Truth and Imitation

I have written before on both these topics (see here, and here,  for blogs on Truth).  I can’t lay my hands on specific blogs about imitation, but in short we have discussed how the act of imitating great examples is central to good education.

But I want to focus on the connection between them here.  To the extent that Truth becomes relative, imitation becomes less possible.  If imitation is key to gaining the necessary arts (skills) that allow men to be free, then when such imitation becomes less possible, education becomes less liberal.

apprentice-france-teaser-2016-06-27-16-59-59

When I call a student to imitate a master, be it myself or some more masterly folk of yore, I am stating that the art to be imitated is truly exemplified in the sample being imitated and to that extent is therefore objectively true.  But when I don’t believe, or the student does not believe, or a society has chosen not to believe that truth can be objectively known, then my assertion of a master sample becomes less powerful, something more like a suggestion.

If we give up on the basic tenets that Socrates taught us (that truth exists, can be known, and can be communicated) and swallow instead the ancient and modern fallacies of the Sophist (which are the opposite of those tenets) then we disable the powerful teaching mode of imitation.

This is worthy of way more meditation than I am giving it here.  I think about this often when I am teaching students literature (what gives us the right to say these stories are worthy of study?) and composition (what makes the Greek notions of Rhetoric so worthy of modern imitation?) and the like.  I would love to discuss such with other educators as we are able.

A Farcical Interview With Myself about Cynicism

Interviewer (Myself, hereafter simply I):  I wanted to sit down with myself and see how if I could ask myself about the trap many veteran teachers face of becoming somewhat jaded, or cynical.  I found myself willing, seated on a firm but pleasant leather couch, some sort of smoke in the air, and with that smell was entwined a lower scent of good Burgundy, somewhere in the ’92 range.  It appeared that this seasoned teacher was letting himself go, what with tie at half mast and most of that hidden behind a rather bushy and long gray beard.  But I found him willing to talk, so we commenced.

Dude, you seem a little out of sorts these days in class.  What is up?

Whiney Seasoned (Perhaps with a little too much wine) Teacher of Youth, Tipping Toward Cynicism (Myself, hereafter simply Wine E):

It’s these Freshmen.  Every year I think, “This is the epitome, the zenith of ignorance, the new low standard, the worst it can get.  Then another year’s class breaks all records.  As a young teacher I ran into some older experienced folk who just seemed so cynical, jaded, even bitter.  And I remember wanting to not be like them when I got to their place.  But I feel I may be headed that way.

I:

Are you burning out on your teaching?  Is there an expiration date for your profession?

Wine E:

If anything, I feel even more energized and excited about teaching.  Never have I felt so keenly the need to positively affect the next generation.  So no, at least for me, it is not that I am tiring of school, or the process, or teaching, or truth.  I think the expiration date for teaching is my own retirement.  I am planning the retirement for that at a local graveyard.  But I do find it harder to keep my student’s attention, to bring them to a place of careful and sustained thought, to be motivated to think seriously.  I am not really as excited about explaining this phenomenon as I am seeking ways to keep it from turning me into Mr. Crabby.

I want to emphasize that I am not talking about the difference between a Freshman and a Senior.  That is maturity.  I can’t expect a freshy to be like a Senior.  But I am looking at each year’s crop of Seniors and sadly having to say that there is a strong decline overall in a love for learning.  We seem to have succeeded in convincing the students that learning is a form of power acquisition, not a humane love.  And that pushes me (as one who loves learning for learning’s sake) toward a form of cynicism.

I:

So then is it the students?  Aren’t kids just always kids?  Has anything really changed with them?

Wine E:

Well, it’s easy to blame them.  But I don’t think something that originated within the student himself would be so pervasive.  I do think kids are basically kids.  But there is a cultural component to all this.  I think it is more of a indication of how they have been raised than how they “are.”  I suppose that is why I keep going, because if it’s a product of education, then perhaps it can be taught back out of them.  But the pervasive nature of the issue is what is so wearying, so inexorable.

I read a while back an account of Ernest Shakelton’s adventure at the bottom of the world where he and his 28 comrades are trying escape from the frozen sea.  Their boats were subject to these huge multi-ton blocks of ice that had the ability to crush them with one push.  I thought when I read it that this was similar to my own attempts to overcome the affect of our culture upon my students.  It is a crushing pressure.

At issue is the value I perceive our culture shifting from what I will call traditional education to some new form that is much different.  In the traditional form, it was all about wisdom and virtue.  In this new world of education, it is about feelings and perception.  It is also about gaining power in order to find pleasure.  When you are “selling” something that seems against the norm, you just have to wonder how much longer you keep raising your voice in the market place.

I:

So if you are selling something the majority don’t want, that would seem to move you toward cynicism.  Is there anything you can do?

Wine E:

So that is the heart of the problem, right?  Selling ice to Eskimos type of thing.  It’s almost like selling ice to those who don’t believe ice exists.  But in this case, it is truth, goodness, beauty that are called into question, or at least any notion of those things being objective enough for one person to dare to speak to another about them.  I think the cure as it were is loving.  I have to love the truth or I won’t want to “sell” it.  And I have to continue to love my students (as they are, where they are, warts and weirdness and all), or I will no longer care to “sell” to them.

And a lot of loving my students comes down to being real about who they and I are.  The more differences I see between them and myself, whether that is a comparison of their love of truth to mine, or comparative virtue or whatever usually indicates the level of vanity and pride that has crept into my thinking.  I may feel like I love truth more than they do, or that it all lies with them, or some other excuse, but in the end, the reason to avoid cynicism is because I am a sinner saved by grace and that excludes any notion of superiority with them.

And so from my perspective, avoiding the rocks of cynicism starts with good friendships.  Finding even one other lover of truth, and holding onto their shirttail like a life rope is often our only hope.  Christ is certainly always there, as well.  I resist being Mr. Crabby because he has forgotten some of these simple truths, and I purport to love the truth, all truth.  So I have to love not only the truth, but the truth that my students are still worthy of my love if they already have been granted the love of Christ.

I:

Well, may God give you a heart of love for your students, for Truth, and ultimately simply for Him.  May the Spirit keep you from the Slough of Despond.  God bless your efforts.

Wine E:

If He doesn’t we are all hopeless.  Thanks for the talk.  It’s helped.

What Do You Want?

How central to a teacher’s thinking is the ideal graduate they are seeking to cultivate?  Over and over the teacher should return to a contemplation of what a formal school is hoping to grow.  We need to see the end in order to choose the best means.  The following questions are something of the type that I am thinking will keep us true to our calling.

contemplation

  1. What sort of student will seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, knowing that all else will be added to him as he pursues such?
  2. How does the Gospel inform my teaching? What specific aspects of teaching are directly related to Christ’s work in His Church?  By Whose authority do I teach?
  3. While it is necessary and good to fill my student with knowledge, how do I encourage that knowledge to lead him to understanding and carry him on into wisdom (Proverbs 2:6)?
  4. What kind of lesson will integrate in my student the knowledge, abilities, and heart of a true learner?
  5. In a world increasingly deceived by the notion that “knowledge is power” how do I cultivate virtue in my students, especially the virtue of humility?
  6. Of what influence is the atmosphere, the ethos, of my classroom upon my students? Is it too busy?  Is it too noisy?  Is the pace conducive to deep thought?  How to I consciously order this ethos so that it unconsciously molds the right heart in both myself and my students?
  7. How hierarchical is my teaching? Do I demonstrate a right ordering of my own loves in my teaching that my student might learn to order his?  Are the best things given prime time and lesser things lesser emphasis?
  8. How often are my lessons developed around a question or questions that breed contemplation rather than completion? How often are the questions ones I still want to think more about?
  9. How much of my “lesson planning” is simply my own further learning? Am I a student in my own classroom?  Does the content I am teaching still captivate me?
  10. How much coaching in the skills of good thinking, reasoning, reading, writing, listening, and speaking do I display in an average hour with my students?
  11. Are my lessons a display mostly of my own learning, or an arena for my students to add to their learning? How do I know this?  What are the criteria for my judgments?
  12. How does my student relate to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty? Are they real to him; do they actually exist in his world? Can they be known?  Can they be communicated to others?
  13. How permanent are the things taught in my classroom? If I assessed what I have taught to a student years later, how much would remain?
  14. How do I assess knowledge well? Can understanding or wisdom be assessed?  If so, how?  Are these the assessments I use in my own teaching?

I am sure there are many more, but just thinking about these questions as I have written them down have again brought me to that paradox of teaching: fearful expectation.  I fear all my weakness and inadequacies, but I hope and expect God’s grace to bring about great lessons for both my students and myself.  Think on these things.

Like a Fish Out of the Water

As a young man, working in the yard with my father, there would often come a time when he would say, “We are losing light; get a move on.”  The obvious meaning was the sun was going down and our light to do our work well was leaving us.  Working in the dark is difficult.  Teaching in the dark is also difficult.  I fear our culture is leaving us in the dark in our classrooms and making it much harder to teach.

If you define education as the accumulation of knowledge (which only a partial definition at best) then you can certainly accrue some knowledge even in a culture of relativity and sophism.  But if you believe education to be the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, found through a contemplation of truth, goodness, and beauty, then darkness, or the denial of any real light, makes such very difficult.

Just today I had a confusing and sad discussion in class with some freshmen over the nature of the f-bomb.  I was told that it might be inappropriate for my culture, but it was acceptable in their own “generations” culture.  Beyond the obvious confusion over the term “culture,” there was this idea that meaning must be made within one’s own experience.  Meaning is not objective but subjective.  So anytime we ask within a classroom “what does this mean?” we step nowadays toward the shadows, not toward the brilliant light of the sun.

To explore Plato’s analogy of the cave, when the chains fall off (if they even exist) the liberated man does not go out into the bright sunlight but shifts off into the inner reaches of the deeper cave to find his own meaning, hands outstretched, eyes perhaps wide open trying to discern what is there, but more likely tightly shut as it makes no difference.

I discussed this with colleagues at lunch.  This is why true education, that believes that truth exists, can be known, and can be (must be) shared, is more and more counter-cultural.  The truth is going to taste more and more like bad medicine, or harsh objectivity, or the more general and ubiquitous term: offensive.  We must teach the truth in love, but we must have the courage to know that it may be taken as something other than loving.  It seem we are asking fish to swim in water they have been told does not exist.  “All this wetness is annoying.”

fish-out-of-water

Bursting Forth (at the seams?)!

Lent always leads to Easter.  Winter becomes Spring.  But what does Truth lead toward?  My Lenten journey this year has focused me a great deal on that moment when all the burden of the past, the sin, the constant waiting, the unfulfilled prophecies all came together and burst forth from the grave.   The cross brought all those things together from the Old Testament and beyond, even from Genesis 3:15.  The seed came to harvest, but the reaping was not the death on the Cross, but the bursting forth from the grave.

Ramblings go everywhere and therefore don’t always get anywhere.  Let me be more concise.  I have been wrestling with the end of education.  What are we pursuing in an education?  Is it to “arrive” or to only find something more to pursue.  Let me sort out the lines of thought here:

  • Education is the pursuit of truth both through direct pursuit and through gaining the tools necessary for that pursuit.
  • Truth is only found in its source, God.
  • God is infinite.
  • Truth is infinite.
  • Truth is as unchangeable as its source: therefore it is not changeable.
  • Truth does not move, therefore the pursuit of it involves my movement toward it.
  • Where is the “center” of infinite Truth?
  • I can never arrive, having no means of either fully acquiring that which is infinite, nor arriving at the center of that which is infinite.
  • Why then is so much of what we define as education couched in terms of “capturing” or “arriving” when the pursuit of such truth is eternal?

We cease to teach when we cease to learn.

“The encrusted religious structure is not changed by its institutional dependents – they are part of the crust.  It is changed by one who goes alone to the wilderness, where he fasts and prays, and returns with cleansed vision.  In going alone, he goes independent of institutions, forswearing orthodoxy (“right opinion”).  In going to the wilderness he goes to the margin, where he is surrounded by the possibilities – by no means all good – that orthodoxy has excluded.  By fasting he disengages his thoughts from the payroll, so to speak.  And by praying he acknowledges ignorance; the orthodox presume to know, whereas the marginal person is trying to find out.  He returns to the community, not necessarily with new truth, but with a new vision of the truth; he sees it more whole than before.”— Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America.

Beachy-Head-Tree