For my own academic projects and out of a general interest, I have read many of the founding documents, histories on the constitutional formation period, and commentaries on the Constitution. I watched the lectures on the Constitution from conservative Hillsdale College not expecting to learn a significant amount but hoping instead to understand better how some modern conservatives interpret the founding period to suit their present partisan predilections. For that purpose, the lectures were reasonably illuminating. You might find them interesting, too, but if you watch, beware. They are filled with confident assertions that are often wrong or would at least be contested by serious historians, and the lecturers do not even hint that anyone anywhere might take issue with anything they say. The lectures were not heavy on nuance. It was also surprising to me how infrequently the Hillsdale historians referred to the actual words of the Constitution since conservative Supreme Court justices often maintain that their interpretations are compelled by the constitutional text. [I have written about the Constitution and its interpretation on this blog several times.See the end of this post for references to some of them.] Another surprise was how deeply the Hillsdale historians detest progressives, who are demons in their constitutional cabinet. Hillsdalians (Hillsdalites?) are not much concerned with modern-day progressives like Bernie Sanders and AOC. They do have concerns about the New Deal, but the progressives, according to the lecturers, who started ripping apart our freedom-bestowing Constitution are Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and lesser known intellectuals at the beginning of the twentieth century although it is not completely clear what these gentlemen did to draw such twenty-first century ire. Apparently, our liberty is still waiting in vain to come back.
The Hillsdale emails, however, have mostly suggested — in a nice way — that I should give them money or that I would benefit from taking one of their online courses. A recent suggestion about a new offering was typical. It answered the question I had not asked: “You may be asking yourself, why produce a free online course on ‘Mathematics and Logic: From Euclid to Modern Geometry’? The answer to this question is simple—because public life is no longer guided by reasoned argument, but instead by feelings, emotion, or who has the biggest ‘platform.’ Without reason or logic, how can we arrive at certain knowledge? [Hillsdale emphasis.] How can we distinguish truth from falsehood?” Let’s pause here. Geometry proofs do require logic, and they may lead to certain knowledge, but only in a limited sphere of mathematical inquiry. However, the logic needed to solve geometry proofs does not necessarily transfer to other forms of knowledge. And certainty is often elusive. When we use inductive reasoning to understand the empirical world, e.g., we achieve only greater or lesser certitude. Is it going to rain tomorrow? Will Anika pass the course? Will Hillsdale make its fundraising goal? Will a tax cut skewed towards the wealthy improve the economy for most? You can study Euclid forever, but it will never lead to certainty about those types of questions. In spite of what the email implies, Euclid does not provide the foundation “to answer fundamental questions with precision and clarity” such as what role blood plays in our bodies; what is the earth’s age; why did Rome collapse; and what keeps Trump’s hair in place.
The knowledge, logic, and reason of the email’s writer further comes into question with his next assertion: “The beauty and seriousness of his discoveries have made Euclid’s Elements the second most published book in history—behind the Bible.” This is presented as certain knowledge, but nongeometric problems, Euclidean and otherwise, abound. What does “published” in that sentence mean? Does it mean “printed”? Unlikely since Euclid’s book was around for a long time before printing as we understand it came into existence. Does it imply a large number of copies? Does it mean multiple editions? Perhaps the writer meant “reproduced,” but without reasonable precision in language, and precision is one of the virtues that one might gain from studying Euclid, the meaning of the sentence is unclear.
Even if, however, the writer was referring to editions or reproductions, ask yourself how he knows that Elements comes in second on this all-time list. Who is the recordkeeper? I punched “second most published book” into a search engine. One of the responses gave me Euclid, but there were many other answers, with several sites plausibly telling me that it was the Koran, although some had Allah’s scriptures as first and the Bible second. No one can know with certainty the validity of the confident assertion that Euclid’s Elements is the second most published, and this fact tells us something about precision in research strategies as well as language that it would be wise for Hillsdale to teach its students.
(continued March 26)
March 20, 2017 “Originalism to Textualism” Originalism to Textualism – AJ’s Dad
August 22, 2018 “Originally It Was Not Originalism” Originally it was not Originalism – AJ’s Dad
June 5, 2019 “A Civics Examination” Search Results for “civics” – AJ’s Dad
March 22, 2019 “ Principles and Partisanship” Principles and Partisanship – AJ’s Dad
August 10, 2020 “Pence and the Demise of Conservative Jurisprudence” Pence and the Demise of Conservative Jurisprudence – AJ’s Dad
October 19, 2020 “Let’s Get Women Off the Supreme Court” Let’s Get Women Off the Supreme Court – AJ’s Dad