What is a Christian education for?

In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, philosopher James K. A. Smith offers a trenchant criticism of Christian education that assumes it sufficient to equip students with “a Christian perspective” on the world. He writes:

What is a Christian university for? Or what is the end of a Christian education? Please note that this is not the same as asking, “What makes a university Christian?” The most common answer to the latter question is that a Christian education provides “a Christian perspective” on the world, equipping young people to be successful but redemptive contributors to society precisely because they have been apprenticed in the disciplines and professions from the perspective of a Christian worldview. Such an answer to the latter question assumes an implicit answer to the former question, “What is the end of a Christian education?” According to this dominant paradigm, the goal of a Christian education is to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy Leagues and state universities do, but who do them from “a Christian perspective,” and perhaps with the goal of transforming culture or redeeming society. So the Christian university graduates students equipped to take up vocations and careers that are largely the same as the graduates of the state university down the road: we graduate engineers and entrepreneurs, nurses and math teachers, museum curators and architects, social workers and audiologists, and a few philosophers to staff the local Starbucks. Our graduates have the requisite credentials to become productive contributors to society, even leaders, exerting influence on culture. And on top of all this, they are graduating not only with the requisite knowledge, skills, and credentials, but also with a Christian worldview. They have been trained to think about and pursue their vocations “from a Christian perspective.”

But what if that’s not enough? Or worse, what if a Christian perspective turns out to be a way of domesticating the radicality of the gospel? What if the rather abstract formulas of a Christian worldview turn out to be a way to tame and blunt the radical call to be a disciple of the coming kingdom? Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market? By reducing the genius of Christian faith to something like an intellectual framework – a “perspective” or a “worldview” – we can (perhaps unwittingly) unhook Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship. And when that happens, we end up thinking that being a Christian doesn’t radically reconfigure our desires and our wants, our practices and our habits. Sure, we might think that we’re supposed to be moral, but we’ll construe this in terms of personal integrity (e.g., “honest” business dealings) or instrumentalizing existing cultural systems for charitable ends (e.g., “redeeming” exploitative business practices by donating a portion of profits to charity; or generating philanthropy for non-profits that is fueled by the charity of the extremely wealthy). In too many cases, a Christian perspective doesn’t seem to challenge the very configuration of these careers and vocations. To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder “from a Christian perspective.”

How does that happen? I’m suggesting that a Christian education has, for too long, been concerned with information rather than formation; thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they seem themselves as fostering individual “minds in the making.” Hand in hand with that, such an approach reduces Christianity to a denuded intellectual framework that has diminished bite because such an intellectual rendition of the faith doesn’t touch our core passions. This is because such intellectualization of Christianity allows it to be unhooked from the thick practices of the church. When the Christianity of “Christian education” is reduced to the intellectual elements of a Christian worldview or a Christian perspective, the result is that Christianity is turned “into a belief system available to the individual without mediation by the church.” “Such a strategy,” [Stanley] Hauerwas notes, “assumes that what makes a Christian a Christian is holding certain beliefs that help us better understand the human condition, to make sense of our experience.” Such a transformation of Christian faith into a belief system unhooks Christianity from the the practices of Christian worship, and thus keeps its distance from the radical revisioning of society that is implicit in Christian liturgy. Christianity “is not beliefs about God plus behavior. We are Christians not because of what we believe but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices.” But the domestication of Christianity as a perspective does little to disturb or reorient our practices; rather, it too often becomes a way of affirming the configurations of culture that we find around us – we just do what everyone else does “plus Jesus.” Or, to quote some favorite lingo, our Christian schools will be committed to “excellence” – which turns out to be what other schools value, but we add some Jesus-piety to the mix. And all the while the liturgies of the mall and the military-entertainment complex are making us the kind of people who desire their kingdom, even though we might be thinking “from a Christian perspective.”

What’s the alternative? If Christian education is not merely about acquiring a Christian perspective or a Christian worldview, what is its goal? Its goal, I’m suggesting, is the same as the goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor. If the goal of Christian worship and discipleship is the formation of a peculiar people, then the goal of Christian education should be the same. If something like Christian universities are to exist, they should be configured as extensions of the mission of the church – as chapels that extend and amplify what’s happening at the heart of the cathedral, at the altar of Christian worship. In short, the task of Christian education needs to be reconnected to the thick practices of the church.

The real humanities crisis

Gary Gutting argues that the real humanities crisis is not a decline of study so much as “one of harsh economy reality”:

Humanities majors on average start earning $31,000 per year and move to an average of $50,000 in their middle years. (The figures for writers and performing artists are much lower.) By contrast, business majors start with salaries 26 percent higher than humanities majors and move to salaries 51 percent higher.

But this data does not show that business majors earn more because they majored in business. Business majors may well be more interested in earning money and so accept jobs that pay well even if they are not otherwise fulfilling, whereas people interested in the humanities and the arts may be willing to take more fulfilling but lower-paying jobs. College professors, for example, often know that they could have made far more if they had gone to law school or gotten an M.B.A., but are willing to accept significantly lower pay to teach a subject they love.

This talk of “a subject they love” brings us to the real crisis, which is both economic and cultural (or even moral). The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive. Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer.

Or rather, it has a great deal to offer but only for a privileged elite (the cultural parallel to our economic upper class) who have had the ability and luck to reach the highest levels of humanistic achievement. If you have (in Pierre Bourdieu’s useful term) the “cultural capital” to gain a tenured professorship at a university, play regularly in a major symphony orchestra or write mega best sellers, you can earn an excellent living doing what you love. Short of that, you must pursue your passion on the side.

Teaching should be an obvious solution for many humanities majors. But secure and well-paying tenure-track jobs are disappearing, with at least half of college teachers now part-time adjuncts, many of whom, even when they combine several academic jobs, fail to make a living wage. As for non-college teaching, the sad state of so many of our K-12 schools — with their unprepared and undisciplined students, overcrowding, lack of funding and obtuse, test-obsessed bureaucracies — make teaching there a path to frustration and burnout.

The situation is even worse for those who want to produce the literary, musical and artistic works that sustain our humanistic culture. Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others — poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists — must either have a partner whose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.

We are rightly concerned about the plight of the economic middle class, which finds it harder and harder to find good jobs, as wealth shifts to the upper class. But we have paid scant attention to the cultural middle class, those with strong humanist interests and abilities who can’t reach the very highest levels, which provide almost all the cultural rewards of meaningful work.

Read the whole article to hear Gutting’s specific suggestions for improving the situation. I was especially interested in the suggestion pertaining to education:

We could open up a large number of fulfilling jobs for humanists if (as I’ve previously suggested) we developed an elite, professional faculty in our K-12 schools. Provide good salaries and good working conditions, and many humanists would find teaching immensely rewarding. Meeting the needs of this part of the cultural middle class could, in fact, be the key to saving our schools. At the same time, colleges should rethink their dependence on adjuncts, who often differ from regular faculty members more in their poor pay and work conditions than in academic quality. If adjuncts don’t meet the standards to be part of the regular faculty, they shouldn’t be hired. If they do, they should be treated the same.

The Real Humanities Crisis, The New York TImes

No more required academic essays?

Because college students hate writing essays, and because professors hate grading them, Rebecca Schuman argues in SLATE that the required college essay should come to an end altogether. A professor herself, Schuman relays the frustration she feels when attempting to help her students write well, ultimately concluding that it is a hopeless endeavor.

Everybody in college hates papers. Students hate writing them so much that they buy, borrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.

Nobody hates writing papers as much as college instructors hate grading papers (and no, having a robot do it is not the answer). Students of the world: You think it wastes 45 minutes of your sexting time to pluck out three quotes from The Sun Also Rises, summarize the same four plot points 50 times until you hit Page 5, and then crap out a two-sentence conclusion? It wastes 15 hours of my time to mark up my students’ flaccid theses and non sequitur textual “evidence,” not to mention abuse of the comma that should be punishable by some sort of law—all so that you can take a cursory glance at the grade and then chuck the paper forever.

What’s more, if your average college-goer does manage to read through her professor’s comments, she will likely view them as a grievous insult to her entire person, abject proof of how this cruel, unfeeling instructor hates her. That sliver of the student population that actually reads comments and wants to discuss them? They’re kids whose papers are good to begin with, and often obsessed with their GPAs. I guarantee you that every professor you know has given an A to a B paper just to keep a grade-grubber off her junk. (Not talking to you, current students! You’re all magnificent, and going to be president someday. Please do not email me.)

When I was growing up, my mother—who, like me, was a “contingent” professor—would sequester herself for days to grade, emerging Medusa-haired and demanding of sympathy. But the older I got, the more that sympathy dissipated: “If you hate grading papers so much,” I’d say, “there’s an easy solution for that.” My mother, not to be trifled with when righteously indignant (that favored state of the professoriate), would snap: “It’s an English class. I can’t not assign papers.”

Mom, friends, educators, students: We don’t have to assign papers, and we should stop. We need to admit that the required-course college essay is a failure. The baccalaureate is the new high-school diploma: abjectly necessary for any decent job in the cosmos. As such, students (and their parents) view college as professional training, an unpleasant necessity en route to that all-important “piece of paper.” Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers. It’s time to declare unconditional defeat.

Most students enter college barely able to string three sentences together—and they leave it that way, too. With protracted effort and a rhapsodically engaged instructor, some may learn to craft a clunky but competent essay somewhere along the way. But who cares? My fellow humanists insist valiantly that (among other more elevated reasons) writing humanities papers leads to the crafting of sharp argumentative skills, and thus a lifetime of success in a number of fields in which we have no relevant experience. But my friends who actually work in such fields assure me that most of their colleagues are borderline-illiterate. After all, Mark Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook Friendster profile bragged “i don’t read” (sic), and look at him.

Of course it would be better for humanity if college in the United States actually required a semblance of adult writing competency. But I have tried everything. I held a workshop dedicated to avoiding vague introductions (“The idea and concept of the duality of sin and righteousness has been at the forefront of our understanding of important concepts since the beginning of time.”) The result was papers that started with two incoherent sentences that had nothing to do with each other. I tried removing the introduction and conclusion altogether, and asking for a three-paragraph miniessay with a specific argument—what I got read like One Direction fan fiction.

I’ve graded drafts and assigned rewrites, and that helps the good students get better, but the bad students, the ones I’m trying to help, just fail to turn in any drafts at all. Meanwhile, I come up for air and realize that with all this extra grading, I’m making 75 cents an hour.

I’m not calling for the end of all papers—just the end of papers in required courses. Some students actually like writing, and let those blessed young souls be English majors, and expound on George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to their hearts’ content, and grow up to become writers, huzzah. But for the common good, leave everyone else out of it.

Instead of essays, required humanities courses (which I support, for all the reasons William Cronon, Martha Nussbaum, and Paulo Freire give) should return to old-school, hardcore exams, written and oral. You cannot bullshit a line-ID. Nor can you get away with only having read one page of the book when your professor is staring you down with a serious question. And best of all, oral exams barely need grading: If you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is immediately and readily manifest (not to mention, it’s profoundly schadenfroh when a student has to look me in the face and admit he’s done no work).

Plus, replacing papers with rigorous, old-school, St. John’s-style tribulations also addresses an issue humanities-haters love to belabor: Paper-grading is so subjective, and paper-writing so easy to fake, that this gives the humanities their unfortunate reputation as imprecise, feelings-centered disciplines where there are “no right answers.” So let’s start requiring some right answers.

Sure, this quashes the shallow pretense of expecting undergraduates to engage in thoughtful analysis, but they have already proven that they will go to any lengths to avoid doing this. Call me a defeatist, but honestly I’d be happy if a plurality of American college students could discern even the skeletal plot of anything they were assigned. With more exams and no papers, they’ll at least have a shot at retaining, just for a short while, the basic facts of some of the greatest stories ever recorded. In that short while, they may even develop the tiniest inkling of what Martha Nussbaum calls “sympathetic imagination”—the cultivation of our own humanity, and something that unfolds when we’re touched by stories of people who are very much unlike us. And that, frankly, is more than any essay will ever do for them.

– “The End of the College Essay,” SLATE

Teaching for enduring excitement

Philosopher Gary Gutting on why he teaches:

I’ve concluded that the goal of most college courses should not be knowledge but engaging in certain intellectual exercises.   For the last few years I’ve had the privilege of teaching a seminar to first-year Honors students in which we read a wide range of wonderful texts, from Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov.  We have lively discussions that require a thorough knowledge of the text, and the students write excellent papers that give close readings of particular passages.  But the half-life of their detailed knowledge is probably far less than a year.  The goal of the course is simply that they have had close encounters with some great writing.

What’s the value of such encounters?  They make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name.  They may not enjoy every book we read, but they enjoy some of them and learn that—and how—this sort of thing (Greek philosophy, modernist literature) can be enjoyable.  They may never again exploit the possibility, but it remains part of their lives, something that may start to bud again when they see a review of a new translation of Homer or a biography of T. S. Eliot, or when “Tartuffe” or “The Seagull” in playing at a local theater.

College education is a proliferation of such possibilities: the beauty of mathematical discovery, the thrill of scientific understanding, the fascination of historical narrative, the mystery of theological speculation. We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls.

The fruits of college teaching should be measured not by tests but by the popularity of museums, classical concerts, art film houses, book discussion groups, and publications like Scientific American, the New York Review of Books, The Economist, and The Atlantic, to cite just a few. These are the places where our students reap the benefits of their education.

* * *

It’s our intellectual culture—physicists and poets, psychologists and musicians, philosophers and visual artists—that above all generates criticism and creativity.   Those not tuned in to this culture lack the primary source for new ways of seeing and thinking. Ezra Pound said, “Literature is news that stays news,” and the same is true for all great humanistic and scientific achievements. It may be, of course, that many employers do not really want critical and creative employees.  Even so, engagement with intellectual culture is a source of immense satisfaction for many people in their personal lives.  A democratic distaste of elitism leads many people to regard such engagement as merely the peculiar preference of some individuals.  But everyone who has a capacity for enjoying intellectual culture should at least have the opportunity to do so.  (This is the lesson of the play and film, “Educating Rita.”)  I’ve come to see college teaching as providing not knowledge but activities that open the door to this enjoyment.

– New York Times: Why Do I Teach?

Who ruined the humanities?

David Brooks notes, “A half-century ago, 14 percent of college degrees were awarded to people who majored in the humanities. Today, only 7 percent of graduates in the country are humanities majors.” Here is a round-up of recent writing that explores the decline. I begin with my favorite article:

Wall Street Journal | July 12, 2013
Lee Siegel, Who Ruined the Humanities?

Be sure to read the rest:

The Weekly Standard | June 17, 2013
Peter Augustine Lawler, Defending the Humanities

New York Times | June 20, 2013
David Brooks, The Humanist Vocation

New York Times | June 24, 2013Stanley Fish, A Case for the Humanities Not Made

Wall Street Journal | June 30, 2013
Peter Berkowitz, Illiberal Education and the ‘Heart of the Matter’

The Weekly Standard | July 8, 2013
Peter Berkowitz, Does Harvard Hate Humanities?

New Republic | July 17, 2013
Rosanna Warren, The Decline of the Humanities – and Civilization

New Republic | August 20, 2013
Christina H. Paxon, The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities

The Chronicle of Higher Education | August 26, 2013
Donald L. Drakeman, The Highly Useful Crisis in the Humanities

Modern politics in the shadow of Augustine

%JThe President’s Lecture Series was established to give Princeton University’s faculty an opportunity to learn about the work of their colleagues in other disciplines and to share their research with the University community. On April 9, 2013, Eric Gregory, Professor of Religion and author of Politics and the Order of Love: An Augustinian Ethic of Democratic Citizenship, delivered a lecture, “Modern Politics in the Shadow of Augustine,” that’s worth watching.

Other lectures to watch:

  • Alexander Nehamas, Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Literature: Because It Was He, Because It Was I” The Good of Friendship. RealPlayer:  56K, 350K  | Windows Media Player: 56K, 350K
  • Claudia Johnson, the Murray Professor of English Literature: “Jane Austen and War.” WebMedia Streaming Video: RealPlayer: 56K, 350K | Windows Media Player: 56K, 350K
  • Anthony Appiah, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and the University Center for Human Values: “The Ethics of Identity.” WebMedia Streaming Video: RealPlayer: 56K, 300K | Windows Media Player: 56K, 300K

The special obligation of teachers

EducationLouise Cowan, age 96, is a professor emeritus at the University of Dallas and a co-founder of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. In February Dr. Cowan gave a lecture at her namesake’s Cowan Center for Education, “The Year of the Teacher Inaugural Event.” Excerpt:

Ordinary people teach others in all sorts of ways. But though such mentors may instruct, they are not teachers, dedicated persons who profess as their lifework the twofold task of forming the young for their own sake and, even more importantly, for society’s. Teachers are instructing the young then not primarily to enable their charges to succeed in life but to preserve and extend the heritage of a civilization—to pass on what is culturally valuable. Nor do these other instructors that one encounters in ordinary life have to face their pupils as a teacher does in their most disconcerting form—as a classroom of agile young opponents bent on eluding instruction if at all possible. And indeed the classroom teacher is engaged in what might be called a battle. The true opponent of course is not the pupils themselves but ignorance; though at times it must seem otherwise. No one but a professional teacher has to undertake the task of civilizing young barbarians who after a prescribed length of time will dutifully move on to the next stage, leaving the field clear for a succeeding group—who, as the others did, will look up at the teacher guardedly, taking the measure of this official person. They know that she will attempt to instruct them in topics and skills the older generation considers valuable unless they can prevent it.

Cowan argues that education took a wrong turn when the focus shifted from virtues to values:

Sometime back in the 20th century, which now seems like another epoch completely, we started substituting the word “value” for the older word “virtue.” Virtue, from the Latin word virtus, the Old French vertu, means strength. What is implied in its American usage, of course, is strength of character. There is a moral law to which all people (of whatever religion) are subject, if they are to have a civilization instead of either anarchy or tyranny; and though political freedom does not concern the salvation of souls (as does religion), it does concern, as our forefathers noted, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” To have a free society requires that we uphold and practice certain public virtues.

We have been encouraged by psychological and social scientists to speak of our ideals and virtues, even our ideas of justice, as “values,” as though they were like trinkets that we happen to value. As a matter of fact, we have felt almost obligated for the past century to view our ideals as values, important to ourselves but not necessarily universally desirable. Thus democracy, freedom, justice—these may only be our “values,” and our preferences—we are made to believe—should not be considered better than those of people who have different views. The intellectual world and the media have been so fearful of American bigotry and intolerance that they have had to make it seem that all our convictions are related only to ourselves. We ought to give material help to other nations, they believe, supply them with food, weapons, and instruments, but not intrude on their system of values. Thus all our noble aspirations, our philosophical ideals which have been inherited from the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans, and tempered through the long centuries of European medieval and renaissance thought—these have become, in public parlance, mere “values.” We do not hear the word virtue in public any more.

Thus the universal principles of freedom and the virtues that the founding fathers considered universal are reduced to moral preferences and considered to be valuable only if, pragmatically, they “work.” But, as I am maintaining, throughout Western history until fairly recently the moral law has not been thought to be merely subjective. It has been considered to be written on the human heart, universally valuable, the inerrant guide to civilization, something for all people, worth striving and even dying for.

Cowan addresses the special obligation of teachers:

For teachers are the representatives of a culture. Their task is primarily to ensure the passing on of the wisdom—the knowledge and virtues—of a people. We mistake our educational aims when we consider our task to be primarily the development of the student: that is only a secondary purpose: the primary one being the preservation of that body of knowledge that has produced the precious enterprise called civilization. The enemy of education is barbarism; the teacher’s duty is thus to fight off that ever-present menace by preserving and transmitting the heritage of freedom and virtue that has come to us from the past but which is always open to new insights and to new communities of people. We educationists tend to forget this aspect of what we do and to place all our emphasis on student development, which is a by-product of the primary aim. Our sacred bond as a people is the public school teacher’s greatest concern. (Universities, of course, have a different aim: theirs is the ongoing of knowledge itself.)

Teachers, then, should be educated in ways quite different from those in which most have been schooled for almost a century. They need an education in the best that has been thought in the long Western recording if, as I’m arguing, they are the conveyors of our culture. They need to be considered dedicated professionals who have committed themselves to the preservation and transmission of a people’s body of knowledge. They don’t have to know it all, of course; but they have to know of its existence and to believe in its transmission of what Faulkner called the “old verities.” Other motives, such as the discovery of new knowledge, the development of the student’s personal talents, the amelioration of social ills—these are byproducts that may or may not ensue from the primary task.

What stands between the West, then, and the barbarism that constantly threatens the human project is the work of Homer and Sophocles, Plato and Dante, Augustine and Shakespeare, Newton and Einstein and hundreds of other thinkers. Teachers don’t have to study all these writings directly; but they do have to know that they exist and are still relevant. And they have to have sampled enough of this serious body of knowledge to experience the pride and humility of knowing that we stand upon the shoulders of giants. In T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” when he posits someone remarking that we know so much more now than they did, he replies, “Yes, and they are what we know.”

What should teachers offer in the “veritable storm of information” that besieges our society? Cowan:

In this world, the imagination will have to suffice; language will have to do the work of our senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. But we teachers, we gurus, we nurturers of souls will still exist. Above all else, however, we shall have to teach what it is to be human, what it is to love parents and friends, to revere our nation and the world—what it means to have feelings and sentiments, convictions, faith, hope, and love—We shall have to teach the virtues.

And for this, as guides, we shall need to be shaped by the great thinkers who have gone before us, which it is the business of our schools to provide. Teacher education must be radically changed, for teachers are the medium through which the present makes contact with the past, while anticipating the future. Without properly educated teachers the human project sinks into barbarism.

Dostoevsky once wrote that when men stop believing in God, many of them will become criminals. I’m saying that when we stop teaching the highest and noblest aspects of our past, many of our most idealistic young will become mass murderers, whatever kind of weapon they use. More important than banning assault weapons then is the recovery of our Western documents (I hesitate to call them simply the Great Books, for that name has become something of a cliché, suggesting intellectual snobbery.)

As Alexis de Tocqueville commented in the early nineteenth century, American democracy is something that doesn’t come naturally, so unique that it has to be taught. And I would add that it is taught by teachers who know of the existence of this great hoard of wisdom that is our heritage and who have studied some of it themselves.

The value of human life directly depends on our sense of inheriting noble ideals to which we ourselves must measure up— presented chiefly in schools, not simply in churches or homes. America put all its hopes for the succession of democratic ideals from generation to generation into its schooling. Its educational institutions, then, represent not the oikos, the nurturing life of families, but the polis, public life. Democracy, as I said, has to be taught. Only the instruction of our young in wisdom and virtue can sustain the remarkable system of government envisioned by our founders. And the only possible quality control resides not in schools systems, not in constant testing, but in the education of teachers.


The generalist versus the specialist

Jack Miles, a professor of English and Religious Studies with the University of California-Irving and author of GOD: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, wrote an essay in which he addresses three differences between an academic and an intellectual:

  1. An academic has and wants an audience disproportionately made up of teachers and students, while an intellectual has and wants teachers and students in his audience only in proportion to their place in the general educated public.
  2. An academic is a specialist who has disciplined his curiosity to operate largely within a designated area, while an intellectual is a generalist who deliberately does otherwise.
  3. An academic is concerned with substance and suspicious of style, while an intellectual is suspicious of any substance that purports to transcend or defy style.

Here is an excerpt regarding the second point:

It is not that, as an intellectual, one can or should seek to subordinate everybody else’s knowledge to one’s own grand purposes. Even G. W. F. Hegel arrived too late to do that, and no one has tried since. What is called for, paradoxically, is less a store of knowledge than a “store” of ignorance. By forcing oneself to go where one is oneself the blinking beginner rather than the seasoned expert, one learns to turn one’s own narrow intellectual sophistication into a broadened version of itself. A generalist is someone with a keener-than-average awareness of how much there is to be ignorant about. In this way, generalization as a style of writing is decidedly different from mere simplification or popularization. If a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, a generalist is unapologetically someone who knows less and less about more and more. Both forms of knowledge are genuine and legitimate. Someone who acquires a great deal of knowledge about one field grows in knowledge, but so does someone who acquires a little knowledge about many fields. Knowing more and more about less and less tends to breed confidence. Knowing less and less about more and more tends to breed humility. Popularization, which certainly has its place, conveys the specialist’s confidence but also his or her isolation. Generalization conveys the generalist’s diffidence but also his or her connectedness and openness to further connections. Something like this, to repeat, is the core difference between the academic and the intellectual in action on the page.

Read the entire essay: “Three Differences Between an Academic and an Intellectual: What Happens to the Liberal Arts When They Are Kicked Off Campus?” (Cross Currents).

What makes a good reader?

In his Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov offers this exercise for students:

Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

1.  The reader should belong to a book club.
2.  The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
3.  The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
4.  The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
5.  The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
6.  The reader should be a budding author.
7.  The reader should have imagination.
8.  The reader should have memory.
9. The reader should have a dictionary.
10.  The reader should have some artistic sense.

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.

On the value and need of re-reading:

Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

Vladimir Nabokov on What Makes a Good Reader (Brain Pickings)