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.