Ivan Illich, Education, and The Good Life

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1972) exposes our assumptions that a degree is an education, that medicine is health care, that security is safety, that institutionalization of jobs in corporations, schools, and government creates our freedom. We’ve come to confuse degrees, medicine, jobs, and security for the good life.

When what we value, what we want, becomes institutionalized, our values grow frustrated, and what we want turns against us: “…the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery…this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities; when health, education, personal mobility, welfare, or psychological healing are defined as the result of services or ‘treatments.’”

It’s not a question of spending more money on education, but of a lack of respect (value) for alternative forms to institutionalized education: “Rich and poor alike depend on schools and hospitals which guide their lives, form their world view, and define for them what is legitimate and what is not. Both view doctoring oneself as irresponsible, learning on one’s own as unreliable, and community organization, when not paid for by those in authority, as a form of aggression or subversion.”

Modern segregation of family, church, job, and school leads to specializations of each, which in turn results in our feeling confined in each, able to do only one thing at a time. In “the medieval town…traditional society was more like a set of concentric circles of meaningful structures, while modern man must learn how to find meaning in many structures to which he is only marginally related. In the village, language and architecture and work and religion and family customs were consistent with one another, mutually explanatory and reinforcing. Education did not compete for time with either work or leisure. Almost all education was complex, lifelong, and unplanned.”

For Illich, the problem is that “members of modern society believe that the good life consists in having institutions which define the values that both they and their society believe they need.” A wise man, Aristotle argues in Nicomachean Ethics, is one who knows what is good for himself and for everyone else. What will happen to Education? Given our current confusion of wants, as Frank Sinatra sang, we may have to “just wake up,” and “kiss that good life goodbye.” And learning to live without our good life as we have come to know it just might be something we should want.

Becker-Posner: fodder for rhetoric foragers

The shallow depth of the unstated warrants at the Becker-Posner blog makes for good fodder for rhetoric foragers. Consider this, from Posner’s half of their 15 Nov 09 post: “Should the U.S. economy grow more rapidly than the public debt, we’ll be okay. But the government’s focus appears to be not on economic growth, but on redistribution (the major goal of health reform) and on creating at least an aura of prosperity, at whatever cost in deficit spending and future inflation, in time for the November 2010 congressional elections.”

Redistribution may be an effect of health care reform, but there’s no evidence that it’s a goal; at the same time, distribution, and redistribution, is always a goal or effect or both of most legislative programs, so why mention it? Because redistribution is always viewed as a negative value (something one doesn’t want), particularly for those who do value the current distribution.

Posner’s claim is that the “major goal of health [care] reform” is “redistribution.” In Posner’s view, wealth should not be redistributed to achieve health care reform (redistribution by definition is a wrong).

Yet it’s impossible to have meaningful health care reform without some form of redistribution, so Posner’s unstated warrants here include that we should not have health care reform, that redistribution is a wrong, an economic wrong, and that he values this wrong over the health care uninsured – and over the inflated costs being paid by those who do have health insurance. Posner values the wealth of a minority over the physical and economic health of the majority, and the support for this is found in his cynical reference to yet another assumption – that any legislation that involves redistribution has as its root cause an upcoming election. It’s no wonder we never get anything accomplished.

Posner’s claim is that the government should not take something from someone who has and give it to someone who has not. Redistribution is a trigger word intended to attract those that have with its click. It’s quick draw rhetoric. Posner’s use of “government’s focus” also serves as a trigger, for the word government in this context is meaningless, or can only mean one thing – that entity constantly at work to take something from one and give it to someone else – it’s the government of Huck Finn’s father.

There are many entities at work on health care reform, including doctors and hospitals. For a thorough discussion of health care costs and what’s at stake in trying to lower those costs while insuring everyone, see Atul Gawande’s article “The Cost Conundrum,” in the June 1, 2009 issue of the New Yorker.

Emily Post’s Rhetorical Garden: A Field of Claims, Evidence, and Warrants

It’s too bad Emily Post was not a literary critic, for she was a whiz at rhetoric.

This is as close as she comes to lit-crit, but who can disagree? “There is no better way to cultivate taste in words, than by constantly reading the best English. None of the words and expressions which are taboo in good society will be found in books of proved literary standing. But it must not be forgotten that there can be a vast difference between literary standing and popularity, and that many of the ‘best sellers’ have no literary merit whatsoever” (chap. 8, para. 7).

Unfortunately, she does not give away the titles in her library, but her assumptions can be deadly: “It is difficult to explain why well-bred people avoid certain words and expressions that are admitted by etymology and grammar. So it must be merely stated that they have and undoubtedly always will avoid them. Moreover, this choice of expression is not set forth in any printed guide or book on English, though it is followed in all literature” (chap. 8, para 1).

If you are looking for an exercise to practice identifying claims, evidence, and warrants (and who is not?), take a look at Emily Post’s original Etiquette (1922). Get ready to frolic in a field of assumptions.

“Every house has an outward appearance to be made as presentable as possible, an interior continually to be set in order, and incessantly to be cleaned. And for those that dwell within it there are meals to be prepared and served; linen to be laundered and mended; personal garments to be brushed and pressed; and perhaps children to be cared for. There is also a door-bell to be answered in which manners as well as appearance come into play” (chap. 12, para. 1). And don’t we know it?

“But the ‘mansion’ of bastard architecture and crude paint, with its brass indifferently clean, with coarse lace behind the plate glass of its golden-oak door, and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation’” (chap 12, para 4). We’ve a rule in our place that offending mustaches must be swept clean by eleven every morning (save Saturday).

“Who does not dislike a ‘boneless’ hand extended as though it were a spray of sea-weed, or a miniature boiled pudding? It is equally annoying to have one’s hand clutched aloft in grotesque affectation and shaken violently sideways, as though it were being used to clean a spot out of the atmosphere. What woman does not wince at the viselike grasp that cuts her rings into her flesh and temporarily paralyzes every finger?” (chap. 3, para. 14).

It becomes increasingly clear why Emily Post did not go into literary criticism. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, study etiquette, or rhetoric, or grammar, or some such thing.” And Emily’s Etiquette is a work of fiction, and she is a stunning, literary star. Had she placed her cartoonish characters into any kind of plot, she could have been as good as P. G. Wodehouse.

The Idea of Self-Portrait Writing, or A Portrait of the Writer as Reader

In Montaigne’s autobiography, we find an essay titled “Why I Paint My Own Portrait”: 

“One day I was at Bar-le-Duc when King Francis II was presented a portrait that King Rene of Sicily had made of himself. Why, in a like manner, isn’t it lawful for every one of us to paint himself with his pen, as Rene drew himself with a crayon?” 

We all have a particular picture of ourselves – seldom, perhaps, the same picture that others have of us. And this is true of people we know and see and talk to face-to-face. Though we see eye-to-eye, we nevertheless find ourselves mired in misunderstanding. Unstated assumptions carpet beneath our oratorical feet like banana peels. Our rhetorical situations may be hopelessly complicated when our tools for communicating with one another are limited to reading and writing.  

Montaigne again; this reader advisory from “What I Find In My Essays”:

“The titles of my essays do not always embrace their content. Often they denote it merely by a sign. It is the careless reader who loses track of the subject, not I. There will be always hid in a corner some word which, however hard to find, will not fail to bring him back.”

Montaigne tells us why and how he writes, and why and how he reads. This from “The Days When I Read”:

“For my part, I like only easy and amusing books which tickle my fancy, or such as give me counsel and comfort. If I use them for study, it is to learn how to know myself, and to teach myself the proper way to live and die.”

Montaigne found reading useful, and his reading fueled his writing. If bad writing is usually the evidence of bad thinking, we find little to no bad thinking in Montaigne. He appears to have learned writing from writing, however, not from reading. And he would argue that one learns writing from the regular practice of it, and in no other way. His writing is not simply his thinking put to paper:

“Drawing this portrait after my own model, I have often been forced to drape and rearrange myself in order that the pose may offer a truer likeness, with the result that I have created for myself a fresher and brighter complexion than I began with. My book has made me as much as I have made my book. It is of the same stuff as the author, a limb of my body, devoted to its own being and not to the concerns of its reader, as are other books.”

Montaigne is constantly making claims and questioning them, evaluating evidence, his own or that of others, looking for what has been left out, and why, verifying the presence of an opposing view and analyzing it for its strengths and weaknesses, weighing the possibilities of suggested solutions. If thesis states, theme explores; Montaigne explores themes, but his great theme is himself:

“Meditation is ample exercise for the man who knows how to explore and use himself. No occupation is at once idler and more fruitful – according to the character of our mind – than entertaining one’s own thoughts. Great men make it their life work. Moreover, Nature has favored us in it: for there is nothing we can keep at so long and easily. It is the business of the gods, says Aristotle; and it creates both their happiness and ours.”

If a good writer is a good reader, if good reading precedes good writing, just as existence might precede essence, Montaigne explains why: “With its variety of matter, reading above all awakens my reasoning power. It puts my judgment to work, not my memory. And I would rather forge my mind than furnish it.”

Lowenthal, Marvin. Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne. Vintage Book, V34.  First published in 1935 by Houghton Mifflin Company.

An Unlikely Place to Find an Argument

Aristotle discusses the parts and arrangement of an argument: “The only necessary parts of a speech are the Statement and the Argument. These are the essential features of a speech; and it cannot in any case have more than Introduction, Statement, Argument, and Epilogue. ‘Refutation of the Opponent’ is part of the arguments: so is ‘Comparison’ of the opponent’s case with your own, for that process is a magnifying of your own case and therefore a part of the arguments, since one who does this proves something. The Introduction does nothing like this; nor does the Epilogue-it merely reminds us of what has been said already.” Aristotle. Rhetoric. (1954). Ryhs Roberts, Trans. New York: Modern Library.

When reading arguments we don’t necessarily want to join the argument; we want to read the argument effectively, which means, primarily, identifying and thinking about the writer’s assumptions, particularly assumptions unstated, but also identifying and understanding the writer’s audience and the rhetorical situation that prompted the argument. Reading arguments effectively also requires that we identify and analyze the writer’s claims, the thesis, causes and effects described, organization of these parts within the argument, the support given for the claims, the efficacy of the solution if a problem has been described and a solution offered – in short, what has been said, and what has been left out; why and how said, and why left out. We ask questions.

Arguments surround us. Let’s go somewhere we might not expect to encounter one. Even if we live alone, even if extremely recluse, we still probably argue – with ourselves if no one else is around. Consider Han-shan, a recluse from the Period of Division (220-589), who wrote his poems on rocks near trails in the mountains: “He misses the point entirely, / Men like that / Ought to stick to making money” (Hahn-shan, Cold Mountain Poems, Nov. 1982 Printing, Gary Snyder, Trans. Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems, San Francisco: Grey Fox Press). But why did Han-shan bother writing his poems at all, let alone on rocks where travelers might or might not have found them, randomly? Perhaps Han-shan was one of the world’s first bloggers: “I idly scribble poems on the rock cliff.”

Aristotle thought everyone argued, and he thought argument useful. His Rhetoric shows us how to read arguments. “Rhetoric the counterpart of Dialectic. Both alike are concerned with such things as come, more or less, within the general ken of all men and belong to no definite science. Accordingly all men make use, more or less, of both; for to a certain extent all men attempt to discuss statements and to maintain them, to defend themselves and to attack others. Ordinary people do this either at random or through practice and from acquired habit. Both ways being possible, the subject can plainly be handled systematically, for it is possible to inquire the reason why some speakers succeed through practice and others spontaneously; and every one will at once agree that such an inquiry is the function of an art.”

When we read and write, we argue.

When we read and write, we argue. We all argue from time to time, and we generally apply, from an opponent’s prompt or from our own desire to make ourselves clear, examples and proofs, persuasive tools, but as we ramble on, as is often our wont, making claim after claim, supporting or not, making assumptions left and right, some stated, others not, we shortly may find ourselves caught in a riptide of our own words.

As Samuel Beckett said, “You can’t listen to a conversation for five minutes without noting inherent chaos.” But we swim on, using what persuasive tools we find handy – tools described and explained nicely for us in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It’s not only OK to argue; arguing is our responsibility.

In Aristotle’s view, argument is what makes us human; we engage in argument as a consequence of our living together, working together, playing together – reading and writing together. It follows, though it may sound paradoxical, that when we learn to read and write arguments effectively, we more effectively cooperate with one another, and we learn to live together in greater harmony. But not all arguments are equal. Some are specious, others obfuscated, sometimes deliberately so. Some, contrary to Aristotelian principle, persuade to do wrong. As Woody Guthrie said, “Some men will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen.” 

If arguing is good (and necessary), not all arguments are good (or necessary). But what’s necessary? And what’s good? The answers to those questions are what we work toward when we work on learning to read and to write arguments.