Reminder: A Hermeneutics of Suspicion is Bad for Children

From C.S. Lewis’ underrated and under-read book An Experiment in Criticism:

“For this reason I am very doubtful whether criticism is a proper exercise for boys and girls. A clever schoolboy’s reaction to his reading is most naturally expressed by parody or imitation. The necessary condition of all good reading is ‘to get ourselves out of the way’; we do not help the young to do this by forcing them to keep on expressing opinions.”

“If you already distrust the man you are going to meet, everything he says or does will seem to confirm your suspicions. We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can’t be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader.”

A few thoughts occurred to me as I ran across these passages.

1) Imitation is not a “skill” or “learning objective.” You can’t measure it. It’s a natural response that stems from a place of deep admiration, a desire to participate in something good/beautiful, and an impulse to see a good/beautiful thing reproduced in a new way.

2) Teaching a young student to love literature is very different from using literature to teach critical thinking skills. Critical thinking attempts to decode and to deconstruct for the purpose of finding the “true” (i.e., subversive!) meaning of a text. I can’t think of anything more contrary to the way a child approaches the world. Critical thinking doesn’t produce wonder, it crushes it.

3) Let me clarify: not all critical thinking is bad. Obviously, as a teacher, I don’t want to encourage students to simply accept philosophical, theological, scientific, or literary ideas at face value. But I also don’t want them to become disposed to suspicion–as if cynicism is the only virtue that’ll keep us safe from a mindless devotion to the deluge of media information. If critical thinking will have a proper place in education, it’s to instill a greater admiration for the form and context of a work of art. Unfortunately, it’s too often an act of analysis that is too quick to say things like, “Shakespeare was gay!” and “Chaucer was a proto-feminist!” and then revel in the idea that these authors were merely subversive thinkers during their time according to contemporary western cultural values.

4) If we’re going to teach young students how to read well, we should aid them in their natural capacity for wonder. My one year old son’s ability to wonder at his fingers and dead leaves in the same breath can be disarming to someone, like me, whose mode of operation is primarily task-oriented. Wonder can also be undermined by a constant concern that everyone is trying to sell you something or convince you of an unorthodox opinion. I’m more and more convinced that sometimes we can relax. If you enjoy a movie, painting, or piece of music, don’t worry about whether there’s an underlying agenda. Just enjoy it. And then ask yourself why you enjoy it. It turns out that you may learn something more wonderful about yourself and the thing you enjoy.

 

The Long Defeat

From Fr. Stephen Freeman reflecting on Tolkien’s notion that history is a “long defeat:”

It was a common belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors. Indeed it was said that in the end, the simple act of believing would take greater grace than all of the ascetic feats of the earliest monks.*

This is not a Christian pessimism. If history tells us anything, it is that this is a very honest, even prescient reading. The evils of the 20th century, particularly those unleashed during and after World War I, are clearly among the worst ever known on the planet, and continue to be the major culprits behind all of our current struggles. That first war was not “the war to end all wars,” but the foundation of all subsequent wars. May God forgive our arrogance (“boasters, proud”…). However, the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

*emphasis mine

Critical Thinking

Leaving this here to remind myself to read it again later.

The teaching profession is infected with the idea that “critical thinking” is the primary goal of education. The idea comes in a few different disguises. When I was taking a “Teaching Composition” course in grad school, they called it “Writing across the curriculum.” Unfortunately, the result is a pedagogy that looks askance at anything that resembles rote memorization or knowledge mastery, and is accompanied by textbooks with fragmented bits of content. I had some firsthand experience of this when I taught from a Common Core English high school textbook a few years ago.  It’s a sad state of affairs.

On Critical Thinking:

Thinking cannot be separated from knowledge. Instead, critical thinking is learning to use our knowledge. The most effective critical thinkers, then, are those who learn history or physics. The stuff we learn about matters.

How, then, should colleges and universities understand skills? They should see them in relation to the goods of liberal education. This means that skills should be developed in the context of reading and writing about literature or history or engaging in scientific inquiry.

We can only think critically about things about which we have knowledge, and we can only make use of facts if we know how to think about them.

In other words, intellectual skills and knowledge are not two distinct things. They must work together to produce critical thinkers. Put more baldly, despite all the rhetoric, there is no such thing as critical thinking in general.

Holiness and Wendell Berry

Brad East has a great line at the end of a short post about holiness.

What I am convinced about is that, e.g., the moral vision of Wendell Berry is both good and beautiful and not sufficiently converted to the gospel. And if some forms of Christian political theology don’t recognize that, then so much the worse for them.

Reading those final sentences, I had a familiar experience where I thought, “Hey, I think that’s been a blind spot in the way I’ve thought about X, and I think it explains some of the intuitive, though mostly subliminal, hesitation I may have had about it.” Maybe Berry’s work isn’t Christian enough, which is an odd thought if you’re at all familiar with Berry. Read the rest of Brad’s post to find out what “not Christian enough” might mean.

Social Conditioning

Alan Jacobs:

I don’t think we reckon with this phenomenon often enough, or seriously enough. The major social-media companies have been conducting for the past decade an implementation of B. K. Skinner’s principles more massive than anything we can truly imagine. They have found ways to get billions of people to volunteer for the experiments and devote sometimes hours a day to pursuing them. Operant conditioning at this level works. And its effects are difficult to undo.

One way to see this: often when people get sick of Facebook or Twitter or Instagram and find some other online venue, they simply bring with them to their new location the habits they learned in the previous ones: the snark of Twitter, the rants of Facebook, the posturing of Instagram. It’s like the old line about travel: wherever you go, there you are. It’s hard enough for people to leave Facebook or Instagram or Twitter behind; what’s almost impossible to leave behind is the person that those sites’ algorithmic behaviorism turned you into.

Having recently deleted my Twitter account, I’m officially off social media. And I can tell you, Jacobs is not wrong. The withdrawal symptoms of FOMO (fear of missing out) and a general disorientation about where and what to give my attention to online are powerful forces that make me wonder if I made a poor decision. I’ve been conditioned a) to expect the internet to behave like a social media site, and b) to find the deluge of information that floods a social media feed comforting.

It’s probably too soon for me to make a true assessment of this decision. So, I plan to stick to it for a while. In the meantime, I’ll try to hang around here a little more as I work through the withdrawal symptoms.