Saturday, September 22, 2007

Van Damme's "The False Promise of Classical Education"

The Objectivist theory of education, as I have noted before, is one of the least objectionable theories in all of Randian inspired philosophy. But this doesn't mean there aren't some serious things wrong with it. Consider, as an example, Lisa Van Damme's essay "The False Promise of Classical Education." Van Damme is at her best when she writes from her own experience as an instructor. When, however, she tries to write as Objectivist, she immediately gets in trouble. What she calls "secular classical education" is seriously flawed because it is too rationalistic. It thinks it can teach children by ramming "floating abstractions" down their throat. It fails because it doesn't take account of the "hierarchy of knowledge," which, or so Van Damme insists, is "absolutely vital to a proper education."

The Objectivist view of the hiearchy of knowledge is one of those theories that attempts to use a commonplace to mask a fallacy. Certain forms of knowledge are "hierachical" in the sense that, before one can understand them, one needs to grasp that knowledge in its simpler form. Hence, one needs to know arithmetic and algebra before one is going to have much of a chance to grasp calculus. Yet this sort of hierarchy is not quite what Objectivist have in mind when they babble on about it. Here's how Van Damme herself puts it:
There is a necessary order to the formation of concepts and generalizations. A child cannot form the concept of “organism” until he has first formed the concepts of “plant” and “animal”; he cannot grasp the concept of “animal” until he has first formed concepts such as “dog” and “cat”; and so on. The pedagogical implication of the fact that there is a necessary order to the formation of abstract knowledge is that you must teach concepts and generalizations in their proper order. An abstract idea—whether a concept, generalization, principle, or theory—should never be taught to a child unless he has already grasped those ideas that necessarily precede it in the hierarchy, all the way down to the perceptual level.

This theory assumes that knowledge is build from narrower concepts, narrower generalizations, on up. Note that Van Damme presents no scientific evidence for her theory. There is a good reason for this. No such evidence exists. Human knowledge is not built up from narrower to wider concepts. Calculus is not a wider concept than arithmetic. It simply describes a more complicated subject matter. It's the sophistication and complexity of the subject matter, not the width of the concepts, that's hierarchical.

We can easily refute the Objectivist theory of the hiearchy of knowledge with the following cognitive experiment. Let's create an Objectivist hierarchy of concepts, going from higher to lower, starting with a breed of dog (which we will assume, for argument's sake, to be the narrowest concept possible), and going up the hierarchy all the way to the concept animal. The hierarchy is as follows: doberman, dog, wolf, Canidae, Carnivora, mammal, Vertebrata, Chordata, Animalia. This is, of course, not a complete hierarchy, but it's close enough for our purposes. If the Objectivist theory is correct, a child should learn the concept doberman before he learns the concept dog, and the concept Canidae before he learns the concept animal. As a matter of fact, as a little empirical work would soon demonstrate, a child is more likely to begin forming concepts of animal and dog long before he forms concepts of doberman and Canidae. The initial conceptions of infants and toddlers, as far as we can tell, are not necessarily "low level," "concrete bound," or "perceptual," as Objectivist theory posits, but tend to be on a fairly general level from the very start. There's every reason to believe, as Hayek argued in his essay "The Primacy of the Abstract," that very young children (and animals as well) think largely in terms of broad generalizations, and that maturation of thought in the human species involves the ability to make very fine distinctions so that our conceptions become much richer and cognitively powerful over time.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but this is a completely uncharitable and mistaken interpretation of AR's theory of the hierarchy of concepts, and as a result, a straw man objection to it.

AR did not think that the most basic concepts were the narrowest possible. *Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology* details the variety of ways in which concepts are formed: some are widenings from narrower concepts, others are narrowings from wider concepts. The level of generality at which a conceptual chain begins is determined by which kinds of similarities and differences are easiest to observe. Note, e.g., this passage from the ITOE appendix:

"Prof. F: Why wouldn't one have an equal difficulty when one came, let's say, to the concept of "bird"? Why wouldn't one have to say, "By bird, I mean eagles, penguins, and hummingbirds"?
AR: Because, in fact, one doesn't. And that is the difference between subcategories of concepts and first-level concepts. Because, you see, you could not arrive at the differences between eagles, hummingbirds, etc., unless you had first separated birds from other animals.
Even if chronologically you may learn those concepts in different orders, ultimately when you organize your concepts to determine which are basic-level concepts and which are derivatives (in both directions, wider integration or narrower subdivision), the test will be: which objects you perceive directly in reality and can point to, and which you have to differentiate by means of other concepts."

As for the empirical grounding of this theory, I don't know if AR considered any specifically psychological evidence before formulating it. She claims to have derived her theory from introspecting how she herself formed concepts.

Well, as it turned out, she must have been good at introspection. Take a look at the widely influential work in developmental psychology by Eleanor Rosch, who described "basic level concepts" which are found at a middle level of generality in precisely the way we would expect if AR's theory is true. See in particular Jeremy Anglin's book "Word, Object and Conceptual Development," an extended study of children's order of concept-formation. Anglin is no Objectivist, but his research confirms much of AR's theory (and he even quotes her approvingly at one point).

Anonymous said...


"As for the empirical grounding of this theory, I don't know if AR considered any specifically psychological evidence before formulating it. She claims to have derived her theory from introspecting how she herself formed concepts."

I haven't reviwed the psychology of concept formation, but Rand clearly presents her theory in a way that suggests she is describing how children do in fact form concepts. In Chapter 2 of ITOE, she constantly talks about "the child" observes this or "the child" does that. I can't "introspect" how I learned concepts as a child.

Anonymous said...

From Lisa VanDamme:

What defines the hierarchical order of concepts is distance from the perceptual level, not "wideness." "Doberman" is, unquestionably, more abstract than "dog": Ayn Rand addresses this issue in ITOE, and nothing I have ever said contradicts it.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to your criticism, the theory of hierarchy of knowledge does NOT imply that knowledge is built up from narrower concepts to wider ones. The hierarchy starts from the perceptual level and goes to the abstract. First-level concepts are always of familiar, perceivable entities, from which narrower and wider abstractions can later be formed. The more abstract concepts could not be formed prior to more basic ones on which they logically depend,just as one could not build a house by starting with the roof. How could one teach the concept of "inflation" prior to many more basic concepts, e.g. money, trade, price, etc? That is clearly "vital to a proper education". In most cases the abstract concepts will, in fact, be narrower than the basic ones, not wider, as Miss Rand herself makes clear in ITOE. I strongly suggest that you read ITOE before attacking it.