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.

 

Friendship and Society

From Micah Mattix’s recent Prufrock newletter:

I’ve finished the final lectures on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. The final two treat friendship and action. Friendship according to Aristotle is the “most necessary” virtue. I won’t go into Aristotle’s types of friendship (those founded on utility, pleasure, and virtue), but I appreciated his view that friendship is one of the foundations of civilization. It is what binds a city together. We see this idea in classical and modern literature, too. Friendship and hospitality (which is welcoming a stranger as a friend) are quintessentially human attributes in The Odyssey, for example, which are not shared by the gods or the sub-human cyclops. These two ideas—that friendship is the basis of civilization and a touchstone of humanity—are also found in Francis Bacon’s short essay “Of Friendship,” which is obviously drawn from classical sources. Whatever “delights in solitude,” Bacon writes, “is either a wild beast or a god. For it is most true, that a natural and secret hatred, and aversation towards society, in any man, hath somewhat of the savage beast.” It’s not that solitude is bad or unnecessary. It is that to live only in solitude is to live a sub-human life. Without friends, Bacon continues, the “world is but a wilderness.”

It seems to me that we’ve lost this high view of friendship as an aspect of human identity, which we now regularly confuse with personality or view as a discrete construction of the autonomous will rather than as something that is composed of universal attributes. So, it is no surprise that our lives increasingly look like those of the cyclops. We live in caves, in fenced-in back yards, and “consume” each other—on television, in movies, on Facebook and Twitter. And because our lives (I’m speaking generally here about American culture) are ordered around maximizing physical pleasure, not virtue, they must end in suicide when the body’s capacity for physical pleasure wanes. The opioid crisis starts with this low view of human nature and won’t end until a grander view is recaptured, which I don’t see happening any time soon.

The themes of friendship and hospitality have been coming through loud and clear as I’ve been rereading the Odyssey this summer. I’m teaching The Odyssey and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics next year to a group of high school freshman. Discussing the idea of “friendship” seems like a great place to start analyzing and understanding both works…not to mention the myriad of other connections to the other books we’ll read as well (e.g., The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Metamorphoses, etc.). It’s going to be a great year!

Training in Virtue

A quotation from Stanley Hauerwas (H/T: Matthew Lee Anderson):

“Individuals of character have decisions or choices forced upon them, as does anyone else. But an ethic of virtue refuses to make such decisions the paradigmatic center of moral reflection. Morality is not primarily concerned with quandaries or hard decisions, nor is the moral self simply the collection of such decisions. As persons of character we do not confront situations as mudpuddles into which we have to step; rather, the kind of ‘situations’ we confront and how we understand them are a function of the kind of people we are. Thus ‘training in virtue’ often requires that we struggle with the moral decisions which we have ‘got ourselves into’ in the hope that such struggle will help us develop a character sufficient to avoid or understand differently such situations in the future.” – Stanley Hauerwas

I plan to mull this over and hopefully have something to say about it in the near future. Suffice it to say: as an educator, I think about how to cultivate virtue often, though I’m not always sure how or why it happens for some and not for others. I like that Hauerwas draws attention to the significance and insignificance of “choice” in the cultivation of virtue–it’s not simply a matter of will power. There are many other forces at work.

Dante’s Vision of God

Just finished reading Paradise with my students. As a final project, I had them try to draw Dante’s final vision. Here’s the passage from the end of Paradise and a couple examples of what the students came up with.

Within that brilliant and profoundest Being

of the deep light three rings appeared to me,

three color and one measure in their gleaming:

As rainbow begets rainbow in the sky,

so were the first two, and the third, a flame

that from both rainbows breathed forth equally.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

That circle which appeared–in my poor style–

like a reflected radiance in Thee,

after my eyes had studied it awhile,

Within, and in its own hue,

seemed to be tinted with the figure of a Man,

and so I gazed on it absorbedly.

As a geometer struggles all he can

to measure the circle by the square,

but all his cogitation cannot gain

The principle he lacks: so did I stare

at this strange sight, to make the image fit

the aureole, and see it enter there:

But mine were not the feathers for that flight… (Esolen trans., Paradise 33.115-139)

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Thinking through Hell: Guided by my Students

If hell was a museum, my students could be its docents. They just finished reading Dante’s Inferno, and as they read, they had to draw a chart of hell that illustrated the sin, the punishment, and any major characters Dante meets in each circle.

When I assign any kind of project that requires drawing, I set the standards low. After all, on my best days, I can draw stick figures that barely resemble the human form. I’m learning that I’m in the minority, since most of my students have more artistic ability in their pinky finger than I do in my whole body. Needless to say, the finished products were better than I could have hoped for.

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Not pictured: a pop-up book of hell. Easily one of my favorites.

They’ll do a similar project as we read through Purgatory over the next couple weeks. Pictures to come.

Frankenstein in High and Low Culture

I just read Frankenstein with my ninth grade students, and it was a big hit. Little did I realize, that 2018 is the 200th birthday of Mary Shelley’s novel. It was originally published in 1818, though most versions today are based on Shelley’s later revisions in 1831.

The Morgan Library Museum has an exhibition right now, It’s Alive!, that displays Frankenstein through the centuries–i.e., everything from its first publication, early illustrations, and (surprising to me) immediate stage adaptations.

If you want a good overview of the exhibition, check out Paul A. Cantor’s review. Here’s a snippet from the article–a section that speaks directly to one of my pet peeves about the artificial distinction between low and high art:

It’s Alive manages to be at once enjoyable and educational, as any good exhibition should be. Going through it is like rummaging through the attic of a weird uncle who is part art collector, part mad scientist, and part movie buff. In its total effect, It’s Alive can teach us an important lesson about the unexpectedly complex ways that culture operates. Most people tend to divide culture neatly into the high and the low. There are serious works of art that alone should be studied and can be appreciated only by an elite, well-educated audience. Then there are the works of popular culture, created for the ignorant masses and unworthy of being taken seriously. This understanding reflects an elitist contempt for commercial culture. High culture should exist in splendid isolation, cut off from the corrupting effects of low culture and market forces. In this view, there is only one direction to cultural development: DOWN. If high and low culture interact, it can only be a case of a serious work of art being vulgarized as it is popularized.