Monday, November 5, 2007

Don't Stifle the Young Folks

Giambattista Vico argues that it's important not to stifle young people's ordinary knowledge by enforcing Cartesian doubt about all things which can't be absolutely proven. In his own words, "we should be careful to avoid that the growth of common sense be stifled in them by a habit of advanced speculative criticism" (868). Too much modern philosophy stunts growth. Descartes's style of philosophy is better suited to more mature scholars: "Just as old age is powerful in reason, so is adolescence in imagination" (868).

Vico doesn't cite Quintilian, but he has some similar ideas. For Quintilian, the issue isn't common sense, but creativity. A child should be allowed to "be daring, invent much, and delight much in what it invents, though it be often not sufficiently severe and correct" (370). For both Vico and Quintilian, education isn't about making sure the student is never wrong, but rather making sure that they learn as they go. It's important not to lose common sense and creativity along the way. Instead of tearing students down and trying to rebuild what from scratch, we should build on the tools the students already have.

Works Cited

Quintilian. From Institutes of Oratory. Trans. John Selby Watson. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 364-428.

Vico, Giambattista. From On the Study Methods of Our Time. Trans. Elio Gianturco. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001. 865-878.


Landis said...

Vico and Quintilian were way ahead of their time in this aspect of their educational philosophy. Amy, I think you articulated their sentiment well in the phrase about not trying to build each student up from scratch. Now, this is going to sound really cynical, and I'm not necessarily endorsing the idea, but just raising a possible objection to Vico and Quintilian's anti-Cartesianism: what if you live in a society in which it is not so much education but rather a popular culture which bombards children with sensory stimulation from a very early age that is responsible for quashing their creativity (I think of my nephew and niece's faces when they watch cartoons: it seems like the MORE wacky, animated, and creative and clever the cartoon, the LESS stimulated they themselves are--why bother to be creative when popular culture performs all the creativity for you and sells it to you as a conveniently packaged commodity). I wonder if there's a case to be made that in such a situation, Cartesianism might be precisely what is needed to gain back some level of intellectual activity. The point is that maybe it's inaccurate to simply take for granted that creativity and the desire to learn by doing are inherent in children at any time in history in any society and that scientific education always runs counter to that.

Andrea512 said...

I agree that Vico and Quintilian had a good view of education. It allowed for more creative freedoms by the student, which I believe is just as important as learning facts.