Fantasies, facts and values
The Western cultural tradition, which combined various elements (religious, intellectual, scientific) into a rich and resilient and trans-national framework of thought and practice, is all but dead.
Witness, for example, the increasingly propaganda-ridden media environment, the absurdities of identity politics where whims and fantasies routinely trump objective reality and, more generally, the self-righteous and narrow dogmatism of the progressive left.
The deep causes are not just ideological, but ideas and ideology play a role.
The notion that the world of which we are a part is a certain way and that we can have objective knowledge of that world is a crucial tenet of Western thought. Closely associated with this idea is the distinction between factually-based and values-based claims.
For all sorts of reasons the fact/value distinction needs to be maintained. It is basic to a sensible, modern view of the world. Unfortunately many philosophers and other intellectuals have in recent decades sought assiduously to undermine it. In so doing they have (wittingly or unwittingly) given cover and support to those who reject the idea that the sciences and rigorous forms of scholarship (coupled with common sense and ordinary observation) reveal an objective reality which is not at the mercy of our whims and preferences and prejudices.
Philosophies like Pragmatism are very popular these days, largely because they blur the fact/value distinction. William James had a religious view of the world, and his form of Pragmatism supported it. John Dewey had strong social and political commitments to which his form of Pragmatism lent a spurious intellectual authority.
Richard Rorty was another influential (and politically motivated) Pragmatist. He incorporated elements of Romanticism into his thinking and, unlike Dewey, disparaged and tried to undermine the status of the sciences.
Rorty wrote clearly and well, by and large avoiding the jargon-dense obscurity of the Continentals. He should also be given credit for seeing as totally futile much of the self-perpetuating philosophical and metaphysical discourse which was produced by analytic philosophers in the late 20th century. But his anti-science attitude, driven by the same general forces which drove many literary men and women before him — a kind of donnish snobbery bolstered by Romantic notions — was unfortunate.
Sure, it is sometimes difficult to disentangle the potentially factual from the value-related aspects of a statement or claim. But an ability to do such disentangling is one of the most important things that a basic education should develop. Not much chance of this when educators’ heads are stuffed full of postmodern fantasies. What they seek to encourage in their students is not independent thinking or real creativity (which is always based on actual competence) but rather a witless conformity masquerading as creative self-expression and a blind adherence to a mishmash of liberal or progressive dogmas, clichés and slogans.
The silliness and emptiness of all this is evident to many, of course, and not just to old fogeys and traditionalists. ZeroHedge reports:
The “weaponized autists” at 4Chan have done it again, because they can; a new meme suggesting that liberals are soulless idiots who can’t think for themselves has gone viral. The concept compares Democrats to “nonplayable characters,” or NPCs – the recurring characters in video games with repetitive lines and limited knowledge. Lack of an “inner voice” is a dead giveaway that someone may be an NPC… The NPC meme [is] meant to ridicule the post-election perpetual outrage culture in which liberals simply parrot the latest talking points from their favorite pundits, who do their thinking for them… The 4chan version is a simple greyed out, expressionless face known as “NPC Wojak” – which has triggered the left so hard that Twitter conducted a mass-banning campaign for accounts promoting the meme, and the New York Times wrote an entire article trying to figure it out.
I acknowledge that education, especially in the early years, is largely about imparting values, practices and myths. Values are an important part of education. The question is, which values?
A rudimentary education in science and/or some form of rigorous scholarship (disciplines which are dependent on virtues such as attention and patience) is crucial, in my opinion, for giving students a sense of objective knowledge. Such disciplines are always in a healthy tension with mythmaking on the one hand and ideological conformity on the other.
We can’t escape myths and ideologies. But if a good part of our thinking is grounded in objective reality we are at least less likely to be consumed by them.