Today’s Leviathan conceives its subjects as fragile beings afloat in a field of incipient traumas. Such a governing entity will look with suspicion on the unsupervised play of boys who “challenged each other to spontaneous feats of daring and agility, acted out stories of heroic adventure and collaborated in the enforcement of an informal code of honor that stressed courage, loyalty and stoic endurance of pain.”
That is not at all what is wanted.
What is at stake here is the conditions for the possibility of achieving adulthood, for men and women both. The process of development from childhood to adulthood requires departure from the safety of parental protection and affirmation, through confrontation with hard reality. It is through such confrontation that a person escapes the solipsism of unearned self-esteem, enters the world of objective standards, and begins to develop competence in some field of endeavor.
Recently, Baylor’s excellent Provost, Nancy Brickhouse, wrote to faculty with a twofold message. The first part:
How do we help our students work with artificial intelligence in ways that are both powerful and ethical? After all, I believe that the future our students face is likely to be profoundly shaped by artificial intelligence, and we have a responsibility to prepare our students for this future.
ChatGPT can be used as a research partner to help retrieve information and generate ideas, allowing students to delve deeply into a topic. It can be a good writing partner, helping students with grammar, vocabulary, and even style.
Faculty may find ChatGPT as a useful tool for lesson planning ideas. For those utilizing a flipped classroom approach, AI tools may be used to generate ideas and information outside the classroom for collaborative work inside the classroom.
Finally, and most importantly, faculty have the opportunity to engage students in critical ethical conversations about the uses of AI. They need to learn how to assess and use the information ethically.
And the second part:
I am interested in how YOU are already using artificial intelligence. I am thinking now about how we might collectively address the opportunities afforded by AI. I would appreciate hearing from you.
So I’ve been thinking about what to say — though of course I’ve already said some relevant things: see this post on “technoteachers” and my new post over at the Hog Blog on the Elon Effect. But let me try to be more straightforward.
Imagine a culinary school that teaches its students how to use HelloFresh: “Sure, we could teach you how to cook from scratch the way we used to — how to shop for ingredients, how to combine them, how to prepare them, how to present them — but let’s be serious, resources like HelloFresh aren’t going away, so you just need to learn to use them properly.” The proper response from students would be: “Why should we pay you for that? We can do that on our own.”
If I decided to teach my students how to use ChatGPT appropriately, and one of them asked me why they should pay me for that, I don’t think I would have a good answer. But if they asked me why I insist that they not use ChatGPT in reading and writing for me, I do have a response: I want you to learn how to read carefully, to sift and consider what you’ve read, to formulate and then give structure your ideas, to discern whom to think with, and finally to present your thoughts in a clear and cogent way. And I want you to learn to do all these things because they make you more free — the arts we study are liberal, that is to say liberating, arts.
If you take up this challenge you will learn not to “think for yourself” but to think in the company of well-chosen companions, and not to have your thoughts dictated to you by the transnational entity some call surveillance capitalism, which sees you as a resource to exploit and could care less if your personal integrity and independence are destroyed. The technocratic world to which I would be handing you over, if I were to encourage the use of ChatGPT, is driven by the “occupational psychosis” of sociopathy. And I don’t want you to be owned and operated by those Powers.
The Powers don’t care about the true, the good, and the beautiful — they don’t know what any of those are. As Benedict Evans writes in a useful essay, the lawyers who ask ChatGPT for legal precedents in relation to a particular case don’t realize that what ChatGPT actually searches for is something that looks like a precedent. What it returns is often what it simply invents, because it’s a pattern-matching device, not a database. It is not possible for lawyers — or people in many other fields — to use ChatGPT to do their research for them: after all, if you have to research to check the validity of ChatGPT’s “research,” then what’s the point of using ChatGPT?
Think back to that culinary school where you only learn how to use HelloFresh. That might work out just fine for a while; it might not occur to you that you have no idea how to create your own recipes, or even adapt those of other cooks — at least, not until HelloFresh doubles its prices and you discover that you can’t afford the increase. That’s the moment when you see that HelloFresh wasn’t liberating you from drudgery but rather was enslaving you to its recipes and techniques. At that point you begin to scramble to figure how to shop for your own food, how to select and prepare and combine — basically, all the things you should have learned in culinary school but didn’t.
Likewise, I don’t want you to look back on your time studying with me and wonder why I didn’t at least try to provide you with the resources to navigate your intellectual world without the assistance of an LLM. After all, somewhere down the line ChatGPT might demand more from you than just money. And you – perhaps faced with personal conditions in which you simply don’t have time to pursue genuine learning, the kind of time you had but were not encouraged to use when you were in college — may find that you have no choice but to acquiesce. As Evgeny Morozov points out, “After so many Uber- and Theranos-like traumas, we already know what to expect of an A.G.I. [Artificial General Intelligence] rollout. It will consist of two phases. First, the charm offensive of heavily subsidized services. Then the ugly retrenchment, with the overdependent users and agencies shouldering the costs of making them profitable.” Welcome to the Machine.
That’s the story I would tell, the case I would make.
I guess I’m saying this: I don’t agree that we have a responsibility to teach our students how to use ChatGPT and other AI tools. Rather, we have a responsibility to teach them how to thrive without such tools, how to avoid being sacrificed to Technopoly’s idols. And this is especially true right now, when even people closely connected with the AI industry, like Alexander Carp of Palantir, are pleading with our feckless government to impose legal guardrails, while thousands of others are pleading with the industry itself to hit the pause button.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that AI will destroy the world. As Freddie DeBoer has noted, the epideictic language on this topic has been extraordinarily extreme:
Talk of AI has developed in two superficially opposed but deeply complementary directions: utopianism and apocalypticism. AI will speed us to a world without hunger, want, and loneliness; AI will take control of the machines and (for some reason) order them to massacre its creators. Here I can trot out the old cliché that love and hate are not opposites but kissing cousins, that the true opposite of each is indifference. So too with AI debates: the war is not between those predicting deliverance and those predicting doom, but between both of those and the rest of us who would like to see developments in predictive text and image generation as interesting and powerful but ultimately ordinary technologies. Not ordinary as in unimportant or incapable of prompting serious economic change. But ordinary as in remaining within the category of human tool, like the smartphone, like the washing machine, like the broom. Not a technology that transcends other technology and declares definitively that now is over.
So, no to both sides: AI will neither save not destroy the world. I just think that for teachers like me it’s a distraction from what I’m called to do.
If I were to speak in this way to my students — and when classes resume I just might do so — would they listen? Some will; most won’t. After all, the university leadership is telling a very different story than the one I tell, and doing things my way would involve harder work, which is never an easy sell. As I said in my “Elon Effect” essay, the really central questions here involve not technological choices but rather communal integrity and wholeness. Will my students trust me when I tell them that they are faced with the choice of moving towards liberation or towards enslavement? In most cases, no. Should they trust me? That’s not for me to decide. But it’s the key question, and one that should be on the mind of every single student: Where, in this community of learning, are the most trustworthy guides?
The best thing you are likely to read about the Supreme Court affirmative action decision — or rather the response to it — is Freddie’s take. Two points strike me as especially important: first, that the whole kerfuffle is a distraction from any actually meaningful racial politics in this country, since a candidate who has to go to Columbia or Amherst rather than Harvard is not exactly a victim; and second, that there’s a massive media freakout about this because so many people in our media are the products of elite universities. Several decades ago, when most journalists attended mediocre universities or, often enough, were not even college educated, we would have had a chance to have this story like this presented with some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective. But our journalists haven’t had any of that commodity on hand for a long, long time.
About fifteen years ago I started moving away from the standard research essay assignment. In my Literary Theory classes I assigned dialogues; in Christianity and Fantasy I asked students to make critical editions of texts; since I got to Baylor I’ve used dialogues in some classes and in others have given take-home exams asking people to do close-reading explications of passages I’ve chosen for them. The LLMs do not yet know how to do any of these things, so I am not having to think too much about their effects on my classes; my chief challenge is to avoid smug self-satisfaction. But I remind myself that the day of reckoning is surely coming for me also.
(And yes, I know this courts that smugness, but: I stopped assigning research essays because what my students gave me was so maddeningly predictable — predictable because formulaic — that I just couldn’t bear to grade them any more, not after thirty-plus years of doing it. Now I think: the predictability was in some crucial pedagogical respects the whole point, and so of course LLMs can do those assignments!)
My friend Richard Gibson:
Emerging adults need to see, as one of my colleagues put it, “the benefits of the struggle” in their own lives as well as their instructors’. The work before us — to preserve old practices and to implement new ones — provides the ideal occasion to talk to our students about not only the intellectual goods offered by our fields that we want them to experience. It is also a chance to share how we have been shaped for the better by the slow, often arduous work of joining a discipline. Our students need more than technology, and the answer cannot simply come in the form of another list of dos-and-don’ts in the already crowded space of a syllabus. They need models for how to navigate these new realities — paradigms for their practice, life models. AI’s foremost challenge for higher education is to think afresh about forming humans.
My heart says Yes, but my head says I think it’s impossible. That is, I suspect the owl of Minerva really does fly only at night, and one cannot learn the value of “the slow, often arduous work of joining a discipline” in advance. That value can only be discerned in retrospect.
Imagine that Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel the wax-on/wax-off technique and leaves him to get to work. Then, as Daniel is straining and sweating, a guy comes up to him with a little machine labeled WaxGPT. “Hey kid! Wow, you’re working hard there. But I have good news: this machine will do the waxing for you. And it’s free! All you have to do is give me your phone number.”
You think Daniel will hesitate? You think his reverence for Mr. Miyagi will keep him in line? Unlikely; but just possible, I guess, since Daniel has seen Mr. Miyagi’s prowess and has asked to be taught by him. That’s not how it is for many of us who teach university students. My students are not free agents making free choices. I haven’t saved any of them from vicious thugs. A few of them may admire me in certain respects, but almost all of them think of my assignments as mere impediments, and I don’t think I can change that view in advance of their maturation. Later they may thank me — a good many have, over the years — but they don’t thank me in the moment. Even Daniel is likely to think that WaxGPT can do the dirty work for him so that, in his own good time, Mr. Miyagi will teach him something useful.
So while I don’t disagree with Rick’s overall emphasis on personal formation, I believe we should reassess — radically reassess — the relationship between such formation and our assignments, assessment, and testing. I think that’s where we have to begin learning to live in the Bot Age. My guess is that those schools that are already disconnected from the standard assessment metrics — places like Reed College and the two St. John’s colleges — will be best placed to deal with the challenges of this era.
This is a very basic point, but I find that it’s consistently under-discussed: to close achievement gaps like the racial achievement gap, not only must Black and Hispanic students learn more, white and Asian students must learn less than they do. Closing any gap has to entail the poorly-performing students not just learning but learning at a sufficiently faster pace than the high-performing students that the gap closes. This is not a minor point! American students of all races have been improving over time. But gaps have persisted because… students of all races have been improving over time. As long as white and Asian students learn as much as Black and Hispanic, the gap cannot close. This is so obvious it feels like it should go without saying, but the point is frequently obscured, for a couple of reasons. First, because “every kid can learn” is a more pleasing and simplistic narrative than “kids from disadvantaged subpopulations can not only learn but can learn sufficiently to close large gaps against competitors who are still learning more themselves.” Second, because the problem suggests a solution that is politically untenable, to put it mildly — to close gaps, we need to prevent the students who are ahead from learning at all.
I think there are a great many people on the so-called left who would be glad to accept that deal. Close the gap by any means necessary. There’s no necessary connection between wanting equality of outcomes and wanting better outcomes.
Elite American colleges are already more racially diverse than the country writ large, but the perpetual cry is for more people of colour on campus. This is the source of the most persistent criticisms of the SAT. The broad claim about the SAT is that, since there are race and class disparities in SAT scores — white and Asian pupils score better than Hispanic and black, and rich better than poor — then the test must be discriminatory and should be abolished.
This is a bit like blaming seismographs for earthquakes. The SAT does not create inequality; the SAT reveals inequality.
Not a bit like blaming seismographs for earthquakes, almost exactly like that. (Also very much like trying to keep cases of Covid down by limiting testing.)
I’ve said this before, but anyway: Administrators at elite American universities say they want to reduce race and class disparities in America, and let’s take them at their word (even though, as Freddie shows in that essay and elsewhere on his blog, there are actually good reasons for not taking them at their word). Adjusting their admissions policies won’t do that. It will help only a handful of people who are, for the most part, already ahead of the game.
What they should do instead is devote a fraction of their enormous financial and intellectual resources to helping younger people out of poverty. The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools are not now what John Dewey intended them to be, and even Dewey’s original vision was far too politicized, but a more genuinely pedagogical version of that endeavor ought to be a model. Our elite universities ought to be asking themselves what they can do to help educate kids so that those kids can eventually do much better than they now do on the SAT and other standardized tests. Instead they want to toss out the tests that reveal the problems we face.
In general — this is a broad statement, but I really do believe it’s true — all of our major social problems remain intractable largely because we we think we can somehow, magically, achieve “equality of outcomes” without finding out why the existing outcomes are so unequal, and therefore without considering how existing injustices might be ameliorated and future ones headed off. Denouncing unwelcome outcomes is cheap and easy; but there is no law more universally applicable than GIGO.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, many people became concerned about the ill effects of child labor on children’s development and wellbeing, and laws were passed to ban it. But now we have school, expanded to such a degree that is it equivalent to a full-time job—a psychologically stressful, sedentary full-time job, for which the child is not paid and does not gain the sense of independence and pride that can come from a real job.
Elsewhere … I have presented evidence that children, especially teenagers, are less happy in school than in any other setting where they regularly find themselves and that increased schooling, coupled with decreased freedom outside of school, correlates, over decades, with sharply increased rates of psychiatric disorders in young people, including major depression and anxiety disorders.
I came across this 2014 piece via Ed West, and it really does make me think — as it has made others think — that Covidtide has given us a great opportunity to rethink what school is for and who should be in it. But the entrenched assumptions are so strong that I don’t think we’re taking that opportunity.
Doesn’t it seem to be true — and obviously true — that this kind of inertia is a function of a massively bureaucratic and administrative social order? An anarchist, or at least relatively-more-anarchistic, society would be more agile, more adaptive. I’m becoming more of an anarchist by the day.
Many are wailing that this technology spells “the end of high school English,” meaning those classes where you read some books and then write some pro forma essays that show you sort of read the books, or at least the Spark Notes, or at least took the time to go to Chegg or Course Hero and grab someone else’s essay, where you changed a few words to dodge the plagiarism detector, or that you hired someone to write the essay for you.
I sincerely hope that this is the end of the high school English courses that the lamentations are describing because these courses deserve to die, because we can do better than these courses if the actual objective of the courses is to help students learn to write.
For a few years, starting around a decade ago, I blogged at The American Conservative. Sometime in the not-too-distant past, they memory-holed all my posts — without bothering to inform me that they’d be doing so. Classy move, folks! Anyway, I might occasionally re-post stuff I wrote there — assuming I can find the drafts on my hard drive. (If I were desperate to retrieve anything, which I’m not, I could of course eventually find it with the Wayback Machine.) Here’s one to accompany my School for Scale idea.
I think the world needs a quirky and extremely rich venture capitalist to fund my great project, Cassiodorus College. Tag line: Where the New Liberal Arts Meet the Old. Foundational courses will include:
Memorization and Recitation. An introduction to mnemomics, both through modern techniques and history. Books assigned will include The Art of Memory by Frances Yates and The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence. Attention will be given to memorizing long poems, long speeches, meaningful numerical sequences, and nonsense.
Reading: Natural and Formal Languages. An exploration of the very different skills required to read natural languages and formal languages, especially computer programming languages. A key question will be: Why is computer code easier to write than to read, while natural language is generally the other way around. Attention will be given to the neuroscience of reading but also to the conditions under which reading can be intensely pleasurable.
Composition: Natural and Formal Languages. A course devoted to the exploration of three compositional modes: writing English essays, writing computer code, and the mediating experience of writing English essays while using markup languages, primarily HTML and LaTeX. The first part of this course will begin by having students spend extended periods hand-writing memorable poetry and prose in commonplace books, alternating that with typing into a terminal code examples from Donald Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming. Only very gradually will they progress to writing their own essays and their own code.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Stolen directly from Edward Tufte, whose books will be our texts. However, we will also explore the ways in which the various software tools available for making graphs, charts, and the like constrain our organizational and display choices. We will also give attention to the principles of excellent design, including the design of text.
Mathematical Reasoning and Rhetoric. An introduction to mathematics as a mode of thinking and a subsequent exploration of how the best principles of mathematical reasoning are routinely defied when numbers are presented to the public. Tufte is useful here too, for example, on how faulty presentation of data can lead to disasters.
Care of Plants and Animals. An idea stolen from W. H. Auden, who said that in his “daydream College for Bards” every would-be poet should tend a vegetable garden and care for a domestic pet. A great idea not just for bards.
Please get in touch if you’re filthy rich and want to bankroll this glorious endeavor.
Strauss was not the only thinker who turned to questions of education in the darkest days of the war. A few months later, Jacques Maritain delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale, calling for the renewal of the modern university through a rediscovery of Christian philosophy. Maritain was joined by T. S. Eliot, Simone Weil, C. S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers, whose wartime reflections on education gave voice to religious ideas that would succeed in inspiring postwar democratic movements, if not postwar universities.
Fascinating! Someone should write a book about all that.
Practically speaking, GPT-3 and the like demand that educators reconsider the writing process in fundamental ways. Symons entertains the possibility of returning to handwriting; other commentators have suggested collecting drafts at multiple stages and perhaps tweaking the assignment between drafts. Educators are now administering the Turing test in reverse: What are questions that only humans can answer well? What kinds of thinking does writing make possible for us?
In 1987, Flusser worried that AI would outstrip human writers, assuming responsibility even for the recording of history. The current crop of AIs pose no such threat, since they are not autonomous understandings but dynamic reflections of human-built textual culture. Their danger lies instead in short-circuiting the development of human writers, at least if educators fail to adapt to our new media ecology in which the medium can compose humdrum messages on demand.
My dear friend Rick is precisely correct. Some years ago, when I noted the dramatic increase in professors’ use of services like Turnitin, it seemed obvious to me that students and teachers in the humanities — or rather, students and teachers as puppets of a parasitical online ecosystem of “educational services” — were entering a kind of arms race, and one that could never have a winner. I also saw that the entire arms race was made possible by the overwhelming dominance of one particular assignment: the research paper. And then I asked a question: What if I stopped assigning research papers?
After all, my goal is not to make my students better writers of research papers. My goal is to help them grow more skilled and more confident as readers, writers, and reasoners. (My proximate goal, anyway; I have deeper aspirations for the enriching of their humanity, but those are better described as hopes than as goals.) If the dominance of this one genre is actually impeding my pedagogical purposes, then wouldn’t it be wise for me to look for other kinds of assignment that could enhance my students’ reading, writing, and reasoning without getting us all sucked into that arms race?
I’ve been giving unusual writing assignments my whole career, but not in all my classes. When I taught literary theory I always had my students write dialogues, in each one ventriloquizing two major theorists; in some classes I’ve had students build websites; in others I’ve had them prepare critical editions of texts, with introductions and annotations. But until fairly recently I felt an obligation to teach the good old research paper in at least some classes. Around 2016, I think, I ceased to feel that obligation. I haven’t assigned a research paper since, and I don’t expect ever to assign another one.
Pretty soon, I think, my entire profession will need to go through a process of reconsideration similar to the one I’ve already been through.
How do we order society in such a way that increases human flourishing and limits suffering? What is the good, the true and the beautiful? How do we make sense of the sins of the past and the way the legacies of those failures follow us to the present? What is justice? What is love and why does it hurt us so? What is the good life? Is there a God who orders the galaxies, or did we come from chaos, destined only to return to it?
The answers to those questions that I received from my teachers varied. I do not judge the worth of my former educators by whether I agreed with them. I value those who made me think and did not punish me when I diverged from them.
If there is a danger facing this generation of students, it is not the absence of information. The internet exists; politicians are fools if they think that they can hide the troubles of the world. If parents and politicians truly care about their children’s education, they should not only ask what a teacher said about a controversial issue, they should also ask how the teacher said it, and whether students were assessed based on the quality of their work rather than conformity to a particular ideological perspective.
This ability to hold fair and stirring conversation is the gift that all great teachers have. It is impossible to legislate. This is a gift that can either be honed or ground to rubble by unrelenting competing agendas. We must protect teachers who do it well and do not so overburden and underpay them that they despair of their vocation.
When I read about what children should be taught at school about gender, I find myself thinking back to the scene early in Hunger of Memory in which the nuns from Richard’s parochial school come to his house to tell his parents that they should speak English, not Spanish, at home. Richard later comes to believe that the nuns did the right thing, because he needed to acquire a public self, and learning to speak English was essential to that public self’s formation. (This was one of Rodriguez’s more controversial opinions when the book appeared in 1982, near the height of the push for bilingual education — though he had first articulated his opposition to bilingual education in a 1974 essay. The whole story is fascinating, though the argument now seems to belong to a distant world.)
Underlying this scene, and underlying our current argument about what children should be taught about gender, is the assumption that it’s the job of our schools to make public selves. Different groups specify this task in different ways; for instance, we have long heard people say that the job of school is to make citizens. The new movement is not about making citizens, but rather about making metaphysical capitalists, making people who are capable of purchasing and displaying their selves in society, with “gender” – which is, let’s be clear, a non-concept, an empty signifier – as one of the necessary components. Gender is something our health-care system will sell to you, and school is where you learn not to think of yourself as a member of a family or community but rather as an atomized and docile consumer of the Regime’s products, including the health-care sub-regime’s products.
That is to say, the primary function of schooling, for many people on the cutting edge of educationism, is to sell the available gender products.
People who think that leftist agitators for gender fluidity are driven by ideology are correct, but it’s probably not the ideology they think it is: it’s good old capitalism — capitalism extended into the deepest recesses of personal identity. We can create that for you wholesale.
It’s a pretty debased ideal in comparison to the ideal of citizen-making, but both of those models of what a public self should be rely on schools to be the primary locations of formation. And I just don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t think schools are suited for self-making; rather, I think that’s what families are for. But man, is that a losing proposition in the current moment.
Okay, I’ve been cursing the darkness lately, and that’s not my lane — back to lighting candles!
When I first started teaching college students, at the University of Virginia forty years ago, I discovered that
- A few students were right on my wavelength and connected with almost everything I was trying to do: they worked hard, read carefully, wrote well;
- A few students didn’t connect with anything I tried to do, obviously didn’t want to be in the class, and did the least work they could, which means that they didn’t improve as readers or writers;
- The great majority of students weren’t either hostile or enthusiastic; they probably didn’t especially want to be in my class, but they were cheerful and cooperative and willing to give it a shot, within reason; I and my class weren’t at the top of their list of priorities, but they weren’t going to blow me off either, and over time they got at least a little better at both reading and writing.
Forty years later … nothing has really changed. I often read lamentations of older teachers who write as though at the beginning of they careers they taught roomsful of Miltons-in-the-making and are now reduced to managing the inmates of Idiocracy. To me, these reports might as well come from Mars.
With some exceptions, of course, I really liked the students I taught in 1982 and I really like the ones I teach now. I don’t think they are noticeably worse at reading or writing than they were all those decades ago, though they’re less likely to have a lot of experience with the standard academic essay (introduction, three major points, conclusion) — which I do not see as a major deficiency. That kind of essay was never more than a highly imperfect tool for teaching students how to read carefully and write about what they have read, and, frankly, I believe that over the years I have come up with some better ones. As for reading: I often assign big thick books and quiz my students regularly to make sure they’re keeping up; some of them struggled with that way back then, and some of them struggle now; and I have always had students thank me for making them read big books that they probably would have given up on if I hadn’t been holding them accountable.
Sometimes I have gotten to know students well, learned about their hopes and fears, offered advice when I had some to offer, and offered affectionate support when I had no advice. Those have been very good experiences indeed. And then …
Around five years ago I was teaching Middlemarch in an upper-divisional class that had some science majors in it. One of them was a young woman about go to on to graduate school in physics — she was a star in the making who had already co-authored papers with her Baylor profs — and for her the academic study of literature was something like a third or fourth language. She never spoke up in class, and I couldn’t read her face very well. But then, at the end of our last day on the novel, I was stuffing my book and notes into my backpack as she was walking out. She veered over to me, put one hand on her heart, opened her eyes very wide, and silently mouthed: This book!
That’s why I’m in the game, people.
Entirely separate from the debate about genetic influences on academic performance, we cannot dismiss the summative reality of limited educational plasticity and its potentially immense social repercussions. What I’m here to argue today is not about a genetic influence on academic outcomes. I’m here to argue that regardless of the reasons why, most students stay in the same relative academic performance band throughout life, defying all manner of life changes and schooling and policy interventions. We need to work to provide an accounting of this fact, and we need to do so without falling into endorsing a naïve environmentalism that is demonstrably false. And people in education and politics, particularly those who insist education will save us, need to start acknowledging this simple reality. Without communal acceptance that there is such a thing as an individual’s natural level of ability, we cannot have sensible educational policy.
Or: “Put more simply and sadly, nothing in education works.” By which he means: We haven’t yet found a system of education that reliably changes students’ success relative to other students. Young children who are the smartest in their cohort are almost certain to become adults who are the smartest in their cohort, and the same is true on down the line. Sobering, but, it seems, incontestable.
My own experience, for what little it’s worth, is that sometimes you get students who undergo dramatic changes in their academic performance, for good or for ill, but those changes have nothing to do with intelligence. Someone’s performance drops because of illness or emotional upheaval. Or, conversely: Many years ago I had a student who took several classes from me and never got anything better than a C. At the beginning of his senior year he came to my office and asked me why. I reminded him that I had always made detailed comments on his paper; he said, yeah, he knew that, but he had never read the comments and always just threw the papers away. So I explained what his problem was. He nodded, thanked me, went away, and in the two classes he had from me that year he got the highest grades in the class.
Three brief thoughts on this:
- People are calling it “banning books,” which it ain’t: a book isn’t banned by being left off a reading list;
- One teacher says, “I think it’s time to allow books published from the 2000s to be given a fair shake” — because sure, the big problem with our society today is that we just don’t give a “fair shake” to new things;
- Of the nineteen books listed above, eleven of them were published between 1925 and 1967 — nine between 1938 and 1960 — which suggests a certain constriction of imagination and the dominance in teachers’ minds of a quite brief period in our cultural history.
There is a third — and perhaps the deepest — problem with the futuristic vision of education advanced by “technologically enabled delivery”: the debilitating fact that it rests on a narrow, positivistic conception of knowledge. In this view, all teaching is training, and all learning is a quest for competence: the mastery of some field whose practitioners can expect compensation for their proficiency or expertise. No one should dispute that colleges have a vital responsibility to prepare students for the world of work — to provide them with what the political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg calls “more or less sophisticated forms of vocational training to meet the needs of other established institutions in the public and private sectors.” In fact, preparation for economic productivity has been the main aim of universities since the decline of prescribed curricula in the 19th century, when the introduction of electives and, later, majors aligned what students chose to study in college with the work they planned to do after. Over the past 50 years, as students from economically insecure families entered college in growing numbers, this alignment has only become tighter, including at elite institutions that serve predominantly affluent students. “It is a shame,” Ginsberg writes, “when that is all that the university offers.” “All” is an exaggeration, but at more and more institutions it’s a fair approximation.
What’s increasingly rare in higher education, and almost entirely missing from writings about its future, is a more than nominal commitment to the value of learning undertaken in the hope of expanding the sympathetic imagination by opening the mind to contesting ideas about nature and history, the power of literature and art, and the value of dialectic in the pursuit of truth. These aspirations — traditionally gathered under the term “liberal education” — are in desperate need of revival. To advance them requires teachers and institutions committed to a more capacious vision of education than the prevailing idea of workforce training and economic self-advancement.
There will always be many people who want more from their education than “workforce training and economic self-advancement,” but they may not want it from universities. They may perceive — and surely one could not blame them for coming to this conclusion — that the modern Western university is incapable of providing anything else. And in that case they’ll continue to seek credentials from universities but look to private instruction or para-academic organizations for education.
Before March 2020, I was unfamiliar with the phenomenon of ‘guided reading’. My daughter (aged eight during the school closures that year) was sometimes required to read the same short passage five days in a row and to perform different tasks in relation to it. Presumably the idea was for her to learn how specific sentence constructions work, in the hope that she would be able to apply that knowledge elsewhere – but the invitation to write autonomously, beyond a sentence or two, never arrived. It wasn’t merely the emphasis on obscure grammatical concepts that worried me, but the treatment of language in wholly syntactical terms, with the aim of distinguishing correct from incorrect usage. This is the way a computer treats language, as a set of symbols that generates commands to be executed, and which either succeeds or fails in that task.
This vision of language as code may already have been a significant feature of the curriculum, but it appears to have been exacerbated by the switch to online teaching. In a journal article from August 2020, ‘Learning under Lockdown: English Teaching in the Time of Covid-19’, John Yandell notes that online classes create wholly closed worlds, where context and intertextuality disappear in favour of constant instruction.
Almist every structural element of Western education, on all levels, militates against humane learning.
When it comes to performance, religiously restrained students who live their life for God fare better because they are conscientious and cooperative. This is the case regardless of students’ social class upbringing. Working-class abiders have better grades than working-class nonabiders, middle-class abiders have better grades than middle-class nonabiders, and so on. But this story changes when we look at the next stage involving educational choices.
Since religiously restrained students have better academic performance in high school, we would expect them to make more ambitious choices about higher education.
This is generally the case, except in one social class group: adolescents from the professional class. When it comes to the transition to college, students from the professional class who live their life for God make less ambitious choices about where to attend college than we would expect given their stellar report cards. God-centered students undermatch in the college selection process because educational decisions are social decisions that highlight the effect of the home environment on norms and values surrounding education. God-centered students make choices that reflect their familial and social ties rather than choices that optimize their social class standing. Millions of young men and women do not live to impress college admissions counselors. For them, it is God who matters.
We are used to plaintive cries that not enough students opt for scientific subjects, and related worries about the supposed drift of our culture towards an anti-scientific relativism or, ultimately, a post-truth mentality. But one of the things we have learnt in the past ten months is that we set ourselves up for profound confusion if we talk about “science” as a source of self-evidently clear and effective solutions, as if narratives and values played no role. Bland claims to be “following the science” have acquired an unhappily hollow sound. […]
What does it mean to “fail our children” in this broader context? It means backing away from the scale of change that we face, and from the job of resourcing young people to respond with intelligence, imagination and honesty. It would be ridiculous to pretend that there are a few simple restructurings that will achieve this. We need a courageous rethinking of our ingrained assumptions about education. We need to pay some critical and sympathetic attention to those despised and frequently attacked parallel worlds of the Montessori and Steiner systems. We need the issue of resources for the human spirit to be at the heart of educational vision – including craft, drama, sport, exposure to the raw natural world, community service. And anyone who thinks this is somehow in tension with responsible scientific training has not understood either sciences or humanities.
Those with ears to hear, let them hear.
Continuing here to lay the groundwork for future reflection, opening questions rather than answering them….
Lately I have been musing over something the great Fleming Rutledge wrote a month or so ago: “I don’t like the word ‘practices.’ We have a mighty, implacable, shape-shifting Enemy so we need strategies.”
I agree with this emphasis wholly, except … what if the central practices of the Christian faith themselves constitute a strategy, indeed are the essential strategy? Mightn’t those practices be like the ones that Daniel learns from Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid – seemingly pointless or trivial habits and skills that turn out to be the most important ones to have in a time of great need?
I think this is the point that Lessle Newbigin makes in that essential book The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:
Because Jesus has met and mastered the powers that enslave the world, because he now sits at God’s right hand, and because there has been given to those who believe the gift of a real foretaste, pledge, arrabōn of the kingdom, namely the mighty Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, therefore this new reality, this new presence creates a moment of crisis wherever it appears. It provokes questions which call for an answer and which, if the true answer is not accepted, lead to false answers. This happens where there is a community whose members are deeply rooted in Christ as their absolute Lord and Savior. Where there is such a community, there will be a challenge by word and behavior to the ruling powers. As a result there will be conflict and suffering for the Church. Out of that conflict and suffering will arise the questioning which the world puts to the Church. This is why St. Paul in his letters does not find it necessary to urge his readers to be active in evangelism but does find it necessary to warn them against any compromise with the rulers of this age. That is why it was not superiority of the Church’s preaching which finally disarmed the Roman imperial power, but the faithfulness of its martyrs.
The question then is: How to form Christians in such a way that they are capable of undergoing martyrdom? (In any of its forms: red, green, or white.)
I am convinced that this is indeed a matter of cultivating the proper practices – which include words and deeds alike, by the way, or rather speech and writing understood as deeds: as Newbigin goes on to say, the fact that the witness of the martyrs was so exceptionally powerful does not abrogate the need for faithful preaching – indeed, faithful preaching was surely one of the means by which the martyrs were formed: “The central reality is neither word nor act, but the total life of a community enabled by the Spirit to live in Christ, sharing his passion and the power of his resurrection. Both the words and the acts of that community may at any time provide the occasion through which the living Christ challenges the ruling powers. Sometimes it is a word that pierces through layers of custom and opens up a new vision. Sometimes it is a deed which shakes a whole traditional plausibility structure. They mutually reinforce and interpret one another. The words explain the deeds, and the deeds validate the words.”
Preaching and praise, fasting and penitence, reading and serving – all are core practices of the Church. But as Lauren Winner has convincingly and troublingly argued, that may be more complicated than it sounds. More on the difficulties in a later post, I suspect.
My son is not a genius, but he started studying math at an early age. When he was 5, I taught him fractions. Two years later, I introduced him to algebra. It is a core belief in Chinese society that talent can be trained, so schools should be tough on children. Chinese students score at the top of international math and science tests.
This is not a philosophy shared by American schools. On Friday night my son came home announcing in bewilderment that he didn’t have any homework. In China students tend to receive twice as much homework on the weekend, given the two days to complete it. How will America compete with a China determined to train the best mathematicians, scientists and engineers?
Two quite different issues are being conflated here, and the difference can be put in the form of two questions: Do American schools do enough to challenge and educate our children? Do students learn more when they get a lot of homework?
The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.
— Wendell Berry (2005)
I don’t want to see politicians get involved in what should and should not be taught. I would like to see parents speak to teachers and administrators when CRT is creating a bad classroom atmosphere. I would like to see teachers and administrators resist the urge to be defensive and resentful toward criticism of CRT.
But I worry that civil discourse around CRT is not going to happen. Instead, parents who most believe in civil discourse will simply pull their children out of public schools, rather than wade into the controversy. Teachers who are not “woke” will be treated as pariahs by other teachers and administrators. Public schools will end up serving the children of parents who are either very progressive or apathetic. There will emerge another school system, a separate but equal school system if you will, for children of parents who are conservatives or old-fashioned liberals.
Matt Feeney’s Little Platoons: A Defense of Family in a Competitive Age is a fascinating and provocative book that, in my judgment anyway, cries out for a sequel.
Before I go any further I should say that I’ve known Matt for years – we used to be co-conspirators at The American Scene – and we’ve corresponded occasionally since then, though not recently.
If there is any one idea that conservatives are thought to share, it’s the belief that a healthy society needs healthy mediating institutions. This is the burden of Yuval Levin’s recent book A Time to Build, and Yuval (also a friend) makes this argument about as well as it can be made. We do not flourish either as individuals or as a society when there is nothing to mediate between the atomized individual and the massive power of the modern nation-state. That’s why it’s always, though especially now, “a time to build” those mediating institutions that collectively are known as “civil society.”
The really brilliant thing about Matt’s book — written by someone who, like me, possesses a conservative disposition but might not be issued a card by the people who authorize “card-carrying conservatives” — is its claim that in some areas of contemporary American life the mediating institutions are not too weak but rather too strong. And what he demonstrates with great acuity is the consistency with which those institutions, from youth soccer organizations to college admissions committees, have conscripted the “little platoon” of the family to serve their needs — indeed, to get families to compete with one another to serve those institutions’ needs:
What happens, though, when citizens direct their suspicion not at a coercive government but at their peers, with whom they find or feel themselves, as parents and families, in competition? I join a chorus of scholars and writers in observing that such a competitive mood abides among parents today. Less noticed is how such competition creates new forms of subservience and conformity among families. In this environment, the intermediate bodies of civil society, cornerstone of the conservative theory of republican liberty, sometimes become demanding bosses, taskmasters, and gatekeepers in the enterprise of winning advantage for our children in a system of zero-sum competition.
As a result,
Under these conditions, the anxious and competitive citizen-parent looks to certain “voluntary associations,” certain institutions within “civil society,” not as bulwarks against coercive government but as ways to gain advantage over other families, exclusive paths to better futures. From boutique preschools to competitive sports clubs to selective colleges and universities, desirable institutions become bidding objects for future-worried and status-conscious families.
Thus, “the era of intensive parenting is defined by the rise of a sort of hybrid entity, an institutional cyborg that is part organization and part family.”
Matt is not by any means opposed to these mediating institutions as such — there’s a wonderful section on how he learned, through walking his kids to school every day and then hanging out for a while with teachers and other parents, how a school really can be the locus of genuine community — but looks with a gimlet eye, a Foucauldian gimlet eye, on the ways that, right now, in this country, a few such institutions form, sustain and disseminate their power over families.
He’s scathing about college admissions, especially the turn towards “holistic” admissions processes which serve to transform mid-level administrators into eager shapers of souls. He mentions a Vice Provost at Emory who laments the imperfection of his knowledge of the inner lives of applicants, and continues:
If you recall that, twenty or thirty years ago, admissions departments weren’t even mentioning authenticity, were not treating the therapeutic search for true voices and true selves as the goal of their investigations, and if you devote a moment’s thought to the absurdity of this search, you will be tempted to laugh at Vice Provost Latting’s hysterical protest against imperfect knowledge. But, laughable as this and other admissions testimony is, on its merits, I would like to present a good reason not to laugh. Setting up a yearslong, quasi-therapeutic process in which you goad young people to lay bare their vulnerable selves to you, when this process is actually a high-value transaction in which you use your massive leverage to mold those selves to your liking, is actually a terrible thing to do.
Yes, it is. And I am glad to hear someone say it so bluntly.
In his conclusion, Matt admits his reluctance to give advice to parents in such a coercive and panoptic environment, and that’s perfectly understandable. In any case, the primary function of the the primary purpose of the book is diagnostic: he wants to show us the specific ways in which these various mediating institutions co-opt families, and even in some cases make the families hosts to which they are the parasites. I don’t think that the book would have held together as well if it had tried to include parenting advice in the midst of everything else. But it is obvious that Matt has thought quite a lot about what it means to be a responsible parent in our time – he has a great riff on why he’s okay with the fact that his oldest daughter is the only person in her class who doesn’t have a smartphone – and I would really like to hear more from him about how he conceives of the positive responsibilities of being a parent, the dispositions and actions which strengthen that little platoon. I don’t think he needs to do this in a pop-psychology self-help way; Matt is by training a philosopher and I think philosophical reflection on this topic, so essential to human flourishing, would be welcome from him.
But the book provides a great service simply by teasing out the ways in which families are not served by but rather are made to serve these parasitic institutions — and the ways in which we are manipulated to do so ever more intensely by our felt need to compete with other families. As we are always told, the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem.
I taught for many years at Wheaton College, which has a detailed Statement of Faith that everyone on campus signs. From this detailed statement emerges what we might call a thick theological anthropology, built up from layers of Biblical interpretation and historically orthodox theological formulations. By contrast, this is what my current employer, Baylor University, asks of its faculty:
Faculty members at Baylor University are expected to be in sympathy with and supportive of the University’s primary mission: “to educate men and women for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community.” The personal and professional conduct of each faculty member should be supportive of and consistent with this mission.
That’s it. There can be a lot of debate about what it means to be “in sympathy with and supportive of the University’s primary mission”: in the Honors College, where I teach, it certainly requires open and substantive Christian commitment, but that’s not the case everywhere at Baylor, and as I have said before I think of us in the HC as Baylor’s equivalent of Tom Bombadil. Baylor talks a lot about being “unambiguously Christian,” but the statement on expectations for faculty strikes me as an ambiguous one — and surely intentionally so, because it gives to the administration a great deal of leeway in determining whether a particular candidate is, as administrators like to say, a “good institutional fit.” It would be possible to interpret it in ways that do not require from the faculty any religious belief at all.
There are eminently defensible reasons to do things Baylor’s way rather than Wheaton’s; if I didn’t think so I wouldn’t have changed jobs. But it’s obvious that thin communal commitments do not lead to, and are not even conducive to, a thick theological anthropology, and it would be foolish to expect people held together by such weak confessional ties to share views that only make sense within the robust account of human life generated by historic Christian orthodoxy.
Reflecting on T.S. Eliot’s book Notes towards the Definition of Culture, W. H. Auden identifies what he believes to be the distinctively “American problem” in transmitting culture from one generation to the next. After noting that few of the 19th-century immigrants to the United States “were conscious bearers of their native culture and few had many memories they wish to preserve,” because they came primarily in order to escape persecution and poverty, he continues,
This, in the absence of any one dominant church has placed almost the whole cultural burden on the school, which has had to struggle along as best it could with all too little help from even the family…. I have never understood how a liberal, of all people, can regard State education as anything but a necessary and – it is to be hoped – temporary evil. The only ground for approval that I can see is the authoritarian ground that Plato gives – that it is the only way to ensure orthodoxy…. It is almost impossible for education organized on a massive scale not to imitate the methods that work so well in the mass production of goods.
The greatest blessing that could descend on Higher Education in this country would be not the erection of more class barriers but the removal of one: namely, the distinction drawn between those who have attended college and those who have not. As long as employers demand a degree for jobs to which a degree is irrelevant, the colleges will be swamped by students who have no disinterested level of knowledge, and teachers, particularly in the humanities, aware of the students economic need to pass examinations, will lower their standards to let them.
The New Yorker, 23 April 1949.
My take on this is simple: It is better for a good book not to be taught at all than be taught by the people quoted in that article. Yes! — do, please, refuse to teach Shakespeare, Homer, Hawthorne, whoever. Wag your admonitory finger at them. Let them be cast aside, let them be scorned and mocked. Let them be samizdat. Let them be forbidden fruit.
They will find their readers. They always have — long, long before anyone thought to teach them in schools — and they always will.
Ian Bogost, speaking truth to both power and powerlessness:
Without the college experience, a college education alone seems insufficient. Quietly, higher education was always quietly an excuse to justify the college lifestyle. But the pandemic has revealed that university life is far more embedded in the American idea than anyone thought. America is deeply committed to the dream of attending college. It’s far less interested in the education for which students supposedly attend. […]
The pandemic has made college frail, but it has strengthened Americans’ awareness of their attachment to the college experience. It has shown the whole nation, all at once, how invested they are in going away to school or dreaming about doing so. Facing that revelation might be the most important outcome of the pandemic for higher ed: An education may take place at college, but that’s not what colleges principally provide. Higher education survived a civil war, two world wars, the Great Depression, and the 1918 Spanish flu, the worst pandemic the U.S. has ever faced. American colleges will outlast this crisis, too, whether or not they are safe, whether or not they are affordable, and whether or not you or your children actually attend them. The pandemic offered an invitation to construe college as an education alone, because it was too dangerous to embrace it as an experience. Nobody was interested. They probably never will be.
This is certainly correct, and there’s no doubt that university administrators are paying close attention to the lessons this pandemic has taught. Chief among them, I predict, will be that full-time faculty are so marginal to “the college experience” that there’s no point in paying more than a handful of them — the research stars, primarily in the sciences. The adjunctification of the faculty will continue at an accelerated pace.
I am not privy to anything that happens in the upper reaches of Baylor University’s administration, but as far as this close observer can tell, Baylor wants to be an R1 university with successful sports teams, especially in football. There are some of us who want very different things, but those who actually make decisions about the direction of the university as a whole want that.
Except for those at the top of their category, institutions are governed by their aspirations. They look around at the institutions they admire and ask, “What must I do to be recognised as their peer?” They figure that the most likely route to such recognition is imitation.
So if you want to know where Baylor is headed, look at what R1 institutions with successful sports programs are up to. What Baylor’s aspirant peers do on Monday, Baylor will do on Wednesday. It really is as simple as that.
But Baylor is a big place, and contains several subcultures with their own priorities. For instance, I think it is fair to say — I welcome correction from my colleagues — that in the Honors College we are not opposed to becoming an R1 institution or being competitive in sports, but those achievements would not be priorities for us, and we wouldn’t want the pursuit of them to distract us from what we really care about, which is truly liberal education grounded in a deeply Christian account of the life that is good for human beings to live.
In relation to the university as a whole, then, I think we in the Honors College are rather like Tom Bombadil’s litle realm in The Lord of the Rings. Like Tom, we go about our business regardless of what conflicts are brewing, or what wars are raging, in the rest of Middle Earth. Like Tom, we consider ourselves not owners or controllers of our realm, but rather lovers and stewards of it. It requires and deserves our constant attention, so we give that attention, regardless of how peculiar our behavior may appear to the larger and more obviously ambitious lands that surround us.
Now, those of you who know that I have recently advocated the Gandalf Option may wonder if I am now discarding that in favor of the Bombadil Option. No, for on all essential matters Gandalf and Bombadil are of one mind. The words of Gandalf that I quoted as my own guideline are words that old Tom would have warmly endorsed. And after all, when the great War is over Gandalf makes a special point of visiting Tom. We should think of Gandalf as providing a model for thinking in motion and Tom as providing a model for acting in place.
In one of his letters, Tolkien says this about Bombadil:
The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.
I think we in the Honors College should not expect Baylor as a whole to take our view of things; but I also think we should do what we can to encourage Baylor to think of us as Rivendell thinks of Tom. Because the alternative….
UPDATE: It occurs to me that I should connect this post, not just to others with the same tags, but to two essays of mine:
I have been starting school each August for the past fifty-six years. A great many things have changed in my life over the decades, but not that. And here we are in August 2020 and school is about to start … but not in a way I have ever experienced before.
If we were beginning an online semester, I would find the experience less familiar but also less disturbing. I learned a lot last semester about teaching online, and if we need to go back to online teaching and learning again, I will be prepared. Fair warning: I don’t do it the way most of your teachers do it. I won’t use Canvas at all, and I think there are better tools than Zoom for the kind of teaching I do — though I would be happy to use Zoom to chat with y’all individually. (Zoomy office hours aren’t a bad thing at all.)
But for now we’re coming to class together, physically. I have argued that, with proper precautions in place, this is a good idea, but I have to admit that as the time draws nearer I doubt my position more. I try not to worry — and when worry creeps in I pray for the peace that surpasses understanding, a practice that I would recommend to you all — but while I have absolutely no health issues that I know of, my wife has some quite serious underlying conditions that would make contracting COVID-19 very, very dangerous for her. So I have to be exceptionally attentive to all risks. I will be spending as little time as possible on campus — basically I will be coming in to teach our classes and then heading back home again — but I promise that you will find me accessible and responsive to you.
A related point: I humbly but fervently ask your cooperation with all of Baylor’s precautionary policies, even when you think they’re extreme. Your compliance or non-compliance could make a big difference in the lives of others, and maybe in your own as well.
And one more thing. I’m hearing from a number of students who are themselves concerned about their health, and who want me to make various adjustments for them. You need to understand that this is not possible. A great many things have changed, but one thing that has not changed is that there are many more of you (the students) than there are of us (your professors). Plus, we teachers are all having to plan and prepare for two very different ways of conducting our classes, and furthermore must be ready to take over for colleagues if they get sick. (All of us have had backup teachers assigned to our classes, and have been assigned as backup teachers for others.) This is definitely the most demanding and stressful period of preparation for a semester that I have ever had.
I mention that because y’all need to understand that if we can’t make the kinds of accommodations and adjustments that you want, that’s not because we are mean and selfish, but rather because we are finite human beings with limited amounts of energy and a fixed number of hours in each day.
So let’s be patient with one another. I will try not to ask more of you than is reasonable in the circumstances, and I hope you will do the same for me. And I would encourage you all to keep in mind, as we begin this strange term, these words from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”
The problem here is the lack of evidence that “deep literacy” really is in decline. Decline from what height? Starting when? Also:
The rise of deep literacy in enough people in early modernity — mightily aided, of course, by Gutenberg’s invention of movable type — was a precondition of Protestantism’s firm establishment and rapid growth, and its establishment was in turn a major accelerator of deep literacy in the societies in which it became the principal faith community, in large part because Protestants ordained compulsory schooling for all children. The Reformation found a very powerful engine in the establishment of these schools: Wherever Protestant beliefs spread, state-mandated education soon followed, each reinforcing the other.
“Protestants ordained compulsory schooling for all children” — all of them? Everywhere? I don’t think so. When and where did this happen? Perhaps Maryanne Wolf provides evidence for these claims in her book, but if so citations of some kind would have been useful. And in any case Wolf is not a historian. Here’s a widely-cited article from 1984 that asks about the relationship between literacy and the Reformation in Germany. The authors conclude that the early Lutherans weren’t especially interested in promoting general literacy — they devoted themselves to promoting catechesis in schools, and this was done orally — and relatively little progress was made in promoting general literacy until the Pietists in the eighteenth century became influential. And even then the achievements were modest:
Besides reorganizing and revitalizing school systems still suffering from the effects of the Thirty Years War, the eighteenth-century ordinances set targets gradually achieved over time. Indicative of the type of incremental progress that was made are some statistics from East Prussia, one of the poorest rural areas in Germany. The percentage of peasants who could sign their names rose from 10 per cent in 1750, to 25 per cent in 1765, to 40 per cent in 1800. Another sign of increasing literacy was the exponential growth in the book trade in the last half of the eighteenth century as the number of titles for sale at the Leipzig book market, the largest in Germany, increased by over 50 per cent between 1740 and 1770 and more than doubled between 1770 and 1800. To be sure, the increase in literacy and reading in the late eighteenth century was still spotty and varied widely in depth and intensity from place to place. Best estimates of school attendance in the second half of the eighteenth century range from one-third to one-half of German school-age children.
How much deep literacy could there be in an environment in which basic literacy was by no means complete — in some areas not even widespread? That’s just in Germany, of course; comparative study needs to be done to make a more general case.
You can’t effectively make an argument like this without being able to answer some questions:
- How, specifically, do we distinguish deep literacy from more basic kinds of literacy?
- Where and when have rates of basic literacy been highest?
- What data do we have, for any of those places and times, to indicate the proportion of people achieving deep literacy (measured in relation both to basically-literate persons and to the whole population)?
Just to start. And I would ask a deeper and harder-to-answer question: For the overall health of a society, is it the number of people who achieve deep literacy that matters? Or is it the social and political influence of the deeply literate?
Samuel Johnson was impressed by the intelligent and ambitious structure of learning that Milton laid out in “Of Education,” but, as he explains in his Life of Milton, he thought the scheme gave too much attention to what Milton would have called “natural philosophy” and what we call “science.”
But the truth is that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and Justice are virtues and excellences of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance.
Reading this post by Jonathan V. Last, I find myself meditating on the role that habit plays in our choices of activity, in small things and large. Last looks at two elements of our current economy — the conglomeration of entertainment options that we call “Las Vegas” and the movie-theater industry — and asks how they can possibly survive the current economic crisis in anything like their current form.
I’ve also been reading many reflections on the future of higher education in America, most of which acknowledge that the current situation is simply accelerating the arrival of a crisis we have long known is coming: fewer American young people. “Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota, predicts that the college-going population will drop by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two thereafter.”
All of this has me wondering about the future, of course, but it also has me thinking about the role of habit in our voluntary pursuits. The biggest concern for the movie-theater companies ought to be this: What happens when people get out of the habit of going out to see first-run movies and instead develop the habit of seeing first-run movies at home? What happens when streaming a new release on your TV is the normal thing to do? My guess is that for many people going out to the movies will eventually feel like a chore, and the movie industry will need to adapt to new preferences. It seems likely to me that the theaters that will survive into the new era will be places like Alamo Drafthouse, oriented towards foodie-cinephiles. And I sure hope Alamo survives, because man do I love going there.
I tend to think that Las Vegas will bounce back, because going to Vegas is, for most people anyway, not a regular habit but an occasional festivity. But a lot will depend on how people feel, long-term, about getting on airplanes. And this is one of Last’s points: so many of our industries are entangled with other industries that it’s impossible to calculate how all the dominoes will fall. (Which isn’t stopping journalists from making confident predictions.)
But about higher education … obviously the stakes are much higher there: the choice of what university to attend is widely believed to be one of the most important a person will make in his or her life. But that assumes that you will choose one, and I find myself wondering whether attending a university at all is a practice that is subject to change in our new circumstances. That is, for many millions of American high-graduates, and for several generations now, going to college has not been perceived as a choice but rather as an inevitability. Nor “whether” but only “where.” It’s hard for me to imagine that in the coming years it won’t also become a “whether.”
Everyone assumes that this fall there will be a significant rise in high-school graduates deferring their college enrollment and taking a gap year. It is easy to imagine circumstances in which this becomes more commonplace, not just for the next year or two, but permanently. And, further, it is easy to imagine a significant number of those gap-year students finding jobs that they are not eager to give up in order to go to college. Further still, one can conceive of circumstances in which certain industries that flourish in an altered environment, industries that had previously chiefly hired people with college degrees, realize that their employees don’t really need college degrees. That is to say, it’s not hard to envision a future in which young people and employers alike realize that higher education has become a habit, and a habit one can break.
A big part of me doesn’t want to see this happen, because I have been involved in higher education since I started college at age 16, and I love this little world. Plus, I have many, many friends who are professors, or who work in other capacities in colleges and universities, and I worry about their future. But if I could set all that aside — which I can’t, quite — I believe I would think that, over the long haul, a significant lowering of the number of young Americans who attend university would be a social good. And I hope it will be, because I think that’s what’s coming.
I would love to live in a world in which higher education continues to flourish and the charms of Las Vegas wane. I think I’m living in the opposite of that world.
The multiversity [Clark] Kerr described was not the result of any considered plan or coherent philosophy. Rather, it emerged inadvertently as a congeries of historical conceptions of the university. Kerr identified three salient traditions. The first was represented by Cardinal Newman, founder of the University of Dublin in the mid-19th century. Newman regarded the purpose of the university as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, cultivating gentlemen suited to lives of erudition, taste, and intellectual refinement. The second was embodied in Abraham Flexner, an American educational reformer who, in 1930, founded the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J. He invoked a German model that defined the university as an institution devoted to specialized research.
Finally, Kerr described the “American model,” which he saw most strongly reflected in the land-grant movement of the latter half of the 19th century. This distinctly American idea of the university was born of an explicit twinning of higher education and the democratic project, opening the doors of the academy to a broader public and emphasizing such “practical” fields of study as engineering and agriculture. If Newman’s university served the generalist and Flexner’s the specialist, the American model was to serve the demos.
Kerr saw all three models as coexisting in the multiversity. The balance among them varied by institution, but, under the watchful stewardship of presidents, they remained in a general state of homeostasis. In the 55 years since Kerr’s treatise, however, the “American model” has increasingly eclipsed the other two. Regardless of what they do or how they fund and organize themselves, American universities understand themselves as institutions in service to the public.”
With all due respect to my good friend Chad and his colleague, I must disagree. It is true that universities often describe themselves in this way, but that is a smokescreen. American universities actually understand themselves as institutions in service to their clientele. They make occasional face-saving and conscience-salving gestures in the direction of the public good, but the reality is this: Universities, and especially top-tier universities, compete with one another for a shrinking pool of customers, whom they lure with promises of (a) a variety of recreational activities during their four years of undergraduate life and (b) admission to graduate school or a relatively lucrative job afterwards.
Professors and some administrators will tell a different tale, but I believe that the decisions of the people who actually run our universities clearly confirm my account. As I said in an earlier post, if you pay attention to actions rather than words the math isn’t hard to do. Just follow the money.
This is why, as Chad himself has argued, those of us who care about learning must promote and nourish the Academy that stealthily functions within the University. But I would argue that that Academy doesn’t exist “in service to the public” any more than the University does.
Many years ago, W. H. Auden wrote,
A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his children and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odorless.
A mob is active; it smashes, kills and sacrifices itself. The public is passive or, at most, curious. It neither murders nor sacrifices itself; it looks on, or looks away, while the mob beats up a Negro or the police round up Jews for the gas ovens.
The public is the least exclusive of clubs; anybody, rich or poor, educated or unlettered, nice or nasty, can join it….
Auden gets his notion of the Public from Kierkegaard, who said, in The Present Age, that “the public is a host, more numerous than all the peoples together, but it is a body which can never be reviewed, it cannot even be represented, because it is an abstraction. Nevertheless, when the age is reflective and passionless and destroys everything concrete, the public becomes everything and is supposed to include everything. And that again shows how the individual is thrown back upon himself.”
I want to argue that the secret function of the Academy within (and sometimes without) the University is to nurture the human formation to which the gaping maw of a Clientele and the featureless abstraction of a Public are alike inimical. And to this formation the arts are absolutely central. Auden again:
Before the phenomenon of the Public appeared in society, there existed naïve art and sophisticated art which were different from each other but only in the way that two brothers are different. The Athenian court may smile at the mechanics’ play of Pyramus and Thisbe, but they recognize it as a play. Court poetry and Folk poetry were bound by the common tie that both were made by hand and both were intended to last; the crudest ballad was as custom-built as the most esoteric sonnet. The appearance of the Public and the mass media which cater to it have destroyed naïve popular art. The sophisticated “highbrow” artist survives and can still work as he did a thousand years ago, because his audience is too small to interest the mass media. But the audience of the popular artist is the majority and this the mass media must steal from him if they are not to go bankrupt. Consequently, aside from a few comedians, the only art today is “highbrow.” What the mass media offer is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish. This is bad for everyone; the majority lose all genuine taste of their own, and the minority become cultural snobs.
The purpose of the Academy should be to encourage and nourish a richly human cultural world in which one may transcend the subhuman status of Clientele and Public without succumbing to the equally dehumanizing lure of the Highbrow.
It happens that I have practically some connexion with schools for different classes of youth; and I receive many letters from parents respecting the education of their children. In the mass of these letters I am always struck by the precedence which the idea of a “position in life” takes above all other thoughts in the parents’—more especially in the mothers’—minds. “The education befitting such and such a STATION IN LIFE”—this is the phrase, this the object, always. They never seek, as far as I can make out, an education good in itself; even the conception of abstract rightness in training rarely seems reached by the writers. But, an education “which shall keep a good coat on my son’s back;—which shall enable him to ring with confidence the visitors’ bell at double-belled doors; which shall result ultimately in establishment of a double-belled door to his own house;—in a word, which shall lead to advancement in life;—THIS we pray for on bent knees—and this is ALL we pray for.” It never seems to occur to the parents that there may be an education which, in itself, IS advancement in Life;—that any other than that may perhaps be advancement in Death; and that this essential education might be more easily got, or given, than they fancy, if they set about it in the right way; while it is for no price, and by no favour, to be got, if they set about it in the wrong.
— John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies. I know a number of people who work to recruit students to Baylor (where I now teach) and to other universities, and they have commented that it is virtually impossible to get parents interested in what kind of education, what kind of experience, their children will have in their undergraduate years. Parents only want to know whether their children will get into medical school or dental school or law school — the four years of undergraduate education are simply a very large hurdle to be leaped over to get to that STATION IN LIFE that they want for their children. Many, many parents do not care one iota about what their offspring will actually do and read and think between the ages of 18 and 22, as long as whatever it is helps (or at least does not impede) their admission to professional training.
Update: I should add that I don’t blame the parents for this — they’re being asked to pay a shocking amount of money for their children’s education, and they are desperately hoping for a return on investment. I get that. But when your job is to teach those young people, the situation is regrettable — especially since so many of the students have adopted the attitudes of their parents.
This is the text, more or less, of the talk I gave at Duke University last Monday afternoon. The talk is derived from one of the key concepts I employ in my recent book How to Think — Susan Friend Harding’s notion of the “repugnant cultural other” — but I have focused here on the university context. I have added some links that I hope will be useful. My thanks to the Kenan Institute for Ethics for inviting me, and especially to John Rose for making it all happen.
In what follows there are three things I will try not to say. I cannot promise that I will succeed in not saying them, but I will make every effort.
- I will try not to ask, in plaintive tones, “Why can’t we all just get along?“
- I will try not to make a plea for civility. (I best commend civility by practicing it myself rather than chastising other people for their failures to do so.)
- Above all, I will try not to exhort you to consider that you may be wrong. As G. K. Chesterton said about a century ago,
What we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed…. At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own.
With those three commitments firmly in place, and with the promise that you’ll have a chance later on to tell me if I’ve failed to keep them, let me move on to one more preliminary thing.
I’m talking to you tonight about university education, and everything that I think about my topic is colored by my own experience. So let me just say quickly — and sorry if this sounds like one of those “in my day we walked five miles to school through the show, uphill both ways” stories — that I am the only member of my immediate or extended family to attend college. Neither of my parents even finished high school, though they did eventually take and pass the GED exam. Through much of my childhood my father was in prison, and my mother worked to support us while my grandmother effectively raised my sister and me. The expectation was that when I graduated from high school I would get a job and pay my own way; nobody thought that college made the least sense for people like us. As a result I ended up attending for my first two-and-a-half years what was then the local “commuter college,” the University of Alabama in Birmingham — I did not know that places like Duke existed — and paying for it myself by working 25 hours a week during term and full-time between terms. You could actually do that then, which, given the student loan burden that people carry today, is amazing to contemplate. In some ways I had it harder than most of you, in some ways easier; but it was certainly a different world in many respects, though most of the challenges I faced as a first-generation college student are still faced by first-generation college students today. Which is why my heart is always with them. Anyway, please just keep all that in mind, because that early experience is central to my understanding of the university today.
Now to the substance of the talk.
I sometimes feel that this is John Stuart Mill’s world, and we’re all just trying, with varying degrees of success, to learn how to live in it. Mill gets plenty of credit as the philosopher of the liberal social order, but I am not sure he gets enough. And tonight I want to set two brief quotations from Mill next to each other and see how they interact. Both quotations, not at all incidentally, are from Mill’s book On Liberty.
The first is a passage that has been much quoted in the last couple of years by people who believe that this nation’s universities are becoming ideologically uniform and hostile to genuine debate. It goes like this:
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.
And here’s the other one, Mill’s concise articulation of what has come to be known as the Harm Principle: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Mill had a quite carefully restricted definition of “harm,” but the Harm Principle as understood today has been extended to a wide variety of experiences, often, if not always, in ways that make perfect sense.)
I think we in the American academy are living through a moment in which these two statements seem to be in serious tension with each other. For what happens if, in my view, the opposite side of the case simply through its public presence does harm to me or to others?
There are many ways of talking about this general problem. I could speak of what the United States Supreme Court, in the notorious Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision of 1942, called “fighting words.” I could look at the long history of debates about the limits of free speech. That would be to put the debate in a legal context, and indeed there are always legal dimensions to these issues — especially for public universities, like UNC down the road, but often for private ones as well. Nevertheless, I’m going to set law aside for this talk, and turn my attention instead to the ways disagreement, even painful disagreement, works in a community of learning — and how it might work better.
I’m going to start by describing a phenomenon identified by the anthropologist Susan Friend Harding. As a graduate student, she decided that she wanted to do ethnographic work on a curious social group: fundamentalist Christians. She felt she had hit upon a useful project, focusing on an understudied group — and therefore was surprised and dismayed when her professors displayed considerable skepticism about the plan. In an essay she wrote some years later about the experience, she says that she gradually realized that they were all, in effect if not in so many words, asking her, “Are you now or have you ever been a fundamentalist Christian?” (An echo of the standard question of the House Unamerican Activities Committee in the 1950s: “Are you now or have you ever ben a Communist?”)
As Harding reflected on this unexpected and uncomfortable experience, she came to understand that fundamentalist Christians, in the mental world of her anthropological colleagues played a distinctive role which she came to call the Repugnant Cultural Other (henceforth abbreviated RCO). Of course, the sorts of peoples that one imagines anthropologists studying — Bedouins, or tiny communities in the Amazon basin or the highlands of Papua New Guinea — are certainly quite other to American academics, but they aren’t nearly as repugnant, for an obvious reason: they don’t impinge on the lives of those academics any more than the academics want. When an anthropologist flies back to Boston from Sudan, the Bedouins don’t come along. But fundamentalist Christians shop at the same grocery stores that you do — and worse yet, vote in the same elections. And attend the same universities.
The psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander puts the distinction this way: You have an Ingroup, an Outgroup, and a Fargroup. Members of the Fargroup will probably be considerably more different from you than members of the Outgroup, will very likely take moral and political stances that you find abominable, but they do not arouse the same repugnance as the Outgroup — simply because they are Far. Only those who share the same daily world with you are likely to become for you the true Outgroup, the true RCO.
This is why I tend to smile when I see many academic arguments for accepting otherness. An extreme example, perhaps, is Donna Haraway’s recent book Staying with the Trouble, in which she celebrates all sorts of connections with “oddkin,” multifarious forms of the nonhuman. When Haraway asks me to envision “a symbiogenetic join of a human child and monarch butterﬂies” I think, well, that’s cool, I guess, but what kinship do you have with that dude sharing the coffee-shop line with you in his Make America Great Again cap? Now we’re really talking oddkin.
Let me pause here to remind you of one of the things that I promised not to say, or promised to try not to say: Why can’t we all just get along? I am not going to suggest that maybe that guy in the MAGA cap is actually a decent fellow — just so, so misunderstood — and if Donna Haraway would simply take the time to get to know him she might discover that they share some interests, and then the next time they’re in the coffee shop — she sipping her organic soy cortado, he dumping three packets of sugar into his drip coffee — they could bond over a mutual love of origami, or NASCAR. I sometimes read newspaper stories about this kind of meeting of minds, and while those invariably are heartwarming, I don’t think we can assume them to be common or likely.
Let’s go, rather, with something close to the opposite assumption: that your RCO really is kinda repugnant, or at least many of his views are. What now? And — to bring this discussion back around to the academic context, where it belongs — what if you share a dorm floor, or an apartment building, or a seminar class, with him? How are you going to manage that? Can you somehow make kin with someone that odd? And if not, what do you do instead?
I think the first step should be getting a strong grip on the kind of environment you’re actually in. A couple of years ago, when there was a massive controversy that many of you will remember at Yale’s Silliman College, one of the charges brought against the leadership of the college was that they had allowed damage to the students’ home. (I wrote about this situation in more detail in this essay, and borrow from that in some of what follows.) One student wrote, “I feel that my home is being threatened.” The associate master of Silliman “did not just start a political discourse as she intended. She marginalized many students of color in what is supposed to be their home.” I don’t blame the student for saying that, because many colleges and universities — most of them? darn near all of them? — promise or at least express the hope that students will find that place a real home. What do we call that one weekend each fall when graduates return to what some of them still refer to as “alma mater”? Homecoming. “Hi mom, I’m home!” As though alums are all Telemachus returning to Ithaca, to Penelope, after a perilous journey to Pylos and Sparta.
And this is not a contemptible conceit. Kenneth Tynan, the great English theatrical impresario and writer, wanted his ashes to be scattered at his Oxford college, Magdalen, because it was the only place he had ever felt he truly belonged; and was heartbroken when told that it couldn’t happen. I’ve talked to former students of mine who feel much the same about their own college years. And when that happens it’s a kind of victory for those of us who teach — but not an unalloyed one. Because no college or university is supposed to be any student’s home. It is, at Duke anyway and in places where I have taught, a largely residential academy where people from all over the world, from a wide range of social backgrounds, and with a wide range of interests and abilities, come to live together for about 30 weeks a year for about four years, before moving on to the rest of their lives. It is an essentially public space, though with controls on ingress and egress to prevent chaos and foster friendship and fellowship, and it is meant to be temporary. We may call that common autumn event Homecoming but after a long weekend at most the children all scatter and dear alma mater is left with her most recent brood of hatchlings. Magdalen College was not Kenneth Tynan’s home, and could not have been, because there were other people there who didn’t even know him, or who knew him but didn’t like him, or whose preferences were radically different than his, and who had no long-term bond with him to force them to come to some mutually agreeable terms beyond basic tolerance for (in his case) three years. The notion of college-as-home is not a contemptible conceit, but it is a conceit, and if we set it aside we may be able to accomplish two things: first, to lower the temperature of the disputes, and second, to understand better how students are situated.
There’s a fairly comical story to be told about my attempts, as I was thinking about this talk, to come up with the right metaphor for what I believe the college years are supposed to be, at least in relation to the problems I’m trying to address tonight. I don’t know whether any of you have seen Whit Stillman’s movie Barcelona, but it features a couple of very funny scenes in which someone tries to describe U.S. foreign policy in Latin America in terms of rival species of ant. A cautionary tale, let me tell you. For quite a while I was enamored of an elaborate set of images built around how motorcycle stunt jumpers practice their stunts without getting killed, and when I abandoned that I toyed for a while with a detailed comparison to a demolition derby — you can ask me about that in the Q&A if you want. Eventually I discarded all those images, and some others I prefer not to talk about, but not before it occurred to me that what they all had in common, what I was trying to get at, however ineptly, was the collection of ideas that cluster around our practices of play.
Please don’t bolt for the door at this point. When I speak of play I do not refer to anything frivolous or trivial. Play is a highly structured form of experience that is essential to the intellectual and social development and health of humans, and of many other creatures. We do well to reflect on how it works and the functions it can fulfill. So bear with me.
In Homo Ludens, the single greatest study of “the play element of culture,” Johan Huizinga identifies several characteristic of play, all of which are relevant, I believe, to understanding how college life should work for students. For Huizinga, “the first main characteristic of play [is] that it is free, is in fact freedom.“ Like many teachers, I often point out to my students that the word “school” derives from scholia, leisure, and though they typically respond to this by rolling their eyes so dramatically I fear that they’ll do themselves an ocular injury, the point is nevertheless true and salutary. Students’ parents, or some generous donor, or some government agency, or their future selves, have paid to liberate them from some or all work obligations so that they might have the leisure to study and think. It is precious freedom, bought for a price, often a heavy price. I am perhaps more aware of this than sime because I had the privilege, though it then seemed a heavy burden, of paying that price myself, quite directly. “Pay to play” is a phrase that has special meaning for me. Going to class felt like a magnificent luxury.
So: play is freedom. Huizinga continues: “A second characteristic is closely connected with this, namely, that play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own.” Moreover, “It is ‘played out’ within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning…. Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is ‘over.’” You see the relation between this point and my earlier claim that the university is not anybody’s home, but rather a temporary and spatially specific place of learning and development.
One more point from Huizinga: “Play … creates order, is order…. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play … seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful.” And that is one of the reasons why people love it. At its best, the university experience, with its order and structure and room for artful creativity within that order, is really, really beautiful.
None of this is to say that the boundaries between play and the rest of life are fixed and uncrossable. They are, rather, quite porous, and need to be: we easily see how the play of animals relates the skills they need for survival. We also see, in big-time college sports, the way that the elements of actual play are can be stripped away altogether from what are supposed to be games. But the boundaries are nevertheless actual boundaries, and useful.
But essential to all game-playing is some measure of resistance, of conflict — and even of pain. People get hurt in games: sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes mentally. In the game we call undergraduate education, physical harm is rare, and excluded whenever possible … but some level of mental and emotional pain is part and parcel of the game. And that is not always and inevitably bad. When my son was quite young, I took him to our family doctor for a regular checkup, and during the examination the doctor said ”Now I need to look for bruises.“ I was instantly offended and alarmed: I don’t hurt my child! ”No, no,“ he said, ”I want to see bruises. Because if he doesn’t have a few bruises, that means that he’s not taking the physical risks that he needs to take to develop as he should.“ If playing too recklessly can lead a child into trouble, timidity can create its own, very different, troubles.
I have often reflected on what Dr. Judge said that day, and even now I apply it to myself — not in terms of physical risk, physical development (that ship has sailed, for me), but in terms of intellectual risk-taking. I see too many people my age, indeed younger than me, who have ceased to take any chances, who have settled into complacency, whose outlook on the world can never receive any bruises because it is never risked on the playing field. I don’t want to be like that, not now and not ever.
And here we’re getting to the heart of the matter, as I see it: I want to argue — with considerable trepidation, I admit — that the task of the undergraduate student is to embrace this kind of bruising, such pain, and the task of teachers and administrators is, if they can, to structure the game in such a way that that pain doesn’t escalate into harm. And if we can manage that, then it’s good for students, good for the university, and good for the society at large. So now I’m going to unpack this argument.
My attempt to reconcile those two statements of Mill’s that I quoted at the outset is based on the distinction between pain and harm. It does not follow — and in many of life’s venues we understand this perfectly well, it is an uncontroversial point — it does not follow that all pain is harmful. But it is still pain. Yet our current conversation about the culture of the academy too often collapses into hostilities between those who think that if there is pain there must be harm and those who think that if there is no harm there can be no pain.
Note this well: I do not claim to have the resources to judge for anyone else the intensity of their pain or the degree of harm it inflicts. Do any of you know the podcast Song Exploder? One of my favorites. A recent guest on the podcast was Questlove of The Roots, who described the making of the gut-wrenching song “It Ain’t Fair,” which appeared in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Detroit. At one point during the interview Questlove made a comment that has really been haunting me: he said that, though he appreciates what Detroit does, he does not think that Hollywood is ready to open the Pandora’s Box of black pain. That’s a very powerful phrase: the Pandora’s box of black pain. It suggests not just intensity of pain but a great variety of manifestations of pain. And it is not for me to assess the depths of that pain, or the profound harm that accompanies it.
But what is for me to do, as a teacher, and for all of us to to who work in the university, is to be aware of the potential for our educational and social environments to create pain, and therefore perhaps harm. As many of you know, I am a Christian, and while I am not nearly as prayerful as Christians are supposed to me, I get pretty prayerful twice a year: when I’m ordering books for my classes. I am very aware through long experience of the damage that books and ideas can do to young people (older people too, sometimes), and I don’t want to inflict any more of that damage than I have to.
Not long ago I saw a tweet from a professor who quoted from his teaching evaluations a student who said that after taking that professor’s class she, or he, no longer knew what to think about anything. And the professor commented, with evident self-satisfaction, “My work here is done.” No, dude, your work, if you understood it properly, is just beginning. Because most of us who have been around the academy’s rhetorical block a few dozen times know how to knock beliefs down. And some beliefs need to be knocked down, if only because of the unhealthy and unhelpful ways in which they are held and deployed; but if you’re not helping to provide the tools by which something better might be built in place of what lies in ruins, then you haven’t done your job at all. And that is a very difficult job.
This is why I pray when I’m ordering books, and while I can’t expect everyone to join me in that, I think it’s fair to ask all of us involved in education to consider the pain that inevitably accompanies deep learning. And I do mean inevitably. I taught for many years at a Christian liberal-arts college, and sometimes parents of prospective students would visit, or write, and ask me to assure them that their children would emerge from their four years of college with a strong Christian faith. And I would always say: I cannot promise you that. Liberal education is inherently risky. College students are exposed to powerful ideas and curious people that can shake the very foundations of their self-understanding. And they can’t control that exposure in the same way that they can control who they interact with on Snapchat or Instagram. Plus, you know, everybody changes, often quite dramatically, between the ages of 18 and 22!
There will be blood, you might say. But I don’t want to spill any more of it than I have to. The task, then, for people who work in universities and especially for teachers, is, as best we can, to understand some of the pain that accompanies learning, and to try to prevent the accretion of harm, and to steer those who experience that pain towards finding some benefit in it. And I mean that in small ways as well as large. When I was an undergrad — as, again, a first-generation college student who knew nothing about the rules by which the game of college education was played — I failed two classes because I had not been introduced to the concept of “dropping a class.” I thought you just stopped going and that was the end of it. It would have been nice if someone had cared about my flourishing enough to give me some information on that point.
In any case, it is in the hope of more caring surroundings for students today that that I make the recommendation to them that’s embedded in the title of this talk: Embrace the pain. Because that is not counsel that any reasonably person would take unless she is persuaded that we teachers and administrators mean her well — that we wish her to flourish. In today’s university, where administrative and legal structures tend to imprison us all in what Max Weber called the “iron cage” of rationalization and to render us all mere executors of functions, trust is more to be prized than rubies. All honor, then, I say, to those who seek it. And maybe even greater honor to the university leaders who ask: What can we do, collectively, institutionally, to nourish our students’ trust in us?
So, if we dare to embrace the pain while striving to minimize the harm, what does that look like? And how does it help us deal with our RCO? How can the presence of my RCO in my community to be seen as a feature rather than a bug? It begins with the understanding that we come together, temporarily, in this place so that we may play a certain complex and meaningful game, a game that involves trying out intellectual and personal positions, testing my beliefs and my identity in relation to others that are doing the same — and playing this game under the guidance and direction of people whom we all trust to run it fairly and with our flourishing in mind. With that framework in place, then, we might be able genuinely to hear Mill’s word of warning: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” In a healthily functioning academic community, these words can be heard as a health-giving challenge rather than a threat to be feared.
In such a community, my RCO can therefore play a role in strengthening and clarifying my convictions — even if that’s the last thing he would want to do! Recall my opening promise that, following G K Chesterton, I would try not to ask you to consider that you might be wrong. To take a couple of extreme examples: Do we really want a world in which Elie Wiesel seriously considers whether the Nazis might have been justified after all in implementing their Final Solution? Or where Malcolm X pauses to consider whether white supremacy is, after all is said and done, the best social order? I think not. But that doesn’t mean that — even in the big and uncontrolled outside world, and still more in the semi-controlled realm of academic conversation — we don’t benefit from a better understanding of what people we disagree with think, and why they think as they do.
Chesterton deplored the movement of modesty from “the organ of ambition” to “the organ of conviction.” He doesn’t want you to be modest about your convictions, but rather about your ambitions — by which he means all the ways you hope to put your convictions into effect. He wants you to be confident about your ends but critical and even skeptical about your preferred means to those ends. He wants you to consider all the different ways you might get to the goal you treasure — and in this endeavor your RCO can help, even if, again, he wouldn’t want to.
I suggested at the outset of this talk that embracing the pain, that learning to live with the RCO, has personal but also larger social benefits. In other to explain how that works, I am going to go back a couple of centuries to a fascinating little document, a series of letters by the German playwright and social reformer Friedrich Schiller on what he called “aesthetic education.” Some of Schiller’s argument I am going to take straight, some I am going to steal and shamelessly adapt for our purposes, so what follows will not be reputable scholarship — but I hope it will be enlightening.
Like many German Romantics, Schiller believed that the society of Athens in the period between Socrates and Aristotle was the greatest in human history, and what made it great was that it achieved the highest possible level of cultural richness and complexity that is graspable by the individual person. That is, the whole genius of the culture could, in theory, be held in each citizen’s mind. From this point, Schiller believed, there could only be decline of one kind or another. The society could lose some of its complexity and retreat into a less highly developed condition — or, conversely, it could continue along the path of increasing complexity and quickly reach the point at which a general comprehension of the lifeworld was impossible and people would have to become specialists in particular bodies of knowledge and practice — and therefore lose their unity with one another.
Germany in the eighteenth century, Schiller believed, suffered from this overcomplication, which led to differentiation and specialization, which in turn led to a lack of social cohesion. (I think we can recognize these conditions in our own society, can we not?) And he believes that what he calls “aesthetic education” can help address this unfortunate situation.
Schiller argues that all these specializations of knowledge and practice can be understood through the identification of two major human impulses: the material impulse and the formal impulse. It’s easy to oversimplify these concepts, and I always like doing what’s easy, so: the material impulse seeks immersion in the chaotic and manifold world of the senses; the formal impulse seeks to find, or if necessary impose, intellectual order on all that chaos. The material impulse is therefore the RCO, as it were, of the formal; and vice-versa. Here’s Schiller’ summary of the opposition:
Expressed as a general concept, the object of the material impulse is called life, in its widest meaning: a concept signifying all material being, everything directly present to the senses. The object of the formal impulse, expressed again as a general concept, is called form, both in the figurative and the literal sense of the word: a concept that includes all the formal properties of things, and all of their relations to the powers of thought.
But what if these principles can be brought into constructive relation with one another? — which is to ask, What if people who gravitate towards the one can be brought into constructive relation with people who gravitate towards the other? The result, Schiller says — and this may be surprising — is play. The union of the material impulse and the formal impulse is the playful impulse. Remember what Huizinga says about the relationship between play and beauty? Well, Schiller contends that, if the material impulse is about life and the formal impulse about form, then “the object of the playful impulse, presented in general outline, can consequently be called living form: a concept serving to characterize all aesthetic properties of phenomena, what is in a word most generally called beauty.” And the centrality to Schiller’s vision of this creation and appreciation of beauty is why his little book is about “aesthetic education.”
But here’s the most important point of all: Schiller wrote these letters in more-or-less direct response to the collapse of the French Revolution into tyranny, and as an implicit accounting of what, in his view, went wrong. The kind of playful engagement — again, with the understanding that play is a particular structure of experience rather than something frivolous — with the RCO that can produce something beautiful was altogether absent from the characters of France’s revolutionaries. Schiller is therefore presenting a model of aesthetic education as necessary to political progress.
If we translate Schiller’s proposed union of divergent impulses into the terms of today’s American university, which is what in my unscholarly way I am hoping to do, then we might draw certain useful conclusions. Chief among them, I think, is that we might see the possibility of bringing Repugnant Cultural Others together in a structured, game-like social environment guided by trustworthy people as an opportunity for genuine play, genuine beauty, genuinely creativity. And we might then see that such an environment could be good for the flourishing not only of the people directly involved, but also for the good of society as a whole. Because there is nothing, except mutual charity, that our social order needs more right now than political creativity. We have been locked for far too long into the same reductive set of simplistic oppositions. If at university students can “play” in ways that take them beyond those oppositions, into a new social imaginary), then we would all benefit. And such a possibility is worth staking our universities’ future on, or so I believe.
I want to take a moment here to remember and honor Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the very greatest writers of our time and one who has meant the world to me personally, who died last week at the age of 88. In 1983, at Mills College in Oakland, California, she gave what she called a “Left-Handed Commencement Address,” and rather than conclude with my words I think I would do better to conclude with hers.
I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country…. What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.
Thus, for Christian educational institutions, the way ahead may be very hard. It will not simply be a matter of budgeting without federal loans. It could easily become a matter of budgeting without not-for-profit status. That double whammy is likely to annihilate many of those institutions which refuse to accommodate themselves to the dominant sexual culture. And that means that educators may need to look to new models of pursuing their callings.
The current struggle probably cannot be won in the law courts — certainly not until there are deeper changes in the ethos of society. Laws that may be used to dismantle Christian educational institutions are already on the books. How they are to be applied will be determined by the dominant taste or cultural sentiment.
Therefore every Christian institution of higher education needs to be pursuing “financial planning for the worst-case scenario, where not only federal money but also tax-exempt status is revoked.” Trueman has other things to say as well, but I want to focus on this point, and to indicate another dimension that he does not address.
As I have noted in another venue, calls are already being made for Christian institutions to lose their accreditation also. Many Christian colleges will be unable to survive losing federal aid for their faculty and students alike; those that can survive that may not be able to afford their taxes once they lose their traditional exemption; but a loss of accreditation is likely to be the death knell for all of them, because that will dramatically reduce the number of students who apply for admission. Students with degrees from unaccredited institutions are deemed ineligible for almost all graduate education, and for many jobs as well. How many parents, even devoutly Christian parents, even those few who can afford it (given the lack of federal student aid), will be willing to pay to send their children to institutions if that narrows their future horizons so dramatically? Almost none, I suspect.
The people who argue that Christian institutions should support the modern left’s model of sexual ethics or else suffer a comprehensive shunning do not think of themselves as opponents of religion. And they are not, given their definition of religion, which is “a disembodied, Gnostic realm of private worship and thought.” But that is not what Christianity is. Christianity intrinsically, necessarily involves embodied action in the public world. And this the secular left cannot and will not tolerate, if it can help it, because it rightly understands that Christianity stands opposed to the secular left’s own gospel, which, popular opinion notwithstanding, is not essentially about sex but rather may be summed up as: “I am my own.”
All this to say that while I agree with Trueman that Christian institutions need to plan for a dark financial future, I also believe that the Christian community as a whole needs to plan for a future in which most or all of its educational institutions have been forced either to close or to accommodate themselves to Gnostic disembodiment. What does Christian formation — paideia and catechesis — look like in a world in which many of the institutions that have long supported that formation have been shut down or substantively eviscerated? In relation to these issues, that is the question that Christian need to be asking. Because, I am convinced, that moment is coming: maybe not in the next decade, maybe not even in my lifetime, but certainly within the lifetimes of many reading this blog post.
A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.
— Michael Oakeshott, “A Place of Learning.” The idea that “a culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers” is one of the most beautiful and illuminating depictions of historical understanding that I know.
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 percentage of young people willing to entertain a genuinely countercultural Gospel has always been small. It hasn’t changed in my 35 years of teaching. I can introduce you to students who would make you despair for humanity, but I can also introduce you to students — Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, evangelical — who would give you great hope for the future of the Christian faith.
Seriously, I don’t get these people: what planet do they come from? Do they really remember, thirty years ago, teaching to a roomful of rapt scholars eager to absorb the richness of Christian tradition? Not a world I ever knew. Most people — here, now, and always — just want to go along to get along. Those who are open to the risks of genuine education are rare, were always rare, will ever be rare. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
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.
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.
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.)
School, by its very nature, tends to make a total claim on the time and energies of its participants. This, in turn, makes the teacher into custodian, preacher, and therapist.
In each of these three roles the teacher bases his authority on a different claim. The teacher-as-custodian acts as a master of ceremonies, who guides his pupils through a drawn-out labyrinthine ritual. He arbitrates the observance of rules and administers the intricate rubrics of initiation to life. At his best, he sets the stage for the acquisition of some skill as schoolmasters always have. Without illusions of producing any profound learning, he drills his pupils in some basic routines.
The teacher-as-moralist substitutes for parents, God, or the state. He indoctrinates the pupil about what is right or wrong, not only in school but also in society at large. He stands in loco parentis for each one and thus ensures that all feel themselves children of the same state.
The teacher-as-therapist feels authorized to delve into the personal life of his pupil in order to help him grow as a person. When this function is exercised by a custodian and preacher, it usually means that he persuades the pupil to submit to a domestication of his vision of truth and his sense of what is right.
The claim that a liberal society can be founded on the modern school is paradoxical. The safeguards of individual freedom are all canceled in the dealings of a teacher with his pupil. When the schoolteacher fuses in his person the functions of judge, ideologue, and doctor, the fundamental style of society is perverted by the very process which should prepare for life. A teacher who combines these three powers contributes to the warping of the child much more than the laws which establish his legal or economic minority, or restrict his right to free assembly or abode.
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.