An attitude check for teachers

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Teachers are idealists. Over time, however, they can become cynics as they work with youth. Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia State University, wrote a very wise article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that should be read by any teacher because it will induce a needful plea of “Guilty!” and a resolve to improve we comport ourselves around young people. Here is an excerpt:

If I’m right — if students haven’t really changed over the last several generations — then what has changed? Why, we have. As middle-aged faculty members, we’ve become more cynical, less idealistic, grouchier. We’ve come to have such low expectations of students — because, you know, they’re really bad and getting worse every year — that they sometimes oblige us by living down to those expectations.

Once we recognize that we’re a big part of the problem, how can we turn things around? How can we adjust our own attitudes while at the same time doing a better job for our students? Here are some suggestions.

Look for the good. I maintain that, far from being worse than previous generations, today’s college students are actually among the best and brightest young people I’ve ever taught. They’re remarkably versatile, caring, adventurous, open minded, and funny. Those qualities can make them a joy to be around, if we’ll simply stop obsessing about their perceived failings and focus on the positive.

One of my favorite things about the teaching profession is that being around young people all these years has helped to keep me young — or at least young at heart.

Ignore the negative hype. Maybe we tend to focus on the negative because we are inundated with information about what slackers today’s kids are, how poor their interpersonal skills are (because of social media, you know), and how little they know about important matters.

Some of those complaints are true, of course — but they’ve been true of every generation of young people, to one degree or another. There were plenty of times my parents worried about me being a slacker, and plenty of times my teachers shook their heads in dismay over my disgraceful ignorance. Are today’s young people really any worse than previous generations? Worse than we were, at their age? I think if we’re honest, we’d have to say no.

Consider the pressure they’re under. One difference I can see between today’s college students and my generation is that, if anything, kids today are under much more pressure than we were.

They’re expected to know, at an earlier age, what they intend to do with their life — to choose a major, land an internship, find the perfect job. At the same time, grade inflation has made it far more difficult to get into a good college, or a good degree program, than it used to be. I felt pretty good about getting into a decent graduate program with a 3.85 GPA. My son, with a 3.97, was concerned that he might not get into his university’s business school (thankfully, he did).

And so, while we as faculty members have an obligation to hold students’ feet to the fire academically speaking, perhaps we shouldn’t add to that the extra pressure of unrealistic expectations based on flawed memories of how wonderful things used to be.

Expect excellence. There’s nothing wrong with holding students to reasonable academic and professional standards or having high expectations in terms of their behavior and performance. In fact, that’s one of the very best things we can do for our students. To paraphrase Thoreau, “Let every professor make known what kind of students would command his or her respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining them.”

We just have to make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons and not merely because we’re annoyed at them or feeling “salty” (as the kids say) because our life isn’t quite going the way we imagined when we were their age. High expectations should be a natural result of our high regard for students and our deeply held belief in their potential — not a means of browbeating them or extracting penance.

Forgive them for being young. I’m convinced that the main reason for generational bias is that, as older people, we’re naturally envious of the young. Whoever said “youth is wasted on the young” was probably not very young at the time.

It’s true, though: We do tend to look at 20-year-olds — with their energy, their enthusiasm (for, we sometimes think, the wrong things), their natural optimism about the future — and wish we still possessed those qualities, combined with the benefit of our life experience: “Ah, if I’d only known then what I know now.” It can be difficult not to feel a tiny bit resentful that their lives are mostly still ahead of them, while much of ours are behind us.

And so we sometimes retaliate by creating frankly ridiculous rules and expectations. Because “that’s the way the world works,” and it’s our job (or so we think) to teach students those hard life lessons. Or else we mistake our own curmudgeonly outlook for reality, failing to recognize that cynicism as a perception is just as skewed as callowness.

Embrace the differences — and the similarities. Ultimately, the key to relating effectively to young people is to acknowledge your common humanity. Yes, there are significant differences between you and them — from tastes in music to fashion choices to (perhaps) political leanings. No, they’ve never seen some of the TV shows you grew up on or watched some of your favorite movies or read nearly as many books.

But those are just surface differences. Far more important is the fact that you and your students share many things in common. Like you, they just want to be happy. They want to be successful. They want to share their lives with family and friends. In addition to teaching them about your subject matter, you can also set a great example of how a well-adjusted adult behaves, both professionally and personally. They can learn a lot from you, and not just about academics.

And you, in turn, can learn a lot from them. I admit: It does make me feel young(er), as I read their papers and listen to students, to learn about their slang, their music, their fashion — even if I don’t embrace much of it. This has become especially poignant for me since my youngest went off to college last year. I no longer have teenagers at home to keep me “hip” — or as hip as I’m likely to be, anyway. I now have to rely on my students for that.

More important, though, as a teacher, I learn from them every day — about what works and doesn’t work in a college classroom, about what has and hasn’t changed in society, about things that had never occurred to me, and wouldn’t, left to my own middle-aged devices. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t find myself saying to a student, during a class discussion, “That’s a really good point. I’d never quite thought of it that way.”

Best of all, I find myself being reminded by young people every day that life is good and beautiful and exciting and worth living. That is a debt I can never fully repay. But I think I know where to start: by not trashing them in the hallway for my own or my colleagues’ amusement.

Source: “The Kids Are Still Alright” (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

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Evil is the soul’s choice of the not-God

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), a graduate of Oxford University, was a British author, playwright, and scholar. She was a member of the famous “Inklings,” an informal group of writers that included C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkein, and Charles Williams. If you are interested in literary treatments of Satan, then her essay, “The Faust Legend and the Idea of the Devil,” is essential reading because she evaluates the Satan of Dante, Marlowe, Milton, and Goethe. She begins her essay acknowledging “one of the great difficulties about writing a book or play about the Devil is to prevent that character from stealing the show.” She continues:

It is not, of course, surprising that the devil should appear attractive, or that he should be made to appear so in a work of the imagination. It is precisely the Devil’s business to appear attractive; that is the whole meaning of temptation to sin. And unless the artist conveys something of this attraction, his Devil will be a mere turnip-ghost, exciting either boredom or derisive laughter, and in no way conveying or communicating the power of evil. But it is important artistically as well as theologically to ascertain whether the artist is able to view his own creation critically, or whether he has fallen, consciously or unconsciously, under the power of his own spellbinding. 

Dante, according to Sayers, is the most successful artist at viewing his Satan critically, whereas Marlowe, Milton, and Goethe fall under the power of their own spellbinding; they are guilty of what she calls “the Promethean setup – the sympathetic picture of the sad, proud sufferer defying omnipotence.”

Here is my favorite passage from the essay on evil:

Evil is “the price that all things (i.e., all created things – God is not a ‘thing’) pay for being” – that is, for existing in created and material form. There is, for them, along with the reality of God, the possibility of not-God. For things inorganic, this is only known as change and not as evil; for creatures organic but not self-conscious, there are both change and pain – and here there is a very great mystery, which we are scarcely in a position to solve because we know nothing of what pain may be like to the unself-conscious organism. But to the self-conscious creature, the not-God is known as change, as pain, and also as intellectual error and moral evil; and it is at this point that it actually becomes evil in the profoundest sense of the word because it can be embraced and made active by the will. The possibility of evil exists from the moment that a creature is made that can love and do good because it chooses and not because it is unable to do anything else. The actuality of evil exists from the moment that the choice is exercised in the wrong direction. Sin (moral evil) is the deliberate choice of the not-God. And pride, as the Church has consistently pointed out, is the root of it; i.e., the refusal to accept the creature status; the making of the difference between self and God into an antagonism against God. Satan, as Milton rightly shows, “thinks himself impaired,” and in that moment he chooses that evil shall be his good.

That is what the orthodox Catholic doctrine is. . . Evil is the soul’s choice of the not-God. The corollary is that damnation, or hell, is the permanent choice of the not-God. God does not (in the monstrous old-fashioned phrase) “send” anybody to hell; hell is that state of the soul in which its choice becomes obdurate and fixed; the punishment (so to call it) of that soul is to remain eternally in the state that it has chosen. 

The romantic hero

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Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (1819)

How shall we envision the romantic hero? I am arrested by two related descriptions in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s drama, Faust: Part I. First, consider what Faust says when he summons the Sign of the Earth Spirit in Nostradamus’ “great book of magic lore”:

How differently this sign affects me! You
Spirit of Earth, are closer to me,
Fresh strength already pulses through me, 
I glow already from wine so new!
Now, to go out into the world and bear
The earth’s whole pain and joy, all this I dare; 
To fight with tempts anywhere, 
And in the grinding shipwreck stand and not despair!

Second, consider what Faust says after signing the wager with Mephistopheles:

I tell you, the mere pleasure’s not the point!
To dizzying, painful joy I dedicate
Myself, to refreshing frustration, loving hate!
I’ve purged the lust for knowledge from my soul;
Now the full range of suffering it shall face,
And in my inner self I will embrace
The experience allotted to the whole
Race of mankind; my soul shall grasp the heights
And depths, my heart know all their sorrows and delights. 
Thus I’ll expand myself, and their self I shall be,
And perish in the end, like all humanity. 

The above descriptions corroborate the argument that George Santayana makes in Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, described by T. S. Eliot as “a brilliant and admirable little book”: 

Goethe is a romantic poet; he is a novelist in verse. He is a philosopher of experience as it comes to the individual; the philosopher of life, as action, memory, or soliloquy may put life before each of us in turn. Now the zest of romanticism consists in taking what you know is an independent and ancient world as if it were material for your private emotions. The savage or the animal, who should not be aware of nature or history at all, could not be romantic about them, nor about himself. He would be blandly idiotic, and take everything quite unsuspectingly for what it was in him. The romanticist, then, should be a civilized man, so that his primitiveness and egotism may have something paradoxical and conscious about them; and so that his life may contain a rich experience, and his reflection may play with all varieties of sentiment and thought. At the same time, in his inmost genius, he should be a barbarian, a child, a transcendentalist, so that his life may seem to him absolutely fresh, self-determined, unforeseen, and unforeseeable. It is part of his inspiration to believe that he creates a new heaven and a new earth with each revolution in his moods or in his purposes. He ignores, or seeks to ignore, all the conditions of life, until perhaps by living he personally discovers them. Like Faust, he flouts science, and is minded to make trial of magic, which renders a man’s will master of the universe in which he seems to live. He disowns all authority, save that mysteriously exercised over him by his deep faith in himself. He is always honest and brave; but he is always different, and absolves himself from his past as soon as he has outgrown or forgotten it. He is inclined to be wayward and foolhardy, justifying himself on the ground that all experience is interesting, that the springs of it are inexhaustible and always pure, that the future of his soul is infinite. In the romantic hero the civilized man and the barbarian must be combined; he should be the heir of all civilization, and, nevertheless, he should take life arrogantly and egotistically, as if it were an absolute personal experiment. 

The Lord’s fences begirt us round

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Stone fence in Weardale, County Durham. Photograph by John Short

Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!
      Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
      Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and Sundays, sorrow-dogging sin,
      Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
      Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, ties of gratefulness,
      The sound of glory ringing in our ears,
      Without, our shame, within, our consciences,
Angels and grace, eternal hopes and fears.
      Yet all these fences and their whole array

      One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away.

George Herbert’s brilliant poem, “Sin (I)”, has two purposes: to express gratitude for the Lord’s spiritual fortification and to awaken our heart’s vigilance against the ambush of sin. Like watchmen, we are prone to falling asleep, leaving our heart unguarded. The opening line of the poem – “Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!” – sets up a catalogue of fifteen (de)fences against sin that serve us well as long as we remain alert to the enemy that hides within (“one cunning bosom-sin”). Picture sin as that wooden horse wheeled inside the fortress of our heart, promising goodwill but unleashing chaos. Here are how each of the fences offer a protective enclosure to the sinner:

  1. Parents first “season” us with moral principles that strengthen us for the pilgrimage ahead.
  2. Schoolmasters deliver us to “laws” (moral and natural) and “rules of reason” (logic) that order our universe, morality, and thought.
  3. Holy messengers (or clergy) shepherd our religious belief and practice.
  4. Pulpits (sermons) and Sundays (worship, catechism, fellowship) nourish us with the living Word in a community of faith.
  5. Sorrow “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10).
  6. Afflictions sanctify character through trial.
  7. Anguish deepens steadfastness under pain.
  8. Fine nets prevent us from a descent into debauchery or damnation while the Lord’s stratagems outwit the snares of the Enemy.
  9. Bibles reveal millions of surprises (revelations) about everything of importance in heaven, earth, and hell to make us wise up about reality.
  10. Blessings beforehand and their ties of gratefulness develop a spirit of thanksgiving that shelter us from grumbling or disputing (Phil. 2:14).
  11. The sound of glory “ringing in our ears” gives us hope about the future perfection of creation and the second advent of Christ.
  12. Shame humiliates and humbles us from further sinning.
  13. Consciences give voice to the law written on the tablets of our hearts, lest we forget (Prov. 3:3, 7:3).
  14. Angels guard us from “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12) while grace empowers us with the grit to go on when we are tempted to give up.
  15. Eternal hopes and fears about our ultimate destiny encourage obedient living today.

So, are ever safe from the threat of sin? Herbert rests in a paradoxical truth: the fences of the Lord fail us when we fail them. The force that blows “these fences . . . quite away” comes from the inside-out rather than the outside-in. Therefore, we are never truly (de)fenceless unless, like the Trojans, we accept a peace offering from our Enemy.

“Designs executed in a controlled rapture”

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:28-31)

This evening I led a seminar on John Updike’s brilliant short story, “Pigeon Feathers,” described here by The New Yorker:

In moving from Olinger to Firetown, David Kern, fourteen, tries to work off some of his disorientation by arranging books. In “An Outline of History,” by H. G. Wells, he slips into Wells’ account of Jesus. That night David is visited by an exact vision of death. The definition Webster’s Dictionary gives for soul, “Usually held to be separable in existence” is at first comforting, but when the assurance leaves him he asks Reverend Dobson at the catechetical class of the Lutheran church about Heaven. Dobson’s answer, “That Heaven is like Abraham Lincoln’s goodness living after him,” is not enough for David. He talks to his mother & afterwards realizes that he has hurt her with his worries about death. For his birthday he receives a Remington .22. His grandmother asks him to kill the pigeons in the barn. As he shoots them, he has the sensations of a creator.

As David buries the birds, he suddenly becomes arrested by the beauty of pigeon feathers. There he finds “the hint, the nod, he needed to build his fortress against death.” With verbal virtuosity, Updike’s final paragraph contains a design argument for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. I am awed by how Updike writes.

He dug the hole, in a spot where there were no strawberry plants, before he studied the pigeons. He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.

Life is like a wheel

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Images drive ideas. That is the most salient take-away from my writing instruction at journalism school. When my pastor quoted a letter from Catholic priest, Henri J. M. Nouwen, the well-chosen image pressed itself on my mind, communicating a deep spiritual truth.

Life is like a wheel. God is the hub. By focusing on the hub of life you come closer to God. The closer you come to the center, the closer you also come to each other. Everyone travels on a different spoke, but as long as we travel to God we travel to each other. What about that image for a bike specialist?!

Source: Henri J. M. Nouwen, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life

A world of endless cross-reference

How do you see the world? That question arose as I read Rowan William’s New Statesman article, “Everything Is Illuminated,” on the Welsh painter and artist, David Jones (1895-1974). According to Jones, modern man views the world as isolated atoms, whereas pre-modern man viewed the world as symbolic connection. A sacramental theology will be needed for us to perceive the “endless cross-reference” again.

We are living, [David Jones] wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.