There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said…
This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.~C.S. Lewis, Introduction to On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius
I believe I can help those who want to think better, but—I need to say it before taking one more step—no, it’s not because I’m an academic. My fellow academics, taken as a group, are just as reluctant to engage in genuine reflection as the less highly educated person in the street. Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sorts of things that your professors like to hear.
~Alan Jacobs, How to Think (pp. 23-24)
I read this in bed a few weeks ago. Academics are not immune to peer pressure, Jacobs says. Over the next few days, similar ideas from a variety of authors floated to the surface of my mind. A kind of conversation emerged:
First voice, John Locke
Michael Shermer wrote for the Scientific American about speaking with narrow minded people. I considered here that his advice was sound, but his article seemed too lax on his own atheistic tribe. I brought in John Locke, who said we tend to think and argue in favor of our desires, rather than our reason.
Second voice, Allan Bloom
In what oddly became the most commonly visited post on this site, I reflected on Bernie Sanders’ popularity and his supporters use of the term ‘Revolution’. I mention Allan Bloom:
Freedom of the mind requires not only, or not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside.
~Allan Bloom, Closing of the American Mind, (emphasis mine)
When we remove the voices that challenge us, we should beware the ecology of ideas we’re creating. Locke and Bloom reinforce Jacobs’ concern.
Third voice, Rosaria Butterfield
I remembered a counterpoint to Jacobs. Rosaria Butterfield, wrote on the benefit of university culture. Describing her entrance into the church after conversion:
I miss being in the company of risky and complex thinkers, people who are invested in our culture and who challenge me to think to the edges of my comfort zones. I believed then and I believe now that where everybody thinks the same nobody thinks very much.
~Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of An Unlikely Convert, pg. 7
Butterfield argues that the Academy is a fitting place for the exchange of ideas. See how her statement echoes Bloom? There’s tyranny afoot when other perspectives are edged out. Jacobs, however, says there’s more insularity in the Academy than Butterield acknowledges. Professors aren’t immune to the peer pressure and temptations to desire Locke mentioned.
Maybe Butterfield is issuing a statement of faith in what the university should be.
Finale, Matthew Crawford
Matthew Crawford, the philosopher-turned-motorcycle-mechanic, agrees:
Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. Psychologists therefore would do well to ask whether “metacognition” (thinking critically about your own thinking) is at bottom a social phenomenon. It typically happens in conversation— not idle chitchat, but the kind that aims to get to the bottom of things. I call this an “art” because it requires both tact and doggedness. And I call it a moral accomplishment because to be good at this kind of conversation you have to love the truth more than you love your own current state of understanding. This is, of course, an unusual priority to have, which may help to account for the rarity of real mastery in any pursuit.
~Matthew Crawford, emphasis mine. The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (p. 63).
Rare indeed. This is my favorite kind of reading. Continuing Crawford’s argument, guiding your books into a conversation is indispensable when learning to think. The kind of freedom that emerges is what a liberal arts education is all about. Think about it.
In my increasingly small pockets of spare time, I’ve been guiltily sneaking portions of Alan Jacobs’ book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. Yes, I’m aware of the irony. The stolen snatches have been sweet, though. So much of his writing resonates with my own reading experience. Jacobs also gives me a thrilling vision for the possibilities of happiness that can come of a well-read life. Here’s a delightful snippet on ‘reading upstream’:
Let us start by returning to the case of the reader as fan: the person who has read all the Narnia books or all of Dickens’s novels, and who wonders where to turn, especially if fanfiction and professional sequels don’t seem to help. One possible, and rather simple, expedient is this: we can turn our temporal attention upstream rather than downstream- toward what preceded Tolkien or Austen or whomever rather than what succeeded them. After all, Austen became the Austen we know largely through her reading- something that is true of almost all writers. (I don’t want to suggest here that earlier is always better: if after reading Homer you read Virgil, and after Virgil Dante, you’re not exactly slumming it. But, because our own lives move forward in time, or maybe just because we have prejudice in favor of the new, our natural tendency is to move downstream. It’s tendency worth resisting, sometimes.)
What is the purpose of a college education in 2016? I recently came across an interesting piece in USA Today by James K.A. Smith, a Christian philosopher who has grabbed my attention in the past year. His article engages proposals that Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton have made regarding the availability of a college education to American citizens. When discussing the veritable behemoth issue of costs, Smith addresses the underlying question so little asked today: why college at all?
I’ve reflected previously on the observable tension between promoters of the liberal arts and the devotees of the manual trades. A father of four, I’m a laborer in the construction trades pursuing an undergraduate degree in theology with a psychology minor, so the question has haunted me for some time. Though I’m cash flowing my final year, I’ve still amassed a sizable student loan that begs for justification.
The return on investment for a business degree is more easily seen than a course of study in say, theology. Ahem. I note that this return isn’t guaranteed- a guaranteed financial return for a college degree in any field is surely an illusion today. But it’s not hard to say that most undergraduate theology majors aren’t moving into a lucrative job market.
In my experience, the course of study was worth it, finances notwithstanding. Studying theology in particular and the liberal arts more generally has profoundly shaped the way I view my work. I wasn’t studying theology to get one more qualification on my resume, or to open one more door for a promotion- I wanted knowledge. I needed to make sense of my chaotic (and, as I would learn to call it- idolatrous) inner life. I needed to develop a worldview that brought a sense of unity and coherence. I wanted to change who I was. I wanted to gain access to the history of ideas so that I wouldn’t be a slave to the thinking of the present.
Obviously, I have a lot of things I would have done differently. I wouldn’t have borrowed money when I could have cash flowed the expenses over a longer course of study. C’est la vie. My wife and I have lots of thinking to do about our children’s education. But that should probably come in another post.
So, why college? I’m intrigued by the question and our political discussions on funding and availability assume an answer. What’s yours?