On Necromancy as a Liberal Art

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Morning has arrived on a cool, late October day. The Luther College campus is shrouded with a thick fog that simultaneously obscures the view of the hillside aflame with autumnal maples and muffles all sounds. The stillness in the air is both calming and invigorating. It is the middle of Fall Semester–and the middle of my favorite season of all. It is a time, for me at least, ripe for reflection and preparation. One of the constant subjects of such reflection is the task before us as faculty at Luther College-a college of the liberal arts and sciences.

Over the past couple of years, the news in higher education circles has been full of warnings about “disruptors”-social forces that, we are told, are going to change the landscape of higher education and, perhaps, require fundamental change in the nature of colleges like ours. While such “disruptors,” I believe, do require some attention on our part, I cannot join in the chorus of lamentation and hand-wringing. I have, on the other hand, every confidence that by standing firm on and even strengthening our commitment to the liberal arts and what such an education truly can provide students, we can weather these storms, and become a stronger and more effective institution. Flexibility is in the nature of a liberal arts education, and I am here to add my voice to those of my colleagues who wish to promote the vibrant learning community that Luther College is.

One of the things that particularly captures my enthusiasm about teaching at Luther is, as noted in one of my previous blog posts at Ideas and Creations, leading first-year Paideia students through discussions of works of literature, philosophy, art, music and history. In teaching this class, I often tell my students that one of my goals is to help them learn necromancy. Robert Harrison, a professor of Italian and French Literature at Stanford University, and host of a podcast I greatly enjoy and highly recommend (Entitled Opinions), often says that if we are to have any hope of the health and well-being of a society, its members must not neglect “communication with the dead.” By this he does not mean that we should be employing necromancers, as much as the Dark Lord Sauron might like us to. Rather, he simply means that we must never sever the ties that connect us to the thinkers, authors and artists of the past if we wish to flourish as a society, because they have exceptionally valuable things to say to us.

Harrison’s provocative statement resonates deeply with me and, indeed, with the very thinkers of the past he calls us to listen to. Among these is, for me, C. S. Lewis, who once wrote a wonderful piece as an introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” that is often referred to as “On the Reading of Old Books.” In this piece, Lewis plainly states the importance of listening to the voices of the past that have made their way to us via the medium of print if we are to have anything approaching a sound perspective on the present. Just as we cannot afford, if we are to grow as thinkers and as individuals, to solely pay attention to and participate in the echo chamber of those who already agree with us socially, politically or culturally, we cannot grow in these ways if we set aside the voices of the past in literature, philosophy or the arts.

When we fail to seek a solid acquaintance with these voices of the past, Lewis argues, we stand the risk of being unable to understand ourselves well – and to see weaknesses in our thinking or, more broadly speaking, in our society. I think he’s exactly right… and the trend I see today regarding the willingness to consider points of view that are separated from us by distances measured in time rather than space is not a positive one.

If we live insulated from those voices, (the voices of the dead, to use Harrison’s imagery) we are prone to greater and greater degrees of blindness about our ways of thinking about each other, about God, about the world, and about the solutions to society’s ills. We become more and more easily convinced that we have risen to the pinnacle of understanding, and that our worldview lacks any shortcomings or flaws. We think so highly of ourselves that we are liable to regard anything coming down to us from prior generations as useless or irrelevant – because we have progressed so far, and because “life just looks different today.” We become completely unable to hear anything that doesn’t fit our own preconceived notions of what is right, just and important. We become arrogant about our present time and current ideas. This notion is also, as Lewis argues, frightfully short-sighted.

Often our educational system pushes students (and us faculty) into modes of thinking and existence that exacerbate this tendency. We have people arguing that STEM education is the only worthwhile education (as a faculty member in a STEM discipline, quite honestly this notion is both laughable and damaging) and that we must continually be moving forward, forward, forward, leaving the past to eat our dust, embracing everything that is new and innovative, and yearning for more. Our very educational system sometimes treats the past as an afterthought, rather than as the foundation for all that we have accomplished and the base from which we move forward.

Every year I have students in class who struggle with the idea of reading anything much older than they are. This is by no means the NORM among my students, but every so often I run into students with a readily observable ambivalence about reading works that are very old at all, and who argue that, because those books are old, the authors really can’t have much to say to them and certainly have no good ideas that can practically be applied to their lives. These same students often raise the concern in the other direction – that they “just can’t relate to the author’s point of view.”

This latter concept is intimately connected to the former, but I find myself much more sympathetic to it–because I do believe it’s probably quite true, given the literary diet that the students have likely consumed for most of their lives, and at least some of the responsibility for that lies in people other than the students themselves. That said, it can be a struggle to open the eyes of those who are (in varying degrees) willingly keeping them shut. But, as Lewis writes in his essay, this is the job of the teacher… if only most teachers today understood this to be their job, and weren’t hampered by misdirected “outcome-based” educational standards that tend to hamper every effort to truly educate the student. I believe I speak for most of my faculty colleagues at Luther when I say that our aim is to provide our students with a fuller experience of education with every fiber of our being.

The view I have through my office window–that view of trees in various states of undress, and a fog-covered campus–has a timelessness about it. So, too, do the works we aim to set before our students in Paideia. By engaging significantly with these works, and contemplating deeply the issues presented in them, it is my hope that we are able to help students to grasp more firmly the connections we all have to those who have gone before us and the issues they wrestled with, and to help them learn to ask good questions of themselves and the things they read as they communicate with the dead. By helping students become good necromancers, I am ever hopeful that we can help them develop a solid foundation in our first year common course from which to spring forth into the rest of their four years as learners at Luther, with flexibility, confidence and integrity.

To See and to Know

While thinking about the upcoming semester (the cycles of the year go on and on, and I sit here today repeating the cycle once more as a new crop of students is about to break forth on the Luther College campus) I happened upon this little anecdote recorded by Ezra Pound in his  ABC of Reading:

“No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:

A post-graduate student equipped with honours and dip­lomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: ‘That’s only a sunfish.’

Agassiz: ‘I know that. Write a description of it.’

After a few minutes the student returned with the des­cription of the lchthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish. The student produced a four-page essay.

Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.”

This story — concerning what it is to see and to know — reminds me a great deal of something from Walker Percy that I’ve blogged on before.  As much as one might be able to give a Latin name of a biological specimen, and even give precise expression to scientific measurements of various quantities that characterize its physical form, this is but part of the picture.  My family and I were driving home this past weekend from some time away, and en route Heather and I at one point were talking about the beauty of the southeastern Minnesota landscape and the many shades of green we saw in the hills and forests around us.  One could obtain a spectrograph, and point it at the landscape, and create a plot of the intensities of the green light observed as a function of wavelength or frequency.  Would that capture the beauty of the range of color?   It would give us partial information, sufficient for some things, to be certain – perhaps even important information for some applications.  What such precise measurement lacks, however, is a human quality that, for example, the words of the poet or the musical theme that the composer can supply, each giving voice to their perception of that glimpse of nature.  As human beings we need this beauty — and we need to express our reaction to it every bit as much as to express the results of our scientific explorations.  We need the humane as well as the scientific — the poetic as well as the precise.

Flannery O’Connor on Teaching Literature

flannery_600I Just got through reading a fabulous essay by Flannery O’Connor on teaching literature entitled “Fiction is a Subject with a History – It Should Be Taught That Way.”  If only Ms. O’Connor could see today’s situation…her words ring powerfully true today just as, I suspect, they did 50 years ago when she wrote them.  Among the choice passages that struck me this evening in her essay are these:

“Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning, but that is a part of the problem with which I am not equipped to deal. The devil of Educationism that possesses us is the kind that can be cast out only by prayer and fasting… No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail.”

Wow.  1963?  2013?

I need to ruminate on this quite a bit longer, but this paragraph and the entire essay bears thinking long and hard about.  What is it that we are trying to do in educating children – and, for those of us in higher education, educating young adults?  To what degree are we to be guides, and to what degree facilitators of their interests, letting the educational process go wherever they seem to want to wander?  I’m going to revisit this essay on this blog, but after reading through it for the first time, this paragraph kept ringing in my ears… and I still have trouble placing her words in their proper historical context.  They simply seem to be speaking to us about ourselves today.

On Writing Well in the Twitterverse

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Friends,

What do you think, in terms of the ability to write more lengthy prose, is the impact of the fact that today’s incoming first-year students have grown up with Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones? In addition to the shortcomings that No Child Left Behind assessment-heavy education has left them with, students whose writing is most commonly done in 140-character chunks and who think in terms of “like” buttons really struggle to put together a few pages that contain a solidly argued proposition. As may be apparent from this query, I am thinking a fair bit these past couple weeks about the challenges we who teach writing face. There is hope, of course – but the work is certainly cut out for those of us who teach writing in any formal manner.

On the Writer’s Responsibility and the Weight of Words

writerOne of the things that I have been mulling over during the past few months as I anticipate returning to the classroom after a year’s sabbatical, and, in particular, to the Paideia classroom, is how I might best help students acquire an appreciation for the weightiness of writing.     I will be quite satisfied, if, in the course of my teaching, I am able to pass on to students the concept that writing isn’t merely an activity that is sometimes necessary to perform in order to obtain a grade in a class, and is not simply a personal act – but is an act that unites writer and reader in a manner that has far greater significance.

One thing I hope my students can grasp is that when one writes, one writes not merely for oneself, but for the one who will ultimately read the words written. Because the reader’s thoughts are guided and impressions are formed on the basis of the written word, the author has a subtle degree of power over the reader.  Now that power is not in any sense absolute, to be sure, but its existence in the reader-writer exchange does imply an ethical responsibility on the part of the author to wield that power with respect for the reader (and for truth).   I strongly suspect that the idea of such a responsibility is quite foreign to many students, so one of the first things I explicitly tell them each Fall is that writing is no private act, but requires them to think carefully about what they’re saying and how they say it. I don’t know enough about contemporary secondary education Language Arts methods to be able to point to a cause in high school English pedagogy for the lack of a sense in students’ minds of this responsibility.  I would definitely appreciate feedback from any who know more about this than I.  Is it possible they’re never taught it explicitly?

I wonder, too, whether a contributing factor is an emphasis in today’s English classrooms on the ‘personal essay’ as the primary form of writing.  One thing that crops up continually in my students’ writing about texts we read in Paideia is examples of essays that seem to be a hybrid between book report and diary entry.  Again, I’m not sure this is due to explicit emphasis in the classrooms they’ve been part of, but whatever the case,  this kind of writing is frequently what I see in their first papers, and requires attention to undo.   When a student’s default writing mode is ‘personal reflection’, opinion is king, and evidence is irrelevant.  (as an aside… if one assigns such ‘personal essays’, which we don’t in our course, how does one even evaluate such an essay for grading purposes?  I suppose one can look only at style and grammatical correctness, but… ugh.)  The emphasis on ‘personal essays’ also might help explain students’ perplexed looks when their first paper receives a ‘C’ for lacking evidence or a hard-to-find thesis.   I’ve had students question whether the reason their paper received a lower-than-expected grade (which for many is an A-) was that I disagreed with their opinion – good teaching opportunity, I suppose.

One nice thing about Paideia, as contrasted with the typical freshman comp course, is that we don’t do anything with the ‘personal essay’ format, but spend the whole fall semester working on what might be called the ‘academic essay’ – thesis-driven argumentative essays based on texts that we read.  As such, then, we can from day one address the need of the writer to responsibly and respectfully craft an argument to defend a proposition- an argument whose persuasiveness is not found in the personality of the writer, but in the choice of the evidence, the explication of the text and the proposition being argued for, etc.  As an outsider to the art of rhetoric (in professional training, anyway) it’s a joy to be able to pass on to students that this responsibility, and the broad strokes description of the academic essay are directly applicable even to something as arcane as elementary particle physics, my own research field.  Whether one is describing the relationship between Beowulf and Wiglaf at the end of the epic poem, or the interpretation of a particular decay mode of a system of quarks bound together that we have observed in the laboratory, the task at hand is largely the same.  This methodological synergy between the sciences and humanities is really what floats my boat and makes teaching Paidea a real pleasure.   The responsibilities of writers across the board are of one piece.  Ultimately we write about, and aim to persuade our readers of, what we believe is true about a given subject… and crafting articles and essays in which we undertake this act is no idle task.

A Thought from Walker Percy

I picked up a couple of volumes of Walker Percy essays a few months ago as I started thinking about returning to Luther after my sabbatical, and in particular as I was thinking about teaching in Paideia again.  I had also picked up some Richard Weaver on rhetoric (with a hat tip to the guys at the Christian Humanist podcast) and I’ve been moseying through these volumes as time permits.

One of the first essays I read from Percy was “The Delta Factor”, in which Percy looks at the question of (in his time – though it is to some degree a phenomenon that transcends time) the modern malaise that manifests itself in dissatisfaction with life or oneself, alienation from oneself and others, ennui, etc… the book itself, The Message in the Bottle, is a collection of his essays dedicated to the study of, as he puts it, “man’s strange behavior and man’s strange gift of language, and [...] how understanding the latter might help in the understanding of the former.”  (9)

abbyflatfishPercy begins this essay by listing a number of probing questions that could very well lead to excellent discussion concerning the nature of man, our interactions with others, our language, our culture, etc.; many of these questions set out a contradiction – much in the same way Andy Rooney started off his segments on 60 Minutes with a “Have you ever wondered…”   There are some really great questions in that collection, but a couple that stick out are these:

“Why is it harder to study a dogfish on a dissecting board in a zoological laboratory in college where one has proper instruments and a proper light than it would be if one were marooned on an island and, having come upon a dogfish on the beach and having no better instrument than a pocket knife or bobby pin, one began to explore the dogfish?”

“Why is it all but impossible to read Shakespeare in school now but will not be fifty years from now when the Western world has fallen into ruins and a survivor sitting among the vines of the Forty-second Street library spies a moldering book and opens it to The Tempest?” (5)

Yes, Mr. Percy, why is that?  What is it about us that these things are such striking illustrations of something we’d probably all agree is true?  What has happened to us as a culture that the fascination with either the natural world, or appreciation for the literary genius of a Shakespeare (or Eliot, or Kafka, or Wordsworth, or Dante) is either absent or deeply suppressed?  Why is it that the exploration of the human condition in a dusty old work by an unknown Anglo Saxon poet isn’t worth our time?  Why the study of a Turner or Constable land and seascape is something that elicits yawns?

Is the cause of this in our society in general?  Among our educators?   Parents?  Genes?  One certainly can identify a number of potential targets in Percy’s questions – and the questions he asks should set us pondering for a spell.

The picture I’ve included as an inset in this post is from the recent trip my oldest and I took back to Washington state to visit with my family on the occasion of my grandmother’s 95th birthday.  There Abby stood – for the better part of a half hour – poking the dead flatfish (of whatever kind it was) with a stick, turning it this way and that, examining its teeth, underside, fins, etc.    Could never have replicated that experience with a prescribed exercise on a lab bench (or worse, sitting at a computer screen Googling about the subject).

One more interesting ponderables from Percy’s essay to leave you with… certainly they would serve most ably as conversation starters with a good friend over a glass of wine or beer.  (as long as it’s GOOD beer, not the pale yellow swill that most of America seems to think is worth consuming)  This one touches more directly on Percy’s major theme of language… so here it is:

“Why is the metphor Flesh is grass, which is not only wrong (flesh is not grass) but inappropriate (flesh is not even like grass), better and truer than the sentence Flesh is mortal, which is quite accurate and logical?” (5)

Enjoy… :)

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On the Reading of Old Books

cslewiswritingatdeskC. S. Lewis has a wonderful piece written as an introduction to a translation of Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation” that is often referred to as “On the Reading of Old Books”.  In it, he argues for the importance of listening to the voices of the past that have made their way to us via the medium of print if we are to have anything approaching a sound perspective on the present.  His point of view needs to be trumpeted again to today’s young (and old) adults, for it seems to me that we are living in an era in which the voices of the past are almost drowned out beyond hope of hearing by the cacophony of the voices of the present (many of which have a particular distaste for the same voices of the past).

When we fail to seek a solid acquaintance with these voices of the past, Lewis argues, we stand the risk of being unable to understand ourselves well – and to see weaknesses in our thinking or in our society.  I think he’s exactly right… and the trend I see today regarding the willingness to consider points of view that are separated from us by distances measured in time rather than space is not a positive one for our society.  If we live insulated from those voices, we are prone to greater and greater degrees of blindness about our ways of thinking about each other, about God and about the world.  We become more and more easily convinced that we have risen to the pinnacle of understanding, and that our worldview lacks any shortcomings or flaws. We think so highly of ourselves that we are liable to regard anything coming down to us from prior generations as useless or irrelevant – because we have progressed so far, and because “life just looks different today”.  We become completely unable to hear anything that doesn’t fit our own preconceived notions of what is right, just and important.

Every year I have students in class who struggle with the idea of reading anything older than they are.  This is by no means the NORM among my students, but every year a couple of them have a readily observable ambivalence about reading works that are very old at all, and argue that, because those books are old, the authors really can’t have much to say to them and certainly have no good ideas that can practically be applied to their lives.    These same students often raise the concern in the other direction – that they “just can’t relate to the author’s point of view”.   This latter concept is intimately connected to the former, but I find myself much more sympathetic to it – because I do believe it’s probably quite true, given the literary diet that the students have likely consumed for most of their lives, and at least some of the responsibility for that lies in people other than the students themselves.

That said, it can be a struggle to open the eyes of those who are (in varying degrees) willingly keeping them shut.  But, as Lewis writes in his essay, this is the job of the teacher… if only most teachers today understood this to be their job, and weren’t hampered by ridiculous ‘outcome-based’ educational standards that scuttle every effort to truly educate the student.