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The Liberal Art of Dialectic (PT. 3)

In this blog article series we are exploring the trivium, the three arts of language, what Dorothy Sayers called the lost tools of learning. These arts are not subjects, that is, topics of study unto themselves, like American Government or Biology. Rather, the classical liberal arts are more like intellectual skills or virtues that, when mastered, enable students to pursue knowledge independently and dynamically.

So far we have examined the art of grammar and we have gathered that grammar is the art or skill of literacy, that is, reading, writing and interpretation. Our hope is that through faithfully training our students in grammar, a generation of men and women will emerge who are able to read masterfully and, through this ability, will enjoy a wide variety of literature: from the philosophy of Plato to the medieval tales of King Arthur, from the poetry of T.S. Eliot to the insights found in business reviews and scientific journals.

Now it falls to me lead us through a brief examination of the art of dialectic, or logic. Dialectic, simply put, is the art of discerning the truth through discussion. Before I explain more about the nature of this art, let me first attempt to motivate our need for this art in the first place. I don’t think this will be very difficult.

 

Why do we need the art of dialectic today?

To begin, let’s examine a brief quotation from Dorothy Sayers:

“Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?”¹

Sayers posed these questions at an academic lecture exactly seventy years ago, but I suspect that the uneasy suspicion she expressed is shared by many of us even today. People today are unable to discern fact from propaganda (or biased opinion) and are therefore vulnerable to the quagmire of lies and falsehoods spawned by both intentional deception and unintentional fallacious thinking. They are unable to think things out for themselves, reflect thoughtfully on complex issues, and ask the sort of questions that will cut incisively through the seemingly limitless amount of information, opinions, news, research, polls, blogs, and periodicals we are immersed in in the modern world.

Interestingly, modern education is growing more and more aware of its shortcomings in the area of analysis and critical thinking, or in short, discerning the truth. Even despite its pragmatic understanding of truth, namely, the idea that truth is determined by its practical effect, many modern educators admit that with all the technological savviness, scientific proficiency, and college readiness their students supposedly display, these same students lack the skills necessary to make logical connections between ideas, grade the relevance and strength of arguments, problem solve with creativity and nuance, and detect inconsistent and fallacious reasoning. This weakness is then carried on into college. As one article documents: “The most recent results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus (CLA+) test—[which is] a standardized testing initiative designed to measure college students’ critical thinking skills—are not encouraging… this is a serious problem; without critical thinking skills, students can fall into, or reinforce, bad intellectual habits.”²

Indeed, they can… and they do. In fact, many people today suffer from bad intellectual habits due to their lack of training in the skills of learning that over time develop into virtues of thought that faithfully lead them to the truth. And it is for this very reason that Clapham School trains its students in the art of dialectic. Now that we have motivated a case for the need for this art, let’s try to understand it better.

 

What did the art of dialectic look like in the classical tradition?

As I have already said, dialectic is the art of discerning the truth through discussion. Originally, the term meant “to converse with” and overtime it evolved into “the art of debate.” Putting these ideas together, dialectic is the art of discussion, debate, and dialogue, and, by extension, the ability to reason and engage in argumentation. All for the sake of truth! We must not neglect to keep the ultimate goal of dialectic at the forefront of our minds: to discern truth.

Of course, in the classical tradition, truth itself was understood differently than it often is today. Truth was not determined based on its practicality or perhaps, more relevantly, its conformity to feelings or accordance to a set of experiences. Rather, the ancients, medievals, and even early modernists understood truth to be that which corresponds to the real world, regardless of whether one believes it or not. In this way, truth is objective—it describes the world independent of what minds think about it. This understanding of truth is crucial to the art of dialectic… for how can we attempt to discern truth with integrity, if we do not believe it is actually out there or, indeed, knowable?

As inheritors of the Christian tradition, we hold that the foundation for all truth is God himself, revealed paradigmatically through the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the revelation of God’s Word as recorded in the scriptures. John’s gospel tells us that the Word, Jesus Christ, the divine logos, became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus went on to claim that he himself is the truth and the way to our heavenly Father. Moreover, we read in Genesis, the book of beginnings, that God spoke creation into existence. How interesting is it that God used words to create the world, but not just any world—a world of order, and therefore of purpose. It is precisely this order that undergirds the very fabric of the universe, and truth is, therefore, whatever judgments correspond to it.

It is our responsibility as Christians, then, to grow in wisdom and understanding of this orderly creation, to courageously follow the logos, the word that is truth, wherever it leads, and to believe with confidence that Jesus Christ will be waiting for us when we arrive. As the Apostle Paul taught the Colossian church,

“He [Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (1:15-17 ESV)

The lifelong search for truth, then, is the purpose of the art of dialectic. Dialectic is the dawn of thinking, the daring to ask “why?”, and the endeavor to weigh the multitude of ideas conceived throughout history, in order to determine what aligns with the way things actually are. Francis Bacon, pioneer of the scientific method, called dialectic “the art of judgment,” and viewed it as indispensable to the task of education. John Locke, the great English philosopher, similarly appraised dialectic as an essential skill of the educated person and indeed, of a sincere lover of truth. Of course, in order to meet the earliest proponent of dialectic, we must go all the way back to Plato himself, as he chronicles the famous dialogues of his mentor Socrates. In these dialogues, we learn that the key to success in discerning the truth is the ability to ask the right questions (cf. Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, The Liberal Arts Tradition, 42). Through the relentless asking of questions and, correspondingly, the faithful pursuit of answers, students can discuss and discover the truth for themselves even as it exists independent of them.

In the classical tradition, the art of dialectic experienced its heyday during the scholastic period of the Middle Ages, a time when the logic of Aristotle reigned supreme and was put to use through lively debates called disputatios, arguments over questions. Historian Morris Bishop enthusiastically describes these debates:

“A promising student, prompted usually by the professor, would propose to defend against all comers a more or less bold thesis in the field of his studies. All other exercises were canceled, and a large band of students and also eminent visitors attended. It was “a clerical tournament,” a sporting spectacle in the intellectual realm, with the professor acting as the challenger’s second and trainer. A spirited defense was hailed with shouts of applause” (The Middle Ages, 242).

We observe from Bishop’s description here that these disputations were quite the spectacle! It is clear how important discerning the truth was to the scholastics. They practiced and honed the skills of discussion and debate, in order to grow in their understanding of the world and thereby discern the truth.

In fact, this was the intention of the Augustinian monk Martin Luther when he famously nailed ninety-five theses on a church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, which inadvertently launched the Protestant Reformation! Luther, who was trained in the art of dialectic, was prepared to engage critically with the prevailing theology and praxis of the day and, using this skillset, reform the church. It is precisely this art, this tool of learning, displayed and advocated for by the likes of Greek philosophers, church reformers, and modern scientists that we seek to train our students in at Clapham School. The question is: how do we do it?

 

How do we train our students in the art of dialectic at Clapham School?

As we have learned, in the classical tradition students were trained in the intellectual virtue of discerning the truth primarily through rich and stimulating discussion. At Clapham School we use this same method. Each time students open a text, they not only seek to read it well, they discuss the living ideas found within it. They argue over what it means. They engage in fruitful conversation, led by their teacher, to make connections, determine the viewpoint of the author, listen to the viewpoints of their classmates, and assess the merits of different arguments through careful reasoning.

In this way, students at Clapham School are not merely lectured at in the classroom and called on to retain this information in the short-term for an upcoming test. They engage in fruitful dialogue with the living ideas presented in the text and thereby grow in the skill of discerning truth for themselves. They are liberated to ask the question, “why?”, which, as I’ve already mentioned, is the dawn of thinking. Through discussion they are able to think things out for themselves and take responsibility for their own beliefs. And they grow to listen carefully and respectfully to their classmates, demonstrating a charity of heart and a clarity of mind that is growing noticeably absent in our current cultural context.

In addition to these key discussion skills, as they grow older students at Clapham are trained to identify faulty reasoning—called fallacies—as well as good reasoning using both inductive and deductive arguments. In this way, students are trained to think logically and apply this logic to their discussions and conversations in each of their subject classes—Bible, history, literature, science, and so on. This art, this skill, this tool of learning, will prove particularly crucial down the road, as students study more advanced subjects and are required to wrestle with the complex and difficult questions that plague our society today: What form of government is best? Why do bad things happen to good people? How do events in history impact our lives today?

It is clear that the art of dialectic is desperately needed in our modern context and has been noticeably neglected by modern educators, leaving a seriously confused and disoriented society. We need men and women who are trained in the art of discerning the truth through discussion, and Clapham School has courageously taken up this task. Through hearkening back to the classical tradition and following the teachings of the Christian faith, we are excited about the possibilities of learning our students can achieve, if only they acquire the intellectual virtues, or skills, needed to do so.

 

By Kolby Atchison
Secondary School Principal

 


¹ http://www.gbt.org/text/sayers.html

² https://www.edsurge.com/