Tag Archives: liberal education

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Life in the Old Country

I’m afraid the title of this blog is a bit misleading. It sounds like I really know something about the old country, Wales—that I know specifically what it was like for the Jones clan, the Evans clan, the Hughes clan or the Eynon clan. I don’t. In fact, I can only imagine what it must have been like in mid-nineteenth century Wales. I can get a rough idea, though, from a piece by Chris Evans (a distant relative?), who in 2012 wrote a for the BBC on mid-nineteenth century Wales. Evans describes the most difficult of living conditions, living conditions that, even if they were not quite as harsh in Llwynhendy, a hamlet contiguous with Llanelli, as they were in Merthyr Tydfil, were undoubtedly hellish nonetheless.

How do I know? They left. By “they,” of course, I mean the Jones’ and the Evans’. The Jones’ didn’t bring much with them—just the contents of a black trunk marked with the name of Lucy Jones on the lid. But they most certainly did leave, and to cross an ocean, surely never to return, takes more than courage.

Courage is only the first step. It is not borne out of a desire to see the world or a quest for new opportunity. Rather, it requires a desire to get away from something, a strong desire. And what would the Jones’ and Evans’ have been fleeing? Well, if the article cited above is correct, it was the oppressive industrialization of Wales, from coal to ironworks, and the concomitant lack of opportunity for even the brightest to break out of the virtual caste system that they had been born into. If your father was a miner, you would almost certainly be one, too. If your father worked in the iron industry, chances are, were you a young man, you would, too.

And if that were not push enough, add to it a notable lack of educational opportunities. Now I’m not talking just about a robust liberal education, the kind I wrote about last week—the kind that allows the student to learn English literature, mathematics, science, art, and offers two years (at the very least) of language study. Rather, I’m actually speaking about education on a much smaller scale—what we would refer to as a basic high school education, or even a technical education that permits the person who receives it to move up the social ladder one or two rungs, not ascend it all at once. But to say that such educational opportunities were scarce in the mining towns of Wales would be a gross understatement. They simply did not exist. Yet how did David Evans, whose musical influence upon the family was profound—my daughter owns and still plays his violin—learn to play the violin, you might ask, and how did he get his hands on such an instrument in the first place?

The answer to that is shrouded in a bit of mystery, but suffice it to say that David would seem to have been born in America; whether his mother or father had been able to play the violin in Wales, we shall never know. But we can imagine. While we can imagine that he was likely not to have been the first person in the family to have musical ability—any Welsh miner could sing good Welsh hymns at Sunday service or even as he walked to work on a weekday morning—it is likely that David Evans was the first person in the family to play the violin, or even to be able to afford one. He would, himself, go on to write lovely Welsh hymns, one or two of which he co-wrote with a certain Reverend Hugh Griffith, whose name figures prominently in the Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes.

After such struggles, the descendants of David Evans, through the Jakes line, have had the great privilege of studying music at a major university in Texas with an excellent school of music and liberal arts. Sadly, even as I write this, however, that very university’s college of liberal studies is considering severely reducing its core requirements—the pitiable indulgence of the constant Sirens’ call for “practical” education. Hopefully, as there is more at stake merely than joi de vivre and simply beauty—there is, too, at stake truth, not the Keatsian parallel of truth and beauty but the truth that lies deep in a man’s soul, the profound truth that a woman like Lucy Hughes Jones was willing to travel across the sea to obtain—that truth is at stake, as it is, and must always be, the central goal of true liberal education. It needs to be preserved for a new set of dreamers, a new generation of immigrants longing to discover through music, art, science, mathematics, literature and language study the eternal Truth that has formed us and continues to shape us, and ultimately that binds each and every one of us together in complex, yet profoundly simple, humanity.

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: Brave, Brave, Brave

This title encompasses the very words typed into a woman’s text message box that I happened to see as I climbed into the shuttle that provided transport for sick people from a remote hotel to the huge, M.D. Anderson Medical Center in Houston. I didn’t mean to be reading her message, but I sat down behind her and, whether owing to her unfamiliarity with mobile devices or because she was far sighted and needed to hold the telephone a bit away from her face, she had stationed her mobile rather high in the air. And there were those words, “Brave, brave, brave,” typed into the outgoing box and, in a flash, sent. To whom she sent them and what the fuller context of that message was I do not know. But I don’t think she would, in that moment, have found to be comforting the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta, “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.”[1]

I think for that woman she would have settled for a hug rather than a kiss, for I can only imagine that either she or her spouse, with whom she boarded the van that morning, has cancer. I expect that they were on their way to see their doctor, as was I, to discuss how far the cancer had progressed or what the treatment options might be. These are not easy discussions for anyone, whether in the doctor’s office or afterward. Doctors too often lack the liberal education they once enjoyed, an education that can produce a demeanor that commands immediate respect and often evidences sharp intelligence; such an education might even mollify to some degree their presentation of the most difficult of diagnoses, cancer. Rather nowadays, doctors—even those who are atop their fields—often come across too much as medical technicians, well-schooled in their craft but not the most personable or sympathetic folk.

And, of course, the patient’s access to the internet has made things both better and worse. One can spend an inordinate amount of time search and re-searching (but not really researching) any aspect of a diagnosis, discovering various treatment options, herbal remedies, blood refurbishing machines, doctors in South Africa or some other exotic location doing experimental things that “won’t be offered in the States for another decade,” or so it is said. And of course, there are those known as healers, too. And every friend will offer you different advice.

But what you really need is what that dear woman wrote: the capacity to be brave in the face of certain danger, possibly death. For me, that sense of peace, that quality of grounding comes from one source, and one only. It doesn’t spring merely from the way I was raised—though Elaine Jakes did instill, I think, the kind of qualities in me as a lad that should have produced a modicum of bravery. She was, after all, a single mother living in the mod, artsy, even hippyesque, New Hope, Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, a town ahead of its time as it progressively anticipated the issues that now face our entire country, even the world. She was indeed brave, in that environment to raise a son on her own, to deal with the pressures of easy access to drugs, permissive sexual attitudes, and the concomitant malaise that such lotus-eating culture can engender. No, as brave as Elaine was and as rich a childhood as I was fortunate to experience, that is not the source of courage of which I speak.

G.K. Chesterton once wrote of the kind of bravery that I am speaking of and perhaps that dear woman was alluding to in her text: “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.” Such bravery means that you know that you can die, that in fact you will die. It is just a question of when. And to have that courage means to love life enough to be courageous in the face of death. For Chesterton also wrote, “The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” This idea forms an interesting couplet with the other. The bravery that I aspire to is, in a real sense, contradictory, as it can exist only because fear also exists. Yet, while having a deep sense of pathos (i.e. realizing that life can be lost), it mysteriously relies on a certain piece of ethereal knowledge: the presumed fact that the One that Chesterton spoke of so often and so articulately is not only the superabundant (the correct word here is propitiatory) Redeemer but the authentic Healer, as well. Whether St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta is right or not about pain being the “kiss of Jesus,” I don’t know. But I do know that knowing that God has any situation all under control can produce courage. That courage will indeed make you “Brave, brave, brave.” I pray that, come what may, such will be the case for the woman in the shuttle, and for us all.

[1] Mother Teresa, No Greater Love (New World Library, Novato, CA, 1997) 137.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Unprovable Things

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)

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.