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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: cultural criticism

Don’t Shoot the Elephant or You’ll Kill Education

blind men and elephant public sculpture India
The Asian parable of the blind men and the elephant
is as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.

I don’t usually touch on hot button issues on this blog, preferring instead to focus on perennial wisdom that can benefit us all. To my mind, too much bloggery deals with narrow, sectarian rants (of the right and the left), radiating heat but very little light. I prefer to try to preserve a space in which we can put cant aside and try to contemplate truth, as it can be seen refracted and reflected in literature, history, philosophy, art, and the other liberal arts. You see, I have this funny idea that if we all look toward the light, from whatever direction our perspective may take, we can all be illuminated and, in that way, united, even if we disagree about the things we see. Perhaps we will even recognize the limitations of our own personal perceptions, like the proverbial blind men who each grasped a different part of the elephant. Individually they had their own (equally limited and erroneous) ideas about what they were touching, but when they combined their perceptions, they realized that what they collectively beheld was much greater, more magnificent and wondrous, than what anyone of them individually suspected. (If you aren’t familiar with this parable, read it here. It is every bit as potent as Plato’s myth of the cave.)

Education draws us out of our own, limited understanding of truth

Really, folks, this is precisely what education, in the true sense of the term, is supposed to do. It is not supposed to tell you that whatever you already perceive — whether it’s a leg like a pillar or a trunk like tree branch — is the absolute and only truth, it is supposed to put you in touch with people and cultures and points of view that differ from your own, so that you open your mind and learn to weigh
opinion and experience, and in this way become more capable of discerning not only particular but larger, more enduring truths. It draws you out of your own blinkered, myopic reality and sets you in a larger context that spans time (history and posterity) and space (the whole world). That’s what the word “educate” (Latin e(x) + ducere = to lead or draw one out) means.

stock image of magnificent elephant
Truth is a beautiful thing, but a false multiculturalism
can blind students and make true education impossible.

If the administrators of Columbia University or any institution of so-called “higher education” should capitulate to the demands of students that their own puerile perceptions not be challenged — if they agree to attach “trigger warnings” to any course that might offend a student’s cultural identity — they will be doing the opposite of educating. Instead of the academic community sharing insights and enlarging their appreciation of the majestic beast, they will kill the very thing that has brought them together. They will be putting an elephant gun in the hands of their blind young charges, and, when the trigger is pulled, they’ll all be left grasping some gruesome butchery of the truth.

If “multiculturalism” and “diversity training” actually tried to do these things, they would be valuable adjuncts to more traditional educational approaches. Instead, these duplicitous terms are a facade, masking a process that has systematically taught and reinforced prejudice — i.e., it has taught young people to hate and fear anything that they do not already experience or believe or enjoy. This recent article  in the National Review illustrates how true this is. (Read the article yourself to see what the kerfuffle is about; it has to do with students who feel offended by Ovid’s lack of modern cultural sensitivity, or some such).

We need to consider truth from different angles

I’d like to focus on the salient point that the article’s author, Ian Tuttle, makes — which, in fact, he takes from C. S. Lewis — and that is that education, far from insulating students from viewpoints that differ from their own, should be programmatically exposing them to a variety of political, cultural, historical, and philosophical viewpoints, so that they may enlarge their understanding and test their own preconceptions.

In an introductory essay to St. Athanasius’s De Incarnatione (another very old book), C. S. Lewis made just this argument. “Every age has its own outlook,” wrote Lewis. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” Lewis is not suggesting (at least not here) that old books got things more right than new ones — Dante was not omniscient — but simply that they got things right (and wrong) differently: “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”

The only problem with such an argument, of course, is that it assumes there are truths to be grasped, truths that transcend cultural and historical contexts — and here lies the rub. These days, if you want to get an academic’s back up, just try suggesting that there is any such thing as transcendent, universal, or  immutable truth. And if you really want to cause trouble, try suggesting that education’s purpose is to teach students how to perceive that truth. If my own experience in “higher education” is anything to go by (and, sadly, I’m convinced it is), you will be attacked — verbally, if not physically — and swiftly be given the gate.

That’s part of the reason I’m writing this blog rather than standing at the front of a classroom today. Not because I’ve given up on the ideal of true education, but because I’ve found it almost impossible to pursue such an enterprise in today’s halls of “higher learning.” If you value true education of the old-fashioned liberal arts variety, keep reading this space. In fact, why not sign up to get notifications of new articles by email? There’s a space for you to do so in the sidebar on the right.

Just one more point. I’m as eager to further my own on-going education as I am to help you further yours. I started this blog hoping to generate some conversation through the ether, but too often I find myself alone in my echo chamber. I don’t mind a bit conversing with such folk as C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ovid, Livy, Vergil, et al., but I would love to have some of you readers chime in from time to time. Let me see some other quadrant of the elephant. If you find value in anything you read here, please leave a comment and let me know why. Join the conversation and add your insights — or your illuminating questions. That’s how we can all, together, arrive at a clearer perception of the truth.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Current reading: mystery novels, history, literary criticism et cetera

I’ve been doing a lot of reading, not much writing lately. Here are some of the things I have read, am reading, or will shortly begin, some of which I will shortly be discussing in subsequent posts.

Mysteries

Thanks to a new Half Price Books nearby, I’ve been able to entertain myself reading inexpensive murder mysteries.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith
  • Careless in Red, Elizabeth George. One of her Inspector Lynley mysteries which has not yet been turned into an episode of the television series by that name. [finished reading]
  • Last Act in Palmyra, Lindsey Davis. A Marcus Didius Falco mystery that takes place in the Decapolis during the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian (see earlier discussion of this Roman mystery series). [finished reading]
  • The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith. The first in this charming series, whose detective-protagonist is Botswanan Precious Ramotswe and which has been turned into a movie and TV series on HBO. All of the plots for the first series of TV episodes were taken from this episodic novel, and the series largely captures the charm of the novel. [finished reading]
  • Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish, Dorothy Gilman. The second or third in the series, which finds Mrs. Pollifax evading a pre-9/11 Muslim terrorist ring in Morroco. [finished reading]
  • Picture Miss Seeton, Heron Carvic. The first in the Miss Seeton series, about an elderly English art instructor with a penchant for tangling with criminals and then providing clues to crimes through her intuitively/psychically-inspired drawings. The series was begun by Heron Carvic, who wrote 5 Miss Seeton mysteries before his death. The series was later continued by other writers using pseudonyms with the initials H and C (Hampton Charles, Hamilton Crane). I read 8 or ten of the beginning of the series many years ago, and am glad to re-discover Miss Seeton. [finished reading]

Other literature

  • Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury. I fell in love with Ray Bradbury as a kid when I read a story of his in a reader at school, about the magic of a new pair of sneakers — a story, I found out later, that was taken from Dandelion Wine. This book really captures, for me, the beauty of Bradbury’s writing and his talent at capturing the richness and beauty of life. [Currently reading]
  • Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve not yet started this, so I’m not sure if it should go in the “mystery” category, along with Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. [Planning to read]
  • Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare. An Oxford school edition. I wanted to re-read this after reading John Carroll’s analysis of it in the first chapter of The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to re-read]
  • Hamlet, William Shakespeare. Oxford edition, with extensive material and discussion of the three extant versions of the play. Another one I wanted to re-read after reading the first chapter of Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture. [Planning to read]

Literary Criticism

  • An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis. While reading Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I realized that I had never read this (although I’m pretty sure I’ve owned it), so I bought a new copy and got cracking. [finished reading]

History

  • Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson. A compilation of Dawson’s essays,  edited by John J. Mulloy. Organized to give a good overview of Dawson’s work as an historian. I’m reading it one essay at a time. [Currently reading]

Other non-fiction

  • Things That Count: Essays Moral and Theological, Gilbert Meilaender. A collection of essays in which Meilaender, an ethicist and theologian (Lutheran, I believe) “[mines] the great works of philosophy, literature, and political theory” for “insights into the human condition.” Until now, I know Meilaender only from his contributions to First Things, but I’m looking forward to reading these essays, and will probably comment on them one by one, as I read them. This is one of two books I chose as my free selections when I renewed my membership in the Intercollegiate Studies Institute‘s Reader’s Club (huge discounts on subsequent purchases during the next twelve months). [Currently reading]
  • The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll. My other free selection from ISI. To counter the prevalent view that the humanism that came in through the Renaissance is to be credited for all the wonders of modern life — individual liberty, modern democracy, prosperity, etc. — Carroll presents an alternative view, namely that  “the West’s five-hundred-year experiment with humanism has failed” and has destroyed culture in the western(ized) world. [Currently reading]
  • The Apocalypse–Letter by Letter: A Literary Analysis of the Book of Revelation, Steven Paul. This was lent me by a friend, who thought I would appreciate the linguistic precision with which the author analyzes the original Greek of the last book of the Bible (Apocalypse, a.k.a. Revelation). The author, dying of cancer, wrote this as a series of letters to his brother-in-law, who later compiled the letters into a book for publication. [Planning to read]

I have a feeling I’m leaving out one or two things, but that’s the gist of it. So many books, so little time!