of youth in American society today, along with families and the mass media. Public schools are the dominant institution among all school types. Before we interviewed our respondents as emerging adults, we had previously interviewed them twice, when they were still teenagers, some of them when they were as young as 13 years old. So we know a great deal about their lives before they entered emerging adulthood. One big theme that stuck out in our previous interviews was the fact that the schools, especially public schools, that our younger respondents attended studiously avoided talking about potentially controversial moral issues. Over and over again, these teenagers we interviewed reported that their teachers always sidestepped and evaded questions and problems that might generate disagreement or conflict in the classroom. “No, my teachers avoid controversies like that like the plague,” they would typically say. “Anytime anything that might make trouble or hurt someone’s feelings come up, they say we aren’t going there,” others confirmed. “Nope, we can’t talk about religion or them hot-button moral issues in school, ’cause they don’t want to open up that can of worms” was a typical report. In short, it appears that most schools, especially public schools, are not teaching students how to constructively engage moral issues about which people disagree. Quite the contrary, schools are teaching students that the best way to deal with difficult moral problems and questions is to ignore them. The moral pedagogy of most middle and high schools clearly seems to be: avoid, ignore, and pretend the issues will go away. Needless to say, that is naive and impossible. It actually resembles highly dysfunctional families that have sets of issues that nobody is allowed to bring up or discuss and that are instead carefully tiptoed around.
So, should we do something? According to Signorelli, we need to regain the standards of truth that are embodied in the great works of our own tradition. “Our task,” he says, “is simply the revival of humanist scholarship, in the schools especially, but in the broader culture also. We must become regular readers again of Sophocles, Thucydides, Petrarch, Cervantes, Racine, Johnson, and Tolstoy, because a mind that is acquainted with their works will find it absolutely ridiculous to suppose that such authors do not state truth.”
My own reading has tended heavily toward such old authors in recent years, and the claims that Signorelli makes for such reading ring true for me. However, I don’t imagine any of this will have the slightest effect on public schools, if things are left to them.