Education & the Imagination…according to Calvin & Hobbes



Culture-Makers or Culture Warriors? (Part Three)

“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.  They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” – Jesus (John 17:15-16)

As the divide between Church and culture deepened, the Church gave two replies – retreat and acquiescence.  Refusing the progressive or liberal tendency to sanction the deeds and ideas of culture,  more conservative minds drew back, creating increasingly small and divided subcultures.  Liberals became “of the world” while conservatives refused even to be “in” it.

But this is only part of the puzzle.  Disillusioned with the failed promises of modernity, the culture itself made a move, embracing the despair of postmodernism.  Seeing the cracks in scientism and logical positivism, many, while holding fast to doubts about “absolute” truth, began to be more open to the life of the soul.  Sadly, this has been, for the most part, a missed opportunity for the Church.  The “liberal church” had embraced everything the culture was trying to leave behind, while the “conservative church” was in hiding.

Given postmodern culture’s cynicism towards truth and goodness, the importance of beauty is hard to overstate.  Robert Royal observed that “where truth is assumed a priori not to exist, images and atmosphere will shape how most people think.”  In other words, the spiritual searching of the postmodern does not typically follow lines of dogma or argument, but beauty and image.  They are seeking, if that is the word I want, for something beautiful; something to counter the coldness and ugliness of modernity.

The Christian reply has been quite weak, for the most part.  While there are encouraging signs that Christians are again taking the imagination and the arts seriously, there is much work still to be done.  Conservative Christianity finds itself deeply rooted in the subculture mentality and, as a result, would rather establish “Christian” everything – clothing, publishers and books, record labels and music, etc. – than actually engage with the culture.  And, what’s far worse, this subculture mentality fuels the creation of politicized, ideological art – books that lack imagination, art that tells but doesn’t show, music that blends trite content with non-matching forms.  Put more directly, so much of contemporary Christian art stinks because it plays to uncritical, friendly audiences who prefer sentimental uplift to quality art.

Whenever Christians are taught to engage culture, it is through a kind of guerilla warfare – a direct evangelism fueled by the structured, logical arguments of apologists.  We have combined cultural retreat with evangelism, somehow attempting to be neither in the world (in any substantive sense) norof it.  The effect of this strategy is seen in the culture’s response to modern Christianity – mockery of our “art”, dismissal from cultural dialogue, and suspicion of our occasional forays into the world.  Having preferred culture-warring to culture-making, we have reduced “culture” to mere politics and ideology which, as Gregory Wolfe wrote, “is like constantly spraying insecticide and never watering or fertilizing the soil.”

Yet, the idea that beauty could bring about cultural change or even cultural influence seems either far-fetched or impractical to the modern Christian or conservative mind.  Wolfe argues,

“Conservatives have, by and large, focused their energies on political action and the theoretical work necessary to undertake action.  The indirection of art, with its lack of moralizing and categorizing, strikes the pragmatic mind as being unedifying, and thus inessential.  Insofar as the great artists and writers of the past are admired, it is for their support of some idea, rather than for the complex, many-sided vision of their art.”

Christians seem to distrust the imagination because its results are not direct or “guaranteed” like those of logical argument.

What, then, are we to do?  How does the Christian community go about correcting such missteps?  While this discussion cannot readily be reduced to bullet points or “action items,” there are several thoughts and changes we must consider.  Christians must take time to contemplate what it means to love the world.  How can we be “in” it in substantive, engaging, meaningful ways, while not falling to the progressive error of becoming “of” the world?  I fear these issues have received only pat answers, generally falling along political and ideological lines.  We ought to read those who challenge the typical answers – Gregory Wolfe (whose writings, any reader of this trilogy of articles can tell, have greatly challenged my own thinking), Andy Crouch, Dorothy Sayers, Flannery O’Connor, to name a few.

Furthermore, we must realize the great weakness and danger of our tendency towards “action” rather than contemplation.  What has the conservative and Christian dependence on politics and “social action” gotten us?  To quote Gregory Wolfe once more:

“For Christians, the idea that contemplation and prayer ought to precede action should be second nature.  How many of us have become unwitting disciples of Marx, who said that ‘up till now it has been enough to understand the world; it is for us to change it’?  Marx’s preference for revolutionary action over the classical-Christian belief in the primacy of contemplative understanding of transcendent order lies at the heart of modern ideology.”

Finally, in direct application to classical educators, we must make sure that as we equip our students with the tools of logic, that they are used for more than argument; that as we train them in rhetoric, it is used for more than debate.  The goal of classical education is not that we send students through the gauntlet of the trivium, but that they love and, therefore, live truth, goodness, and beauty; that they love wisdom and virtue; that they live to persuade, not as a subject or discipline, but as a life.

Reposted from my weekly column for the CiRCE Institute

Culture-Makers or Culture Warriors (Part Two)

Part Two

“Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.  We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past…can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”

– Hans Urs von Balthasar

In part one of this article, I wrote of the tendency in classical education to train “culture warriors” rather than “culture-makers.”  That is, we arm students with logic, apologetics, and an ideological rhetoric, that enables them to argue and debate, but seldom persuade.  In warring with modern culture, but neglecting to create culture, we only ensure the deepening of the divide between the Church and society.

As von Balthasar claimed  in the quote I shared above, this practice attempts to divorce truth and goodness from beauty.  But beauty will have none of it.  She will not be taken from her sisters.  Truth, isolated from goodness and beauty, becomes little more than a blunt weapon to be used on opponents.  Goodness, isolated from truth and beauty, results in moralism.  And beauty, isolated from truth and goodness, results in postmodernism – as Gregory Wolfe observed, “With less and less substance in their words, the artists supported by the progressives have resorted to irony, political propaganda, and sensationalism to elicit a response from their audience.”  The attempt to form beauty remains, but without content.

Of course, this highlights the inseparability of truth, goodness, and beauty; but should also remind us that we – the Church at large and classical educators, in particular – are not speaking the language of postmodern culture.  By this, I do not mean that the Christian community should say the same things as postmodernism, but that the medium we use must take into account postmodern thinking.

What would make us think that formal logic and persuasive essays would affect those who have denied truth?  Yet, this is precisely our method – arming for logical argument, pointing out inconsistencies and fallacies to those who do not care.  In our time, ignoring beauty – that is, the creation of art, literature, music, poetry, and other works of the imagination – means giving our world the “silent treatment.”  Wolfe emphasizes this in quoting Robert Royal: “Art has become more important in the postmodern world…because the truth claims of philosophy, theology, ethics, and even nature seem weak.  The argument on many campuses over the canon has taken on added heat precisely because, where truth is assumed a priori not to exist, images and atmosphere will shape how most people think” [emphasis mine].

To bring this discussion back to the world of classical education, in particular, I need to be note that we are not curators.  Our work is about more than exposing students to the beauty of the past, as noble a task as that is.  Put another way, I fear our tendency has been to preserve the works of Western Civilization as museum pieces, rather than trying to bring their truth, goodness, and beauty to bear on the modern world.  Here I must quote Gregory Wolfe, at length, yet again:

When conservatives turn to art and literature they generally look to the classics, safely tucked away in museums behind marbleized covers.  Ironically, many conservatives don’t seem to have noticed that they no longer have anything to conserve – they have lost the thread of cultural continuity.  They have forgotten that the Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship applies not only to the environment and to institutions but also to culture.

In seeking to uphold and appreciate the Western tradition, we cannot give up on current culture; a culture that speaks more in images than argument, that upholds beauty more than truth and goodness.  We must search for and find more opportunities to once again weave together our love of truth and goodness with beauty, for these sisters cannot be separated without great devastation.

To be continued…

Reposted from my weekly column for the CiRCE Institute

Culture-Makers or Culture Warriors?

Part One

My journey into classical education mirrors the story of so many others.  I came across a catalog from a Christian classical publishing house, which led me to Dorothy Sayers’s essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” which led me to internet searches, which led me to The Abolition of Man, and so on.  I was quickly drawn into the world of C.S. Lewis, including and beyond Narnia, to Middle Earth, to G.K. Chesterton, and so on.  Such are the nostoi (“return stories” or homeward journeys) of so many in the classical renewal.

Sayers, Lewis, Tolkien, and a few others have ushered many into the renewal, and have come to be viewed as the “founding fathers” of the movement. Their works rightly garner wide readings, their lives become the subject of conference talks, and they have inspired many young men to twill coats and pipe-smoking.  And while they are deserving of the high praise they receive in many classical school circles, there may be a downside to their elevation. As Gregory Wolfe observed in Beauty Will Save the World:

Among Christians who care about the arts, there are many who cling to the works of a few figures, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and Flannery O’Connor, who have forged a compelling religious vision in the midst of a secular age.  But the danger in celebrating these Christian artists is that we isolate them from their cultural context, from the influences that shaped their art.  There is a large body of believers who have essentially given up on contemporary culture; they may admire a few writers here or there, but they do not really believe that Western culture can produce anything that might inform and deepen their own faith.  One might almost say that these individuals have given in to despair about our time.  For me, the most depressing trend of all is the extent to which Christians have belittled or ignored the imagination and succumbed to politicized and ideological thinking.

A couple of things need to be pointed out directly.  First of all, Wolfe is not downplaying the marvelous contributions of those artists.  In fact, he goes on to specifically praise the influence of both Eliot and O’Connor later in the book.  It should also be noted that Wolfe’s argument against “politicized and ideological thinking” is far more developed than what I shall present here.  So read his book.

But with these qualifications in mind, let me say that Wolfe’s point must be taken seriously, and applied by both Church and school.  For too many in the classical renewal, Sayers, Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, Eliot, and so on, have been a very ineffective gateway drugs; that is, while these culture-making giants have drawn us to the threshold of a whole new world, too often we have not stepped through.

Classical education, unlike forms of modern education, aims at the nurturing of the soul, the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.  This stands in contrast to arming students with ready-made answers – the problem of “ideology,” according to Wolfe.  We claim our desire is for students to know how to think, not just what to think; yet we seem to fall short of that reality.

For example, in many Christian classical schools, the teaching of logic and the growing emphasis on apologetics courses belies a truly defensive slant, the courses being taught as a way of protecting students from an ungodly culture. And, while there is nothing wrong with arming students for defense, it does not stop there. Even rhetoric has been reduced to the mere production of persuasive essays and speeches, rather than developing (as Aristotle said) the “faculty of discovering in any given case the available means of persuasion” – an art that could include story-telling, creative writing, poetry, and more.

The result is that classical educators are preparing culture warriors but not “culture-makers.”  In holding up the works of Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, et al, then, we hold up museum pieces because rather than stressing the need for great artists, musicians, songwriters, poets, and authors, we merely equip our students to argue.  We have called them to uphold truth and, perhaps, goodness, but beauty has been left out of the equation.

To be continued…

Idle Hands & Active Minds

Reposted from my CiRCE column – 9/11/12

With the first days of school upon me, time for reflection and productive thought becomes scarce.  I must rise earlier, stay up later, and carefully plan for such times.  I dare say, the majority of teachers experience the same occurrence – with the start of school, time for thought and meditation goes out the window.  What a horrid, tragic thing to admit!

Yet, there I sat, in the worn, cushy armchair in the corner of my classroom, gazing out the window, coffee in one hand, pen in the other, with an open notebook on my lap.  The time had arisen, unplanned.  I had no agenda, only staring and thinking, when the door opened and in popped a well-meaning visitor.  He began, “Oh, good.  You’re not doing anything.  I must have caught you at the right time.”

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in ParisGranting that my visitor’s words were likely “just said” rather than thought of, they still reveal an all-too-prevalent cultural assumption: thinking is not productive.  Thinking means nothing is gettingdone.  The checklist or “to do” list still looms; the tyranny of the urgent still reigns, and thinking doesn’t help.

David Hicks says you don’t have to be a Platonist to answer “yes” to Hannah Arendt’s question: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?”

Plato argued that man does not knowingly choose evil. That is, when man realizes the destructive and painful effects of evil deeds, he would never knowingly do them.  Hicks summarizes Plato’s thought this way:

“Choosing evil, therefore, implies thoughtlessness, that is to say, a mind no longer challenging its opinions and observations, a mind incapable of seeing the deleterious effects of evil.  One heals this mind by giving it a dialectical antidote – reawakening the activities of thinking and learning.  Once these activities are renewed, the subject will again be able to discern good from evil and will seek to avoid moral or physical pain by refraining from evil acts.”

One does not have to be a Platonist or agree with Plato in toto to acknowledge that the discipline of thinking has a preventative effect on evil-doing and, thus, serves as a powerful force in the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.

Modern man, however, motivates himself through action and doing, viewing the discipline of thought as wasteful or, at the very least, unnecessary; hence, the all-too-common expression of “doing nothing,” applied to anyone who isn’t busily accomplishing some visible task.

In contrast to the Platonic idea of thought strengthening character, modern man asserts that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  Yet, the far more likely case is that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, and those who harry about an unexamined life are the ones in grave danger.  So, perhaps we really need more frequently idle hands and more active minds.

Lessons from Toilet Sounds, My Wife & King Solomon

Three sounds – a loud shriek, splashing, and the slamming of the toilet lid – brought me quickly from the kitchen to the hall bathroom.  Greeted by a smiling, soaking wet toddler walking rapidly from the room, I knew I was in for something special.  I was not to be disappointed.  Toilet paper had been spun directly from the holder into the toilet and water covered the floor.

After cleaning up Asher’s bit of performance art, I walked back toward the kitchen to finish getting dinner together.  I stepped into the living room to find Ian jumping on the couch and his sister, Temperance, crying.  A quick word brought the jumping to an end and, just as I attempted to console our daughter, I heard another crash in the kitchen.  You get the idea.

When my wife descended the stairs, having prepared pajamas and the other necessities for bedtime, she looked my way and smiled, “How’s it going?”  By this point, I managed a laugh and muttered a vague comment about how fast our children are.

My wife, Shannon, is a homeschooling mom and has super-powers.  Somehow, in addition to doing an excellent job teaching phonics, writing, and math to our daughter (age 5), she finds ways to fuel Ian’s (age 3) great enthusiasm for learning, and still rebuild after Asher’s (18 months) Tasmanian devil impersonations.  And, what’s more, Shannon seems so excited about it.

Now, I could go on bragging on my wife and gladly proclaiming to you her sterling character, but I know (deep down) she’s not (entirely) perfect.  She gets tired and overwhelmed, just like every other parent and/or teacher.  Yet, even in those times I have learned from her.  Almost like clockwork, she reminds herself of the blessing of homeschooling.  She finds strength in the souls of her children, and the knowledge that God has given her the opportunity to feed and nurture them.

In Ecclesiastes 6, Solomon describes a man who is blessed with one hundred children and two thousand years of life, but still “his soul is not satisfied with goodness.”  He has “no burial” and even his long life is forgotten.  Having never learned to be satisfied with the goodness given to him, he goes to the grave having lost it all.  Never delighting his soul in his children, he has no one to bury him.  Never having delighted himself in the years of his life, he goes to the grave forgotten.

Blessings bring responsibilities, but even those should delight our souls.  Sometimes blessings are messy.  They can be wet, hyperactive, emotional, loud, and overwhelming; but, for all these “troubles,” we dare not forget that they are blessings.

School & Classroom Ethos

Reposted from my Circe Column (8/30/12).

“Ethos is the in articulate expression of what the community values.  It includes the quality of relationships within the school, the traditions, the professional comportment, the approach to classroom management, the out-of-class decorum, the aesthetic personality of the school reflected in the student and faculty dress codes, the visual and auditory imagery, and the physical plant itself…Ethos is the way in which the school expresses (or doesn’t) truth, goodness, and beauty through the experiences of every person who enters our halls.”

  – From Wisdom and Eloquence by Robert Littlejohn & Charles T. Evans

I vividly remember entering St. Michael’s chapel for the first time – the equilateral arch, the faint echo of the stone narthex, the coldness of the holy water. We were greeted by beautifully colored windows, portraying various scenes from the Gospels.  It was the first Friday Mass for our Kindergarten class and I cannot imagine the courage it took for Mrs. Crowley to take 15-20 five-year-olds to church.

Yet, among the things I remember most clearly is what was missing upon our entrance to the church. My teacher, the woman who (according to the 5-year-old me) made her living telling us to be quiet, never said a word.  She directed us to our pews, but never had to silence us. We were, for the moment, overwhelmed with beauty, awe, and the “differentness” of the place.  Across the parking lot, our kindergarten classroom was worlds away, and we knew it.

Pass over a few chapters, roughly ten years worth, to my first day of high school, just one mile from St. Michael’s.  Dedicated to keeping students safe, the school graciously introduced a barbed-wire fence around its perimeter.  My first day, and I felt better already. After walking through the metal detectors and past the armed resource officers, I entered the camera-monitored hallways to find my locker.

From the clash of locker doors to the loud click of the automatically-locking classrooms, the place seemed encased in metal.  To reduce violence and aggression, we were made inmates.  To provide safety, were made afraid.

We become what we behold.  When we surround our students (and ourselves) with beauty, we feed their souls and train their tastes on what is beautiful.  But, the converse is true as well.  Teaching in schools without armed guards and brutal fights in the lunch room is certainly a nice start, but we cannot content ourselves by stepping over the lowest bar.

How we adorn our hallways, classrooms, lunch rooms, and sitting areas does matter.  The music played during study times and what is sung during assemblies and “chapel” times forms tastes.  The color of the walls (or lack thereof), the desks or tables we select, and the way we arrange them says volumes.

Try this little experiment, either with a literal walk-through or just as a mental exercise.  As best you can, pretend you are walking into your school, classroom, or homeschooling area for the first time.  What does it feel like?  How would you describe the atmosphere or ethos of the place?  What matters to the people who put this place together?  If you spent dozens of hours per week in this place, how would it affect you, your tastes, and your soul?  And, with those answers in mind, what corrections need to be made?