"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

29 August 2007

Come Be My LIght: Doubt and the Christian Life

Tony Esolen has written a lovely post on doubt and the Christian life at Mere Comments, in response to an article in Time Magazine (which he links) about the new book of Mother Teresa's letters, Come Be My Light. She was even more amazing than any of us knew, and knowing why opens new vistas of hope and new strength for enduring.

I can only say, read them both and thank God for His grace. The book, of course, is on my amazon list, and I'll have to order it as soon as I dare.

24 August 2007

On Confusion and Learning

"You have to be confused before you can reach a new level of understanding anything." -- Dudley Herschbach, Nobel Prize winning chemist from Harvard

If one were never confused, one would never need to learn anything.

Now, if I can just convince my students that confusion is not necessarily a bad thing -- help them learn to use it as a catalyst for learning. But it means a willingness to trust the one who brings on the confusion and an ability to spend a certain amount of time (maybe a little, but maybe a lifetime) in a state of negative capability.

And another semester begins.

16 August 2007

Art and Philosophy

In Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver talks about the relation of reason to sentiment (not "sentimentality"): "We do not undertake to reason about anything until we have been drawn to it by an affective interest" -- in other words, we must care about something before we will bother to think carefully about it. He then goes on to say, "We have no authority to argue anything of a social or political nature unless we have shown by our primary volition that we approve some aspects of the existing world. [. . .] We begin our other affirmations after a categorical statement that life and the world are to be valued. It would appear, then, that culture is originally a matter of yea-saying."

I like this. It is so easy to get caught up in "what's wrong with the world" -- after all, there is a great deal wrong with it! But if we forget or refuse to acknowledge that there is good, that there is that which should be valued, then we argue from negativism, bitterly and hopelessly. The best art affirms even as it critiques; that which can be affirmed forms the standard by which we critique that which has fallen from it.

But it's not mere sentiment that's needed, not sentimentality, by any means. Sentiment, to provide the foundation for right reasoning, must be formed and informed by what Weaver calls "the metaphysical dream" -- an understanding of design and purpose outside of and beyond man himself: "There must be a source of clarification, of arrangement and hierarchy, which will provide grounds for the employment of the rational faculty" (and which forms the sentiment).

How is this "dream" inculcated in us? The "poetry of representation ['mythology' broadly understood as answering our questions about who we are and how and why we are here], depicting an ideal world, is a great cohesive force, binding whole peoples to the acceptance of a design and fusing their imaginative life. Afterward comes the philosopher, who points out the necessary connection between phenomena, yet who may, at the other end, leave the pedestrian level to talk about final destination." Both art and philosophy are needed, then -- art to show us the ideal, to move us, to make the dream alive to us; and philosophy to help us understand how the metaphysical (including the metanarrative of art) and the physical world are conjoined, to be able to articulate the dream when necessary, to reason from it to evaluate action.

He sums it up like this: "Thus, in the reality of his existence, man is impelled from behind by the life-affirming sentiment [belief that there is that which is of value in the world] and drawn forward by some conception of what he should be [pictured by the artist and articulated by the philosopher]."

13 August 2007

Why We Teach

Richard Weaver, writing in Ideas Have Consequences in 1948:

"There is no difficulty in securing enough agreement for action on the point that education should serve the needs of the people. But all hinges on the interpretation of needs; if the primary need of man is to perfect his spiritual being and prepare for immortality, then education of the mind and passions will take precedence over all. [Weaver refers to a liberal arts education here, not particularly a religious education.] The growth of materialism, however, has made this a consideration remote and even incomprehensible to the majority. Those who maintain that education should prepare one for living successfully in this world have won a practically complete victory. Now if it were possible to arrive at a sufficiently philosophical conception of success, there would still remain room for idealistic goals, and attempts have been made to do something like it by defining in philosophical language what constitutes a free man. Yet the prevailing conception is that education must be such as will enable one to acquire enough wealth to live on the plane of the bourgeoisie. That kind of education does not develop the aristocratic virtues. It neither encourages reflection nor inspires a reverence for good.

"In other words, it is precisely because we have lost our grasp of the nature of knowledge that we have nothing to educate with for the salvation of our order. Americans certainly cannot be reproached for failing to invest adequately in the hope that education would prove a redemption. They have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship. They have built colleges on an equal scale, only to see them turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism. Finally, they have seen pragmatists, as if in peculiar spite against the very idea of hierarchy, endeavoring to turn classes into democratic forums, where the teacher is only a moderator, and no one offends by presuming to speak with superior knowledge.

"The formula of popular education has failed democracy because democracy has rebelled at the thought of sacrifice, the sacrifice of time and material goods without which there is no training in intellectual discipline. The spoiled-child psychology [. . .] has sought a royal road to learning. In this way, when even its institutions of learning serve primarily the ends of gross animal existence, its last recourse to order is destroyed by appetite."

One could certainly pen the same words today. Of course there are schools and teachers who understand education to be for more than material gain. But the prevailing philosophy remains the same as that which Weaver described six decades ago. Even colleges which hold to a higher ideal than material gain are every day making decisions about admissions, retention, curriculum, programs, etc. based on whether these will attract students who want to get a piece of paper to get a job, losing sight of their ideals not in the big picture but in the details -- but, of course, it is in the details where the battle for liberal education will be won or lost. As long as the bottom line -- for the college or for the students who attend it -- remains the primary concern (instead of a vision and enough trust in the Lord that He can make the vision reality), we will continue to lose the most important battle we are here to fight.

Meanwhile, those of us who still believe in the vision of a liberal arts education from a specifically Christian perspective are preparing to face another set of young people, many of whom have been spoiled by their culture into thinking college should be primarily lots of fun, leading to a high-paying job without much effort on their part. May we find ways to challenge them out of that cultural morass of lies into a world of deeper satisfactions through the discipline of mind that John Henry Newman calls for in The Idea of a University.

08 August 2007

On the Cost of Writing

I've been reviewing the books I'm using this semester, and last night I was skimming back through Philip Gerard's Creative Nonfiction. In the chapter "Putting Yourself on the Line" he discusses issues in writing about one's self such as finding one's own voice through seeking truth and writing honestly (no cliches!), avoiding egoism by finding universal insights in personal experience, being a reliable narrator, dealing with the instability of memory, considering the reactions of family and friends who are included in one's story. At the end, he discusses the personal emotional cost of writing about one's self:

"Unlike a fiction writer, the personal essayist, the author of memoir, has no buffer, no illusion of narrative distance, between himself and his subject. [. . .] That's the thing about writing your own life: It doesn't work unless you're prepared to come clean. But when you can take a deep breath and address the things that scare the h*** out of you, that drive you to grief you thought was beyond words, that amaze and confound and baffle you, that keep you up at night and give you nightmares, that cause you joy so keen it begs to be expressed, you can come to terms with the truth of your own existence."

Scary is not even close. Terrifying is more like it. But the rewards are commensurate with the risks.