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In our present-day public discussion of education it is commonly assumed that this “something lost” is nothing very important. We are at a time when propositional knowledge of the testable sort is honored more than at any time in memory. Positivism, the long-discredited philosophy that seeks to understand the world only through empirically-derived facts verified by intersubjective inquiry (and to label all other kinds of knowledge as “nonsense” about which we should remain silent) has made a comeback. As my father liked to say, bad ideas never die. When legislators, parents, and the Neoliberal concern trolls in the pages of The New Republic demand that their kids learn things with a measurable material value—going so far as to suggest that colleges be ranked by the salaries earned by their recent graduates—the arts and humanities don’t fare very well. What are they for? How do you measure it? Unless you can make a lot of money at the arts (and for the most part you can’t), the present-day neo-positivist can find no value in them.

Advocates for the arts are placed in the faintly ridiculous position of having to argue for the arts in neo-positivist terms—in terms of what measurable utility the arts might offer. So arts advocates will point to how music study leads to improved test scores, improved cognitive performance in certain laboratory situations, and so on. But when we advocates of the arts and humanities speak among ourselves, we acknowledge that such arguments miss the larger point. Look back at the previous paragraph and replace the hand on the table with an eye on a painting or an ear on a composition: the principle is the same. Aesthetic experience is never only the flat propositional meanings we can extract from it.

— “The Hand Experiment,” Phil Ford for Dial M for Musicology 11/14/2013

Phil Ford speaking about the dangers of positivist thinking in education.

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