guidance for my students (& others)

As a new school year is about to begin, I’m going over the things I want to say to my first-year students — the ones I’m welcoming not just to Baylor’s Honors College but also to collegiate life. Here are my standard recommendations:

(1) Be religious … about washing your hands. (And not with hand sanitizers: use soap. Soap is much better at killing the critters that need to be killed.)

(2) Buy some earplugs, minimum NRR 32, and get used to wearing them. You might need to try several different brands before you find a variety that’s comfortable for you. But none of them will be comfortable at first, if you’re not a regular earplug-user, so try any given pair for at least a week before you move along to another. And then put the dang earplugs in your ears when it’s a good time to go to sleep.

If you don’t do anything else on this list, do these two things. In November, when all the other people in your dorm are exhausted, sick, and full of hatred for one another, you’ll be smooth-skinned, energetic, and cheerful.

(3) Find community outside the university. For those of us here at Baylor, a church community makes the most sense — and not just for “practical” reasons — but even if you’re not planning to be a regular church-goer, find ways to connect with people who are not your age. Old people, middle-aged people, children, it doesn’t matter — though if you can help those who are poor or in other ways needy that would be ideal. It is vital for you to be reminded regularly that there’s a whole world out there of people who are not in college and who, consequently, have very different troubles than yours.

(4) Spend time outdoors. In the Texas summer, that might need to be first thing in the morning, but stroll around under the live-oaks on campus, or walk up the Brazos and Bosque in Cameron Park, or drive a few miles west to see the really remarkable Lake Waco Wetlands. And when the cooler weather comes you’ll be able to be outdoors all the time, if you so desire.

(5) During the school day, keep your smartphone in your bag. Seriously: don’t take it out. Look around you, talk to friends, practice your breathing, pray. Just ignore the phone.

(6) Find a system of organization and stick with it. You need to be always aware of what your responsibilities and what the key due dates are. If you keep careful track of such matters, then when other people are “pulling all-nighters” you’ll be restoring your bodily strength in sleep (protected by your earplugs). There are many wonderful digital tools, but don’t overlook the amazing power and flexibility of pen and paper.

(7) If you’re not one of the extremely fortunate students taking my first-year seminar, read the syllabus and follow some of the links on it. You could learn a lot.

(8) School won’t kill you — least of all through putting challenges in your path you can’t surmount. Nobody’s perfect; nobody’s invariably excellent. Remember Pascal’s warning against the error of Stoicism, which is to believe that you can do always what you can really only do sometimes. Don’t be afraid.

The education of German youth, however, proceeds from precisely this false and unfruitful conception ofculture: its goal, viewed in its essence, is not at all the  free cultivated man but the scholar, the man of science, and indeed the most speedily employable man of science, who stands aside from life so as to know it unobstructedly; its result, observed empirically, is the historical-aesthetic cultural philistine, the pre­cocious and up-to-the-minute babbler about state, church and art, the man who appreciates everything, the insatiable stomach which nonetheless does not know what honest hunger and thirst are. That an education with this goal and this result is an anti-natural one is apprehensible only to one who has not yet been fully processed by it; it is apprehensible only to the instinct of youth, for youth still possesses that instinct of nature which remains intact until artificially and forcibly shattered by this education.

— Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”

an educational Dark Age?

In response to this post on a lament by David Gelernter, one of Rod Dreher’s commenters cites, as evidence of cultural decline, an episode of M*A*S*H in which the characters all sing “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I think the idea is that people in the 1970s thought that people in the 1950s all knew that ancient hymn, so therefore … I’m not sure. Can’t quite follow it. I can tell you this, though: absolutely none of my Alabama Baptist redneck family, whether sixty or forty or twenty years ago or right now, could tell you whether “Dona Nobis Pacem” is a man or a horse. Though some of the elders might have a story or two to tell about Tommy Nobis.

When you’re arguing that what Hollywood TV scriptwriters in the 1970s put into their show about the 1950s is a reliable guide to the cultural capital possessed by that long-ago era, your narrative of decline needs some serious work. But Gelernter doesn’t provide it either. For instance, he says:

The problem is – the incredible richness of American civilization in the years after the Second World War, the generation after the Second World War. When we were creating such extraordinary art and painting, such extraordinary science and mathematics and engineering. Such extraordinary music. Gershwin – we were still in the Tin Pan Alley generation of Gershwin and Kern, and Cole Porter. Leonard Bernstein was the first American born maestro, and his young people’s concerts were broadcast by CBS, coast to coast. We were – people were excited about novelists. When Hemingway did something, shoot himself, it was front-page news. People knew and cared. They knew who Picasso was. He was a celebrity. They knew who Matisse had been. They heard of Jacometti [sic], they cared about Chagall. Chagall was a big celebrity in the United States.

Who knew who Mastisse had been? Who had heard of Giacometti? Not me, when I was growing up. Not my parents or aunts or uncles or cousins or friends. (Also, not the person who transcribed the conversation, but never mind.) Gelernter again:

Music appreciation was never taken seriously. But what we used to do was, at least, expose students to things that they might be excited about, that their own minds would propel them into. So they would know nothing about Beethoven in any deep sense but they would have heard a phrase from the Fifth Symphony, they would have heard a phrase from the Ninth Symphony or the Moonlight Sonata. Doesn’t mean they know Beethoven, but it means if they love music, the door is open, they have some concept of what culture is.

Again, not me, not anyone I knew, in my generation or the previous ones. In my music appreciation class we never got beyond “Reuben and Rachel.” So which educational model was closer to the American norm, that of my world or that of Gelernter’s? Where’s the evidence? (I’ve looked at his book America Lite and I don’t see any.)

Now, there are some changes that are easy to discern. For instance, in 1947 Time had cover stories on C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr, and reviewed W. H. Auden’s book-length poem The Age of Anxiety. Not something that would happen today, to put it mildly. The television networks felt that they had some responsibility to bring culture to the masses, thus, to take just one example, the creation of a classical music celebrity in Van Cliburn. But about education we seem to have nothing but anecdotes, and anecdotes that fail to come to grips with massive demographic changes especially in American university education.

So we end up getting rants like this one from a professor who seems to hate his job and have contempt for his students, who insists that students aren’t interested in learning and “no one [is] being educated” in universities today and parents are “allowing [their] children to become steadily less intelligent” — and all with the implication that once upon a time thing were better in higher education.

But were they? When? Back in the day when a tiny fraction of Americans attended college? In the days of the “Gentleman’s C,” when the smug sons of robber barons got such grades because, though they loved learning for its very own sweet sake, their professors were so intellectually rigorous that a C was the best they could do? Please. I’ve been saying this for years: Narratives of educational decline need data. My experience as a teacher doesn’t match these stories. Students always vary in their interests and abilities, but I have not seen any decline in either since I started teaching in 1982. Maybe my experience is an outlier; but without the data I don’t know. And even with data we need to reckon with the fact that college education now has a radically different place in American society than it had before the 1944 G.I. Bill, one of the most momentous legislative acts in American history.

P.S. At least some of the data is out there, for people who’d actually like to know. It’s not easy to find, and it’s not complete, and it’s always aiming at a moving target, given those huge demographic changes I’ve mentioned. But we can do a lot better in comparing eras, and regions, than even enormously smart people like David Gelernter typically do.


A thought I had while eating hot dogs with friends today: What if Christian colleges and universities were to think of educating their students into distinctive charisms? And took as their models some of the charisms of the Roman Catholic religious orders?

  • Students called primarily to service would explore a Franciscan charism
  • Those called to preach and teach: a Dominican charism
  • Those called to live out their faith in commitment to a particular place: a Benedictine charism
  • Those called to a scholarly life, with its inherent cosmopolitanism and pursuit of intellectual communities wherever they can be found: a Jesuit charism

Each of these paths could be pursued within a single institution, if its faculty and curriculum were flexible enough. In an ideal world — which we do not live in, mind you — a structure like this could replace, or at least complement, the more typical pursuit of a “major.”

On Not Defending the Humanities

I don’t think that the humanities or the liberal arts can be defended, at least not in the sense that most people give to “defended.” Here’s why, starting with three texts on which I will build my explanation.

The English theologian Austin Farrer used to say that some Christian doctrines — he was thinking especially of the hypostatic union — cannot be defended, but can be homiletically expounded.

Similarly, in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre writes,

In systematizing and ordering the truths they take themselves to have discovered, the adherents of a tradition may well assign a primary place in the structures of their theorizing to certain truths and treat them as first metaphysical or practical principles. But such principles will have had to vindicate themselves in the historical process of dialectical justification… Such first principles themselves, and indeed the whole body of theory of which they are a part, themselves will be understood to require justification. The kind of rational justification which they receive is at once dialectical and historical. They are justified insofar as in the history of this tradition they have, by surviving the process of dialectical questioning, vindicated themselves as superior to their historical predecessors.

And in The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis writes,

Those who understand the spirit of the Tao and who have been led by that spirit can modify it in directions which that spirit itself demands. Only they can know what those directions are. The outsider knows nothing about the matter. His attempts at alteration, as we have seen, contradict themselves. So far from being able to harmonize discrepancies in its letter by penetration to its spirit, he merely snatches at some one precept, on which the accidents of time and place happen to have riveted his attention, and then rides it to death — for no reason that he can give. From within the Tao itself comes the only authority to modify the Tao. This is what Confucius meant when he said ‘With those who follow a different Way it is useless to take counsel’. This is why Aristotle said that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics: to the corrupted man, the man who stands outside the Tao, the very starting point of this science is invisible. He may be hostile, but he cannot be critical: he does not know what is being discussed…. Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing either the Tao or anything else.

I think that these passages, read rightly, suggest a few things. First, that it’s probably impossible to defend the artes liberales, or the studia humanitatis, to people who are firmly outside their Tao — who simply do not acknowledge the value of the foundational commitments that have shaped the tradition. The person who relentlessly demands to know what kind of job a liberal-arts education will get him “may be hostile, but he cannot be critical.” And this is not a temporary or trivial impediment that can be maneuvered around; it’s an immoveable object.

But apologetics is not the only mode of suasion. In some cases the more appropriate rhetoric relies on narration and exposition: perhaps something as simple as telling the story of what we do. There are many places around the country where older models of the humanities are flourishing, even as those who have rejected this Tao are floundering — those older models having, as it were, vindicated themselves as superior to their historical successors, or would-be successors. But what happens in these institutions, in these classrooms, is simply invisible to people who question the value of the humanities. Rendering the invisible visible might be one of the best services those of us following those models could perform in “defense” of our practices.

I’m teaching a class called Philosophy Versus Literature and right now we’re working through Lucretius. Yesterday we talked about philosophy as therapy — drawing on Martha Nussbaum, among others — and the odd but, in the end, strong logic that leads Lucretius (following Epicurus) to believe that physics is first philosophy, that understanding the constitution of the world is the necessary first step towards being liberated from fear and unnecessary pain. Next time I’m going to tell the students about Stephen Greenblatt’s (very bad) book The Swerve, and ask them why a book about the early modern recovery of Lucretius became a bestseller and award-winner in 21st-century America. These conversations concern matters ancient and permanent and are also about as relevant as relevant can be, if that happens to be one of your criteria for educational value. Moreover, De Rerum Natura is a book that runs pretty strongly against the grain of all that my students believe and hope — but that does not deter them nor me from treating it with the utmost attentiveness.

I can’t defend the value of this kind of exercise in some kind of abstract, characterless intellectual space; nor am I inclined to. It makes sense within the Tao; and if you want to see what kind of sense it makes you have to think and act within the Tao. You have to take it on as a living option, not a dessicated proposition. To those who doubt the value of what I do, I probably have little more to say than: Taste and see. (But I’ll use more words to say it.)

How many wealthy young Americans have ever held a minimum-wage job, or had an internship that placed them amongst America’s poorer classes? Would such involvement change their attitudes toward lower-class families? Would their discrepant cultural tastes rub off on each other, perhaps: the upper class obtaining a greater appreciation for pro sports, the blue-collar worker deciding to give classic literature a try?

L’Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie’s internship model, if instituted in the United States, would present interesting opportunities for bridging class divides. The Yale student could work at Chik-fil-A, the Harvard student in a local Wal-Mart. One wonders what application their education might have in daily interactions with customers, fellow employees, and supervisors. One wonders what they might learn of a class people that they’ve rarely encountered—at least not for a long time.

Education is not meant to isolate: rather, knowledge is meant to help us bridge divides of every kind. How should we put our educations to use? Do we use them to distance ourselves from the “unwashed masses,” or do we use them to connect with people unable or unwilling to obtain higher education?

I am not saying that children should stop learning stuff outside of school (although some days, when I see how overscheduled some children are, that’s precisely what I want to say). We just need to sign them up for classes that make more sense, given that it’s 2013, not 1860, and that I don’t need a violin-playing daughter to cement my class status. Look, I love the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, but one could make the argument that Rebekah would be better off learning to play the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” on guitar. That skill would certainly be more of an asset at summer camp.

We can probably all agree that it’s worthwhile for children (as well as their parents) to try new activities, and that there is virtue in mastering difficult disciplines. So what challenges should we be tackling, if not ballet and classical music? How about auto repair? At least one Oppenheimer should be able to change the oil, and it isn’t me. It may as well be one of my daughters. Sewing would be good. And if it has to be an instrument, I’d say bass or guitar. The adults I know who can play guitar can actually be seen playing their guitars. And as any rock guitarist will tell you, there is a shortage of bassists.

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