An anonymous poster has provided to reply to my previous attack on the Objectivist hiearchy of knowledge, as advanced by Van Damme in her polemic against classical education. Since this response is by far the best challenge we have ever received at ARCHNblog, I think my response deserves a separate post.
Against my criticisms of the Objectivist hiearchy of knowledge, Anon's main point is that "AR did not think that the most basic concepts were the narrowest possible." This is a entirely valid contention, and will help clarify my criticism of Rand's theory. Although my criticism did focus on the issue of narrowness, that's because that was the thrust of Van Damme's argument. But the broader issue was whether there exists, as Van Damme inserts, a proper order in which concepts should be taught, and, most critically, whether its the width or narrowness of a concept, rather than the complexity of the concept's referents (i.e., the complexity of the subject matter) that determines that order. I can agree with the former, but not the latter contentions. The degree of width of a concept, or the abstractness of it, is an entirely adventitous notion. Where would you place, in your hiearchy of knowledge, the concepts of quantum mechanics? Are they wider or narrower concepts? Why does it even matter? It is enough to know that subject matter of quantum mechanics is immensely complicated, and thus must only be taught to very mature and advanced students.
It is important to understand that when Rand admits that individuals "may learn ... concepts in different orders," she is in effect undermining the relevancy of her theory. If "basic" (or "first level") concepts can exist in different places within the hierarchy, why is the hierarchy so important? A Rand quotation provided by Anon supplies the answer: note the distinction Rand makes between "objects you perceive directly in reality and can point to, and [objects] which you have to differentiate by means of other concepts." In other words, Rand is contending that some concepts are grasped by pointing at something in reality, while other concepts are only grasped through other concepts (by a process of thought or by "reason"). The purpose of this theory, I strongly suspect, is to justify philosophical speculation. Rand is contending that, provided that your concepts are "correctly" integrated within the hierarchy of knowledge, it is possible to attain certain knowledge merely by reasoning about "second level" concepts. This is really the ultimate raison d'etre of the Randian hierarchy of knowledge: to demonstrate the cognitive efficacy of philosophical speculation. Unfortunately, since there is no reliable test for distinguishing between "properly" integrated conceptual knowledge and "misintegrated" knowledge, the theory is merely an invitation to arrogant, dogmatic rationalism.
The most impressive part of Anon's reply is where he cites a couple of cognitive scientists to try to support his case, Eleanor Rosch and Jeremy Anglin. That's what most impresses us here—scientific evidence! But is this evidence germane to the issue at hand? Well, I'm not so certain. I rather suspect that Rosch's work is of little use for Rand's case, since her cross cultural work seems to buttress my contention that it is the concept's referents, rather than the concepts position in a typological hierarchy, that is most important. And while Anglin's work in child development may have reached some conclusions that coincide, in a vague sort of way, with some Rand's speculations in that department, I doubt whether any of this bears on the point at issue. Keep in mind: I don't deny the existence of Randian hierarchies of knowledge between "wider" and "lower" concepts or that learning begins somewhere within the hierarchy (as it must begin somewhere within it). I'm merely questioning whether a concept's position within the Randian hiearchy (as Van Damme insists) is the critical factor in the cognitive development of children, rather than the degree of complexity of the concept's referents.