Tag Archives: Baylor

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Unprovable Things

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Seneca the Younger

The world’s first blogger was, I think, Seneca the Younger. He wrote letters for publication, known as the Epistulae Morales. But they were not really letters; the epistolary genre was for Seneca a conceit. Some are entitled, “On Noise,” or “On Philosophy, Life’s Guide,” or even, “On Quiet and Study” (perhaps my personal favorite). These were, in antiquity, the equivalent of blogs, a word derived, as you likely know, from the curious combination of “web” and “log.”

So, in the tradition of Seneca, who gives us eternal dicta such as “it is possible to grasp the proof of someone’s character even from the least little things” (Epistle 52.12) and “badness is fickle, it often seeks out change not for something better but for something different” (Epistle 47), I write this installment of the Residual Welshman’s blog on things that cannot be proved.

baylorIt is the second of these two Senecan maxims that directed my thoughts this week not to write about something new but rather to write about something old. I mean old in two senses, first in terms of antiquity, for I took the point of departure, as I have noted above, from Seneca, the world’s first “blogger,” long before there was a web on which to blog. Second, it is an old topic because I have touched upon it in previous weeks—liberal education. I have elsewhere mentioned that a certain major university in central Texas—Baylor by name—is in the midst of dismantling its venerable core curriculum. It is doing so in the headlong pursuit of mediocrity, a path that other universities have trod to their detriment and to the chagrin of the last remnant of veritable educators at these various institutions. Administrators love streamlined functionality. True educators, like Seneca, love nuance, depth, and breadth.

stacks-of-booksAnd, of course, in Seneca we find cautionary words, words that have stood the test of time—until now. Now, I suppose, Seneca won’t be read, won’t be found in the curriculum. Were he to be found at all, he would be found by the very rare student, perhaps in a book rarely read, rarely checked out of the library. Why? Because the students won’t have stumbled upon him in a class because change, as Seneca warns us, too often is sought out not for something better but merely for something different, something streamlined, something easier to work with, something to increase graduation rates, something to allow students the power to choose, something to accommodate.

I will close, however, with something else, namely an observation that actually relates to the title of this blog, namely something unprovable. To suggest that liberal education makes a difference in the way one thinks, the way one might potentially interact with one’s fellow human being is simply a proposition that is not quantifiable, not provable. It is, essentially, the God argument. One infers God not from the fantasy or fancy of religion but from the fantastic quality of nature. One infers Him from the goodness of life. Goodness in spite of human suffering, goodness in spite of human evil. Goodness in spite of our own terminal existence.

If you have been lucky enough to have had a liberal education, there is a chance that you know that education is not job-training. Nor is it just getting requirements “out of the way.” Rather, true liberal education is holistic, meant to mold, shape and form the individual willing to participate in it fully into a better person, a more thoughtful person. But that is unprovable. It is, again, in that way essentially parallel to the God argument. Those who have made up their minds against an argument for God will but seldom be swayed. Those who see education as job-training not training for life, they, too, are unlikely to be moved.

And thus, at my friend’s university, it seems to me, those who believe that liberal education is not really transformative are likely to prevail in the end and destroy the core of the liberal arts there. They won’t listen to Seneca when he admonishes us because they won’t be able to. They will assume Seneca is a town in New York state or, more likely, simply a kind of apple juice. Yet I close with the ancient philosopher’s words, which will perhaps hence forth but rarely be heard in central Texas and words that, in any case, cannot be proved. Yet I believe them to be true, as they take head-on modern questions and point up the need, then as now, for comprehensive, not streamlined education:

Wherefore, put off that wretched hope that you can merely sample in summary form the learnedness of “the greats.” Each work must be treated as a whole, considered as a whole. The matter is carried out by a course of study over time and by studying line after individual line of a work of genius, from which nothing is taken piecemeal without ruining it. Yet I do not deny that you can consider the pieces of it individually—of course you can—but keep in mind that a woman is not beautiful because either her leg or arm is, but rather because her whole appearance has removed the fragmented admiration of the single parts. (Epistle 33.5)

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A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts depicts a young man led by a personification of Grammar into a circle of allegorical figures representing the Seven Liberal Arts: Prudentia, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, Music.

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Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History, Breakfast and Bill Glass

we-the-peopleMy grandfather taught me to love history. Though he never went to college, Harry Jakes was an educated man. His education was garnered through the books he read, books about history, chiefly American history. He knew most of the presidents by heart. More importantly, he knew what they did and how ideally the country should function, its bicameral representative democracy, its three balanced branches of government, the fair and equitable distribution of power—a nonpareil essentially lost nowadays as we have a largely dysfunctional congress, increasing executive overreach, and politicized Supreme Court appointments. Yet Harry knew how the country had struggled to preserve its constitutional integrity, and when, and why.

And thus, beyond mere civics, that self-same grandfather taught me to love history. Yet for all his knowledge of history, Harry either did not have the capacity or desire to explain it fully—he rarely talked about “history” per se and indeed was generally reticent about what he was reading, though occasionally he would mention an important historical person, offering a slapdash and condensed biography. And that is precisely what I plan to do now. Yet I will not speak about American history or even my favorite, Roman history, but I will offer one of those random biographies as Harry used to do, in this case about Bill Glass. And there is a reason I will do so.

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William Sheppeard Glass, who goes by Bill, a former football player and not a “historical figure” per se, is someone whose story informed my grandfather’s outlook on life. Born in 1935, Bill Glass grew up in Texas, went to Baylor University, and then played defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, retiring from the pros in 1968.[1] In college Mr. Glass was a consensus all-American. As a pro, he proved worthy of the pro-bowl, and later authored or coauthored two books, an inspirational memoir entitled Get in the Game and another didactic work entitled Stand Tall and Straight, the latter of which is meant to foster character formation in young men. After his career ended, he attended Southwestern Seminary and would go on to learn about ministry from no less a preacher than Billy Graham. In 1969 Mr. Glass founded Bill Glass Ministries, whose primary thrust is to help emotionally and spiritually those who are in prison, though the ministry also touches those outside prison walls.[2]

Now what does this have to do with Harry’s penchant for history? For what reason do I quixotically offer this biography of a defensive lineman? No president, no congressman, he. It is because incumbent upon Harry’s general reticence about history was an equal reticence about interfering in the way Elaine Jakes was bringing me up. Elaine, you may know from reading the Curious Autobiography, was more or less a lightly practicing Jew throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. 9781480814738_COVER.inddAnd thus, I suspect, Harry felt it might be a breach of etiquette to encourage too strenuously his grandson to go to church, even though Elaine took me to synagogue but rarely, for she herself did not go regularly. Yet, Harry reasoned, if he gave me a record made by a football player speaking about his life—that football player was Bill Glass—then maybe I would listen. Maybe I would connect some dots that he thought, not without reason, I was not already connecting in my life. He was, and rightly so, deeply worried about my moral formation outside of church or, in my case, synagogue. And thus, Harry also thought, I suspect, that perhaps Bill Glass could make a lasting impression on me. Maybe I would even read Stand Tall and Straight, which I suspect he would have bought me for Christmas/Hanukkah if I had liked the recording of Glass speaking on the album that he had insisted I listen to.

Yet, though I was enamored of sports and especially loved football, by 1970 or so, when this was all happening, I had no interest in retired players—they were “old,” they were no longer playing, so I didn’t pay close attention to Mr. Glass’ impassioned appeal to turn to God, to give one’s life to Christ—though I don’t recall the specifics, I do recall the gist of the record. Had I listened, no doubt Harry would have been right to infer that I would have turned my life around—or rather God would have—and been on a better path, emotionally, morally, and spiritually. But that did not happen, not then.bill-glass-on-stadium

Now I forgot about all this for a long time. I forgot about it until a year or two ago when I was biking near the now demolished Floyd Casey Stadium in Beverly Hills, Texas, where the Baylor Bears used to play. On the side of that stadium was a larger than life-size portrait of none other than Bill Glass. I stopped my bike and looked at the poster and I said to myself, “I recall that guy. But how do I know him?” And then, as I resumed my bike journey it came back to me—history, my own history, and that of Harry Jakes as well. The awkward moment when he asked me to listen to the recording of Bill Glass.

And I would have forgotten about that, too, perhaps, but history doesn’t go away and often has a way of coming full circle. Later this week there is a fundraising breakfast for a ministry to the poor in Texas known as Mission Waco/Mission World. That breakfast was to feature Bill Glass himself as the chief speaker—until a week ago, when it was reported that Mr. Glass, now aged 81, has fallen ill and won’t be able to keep his speaking engagement. Needless to say, as a ticketholder to that breakfast, I am disappointed; more importantly, I sincerely wish him a swift recovery. I had hoped to tell him in person what a difference, albeit not at the time but over the course of time in my own personal history, that record album had made.

And thus I write this, on the one hand, for him: to let him know how his own history, many years ago, touched me, for though the message did not take root then, it would later. Within a few years of that moment, his words would come back to me. This time they came afresh in written form in St. Peter’s first epistle, spoken through the mouth of another person with Glass-like compassion—she would later become my wife—in Rome, Italy, a long way from Harry’s home in Kingston, Pennsylvania, a long way from Floyd Casey Stadium in Texas or the stadiums of Detroit or Cleveland. And I write this, on the other hand, for all of us, to remind us that history, whether our own, our country’s or simply that of a single individual, can have bearing on the present—redemptive bearing—and that, though we may not see figures of the past with our eyes, if we can recognize them in our minds and our spirits, their words and their lives truly will not lose meaning. Though I may never get to meet him, Bill Glass’ words resound and will continue to resound in my mind. I heard them but once, warbling on a wind-up Victrola nearly a half century ago.

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[1] http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/G/GlasBi00.htm.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Glass.