Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

Henry Dampier contrasts modern and classical education:

The 20th century approach to liberal arts education has mostly been a creation of head-stuffing — encouraging students to memorize these sorts of pat reasoning chains so that they can buttress more political interventions and the growth of bureaucratic management. These stories are often supported by emotionally powerful tales that lend them some shrill urgency. Professors test for ideological conformity and passion, because knowing the party line and truly believing it generates a reliable sense of legitimacy for the state. This method is common to all rationalist politics regardless of what position the ideology has on the ‘spectrum.’

This differs from the classical liberal arts, which were heavy on the transmission of cultural experience from thousands of years of Western history. Rather than the reduction of history to the pat reasoning of a small number of liberals thinking over a short period of time, it was more about 1,000s of years of history recorded to the best of our ability. Students would then go on to further studies in their specialization. And those students were not the bulk of society — not even the bulk of the intelligent — but a tiny fraction of the elite.

Egalitarian political systems — like the United States after Andrew Jackson expanded the franchise — tend to be uncomfortable with gross disparities in knowledge, especially the kind which is supposed to elevate the student politically over others which the ideology considers politically equal. Simplifying the incredibly complex makes it easier for people who aren’t equal to see one another as equals, to maintain a pretense of egalitarianism, and the ability of an ordinary person to grasp the whole of human experience rather than only a tiny portion of it.


  1. Dan Kurt says:

    This concept is titled The Dunning–Kruger effect. Worth looking up.

    It underlies why Democracies ultimately fail as Aristotle said: Democracy is rule by Fools.

  2. William Newman says:

    Before Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, how many generations of students knew better than to speculate whether the universe might have been created by a vegetative entity?

    It does seem sad that today’s students know better than to engage their tongues or even their brains about, e.g., the unthinkability of rudimentary public choice theory, or the indubitability of various green dogma (like how every species is of incalculably large value), or sociology dogma (like zero heritability by definition), or Rawls, or macroeconomics, or diversity. But it also seems sad that the kabuki argument for the foreordained conclusion that our universe reveals the hand of something remarkably like the God of Abraham was largely unexamined.

    And while the argument from design may be the main pre-20th-century head-stuffing kabuki bogo-argument that happened to became famous for a posthumous Dialogue that it inspired, I don’t get the impression that it was the only kabuki bogo-argument that circulated among scholars before the 20th century. Consider, e.g., that Macaulay’s less famous but nonetheless famous History of England (not posthumous but published safely long after the authorities themselves had kicked the bucket) bangs on several bogo-arguments from around the reign of the Stuarts.

    (The Dialogues and History are both on Project Gutenberg, and I recommend them both, both for their explicit content and for their implicit time-capsule content.)

    Even without central control of funding, fashionable dogmatic bogo-arguments can be fairly common. And after a generation or more of central control of funding, it’s seems to me that “very common” is the way to bet.

  3. Ross says:


    While I agree with Dampier that late or modern education has a significant (majority) component of bobble-headed conformity training, I am not as sure that his assertion that “simplifying the incredibly complex” is always a detriment. William of Ockham would object. Probably Dampier intends “oversimplifying”, but that’s just a first guess.

    Also appreciate the D/K reference, but how does that square with Tetlock’s longitudinal work on the Good Judgement Project and his so-called super forecasters? Some of the great unwashed are, actually, above average.

    I’m interested in hearing you expound on the nuances between the two.

    Devil’s advocate poke — some of the amateurs are at least as good (if not better) than the professionals in charge. (Modulo the discipline in question.)

  4. William Newman says:

    Dan Kurt, are you writing for an audience that knows of lots of historical examples of non-democracies getting around those problems qualititately better than democracies do? Might you deign to tell us what those examples are? ‘Cause your argument went past me, ’cause I don’t know lots of such historical examples of that sort. I do know historical examples of other sorts, though. and I find it amusing that in a discussion about unquestioned in-group bogoarguments you presented what looks so much like the NRx in-group bogosyllogism (and, 100ish years ago, the fellow traveler in-group bogosyllogism; and today in academic headstuffing of economics-related topics the Nirvana Fallacy). To wit, DEMOCRACY (or 100y ago CAPITALISM; or today FREE MARKETS) is severely imperfect and thus it follow bogologically that THE alternative which is ABSOLUTE MONARCHY (or, 100y ago, COMMUNISM; or today DIRIGISME WHICH TOTALLY BE WISER THIS TIME) is seriously better.

    In-groups are gonna in-group, flatterers are gonna flatter, timeservers are gonna timeserve, and ignorants are gonna ignorance, and in a long-stable organization democratic or not, those tend to breed head-stuffing mediocratic conformity (and other problems). I don’t know of a lot of historical examples of comprehensively solving those problems, which means I can’t possibly know of a lot of historical examples of non-democratic solutions to these problems.

    We do have quite a few historical examples of a trickle of rigorously correct useful inquiry selectively getting around those problems even in systems that were had severe cases of those problems generally. E.g. some useful mathematics was produced in the USSR even when it had impressively high levels of repressively dogmatic groupthink. We also have some examples of a greater flood of progress, sometimes recognized as various Golden Ages, and towering above them all the Industrial Revolution (and starting before it the Scientific Revolution and some of the actually-enlightened threads of the Enlightenment). But (1) even those are less completely comprehensive solutions than moderns sometimes imagine, as witness Hume choosing to publish posthumously and (2) the anticorrelation with that debbil democracy does not seem to be nearly high enough to validly arrive at antidemocratic conclusions from careless drive-by sneers.

    It seems to me that the most successful solutions, partial and comprehensive, tend to involve on some level of open competition. It also seems to me (though it’s hard to prove) that they tend to have more open competition than their more stagnant rivals, enough of a pattern to suggest causality. But even if we recognize that that’s important, it is hard to guarantee stable open competitions in the long term (in-groups gonna in-group, etc.) and the long-running ones tend to look like they benefited from historical accident. E.g. it has been often been remarked that the difficulty of locking Europe down under a single strong empire could have been an important contributor to various rivals in Europe collectively staggering all the way through the scientific and agricultural revolutions into the industrial revolution without swerving into comprehensively dispossessing the relevant movers and shakers and burning their works. (Smaller-scale swerves like France going after the Huguenots tend to be more more self-limiting when France has strong sovereign rivals.)

  5. Dan Kurt says:


    I jumped off the Social Science Bus after encountering Malcolm Gladwell.

    Hard Science is bad enough; I don’t need to worry about the “soft sciences.” Imagine, water on Mars is the latest cudgel to use against the Rushbo.

  6. Dan Kurt says:

    William Newman:

    I do not wish to offend but you are way, way above me in verbosity and smarts, I fear. I am not sure what you are arguing in your two posts.

    To me the Dunning-Kruger Effect is a distillation of a lifetime of encounters with people and politics, people and school, and people and work.

    So many individuals don’t know what they are capable of doing but think that they are way more capable than they are and never seem to learn their limitations in spite of repeated demonstrations of their short comings. When I read about the DKE it hit me as if with a ton of bricks.

    A few weeks ago I was reading a (free) e-book on the life of Erhard Milch, NAZI Luftwaffe Field Marshal. He was unbelievably brilliant and capable from his youth and all through to middle age when the 2nd WW ended but all during that time period he was thwarted, ignored and passed over by individuals who exhibited the DKE and never learned their limits until it was too late to make a difference. Case in point was Ernst Udet who as a superior to Milch overruled Erhard on proposed development projects such as an arial cannon, a jet plane in 1935, a long range bomber and other concepts. Udet eventually realized he was ill-equipped to do his job and committed suicide.

    I saw that the DKE explained much of the folly of what I saw in life and why so much failure abounds. The DKE also shows why Democracy is bound to fail. Similarly, the Peter Principle explains much in life and why so many of our leaders and managers are ineffective. If there were no DKE a person promoted to a position where the one promoted understood that he was truly incapable of doing the job the person would resign the position. Thus there would be no Peter Principle as well. But there is the DKE and it follows there is the Peter Principle.

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