Tag Archives: Augustine

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Illiberal Education, Shakespeare, and Campus Rape

It is fun to go on a college campus, even that of a college you never attended. It reminds you how privileged you are. You are walking across a mall that famous scholars have walked across and, more than just famous scholars, so have some of society’s great leaders. The campus that I was on this week for a breakfast with some old friends who are heavily engaged in the academic enterprise once held the soles of the shoes of visiting lecturers such as LBJ, Margaret Thatcher, Desmond Tutu, and Ronald Reagan. So it is that a college or a university campus has a way of making you feel small, small in a good way—small, as in part of something greater than yourself—young and fresh, and eager to learn, whatever your age might be.

Yet today you find two dangerous, and perhaps not unrelated, trends developing on college campuses. These were among the otherwise quite pleasant topics of conversation that I had during my breakfast with old friends when I found myself visiting a local college this past week. The friends and I had been in a Think Tank, or if not quite that, a talent cluster whereby which we had spent a few weeks thinking together about how best to lead—years ago, considering leadership in a variety of settings. And now we had all grown in different directions but, on the invitation of one of us, we were once again sitting and talking delightfully in a campus dining establishment enjoying a delicious breakfast and a rich, multi-various and even for a few moments, disturbing conversation.

I say disturbing because we happened to light upon a ghastly topic, which is one of the two trends that I mentioned above, campus rape. We agreed that it is much more widely reported now than it had been even fifteen years ago when we had been in our select group together. And that, of course, was good. We agreed, too, that in the current climate the alleged aggressor was more or less guilty until proven innocent—not a good thing but perhaps apotropaic or at least admonitory. We spoke about the relative lack of a moral code among college students today, with relative being the operative word, as the notion behind the phrase “it’s all relative” (and old phrase now) had, over the last twenty years not just gained ground but flat out triumphed. Then we all laughed, as we knew that now we, too, sounded “old,” as we once thought, when we were in our twenties or thirties, people in their fifties had sounded to us.

But sadly we only brush-stroked a part of the solution to the current amoral climate. Let me define “amoral” here before I try to address the solution. By amoral I mean not simply that rapes happen on a college campus, but that many young men and women, whether of religious upbringing or not, nowadays are swift to engage in premarital sex. I’m not saying that premarital sex didn’t happen when I was in college—indeed, it did, as my generation found itself in the midst of the so-called sexual revolution. But I am saying that the trend toward premarital sex as the norm that began then has by now supplanted, by and large, even the attempt at chastity. Less people come to college with a moral foundation that was forged in their homes; or, if they do, their parents would seem conveniently to have left out the idea that sex is a special thing to be enjoyed by a married couple, not by just any two people who find each other attractive.

Why? Sociologists and many journalists would say that this is the case, at least in part, because the parents themselves had sex before they were married, whether with each other or multiple other partners.[1] Now parents would seem to feel it is hypocritical to tell their children that they should be married first. Besides, many may reason, that kind of legalistic thought is old-fashioned, not part of today’s mainstream thought, whether that be simply the popular morality one hears espoused at a Starbucks on a Saturday morning or one might hear in a mainstream church. And we want to be in the mainstream, we want to keep in step with our environment, to do what the world around us is doing. Right?

Let me now return to the setting of the delightful breakfast, delightful in every way except, of course, the sad moment when we considered campus rape. It seems to me that the current way of dealing with the vast problem of campus rape is to create a thoroughgoing legalistic culture, with “Report It!” reminders everywhere adorning a college campus—on T-shirts, on posters, on the university webpage—all prompts to the young person that she (or occasionally he) needs to let the authorities know if something dreadful has occurred. Certainly that is important, as the gathering of proof must be done almost immediately after a violent act such as sexual assault.

But to get at the underlying causes—to prevent rape from happening in the first place—that seems to me to be something that should ideally first come from a home environment that teaches young folks that their bodies are not commodities to be “had” by another or “used” by themselves, even if the use is intended to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. That is still “use,” maybe even abuse. Secondarily—and this, too, runs counter to mainstream thought—perhaps another arena in which discussions about one’s body and one’s sexuality might come into play could be a college classroom, via literature. If a student has the opportunity to read Virgil’s fourth Aeneid and have a robust discussion about it, maybe, just maybe, he or she can see the unintended consequences of a relationship founded on sex (what Dido saw as marriage, Aeneas saw as a fling). If those same students might read C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves, or read about tragic love in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or the humorous circumstances of courtship in Love’s Labor Lost, then real conversations might be held on a college campus—conversations between friends, flowing from classroom to dormitory—about love, whereby love might be distinguished from lust and so on. I know in my college that very thing happened. I can remember Plato spurring conversations about ideas, Aristotle about virtue, Augustine about life’s journey and God’s call.

“Take away those great books,” I said as I directed the discussion to the second topic that I referred to above, “and you take away the opportunities for rich and meaningful conversations. You’ve changed “liberal” education to “illiberal” education. As learning becomes more and more career-oriented, we should expect our young folks to see their education as merely a means to an end, and their bodies, too, as merely something to be used with a view to a goal—even a good goal, such as a loving relationship. That good goal of the loving, perhaps even monogamous relationship,” I waxed on, “parallels the good goal of eventual gainful employment. But the means by which each is achieved—that makes all the difference.”

I was done. As you may have guessed, I had managed to throw a wet blanket over an otherwise delightful social event. I succeeded in wiggling my way out of the momentary yet deafening silence that followed my disputation by making a quip about my penchant for biking just about everywhere and my friends thinking it is because I’ve had a DUI. They laughed about that heartily. But I meant what I had said. The solution to our social ills must rely exclusively on the moral formation that may or may not occur in the home. Years ago that environment may have been the incubator of virtue; it is no longer. Rather, it may be that the last bastion of moral formation lies in books, books with great ideas and great ideals, perhaps out-of-fashion but never out-of-date. These ideals, shared via literature with many of the great men and women who came before, might just make us feel small in a good way, a part of something greater than ourselves, and eager to keep on learning, whatever our age may be.

[1] https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/why-i-wont-teach-abstinence-to-my-son-dncp/

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Prayer for Paris

… Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy:
when I fall, I shall arise;
when I sit in darkness,
the Lord shall be a light unto me.
—Micah 7:8

This week’s blog was to be about gratefulness and thanksgiving for seeing an old friend in Rome and making a new one in Paris. But that will have to wait. Now Paris has come under attack, and those of us who care, which I hope are most of us, are caught in a swirl of thoughts and emotions about a city that most have never visited.

Nevertheless, I have a feeling that somehow we know Paris, even if we have never had an occasion to be there. Those of us old enough to have grown up after World War II recall pictures, mostly black and white (e.g., in Look magazine), when we were kids, as Paris, like London and other cities that sought to recover from the Second World War, was being rebuilt and restructured. We think of the liberation of Paris in late August of 1944, when the Germans surrendered the city and retreated. liberation of Paris

American in ParisIf we should happen to be a bit younger, we might know Paris through film. Perhaps we’ve watched Singing in the Rain or been to a production of “An American in Paris” (or seen the movie) and can easily recognize Gershwin’s familiar tune. Paris is, and for most of us always has been, a place that represents something much more important than most big cities. It symbolizes and brings together style, frivolity, the power of art, history, romance, and beauty—in essence, all of Europe’s splendor and charm—in a single place. It is the place that by its very nature betokens a free society, where art and literature can flourish, where stamp collectors can wander through vendor booths along the banks of the Seine, where the name of a gothic cathedral can serve as a declaration not only for the most important female figure in Christendom, but also for the city, serving as a maternal figure for its country and perhaps the world: Notre Dame, Our Lady.Notre Dame

I took the picture you see here just a week ago when I was in Paris. I was there to meet a friend of a friend who was to help me with a large project I was working on in French. Maria and I struck up an immediate friendship, one that I hope and imagine will last for some years to come. And that is why I wrote to her immediately when I saw the news about Paris yesterday. My heart went out to her and to all Parisians for their immediate dire circumstance. I am glad to say that Maria was unharmed and is safely out of Paris now. But the fact remains, she could have been killed, and I, perhaps the most recent of her friends, would have been heartbroken; if I, how much more her parents and longer-term friends, teachers, colleagues?

And our heart goes out to all those whom we have not known, too, and it must. For the lives affected there are real lives. Real families are devastated. Even as I write this, in Paris some mother is lying on her bed sobbing (or a father on his knees crying out to God) because her only child was killed in a theater or a restaurant, simply because he or she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if we have a child, we can feel with that person, we can sympathize and we pray that our heartfelt sympathy will pneumatically comfort that mother or father across the miles, by some miracle of the wind blowing wherever it pleases. May it please that Wind to bring comfort now to those in need.

Someone might say the decadence of the West has brought this upon itself. And they would be wrong. I am not here saying that the West does not have its fair share of decadence. But no one in that restaurant was especially decadent. They were just people eating dinner. The problem with any argument that blames the victims is that it is patently facile. I can recall in the early 1980s certain Christians, some of them friends of mine, saying that the AIDS epidemic was God’s punishment upon those who engaged in dangerous sexual liaisons. But little hemophiliac children who needed blood transfusions were also dying of AIDS. The only way such an argument could work is to say that God is inaccurate in doling out his punishment; He cares less about collateral damage than might a general in the armed forces. But generals do care very much about collateral damage, and if a human being cares, how much more the Divine.

Rather than blame the West for its excess, I propose that we look for a moment at the human heart and ask ourselves a more relevant question: why do we hate anyone? By “we” I don’t mean we in the general detached sense of “mankind” but in the particular sense of you and me. I mean, in fact, why do I hate anyone. So I will start with me, and I will put the blame on the Paris attacks where it really belongs, on me as a human being, not necessarily me alone.

What is it about me that makes me hate my neighbor? I have spent the last 35 or so years trying very hard not to hate. Anyone who happens to have read the Curious Autobiography knows why. If you’ve read Augustine’s Confessions, you know what happens to Augustine in the eighth book. If you’ve read the Curious Autobiography, you can find in the tenth chapter an account of something similar. With all due respect to Daniel Burke, I believe—rather I know—that there can come a point in some people’s lives where they (decide to?) turn in another direction. Or perhaps they are turned, but I leave that subject aside; I can only say that, after chapter 10, I now want to try not to hate any longer.

Yet I admit that I have not been entirely successful. It is difficult to look in the face of evil on September 11, 2001 or November 13, 2015 or October 26, 2015 (if that is the correct date), or countless other dates these days, when innocents die in any number. We live in a cruel world, becoming crueler by the second. Fewer and fewer folks are going to church, though world religions in general are not shrinking. In the east and now in much of the west, religion is thriving, but it is not Christianity. To quote a recent article, “Muslims … in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.”[1] While that article attributes the principal reason for Islam’s expected growth to “simple demographics” (i.e., Muslims will have significantly more children than other folks), it seems to me that there may be another reason, one derived from doctrine, that might speak to the growth of that religion: that, in Islam, works count toward salvation. But, though that can explain a lot and even give us, perhaps, some insight into the motivations of the suicide bombers in Paris, I leave that aside.

And I do so because we need to look into our own hearts, not those of others, to come to grips with what has happened in Paris. If we are capable of hating—even retributively—we must realize that others are, as well. We must understand that the blame for what happened in Paris falls on us all. It certainly falls on me. I have indulged in hatred, for whatever reason, many times since chapter 10. I am therefore as much a part of the problem as anyone else, including the terrorist himself.

Yet just because we are all to blame, does not imply that the response to injustice should be tepid. On this earth, people have been establishing justice through due process in the West since well before 458 BC, when AeschylusOresteia dramatizes the beauty of civic justice; in the East, 356 BC, under Duke Xiao of Qin. France’s president, François Hollande, has stated that the response will be severe . President Obama has said that America stands shoulder to shoulder with the French.

I close with this thought, one for myself, but perhaps for us all. I shall not hate the terrorists. Yet that does not imply a lack of resolve. I shall not indulge in execration. Rather, I shall pity them in my thoughts and lavish mercy on them in my prayers. Will that make a difference? Will it make God any “happier” with me? To the former, I hope yes; to the latter, I can only say that I think Milton is right when he says, “God doth not need man’s work or his own gifts.”[2] As for me, I hope to hold mercy in my heart even as I pray for stark justice in this world. That is my hope, my recipe for this week: Seek justice, love mercy.[3]  Bon courage, mes amis à Paris. Be safe, Maria …

Love Paris? click here

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Recipe for 13 November 2015: Hope for Paris, and us allwelsh spoon

 

Ingredients (serves one [at a time]):

One part mercy, one part justice, and a cup water from the well alluded to below. Mix with a Welsh love spoon thoroughly, and live. Failure to blend ingredients will produce less than desirable results. Failure to care about your neighbor at all will produce death; probably has already. As with another recipe, bake at 365 days a year; eat while still warm, and walk humbly.

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

—Micah 6:7-8

 

[1] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/#beyond-the-year-2050.

[2] “On His Blindness.”

[3] Micah 6:8.

 

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Lost Art of …

Ah, the infamous “lost art.” One could fill in a number of notions after the three dots in the above title. A few phrases or words come to mind: kindness, gentility, non-electronic friendship. Less serious, too: tea brewing, whittling, even for many of us, gardening. Yet here I would submit for your consideration, letter writing.

Sprowles letterThis week I had a very unique experience. I received in the mail a single packet of four letters; one of which was a thank-you note written to Elaine Jakes by my beloved high school teacher, Zinaida Sprowles, whose first name means “belonging to Zeus.” And godlike she was, for Mrs. Sprowles, who is mentioned in the Curious Autobiography (p.101), was the under-appreciated gem of the New Hope-Solebury High SchoolNHS High School faculty. Originally a Latin teacher, Zinny (for so she was called) was, by the time I had her in school, nearing the end of her career. By then they had phased out Latin (so was the trend then, as the administration could see no use for it) and relegated the tenured, and therefore not able-to-be-fired erstwhile Latin teacher to teaching English courses, though they allowed her to retain the honors students’ section of what amounted to the best college preparatory courses at New Hope-Solebury, classes that were essentially Great Texts (or what is sometimes called Western World Literature). I was not an honors student, and thus I had no access to that track or to Mrs. Sprowles, unless she happened to teach a regular English elective.

Fortunately for me, she did just that, but it was the second term of my junior year. Hitherto I had known Mrs. Sprowles only from the school hallways. Yet, having met with Mr. Karl Richter, the school’s guidance counselor, with his help I constructed a schedule that included a strange elective—strange for me, that is, because I was a numbers kid, excelling in Physics and mathematics and a member of the geekily (but sadly all too fittingly)  “Mathletic Team.” The elective in question was “Detective Literature,” and it focused almost entirely on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and the figure of Sherlock Holmes. It was taught by none other than my hallway-only acquaintance, Mrs. Sprowles.

Class by class Mrs. Sprowles vivaciously led discussions on the characterization of Holmes or Watson, Doyle’s craft in writing, tension, climax and resolution of each work, construction of plausibility, and the list goes on. I had never encountered a teacher of this caliber. Why, I wondered, was she the only teacher in New Hope-Solebury who had no desk, no classroom? Was it some kind of less than subliminal message from the administration? In any case, she was the self-styled peripatetic pedagogue, though she was far more academic and Platonic than she was categorical and Aristotelian. In fact, that is what made Mrs. Sprowles so profoundly delightful: she was not someone who observed and put things into boxes but she was utterly academic, someone who sought the highest origins and deepest forms.

Aristotle
Aristotle

And that is what must have frightened the administration of New Hope-Solebury High School in those days, the fear that students would become so enamored of learning that they would follow this peripatetic pedagogue just anywhere she might happen to meander in her academic wandering. Indeed, some of us did. Having used whatever influence she had left with Mr. Richter, she managed to squeeze me into her honors class (even though I had been, outside of math and physics a grade-wise dishonorable student), she led me and the rest of that senior seminar to the theater of Dionysus where we witnessed by reading the Oresteia and came to understand the importance of justice and democracy. We would follow her to the ancient agora, where we could overhear Socrates speaking with the young all too self-righteous and overconfident Euthyphro in front of the Stoa Basileios. And, like all the truly great educators such as Socrates, she was misunderstood by the higher-ups.

Plato
Plato

This is the area, I think, in which Elaine Jakes and Mrs. Sprowles would have fundamentally connected, for both were educators of a similar ilk, all too often misunderstood by all but their students. Yet that letter that Mrs. Sprowles wrote was never sent, presumably because it fell into a crack in the desk or was covered over by two days’ worth of mail and, by the time Zinny found it, it was too late to send. Yet why did she keep it all those years? That I cannot ever know. But I am glad that her daughter took the time to send it to me, along with three other letters written by a very young version of myself—a first-year college student at Dickinson—to his former high school teacher and inspiration, Mrs. Sprowles.

I’m not writing to say that I thought, when I read them, that my own three letters were well written or conveyed anything more than sincere appreciation to a wonderful teacher, or even that Mrs. Sprowles’ note to Elaine Jakes is anything to write home about. Rather, these four letters collectively reflect something bigger, something that is actually worth writing home about: the lost art of letter writing. It is truly a lost art, for art is an aspect of letter writing, as it involves several artistic choices.

First, one must find the right stationery. If one chooses a note format, as Mrs. Sprowles did in her unsent note to Elaine, one must ensure that the card befits the occasion, even if it is blank inside. Then there is the issue of penmanship. Here I’m afraid I fail miserably. Even my finest penmanship is shoddy at best, and I blame my fourth-grade self for snickering and treating as trivial the lessons of Mrs. Hendrickson, my teacher that year, who labored relentlessly to get me and one or two others in the class (was it Mickey? Todd?) to write more legibly. Then there is content, which of course is the most important bit. Yet even that comes out differently with a pen on paper than it does in a computer. It is not correctable on paper: one must get it right the first time.

And this is an art, an art that I was confronted with from a former generational iteration of myself. In case you’re wondering, other than the penmanship and poor choice of stationery, I did okay. But Mrs. Sprowles’ note was far more meaningful. How good it was to see her handwriting again after so many years. How rich and thrilling to know that she had cared enough to write my mother a note—a note I would never have known about had Mrs. Sprowles actually ever have sent it. And that is the key part of the art, the production of the artifact of the epistle itself.

Augustine writing
Fresco of St. Augustine

Memory is such a funny thing: it allows us to record in some deep recess of the brain a meaningful event, and never let go. It is something like hope, but backwards. In his Confessions, Augustine demonstrates the power of memory by going back in time to his childhood and his life as a young adult and rendering it all in seven lovely and quite memorable books. But then in the eighth book he begins to shift the notion of memory around so that with the final five books he has reoriented his own and the reader’s mind as he engages ideas that are otherworldly, heavenly. The way he does this is to anchor himself and the reader in the past by memories, one upon another. Mrs. Sprowles’ short note did that for me this week, and my mind looks forward to an otherworldly hope of sitting for tea with her again in a place far away that some of us call Home. I hope she has some of her delightful cinnamon buns with that tea, for I recall the last time we met we enjoyed them together, yet another sweet memory; but a sweeter hope.

pen

 


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