Good Scholars should be Good Christians

[Note] that they were scholars. They dealt in arts, curious arts; good scholars should be good Christians, and then they complete their learning when they learn Christ.

-Matthew Henry on the Wise Men of Matthew 2.

I.e. Learning is not complete until it terminates in Christ.


The Anthropological Perspective and Crap Detecting

…We must have instruments that telling us when we are running down, when maintenance is required. For Wiener, such instruments would be people who have been educated to recognize change, to be sensitive to problems caused by change, and who have the motivation and courage to sound alarms when entropy accelerates to a dangerous degree. This is what we mean by ‘crap detecting.’ It is also what John Gardener means by the ‘ever-renewing society,’ and what Kenneth Boulding means by ‘social self-consciousness.’ We are talking about the schools cultivating in the young that most ‘subversive’ intellectual instrument – the anthropological perspective. This perspective allows one to be part of his own culture and, at the same time, to be out of it. One views the activities of his own group as would an anthropologist, observing its tribal rituals, its fears, its conceits, its ethnocentrism. In this way, one is able to recognize when reality begins to drift too far away from the grasp of the tribe.

-Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, pp. 3-4

Out of the culture and in the culture at the same time. This sounds oddly familiar.

John 17:15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

The problem comes when you don’t have the grounding that follows in John’s Gospel:

John 17:17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.

I think the phrase ‘anthropological perspective’ is helpful. It’s a reminder that Christians are to serve, at least in some sense, as sociologists of the culture they find themselves in. Sociologists and tourists.



The Teacher’s Work Should Be Largely Negative

In any case, I believe the teacher’s work should be largely negative. He can’t put the gift into you, but if he finds it there, he can try to keep it from going in an obviously wrong direction. We can learn how not to write, but this is a discipline that does not simply concern writing itself but concerns the whole intellectual life. A mind cleared of false emotion and false sentiment and egocentricity is going to have at least those roadblocks removed from its path. If you don’t think cheaply, then there at least won’t be the quality of cheapness in your writing, even though you may not be able to write well. The teacher can try to weed out what is positively bad, and this should be the aim of the whole college.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, pp. 83-84

Helpful as usual.

Neil Postman made the argument that the job of the teacher is to weed out stupidity: like a doctor, whose business is more the cure of illness than the positive advancement of help, the teacher’s job has to do with fighting against stupidity as much or more than actually cultivating pure intelligence. What is intelligence anyway?

You can’t make someone into a genius, but you can generally discourage them from being an idiot (especially if you catch stupidity early enough). Much of my own education has followed this pattern. Many lessons have slowly done away with a lot of my stupidity. I’m hoping to get rid of a lot more before my time is done.

But the main point is that learning what not to do if often as important as learning what to do.

They Don’t Stifle Enough of Them

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, pp. 84-95

This could perhaps apply to more than just writers (as is the case with pretty much everything Ms. O’Connor says about writers).

Education as a Defense Against Culture

We can locate the origins of this tradition in some fragments of Cicero, who remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present…

It is in the spirit of this tradition – that is, education as a defense against culture – that I wish to speak.

-Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections, p. 22

This isn’t much different from what C.S. Lewis said. I’ve written about that HERE. In short,

Lewis argues that a familiarity with the literature of the past provides readers with a standpoint which gives them critical distance from their own era. Thus, it allows them to see ‘the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.’ The reading of old books enables us to avoid becoming passive captives of the Spirit of the Age by keeping ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds’ (Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life, p. 187).

Another point I’ve made in the past has to do with McLuhan’s ‘rear-view mirror’ analogy. It is pertinent. Some look at things like old books, or old methods of education, and say such things are like looking and living in the rear view mirror. We’ve left those things behind, why look back? But this is not what looking in a rear-view mirror actually shows us.

Looking into a rear-view mirror doesn’t show us the past – it shows us the present and the future. It shows us what is behind us now and what is coming at us in the future. It gives us perspective on where we are, what is nipping at our heels, and what is preparing to overtake us and pass us by.

This is the defense against culture that education should provide; and it starts with reading old books. Someone says, ‘they’re not relevant; you’re living in the past.’ Not quite. We’re actually going to old perspectives so that we can get a new one, or at least a foreign one. We’re being oh so totally pluralistic and democratic – letting dead people speak to us (they are, after all, the most maligned group these days).

Our culture will not defend us from itself. Future cultures cannot defend us from the present one. The past is the only place, so to speak, of finding such a defense – a defense against the tyranny of the present.

Enabling the Student (C.S. Lewis)

Alister McGrath comments on C.S. Lewis’s teaching style:

Lewis did not see it as his responsibility to impart information to his students. He resented and resisted what some then called the ‘gramophone’ model of tuition, in which the tutor simply imparted the knowledge that the student had so signally failed to discover for himself.

Lewis saw himself as enabling the student to develop the skills necessary to uncover and evaluate such knowledge for himself.

C.S. Lewis – A Life, p. 164

This type of teaching philosophy is something I contend for, and something I’ve had to debate and defend for the past couple of years in my studies in Instructional Technology. I always go back to a Wendell Berry quote I came across a while back:

‘Information,’ which once meant that which forms or fashions from within, now means merely ‘data.’ However organized this data may be, it is not shapely or formal or in the true sense in-forming. It is not present where it is needed; if you have to ‘access’ it, you don’t have it. Whereas knowledge moves and forms acts, information is inert. You cannot imagine a debater or a quarterback or a musician performing by ‘accessing information.’ A computer chock full of such information is no more admirable than a head or a book chock full of it (Another Turn of the Crank, p. 96).

My contention is that the true teacher, that is the good teacher, is not someone who sees his or her task as merely imparting information; rather, he or she is the one who sees his or her task as the work of in-forming – that is, actually working to inwardly form the student. Another way of saying that is this: the teacher’s job is not simply to teach the students what to think, but to teach them how to think. In practice, this takes a thousand different forms. For the Literature professor, for example, it means that you don’t simply make your students learn facts about Shakespeare and his plays and sonnets; rather, you teach them to read Shakespeare profitably for themselves. You want them to be able to pick up Hamlet for themselves, even if it’s a year from now, and actually be able to read it and enjoy it. I am having almost daily discussions with a young friend of mine who is taking a summer Lit course at the moment. His daily quizzes involve the remembering of names and places primarily. This is precisely what McGrath says Lewis was against. Teach them to engage the story, not to remember facts about the work. Stop niggling over the data and teach them to engage the actual narrative.

Another example: For the Bible teacher, this means that you aren’t content to teach content; instead you want to impart your students with tools that will enable them to engage the Bible when you are not around. I teach a Sunday School class on a semi-regular basis. I am not the least concerned whether my students can recite all 66 books of the Bible. If they can, that’s great. I’ve never asked them to. I’m more worried about their grasp of the narrative of the Scriptures and their engagement with the Law and the Gospel. If they get those points down, they will essentially be able to engage any passage they come across in their own reading.

I’m tempted to give more examples of how this can play out, but Literature and Bible are my own areas of interest. I’ll leave it to others to make applications in those areas for the time being.

The world around us is in-forming us. Movies are catechisms for our imaginations and impulses. Technology is shaping the way we learn and look at the world. If teachers, especially Christian teachers (and preachers), are content to see themselves as so many shovelers of data, then we are really only digging a hole. If we actually are shoveling something, it probably doesn’t smell too good in terms of pedagogical aroma. Don’t be content to inform. in-FORM.

Education as Economics

In a growing Technopoly, what do we believe education is for? The answers are discouraging, and one of them can be inferred from any television commercial urging the young to stay in school. The commercial will either imply or state explicitly that education will help the persevering student to get a good job. And that’s it. Well, not quite. There is also the idea that we educate ourselves to compete with the Japanese or the Germans in an economic struggle to be number one. Neither of these purposes is, to say the least, grand or inspiring. The story each suggests is that the United States is not a culture but merely an economy, which is the last refuge of an exhausted philosophy of education.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 174

I was not particularly fond of Postman’s solutions to the problem, but his analysis of the modern state of education is profound, especially considering that he wrote the book before the boom of the internet, laptops, tablets, iPads, and even cell phones. The more engrossed our culture becomes in the skills of technology, the more education seeks primarily to ‘equip’ students to perform technical skills. There used to be a particular type of school for that sort of thing – a technical school. We are now on the verge of all schools in some sense becoming technical schools. My own take on the new common core is that it is a leap in that direction, with everything being geared toward testing and ‘practical’ workplace applications.

Today, education is even more wrapped up with, and in, economics than it was when Postman wrote these words in the 90s. I hate the fact that I have to encourage teenagers to go to college simply for economic purposes, but that’s the sad reality. I would much rather tell them that a good liberal arts education will equip them to see the wonder of life and reality than tell them that it is simply a hoop that one must jump through to live a comfortable life.

I do not see any way of stopping this train in modern American culture. We have been headed in this direction for a long time, and the momentum is likely past the point of no return. But perhaps there is hope in the church. We can encourage our children to read simply for the sake of reading, and for the sake of good stories. We can encourage them to study creation (science), mathematics, history and the like simply for the fact that they are interesting and worthwhile, and a part of the story that God is telling, regardless of their so-called ‘practical value.’ We can continue to find roots in our tradition that will temper our need of flashy technological tools for learning. We can temper the bright light show of our culture with the deep roots and simple beauty of Christ.

Instead of flashier, we must go deeper. Instead of focusing purely on pragmatism and economics, we can encourage the goodness of education simply for the sake of knowing God and what he has created. And as we do so, perhaps, at least in the United States, we have a real opportunity to be different from the culture in a way that has not been evident for the past 100 years.

Let me put it this way: rather than seeking education as primarily a means of competing and gaining currency, we must seek it (1) as a means of reminding ourselves that we are small and (2) gaining currency for our souls.

Personal Knowledge: Submitting to Authority and Tradition

To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 53

What follows are some random thoughts that may make zero sense to anyone other than myself.

The Apostle Paul put it this way: ‘Imitate me, as I imitate Christ’ (1 Cor. 11:1); and this way: ‘What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you’ (Phil 4:9). The author of the epistle to the Hebrews put it this way: ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith’ (13:7).  Discipleship is still relevant, and it is relevant for every area in which you seek knowledge.

I actually think that Polanyi’s principle is implied in the 5th Commandment: ‘Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God is giving to you’ (Ex. 20:12). If we are to thrive, we must not buck off authority, culture, and tradition. Chaos does not lead to progress. Progress comes as we advance by building upon the foundation that has already been given to us. This is why the early Reformers were intent to build upon the Church Fathers rather than start from scratch.

The danger here is that authority might become dictatorial authority. But the pre-Catholic Chesterton, who was a Protestant when he wrote Orthodoxy, got it right initially: tradition is the democracy, not dictatorship, of the dead. We give a vote those who come before us, valuing their opinion as much as our own. They are a foundation, but not the Cornerstone. And the application of this principle goes far beyond brute theological matters. It applies to virtually any form of education or enculturation.

Leaving Children on Doorsteps (G.K. Chesterton)

Chesterton says that the modern Western world sees the existence of children as a problem. How does the world then handle said problem? In several ways, one being the following:

The third way, which is unimpeachably Modern, is to imitate Rousseau, who left his baby on the door-step of the Foundling Hospital. It is true that, among the Moderns, it is generally nothing so human or traditional as the Foundling Hospital. The baby is to be left on the door-step of the State Department for Education and Universal Social Adjustment. In short, these people mean, with various degrees of vagueness, that the place of the Family can now be taken by the State.

He wrote that in 1932. He continues,

And if all the babies born in the world were left on the door-step of the Foundling Hospital, the Hospital, and the door-step, would have to be considerably enlarged.

Follow the logic. If it is the job of government to educate all children, then government cannot help but grow. He continues,

Now something like this is what has really happened, in the vague and drifting centralization of our time. The Hospital has been enlarged into the School and then into the State; not the guardian of some abnormal children, but the guardian of all normal children. Modern mothers and fathers, of the emancipated sort, could not do their quick-change acts of bewildering divorce and scattered polygamy, if they did not believe in a big benevolent Grandmother, who could ultimately take over ten million children by very grandmotherly legislation.

Did I mention he wrote this in 1932? He concludes,

Government grows more elusive every day. But the traditions of humanity support humanity; and the central one is this tradition of Marriage. And the essential of it is that a free man and a free woman choose to found on earth the only voluntary state; the only state which creates and which loves its citizens. So long as these real responsible beings stand together, they can survive all the vast changes, deadlocks, and disappointments which make up mere political history. But if they fail each other, it is as certain as death that ‘the State’ will fail them.

Marriage and the Modern Mind, from In Defense of Sanity, pp. 223-224.

A Small Home is a Big Place

In his essay, Turning Inside Out, G.K. Chesterton makes a case for the central importance of education in the home, especially by mothers. The essay is quite timely. He sees a world in which education is seen as a grand task – so grand that it takes great experts and specialists to accomplish it. But he doesn’t think this is the way the world actually is:

Private education [i.e. education in the home] really is universal. Public education can be comparatively narrow. It would really be an exaggeration to say that the schoolmaster who takes his pupils in freehand drawing is training them in all the uses of freedom. It really would be fantastic to say that the harmless foreigner who instructs a class in French or German is talking with all the tongues of men and angels. But the mother dealing with her own daughters in her own home does literally have to deal with all forms of freedom, because she has to deal with all sides of a single human soul. She is obliged, if not to talk with the tongues of men and angels, at least to decide how much she shall talk about angels and how much about men.

In short, if education is really the larger matter, then certainly domestic life is the larger matter; and official or commercial life the lesser matter. It is a mere matter of arithmetic that anything taken from the larger matter will leave it less.

Hence his case for the massive, and massively important, role of mothers in the education of their children.

Modern Western societies would argue that in going out into the world, mothers are leaving the cramped, claustrophobic confines of a small house for the big wide world of freedom and advancement; or the small, tedious interaction with a child or two or three for ‘life out there’ to seek their fortunes on the market and with the masses. Chesterton says this line of thinking is wrong:

Every word that is said about the tremendous importance of trivial nursery habits goes to prove that being a nurse is not trivial. All tends to return of the simple truth that private work is the great one and the public work the small. The human house is a paradox, for it is larger inside than out.

His argument goes like this: society says that the State should be highly, maybe most highly, concerned with education. Mothers have the greatest opportunity to educate their children. And if these premises are true, then why on earth would the state want them separated from their children? That’s the argument (look up the essay to see it fleshed out), but that last quote is the takeaway for me.

When your children are at home, do not let them get the notion, and don’t get the notion yourself, that they are trapped in a small world. The home is, or at least should be, a place filled with God, the heavens, the stars and planets, human history, art, poetry, drama, story, love, joy, and much more. A small home should be a big place. And it ought to produce big people – who will, in turn, create their own small-big homes.

Quotes from the essay Turning Inside Out by G.K. Chesterton, from In Defense of Sanity.