The Structure of Education is the Structure of Faith

Thomas F. Bertonneau

This is the first in a series of three essays intended to critique selected aspects of the prevailing modern worldview of the West’s ubiquitous liberal regime. In the present essay, I am interested in the prevailing modern view of education; I argue that various pre-modern ways of understanding education address their topic with a good deal more penetration than that achieved by the modern view, which tends to insipidity. In a follow-on essay to this one I will address the question how revelation is related to reality; a third essay will devote itself to a discussion of memory considered as an institution.

The one thing that modern educators, including modern college and university educators, know best is that faith has no place in education. Faith, the term by which modern educators, when they use it, invariably mean Christianity, is, in the prevailing view, inimical to education – a “clinging” bogey to be banished. At the institution where I teach, a mid-tier state college in the Northeast, official edicts have banished all signs of Easter and Christmas, substituting for the latter the bland notion of “Winter Holidays.” In December, the president annually sends all faculty and staff a calculatedly inoffensive “Winter Holidays” greeting, via email. For what it is worth, for many years I have regularly received an unambiguous “Merry Christmas” message from a long-distance colleague at the University of Tehran, under the auspices of whose department I had the good fortune, a few years ago, to chair a dissertation.

That modern higher education implacably execrates Western Civilization, which gave birth to it in the Eleventh Century, is a well-established phenomenon. I would argue, however, that modern higher education’s hostility to Western Civilization is a secondary phenomenon and that the primary phenomenon must be modern education’s hostility to the religious foundations, whether Pagan or Christian, on which Western Civilization arose and, until recently, based itself. Modern higher education since the Eighteenth Century has been resolutely rational, taking natural science, especially physics, as its model of epistemological correctness, and setting itself vehemently against anything that refuses to conform itself to that model. The mental posture of the representative modern faculty member is that of the encyclopédistes – nothing not in the encyclopedia counts as knowledge and only what is in the encyclopedia counts as real.

If I proposed that the intellectual confusion of modern education, including modern higher education, was directly related to its self-conception of existing within a cordon sanitaire that protects it from contamination by what it regards as irrationality or superstition, I would approach my thesis: That when higher education – or any phase of education – repudiates faith it repudiates its own character, the structure of education being identical with the structure of faith. That North America’s institutions of higher education began as seminaries for one splinter-group of Protestantism or another belongs to the thesis, but is by no means identical with it. Modern higher education is far narrower than any Nineteenth-Century seminary education: It instructs and the content of its instruction is implacable doctrine. For example, when it teaches what it pretentiously calls critical thinking, nothing that issues from such “thinking” is not known in advance either by the instructors or those whom they instruct.

In faith, by contrast, nothing is known with certainty in advance because faith is not a syllogism, which is merely a tool, albeit a useful one, for assessing the validity of premises. Faith is a leap into itself, which is to say, it is a leap into experience in quest of truth. The phrase “a leap into faith” originates with the Danish philosopher and writer Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) who, in the Philosophical Fragments (1841), responding to the algorithmic rationality of the arch-university professor G. W. F. Hegel, wrote, in theological terms, of the “Paradox” (always in the Fragments capitalized) of the teacher-learner relation, and of the additional relation between “passion” and “discipleship.” Kierkegaard delighted in paradox. His delight stemmed from his intuition that the human reality or consciousness – or culture – is essentially paradoxical. Consciousness – or culture – is something that resists any reduction to a syllogism because while it must be acquired, for otherwise the subject never rises above savagery or infancy, it cannot justify or explain itself in advance. At most faith might be said to beckon plausibly, which is why faith is sometimes called a response to Grace or a vocation.

In the Fragments, Kierkegaard asks, “How does the learner come to realize an understanding with this Paradox?” The answer is that the learner must begin with an act of “Faith” (always in the Fragments capitalized), a corollary to which is that the learner cannot begin with “Reason” (ditto); and that status will be because the necessary material for reasoning about a topic is unavailable before the learner has begun to study it. The subject can only reason on the basis of knowledge. Prior to completing the curriculum, the subject lacks the knowledge. It follows from this condition that, while knowledge is the goal of discipleship, “Faith is not a form of knowledge.” Nor is knowledge the same as “Truth,” the latter being the actual goal of discipleship, with knowledge of various orders of existence constituting a means or path to “Truth.” Therefore to begin in learning anything, the subject must possess an intuition, however vague, of his own ignorance; or he must accept the attribution to him by a second party of such ignorance. The “leap into faith” is a leap away from or out of ignorance in quest of knowledge in order to discover “Truth.”

Kierkegaard is discussing religion. He writes in the Fragments how the existing person finds redemption in opening himself to the conversion-experience, so central to Christianity, which delivers the person from his complacency into a new poignant consciousness, the result of which is to endow experience with order. Despite the modern conviction that religious experience can have nothing to do with education, Kierkegaard’s discussion of religious experience will prove on inspection to have everything to do with education, especially higher education. To repeat my thesis: The structure of education is the structure of faith. Before exploring further Kierkegaard’s analysis of the relation between faith and experience, and of the relevance of these phenomena to education, and of education to truth, it will be profitable to remind ourselves of the positions of modern educators on the items of the philosopher’s essential vocabulary.

Take truth. Modern education, most especially modern higher education, dominated as it is by a dogmatic relativism, denies that there can be such a thing as truth. Modern education insists that there are only perceptions or interpretations and that none of these can be resolved into a metaphysically incontrovertible certainty. The most that people can do is reconstruct the lifeworlds of other parties, as in ethnography. This argument, the foundation of the whole so-called multicultural curriculum and of the project of so-called diversity that accompanies multiculturalism, is itself paradoxical; but unlike Kierkegaard’s “Paradox” it is only paradoxical in a trivial and self-deconstructing way. Denying truth, it nevertheless presents itself as an incontrovertible certainty, that is, as a truth. It admits no uncertainty in respect of its truth. In so doing, the doctrine contradicts its own commitment to the relativism that it sacralizes. Practically, dogmatic multicultural relativism must make endless exceptions to and compromises with its own infallibility, and it does, to the grim amusement of ironic onlookers.

Take the concepts of knowledge and ignorance. Modern educators, who claim special knowledge not possessed by ordinary people, land themselves in another contradiction when they avoid the concept of ignorance, as frequently they do. An Internet-search of the phrase “learning from students” will reveal modern education’s obsession with the idea that students have special profound knowledge prior to instruction that their teachers lack and that a main job of teachers is “learning from students.” Did the instructor not have that same knowledge when he was himself a student, before he became an instructor? Then how can he not still have it? Why must he learn it? By corollary, modern educators hesitate to identify the lack of knowledge or the failure to acquire it, when either of these things appears – hence the increasing worries, in educationist palaver, about “grade disparity.” When the instruments of assessment show that the student has not learned the material, modern educators claim that the student must have learned it and that the instrument of assessment must be in error. Modern education avails itself inveterately of such rhetorical dodges, which it requires in order to conceal the differences that offend its commitment to equality in everything and its proposition that there is no such thing as truth. Of course, if there were no such thing as truth, there could be no such thing as knowledge. If there were no truth, there would be nothing but error and confusion. There would be nothing for the instruments to measure. And so, operationally, it is!

Kierkegaard understands that the predicament of the learner entails a paradox – and in no trivial way. The capitalized “Paradox” stems from the difference – that is, the absolute incommensurability – between ignorance and knowledge, ignorance being where the learner necessarily begins and knowledge being where he wants to end so that, beginning again, he might conduct the search for truth on his own. Yet, beginning in ignorance, the learner cannot, in fact, know what it is that he wants; but at most he can incoherently want, which is the same thing as his ignorance, his want or lack of knowledge. The learner requires the teacher – Kierkegaard takes as his teacherly exemplars Socrates and Christ – to vouchsafe the necessity of making a movement towards the goal, no notion of which can the learner yet form based on his own experience. The beginner has no experience. This movement, which the learner cannot justify to himself, and which no one can justify to him, necessarily amounts to a leap into the unknown. As such, it differs not at all from the “leap into faith.” The structure of education is the structure of faith.

Elsewhere than in the Fragments, Kierkegaard articulates the “Paradox” in existential rather than theological terms. In his Journals (Hannay’s translation) from 1843, Kierkegaard writes: “It is quite true what philosophy says; that life must be understood backwards.” Kierkegaard immediately adds, “But then one forgets the other principle: That it must be lived forwards.” In Kierkegaard’s formula, living one’s life resembles reading a book, which one also can only undertake “forwards” but which one can only ever understand by looking “backwards.” Life, like reading or education, the former belonging integrally to the latter since the alphabetization of Greece, demands to be lived as though it were a wager, whose outcome remains unknown. Bureaucrats never grasp this: They live by “mission statements” and “five-year plans.” Novelists understand Kierkegaard, even the Twentieth-Century ones. What ultra-confident novelistic protagonist avoids the smash-up of his sure thing?

Complications only increase. The unique place of repose from which the subject might contemplate his whole life “backwards,” thus obviating the wager, is a hypothetical status beyond his death. Only in his death will his life find completion unless as some people aver there is a realm beyond mortality. As Kierkegaard writes in the continuation of his journal entry: “The more one thinks [the principle] through, [the more one] ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood… because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt a position: backwards.” (Kierkegaard’s “I” refers to the subject generally.) How to resolve the aporia? What can the subject study “backwards”? He can study the completed lives of his precursors and predecessors. He can study the past, and by so doing make it his past.

Here again, modern education, including higher education, ill-serves learners. Modern education, including modern higher education, not only denies the existence of truth while obfuscating the difference between ignorance and knowledge; it also rejects the past as unworthy of study except in limited, prescriptive ways, as an object of ridicule or execration. The English departments of the USA’s colleges and universities now focus almost entirely on contemporary rather than historical material – one may graduate with a baccalaureate in English Literature from numerous colleges and universities without having read Chaucer, Shakespeare, George Eliot, or Henry James, all of whom have become optional where they have not disappeared from the reading-list altogether. The professoriate now teaches history as an exercise in the rhetoric of righteous indignation, as though the record of human experience was the leftwing mirror-image of an Ayn Rand novel. The instructor teaches the student to repudiate the past. For evidence, see any paragraph by the late Howard Zinn.

Modern education, including modern higher education, isolates itself from the past defensively in order to assuage its inability to tolerate contradiction. Because the ancient and medieval dispensations contradict the modern dispensation, the modern dispensation cannot tolerate them. Modern educators abide in absolute certainty of themselves, even though they have not yet completed their lives, not at all, and can have no sure basis for their passionate self-conviction. Modern education, including modern higher education, edits and suppresses its precursor-dispensations. The medieval Christian dispensation by contrast gladly accepted much from its precursor Pagan dispensation despite the tensions. Even more, modern education, like everything else modern, is “progressive.” It anticipates the radiant future, the expected vindication of its intransigence, which is to say, it can only think forwards. But thinking forwards comes close to being a contradiction in terms unless it bases itself on the prior mastery of thinking backwards. Note however that this thinking forwards based on thinking backwards will be thinking by analogy. Note also that the modern phase of enlightenment denies the argumentative validity of analogy.

A side-note: The modern aversion to analogical thinking stems from the fact that analogy deals with likeness whereas modernity prefers to notice differences, to which it habitually defers; modernity feels uncomfortable with analogy because in analogy the thinker compares one thing with another, threatening the principle of equality or equivalency.

The very term “higher” implies the necessity of a leap, not a step from the rung below to the rung above, but a voltige from the ground en pleine aire. A leap, be it noted, is unlike a ladder, in the same qualitative way as a ladder is like a syllogism, the propositional basis of reductively logical discourse. Between the first and the third rung there is always the second rung and there is always a top rung beyond which the climber cannot rise. Movement up the ladder is predetermined by the ladder. Modern instructional education is like a cybernetic program in which the immense ladder-like chain of if-then procedures although impressive and even baffling to layman always has a top rung beyond which it can produce no result. The ladder in this sense constitutes a limitation within the confines of which the student must remain. There is no transcendence; therefore there is no truth. There is a prohibition of questions; there is only a demand to follow-out an algorithm, and therefore again there is no truth. There is not even any life. Is there anything at all? Yes. There is the absolute homogeneity of thought, the strict conformism to a prescriptive set of opinions, which in modern institutions goes by the name of diversity.

To repeat: The structure of education is the structure of faith. Consider, by way of illustration, the great pedagogical parable, Plato’s “Cave.” The story requires an event that cannot be explained: The periagoge or “turning-around.” Benjamin Jowett’s translation uses the passive voice to describe the unshackling of the prisoner: “When any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains.” A bit later in the narrative, an “instructor” is present, but Plato does not explicitly make him the cause of the “turning-around.” What then is the cause? Kierkegaard would have understood that where the investigator can discern no cause, and in want of discernment falls back on the passive voice, the real cause will have been something spontaneous and unpredictable. Spontaneity is a rather technical-sounding term. Grace better designates the event.

Indeed, the prisoner’s exposure to the light of the fire – that Amazing Grace – blinds and disorients him; suddenly, although inarticulately, he grasps the fact of his own ignorance. He had previously lived in total complacency, from which he has now emerged, but concerning any codification of which he requires the instructor’s aid. Indeed, the instructor only now attains his function. The instructor aids the ex-prisoner to articulate “the realities of which in his former state he had seen but the shadows” whereby the prisoner might come to terms with his own “clearer vision.” Only the experience of reality, however, can overcome the strong prejudice based on the habituation to complacent conviction that “the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him.” The instructor encourages the ex-prisoner not to flag, but to open himself to reality, never stopping until he has emerged from the cave to experience the full light of the sun.

The response to Grace is the leap, which the instructor validates even though the prisoner lacks the scheme into which he might receive an explanation of it. The instructor affirms to the ex-prisoner that the leap will carry him where he wants to go even though the goal, the surface-world in noonday incandescence and beyond it the astral cosmos, remains inexplicable and unjustifiable and indeed unimaginable, until the prisoner reaches it. Between the bench where he was formerly shackled and his emergence from the cave stages intervene, it is true, but these graduations only become possible because of the leap. When the ex-prisoner – or the student – responds affirmatively to the instructor’s assurance that the goal will justify the leap, the student – or the prisoner – becomes a disciple. Faith and education absolutely require discipline.

Modern education, including modern higher education, pretends that it can justify itself in advance. It cannot. The most it can do, given its repudiation of faith and indeed its repudiation of the very structure of faith, is to sell programming to the applicant, who agrees to submit to it. Modern education, including modern higher education, sees the instructor as the efficient cause of the student’s education. Modern education, including modern higher education, sees the instructor as an efficient cause because it wishes to shape students in specific, limited ways, so as to offer to corporate employers a finished product that it can describe fully in advance and whose conformity to the description it can absolutely guarantee. Modern education, including modern higher education, has no transcendent element and therefore no relation to truth. It rejects the idea of a final cause because final causes are necessarily transcendent and teleological. Modern education still calls itself “education,” but when higher education – or any phase of education – repudiates faith it repudiates its own character as education, the structure of education being identical with the structure of faith.

17 thoughts on “The Structure of Education is the Structure of Faith

  1. Pingback: The Structure of Education is the Structure of Faith | Neoreactive

  2. I applaud the philosophical research that clearly went into this.

    The main problem with public education (higher or lower) as a concept is that, as a public societal institution, must operate on a general one-size-fits-all basis (as much as some try to do otherwise). Every child simply MUST know not only how to do long division, but also the properties of each planet in the solar system, the intricacies of poetic structure, a foreign language, and then on top of that a whole smörgåsbord of left wing kook studies such as LGBT history, social justice, and sex education.

    The result is a population of people who know a little bit about everything, and increasingly that ‘little bit’ is actually shrinking. One only need look at the hilarious statistic from Britain that shows people born before the release of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’, are actually MORE likely to believe in evolution than people born after the book’s publication. These kids are actually starting to just block out whole sections of what they’re taught, regardless of whether it is useful or useless.

    Really, the Traditional mode of education is centered in large part on the home, the trade of the father, and in certain subjects, church and private academies providing instruction for some part of the day. Herding children into these prisons we call ‘schools’ so they can all be told about a million things they will never use in their daily lives, each one using different tiny pieces of their education in their future career, is a recipe for failure.

    The fact that public education has totally banished God from their halls is a fatal blow to education, as you say, it removes the foundation for learning in itself as reason alone is deified. But this is compounded by the nature of the institution itself, which is profoundly Modern.

    • Public education has been ideological from its beginnings in New England. As all ideologies are hostile to the traditional order of things it follows that public education has been at odds with that order — also from its beginning.

      The institution where I teach does not resemble any kind of prison, but it does resemble the lobby of a mid-price traveling businessman’s hotel, like the Marriott Suites. It is bland, but that is neither an accident nor a coincidence. On the contrary, it suits the curriculum perfectly, which is also bland and non-nourishing.

      • Mark (responding to your inquiry): Yes, I do. I have the advantage that I often teach my department’s classics-in-translation or “Western Heritage” course, which gives me many opportunities. I bring liberal presuppositions under critical scrutiny as often as I can.

    • Mark, I am reminded of the New England clergy’s response to Horace Mann’s success in standardizing Massachusetts school structures, textbooks, curriculums, and teacher training/certification, in the name of forming ‘humanitarians with benevolent inclinations toward mankind’:

      The principles of piety, as you illustrate and enforce them, exclude all that treats of human depravity – salvation by the blood of Jesus Christ; the atonement and the sanctions to a good life, drawn from the world to come. All these common truths, held by nine-tenths of all in this State who profess any form of Christian faith, are ruled out of schools by the high authority of the Secretary of the Board of Education; they are declared to be sectarian and unconstitutional. You have settled by the authority of the board, or without that authority, what Piety is, according to the statute. Your influence is derived from the legislature; through you, the people are told what they must receive and be satisfied with, as a construction of the Constitution. All towns must hear – all districts obey, else incur the penalty of forfeiture of their portion of the school money.

      Of course, such efforts as the above by Reverend Matthew Hale Smith were rewarded in print with labels of “extremism,” just as they are today.

      Prof. Bertonneau, the essay is great! I am, as it happens coincidentally, currently working back through Geisler’s Systematic Theology, wherein Kierkegaard is cited often. So it is also, at least for my part, timely.

      Your reiteration “including modern higher education” might have more accurately been stated *especially* modern higher education given that it is the universities wherein modern “expert” educators are trained in their vaunted expertise, following Mann’s (Prussian) model as cited above. In any event, the essay is wonderfully put together start-to-finish.

  3. Pingback: The Structure of Education is the Structure of Faith | Reaction Times

  4. The other day a colleague was telling me about an exercise a third party had set for his students, having to do with sedimentation, grain size, saltation, etc. Why do we set students to work at such an exercise, I silently wondered. Scarcely one in ten thousand can be expected to use such knowledge. It will not succor them in adversity, or even amuse them in an idle moment. There is equivalent pedantry in the social sciences and humanities. Of what possible use to student is it to understand a population pyramid or the rhyme scheme of the Faerie Queen? Could it be that higher education is nothing but pedants peddling pedantry?

    A young person is looking for answers to what Dilthey called “the riddle of existence.” He asks, what kind of world is this? Where have I come from and where am I to go? What is the good life? We answer him with pedantry. He asks for bread and we give him a stone.

    Of course answers to the “riddle of existence” are implicit in this pedantry, which is just as well since the answers implied by modern higher education are incoherent, depressing, or absurd. If our students actually accomplished periagoge under our tutelage, they would see an abyss, not a fire.

    • There’s pedantry and pedantry. A great many of my college teachers back in the 1970s were pedants, but at least their pedantry addressed things that were, in themselves, not pedantic. It was therefore possible to transcend from pedantry to significance. The contemporary pedantry addresses nothing of significance, hence it is difficult for students to pass beyond it into something meaningful.

      • Most certainly by design. The curriculum nowadays at every level is so much prescriptive limitation. But again that’s what so-called public education has been since its Massachusetts Colony beginnings. Even the phrase “public education” is misleading. What a polity wants is an educated public and as we have learned this desideratum is not produced by public education.

    • There are these two different things. There is our actual role in the actual society we inhabit which Dr Bertonneau articulates ” to offer to corporate employers a finished product that it can describe fully in advance and whose conformity to the description it can absolutely guarantee.” That is what we, in fact, do. Our good friends the “conservatives” take it entirely for granted that this is what we are supposed to be doing.

      For this task, it is important that we assign work which is somewhat intellectually taxing and which requires both submissiveness and persistence from the students to complete. It helps for the tasks to be pointless in themselves and to be assigned (from the point of view of students) simply on our whim. The student role in these transactions is a model of the cubicle warrior role the students are to inhabit later. Of course, there are some tools as well. It’s nice for cubicle warriors to understand statistics and graphs and stuff. And to make sentency sentences in their memos.

      This is not to say that we are particularly ill serving our students. Their jobs really will require that they be somewhat smart, submissive, and persistent. So, they’d better figure out how to navigate that world. The university is a nice place to do that since they are working with nets under them there.

      The other thing is the fading memory of what we once were. What we once did was to teach the Trivium and the Quadrivium with a specific purpose in mind. To elicit, at least from the brighter students, that flash of insight that Latin grammar, music, and geometry are, at base, the same subject. That they are unified as thoughts in God’s mind, God who thinks in logic and mathematics. God who is logos. Not, of course, the “flash of insight” you get by reading words like the ones I just wrote (or watching a TED talk), but a real flash of insight which comes from really seeing, from the inside and on the inside, the sight. When Galileo said (did he actually say this?) that mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe, he was not saying something original. Rather, he was repeating a truism drilled into his head by his teachers.

      To get to the inside and to get the sight to your inside, you must work So, to fulfill this earlier role, of course we assigned seemingly strangely pointless activities to our students. They were not supposed to actually figure out what we were up to until later, if at all. They were to trust us, the keepers of this great wisdom.

      It’s like saying the Rosary or memorizing the Psalms. For a while, it’s just work. Then, it’s unpleasant work. Then, it’s boring work. Back to unpleasant. Then your knees hurt. And you don’t quit. Then you see. You don’t see if you have to think about which prayer is next. You see only from the inside.

      Today, I would not trust a college professor to give me the time of day, and neither should anyone else. Well, except George Soros and Mark Zuckerberg. They can trust us. Them we will not betray.

      Though the whole essay is wonderful, I liked this passage a lot:

      Indeed, the prisoner’s exposure to the light of the fire – that Amazing Grace – blinds and disorients him; suddenly, although inarticulately, he grasps the fact of his own ignorance. He had previously lived in total complacency, from which he has now emerged, but concerning any codification of which he requires the instructor’s aid. Indeed, the instructor only now attains his function.

      I liked it while disagreeing. My experience with this is that the instructor in this description never operated for me in the present tense. It was always “Oh! That’s what he was talking about!” and never “Now, I see. Now, I am ready. Now, teach me.” In fact, on those very few occasions on which I was taught by a (real) instructor, i always felt that I was way, way behind and scrambling to catch up,

      • Dear Dr. Bill:

        Thank you for having taken the time to read the essay so closely and for having extrapolated from its thesis and sub-theses so eloquently. You write: “On those very few occasions on which I was taught by a (real) instructor, I always felt that I was way, way behind and scrambling to catch up.” My experience was much the same. Indeed, I still feel that I am scrambling. Now In Plato’s parable, the recipient of Grace ascends out of the cave. By complementarity, in Dante’s opening gambit, the poet enters a cave, in a state of disorientation, where he is taken in hand by Virgil, the cicerone of the Inferno. In my image, the instructor is a kind of Virgil, but the value of his guidance is only likely to be appreciated fully by its benefactor long after the fact.

        I tell my students that the goal of my teaching is that twenty years from now, when they think back on their college experience, they will remember, let us say, The Odyssey vividly and at the same time see that knowledge of it is a different kind of knowledge from the knowledge of what to do in their work-cubicles.



  5. “I tell my students that the goal of my teaching is that twenty years from now….”

    Yes. However, at the state university where I teach, such an idea would be rejected immediately. It does not lend itself to quantitative “assessment” of “student learning objectives,” etc. Since I am tenured, I was able to argue against the institutional norm a bit. Here’s something from my syllabi:

    The university requires that instructors state measurable (quantifiable) learning objectives for online courses. My compliance, below, should be understood in the context of the following statement in quotation marks:

    “For courses in the humanities (fine art, music, literature, etc.), the most important objectives elude specification and certainly elude measurement. During this semester you will read several canonical literary works. Canonical means that over several, perhaps many, generations, the work has proven its capacity to elicit the admiration and stir the hearts and minds of readers. Yet, in all this time, no one has succeeded in stating, definitively and exhaustively, what the value of such a work is. For example, no one has stated, for all time, what the meaning and importance of Hamlet is. This is part of the reason why Hamlet is a canonical work, a classic. No one, similarly, will ever state definitively, exhaustively, what the value of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (a musical work) or Botticelli’s Primavera (a painting) is. If it were possible to state such things definitively, then instructors could try to orchestrate learning activities that would enable students to apprehend them comprehensively for themselves. The instructor could prepare ‘equivalents’ so that if some students didn’t ‘get’ the work one way, they could ‘get’ it in some other way. But this is an impossibility.

    “All that an instructor really can do is point and say ‘Read this! Listen to this! Look at this!’ and try to help students become receptive by requiring attentiveness to the work, providing context, eliciting responses, removing things that promote false impressions, and so on. It is, however, more important to learn from these works than to learn about them. Such learning means multiple encounters over the years. I would be pained to hear from a student who had read Hamlet and, years later, had never reread it or seen any need to read it, having read it once already. Literature and the other humanities are really not intended for people who persist in thinking that the great works are things to be ‘consumed’ once, and then one moves on to something else, having acquired some ‘polish.’ (A vague expression often used by people who do think that way is ‘well-rounded education.’ I’m afraid it may sometimes be hard to open such minds to the value of the liberal arts.)

    “If I were state my most deeply-held objectives for this course and my other literature courses, I would offer non-measurable ones such as: The student will love at least one of the books or authors that we read; this love will last and deepen throughout the student’s life; the student will return to one or more of the things we read, again and again, and the work will become a touchstone of the imagination for the student; the student will communicate his or her passion for such works to others, whether friends or students of his/her own; the student’s experience of great literature will inoculate him or her against much of the demeaning, bogus notions typical of contemporary art, politics, commerce, education, etc. and will give him or her a healthy appetite for more and more of the great tradition.”

    With the above statement in mind, here are some course learning objectives that are measurable, per university mandate [etc.].

    PS — I’ll be looking forward to your comments on Melzer’s Philsophy Between the Lines eventually… I hope!

    • Thank you.

      I want what you want but reality forces me to settle for less. The students in my Introduction to Literary Criticism course have been reading History in English Words by Owen Barfield. They were reading it chapter by chapter as though no chapter was connected in any way with any other chapter; they naturally missed the fact that Barfield is making a number of arguments, not least that modernity is literal-minded and meaning-impoverished. I spent today going very carefully over the chapters on “Mechanism” and “Imagination” to show that Barfield is not arguing, as a number of students wanted to say, that there is “progress” in language and that modern people naturally know more than medieval or ancient people. Once I got them to see this by calling their attention to some key paragraphs and key sentences, they were collectively astonished. None of them had ever encountered the argument that the year 2015 is not privileged and that indeed it might be qualitatively inferior in many ways to the year 1215. Or that they are not privileged. Now I would like those students to carry away a detailed knowledge of the structure of Barfield’s argument, and much of the substance of his etymologies, but I will settle for letting them be memorably rattled by the heretical notion that the Great Liberal Consummation can be called into question just like anything else and that it is not immune from criticism. I believe that they will remember that and perhaps be troubled by it now and later on.

      Elsewhere students in my courses have a hard time grasping that one thing might explain another, or be antecedent to a consequence, or that reading might be governed by a principle of cumulative seriality. They read one book with the goal of forgetting it as completely as possible before moving on the the next book, which they treat, if left to themselves, in the same way. They do it that way because they have been trained to do it that way. (“Teaching to the test.”) My task is to prod them not to forget Hesiod while reading Homer or not to forget The Gift by Marcel Mauss when reading the Vinland Sagas. A few grasp the overarching point that one thing might explain another – an insight which, as far as I can tell, has never previously been communicated to them.

      It is difficult to avoid “dumbing down the course” when the education system at large “dumbs down” students at the previous stages before they reach college. That is how nihilists contrive to murder a culture. But that is where we are and that is what we must deal with, in the mood of the Happy Warrior.

      • Barfield’s History in English Words is usually cited as the source of the concept of “chronological snobbery,” but I think he gave a more succinct account of the attitude by putting these words into the mouth of a chronological snob in a later book, Worlds Apart.

        “Three or four hundred years ago, for some reason or other the human mind suddenly woke up . . . . Almost overnight about half the ideas men had had about the universe and their own place in it, turned out to be mere illusions . . . Everything that had been thought before, from the beginnings of civilization down to that moment, became hopelessly out of date and discredited.”

        Change that to “twenty or thirty years ago” and you have my students’ outlook in a nutshell.

  6. Or “twenty to thirty minutes ago”! Oh, but we have our traditions, to be sure. “Big U — Proudly Celebrating Sustainable, Carbon-Neutral Diversity since February 2011.”

    PS. “Interior is anterior.” (Unancestral Voice)


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s