James V. Schall on the New State Religion

But if it is the state itself that insists its legislated or juridical doctrines are the ruling force, it can and does cause both restrictions on the public expression and cause legal and financial burdens on people who disagree with it. Religion is forced to support the “religious/ideological” laws of the state that now defines what is to be tolerated. To disagree with the state causes financial loss and requires approval of what people hold to be wrong. The difference between Jefferson’s hypothesis and the situation today is, at bottom, that the modern state is not just a “temporal order” but itself a quasi-established religion that enforces what it will or will not allow in ultimate questions about human life and death.

~James V. Schall, “Obama’s Right to Worship Ushers in New State Religion”

Schall

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The Necessity of Gratuitous Education

As we look over the plethora of options for education available to us, how we to decide what education is best? There is “on the job training,” vocational schools, technical schools, nursing schools, and the list goes on and on. Among this array of choices is “liberal arts education.” Looking over a truly liberal arts education, we might be struck to see the lack of similarity among the classes. We find classes in literature, philosophy, history, mathematics, speech, possibly theology, and the sciences. What exactly is the point of all this? Why would anyone pursue this kind of education? A liberal arts education will not train us to be bricklayers, it will not make us into doctors or lawyers, and it will not enable us to buy a home. It seems entirely gratuitous—something a rich person might indulge in until forced (if ever) to get a “real job.”

First, what exactly is meant by a “liberal arts education”? Many programs today which call themselves “liberal arts” would be unrecognizable as such fifty or more years ago. Today, many “liberal arts” programs have been reduced to “general studies” which contain little to no common core and an abundance of elective choices. Instead, a liberal arts education is one which has no electives whatsoever, for to allow the student to choose his own course of study is to turn over the process of education to the one who is in the least position to know what needs to be known: the student. As Mortimer J. Adler points out, “it is the student who is the master under the elective system … the relatively ignorant and incompetent, choose their own road to learning, according to the fickle interests of their immaturity.” In a liberal arts education, all students receive the same education because the end of liberal arts education is the cultivation of the human mind, not the training for a productive career. Since all are human, all require the same education.

250px-Grigorii_chudotvoretzIt is the end of liberal arts education itself which is the greatest argument for its pursuit. We should pursue the liberal arts because we are human. No one can choose not to be a human being, one can only choose whether or not to be a good one. To become fully what we are means the cultivation of the mind. James V. Schall states that within each of us is a “longing to know … [this is] the very heart of what we are as rational beings.” Most importantly, and yet often least known, is the need and desire to know “ourselves”—who we are, where we come from, where we are going. Liberal arts education aims to reveal the student to themselves. Gregory Thaumaturgus claims that this was one of the highest things that Origen taught his students: “teaching us to be at home with ourselves, and to desire and endeavor to know ourselves, which indeed is the most excellent achievement of philosophy, the thing that is ascribed also to the most prophetic of spirits as the highest argument of wisdom—the precept, Know thyself.” This indeed is the beginning of knowledge. For without knowledge of ourselves, no amount of our struggling will bring us closer to what we truly need.

So no, the liberal arts will not help you get a bigger boat, a better job, or a beautiful spouse. It will, however, teach you why none of those things, in themselves, will make you happy. Instead, the liberal arts will enable you (no matter what possessions you have, no matter what career you choose, no matter whether you are married or single) to be more human, more of what you were intended to be, and consequently, happier.

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Adler, Mortimer Jerome. Reforming Education: The Opening of the American Mind. Edited by Geraldine Van Doren. New York: Macmillan, 1988.

Schall, James V. On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001.

Gregory Thaumaturgus. “Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen.” In The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, edited by Richard M. Gamble, 179-80. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009.

 

Why Wouldn’t You Want to Know?

I can hardly emphasize enough that, ultimately, each must discover in his own soul this longing to know. Nothing can replace it. This longing to know constitutes the very heart of what we are as rational beings, distinct in the universe precisely because we ourselves can know. In the last analysis, we have to wake up to knowledge. We cannot do that…till we reach a certain level of maturity or self-discipline. An experienced teacher can almost tell, by the light in his eyes, the day a student first wakes up and begins to want to know. No one can really find a substitute for his own personal attraction to the truth itself. If this desire is not there, no one can give it to us from outside ourselves. And if it is not there, it is undoubtedly because we have not ordered ourselves or put our interests aside long enough to wonder about things.

James V. Schall, The Life of the Mind, 9-10

Schall

The Incomprehensible Pleasure of Solitude

Aristotle claims that “the first principle of all action is leisure.” Many modern people would be tempted to agree with Aristotle, thinking that we work so that we may have things we like and do things that bring us enjoyment. Yet, if modern people knew what Aristotle had in mind by “leisure,” it is unlikely that they would endorse such a view. Today, leisure, is synonymous with “amusement” or “entertainment.” A search online for “leisure activities” is likely to return such things as amusement parks, sporting events, or any number of outdoor activities or vacation spots. Yet Aristotle would hardly reckon these among proper “leisure activities.” In fact, these activities are quite un-leisurely.

What, then, does he have in mind? For the Greeks, the word leisure is σχολή (scholē), from which we derive the word “school” (a fact that never ceases to confound students), and meant both “time free from labor” or “spare time,” and also the content of that spare time. It was defined negatively as “time not working” and suggested the proper activities that a human being should be about while not working. Furthermore, the negation of scholē, a-scholē, meant “busy,” connoting “busy at work.” The word scholē was translated in Latin as otium and likewise denoted “time free from labor” and like the Greeks, the Romans negated this work to suggest “business:” neg-otium, from which we derive the English word “negotiation.” In the case of both scholē and otium, the time for “not working” connoted time spent in learning, thinking, contemplation, reading, writing, etc. In essence, it was time set aside for the mind, not the body, to work. This, as Aristotle indicates, is the primary function of the human being. Similarly, Isocrates argues that “it is acknowledged that the nature of man is compounded of two parts, the physical and the mental, and no one would deny that of these two the mind comes first and is of greater worth; for it is the function of the mind to decide both on personal and on public questions, and of the body to be servant to the judgements of the mind” (Isocrates, Antidosis)

Leisure activities thusly understood mean simply cultivating and using the innate, universal human faculties in the discovery and performance of truth. They are activities distinguished from “amusement” in that “amusement” is aimed only at pleasure. Leisure, on the other hand, is precisely the time for “musing” or thinking, not “a-musing” or not-thinking. Leisure activities are anything but idleness, for they involve a great deal of effort by the mind. An effort that is fundamental to the very nature of humanity, yet one so difficult that people would rather abandon the endeavor altogether (and consequently their humanity) than to take the time to pursue truly noble ends. And “leisure,” says James V. Schall, “is the noblest name of all” (Schall, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 102). It is the noblest because it is what makes humans, human. Furthermore, these activities are ends in themselves, and not means to other ends, as is work. As Mortimer J. Adler points out, “Leisure activities, in sharp distinction from labor or work, consist of those things that men do because they are desirable for their own sake. They are self-rewarding, not externally compensated, and they are freely engaged in” (Mortimer J. Adler, Reforming Education, 100).

220px-Blaise_pascalThe inability to use free time for leisure is symptomatic of our inability to be human, and consequently to be happy. As Aristotle points out, we work that we may be at leisure, that is, that we may do those activities which truly become a human. As Adler says, “The good life depends on labor, but it consists of leisure … Leisure activities constitute not mere living but living well” (Ibid.). According to Blaise Pascal, that people cannot use their leisure time properly is what leads them to create a multitude of distractions and evils: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town.” (Pensées, 136) He continues,

That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible. That, in fact, is the main joy of being king, because people are continually trying to divert him and provide him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself. (Ibid.)

That quiet and solitude are “incomprehensible” for many people demonstrates their inability to use that part of them which is the highest, the mind. A person who cannot sit quietly with their own thoughts shows that he is at odds with himself, he cannot stand to be with himself. Certainly humans are not just their minds, but they are certainly nothing less. This incomprehensible solitude is essential for a flourishing human life, for the cultivation of the essentially human faculties can only be accomplished through leisure activities. Therefore, a recovery of leisure and leisure activities as something other than amusement is necessary for human happiness.

Stretched Out Towards Knowing: Human Wonder and Knowledge

The wonder in a child’s eyes as they encounter the world for the first time is as exhilarating as it is unmistakable. It is the exuberance, delight, and astonishment of a young mind dazzled by creation. The dazzled young mind does not remain dazzled though, it is drawn out to know that which dazzles it. The child asks “why” incessantly, struggling to know this world in which he lives, this world which dazzles him so. This experience reveals something profound about human nature and the process of education.

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliAt the center of the child’s experience is wonder. Thomas Aquinas defined wonder as “a kind of desire for knowledge, a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or power of understanding” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 32, A. 8). As we see the fireworks, we might wonder as to how the pyro-technician is able to produce explosions of different colors, shapes, or sizes. When we hear a strange sound at night, we might wonder what kind of goblin is roaming our house. As we reflect on ourselves, we might wonder why we exist at all! This experience of wonder reveals an essentially human characteristic, for of all creatures, humans alone wonder. These feelings of wonder are an essentially human phenomenon. As Philip Melanchthon muses, “Who is so hard-hearted…that he does not sometimes, looking up at the sky and beholding the most beautiful stars in it, wonder at these varied alternations…and desire to know the traces…of their motions?” (Orations on Philosophy and Education, 106)

As Thomas’ definition suggests, humans can wonder, because they can know. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know” (980a22). This translation hides an interesting dimension to Aristotle’s claim. For the word here translated as “desire” is the word ὀρέγω (orego), which does not simply mean “desire” but “stretch out, extend” and in this context could be rendered: “All men by nature are stretched out towards knowing.” Humans are stretched out but also must stretch themselves out to live in according with this nature. As Aristotle says, humans “must, so far as we can…strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (Nicomachean Ethics, 177b33-34). The mind is, as James V. Schall says, capax omnium—capable of knowing all things (On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 15). It is in human nature to be pulled towards and to strain towards truth, for only truth can be known. Both Plato and Aristotle cite wonder as the cause of or the beginning of all philosophy (wisdom): “This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” (Theaetetus, 155D) “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (Metaphysics, 982b12-13).

At this point, we are still missing an important part of wonder. The Latin word for wonder, admirare, comes into English as “admire” or “admiration.” Yet, wonder is not admiration, for admiration suggests a distanced response to something worthy of respect. Wonder, on the other hand, involves the wonderer. The wonderer is not a distance observer, but a participator with those wonders. As involved in the process, the wonderer experiences a great pleasure. This pleasure is not simply that of amusement (far from it!), but a hope that that which causes awe in us due to our ignorance can come to be known. Again, says Thomas, “wonder is a cause of pleasure in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge one desires to have. … Wonder gives pleasure … in so far as it includes the desire of learning the cause, and in so far as the wonderer learns something new.” Wonder, therefore, is intimately linked with hope. For, if there is no hope that the wonderer will come to know the object of his wonder, the only result is despair. Consequently, any belief system which denies that knowledge is possible, or that truth is attainable by the human mind, must be a system of despair; and must chastise the child that wonders.

If this desire to wonder and to know is innate in human nature, why then do many people stop wondering as they grow? A full treatment of the decline in our wonder is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to suggest one possibility. As we grow, we sin, and as we sin, we violate our very nature. The effects of this will vary as individuals vary, but one of the effects is often the diminished desire for our very nature to develop. We lose what G.K. Chesterton calls, “the eternal appetite of infancy” (Orthodoxy, 58) The world becomes a wearisome and tiresome place, because we are wearied and tired of ourselves. We are born, as Wordsworth puts, “trailing clouds of glory … [and] Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” But as we grow up, we grow old and can no longer see Heaven around us.

The question now becomes, what is to be done? How are we to recover this eternal infancy? How are we to grow up, without growing old? The answer must partly come from education. Education of the kind that does not dull the mind into submission, but which liberates it from opinion and ignorance, and feeds it on truth, goodness, and beauty. Then, and only then, is the mind freed to continue wondering, knowing, and delighting in the process as it matures. Furthermore, as the mind matures, it’s capacity to wonder also matures and so too does the delight in knowing. In short, we become more human, more of what we are, more of what we were intended to be.

On Grades and Grading

Good Grade on TestI often tell my students, “I’d rather take exams than grade exams.”  Their response is usually the typical groan and eye-roll only teenagers can effect.  Anyone who has done both knows I am right.

Yesterday in my Rhetoric class we read the essay “Grades” by James V. Schall in his excellent book, Another Sort of Learning.  The main thrust of Schall’s musings on grades is that they are a terrible nuisance and really don’t matter:

Grades are things not to worry about. Says who?  Well, I do, in a way.  No one is in a university to “get good grades”, even though your grades may be the main concern of the good tuition payers back home. … If to get a good grade a student reads St. Augustine—well, terrific.  But I am also impressed by someone who reads St. Augustine and gets a D-, but who five or twenty-five years later is still reading him. It takes all one’s life to read St. Augustine, so the first dozen times through probably deserve a D- anyhow.

What is most important, of course, is that the student learns, not that they get a particular grade.  After all, how many of you can remember what grade you got in Junior English in High School? Says Schall,

When students get as ancient as certain unnamed professors, of course, as they inevitably will, something Cicero taught in his marvelous essay “On Old Age”, just what grade they got back in Government 117 will tend to be obscured by their inability to recall whether they actually ever took Government 117 in the first place. The only thing we need to recall is what we read, what we spoke about, and if we are lucky, what we wrote about.

Now, over at the Imaginative Conservative, John Wilson, professor emeritus of history at Hillsdale College, claims that grades are “the chief cruelty of our profession: assigning our student to paradise, purgatory, or the inferno with the stroke of a pen.”

Quite rightly, Wilson reminds us that “grades” are a modern invention (one that I would argue can be traced back to Descartes and his desire to measure everything with regards to Mathematics):

Grades as we know them are a relatively recent educational innovation. Although Yale president Ezra Stiles tried as early as the 1780s to rank his seniors (Optimi, 2nd Optimi, Inferiones, Pejores) it didn’t take. Mt. Holyoke College was the first institution to adopt a grading system—in 1897, about the time my grandfather graduated from Syracuse. . . .

Grades were invented by my grandfather’s generation, a product of an age of democracy and equality, science and technology and measurement; an age of organization and bureaucracy: The Progressive Era. Grades are no more “natural” to teaching, or to education in general, than is the SAT, which is also a reflection of similar cultural assumptions.

But none of this consoles me.  I still have a stack of essays, exams, quizzes, and exercises to grade.  More Port please.