University Restoration II: Learning and Excitement

Earlier I wrote about the problems that bubble to the surface at UC Berkeley and elsewhere. Here is Part II of the series.

As I continue writing about undergraduate education, Michael Linton’s article in First Things, “One College That’s Getting It Right” (HT: Tim Smith), is well worth reading and thinking about. Here’s an excerpt:

Like many of us reading these pages, I was in the middle of that spring migration known as “bringing the kid home from college for the summer break” (and, we hope, the summer job). My daughter and I were having breakfast at the local diner with seven of her friends (who had helped us schlep her gear to the car – always a good idea to reward cheap labor), and I was asking them about their first year in college. What did they like about it? What didn’t they? What were the big surprises, how were the roommates? All those kinds of questions I’ve learned are fairly innocuous ways to get to know 19-year-olds and to pick up a little local flavor and some entertaining gossip. After a couple of sentences complaining about the food, they were ignoring me and talking between themselves. Talking about Aristotle. And Plato. About the nature of virtue in the Nicomachean Ethics and how Verdi captured love of country in “Va pensiero” from Nabucco. (“I’m not Italian, but I cry every time I sing it,” one of the girls said.) And what they were most excited about was coming back in the fall and studying the Bible. And the Gospel of John. In Greek. Like I said, I was stunned.

These kids loved ideas. And they spoke knowingly about them, but without arrogance or a pretended sophistication. They weren’t showing off for the visiting daddy professor; they were just doing at breakfast what they had been doing since September: thinking, and thinking about important things seriously but happily, too. (The importance of “fun” was part of the discussion.) The talk hadn’t been pushed in that direction, it happened naturally. These young men and women were truly college students. Studeo, from the Latin, “to be eager or zealous for.” They were eager for understanding. They had just finished their freshman year at St. John’s College in Annapolis – and they could hardly wait to get back.

I’m not convinced that such an educational experience and such an excitement about ideas is just for nerds with no sense of practicality or for eggheads who are naive enough to think that their conception of the way things are will never have to be refined in the fire of full incarnated reality. Just as Jesus Christ the Logos of the cosmos came incarnated in the form of a man, in very nature God but equally conceived from Adam’s seed, so does our search for truth encompass both the embodied material form and the idea: we all need to cast our eyes on both the tangible reality around us and the intangible reality behind it.

Do we all need something like this? If we’re talking about doing whatever it takes to get a certain thing, no. If wanting to learn something more than what modernist social engineers want us to know, which is the technocratic knowledge that they think we need in a “modern, knowledge-based society”, or exclusively “ethereal” speculation that renders us harmless curiosities, yes. We need more than utilitarian learning, and it’s not just for those whom, whether we admit it or not, we think of as idle-makers who “do nothing useful”. Learning can be sterile, or it can be fertile.

Using and making that education

It is an act of love to delve into the depths of knowledge, then to resurface in greater awe of God’s mighty hand and unfathomable genius and then in wonder at the even greater depths of His grace.

Make it useful. By “useful” I mean not only what looks useful out in the world but good for the mind’s growth in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all discernment, discernment of good, of beauty, of truth about almighty God and about self. Waste no time to take classes only to let them get away with giving you none of this. This world is impoverished if you do nothing for God to make it fruitful in your mind, and if your mind is as readily distressed as mine, you will taste nothing but dust in those moments of quiet when you realize that you have sown your time for some abstract future but not to the present season of growth. Education will not do you any good if you just sit there with it.

Take out some time. We could keep ourselves ever busy for the Lord’s external, visible work and never stop to devote not only our “time with God” but our everyday time to His internal, invisible work within our hearts, souls, minds. It is an act of love to delve into the depths of knowledge, then to resurface in greater awe of God’s mighty hand and unfathomable genius and then in wonder at the even greater depths of His grace. We see then that this is the world that He has made, and this is the world that He has not abandoned, and greater than this is the beauty of His Kingdom to come.

For all God’s people

It is a loss to civilization that we divide ourselves into scholars and normal people and say, “What is for them is not for me,” a loss that we will have to sustain for as long as we have too few who are truly of the Renaissance and the Reformation, where Athens and Jerusalem met and both met with God. For us who are in school, who are paying in time if not in money for our learning, I maintain that these things are not just for the super-scholarly types who immensely enjoy both their own field and the rest of the humanities and sciences, the ones who go at knowledge as if they want it for its own sake: they are for everyone.

Believe it or not, one day our generation will have to be the wise and the learned, formed in the ways of the truth. That day is coming, and it’s not just for the few who want to get a Ph.D.

Read on to Part III. You don’t get any Part III until next week. Or as they say about the Berkeley lower division math classes, “Teach yourself math, punk.”


One response to “University Restoration II: Learning and Excitement

  1. I have to say I am enjoying this particular series. I was grateful to attend a decent high school which in many ways did educate me far beyond what passes for education these days. I wish that the same could be said of my undergraduate experience. I used to think it had something to do with my chosen field of study (Business-Finance) but upon further reflection, I think my experience would have perhaps been worse in a supposedly less “technical” field. It was not until my graduate studies in history did I experience real learning again, or education in any meaningful sense.

    It is not that I disdain “technical” education as somehow being deficient; I do not. It is just that for education to educate it must be something more than simply cramming a student’s head full of disconnected decontextualized information. Technical skills are easy to train. Dealing in knowledge, authentic reasoning, and wisdom are far more difficult.


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