Monday, June 18, 2018

'WHO they ARE'

The late Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Antonin Scalia in “College Education,” his commencement address at Catholic University in 1999 (Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived, 2017):

“My point is that, as you have come to learn during your four years here, you are not just the child of your parents who are here today. Physically you are totally theirs, to be sure. But intellectually, attitudinally, culturally, you are a child of the West, and of that particular part of the West that is the United States—which is close to, but not quite the same as, the part that is England, and a little bit further from, but not very far from, the part that is France, and so forth. You are, to mention only a few of your forebears, a child of Homer and Alcibiades,  Cicero and Caesar, Dante and the Medici, Alfred and Chaucer, Joan of Arc and Louis XIV, Elizabeth and Shakespeare, Milton and Cromwell, Carlisle [sic] and Edmund Burke, Hamilton and Jefferson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. Many of your contemporaries, who have not had the benefit of a college education, are as much their children as you are—but they do not know it. They do not really know what they come from, WHO they ARE.”

Sunday, June 17, 2018

'Liberty & Learning'

On Aug. 4, 1822, James Madison writes in a letter to his friend William T. Barry, a Kentucky lawyer and statesman:

“The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free Government, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of Knowledge, that their political Institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter, and are respected as Models, by the new-born States in our own Hemisphere, are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of Man as they are conformable to his individual & social Rights. What spectacle can be more edifying or more seasonable, than that of Liberty & Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual & surest support?”

Saturday, June 16, 2018

'A Group of Companions'

My high-school English teacher, an optimistic but not simple-minded woman, dated the death of culture to circa 1970. Starting around that time, she could no longer make casual references in class and expect to be understood by students. Nothing esoteric. Her examples were Duke Ellington and Winston Churchill. Kids no longer knew who she was talking about and, worse, didn’t care. After half a century, teachers have grown at least as ignorant as their students. Jacques Barzun in “Of What Use the Classics Today?” (Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, 1991):

“The need for a body of common knowledge and common reference does not disappear when a society is pluralistic. On the contrary, it grows more necessary, so that people of different origins and occupation may quickly find familiar ground and as we say, speak a common language. It not only saves time and embarrassment, but it also ensures a kind of mutual confidence and goodwill. One is not addressing an alien, as blank as a stone wall, but a responsive creature whose mind is filled with the same images, memories, and vocabulary as oneself. Since the Biblical source of those common elements can no longer be relied on, the other classics, the secular scriptures, remain the one means of creating a community of minds, a culture—indeed, a society in the original sense of the word, which is: a group of companions.”

Friday, June 15, 2018

'Where Excellences May Be Heard'

One of the most valuable (and, not so incidentally, well-written) books I know of devoted to education is Michael Oakeshott’s essay collection The Voice of Liberal Learning (1989). Included is “A Place of Learning,” first published in 1975. Oakeshott writes wisely and against the spirit of the age:

“Each of us is born in a corner of the earth and at a particular moment in historical time, lapped round with locality. But school and university are places apart where a declared learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances and from the wants he may happen to have acquired, and is moved by intimations of what he has never yet dreamed. He finds himself invited to pursue satisfactions he has never yet imagined or wished for. They are, then, sheltered places where excellences may be heard because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble. They are places where a learner is initiated into what there is to be learned.”

Schools are meant to be conduits for tradition, where the young inherit the gifts of our culture. They have become, instead, daycare centers devoted to social engineering. Oakeshott writes in another essay, “Learning and Teaching” (1965):

“To initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available to him much that does not lie upon the surface of the present world. An inheritance will contain much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. And to know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance.”

Thursday, June 14, 2018

'There Is No Such Thing as Education'

Today we fly to Toronto and drive north to Aurora, Ontario, where my middle son will graduate on Friday from St. Andrew’s College, the boys’ boarding school he has attended for the last five years. In another two weeks we’ll fly him to Washington, D.C., then head to Annapolis, Md., where he will enter the United States Naval Academy on Induction Day, June 28. My immediate, self-centered thought: When I was Michael’s age – seventeen – I couldn’t have done what he’s doing. I was too childish, unfocused, undisciplined, flabby and immature. What on another occasion might stir envy – a young man’s success – instead makes me proud.

My access to time and the internet will be uncertain through the weekend. Given the nature of the next few days, I am posting in advance daily observations on the nature and importance of education by writers I admire. Today’s entry is by G.K. Chesterton in the Illustrated London News on Jan. 12, 1907:  

“The chief thing about the subject of education is that it is not a subject at all. There is no such thing as education. The thing is merely a loose phrase for the passing on to others of whatever truth or virtue we happen to have ourselves. It is typical of our time that the more doubtful we are about the value of philosophy, the more certain we are about the value of education. That is to say, the more doubtful we are about whether we have any truth, the more certain we are (apparently) that we can teach it to children. The smaller our faith in doctrine, the larger is our faith in doctors.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

'Little Things Please Great Minds'

Journalism and genius seldom overlap, at least not since the eighteenth century. When reading G.K. Chesterton it’s easy to forget he was a drudge by trade, an industrial-strength producer of newspaper and magazine copy, forever writing to deadline. Journalists aren’t supposed to write this well, and many pride themselves on writing badly. A former newspaper colleague of mine, when given an assignment by an editor, would ask: patties or links? We are not artistes and can’t wait for the Muse. Chesterton was as facile as he needed to be. Journalists brag of being generalists, able to take on any subject. Chesterton turned that gift into an art and wrote about chalk and cheese. Reading him is pure indulgence, and leaves no aftertaste of guilt or remorse.  

Bedtime reading this week has been, among other things, The Man Who was Orthodox: A Selection from the Uncollected Writings of G.K. Chesterton (Dobson Books, 1963), edited by A.L. Maycock. In his introduction, Maycock makes an important point that ought to be self-evident in regard to any writer but often is not: “There was always in Chesterton an intense, passionate desire to be understood.” Clarity, precision and forthrightness are chief among the writerly virtues. Here is a paragraph excerpted from “The Puritan and the Anglican,” published in The Speaker in 1900:  

“Sir Thomas Browne was an exalted mystic [whose mysticism] owed much to his literary style. Style, in his sense, did not merely mean sound, but an attempt to give some twist of wit or symbolism to every clause or parenthesis; when he went over his work again, he did not merely polish brass, he fitted in gold. This habit of working with a magnifying glass, this turning and twisting of minor words, is the true parent of mysticism; for the mystic is not a man who reverences large things so much as a man who reverences small ones, who reduces himself to a point, without parts or magnitude, so that to him the grass is really a forest and the grasshopper a dragon. Little things please great minds.”

Little things, yes. Mysticism, maybe. But Chesterton here has composed an apologia for his own manner of writing. Composition consists of a million minute decisions. I remember Joyce saying somewhere that he had the words, but spent the morning putting them in the proper order. At some level, reading Browne, or Chesterton, or any prose virtuoso, is like listening to music. Chesterton knew how to arrange words and fine tune their rhythms for maximum impact. Even his chronic stylistic tic, a visceral love of paradox, works most of the time. Chesterton glimpsed a flash of truth revealed in paradox. This is from an essay published in Black and White on St. Valentine’s Day in 1903:
“The simplest and commonest of all the causes which lead to the charge of ‘mere paradox’ being slung about as it is, is one fundamental assumption. Everybody takes it for granted that universal and ordinary arrangements, historic institutions, daily habits are reasonable. They are good, they are sensible, they are holy and splendid often enough, but they are not reasonable. They are themselves paradoxes; paradox is built into the very foundations of human affairs.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

`Enchantment and Meditation'

“Be faithful Go.”

Adam Michnik says of these words: “this sentence will reverberate in the Polish language forever.” They close Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Envoy of Mr. Cogito” (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter), first published in 1973. For Poles, Herbert was more than a mere poet. He represented defiance and uncompromising rectitude, a refusal to acknowledge Soviet domination of his country:

“be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important”

On July 28 we will observe the twentieth anniversary of Herbert’s death. Michnik is a Polish essayist and longtime dissident, during and after Communism, and is probably best known as a writer for his Letters from Prison and Other Essays (trans. by Maya Latynski, 1986). Between 1965 and 1986, he spent six years in Polish prisons. Michnik used to claim the only place he could concentrate and write was in a prison cell. He wrote his tribute to Herbert shortly after the poet’s death. In his 1985 interview with Anna Poppek and Andrzej Gelberg, Herbert said:

“Michnik and I were friends once. Today this is a closed chapter of my life. Why are we friends no more? I ceased to understand the meanderings of his mind. I used to believe in his intellect and honesty. I was wrong on both counts.”

Herbert was a great poet and a famously difficult man, especially as he got older. His crankiness was likely exacerbated by alcohol and an untreated bipolar condition. Graciously, Michnik forgives his old friend:

“There were times when I had the privilege of being close to Zbigniew Herbert. His poems helped me survive the difficult years of prison. This I have never forgotten. Then our ways violently parted. In recent years I was often unable to understand his political statements. But his poems always brought me to enchantment and meditation.”

“Enchantment and meditation” is a good reminder. Herbert’s fame as a dissident, his moral and political stance, should not eclipse his poetic gifts. If he were a lousy poet we wouldn't pay much attention. His peers are Eliot and Auden, Montale and Cavafy. See the conclusion of his essay “The Price of Art” in Still Life with a Bridle (trans. John and Bogdana Carpenter, 1991). It always stirs me and makes me think of Keats:

“It is we who are poor, very poor. A major part of contemporary art declares itself on the side of chaos, gesticulates in a void, or tells the story of its own barren soul.

“The old masters – all of them without exception –could repeat after Racine, ‘We work to please the public.’ Which means they believed in the purposefulness of their work and the possibility of interhuman communication. They affirmed visible reality with an inspired scrupulousness and childish seriousness, as if the order of the world and the revolution of the stars, the permanence of the firmament, depended on it.

“Let such naïveté be praised.”