Friday, July 8, 2011

Catherine Macaulay's philosophy of education

To: Connie T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Catherine Macaulay's philosophy of education
Date: 23 October 2003 15:14

Dear Connie,

I have finally had the chance to read your essay for the Associate Award on Catharine Macaulay's Philosophy of Education which you sent on 10 October.

My first reaction to your essay was that the importance of Catharine Macaulay's contribution to the philosophy of education has really become vivid for me. This is a much better piece of work (not that the previous versions were bad) more persuasively argued, more specific, especially about the core of Macaulay's vision (as I understand it), her concepts of the virtues of benevolence, sympathy and equity.

This time round, it is quite hard to find things to criticize or challenge.

When you say (in the section 'The Virtues') that 'Benevolence is a maxim, a desired mental state projecting good will', the terms 'maxim' and 'good will' made me think of Kant. The standard view is that 'virtue ethics' stands in opposition to a 'deontological' ethics of the Kantian variety, which defines the 'good will' as one which acts purely out of respect for the moral law. An action, in Kant's view, can be motivated by a feeling of sympathy but still fail to be moral because the agent is merely allowing themself to be swayed by their emotions rather than acting on the basis of a rational appreciation of what the moral law demands.

This is important for you, because the core of Macaulay's critique of the public voice is that we all too easily take our emotions at face value, and fail to question 'whether we are feeling the appropriate emotion'. But Macaulay and Kant have very different responses. Kant tells us to concentrate on making the correct moral judgement, according to the Categorical Imperative and ignoring feeling ('act only on that maxim that you can will to be a universal law'), whereas for Macaulay, moral reason is defined as a capacity for discernment between the good and the bad, cultivated through the education of feeling.

Macaulay describes the process of moral education in very Humean terms. It is all about setting up the right 'associations' between 'ideas'. The challenge for this approach is that, whereas for Kant there is a clear indication of 'what reason demands' through the Categorical imperative, the Macaulian moral educator needs to appeal ultimately to an external model or ideal - God's perfection and the human capacity to reflect that perfection.

You do show an awareness of the problem here ('one finds that Macaulay makes no mention of the problematic concern that the teachers' views of "good" or "wise" might vary'). One can find the same process of 'teaching by association' in the terrorist training camp. What makes a process of conditioning moral or immoral? How does the child progress from correctly programmed moral responses, to the ability to make moral judgements through an 'enlightened reason'? When does the vital step take place?

Implicit in Macaulay's view seems to be something like the following three claims:

1. What is morally good or bad is out there in the world to be seen.

2. As a result of an incorrect moral education, the adult fails to discern good and bad in the world, and instead merely projects the questionable judgements of the public voice.

3. Whereas in the process of a correct moral education, the child, and later the adult acquires the ability to see what is there to be seen in the world. This is the true capacity for moral discernment, which once brought into being cannot be swayed by any amount of conditioning or propaganda.

I recommend reading Iris Murdoch's 'The Sovereignty of Good', a short but brilliant book which makes a powerful defence of this 'realist' view of moral good.

One remaining question arises, of how the child progresses from the first stage, where (as you note) they are merely passive and impressionable, to the second stage where they learn to actively engage their capacity for moral judgement. It seems consistent with the view you describe, that in Macaulay's scheme older children would be encouraged to debate moral issues, and so get the chance to develop and hone the capacity of discernment which they have equired. I wonder what Macaulay has to say about this.

This is an excellent piece of work. Well done!

All the best,