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?
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)
This paragraph points to what a liberal arts education is all about. Freedom of the mind does not equal intellectual obstinacy- it is a historical awareness that frees us to see our place in the history of ideas. Bloom’s point is easily seen in our political landscape. Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proclaimed that his campaign signals the beginning of a political revolution. Revolution. Maybe our situation warrants this kind of change, but I doubt it.
My guess is that his supporters (comprised mostly of my generation I’m told) don’t have the sense of historical backdrop with which to compare their own political ideology. ‘Radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ are terms that might excite a young movement looking for something to live for, but we need to be able to properly judge whether we’re trading one tyranny (whether real or imagined) for a worse. Bloom says that endeavor will require an education.
When he wasn’t blasting the ‘effrontery’ of his opponents (dubbed miscreants and asses), John Calvin could write with gracious clarity and depth. The excerpt below shows the characteristic skill of his pen. I have long sensed a need to take more time to read passages like these with care. “Books,” says Thoreau, “must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”
Since I don’t have to work too hard to find material like this today, I have to fight the reality that the abundance of good reading can turn me in to a page skimmer rather than a reader.
We frequently read about great theologians- which is helpful, no doubt- but we need to devote time to hearing from them directly:
Faith does not promise us length of days, riches, and honors, (the Lord not having been pleased that any of these should be appointed us;) but is contented with the assurance, that however poor we may be in regard to present comforts, God will never fail us. The chief security lies in the expectation of future life, which is placed beyond doubt by the word of God. Whatever be the miseries and calamities which await the children of God in this world, they cannot make his favor cease to be complete happiness…
In short, if we have every earthly comfort to a wish, but are uncertain whether we have the love or hatred of God, our felicity will be cursed, and therefore miserable. But if God lift on us the light of his fatherly countenance, our very miseries will be blessed, inasmuch as they will become helps to our salvation.
Thus Paul, after bringing together all kinds of adversity, boasts that they cannot separate us from the love of God: and in his prayers he uniformly begins with the grace of God as the source of all prosperity.
In like manner, to all the terrors which assail us, David opposes merely the favor of God,- “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me,” (Ps. 23:4). And we feel that our minds always waver until, contented with the grace of God, we in it seek peace, and feel thoroughly persuaded of what is said in the psalm, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, and the people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance,” (Ps. 33:12).
~ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion