Aquinas and Star Trek’s Kobayashi Maru for Thinking about “Sudden Remote Learning and Teaching” This Fall (Who’s Afraid of Epistemology? Continued)

“…I would recommend Turner’s book [Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait] for anyone curious about the Mr. Spock of the Middle Ages.” –John Farrell’s book review in Forbes

After drafting more on Aquinas in his context over the last week and working out some applications, this morning I was musing that Thomas Aquinas and Mr. Spock both model helpful, rational, common sense ways of thinking through knowledge and preparation for our upcoming school year. Overall, they both bring together modes of common sense thinking and philosophical thinking in ways that relate well to Daniel Kahneman’s explanation of two systems of thinking in Thinking, Fast and Slow

Later today, I stumbled across Farrell’s book review and chuckled at the playfully anachronistic reference to Thomas Aquinas as “the Mr. Spock of the Middle Ages.” (Below, I’ll explore a knowledge-building connection to Mr. Spock and try to save some other connections for a post in celebration of Star Trek Day on September 8th.) 

I’ve been thinking for a while about how to prepare for high school English teaching in the upcoming school year with our current COVID-19 conditions and concerns. After months of exploring sources and recently meeting with some of our school’s leaders, I can see the most important preparation to be for “sudden remote learning” in ways that can most easily transition from person-to-person to remote and back again–if possible. Being as ready as possible for the sudden shift seems essential. (Educators who promote and practice HyFlex models have already factored these sorts of potential transitions in for their classes since those models allow students to participate in courses via face-to-face, total remote, or blended modes.)  

In a nutshell, the best advice I’ve heard for this fall and the likelihood of “sudden remote teaching and learning” is to plan one’s classes for total remote access and then treat the person-to-person experience as the optional condition. Likewise, we should think about how to design the distance learning and teaching for as much quality in terms of knowledge, relationships, and skills. 

In such slow planning, Thomas Aquinas’ knowledge-rich approach to his Summa Theologica articles serves as a good model for methodically thinking through what is essential to teaching and learning in terms of knowledge, relationships, and skills. 

To get a glimpse at Aquinas’ method, consider this excerpt from his Summa Theologica concerning happiness (also applicable to the contemporary topic “long-term flourishing”):


   We have now to consider those things that are required for happiness: and concerning this there are eight points of inquiry:

    (1) Whether delight is required for happiness?

    (2) Which is of greater account in happiness, delight or vision?

    (3) Whether comprehension is required?

    (4) Whether rectitude of the will is required?

    (5) Whether the body is necessary for man’s happiness?

    (6) Whether any perfection of the body is necessary?

    (7) Whether any external goods are necessary?

    (8) Whether the fellowship of friends is necessary?

Aquinas takes each article question under the topic and processes it in his thoughtful, disputation approach, considering objections, making a general refutation, and making specific replies to each objection. 

Whether delight is required for happiness?

  Objection 1: It would seem that delight is not required for happiness. For Augustine says (De Trin. i, 8) that “vision is the entire reward of faith.” But the prize or reward of virtue is happiness, as the Philosopher clearly states (Ethic. i, 9). Therefore nothing besides vision is required for happiness.

  Objection 2: Further, happiness is “the most self-sufficient of all goods,” as the Philosopher declares (Ethic. i, 7). But that which needs something else is not self-sufficient. Since then the essence of happiness consists in seeing God, as stated above (Question [3], Article [8]); it seems that delight is not necessary for happiness.

  Objection 3: Further, the “operation of bliss or happiness should be unhindered” (Ethic. vii, 13). But delight hinders the operation of the intellect: since it destroys the estimate of prudence (Ethic. vi, 5). Therefore delight is not necessary for happiness.

  On the contrary, Augustine says (Confess. x, 23) that happiness is “joy in truth.”

  I answer that, One thing may be necessary for another in four ways. First, as a preamble and preparation to it: thus instruction is necessary for science. Secondly, as perfecting it: thus the soul is necessary for the life of the body. Thirdly, as helping it from without: thus friends are necessary for some undertaking. Fourthly, as something attendant on it: thus we might say that heat is necessary for fire. And in this way delight is necessary for happiness. For it is caused by the appetite being at rest in the good attained. Wherefore, since happiness is nothing else but the attainment of the Sovereign Good, it cannot be without concomitant delight.

  Reply to Objection 1: From the very fact that a reward is given to anyone, the will of him who deserves it is at rest, and in this consists delight. Consequently, delight is included in the very notion of reward.

  Reply to Objection 2: The very sight of God causes delight. Consequently, he who sees God cannot need delight.

  Reply to Objection 3: Delight that is attendant upon the operation of the intellect does not hinder it, rather does it perfect it, as stated in Ethic. x, 4: since what we do with delight, we do with greater care and perseverance. On the other hand, delight which is extraneous to the operation is a hindrance thereto: sometimes by distracting the attention because, as already observed, we are more attentive to those things that delight us; and when we are very attentive to one thing, we must needs be less attentive to another: sometimes on account of opposition; thus a sensual delight that is contrary to reason, hinders the estimate of prudence more than it hinders the estimate of the speculative intellect.

Please note: Aquinas picks substantial objections for his discourse (not goofy, weak, or “straw man” arguments). He focuses on representing opposing viewpoints well, on the logic and detail, but not on personal attacks. Might that be helpful for public debates?  

Adapting variations of such a methodology could help many of us think better about priorities to guide learning, teaching, and long-term flourishing. (One doesn’t need to address faith or religion in order to put this methodology to good use.) 

For most educators tackling important topics of teaching and learning, we wouldn’t work out replies and explanations as thorough as Thomas’. A few weeks ago, I started drafting this sort of thing for myself considering issues of knowledge and priorities for school. 

I’m also tinkering with putting this approach to work in a spreadsheet to help me remember and think through important issues related to learning, teaching, and long-term flourishing. Perhaps there is a Summa Pedagogica webpage to develop in the near future. 

Mr. Spock on Thinking Fast

This slow, deliberative thought characterizes Aquinas and Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock quite well. But moving a little beyond Aquinas’ in practical terms and thinking fast, Spock’s strategies for developing the training system of the simulation “Kobayashi Maru” also proves quite helpful. Basically, the simulation is an intensely staged, in-person mission to train officers in how to face a no-win scenario. Famously, James T. Kirk was the only cadet to win the simulation, but this was because he cheated and reprogrammed the simulator. In the J.J. Abrams’ movie reboot, we learn that Spock was the designer of the training simulation. 

I’ve always been a little bothered by Kirk’s cheating strategy: It reflects a bit too much pride even though he does intend to protect his future crews’ lives by any means necessary. In “The Philosophy of Star Trek: The Kobayashi Maru, No-Win Scenarios, And Ethical Leadership,” Janet D. Stemwedel thoughtfully refutes Kirk’s actions, values and understanding of the training as she asserts the following–a little lengthy but worth consideration”: 

“In fact, the Kobayashi Maru was meant to find out how the cadet responds when it becomes clear that you can’t save everyone — and that your best efforts may have created a situation where you can’t save anyone. It’s a test of character, and one that wouldn’t work if the cadet knew ahead of time that this was the point of the test.

The real test of the Kobayashi Maru is not how you respond in the simulator, but how you go on from there. Do you recognize that the universe may present you with situations your knowledge and powers are inadequate to address? That logic and ethical formulae can only get you so far? That sometimes the least-bad is the best you can do? Does this realization put you off the ethical responsibilities that come with leadership, or do you use it to adjust your expectations of how being a leader might feel in extreme situations?”

 Stemwedel brings Star Trek’s no-win simulation’s focus on the “Rational” way of knowing so that it accords with the Thomistic view that knowledge and virtue should be intertwined. In reference to my “Six Ways of Knowing,” Kirk and many of us modern folk are often so focused on the “Pragmatic” way of knowing in our approach to knowledge that we don’t much like having to deal with the metaphysical realities of death, sickness, failure, and other losses. (It’s good that we try to alleviate suffering with our search for knowledge, but such a noble goal easily slides into focusing on personal convenience and more self-centered aims.) But Stemwedel rightly redirects us to think about what it means to lead well and be responsible with our knowledge and practices in the face of failures and limitations.   

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Six Ways of Knowing

In contrast to Star Trek, educators aren’t typically facing potential real-life scenarios with the dangers related to Kobayashi Maru, but we are facing difficult challenges in which we can not provide everything good that we might have provided during non-COVID-19 times. So, we need to take some time to think through in slow-mode, like Aquinas and Mr. Spock, and to rehearse in our minds how we might need to think fast in a few ways in the likelihood that students or teachers might suddenly be sent home due to cold, flu, or even allergy symptoms. 

For next week, I hope to explore some ways to get students using variations on Thomas’ Summa disputation method. 

Invitation to Reflect and Consider: 

  1. Are you ready for potential sudden shifts into remote learning for you or your students? What’s the hardest part to think through? 
  2. I’m zeroed in on knowledge, relationships, and skills as the big cluster of interconnected values for the year (and for teaching at any time). What would you add or change about these values? Why? 
  3. What popular views of teaching and learning do you disagree with? How so? What alternatives would you offer? What are the most thoughtful objections against your alternatives? How would you reply to those objections? 

For Further Study and Reflection:

The Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas: thesis / antithesis,” from Oregon State University

Summa Philosophica, by Peter Kreeft (Kreeft imitates Aquinas’ approach for modern questions about philosophy and theology.)

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