Thursday, April 28, 2016

Conform so as to Reform

I am still under the weather. A different bug now, I think. The former one was a cold; this one a flu. It's not terrible, but it has sapped me of strength. The strength, evidently, to change my clothes. I have been wearing the same shirt all weak.

Now, I was just talking to a friend about the tendency of young minds to think in polarities: good/bad, free/oppressive, etc., and how we have to bear that in mind when raising our children in the Faith.

But what I want to talk about is polarity in pedagogy, for I have been confronted in virutally the same moment by a  passage from Coleridge which I very much like,

There are indeed modes of teaching which have produced, and are producing, youths of a very different stamp; modes of teaching, in comparison with which we have been called on to despise our great public schools, and universities,
                     in whose halls are hung
    Armoury of the invincible knights of old—
modes, by which children are to be metamorphosed into prodigies. And prodigies with a vengeance have I known thus produced; prodigies of self-conceit, shallowness, arrogance, and infidelity! Instead of storing the memory, during the period when the memory is the predominant faculty, with facts for the after exercise of the judgment; and instead of awakening by the noblest models the fond and unmixed love and admiration, which is the natural and graceful temper of early youth; these nurslings of improved pedagogy are taught to dispute and decide; to suspect all but their own and their lecturer's wisdom; and to hold nothing sacred from their contempt, but their own contemptible arrogance; boy-graduates in all the technicals, and in all the dirty passions and impudence of anonymous criticism... (Biographia Literaria, 1)

and a passage from the indomitable Nietzsche which I very much like which contradicts it:

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

There is truth in both of these, I maintain, but how can there be truth in both sides of a contradiction?

The subject of these quotes, I will say, sits right at the heart of the crisis in education we know today.

But the matter isn't one of either/or. Only young minds need to think in terms of polarities. 

Coleridge is speaking about the discipline of learning. We can only learn well by learning the things that have come before us, by disciplining the mind by means of the hard work of memorization, imitation, and analysis. Nietzsche is criticizing people who stop at that point. Coleridge's point is that 'kids today' try to build the roof before the supports are in place. Both of their points are relevant to us today.

Why do all (mostly all) university students believe in left-wingism? It is because they have not been taught how to think, but what to think. As such, they have not been taken through the hard work of understanding the other side. 

For as much as one can balk at the old pedagogy of learning Latin inside-out, memorizing poems and speeches ad nauseum, these are exercises for strengthening the brain, to get it used to seeing connections, etc. When you think of the new weird approach to teaching math our kids are being subjected to today, we see that it is meant well but terribly executed. The problem is they are aiming this kind of thinking at the wrong age of kid. Just teach them the times tables. In time lead them to see the 'truth' behind it. You can't teach math with estimations. Teach them the laws first and then they will become flexible enough in mind in order to estimate. Law school teaches the law. Judges are the result of years of working with that clay. Coleridge is saying the you can't judge until you know that rules inside out. Nietzsche is (or should be) saying that the whole point is to get the point where you can see the whole and then raise some fundamental questions about it, not just take it for what it is.

I have a deep passion for learning. It pains me sometimes. I dearly wish to learn everything. I don't know why. Plato would say because I am a human being inescapably drawn to the forms of truth, beauty, and goodness. Aristotle said that all people by nature desire to know. I want to be like God - that wasn't wrong of Adam and Eve. I want to learn math so passionately, and chemistry, ancient dead languages, and literature...

I don't mind doing the work. I just wish I had the means to do so.

Which brings me back to the 'controversy' that has erupted on my SCCB site. Without getting into it, I just want to say that perspective is important. Ideologues have little perspective. They tend to see everything in black and white. Personality-wise, extreme left-wingers and extreme right-wingers are the same. This is why it didn't surprise me at all that Michael Voris had the kind of background he did. It doesn't matter. God forgives him. But it's the extremism that is so interesting. Remember Fr. Corapi? How do you go from drug addict, to hard line Catholic, to drug addict? That's called persistent instability, my friends. The great mystics always understood the spiritual life as a matter of attaining to a sort of peace, of stability, they called apatheia. You can't get there by never restraining yourself, including your anger towards evil.

Education is personal formation, no different from the life of prayer. All formation requires discipline, self-restraint, exercise. 

Working out with 20 lbs dumbbells is boring. But you can't get to the 40s or 50s without them. Everyone wants to be the rebel philosopher. But you have to learn your Venn Diagrams first. Plato said you had to learn math before you could go on to philosophy. Hearing that was a real downer to Justin Martyr. Justin learned discipline, just in another way. The point is, you can't escape it so you might as well just dive in. Whether it's math, chemistry, computers or theology. Most just want to assume the mantle without putting in the work.

* Incidentally, I had to re-title this post. I hated the one I gave it, but my sick, muddled brain could not think of a better one.


  1. A very good post. This is the colin stuff that Dave and I love. Regarding sickness, I've been hit with the second bug as well. Four months apart and I will be sick for my MIL's funeral and burial ( this Saturday at 2pm).

  2. Colin stuff.

    I think your health problems are psychosomatic, tied as they are to your MIL. No coincidences in life.

  3. Interesting as usual Colin. How on earth do you not have a regular column somewhere?

    As a public school teacher, I work in an environment where the other teachers speak with the “I feel that…” language. When I hear a student say this in class I reply “well I feel like going back to bed.” They stare for a while, and then I tell them: “I don’t care what you feel, tell me what you think.”

    Education is in a bad way. The libraries are more or less a comic book zone, most students are over-stimulated and thus unable to bear the burden of putting effort into learning. Teachers, though meaning well, have no idea what to do, and mutter things about how it never used to be like this. I shake my head, though inwardly I smirk. I’m grateful for a liberal arts education. Forming the mind. Forming the person. Connecting different disciplines. Even Latin was amazing. I used to compare it with math. Plugging numbers/words, into a certain formula to make a proper answer/sentence.

    Anyway, the blog war that you started (I’m kidding… gee) are indeed connected to education, or at least the helplessness about how to deal with situations. Yes much of what happens in the Church is depressing these days. But are we, like my colleagues, going to shake our heads, get upset, and complain because we don’t know what to do? As you say, perspective is needed. Properly formed words and actions (of charity). A richer understanding of Church teaching, as well as the philosophy and theology behind it (as well as how Church doctrine is defined… not on an airplane). Yes, even us faithful Catholics must continually strive to learn more. It won’t solve the problems. But it will improve our chances of responding the proper way.

  4. Thanks Dan, your kind words made my day. I can't help but feel, though, that if I had a regular column that would be tantamount to the inmates running the asylum.

    I feel sorry for you, that you have to teach in the midst of this dictatorship of relativism. But you are doing a hard, and therefore good, work. No one man can overturn the system and so we just kind of have to be at peace, knowing that all this will be over some day and just content ourselves with the little silver lining apparent here and there.

    Education is the easiest thing in the world. Kid + book + teacher. That's it. But it's also really cheap and therefore doesn't require unions and billions dollar budgets and computers and education ministers pushing LGBT, etc. It's kind of like NFP - there's no money to be made in it so nobody is interested in pushing it!

    Thanks for the encouragement. I tend to spend most days writing my biggest drain on society speech.