Jonnie CometThe study of philosophy is the asking of questions. Inherent in that is the element of cynicism: it seems that every philosopher inevitably disputes something the rest of society takes for granted. In his search for ultimate truth he asks, as did Pilate, ‘What is truth?’ [i] and then invariably concludes that no such thing exists. Fielding contrasts seekers of philosophical truth and seekers of gold:
2 May 1996
2 May 1996
‘[Y]et surely, there can be no comparison between the two; for who ever heard of a gold-finder that had the impudence or folly to assert, from the ill success of his search, that there was no such thing as gold in the world?’ [ii]
So it will hold for all seekers of truth who initiate their search with skepticism, for as the scientific model tells us, he who enters a scientific study suspecting a specific outcome will surely arrive at precisely that outcome. The atheist mathematician Bertrand Russell would have done well to heed the prime maxim of his field before declaring that there is no God. [iii]
Philosophers are therefore very idiosyncratic. Perhaps there is no recognising the ultimate truth, since every being is biased in his way of thinking, and will, understandably, seek to justify his own point of view. I will grant readily that I am biased against those who challenge the establishment for the sake of challenge alone, but am just as biased against those who champion it for the sake of championing alone. I have traditionally called myself a pragmatist, but my definition of Pragmatism will not correlate with that of the studied texts. For example, I strongly maintain the concept that ethical absolutes do exist in this world and that we are either fools to deny them or fools to accept them blindly. But like Fielding’s gold-digger, we would be most foolish to assume that, because we do not see them right in front of our faces, they do not exist anywhere.
I suppose I am mainly an idealist, but I have been this way for so long that I long outgrew the need to place myself in some simplistic category. I will state unequivocally that it is the responsibility of the teacher to exemplify ethical ideals in thought, word, and deed for the benefit of all young people. Kant states that ‘the child must learn to act according to “maxims”’, [iv] and insists the teacher’s job is to prescribe such maxims in terms even small children can understand. I absolutely agree that children need strict moral guidance, but I also hold with Rousseau in that there may well be an inherent goodness in human beings. The truth most likely lies in Alexander Pope’s succinct assessment, that man is a ‘Chaos of Thought and Passion’, [v] both logical reasoning and illogical feeling rolled into one. The wise teacher understands and accepts this.
Kant’s remarkable argument, two hundred years before Skinner, [vi] convincingly makes the point that manipulation of behaviour and consequences is not a desirable method of developing a child’s ability to make ethical decisions:
‘If you punish a child for being naughty, and reward him for being good, he will do right merely for the sake of the rewards; and when he goes out into the world and finds that goodness is not always rewarded, nor wickedness punished, he will grow into a man who… does right or wrong according as he finds either of advantage to himself’. [vii]
This is the frame of mind of the destitute urban American minority to whom, sadly, so much immoral inclination may be rightly attributed, because he recognises no relationship between the ideal of doing good and the reality of his personal situation. In the liberal American ‘politically-correct’ Naturalism of the 1990s he is justified in his behaviour and considered a victim of unnamed, unattributable circumstances. As this mindset becomes increasingly prevalent among children of means, all society slides into the gutter (vis., why do even rich kids wear the baggy trousers of homeless refugees?), and soon develops into an anarchy of isolated individuals all fearful or hateful of others around them.
The only just course for a pedagogue is to deliberately embody a positive moral stance, championing the set of values proven over all time to be the best for all mankind. Yes; I know what that means; it is an idealistic crusade towards some Utopian concept of ‘Good’ that may never be fully defined or accepted. But the striving towards Good is the stuff of which greatness is made, and if a teacher is ever to do anything, it is to attempt to effect the improvement of his charges. Jefferson, Douglass, Gandhi, King, and Mandela all advocated a society in which the true worth of a man is measured not by his appearance, or birthright, or ability to amass material treasure, but by the goodness of his character. Or, as I so often quote Richardson’s valiant young maiden, ‘Virtue is the only nobility.’ [viii] That, as succinctly as it can be put, is my philosophy.
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[i] What is ‘truth’? - John 18.38
[ii] [Y]et surely... world? - Fielding; Tom Jones: bk. 6, ch. 1
[iii] The atheist... God - Not the first time I have found fault with Russell! –JC
[iv] the child... ‘maxims’ - Kant; Education; Charton, Annette, translator. Excerpted in Philosophical Foundations of Education. Eds. Howard Ozmon, Samuel Craver
[v] Chaos of Thought and Passion - Pope; An Essay on Man: e. 2; l. 13
[vi] Skinner - Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1899-1990) pioneered the concept that behaviour can be conditioned through manipulation of stimuli and consequences. Prominent in Skinnerian theory is the idea that man is subservient to stimuli which cause him to act in the exhibited fashion, as if he possesses no will to alter his behaviour on his own –JC
[vii] If you... himself - Kant, in Ozman & Craver text, pp. 33-34
[viii] Virtue is the only nobility - Richardson, Samuel; Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded: letter 23). Apparently Pamela (at 15) has read Juvenal’s Tenth Satire; but then, her father was an Anglican priest and probably possessed of a good library. –JC