126 Recalling Education

                Hugh Mercer Curtler, Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Honors Program at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota, urges us, in Recalling Education (Wilmington:  ISI Books, 2001), to undertake “a revolution in American education” (p. ix).  Appropriating Thomas Jefferson’s axiom that a nation needs a revolution every 20 years, Curtler argues that higher education should, above all else, liberate young people from the various shackles that threaten to imprison them.  Importantly, the liberty he champions, is (as Dostoevsky defined it “only the mastering of one’s self” (p. 1).  Accordingly, John Locke cautioned us not to allow someone “unrestrained liberty before he has reason to guide him” (p. 42).

                Curtler believes that the educational ‘situation has never been as bad as it is at present’ (p. 162).  Despite the vast numbers of students and universities, despite the superficial glamour they exude, ‘Our experiment with higher education, on balance, must be regarded as one of the great disappointments of the twentieth century’ (p. 162).  This is so, in part, because much ‘education’ has been reduced to ‘schooling’ and ‘job training,’ replete with the acquisition of information rather than understanding.  Accordingly, students now graduate from universities without anything resembling a ‘liberal education.’ 

                The schools, of course, mouth slogans celebrating ‘multiculturalism,’  ‘self-actualization,’ and ‘self-esteem,’ but these are, Curtler insists, the converse of real liberty, which comes with the cultivation of character, the discipline of desires, the conquest of irrational instincts.  Education, as the ancient Greeks insisted, should incubate arete:  human excellence.  Such cannot be programmed or indoctrinated, but it can be encouraged.  Educators, as Aristotle said, can provide a positive environment within which moral and intellectual virtues flourish.  Teaching the right skills, such as reading, and telling the right stories, illustrating the difference between right and wrong, provide youngsters with the mental and moral muscles necessary to become excellent human beings. 

                So, Curtler argues, colleges and universities must recover their main mission, rooted in the liberal arts.  Restoring required general education courses to one-third of the graduation requirements (as done by PLNU and other Nazarene universities) would be a major step in that direction. 


                Sharing Curtler’s concern, Richard T. Hughes, in How the Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 2001), urges believers to blend heart and mind in their walk with God.  A Distinguished Professor of Religion and director of the Center for Faith and Learning at PepperdineUniversity, Hughes is a proven scholar with an established commitment to higher education.  There is, he believes, a fatal dichotomy in the nation’s mind (a dichotomy I might add as ancient as the Athens-Jerusalem tension that pitted Tertullian against Clement of Alexandria):  secular institutions ignore religious realities; church institutions, reacting, minimize the live of the mind.

                Some non-Christians know nothing about the Bible; some Christians know nothing but the Bible.  Hughes, however, argues that ‘dynamic Christian faith requires that we learn to make connections and to think creatively about the meaning of what we believe.  We call this kind of thinking ‘theology,’ and if we have any hope that Christian faith might sustain the life of the mind, every Christian scholar must learn to work as a theologian in his or her own right’ (p. 6).  We’re called to live in two worlds.  Or perhaps we’re called to live in the real world, where neither secular nor sacred is depreciated. 

                Hughes thus examines various stances, ranging from the Catholic ‘sacramental principle’ to the Reformed concern for ‘transformation’ to the Mennonites’ holism to the Lutheran ‘theology of the cross’ and its faith/doubt paradoxes.  Each approach has its strengths, duly acknowledged.  What Hughes insists is that one take a stand and address his world from within a clearly Christian position.  As a member of the Church of Christ, he himself takes a Reformed approach, sizeably influenced by Lutheranism. 

                When he describes how he teaches, and the sources he uses, however, it becomes more clear what Hughes envisions.  Paul Tillich’s theology, he says, enables him to engage students in suitable ways.  Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States he finds ‘profoundly Christian in its orientation, not because the book is written by a Christian since, of course, it is not.  Rather this book embraces the same ‘upside-down’ values that we have been taught by the Christian faith’ (p. 121).  If ‘upside-down’ means devious and distorted, no doubt Zinn should be used!  Zinn’s radical ‘history’ mentions Pilgrims and Puritans only in their role as Indian-killers, deletes Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney from the nation’s story, and generally celebrates socialism (Zinn’s personal agenda) everywhere.  That Hughes ’embraces’ on one of the most radical, slanted ‘New Left’ history texts ought give us reason to question his reliability! 

                When we learn what texts he assigns in his ‘Religion and Race in America’ class, we grasp how the good professor–earlier opposed to ‘indoctrinating’ students in theology–fervently does precisely that when he approaches really important issues such as racism.  Christian doctrines must be dealt with dispassionately–or even dutifully doubted.  But on issues such as race prejudice there can be no questions!  Finally, we’re urged to duplicate the ‘passion’ of Chris Lovdjieff, a San Quentin inmate who so impressed his fellow inmate, Eldridge Cleaver, that he called him ‘The Christ.’  Given Cleaver’s subsequent trajectory, one rather wonders how his jailhouse teacher provides us a model for emulation.  How what Hughes does with all this, claiming to stay rooted in a cogently Christian worldview easily eludes me!

                From Lovdjieff in prison, we segue to Parker Palmer’s treatise, The Courage to Teach, with its Quaker concern for the ‘Inner Light’ and a ‘circle of seekers’ gathered together to discuss ‘great things.’  We ‘teach who we are,’ Palmer says (p. 145), and Hughes agrees.  He’s teaching himself, properly clad in Tillich, Zinn, and Eldridge Cleaver!


                Robert Benne, a professor of religion at RoanokeCollege, a ‘partly secularized church-related’ Lutheran college, offers us Quality with Soul:  How Six Premier Colleges and Universities Keep Faith with Their Religious Traditions (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 2001).  Arguing against doomsayers, such as James Burtchaell in The Dying of the Light, Benne finds much to commend in six exemplary schools:   Calvin, Wheaton, Valparaiso, Notre Dame, Baylor, and St. Olaf.

                Benne admits that virtually all Christian colleges, in time, slip away from their denominational ties and theological commitments.  Certain trajectories, such as declining numbers of students and faculty from the sponsoring denominations, the shunting aside of chapel, the elevation of humanitarian service projects over personal piety, and the loss of a clearly articulated theological vision, generally reveal this secularizing process.  But the process is neither inevitable nor irreversible.  What Benne wants to discover, in the ‘premier’ institutions he studies, is the secret to keeping Christian colleges Christian. 

                CalvinCollege, for example, clearly subscribes to the tightly wrapped theology of the Christian Reformed Church.  Professors both understand and articulate the college’s theologically-grounded worldview.  ‘With its emphases on the importance of education, cultural formation and preservation, and even covenant theology, the Christian Reformed subculture is arguably Protestantism’s counterpart to Judaism’ (p. 70).  Similarly, WheatonCollege, a non-denominational evangelical institution, blends the characteristic themes of biblicism, conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism, and sustains a vigorous Christian educational program.  Both colleges have a clearly articulated vision, a vibrant chapel program, and demonstrate the possibility of ‘quality with soul.’ 

                BaylorUniversity (Southern Baptist), and Notre DameUniversity (Roman Catholic), lack some of the clear indices of Christian institutions, but Benne thinks they have maintained a solid commitment to their traditions and demonstrate much religious vitality.  In his own theological tradition, two Lutheran colleges, Valparaiso and St. Olaf, seem even more tenuously ‘Christian’ in their vision and commitment.  But Benne stresses that there are possibilities for revival and renewal.  Though for some it may be a ‘long road back’ to the vision and spiritual vitality of their founders, such schools may very well find it. 

                Benne provides us with positive models–especially Calvin and Wheaton–evidence sustaining hope for the risky endeavor of keeping Christian colleges Christian.  But compared with the substantial research and sobering data of Burtchael the largely anecdotal and impressionistic materials in Quality with Soul leave one wondering about its generally Pollyanna-style spin.  Reading (in World Magazine) that Congressman Tom Delay urges folks not to send young people to Baylor, because of its liberalism, it’s perplexing to find Benne recommending it for its ‘Christian’ commitment.  


                Rather than lamenting the demise of liberal education, Jeffrey Hart reveals how it should be done in Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe:  Toward the Revival of Higher Education (New Haven:  Yale University Press, c. 2001).  He’s now Professor Emeritus, of English at DartmouthCollege.  ‘For years,’ Tracy Lee Simmons says, ‘Hart delivered a series of lectures to incoming students at Dartmouth on the theme ‘How to Get a College Education, Even If You’re in the Ivy League.’  The point was that no college or university guaranteed such an education:  It had to be pursued consciously, zealously, step by step.  Hart gave his audience practical pointers to use when choosing coursework and professors.  One was to stay away from courses with the word ‘studies’ in their titles–like ‘African-American Studies’ or ‘Women’s Studies’–they’re likely to be seedbeds of radical ignorance.  Keep to normal courses like ‘American Colonial History’ and ‘Seventeenth Century English Poetry.’  (These are risky enough.)  Another pointer was to avoid any professor who doesn’t come to class wearing a coat and tie ‘unless he’s won a Nobel Prize” (Crisis {April 2002}, pp. 51-52). 

                Hart’s persuaded that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says, ‘A people that no longer remembers has lost its history and its soul’ (p. vi).  Educators’ great task, Hart insists, is to help coming generations remember.  College professors, especially, must sustain the memory of the great works which anchor the grandeur of Western Civilization.  Quoting one of his own influential teachers, the philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, he asserts that education should enculturate citizens–and “a citizen is a person who, if need be, can re-create his civilization” (p. ix). 

                Western Civilization developed, Hart holds, as a result of the creative tension–a dialectic–between Athens and Jerusalem, blending the lofty goals of spiritual and intellectual perfection.  “Plato and the Prophets,” said Herman Cohen, “are the most important sources of modern culture” (p. 3).  The views of the Greeks and the Jews came together when important thinkers, beginning with St. Paul, brought them into the synthesis that defined the West. 

                First Hart discusses (by carefully reading their texts) Homer and Moses, two heroic figures who tower over Athens and Jerusalem.  Commenting on the Commandment–’You shall have no other gods before me’–Hart asserts:  ‘Everything else follows from that.  In the great Psalm about the Law, 119, the longest and most elaborately wrought in the Psalms, the psalmist describes the Law as ‘true’ (emeth).  That is, the Law is rooted in Being, in actuality, in the way things are.  Its religious and ethical injunctions are not opinions or recommendations; there are moral and religious rules that are true just as there are observable principles operative in the world of nature’ (p. 63).  Consequently, the Law serves as an operator’s manual for both individuals and societies.

                Then come Socrates and Jesus, who internalized the heroic attributes of their progenitors.  Socrates, Plato shows, ‘internalized the Greek heroic tradition that came down to him as refracted through Homer.  The heroism of the battlefield and the pursuit of arete became heroic philosophy and the pursuit of truth, even at the cost of life itself.’  Four centuries later, ‘Jesus radically internalized the heroic tradition of the patriarchs, Moses, and the Prophets, refining it to an intense concentration on the inward condition of holiness, anchoring the older Law in the purified soul’ (p. 73). 

                Hart gives extensive, perceptive attention to Jesus.  His words, recorded in the four gospels, are ‘eloquent, memorable, often mysterious.  Into the world of the narrative voices there comes this entirely different voice.  . . . .  What this seems to show is that Jesus could not have been created as a fictional or semifictional character even by men who were close to him but virtually had to be part of a recollection they shared, however derived, of an extraordinary person.  Those who wrote the narrative prose could not have imagined the man who spoke as their central figure’ (p. 89). 

                Above all else, Jesus calls us to holiness.  ‘Jesus wants not only good behavior but a radical purification of being’ (p. 95).  ‘We begin to grasp Jesus’ goal for all of us:  the condition of holiness in which the inner self is so disciplined, so perfect, that no stain can possibly adhere to it’ (p. 96).  This call shines forth most clearly in the Sermon on the Mount.  Indeed, Hart wonders, ‘Might it not be that the state of perfect holiness that Jesus asks for in his Sermon on the Mount resembles the mind of God encountered in Genesis?’ (p. 97).  Yes, indeed: ‘What Jesus does in his Sermon on the Mount is concentrate the theme of holiness that can be found in the Hebrew Bible, concentrate it to a sharp point and, as he says, ‘fulfill’ it.  It could be argued that the Hebrew Bible in its deep structure yearns for fulfillment in such a hero as this, who embodies the triumph of holiness in word and act’ (p. 101).

                Drawing together Athens and Jerusalem, St. Paul ‘stands at the center of a mighty transformation, the coming together of biblical tradition and Greek philosophy’ (p. 105), giving birth to the Western mind.  ‘When you trace Western thought back along its many roads you find Paul standing there at a moment of strategic crystallization.  Read Augustine, Dante, Luther, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Dostoyevsky–you are aware of Paul’ (p. 120).  So Professor Hart helps us read and think about some of the great ‘classics’ of the Western tradition, working within the Pauline synthesis. 

                To illustrate Hart’s approach, note his note on Dante.  ‘The souls in Dante’s Inferno are not placed there by some external agency, throwing them into jail against their wills.  In fact they go willingly to the location in Hell appropriate for them.  They had chosen their Hell while still alive.  Their wills never turned against their choice.  Dante often speaks in his poem of the ‘sweet world’ and gives many examples of it in his similes.  Those in Hell lost this sweet world while they were in it through the distortions of their actual choices, their defective wills.  In external appearance, while in the world, they might have been handsome or fair, and prosperous and powerful, but internally they had turned away from the sweet world and also from their highest good.  Their destiny in Hell, as Santayana says, ‘is just what their passion, if left to itself, would have chosen.  It is what passion stops at, and would gladly prolong forever.’  In Hell, to put it another way, they achieve the ideal form of what they had willed all along without ceasing to will it’ (p. 152).

                The book’s title is somewhat misleading, for it exudes thanksgiving for the riches of the Western tradition, relished by a thoroughly experienced scholar who puts it in the best light.  However, in his ‘Afterword,’ Hart ventures to explain the ‘cultural catastrophe’ responsible for crushing liberal arts education.  When he began his studies, as an undergraduate at ColumbiaUniversity in 1948, the Western tradition, represented by the ‘great books,’ was at the core of a student’s studies.  Twenty years later, amidst a cultural  conflagration, that tradition went up in flames.  ‘What these eruptions appear to have had in common was an antinomian dislike of rules, a rebellion against genuine learning and authority, and an egalitarian abandonment of distinctions between the important and the unimportant, even between the prose on a cereal carton and the poetry of Shakespeare.  In their overall thrust, which amounted to a kind of reverse sentimentalism and unjustified rage, these moods appeared to be hostile to Western civilization itself’ (p. 246).

                And indeed they were.  Now hosts of ‘critics’ deconstruct rather than interpret.  Ever alert to various villains, ‘Their own tone is often snarling and accusatory.  Needless to say, the villain always turns out to be variously white, male, Western, racist, imperialist, sexist or homophobic–or, with luck, all of them together.  The result of this is not literary experience but an endless repetition of slogans and cliches’ (p. 246).  Consequently, students rarely receive the ‘education’ they deserve. 

                And yet . . . and yet there’s hope!  Hart ends his treatise with an enconium to Chaucer’s ‘clerc,’ the scholar who forfeited food in order to buy a set of Aristotle’s works. 

                                Of studie took he most cure and most hede.

                                Nought o word spak he more than was neede . . .

                                Souninge in moral vertu was his speche.

                                And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche. (p. 249)

So be it!  However desperate things appear, we need clercs of Chaucer’s stripe.  He gladly learned and taught.  So it is indeed possible, even necessary, to smile and go on teaching–amidst the cultural catastrophe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *