I’ve been reading Jordan Peterson, and finished his book Twelve Rules for Life. It was enough of JP for me, as at my age, there was not much new for me in it. As we age, we become wiser, learn from mistakes, even become more sympathetic to others and to different ideas. For instance, at age 38, having abandoned the Catholic faith, I was angry at the Church for having brainwashed me as it did, and thought people who were devoted to the faith to be of a lesser mind than me. Later I would read The Varieties of Religious Experience by the American intellectual/psychologist William James, and took on a new outlook. While religion would never appeal to me, those who experience religious enlightenment are experiencing real phenomena, and are made better and happier people in the process. (Oddly, I no longer have this book. It was a keeper, and I do not know what happened to it.)
I now look at my Catholic upbringing as a means of 1) brainwashing me, to ensure I stayed Catholic all my life, but also 2) as a means of protecting me, since teachers viewed most of us kids as having little enlightenment and intellectual ability. Life was going to be hard for us. Having a rudder, even if one based on superstition and falsehood, would not hurt. It would prevent thinking, but also prevent despair. Stupidity is a great insulator.
Peterson came out with another book, Beyond Order, Twelve More Rules for Life, and I began to read it. It had the same preachy tone, the same forgone conclusions and lessons already learned. It now resides next to me under my desk, in a gray receptacle. If anyone wants it, contact me before recycle day, two weeks forward. (I normally recycle old books by putting them in a bin at 2nd and Charles, a used book store, but when they offend me, as this one did, I trash them.)
Looking for something better to read, I sorted through my stuff, and came up with an unread book I acquired long ago, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric, by Sister Miriam Joseph (1898-1982). As most readers here know, the Trivium consists of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Sister Joseph reverses the order for the first two, logic first, and grammar second. If one thinks of teaching as approaching children with ideas appropriate for their age, then it would seem orderly to start them off with first-grade grammar. But if one thinks it further through, logic, the art of thinking, is an essential element of grammar, the art of inventing and communicating symbols. Both lead to rhetoric, the art of communication. It is a lifelong process.
Further down the road, students will encounter arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. These four comprise the Quadrivium, and complete the seven stages of learning as used in medieval times. Many people believe that the Trivium/Quadrivium presents a rounded education, and all that students need be equipped with to get through this life. I doubt it. I would add yet another element, disputation, and beyond that, the Socratic method as a form of classroom rhetoric. And beyond that, I would introduce the recognition and study of propaganda, advertising techniques, and intense study of the principles of finance.
Disputation: A formalized method of debate used to uncover truth. We’ve all seen political debates, where the questioners are chosen from journalists known to be submissive to power, and where politicians prepare their answers long in advance of questioning. Such “debates” are really propaganda exercises. In a real debate, candidates would not face the crowd, but each other. They would not be allowed notes. They would probe one another with burrowing questions, making the opponent clearly define thoughts and ideas that give way to policies. In fact, a court of law is a forum for disputation. In theory.
Socratic Method: This means of dialogue, easily made part of disputation, used persistent questioning of ideas as a means of forcing students to think things through logically. Ideally, students also pepper the teacher with questions. It is the searching for inconsistencies, contradictions (there are no contradictions, only faulty premises, said Ayn Rand, a truly useful bit of her otherwise overblown tribute to individual genius as opposed to group genius). Students can even expose outright lies. The process eventually allows truth to blossom. That’s the idea.,
Study of propaganda: There is no reason why this subject cannot be taught in schools. It is a formal science with volumes written on its use and methods. Teaching it would allow students to become aware of it. Propaganda cannot stand light of day. It withers. It has to be carried on disguised as other things, such as “news” and “events” or “education”, leaving people to become “informed” by passively collecting impressions, which are usually false. Edward Bernays in the early 20th Century published a book called, oddly, Propaganda, which should be on every high school curriculum, and from which I take the following words:
“No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or especially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by group leaders in who it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders.”
Were it known how little our leaders value our opinions, or of how their only objective is “manipulation of public opinion,” then we might turn out smarter students who might even be capable of recognizing and resisting … propaganda. All hail Covid, nothing more than agitation propaganda, no underlying reality. Hardly anyone is capable of seeing through it.
Advertising techniques: Advertising is but a branch of propaganda, but one worthy of study. Like propaganda itself, I do not think that the techniques and secrets of advertising are taught in any formal setting, but are rather learned on the job. Advertisers learn something also from Bernays’ book, that the group mind is different from the individual mind, and that individuals are but part of a herd. People are layered as well, with the outer person not the object of ads. It is the inner person, the one who lies to others and covets his neighbor’s goods and wife, who imagines himself smarter than everyone around – he is the object of advertising. If advertisers do not reach that person they won’t be selling many tacos or Toyotas. The beating heart of advertising is behavioral psychology.
Finance: This is a personal peeve of mine. As a tax preparer I was once foolish enough to point out to people that they were paying far more tax than they knew about, that the hidden and revealed part of the Social Security tax combined usually exceeded their regular income tax. The response: “How much is my refund?” I gave up. I left them as dumb as I found them.
But my interest in teaching basic finance principles goes far beyond taxation. The beating heart of finance is called the “annuity.” That is a fancy word for a string of payments. If you are making a car or house payment, you are paying annuities to banks. The reason for the importance of this is that lurking behind annuities is compound interest. It eats people alive. People who do not understand compound interest are thrown bare-assed into the deep end of the pool. The most egregious examples are, of course, credit cards where interest rates exceeding 20% are not uncommon. At that rate, any accumulated unpaid debt will mount so fast that people resort to transferring their debt to a new credit card. It merely “compounds” the problem. Our society makes it so easy to spend, to have immediate gratification, that credit cards are our number one enemy.
But it gets worse: Seniors in high school are allowed to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to attend college. They are at an age where their brains are not fully developed, and anyway I doubt their high school taught them about annuities. They quickly become saddled with huge debts that it will take half or more of their career to pay off, that is, if they studied and excelled in a major that will lead to good income. But it gets worse: Student loan debt never goes away. They cannot bankrupt their way out of it. They are saddled for life.
The Trivium and Quadrivium are medieval concepts, but useful in teaching kids the basics of thinking. But we oversimplify if we assert that is all they need. They need much more, and I suggest our readers add that much more to my ideas above.