Teaching from the Point of Ignorance

I meet too frequently with the word random these days.  I recognize its right use, but believe it to be improper in much of its current use.  I think there are real philosophical reasons for its misuse.  I think that only through humility can we return it to its proper place.  I believe many today have replaced the idea of mystery with this tamer notion of randomness.  Let me see if I can be clear in this position.

I will simply state the various quotes that have brought me to this belief and see if they lead others to the same position.

First, John Paul II stated in Fides et Ratio, “One of the most significant aspects of our current situation, it should be noted, is the ‘crisis of meaning.’  Perspectives on life and the world, often of a scientific temper, have so proliferated that we face an increasing fragmentation of knowledge. This makes the search for meaning difficult and often fruitless. Indeed, still more dramatically, in this maelstrom of data and facts in which we live and which seem to comprise the very fabric of life, many people wonder whether it still makes sense to ask about meaning.”

So if I may infer such, fragmentation drives us toward the feeling that everything is detached, or disconnected, which leads towards explaining the occurrences we experience in life as random.  Randomness or the perception of such is accompanied by the belief that meaning is either purely pressed upon the randomness of things, or in clearer terms, self deception.

But this is where Wendell Berry flies in and provides me with another quote that leads me to my thesis.

He states in his book, Home Economics, the following about these two words, random and mystery:

“…pattern is verifiable by limited information, whereas the information required to verify randomness is unlimited…. What is perceived as random within a given limit may be seen as part of a pattern within a wider limit.  If this is so, then Dr. Jenny, for accuracy’s sake, should have said that rainwater moves from mystery through pattern back into mystery.  If “mystery” is a necessary (that is, honest) term in such a description, then the modern scientific program has not altered the ancient perception of the human condition a jot….To call the unknown “random” is to plant the flag by which to colonize and exploit the known….To call the unknown by its right name, “mystery,” is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns….But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance.” — Berry, Wendell, “A Letter to Wes Jackson” in Home Economics, p. 4

So in talking about truth, which does exist, and can be known, and can communicated, so that it matters that we talk rightly about it, it is necessary to preserve the notion of mystery.  Infinite truth cannot be finitely understood, and thus must be humble enough to admit mystery.  The pattern of God’s truth is such that I can only by faith confess that it’s there without any hope of my grasping it completely.  But it is not, as such, random in any way.  Teaching should start at this point of mystery, or ignorance.



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.


What is Heaven?

One of the great contrasts that Wendell Berry makes between “the Road” and “the Wheel” views of life is that of what constitutes “heaven” for each.  I think he is working off the differences between a classic Christian sacramental view of this world and the next, and the commonly held heresy of Gnosticism, found throughout much of modern Christendom.  If I seek heaven through the Road analogy, I am seeking to leave this world for the next.  I am seeking to get “there” by consuming “here” in order to get “there.”  This view sees creation as commodity.  We have been given this world so that we might get to the next world.  This frequently results in seeing the present material world as a barrier to the next.  Matter is seen as evil.  Enlightenment is found in escaping this world for the next.

But the orthodox understanding of creation has not agreed with this view throughout Christian history.  It has asserted that there is a coming Reconciliation of heaven and earth in aspiration toward responsible life. The creation as source and end.  The order found in this life (albeit broken by the Fall) is being redeemed by the Gospel and the next life is the recovery of our former life in Eden.  This world is a down payment on the next, and as such demands our affection, our proper consideration of it as such.

And all this has much to do with education.  Too much of our modern focus on education has been trying to get students from “here” to “there” and not rather helping them become here what they should be both here and there.  The ideas already developed of what has come before and what shall come after we depart “the here and now” become even more pointed when we understand that the major goal of education is form a responsible creature.  We are to point students toward who they are by showing them from where they have come and to where they are going, and if we get the destination improperly defined, we lose much of the battle.

So how we view heaven determines how we teach our children.  Let’s think carefully about such.

Bound for the Promised Land?

I just finished a rather long and delightfully enlightening read of Diane Ravitch’s Left Back. A history of the educational debates of the 20th century, it really helped me see the differences between the progressive and the classicist or traditionalist. While those in my league, the traditionalists, lost the debate early on (by 1915 it was over), the debate still carries on. And this reading coalesced with my desire to treat the next comparison Berry gives in his Road and Wheel analogy.

He seeks to show the difference as being exemplified in part through a comparison of motifs: On the side of the Progressive (Road) view, there is “The Promised Land” motif in the great Westward Movement of America. Contrasting that view is his use of the native American Black Elk’s sacred hoop motif.


In the “Promised Land” view, we are moving forward, to that which is better. Ultimately there is a utopia we are seeking. This Utopian view steers much of the philosophical and practical energies of the majority of the educational debates. What is old, what is past is by chronological necessity “bad.” It must be new to be true. The idea that what is best is out there somewhere, and all that has gone before is only a falling short of the real knowledge that if we just seek it we can find someday compels this view forward to the next new idea. The cynicism and snobbish condescension that such a view engenders toward the past is easy to see. As Berry has been seeking to say all along with this extended metaphor, the Road leads from A to B with no backward glance or gratitude for what has come before, nor really any hope past B (i.e. our death).

Black Elk’s view of the hoop or wheel is quite different. We are cast as members of an ongoing community with much gained from those who have come before us and all of our concern being focused on what will be left by us for the future members of this community. It is rooted in place and revels in proven practice. It holds to the ideal that what is best is past on, what is unworthy of keeping is thrown aside. And it believes that much more is worth passing forward than falling on the trash heap. I know I am saying the same thing over and over. I believe deeply that as we learn to revolve around these ideas our appetites will change, and in the end, that is the source of changing something permanently. Our current appetites are not sustainable. The Wheel is a better version of appetite than that of the Road.

Overview of Specifics from “Road and Wheel”

Having stated earlier Berry’s main point with the “Road and Wheel” metaphor, I want to lay out what will be several up coming meditations on the specifics from his essay, “Discipline and Hope.”

Here is his own chart showing the contrasts between these two ways:

Linear Cyclic
Progress. The conquest of nature. Atonement with the creation.
The Promised Land motif in the Westward Movement. Black Elk’s sacred hoop, the community of creation.
Heavenly aspiration without earthly reconciliation or stewardship. The creation as commodity. Reconciliation of heaven and earth in aspiration toward responsible life. The creation as source and end.
Training, programming. Education. Cultural process.
Possession. Usufruct, relinquishment.
Quantity. Quality.
Newness. The unique and “original.” Renewal. The recurring.
Life. Life and death.

fr. Wendell Berry, Discipline and Hope, p. 137

I will develop each of these in turn by relating them to our views of education in upcoming blogs.

The Road and the Wheel

I have said many times that if you read Wendell Berry’s essays, substituting “education” every time you read “farming” you will have a great deal to consider about teaching well.  That being repeated again, I have been working through his essay, “Discipline and Hope” doing just such.  One major section of this long essay is entitled, “The Road and the Wheel,”  in which he examines the differences inherent in a linear view of life and a cyclical one.  I think there is much here worthy of thinking about on this blog.  So I am taking a chart of his on the two views and dividing it up into a series of posts over the next several weeks.  Jump right in with comments.

First, let’s get his basic points out there:

He sees there being two fundamental ways of looking at the nature of human life and experience — The Road and the Wheel.

  • The Road – this is the idea of progress.  The linear vision looks fixedly straight ahead.  It believes in discarding old experience as it encounters new ones. Quantity depresses quality, and thus we arrive at waste and disposability.  Its constant hunger is for better, now, without concern for past or future.
  • The Wheel – this is a much older view that includes death in the mix with birth and life.  What is here will leave to come again; in getting there must be a giving up.  This holds on to what is known even while adding to it what is learned, in hopes of passing it on to those who come after.

This basic comparison yields up a great number of specific contrasts.  I will blog on each of these in coming days.  For now, consider these two basic views in light of how we currently educate and how we have educated in the past.