Teaching Moments, Pt. II
You know the Cartesian cogito? The one that’s been the bane of Western philosophy from the moment of its birth, which is the herald of the Enlightenment and the birth of modern thought? Yeah, that one. The thing is, it’s not even Cartesian. As Descartes admits in a letter to his friend Mersenne, he knew about the passage in Augustine, though, not surprisingly, he minimized its influence on him and its relation to his own concept (always a sure sign of influence, just like when Freud disavows Schopenhauer and Nietzsche).
Here’s the thing with this post. I’m basically saying that one of the most generally accepted assumptions about the history and development of Western philosophy, especially in the last 500 years or so, deliberately disavows an important chain of influence that clearly roots Descartes’ “radical new conception” in a much older tradition of Aristotelian thought. Not only is Augustine a predecessor for Descartes’ cogito, but a very similar idea appears in one of the greatest works of speculative thought ever written, The Metaphysics from Ibn Sina’s immense and unparalleled encyclopedia, The Healing (al Shifaa). (The work ‘canon,’ BTW, comes into English from the Arabic ‘qanun,’ which was borrowed because it was that title of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine, a definitive medical text well into the 17th century).
Now, nobody has ever taught me this connection between Descartes and Ibn Sina or between Descartes and St. Augustine. How do I know about them? I know about them because I read The Metaphysics of The Healing, and I read Descartes’ collected letters in Adam and Tannery’s Oeuvres. And now you know about it, because I just told you. These ephemeral chains of transmission are, I would suggest, a key element if not the very heart of pedagogy. That’s what the essence of pedagogical experience comes down to, both for the teacher and the student - making connections. This is the reason we should pay teachers a living wage - so they have time to sit down and make these connections. And this is also the reason why teacher tenure matters. I don’t mean “tenure” as a contractual codicil but literally as the amount of time a teacher has been teaching. That’s the weakness of programs like Teach for America, which are well-intentioned but deeply flawed, because dumping an Ivy-League undergraduate with 3 months of pedagogical training in an inner-city classroom just about ensures that the teacher won’t have the experiential tools to connect ideas for their students the way they need to be connected. Teaching experience isn’t just about job security, it’s about quality teaching. Not surprisingly, this is something standardized testing absolutely can’t account for. Standardized testing will show you how many students know the formula for finding the area of a circle, but it won’t tell you how excited they were to learn it, how clearly the teacher explained it, and how long it stuck in their minds - whether they brought it up again in another class, used it in a paper…or even taught it to somebody else, extending these tenuous experiential links one step further.