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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thoughts on Teaching

  I was filling out a job application a while back and since the job was a teaching position at a local private high school, one of the sections asked me to supply my philosophy of education and teaching. It strikes me that I have no real idea how common or uncommon my perspective on that topic is, so let me supply y'all with my thoughts on the subject and ask for your feedback:
  I believe that a complete education will serve two purposes: It will train and it will inform. I believe that these two purposes are inextricably linked in that information is the medium of the training which would, itself, be useless without informational content. In short, a full education is one which teaches students how to think and provides them with material which is worth thinking about.
  Unfortunately there is one particular obstacle to effective education in modern society; a lack of motivation on the part of the student. I believe that wonder, curiosity and reason are essential aspects of human nature and are especially evident in children. These qualities provide a basic motivation to learn is often crushed or pushed out of children at a tragically early age, so that by the time they have entered the later years of school, that motivation has either narrowed or shifted away from academics altogether. As a result, a modern educator must also be able to instill motivation in his students since they will only rarely bring it to the table themselves. This brings my list of educator activities up to three: instructing, training and motivating.
  As regards instruction or course content, I am convinced that a liberal education is the most broadly beneficial to the average student but that this must be tailored or altered to the specific demographics of a particular community. This alteration should only take place in a courses format or method of presentation, it should not affect a course's quality, rigor or scope.
  As regards training, I am convinced that a teacher's job is to train the students in the full development of their own natural faculties of critical thinking, creativity and effective study which constitutes the student's own pursuit of information. I believe that these skills are most effectively communicated by exposition, example and practice.
  Finally regarding motivation, I am convinced that students are best served by having the relevant content kinked to their own personal interests, drives and desires. These links ought to be natural wherever possible but may be artificial when necessary. I believe that motivation is most effectively sparked in a student when it is most thoroughly evidenced in the teacher. When a student sees that the teacher thinks that the content is fascinating and exciting, he is much more likely to develop his own intrinsic motivation to grasp the material. Thus, all else being equal, a well informed, passionate teacher will always be a more effective educator than one who is more interested in teaching in general than in teaching the specific content.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sehnsucht - the hunt for Tao?

I think this post will work best as a follow up to my earlier "Do You Like Green Eggs and Ham?". In that one I talked about the importance of desiring God. While I was responding to one of Steven Hamilton's comments, realized that I have quite a bit more to say on the subject of desire so here is at least a little bit of it.
In case you haven't noticed yet, much of my thinking, both in philosophy and theology, has been shaped by C.S. Lewis. It would be odd, therefore, if I didn't agree with what  Lewis has to say about the subject he is most respected for: sehnsucht. Lewis more often referred to this as "Joy", especially in his autobiography Surprised by Joy.  Under either term (I take sehnsucht to be the more philosophical and joy to be the more theological) Lewis is describing a phenomenon which we don't have a really good concept of in the English speaking world. We try to get at it with words like contentment, fulfilledness, ecstasy and happiness but they all fall short; they don't quite get there. Contentment misses that sense of yearning for our far off country, fulfilledness (which my spell check insists is not even a word) isn't passionate enough, ecstasy doesn't get at the sense of coming home, and happiness just isn't strong enough.  Joy, as Lewis describes it is a state well beyond emotion (although there is often emotion in it). The most effective method I have found to convey the meaning of Joy is to refer to how it is sometimes experienced. That thrill of delight when you are two chapters into a new book and you suddenly realize that it is almost exactly the sort of story you have been wanting to read but unable to find; the self forgetful delight when you are surrounded by your oldest, most comfortable friends and the day is long and you have nothing to do but be yourselves; the Monday morning you wake up and realize, really realize, that summer just started and you won't have to go back to school for three months; the tunnel vision in a groom's eye when the music changes and his bride steps into the sanctuary on her daddy's arm. These experiences often contain glimpses of Joy. 

I believe we are made for that eternally. Lewis suggested that Joy was the state of yearning for what God is; that any time we experience even a glimpse of Joy it is because we have caught a ray of the divine slipping into our existence. All of those experiences above can be times when the divine essence suffuses our lives in a slightly more tangible way. I think that we are made to experience it always. 

This is why I find it somewhat confusing when people talk about living a good life so that they can have happiness later (at retirement, in some eternal future etc...). I won't settle for that, I want joy now. I want joy in my doing; in my leading a good life. In fact I want to lead a good life because I believe that a good life is the most joyful kind of life I can lead. On a certain level I suppose this is very selfish; I want to have my cake and eat it too. I insist on living a life which leads to infinite, eternal ecstasy. But that isn't enough for me. I want that same life to be full of joy now, in fact I insist that it be the best kind of life I can possibly live. And I think that it's possible.

Jesus claimed to be the way, the truth and the life. If I focus on the way for a second, maybe it will explain what I am thinking. When Jesus said he is the way, I think that He was talking about much more that a path or a method. I think that Jesus was claiming to me something much more like the Tao incarnate. He was claiming to be (and to exemplify) the kind of life which is in ultimate harmony with the cosmos as the cosmos is designed to be. If that claim is true, then living in Him, and by His example would be both the most joy-filled way to live, and would lead to the highest form of ecstasy available to a person. Thus the desire for joy, sehnsucht, is the desire for Jesus; whether or not we recognize him as the end of that desire.

Let me end by saying what I am not saying. I am not saying that there is no pain, suffering or even anguish in joy. Actually I think that there is and I suspect that that has rather a lot to do with living in a warped and twisted world among warped and twisted persons and having a warped and twisted set of desires myself. I do think that if everyone entered into joy all the time, that suffering would be significantly decreased (Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth and it is in heaven). But I think that joy is an experience, deeper than any thought or emotion and is something which can somehow persist even in the worst of circumstances. 

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What IS that thing?

I am not a psychologist. Not by training, not by persuasion, not even (really) by inclination. But I have managed to surround myself with them. My dad, my sister, one brother, and several of my closest friends all majored in the subject. Personally I have only taken three classes in the subject (two undergrad) and am therefore not an expert. But I am a thinker and my last psyche class brought something to my attention. We don't have an anthropology. Now don't get me wrong, I am clear that we are nearly overrun with anthropology majors and anthropology books; I have taken a number of anthropology classes myself. But that is all cultural anthropology, the study of human cultures. What I mean when I say that we do not have any anthropology is that we do not have a clear concept of what a human person actually is. In this sense, an anthropology (usually called a philosophical anthropology) is a theory of humanity and person-hood. Someone's anthropology is their answer to the question "what exactly is a person after all?". We can grab this by analogy to theology in which someone's theology is their answer to the question "what exactly is a god after all?". We don't seem to have an answer.

I first became aware of this problem when I was taking one of those psychology classes. I was listening to the instructor and becoming more and more frustrated because it seemed as though she were going in circles. The class was educational psychology and she was explaining how wonderful it was to base educational practice on empirical research but when asked what theories were indicated by that research and how those theories might conform to an emerging picture of human nature from which we might then draw useful conclusions regarding the best way to educate people, she insisted that research wasn't there for drawing conclusions, it was only there to be recapitulated when we like the results. Thus research is good because sometimes it has results that educators like and that was important because we like them.

Now I am perfectly willing to grant that she may have simply been a bad psychologist, that psychologists as a whole do use their research to help construct and tweak their anthropologies, but all those psyche majors I have managed to surround myself with inform me that such is not the case. That in fact she is essentially representative of her field.

I think that this is horrific. I suddenly saw all these people going to get counseling from individuals who have no coherent, definable concept of what a mentally healthy person ought to be. This is effectively the same as a bunch of sick people going to a set of doctors who have never seen a physically healthy person. And what if these doctors were proud of thier ignorance as the psychologists seem to be? Who would choose a pediatrician who boasted that she has no basic concept of what a healthy child ought to look like and refuses to even take a stab at guessing because that might bias her towards some specific (and therefore narrow) school of ideology?

And this catastrophe has spread beyond counselors, psychologists and headshrinkers. Our general culture is loathe to come up with an anthropology. I suspect that this has more to do with a love for the "liberation" of subjectivism than it does with bad psychological training but the bad psych certainly hasn't helped things. Our culture holds pretty tightly to the "different strokes for different folks" mentality and does so with enough rigor to enable my students to defend the rights of a man to rape a woman so long as his type of "folk" (read culture) approve of the act.

I would like to propose an anthropology. I have already mentioned some aspects of my own beleifs about human persons on this site and I expect many more to come. Persons are of infinite value; this value is based on their identity as persons and not on their actions. Humans were originally good but have become twisted or wounded in a profound way. Persons have free will and are ultimately responsible for their actions and decisions. Persons are the proper objects of agape love. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, while we live at least, humans are perpetually becoming and that becoming will ultimately end in either overwhelming glory or unmitigated horror. Clearly I have a lot more work to do on this, this is only a beginning; but it is my beginning. I want to figure out what exactly we are. Please join me as I search for answers.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Read a Book, Read an Old Book

C.S. Lewis had a pet peeve as regarded the academic world of his day (WWI-1968 for those of you who need to read more Lewis). He called it a number of things, among them; "chronological snobbery", "the myth of progress", and the "historical point of view". This last term is explained by Screwtape as the idea that the more modern an idea is, the more likely it is to be true. Thus the demon gloats that he has cut modern man off from the wisdom of his ancestors. He explains that when someone reads an old book (a practice Screwtape firmly discourages), that person does not ask whether the ideas in the book are true, but rather what period in human thought they represent, how those ideas have been misinterpreted by other scholars and how the ideas fit into a grand historical framework. Lewis points out elsewhere that this is mere snobbery. The idea that a proposition is wrong only because most of my peers don't hold it is a classic logical fallacy. There may be very good reasons for the idea's being rejected but if so it still ought to be rejected for those reasons and not merely because it was in the past and "people just don't think that anymore".
I am worried about this. If Lewis noticed it as a bad tendency over 60 years ago, I don't think that things have become that much better over time. People very rarely read old books. Even on college campuses it is incredibly rare to find someone outside of a literary class who spends much time at all with old books (and I am afraid that even lit programs are swapping out old lit for an unbalanced proportion of "modern" lit). The only schools I am aware of which have not forgotten old books are the few "great books" colleges (St. John's College and Thomas Aquinas College are the two best examples I know of). Outside of these we seem to be focused on "new" ideas. One ironic consequence here is that I am forever running into ideas which are presented as "new" but which are actually hundreds or thousands of years old. Sometimes they have been genuinely"rediscovered" and sometimes the new author is simply using old ideas and repackaging them. This, while ironic, is at least a good thing. What we are interested in is the promulgation of wisdom and truth; no need to worry too much about where it came from.

But academia is not really the sphere that I am worried about in this context. I am more interested in our current post-modern movement and what I have come to think of as the shiftiness of western culture. Taking those in reverse order; I have observed that we have begun to value newness and change for their own sakes. We complement things as being "original" or "different" even the word "weird" has taken on positive connotations in modern language. Now I am not a Luddite and I like to think that I am more than willing to embrace any and all changes which offer an actual improvement but this focus on change for it's own sake means that nothing is actually based on anything; indeed things are valued for not being based on older things. Newton claimed that if he had seen further than other men, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Our culture kills giants and then has nowhere to stand. The likely consequence is that we will end up repeating some of the particularly stupid and tragically horrific events and ideas of the past. The warning are in old books.

Post-modernism (the generally better forms which do not deny the existence of Truth) at least risks suffering from a similar mistake. I have mentioned in a previous post that one of the things which confuses me about the post-modern church is that all of the advantages it points to in post-modernism seem to have existed in pre-modernism as well. Here I do think that the post-modern church is generally moving in a good direction, but it does seem to be worth pointing out that we are re mapping a landscape which has already been mapped. Is there really a need for all the "new" books and ideas when the same great truths, observations and reflections are available in "old" books? Again I think that this path is a better one than the "modern" path but I think we could move along it at a much greater pace if only someone would notice that, this part of it at least, has already been paved.

Monday, April 4, 2011

I'll bring this Kingdom with a Gun.

For the last several years I have been aware of a growing understanding of and emphasis on the Kingdom of Heaven. Up through the late 90's I didn't really hear very much about the Kingdom of Heaven and what little I did seemed to come from a broadly premillenial theology which identified the Kingdom of Heaven with a millennial political reign of Christ on earth. In other words people didn't really talk about the Kingdom being something that happens now so much as something we can all (or at least some of us) look forward to.

I don't intend to make the argument for current, ongoing Kingdom theology, that has already been done quite effectively. As I said, things have changed since the 90's; as far as I can tell, they have reverted to what the majority of Christians throughout history have actually thought on the subject. Suffice it to say that I fully believe that the Kingdom of Heaven is something that all Christians are tasked with incarnating (fun theologian word) and promulgating (fun philosopher word).

So, taking the immediate importance of the Kingdom as a given, what I do want to talk about is the manner in which we are attempting to bring that kingdom (I was personally surprised to realize that this is also why I am a libertarian). I believe that we have been given a specific set of tools and tactics for our kingdom building efforts. The tools, show up mostly in various epistles and are generally referred to as the "gifts of the spirit". Taken in tandem with our own talents, educations and circumstances; and used in cooperation with the rest of our communities, I believe that we have everything we need. The tactics are given rather explicitly by Jesus, in all four of the gospels and essentially revolve around loving God and loving our neighbors (see earlier posts for thoughts about neighbor loving). Paul gives some useful, practical examples in his epistles and we get to see the whole process in action both in Jesus' life and in the Acts of the Apostles.

What stands out as absent from both of these areas is any mention of the sword. We do not build the Kingdom by force, by threats or by violence; rather our tools and tactics fall under some combination of the true the good and the beautiful (faith, hope and love anyone?).

Now up to this point, I suspect that most of my contemporaries would agree (although I know that some of you are expecting a sneaky Bill-wordgames-trap). So here is my big pill to swallow: I believe that our tools and tactics force us to exclude government as a way of bringing the Kingdom. Why? Because nearly everything that government does is essentially based on violence. All laws are based on the premise that if they are not obeyed, the offender will be thrown into prison against their will. If they resist arrest, they can be killed. If that is the basis for law then law cannot be the basis for Kingdom building. The Kingdom is built on consent; on bringing people into relationship and offering a better way (see what Lewis has to say about the "tao" to get a good idea of this). It cannot be based on force and because all government is based on force (check out what Paul has to say about rulers specifically being people who have been given the power of the sword), it cannot, it must not be based on government.

Let me end by stating what I am not saying. I am not saying that all government is bad or that all laws should be opposed by Kingdom builders. The government is tasked with justice (again check out what Paul has to say about what rulers are given sword power for). I am all for Christian political activism on issues that involve correcting injustices (I fully expect to see Christians lined up on both sides of the death penalty debate). I am especially in favor of the use of government power to stop those who would, themselves, use force against others. I am saying only that we cannot and must not use the government to try to make people into better people. Force, and therefore government will never cause generosity, mercy, courage or temperance. It will never plant the seeds of real agape in a single heart.