12 January, 2010

The Purposes of Liberal Education and What We Read

Most students I talk to who become psychology majors in college do it to find an answer to the secrets of human motivation: Why do humans do what they do? This impulse to turn to a quasi-science like psychology is, in the end, rather sophomoric. The question posed is sophisticated enough and driven by real curiosity. But seeking the answer in psychology short-circuits the pursuit by excluding other real contenders that explain human life, human motives, human “wiring,” man’s location in the kosmos, and man’s location in society. In fact, one could argue that what emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the so-called “social sciences” are, in fact, narrow Enlightenment approaches to the questions and answers to the big questions that Western higher culture has concerned itself with from the inception. And those are the questions to which the higher liberal education, in part, directs itself. So from the perspective of liberal education, Thucydides matters because he is among the first to pose and attempt to answer the natty questions of human motivation, human nature, and the interaction of human agents. Vergil matters because he articulates in ways no modern civics book can the demands and complications of patriotism. The list goes on. Every profound modern attempt to drive at the nature of things, including that undertaken by liberal education, cannot do its work properly without first considering the ways of positing those questions and answering them offered heretofore.

Even if contemporary defenders of traditional liberal education are quick to retreat from admitting they’re thinking of, much less propounding, something we might call a “canon” (see, for example, the pusillanimity of Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, and Bruce S. Thornton in The Bonfire of the Humanities), traditional liberal education in fact not only countenances but even recommends and revels in a something, in this case, a list of books, that “measures up” to the perennial human questions (“canon,” κανών/kanón, in its original conception is a “measuring reed;” the “list” we think of when we think of the term “canon” is a “canon” only by metonymy, by applying the term used for the measuring stick to the thing measured). Even our thinking about human nature, the nature of God, what truth, beauty, and justice look like, is traditionally formed. I am concerned about these questions because they have been handed down to me as a denizen of 21st century Western society. To approach these questions, it only makes sense to think about recognizably great answers to them by direct encounter with the texts that have broached them. This direct encounter with such texts not only whisks me quickly towards some profound answers, it also enables me to escape, if need be, the confines of the “traditional” answers: if I know, for example, that my intuitive sense that justice is simply whatever the one in power determines to be just has already been articulated—and refuted—by Plato in the Republic and the Gorgias, or at least for his own time, I am enabled to move past a pessimistic view of justice that really isn’t just and towards something that may, in fact, better grasp justice. If, however, I encounter “justice” in a term like “social justice” in a sociology class, I am stuck with, or rather mired in, its idiosyncratic definition, left to think that there’s only one way to answer what it is, and hence only one way to pursue it. Let me think about justice from the beginning, however, and I am much better prepared to understand what it is, its complications, and its promises.

That’s why theology, too, is a “traditional” discipline. It doesn’t make up answers to the nature of God or dream them up, it works in a triangle between the base text, Scripture, what great theologians have already thought about it, and the contemporary reader of both, who avails himself of the tools of the languages of Scripture, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, to think it all through. Such an encounter shuts off blind alleys, or at least puts the reader on notice that one’s coming, opens avenues for understanding not immediately apparent, and, as above, whisks the student away quickly towards a more profound, if not also more complicated, answer. This is that credo ut intelligam et intelligo ut credam (“I believe in order to understand, and I understand to believe.”). Liberal education says that when faced with the question, “Why didn’t God choose to become an ass rather than a man to save mankind?” we’ve already got some pretty profound answers to the question (Anselm’s Cur deus homo? for example). It also says that Anselm’s answer can and should be read with critical appreciation and appreciative criticism, so that his answer can be accepted for what it is, refined, rejected, added to, or what have you. But Anselm’s answer, to continue with this example, keeps me from spinning my wheels or simply dismissing a question that begs for an answer.

So is there a canon? Yes, it’s one that corresponds to the profound and profoundly important perennial human questions by profoundly bringing the inquirer into direct contact with profound, if not always correct, answers.

Such was the shape of the Wittenberg curriculum in the faculty of the arts, made up as it was, of the artes humaniores, “the quite human arts.” At Wittenberg the answer to “What is man?” was enriched and complicated and challenged, inspiring further inquiry and thought, by Homer, Cicero, Horace, the Bible. It wasn’t good enough to think about the question using the Bible alone because, well, other humans had offered other profound answers to the question, answers that might or might not enrich, challenge, and complicate the biblical answer. Nor in Wittenberg was it good enough to answer the question using Homer, Cicero, or Horace alone, without the Bible, for the same reasons. The Bible might offer an excellent theological answer to anthropology; but it could not, perhaps, offer an answer to human political and social excellences, or at least in the same way that Homer, Cicero and Horace could. Notate bene, however, that what the Wittenberg Reformation rejected was the scholasticism of the late Medieval world that offered an attenuated encounter with these profound answers, if any at all. The scholasticism of the time provides an analogue to today’s hyper scholasticism manifested in the profusion of disciplines and subdisciplines, each more specialized than the next, that, in the end, only wind up short-circuiting the liberal educational impulse to have profound encounters with profound ideas through the...”canon.”


DirtyFace said...

This is my first attempt at blogging. I'm well educated, having come through the old gymnasium of Concordia Junior Colleges and the Senior College (when it was that) the first year of its existence. My age is 71, and I was ordained in Houston at Trinity downtown on Houston Avenue and Riesner Street when Pastor Oliver R. Harms was there before following Dr. Behnken as synodical president. John Behnken preached in German and English at Trinity before I was born and married my parents, Carl Adam Bahr and Louise Elisabeth Heisner Bahr. Oliver R. Harms baptized and confirmed me in the old Trinity church facing Reisner and the old jail building before downtown renewal or sorts. His wife Bertie held me as I was baptized as an infant with a tradition of Lutheran Pastors in my father's family: his brother, Otto Bahr was pastor in El Paso, and in Iowa and elsewhere. My uncle Lawrence married Emma Herzberg and their oldest boy was a chaplain in the US Air Force. I'm interested in this blog because it has so many talented folds linquistically and theologically (not to mention chemestry, science, and the arts). My father's ancestors were from Bavaria, while my Grossmutter's maiden name was Bartsch, in German sometimes written .....(in script almost lost to Americans). Emilie married a George Heisner, which in Germany was most surely Heussner (with an umlaut) which looked like two ii's and two nn's and became in the immigration offices Heisner. When under Dr. Behnken German services were suspended (abandoned) during WW II she helped new immigrants by starting another church called "Bethlehem" in the Heights of Houston just off Studewood and 14th (??) with Pastor Froehlich preaching in German and English. She helped support the beginning of Lutheran High School education by donating the clock with chain and bell to denote changes of classes. The first Lutheran High School in Houston broke ground in about 1950, and the first yearbook of the initial graduating class was in 1952. (a copey of that yearbook called the "Pioneer" can be found on Facebook under my name, Frederic H. Bahr. Grossmutter taught us (me, my sisters, my cousins) German prayers every night she kept us on 10th street off Studewood (now Studemont). The method used was verbal imitation of the Vater Unser, which we could say, knowing only that it was the "Lord's Prayer". My oldest sister (Evelyn Bahr Garske) spoke German with Grossmutter who learned English with her bi-lingual German/English Bible. She followed WAM Meyer on "The Lutheran Hour" and helped send care packages, blankets, etc. to Germany. My mother's older brother, Geoge Gustav Heisner and younger sister, Ruth (Freels) Heisner, were raised in the Panhandle of Oklahoma at Guymon. My dad, his brothers Otto, Fred, Lawrence, and younger sister, Gertrude were raised just outside Houston near Tomball, Bammel, Klein, and Rose Hill, and the Cyprus/Fairbanks communities. Dad's ancestors were from Bavaria and much to my surprise he also could speak low German. I found the meaning of the words in German prayers I had learned as a child when I took German at Lutheran High School graduating in 1956. Marvin R. Schlichting taught German, and Grossmutter and momma probably drove him back to Chicago by their rapid fire German conversation. He taught mathematics and was the author of a text in Intermediate Algebra. Grandma Bahr was a Klein and I grew up with A B Klein who became a Doctor and conversed with John Klein, another cousin. One such (there were several John Kleins) wrote a memoir of his work at the Deaf institute in Detroit entitled, "To you, my legacy of Love." I'm ending this now to perhaps be continued if there is any interest. My graduating class from Erin Seronin's architechtual village in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, of 1960 is having a reunion with the faculty of that decade this summer in August 3-5, 2010, on campus. You are invited to ask questions. FHB

Steve Gehrke said...

"It doesn’t make up answers to the nature of God or dream them up, it works in a triangle between the base text, Scripture, what great theologians have already thought about it, and the contemporary reader of both, who avails himself of the tools of the languages of Scripture, grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric, to think it all through. Such an encounter shuts off blind alleys, or at least puts the reader on notice that one’s coming, opens avenues for understanding not immediately apparent, and, as above, whisks the student away quickly towards a more profound, if not also more complicated, answer."

I love this on several levels. The day I realized that the novel insights that I thought I had from reading the Bible without guidance from pastors or reference to the Confessions or church fathers were either a) heretical or b) not novel was the day I began to become a confessional Lutheran. It fundamentally changed my approach to Christianity: Christianity wasn't something to discover for myself (as our culture teaches us about religion) but something to learn from those called by God to teach, whether those teachers were alive or spoke only through books.

Secondarily, this also describes the process of teaching engineering sophomores: "you aren't clever enough to 'wing it,' you need to learn to follow the methods of the profession. The most effective methods to solve these problems was established long ago." Sometimes they can only learn this the hard way - by floundering on their own before they concede they have to learn from the professor and the text.