Archive for April, 2009

The Right Answer

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

I start Natural Science I each year with the question “What is science?” The result is generally a lively debate in which students start by giving me one-sentence answers.

“Science is the study of nature”, Joe says.

“What do you mean by ‘nature’?”  I ask.

There is consternation, silence, and eventually another attempt.   “Nature is the created world,” Joe says.

“What do you mean by ‘world’?”

It’s the reverse of the game every three-year-old plays with his parents.  Every answer Joe puts forward merely raises more questions about the meaning and  limits of the terms he uses.  He keeps trying to find the easy-to-memorize one sentence answer that I’ll accept.  I keep pushing back, trying to get him to think about what he is actually trying to say.  Over the next ninety minutes, we’ll push into what objects really are susceptible to scientific method, what scientific method is, how we know what we know, what proof is, and why we should bother to “study” any of it.

At the end of the session, I ask my students to write down their definitions of science based on our discussion, and post them to our bulletin board so the other students can see and comment on them.  Occasionally Joe will post two sentences where he only offered one in class, in tacit recognition of some aspect he had not originally considered.  Once in a while, I get a longer, more thoughtful paragraph that actually tries to summarize both trends of thought.  But inevitably, just as we are running out of time, Joe asks me what the “right” answer is.

I’m always stumped on how to deal with this. We just spent ninety minutes exploring the most obvious factors that feed into the human race’s attempt to understand  the universe in which it exists. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the all of the aspects of this complex endeavor, and if Joe had actually looked at the course syllabus, he would would realize that we are going to spend two years looking at how people have done whatever it is they thought of as  “science” for the last 3000 years — and that’s just in the Western tradition. (We don’t get into Chinese or Japanese or Indian efforts at all — there just isn’t enough time!)  Why should Joe have any illusions that I can state a right answer that everyone would accept, let alone one that is complete, in the remaining thirty seconds of chat available?

I recognize Joe’s anxiety has a real basis.  He wants to know my answer, since  I will be the one to give him credit for his bulletin board posting, and he wants to get a passing grade, preferably a high one, which is, after all, what others will look at and use to evaluate him when he attempts to go on to college and then on to a good job.   He is so concerned with the grading aspect of our educational process that he doesn’t stop to think about whether the string of words I might give him is really a correct definition of science, he doesn’t realize that he has no way yet to determine its correctness, and he never questions whether I should have the authority to dictate that definition.

This is only one symptom of a common but mistaken approach to education, where the grade is the goal, not the heart and soul of the subject.  In his book The Celebration of Discipline,  Richard Foster addresses the fundamental root of the problem (which affects much more than education in our society) when he says, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.”

We live in a rapidly changing world, where cultures are clashing, resources for survival seem limited, competition is endless, and compassion in short supply.  We make technical advances, but we have no way to answer the question of whether we should do something, simply because we can do it.   We need people who can think critically, as did the philosophers, scientists, and poets who produced the classic works that we have turned back to for centuries.  We need people who can think charitably and humbly about the effects of their actions on others, as Christ would have us do.  But how do we be those people?  How do we help our children develop into the discerning, charitable human beings we want and need them to become, if they are to serve as Christ’s ministers to a broken world?

One of the exercises any good teacher uses to help students recognize and move beyond superficiality simply forces the student to reconsider every term in the answer.  Joe’s first attempt at an answer to an open question like “What is science” is a usually superficial response.  It may not be factually wrong, but it is almost always incomplete, involving assumptions and generalities Joe hasn’t considered, and may not even consciously recognize that he’s made.

Suppose that we look again at Joe’s answer, “Science is the study of nature”.  “Science” is what we are trying to define, so we’ll leave it alone for the moment,  but what *do* we mean by nature, really? Is it only the created universe?  Are angels part of nature?  Are triangles? Are people part of nature?  Is poetry?  Are the thought processes and electrical signals and nerve cells that produce the poetry (at least in mechanical terms) nature and subject, by our first attempt at a definition, to scientific investigation?

When we start to examine our assumptions, we realize that a more precise definition of our abstract concept is intimately tied up with the application of that definition to specific cases.  How do we do whatever it is that we define as scientific investigation?  Is the only valid scientific method experimentation done in a lab with controls under repeatable conditions with machines objectively measuring factors?  Some scientists — especially physicists — would say yes.   Can field observations and the notes of a naturalist be a legitimate form of scientific investigation?  Most biologists would defend field observation as a legitimate form of scientific investigation.  Can we really claim how hot the photosphere of the sun must be based solely on spectral line measurements from the light-emitting layer of the sun, or must we put a thermometer of some kind in the plasma itself?  Astronomers recognize the futility of direct observation, and would defend their deductions as accurate based on analogies to phenomena we can observe directly.  Can we use computer models of weather patterns to predict the path of a hurricane?  The federal government evacuates thousands of people on the basis of a mathematical abstraction of a storm as a legitimate application of science — amid huge controversies over the costs of the evacuation and the accuracies of the predictions.  How much of this is “the study of nature”?

When the “right” answer depends on whom you ask, you are really forced to start thinking of good reasons for any answer you propose.  Everyone has seminal moments, watershed moments they can point to and say “that experience taught me this”.  I can think of two in my freshman year at college which shaped the way I teach…maybe in another blog entry I’ll tell you about the second.  But the first one addresses our “right answer” problem directly.  Every freshman at Scripps College took a humanities course on the ancient world.  It met four times a week, and the entire staff rotated responsibility for giving lectures on literature, historical events, religion, philosophy, art, architecture, science, and technology.  A crucial component were the additional seminar meetings once a week for two hours in the evening, where we studied one work or concept in depth for eight weeks.  At the end of the first semester, the two professors who had presented the literature lectures agreed to do a joint lecture and clear up a discrepancy we had noticed in their separate presentations on The Iliad.  We sighed with relief: we were finally going to get the right answer.  Dr. Palmer and Dr. Howe stood on the stage in the lecture hall, but they didn’t present the common interpretation we’d hoped for, something snappy, easy to remember, and safe to use in our exam.  Instead, they presented, and debated heatedly, two completely opposing interpretations of The Iliad. At the end of their presentation, there was no “winner” with the right interpretation.  Then they announced that the only literature question on the exam would be the one they had just debated, and that one or the other would grade our exam, but we wouldn’t know which one.  We couldn’t write the answer we knew the teacher thought was correct.  The only thing we could do was champion some position as best we could — Howe’s, Palmer’s, or our own, if we disagreed with both of them.

And that, of course, was the point.  They weren’t at all interested in our simply flinging back at them some “right” answer, some clipping from one of their lectures.  That would only demonstrate that we could take notes and do rote memorization.   What they really wanted was for us to think deeply about a work of literature that has touched millions of people for two thousand years, reach a conclusion, and  make a point – our own point, not theirs — succinctly, based on solid reasoning and factually accurate references.

We should seek no less for our students.

Why study Latin?

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

I read a lot of material on classical education, and I’ve become a little bit skeptical of much of it. In almost any given context, one question that’s sure to come up is, “Why study Latin?” Almost everyone who writes on the topic has a great passion for learning Latin, whether they really know Latin or not, and there’s a kind of blind, jingoistic boosterism that often takes over. Partisans tend to be uncritical: as long as you’re for it, it really doesn’t matter what you say in its favor.

That’s unfortunate. I believe that learning Latin is great, and I wish it were in every primary and secondary school in the country. But I also believe that it’s important to have the right reasons for pursuing something so extensive. At the most abstract level, I’ve learned that doing the right thing for the wrong reason often corrupts the process and the deed. And pursuing something just because someone else tells you that it’s good for you is not really enough either.

To put that into more concrete terms, having the wrong expectations sets a student up for failure — and sometimes the teacher too. For all the hype about classical education (and I’m thoroughly in favor if it), one should not take up Latin in a starry-eyed assumption that it’s going to be the quick and easy way to some kind of higher understanding. It’s not. It’s hard. If we as teachers are going to claim that it has real rewards, too, we should be ready to deliver on that promise. The fact is that a lot more people set out on the road to classical learning — and learning Latin in particular — than finish. There are many reasons for failure, and, depending on the teachers or parents or students, there is an obvious human tendency to blame someone or something. The student is dull or unwilling to apply himself or herself. The teacher is narrow and rigid and horrible. The textbook is arid and depressing. Most commonly the fault is attributed to some mixture of those elements: in any case, the assumption is that the process is flawed — and so we need to find another. If only we can find the right process, everything will suddenly fall into place, and the student will achieve an erudite kind of enlightenment. But that seldom happens either.

Mostly what I’m talking about here is a matter of expectations. Having the right expectations makes it possible to recognize success when you have it (or when you don’t).

The reasons people give for studying Latin tend to fall into three classes. Some of them are just bad, some of them are necessary but not sufficient, and some have real merit. Let’s start with the really bogus reasons first. These include those that are simply factually wrong:

English comes from Latin. This is a charming reduction of the facts, but it’s false. Latin is not the ancestor of all languages, and it’s not the ancestor of English. It’s the ancestor of a small group of important modern languages, including Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, and a few other dialect variations of the above — but not English. English is a West Germanic language — a distinction it shares with German, Dutch, and Frisian. While it is was heavily influenced by the infusion of Norman French in the two centuries or so following 1066, and though it’s certainly true that more than 50% of the words in the dictionary come either directly or indirectly from Latin (a fact triumphantly used to endorse the notion that Latin is the ancestral tongue), the simple fact is that the most common words in use — the ones that will show up several times in every paragraph or every sentence you read, though each gets only one dictionary entry — are not from Latin, but can be found in Old English. This is a great reason to study Old English. It’s not much of a reason to study Latin.

Harder to address are the perplexingly vague or insubstantial reasons. These are often advanced with great passion and zeal, but insufficient clarity of thought.

Latin has more grammar than English. I run into this one a lot. I suspect from some of what I’ve read from the people who say this that by “more grammar” they merely mean “more inflected forms”. This much is true. But that Latin has more grammar is preposterous and unsustainable. Latin has a fully functional system of accidence and syntax, as does almost every other language on the globe, and taken together, those constitute grammar. The question is not what language has more, but what kind each one has, and how we can use a knowledge of those different kinds to help us understand how to say what we have to say. It will probably raise the ire of these same people to point out that even dialects of English that are widely considered substandard are marked by a very sophisticated and precise grammar. There’s every bit as much grammar in “I don’t have no money” as there is in “I don’t have any money.“ It’s a different grammar, but there’s neither more nor less of it. It’s not just a looseness about negatives: it’s a matter of a different, but equally specific, deployment of quantifiers. For what it’s worth, it’s the way Greek would say the same thing — and Greek was admired by the Romans for (you’ve guessed it) its sophisticated grammar.

Latin is more precise than English. This is probably true in some areas. Especially if you want to talk about the organization of a manipular legion, the welfare of the Republic, or the honor due a consul, Latin is your language. It’s probably even pretty good for describing election fraud. If you want to discuss nuclear physics, on the other hand, or a Beethoven symphony, I’d recommend something else. Precision varies with subject matter. Classical Latin was not a very good language for making abstract distinctions of the kind valued by the scholastic philosophers of the later Middle Ages. They had to evolve a range of new forms and extensions of the language — all of them thoroughly non-classical — to cover the contingencies. Then it became a powerful tool for that task, and reading Aquinas in Latin is easier for the average Latinist with a passing familiarity with scholastic thought than is reading an English translation. But it didn’t start out that way, and the language of Caesar and Cicero was not about that.

In general, I would argue that the deficiency of English is ultimately just not a very good reason for studying Latin or any other language. English is probably the most sophisticated and capable language ever evolved on the planet, and capable of more nuances of meaning, about almost every subject known to mankind, than any other. If learning Latin is chiefly to be justified by the promise of transcending the shortcomings of English, the student who’s arrived at the finish line (wherever that’s imagined to be) will almost certainly be disappointed. Latin has quite as many deficiencies.

More difficult to deal with — and probably more damaging — are those claims for Latin that are true, but still not really more than distractions. These fall into two categories, but both point in the same general direction. They chiefly address the adjunct benefits of learning Latin. One class focuses on the blank desirability of outcomes, without really asking how they came about, while the other class tries to sort those out in terms of pedagogical processes and their expected results. The former point out that the Latin students on average score higher on the SATs and ACTs (which is true), and they tend to write English better (which is also true), and tend in the long run to have more lucrative jobs (again, true). The same claim could, however, be made for students of calculus. The latter point out that Latin instruction is such that it promotes grammatical thinking, an awareness of vocabulary and etymology, and rewards the sheer discipline required to master a hard subject like Latin. These are also all true, and they’re wonderful. I still don’t think they’re really sufficient reasons either, however. One could become a sharper critical thinker by studying computer programming or scholastic philosophy. One could learn a lot about writing balanced English prose by studying Thomas Cranmer, John Donne, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Burke. We could theoretically be taught grammar in our own language. If it doesn’t make sense to justify learning Latin on the basis of the deficiencies of English, neither does it make sense to justify it on the basis of contemporary deficiencies in English instruction. All the merely ancillary benefits of learning Latin could be acquired some other way, in other words.

The irreducible benefit of learning to read Latin, however, is so simple and so obvious as to seem tautological: if you learn to read Latin, you will be able to read Latin. There is no other way to arrive at this state than by learning Latin.

“Okay, then,” someone will say, “fine. Be a wise guy. But why — leaving aside all those other things you dismissed above — should I care about reading Latin?”

That’s harder. But I think there are good reasons to care.

One of the chief reasons to read things in Latin is that they are from a different place from our own. There are several dimensions to this.

When we read anything in any other language, we will get something different from it. I occasionally like to read Scripture in French or German — not because I suppose that will get me any closer to the original text. I can read the New Testament in Greek, after all. But even a language that doesn’t pull me into the original text as such has the benefit of slowing me down, and delivering to me something that is not in my own native language. It causes me to see the underlying ideas in a slightly different way.

And so it is with Latin. Specifically, Latin has different tactics for doing certain things. It differs from English in structure. It’s not that it’s better or worse than English: it’s the simple difference that counts. The reason we can see in three dimensions is that we have two eyes that are not in quite the same place. We hear stereophonic sound by getting different sources of sound that are not the same. This is like that.

The more general historical fact is that Latin speaks to us out of a different time. It is a voice from an age that had different social, cultural, and metaphysical presuppositions from our own. This provides us with a sense of depth through the sheer fact of separation. You get this partly from reading Latin literature in translation, but you’ll get it a lot more by reading Latin literature in Latin.

More importantly, there’s the cumulative historical leverage provided by the fact that Latin — uniquely among the languages in the history of the Western world — was the language of learning and culture for over two thousand years. Knowing Latin is a path into the discourse of the second century B.C., but also of the sixth, twelfth, and seventeenth centuries A.D. That’s a lot of clout. Not only does reading Latin help you understand the Latin that was written in that period — it also helps you understand the writings of learned people in their own languages.

Finally, there is simply the joy of reading literature in its own language. Personally, I think that one supremely great piece of literature is fully sufficient reason for learning a language. If Homer were the only Greek author on record, there would still be plenty of reason to learn Homeric Greek. Homer is virtually impossible to appreciate fully in translation. And if there were nothing beside the New Testament, that would be fully sufficient reason to learn New Testament Greek (for several reasons — only one of which is literary). If there were no Italian literature beside Dante, there would be reason enough to learn Italian. If there were no German beside Goethe, there would be enough reason to learn German. Similarly, if there were nothing in Latin aside from Vergil or Horace (for the classical world) or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas (for a later age), any one of them would be sufficient reason to learn Latin. There are all of them.

I would further argue that the patterns of language are, to a greater or lesser extent, the patterns of thought. I’m resistant enough to modern structuralist linguistic theory to question the existence of a “deep structure” (Noam Chomsky’s term) that’s wholly free of the words themselves. And if that is so, to read Latin writers in Latin is to enlarge your mind by submitting it to the modes of thinking of people who are different from ourselves in some very important ways. Modernists and ideologues will often tell you that they were terribly backward. And in some ways they were. But if you read their own writings in their own words, you will come to wonder whether the gap we think we perceive is all quite as primitive or as uninformed as we had thought.

Grabbing for the meaning of a Latin writer is at least partly a good-faith effort at hearing another human being with respect. In that regard we are fulfilling our duty of charity as Christians. (I’ve talked about this somewhat elsewhere in “Reading and Christian Charity’.) That’s not itself a reason for learning Latin as opposed to learning any other language — but it’s a reason for learning Latin on its own terms.

We need to stop teaching Latin as if it were a kind of high-fiber diet, or a sort of Spartan training in intellectual virtue — something odious to be endured just because of its salubrious consequences, however valid those may be. Latin doesn’t need any excuses of that sort. Sure: it has all those benefits. But it isn’t unique in having them, and nobody can really convince me that this is enough to keep any but the most driven and compulsive of students going — and usually when a student takes it on that way, it’s at an enormous cost: by concentrating exclusively or largely on acquiring collateral benefits, real or imagined, we can blind ourselves to the genuine joy and delight of doing the thing in and of itself, and the kind of clear and glorious freedom we can secure by exercising our charity on its own terms.

The Forest in the Garden

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Literature often gives us pairs of similar images with sharply contrasting implications or referents. In the symbolic vocabulary of an earlier age, the garden, with all its Edenic connotations, was a symbol of safety, confinement, order, and harmony. The language of medieval love poetry is filled with gardens representing the beloved. The very term “paradise” is ultimately a reference to a garden: the Greek παράδεισος is itself a borrowing from a Persian term that referred to the enclosed royal parks and gardens of the Great King. Latin lyric and elegiac poetry abounds with references to the locus amoenus — literally, “a pleasant place”, but virtually always represented as a garden. It is a commonplace that gardens symbolize repose and cultivated order. A garden is a place of nurture, where reason and intelligence are imposed upon nature. The cloisters of the mediaeval monastery were the dominant foci of intellectual life for a thousand years. So it is perhaps not too surprising that gardens often also symbolize education and nurture at every level, from Stevenson’s rather precious A Child’s Garden of Verses to the lapidary prose of John Donne, who in one of his sermons (XIV, preached at Whitehall, March 4, 1624), writes:

The university is a paradise, rivers of knowledge are there, arts and sciences flow from thence. Council tables are Horti conclusi, (as it is said in the Canticles) Gardens that are walled in, and they are fontes signati, wells that are sealed up; bottomless depths of unsearchable councils there.

Many may recall that quotation from the beginning of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night.

The garden metaphor is often expressed in the physical surroundings of an educational institution. One thing people look for in a college is an attractive campus. Even people who seem to like chrome and steel everywhere else seem to agree that the most beautiful colleges resemble gardens, or series of gardens, into which are set appealingly weathered buildings overgrown with carefully maintained and trimmed ivy. It is generally thought (and not without reason) that an attractive and restful environment is especially conducive to deep and serious study. But even without physical reinforcement — where there are no cultivated plots of green, aimless walks, or manicured parterres, the metaphor has a certain strength. It speaks to us of the quiet from which we go forth. There is something womblike about it; it is associated with childhood, the preparation before the conflict.

Forests are not so. Though they share certain obvious similarities as places of growth and fertility, they have been seen, especially before we came (arrogantly) to presume that we had tamed nature, as places of peril. They were dark, trackless, and filled with dangerous beasts. In the romance narratives of the Middle Ages, going into the forest betokened confrontation with God and with one’s innermost self. In Sondheim’s 1986 musical “Into the Woods”, the forest is a place where one must go perforce — and from which one also must return. Forests are uncultivated, unpredictable, and chaotic. The 13th century romance that now goes by the name of The Quest of the Holy Grail describes how the quest begins:

The next morning at daybreak the companions rose, and taking their arms, went off to hear mass in a chapel within the walls. This done, they mounted their horses and commended the lord of the place to God’s keeping, thinking him earnestly for the great honour he had shown them. Then they rode out from the castle and separated as they had decided amongst themselves, striking out into the forest one here, one there, wherever they saw it thickest and wherever path or track was absent. And even those men who fancied themselves hard and proud shed tears at this leave-taking. (Tr. P. M. Matarasso)

Nathaniel Hawthorne depicted forests as places of spiritual peril: it is in the woods outside of town that Young Goodman Brown sees what he sees (or was it a dream?) In the woods, too, Hester Prynne commits the sin for which she is compelled to wear the scarlet letter; and part of her punishment is living in a house at the fringe of the town, always at the margin of the woods. Tolkien’s Mirkwood is a place of festering overgrowth and danger; his Lothlórien is all the more dangerous for the ancient power that lives there. The forest is not a safe place — not in reality, and not in imagery.

Most parents — and many homeschooling parents in particular — express a lot of anxiety that our schools are not safe. And of course I concur that we don’t want schools infested with gangs and drugs and gun-toting psychopaths. But the notion that school is a safe place or a safe undertaking, for that matter, is at some level necessarily false.

The garden and the forest are inextricably entwined. This is not just because there is a lurking snake in the grass at every turn, or because academic institutions have a dark underside. One could talk about that, of course — and many have. Those are (if common) at least accidental. But in every garden there lurks an essential wildness, and in any academic undertaking there is an irreducible kernel of high peril.

This is not just abstract talk. There is nothing more dangerous you can do with your children than educating them. Education produces ideas; ideas have results. Not all of those ideas are good, and the results can range into territory that at least a believing Christian would believe are of infinitely greater moment and gravity even than physical peril. In teaching our children we are forming their souls — shaping them, as C. S. Lewis argues in “The Weight of Glory”.

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

If this is true of our neighbor (and I firmly believe that it is), how much more so of the children we have engaged to teach, on whom our influence is much greater than on any of our other fellow creatures? We are forming minds; we are also forming souls. The stakes are as high as any we normally encounter, and yet the results are not completely in our hands, and even those parts that are under our control are largely over uncharted terrain. We will occasionally botch the job. There will be consequences: there always are. We will hurt our children. (They will hurt us too, but what of that?)

True education is a real encounter. It cannot be faked or falsified; it cannot be prepared or anticipated. The moments when the real education happens may — and sooner or later will — rattle one’s secure vision of oneself down to the ground.

There is a lot of specious education going on in the world today. There always has been. There have always been facile ways of simulating the fruits of the genuine process. They seldom hold up under intense scrutiny, but they often satisfy those who want an easy route: a guaranteed pattern of success. But God does not promise us a safe passage, or even to safeguard us from doing harm ourselves, with the best of intentions. But He is with us there at the heart of the enterprise, and has shown us in the improbable economy of grace that even our most horrendously botched jobs can be redeemed. Therein lies our hope.

— Bruce McMenomy