Friday, November 9, 2012

Faith, analogy, and modern science

In his 8 November address to the Plenary Session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Benedict spoke of the "urgent need for continued dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and of faith in the building of a culture of respect for man, for human dignity and freedom, for the future of our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet." He explained that
the sciences are not intellectual worlds disconnected from one another and from reality but rather that they are interconnected and directed to the study of nature as a unified, intelligible and harmonious reality in its undoubted complexity. Such a vision has fruitful points of contact with the view of the universe taken by Christian philosophy and theology, with its notion of participated being, in which each individual creature, possessed of its proper perfection, also shares in a specific nature and this within an ordered cosmos originating in God’s creative Word. It is precisely this inbuilt “logical” and “analogical” organization of nature that encourages scientific research and draws the human mind to discover the horizontal co-participation between beings and the transcendental participation by the First Being.
This is a point that is explored in my book Beauty for Truth's Sake, but has rarely been stated so clearly or succinctly. The Pope went on, in terms that echo the book by Barry R. Pearlman, A Certain Faith:
It is within this broader context that I would note how fruitful the use of analogy has proved for philosophy and theology, not simply as a tool of horizontal analysis of nature’s realities, but also as a stimulus to creative thinking on a higher transcendental plane. Precisely because of the notion of creation, Christian thought has employed analogy not only for the investigation of worldly realities, but also as a means of rising from the created order to the contemplation of its Creator, with due regard for the principle that God’s transcendence implies that every similarity with his creatures necessarily entails a greater dissimilarity: whereas the structure of the creature is that of being a being by participation, that of God is that of being a being by essence, or Esse subsistens.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

On Tolkien

The field of "Tolkien studies" continues to evolve. The book based on the Exeter College conference, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: Sources of Inspiration, is still available and remains one of the most interesting collections of academic essays on this topic. The journal of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College, VII or Seven, has for thirty years been publishing excellent articles about Tolkien and the other authors in his circle. In Oxford we also now have an excellent Journal of Inklings Studies. West Virginia University Press has a journal of Tolkien Studies. Meanwhile the online Tolkien Library remains a useful resource for finding lots of wonderful books by and about Tolkien. My own book on Tolkien is about to be launched in a new edition (details will be posted as soon as I have them).

The main site for Tolkien fans is of course the Tolkien Society, and that has links to many others. The Encyclopedia of Arda explores Tolkien's imaginary world in great detail, with maps, timelines, illustrations, etc. There are numerous sites devoted to the languages of Middle-earth, and even to Elvish heraldry. Another impressive online resource for studying the books is the Lord of the Rings Project. And there are a number of blogs that offer fascinating insights into the thinking and spirituality of this profoundly Christian writer: I recommend particularly The Flame Imperishable by Jonathan McIntosh, and Bruce Charlton's Tolkien's Notion Club Papers. Finally, Raymond Edwards has recently written a superb pocket biography of Tolkien for the CTS.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ethos of a Catholic School

On 30 October the Anscombe Centre is organizing an "ETHOS" conference in Oxford on the role of ethics, science, and religion in Catholic schools. The poster is here. I will not be able to attend, but it seems a good opportunity to reflect on the theme that is under debate.

The ethos of a school refers to its moral environment, the sense of belonging to a community of shared values and ideals. The word ethos originally meant “custom”, or “habit”, or “character”; the ethos is determined by the way we treat each other and behave towards each other. It depends on the quality of our attention and respect for one another. It supports and stimulates both imagination and intellectual inquiry but is distinct from both. It may be
expressed in a mission statement, but that can be no more than a point of reference. Ethos requires us actually to behave, not just to speak, in accordance with the faith and intelligence we profess. It is a matter of the “spirit”, rather than the “letter”. 

In an article for the Catholic Herald on 5 October 2012, Tim Gardner OP chooses these words from the Declaration on Christian Education by the Second Vatican Council to express the ethos of a Catholic school:
“a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith” (n. 8).
How can we tell if a school has this “Catholic ethos”? It comes from the presence of a certain spirit within the community, which shows itself in different ways, from an almost tangible mood or atmosphere through to various concrete signs, such as the close integration of liturgy, prayer, and religious instruction with the rest of school life, the moral example set by teachers, encouragement given to charitable activity, interest in the life of each pupil, care for those with special needs, and so on.

The Catholic ethos radiates from the liturgy and the sacraments but extends throughout the community and the work of the school. This even affects what is taught and the way it is taught. The Incarnation is not some piece of historical information that, once communicated, can be forgotten while we turn our minds to geography or biology or mathematics. If true, it changes everything, even the way we view the cosmos. It alters the way every subject is taught as well as the relationships between them. It connects them severally and together to our destiny, to the desire of our hearts for union with infinite truth – what used to be called, and perhaps still should be, the saving of our souls. Once that lesson is learned, there are no “boring” subjects. Nothing can be ugly or pointless unless we make it so.  

To some it may sound excessively pious to say so, but a Catholic ethos is essentially Marian, and the “atmosphere” of a Catholic school will tend to be redolent of the Holy Family, since this is the educational environment in which Our Lord himself grew to maturity. It is the work of the Catholic school to help bring Christ to birth and to maturity in each member of the community, and to that extent to help extend the ethos of the Holy Family throughout the world. This is only possible with the grace of the sacraments, making possible the living presence of Christ himself.

Details of the conference follow:

A conference on the role of ethics, science and religion in Catholic schools: The Anscombe Centre is delighted to announce a conference for teachers and school leaders on Tuesday 30th October (10am - 4pm), at St Gregory's Catholic School, Oxford OX4 3DR. This presents an excellent opportunity to encourage an authentic, reasoned, and persuasive account of faith in education, supporting teachers and, ultimately, students.
Three speakers from national centres of excellence in the worlds of education, Catholic bioethics and science and religion will deliver presentations. Fr Tim Gardner OP, Prof David Albert Jones, and Rev Dr Andrew Pinsent will focus on the educational worldview involved in Catholic schools, relating this to practice and the formation of a schoolwide ethos. There will be opportunities for discussion, and for involvement in our follow-on project: consulting with us on a book we are publishing on these themes.

The conference could be used as an INSET day, for those who organise INSET days, or more generally as a day for all who are interested in what it means in practice and theory for an educational institution to have a religious ethos.

Online bookings can be made here: http://goo.gl/X29dW. The cost of the event is £80, which includes refreshments and lunch. Places are limited. Free parking is available at St Gregory's. Please book asap. For more information contact the Anscombe Centre at admin@bioethics.org.uk or on 01865 610 212.

Classical Conversations

A wide community of home-centred educators based at Classical Conversations combine the classical methods of learning with a biblical worldview. In this connection I was due to participate in a radio show called Leigh at Lunch hosted by Leigh Bortins, talking about the two books advertised on the left. Technical difficulties prevented it happening as originally scheduled, and it will now take place in the New Year. Details will be announced. I am looking forward to it.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What's wrong with higher education

An impressive American analysis, along with proposals for radical reform, all grounded in the classical humanistic tradition, by Robert C. Coons – "Dark Satanic Mills".

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reality

Particle collisions: CERN
I love it when New Scientist tackles the big questions. This week it is "What is Reality?" There is a new humility in science, it seems. Many scientists will now admit that we just don't know the answer to the question. Reductionism is no longer convincing. You can examine ever smaller components of the material world (so far we have boiled it down to quarks, leptons, and bosons), only to discover that there may be no bottom level, or that if there is, it is well beyond the reach of observation (minute vibrating strings in several extra dimensions).

More importantly, since everything from the most elementary particles to the objects we see around us with the naked eye can be described in terms of "wave functions" or waves of probability, existing in a "superposition" of contradictory states until the function is "collapsed" by the act of observation, it seems that the consciousness of an observer has re-emerged as a determining factor in reality itself. Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, said in 1931, "I regard matter as derivative from consciousness." The
only way to avoid this is to think in terms not of conscious observation but of "measurement", or the interaction of the subatomic processes with a measuring instrument of some kind – which means that the subatomic realm is no longer "more fundamental" than the world we see with our naked eyes.

The most interesting form of reductionism reduces subatomic particles to collections of space-time points, these in turn to sets of numbers, and the numbers themselves to pure logical sets. But what are sets? Like numbers themselves they exist either as shared mental constructions, or as entities outside both materiality and subjectivity in a Platonic "third realm". Either way, materialism is refuted. At least this would help to explain why the world conforms to the rules of mathematics, which as the physicist Eugene Wigner pointed out in 1960 would otherwise look very like a miracle.

Concurrently I am reading a series of SF novels by Stephen Baxter (the Xeelee sequence) that build on these discoveries and speculations of modern physics. For Baxter, life can emerge and thrive wherever there is the right combination of complexity and stability – even in the heart of a star, or in the first few nanoseconds after the Big Bang, when the universe was no bigger than an orange. Whole civilizations rise and fall before the formation of stars, or even atoms. Baxter's wildly imaginative stories feature creatures composed of dark matter, quarks, flaws in spacetime, and even convection currents in planetary oceans.

The idea that consciousness emerges wherever there is ordered complexity reminds me of Christopher Alexander's intuition in The Luminous Ground that degrees of beauty, of ordered complexity, are degrees of life, of connectedness with the ground of reality which he calls the Self, but which might as well be called Being. But this does not lead to a merging of all things into a supreme Oneness. “This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become more individual and most precious.” (p. 309)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Beauty won't save the world alone

The title of Gregory Wolfe’s excellent collection of essays, Beauty Will Save the World, is based on a much-quoted line from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. In its context it appears only in indirect speech, being attributed by one of the other characters to the “Idiot” of the title, Prince Myshkin. Thus in its original context its meaning is ambiguous, or at least ill-defined. That makes it doubly appropriate for Greg’s title, since he is arguing against the “ideologues” of today’s culture wars in favour of a literary and imaginative approach to the truth. Conservatives have succumbed to philistinism, and fail to appreciate modern art, he argues. Great literature, and art in general, explores the world – and today that means the modern world – from
the inside. It is not preachy or moralistic; as a result, conservatives of a Puritan or pragmatic bent often find it unedifying, or even profane. But it is legitimate, Greg believes, for art to shock, to revolt against established conventions, to make explicit what others may hesitate to look upon. In many cases this may the only way for the artist to discover a “redemptive path toward order”.

A particular target of the book seems to be those conservatives who can see nothing good coming out of modernity except the Inklings. I suspect Greg numbers me among them, although in reality my tastes are much broader than the things I tend to write about. But it is the case that my interest is less in literature and the arts, important though these are in posing the right questions and exploring the ambiguities of our time, than in philosophy and theology, where we legitimately search for answers to those very questions. This is not the same as seeking an ideology, though of course a theology can be rendered ideological easily enough. Theology at its most authentic is not a fortress of ideas, but more like a path across a landscape, a route map, or a system of signposts. It is intrinsically mystical, it is of the spirit not the letter.

Greg has developed a strong aversion to the kind of conservatism that rejects the modern world and gives up on modern culture, pretending to saw off the branch on which it sits. The importance of “Beauty” is that she is the only one of the ancient “transcendentals” that still speaks to us through modern culture. She is our way back to the vision of the whole, to a meaningful universe. But she has become separated from her sisters, Truth and Goodness, and thus relativized and subjectivized. Lacking a sense of transcendent Truth and Goodness, our culture is easily dominated by purely political and economic forces – power and money are the new transcendentals. He has a good account of how this happened, beginning with the Nominalists. But through it all, Beauty remains eloquent, calling us back to an awareness of Being and therefore of the reality our ideologies have squeezed out of the picture. The artist is the one who keeps us hearing this call to meaning, which is the breath of life.

The artist awakens the question of meaning, and takes us to the threshold of understanding. He speaks to the imagination, which is far more important than the rationalist in us admits. Imagination is our faculty for comparing and connecting the various parts of the world to make some kind of whole, a narrative in which we have a part to play, or an icon of the self we have lost. The imagination, Greg says, “works through empathy”. It is by empathy that the artist passes over from his or her own experience to that of another, and through that transcendence of self attains a glimpse of common or universal humanity beyond the reach of solipsistic individualism.

This is all very well, but will Beauty, will the imagination, “save the world” on its own? I doubt it very much. Beauty may prepare the world to be saved; it may crack the walls of our prison. But to pass through that crack we need something more. To step out of the cave and into the light we need the will to do so, and that can only be engaged if Beauty is reconnected with Truth and Goodness. Greg himself sees this. He is more than familiar with Balthasar's warning of the consequences of separating Beauty from her "two sisters", and he writes of artistic creativity as a "call" or "invitation" to virtue. It is a point that is hard to develop further without falling into moralism. The arts and literature are preparatory, even essential in some ways, to the life of the spirit, but nevertheless some more radical engagement with the world is necessary, and that is found in spirituality, in the inner life, in mysticism, in metaphysical intuition. That is not to say we must all become "intellectuals", because that word now refers to a kind of book-learning and cleverness that is very far from what I have in mind. We must become more open to a light that we only half remember, which comes from a horizon beyond the achievements of human culture however noble, and which answers the cries of the human spirit to which the artist gives a voice.*

I see this as one possible meaning of another work by Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. In this short story, a man intending to commit suicide dreams of an unfallen world of human beings living in peace with each other, with nature, and with God. But he also dreams of how he introduces sin and corruption into this world, until it becomes as bad as his own world, so that in a desperate desire to atone and heal he teaches them to make a cross and implores them to crucify him.

Awake again, his love of life is restored. “For I have seen the truth,” he writes; “I have seen and I know that people can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth. I will not and cannot believe that evil is the normal condition of mankind. And it is just this faith of mine that they laugh at. But how can I help believing it? I have seen the truth – it is not as though I had invented it with my mind, I have seen it, seen it, and the living image of it has filled my soul for ever.”

Here we see the role of the imagination, of the arts, which is ultimately to show us an image that our soul will recognize as true. But then we must act, we must become apostles, we must become “ridiculous”.
“The chief thing is to love others like yourself, that's the chief thing, and that's everything; nothing else is wanted – you will find out at once how to arrange it all. And yet it’s an old truth which has been told and retold a billion times – but it has not formed part of our lives! The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of the laws of happiness is higher than happiness – that is what one must contend against. And I shall. If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once.”

* This paragraph has been revised since first publication to express my meaning more clearly. – SC 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Companions for the Year of Faith

The coming Year of Faith (11 October 2012 to 24 November 2013) is a great opportunity to refresh our understanding of the Catholic faith, and strengthen our confidence in it. There are plenty of books I could recommend, beginning obviously with The Magnificat Year of Faith Companion. This is a superb pocket-sized compendium of wonderful spiritual reading for the whole year. Timothy Radcliffe's Why Go to Mass? is still an encouraging (and amusing) read. Henri de Lubac's The Discovery of God could melt the heart of the most decided atheist. CTS have some great booklets for the Year of Faith and more on the way. And for a rich and robust apologetics taking you all the way from natural reason via sound scriptural analysis to the heights of mystical experience get hold of Barry R. Pearlman's A Certain Faith, on behalf of which I am waging something of a one-man campaign (do join me!). I will be reviewing this in the upcoming Second Spring.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A view of British children

An article by Anthony Daniels in the Telegraph newspaper (7 Sept. 2012) presented a rather sad view of the situation of many children in modern Britain. Here is a section of the piece:
British children are by far the fattest in Europe (three times as many of them as in France are truly obese), and even among the fattest in the world. A very high percentage of them never, or only very rarely, eat a meal at a table with other members of
their family – or perhaps I should say household. Indeed, there is often no table at which they could eat such a meal if it ever occurred to anyone to provide them with one.
   When I entered such a home – as I often did as a doctor – I discovered no evidence that cooking had ever taken place in it, beyond reheating of prepared food in the microwave. The children did not so much eat meals as forage or graze, more or less ad libitum. One of the most elementary forms of civilised social intercourse was therefore alien to them.
   Meanwhile, down the road, there were Indian shops selling fresh vegetables so cheap that you could hardly carry away all you could buy for £10 – the cost of 30 cigarettes. It goes without saying that the homes of which I speak were plentifully supplied with flat television screens, some of them as wide as the sky, and almost always illuminated.
   The pattern of child-rearing in Britain is all too often that of a toxic combination of overindulgence and neglect. First a child is bribed into silence, or at least minimal compliance, by being given what it wants; then, when it is old enough to demand rather than request, it does so. A higher proportion of parents in Britain end up frightened of their own children than anywhere else known to me – I never saw it in Africa, where I lived for several years. And it is not only their parents who are frightened of them: who these days dares to tell children to behave themselves in a public place? Old people shrink away from them in fear; I have not seen this in other countries.
   About a fifth of our children leave school unable to read or write fluently. This is not the consequence of poverty: on average, at least £50,000 will have been spent on their education. No doubt bad schools, bad teachers, and bad teaching methods have a part to play. But it cannot be easy to be a teacher of children whose parents, or parent and latest lover, will take the child’s part in any disciplinary dispute because of their egotistical belief that anything that emerges from them must be above reproach....
   By the end of his childhood, a youngster is considerably more likely to have a television in his bedroom than a father living at home. The combination of family instability and a vulgar, celebrity-obsessed, low-IQ and all but inescapable popular culture (of which, incidentally, the BBC’s website for home consumption is clearly a manifestation), means that British children lead the western world in many forms of self-destructive as well as unattractive behaviour.
   But none of this is poverty, properly so-called: it is squalor, mental, emotional, moral, psychological, cultural and often, as a result, physical too. But to call it poverty is actually to make it worse, in so far as it misidentifies the problem and fosters the very culture of dependency that brings so much of it about in the first place.
The point that material "poverty" is less the problem here than a kind of cultural degeneration is well made and rings true. But that is a problem that runs deeper than the "culture of dependency" to which Daniels makes reference, and the solution is not as simple as reducing benefit payments.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Beauty of Numbers

Michael S. Schneider's wonderful work A Beginner's Guide to Constructing the Universe, which I recommended in Beauty for Truth's Sake, is linked to a lot of classroom teaching that Michael has done over the years. This has now been captured in his superb DVD called Constructing the Universe, which could be an important resource for teachers and parents seeking to get their children and pupils interested in the properties and transformations of numbers and shapes, and the way these patterns underlie the forms and processes of the natural world. Modestly he says, "This DVD wasn’t made directly for youngsters but for adults who might enjoy seeing a philosophical approach to numbers, culture and the universe. It's a modern take on traditional mathematical cosmology weaving numbers, shapes, proportions, nature, art, mythology and symbolism into a whole united by mathematics. I think it would be a bit much for most youngsters, although there are some sections they might enjoy seeing. Perhaps high schoolers with an interest in math and these ideas might appreciate it." That is surely an understatement. Well worth trying out!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Effects of the Reformation

Part of our recent Summer School was about the effects of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries – not just the effects on Roman Catholics, who now entered into a period of savage repression and iconoclasm, but the effects on the economy and society of England as a whole. The destruction of much of the fabric of civil society, on which the working classes and the poor depended, created a new kind of poverty and a new society, simultaneously laying the foundations of modern international finance and the wages system. A useful summary of all this can be read in a recent issue of The Social Crediter (read Parts 3 and 3).

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Revival and Romanticism

In order to understand the English Catholic Revival that we studied at our Summer School in Oxford recently, we need to appreciate that it originates not only as a counter-reaction to the English Reformation, but as a development of the Romantic movement. Like the Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothic Revival, and the Arts and Crafts movement in the nineteenth century, Revival writers found inspiration in the medieval past, and in England’s traditional devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary (as LĂ©onie Caldecott’s seminar showed). They sought to restore the human dignity of the poor that had been shorn away by the factory system and big business.

They shared with the Romantic poets a belief in the importance of the imagination. For Coleridge, imagination was “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception... a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”, and Keats wrote: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination”. William Blake said: “Jesus is the Imagination.”

But Revival writers (from Newman to Tolkien) emphasized imagination as a way of apprehending truth; and strove to overcome the dichotomy between reason and feeling, or thought and emotion, which remained a legacy of the battles between Romanticism and Rationalism in the period after the French Revolution. They defended a sacramental faith in which God as the author of nature uses natural symbols not only to raise our spirits or reveal himself in some vague sense, but to communicate grace to mankind, assuming human nature and history through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Thus the Revival separated itself from Romanticism as that movement turned increasingly against Christianity and traditional morality and belief.
Though like Romanticism it was a literature of protest against the mechanization of life and the “bourgeois” mentality of Victorian England, it was, as Chesterton noted in The Victorian Age, “a rational movement; almost a rationalist movement”. It was a “protest of the rationality of religion as against the increasing irrationality of mere Victorian comfort and compromise.”

The Romantics were right to question the intellectual order of the Enlightenment, because this was a false order and the rejection of the true Logos. The mistake lay further back, in the rejection of Scholastic wisdom by Nominalism and Voluntarism a couple of centuries before the Renaissance. Thus the move from medievalist or pre-Raphaelite nostalgia to the recovery of a religious, indeed a Catholic, perspective was perfectly legitimate. And to the extent that today’s culture is largely shaped by Rationalsim and Romanticism, it is legitimate for us to follow the path trodden by the Catholic Literary Revival in our own time, searching for a balance of truth and feeling, of life and intelligence, of imagination and wisdom, in a “return to religion”.

Some of the questions we leave our students thinking about:
What can we still learn from these writers?
Why did the movement decline after the Second World War?
How is the human imagination a way of apprehending (or helping to apprehend) truth?
What is the mission of the Christian writer, playwright, poet, artist, or film-maker today?
How can we ourselves best portray, represent, and defend the Christian doctrine in the face of modern atheism or indifference?

Prayer for a new Catholic Literary Revival (from Idylls Press)
O, Jesus, who said, “heaven and earth shall pass away, but my Word shall not pass,” you are the Living and Eternal Word through whom all that exists was made and is sustained. You delighted in proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom by means of stories. Through the intercession of Mary Most Holy, St Joseph (your guardian, Mary’s chaste spouse, and protector of Christ’s faithful), St Francis de Sales (patron of Catholic writers), Blessed John Henry Newman (patron of Catholic essayists and novelists), Blessed John Paul II the Great (patron of Catholic poets, artists, playwrights, and personalists), and all the holy men and women throughout the ages who have spread the Kingdom of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty by means of words and images, we ask you humbly but confidently for the graces we need to contribute to a renewed culture of beauty (in service of love and life), including a Catholic literary revival, for our times.
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be.
Jesus, Eternal Beauty, we trust in you. Most Holy Trinity, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
Amen.


Illustrations: the rolling English road at Uffington; Blake's Angel of Revelation; St Barnabas Church in Oxford's Jericho, a home of the Pre-Raphelites.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Summer School

Our annual Summer School, for students of Thomas More College in New Hampshire and others, directed by Leonie and Teresa Caldecott, turned out to be great fun. The 2012 course concluded by looking at Christian writers of the later nineteenth and twentieth century who represent a “Catholic literary revival” – part of the Catholic resurgence prophesied by Newman in his “Second Spring” sermon of 1852, after the lifting of restrictions that had been imposed on Catholics since the Reformation. We studied the roots of this revival in the English Catholic culture before and after the Reformation, including the dissolution of the monasteries and the persecutions that followed. The conflicts and tensions in Reformation England were studied through the eyes of our greatest writer, William Shakespeare, with the help of Lady Asquith, author of the brilliant Shadowplay.

Thus for the the first part of the School we located the students at Downside Abbey, in the West Country near Bath, where the Abbot, Dom Aidan Bellenger, gave some superb lectures on the dissolution of the monasteries, and other lecturers spoke on the subsequent history of the Reformation. Downside is near to Mells, too, the family home of Lady Asquith, and there were excursions there and to Wells, Bath, and Glastonbury. Then off to Oxford via the White Horse of Uffington and the recusant house at Mapledurham, kindly hosted by the owner John Eyston (a direct descendant of St Thomas More).

In Oxford the students stayed at the Benedictine Hall of the University, St Benet's, and there we began to focus on the 19th century Catholic Emancipation, the Oxford Movement, and the Catholic revival itself, with G.K. Chesterton its biggest fruit (and here access to the Chesterton Library gave an almost sacramental connection to the great man himself). Visits to colleges, to C.S. Lewis's home at the Kilns, his grave in Headington Quarry and Tolkien's grave at Wolvercote, all helped to bring the ideas to life. (The picture shows Aidan Mackey and Stratford Caldecott with some of the students in the Chesterton Library.)

The last evening in Oxford was spent with Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis's friend, and the final day involved an excursion to London, to see Westminster Abbey, St Thomas More's cell in the Tower of London, and a performance of The Taming of the Shrew at the Globe Theatre. The experience of a lifetime? Perhaps, though we hope to see many of our students return to visit us in the future.

Leonie, Teresa, and Stratford Caldecott

Photos are from our Facebook page. Watch out for announcements by the end of the year about next summer's programme!

See also the following posts:
Revival and Romanticism
Effects of the Reformation

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

English Metrical Law

Coventry Patmore (1823-1896) was a distinguished English Victorian poet and essayist, well known in his time, who fell into undeserved obscurity during the twentieth century. He published his first small volume of Poems under the influence of Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1844. After receiving a cruel review he tried to destroy the edition, but it was too late, his career was already launched, and through the book he soon made the acquaintance of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, and began to move in their circles.

In 1877 Patmore published what everyone now regards as his best work, The Unknown Eros (encouraged by his saintly daughter, Mary Christina, who became a nun), and in the following year Amelia, his own favourite among
his poems, with an interesting and influential essay on English Metrical Law as a kind of preface to it. As he himself pointed out years later, the basic principles of the essay became widely accepted among critics within a decade or two. His friend the poet Alice Meynell writes of him [cited in Derek Patmore’s Life and Times of Coventry Patmore, p. 193],
“Metre delighted him. He justly held that his mastery of the octosyllabic verse with its rhymes was worth the long study he had given it. The words, as has been said, were born alive; their order was to him a matter of keen pleasure. The lines and pauses of the Odes, measured chiefly by the variable breathing of thought and passion, he holds to be the work of an art all his own, even his own discovery. Let it be noted that when he talked of his poems, it was of their metres.”
I want to introduce some of the points Patmore makes about poetry in his essay on metrical law, which is in part a defence of the irregular ode form used in The Unknown Eros and elsewhere. I am no expert on poetry, and I am afraid I got lost in the detailed argument about spondees and dactyls, but to the extent I can follow it, I find it makes sense of a lot of things that have always puzzled and intrigued me.

Before reading the essay on English Metrical Law, it had already begun to dawn on me that, as Patmore explains beautifully, what good prose has in common with good poetry is music, “harmonious numbers”, and specifically rhythm. (Flaubert is famously said to have worked out a rhythm for the final pages of Madame Bovary before coming up with the words.) Rhythm or metre is a mathematical structure, a structure of repetition and variation. It creates a shape in time, a dynamic flowing movement that carries the mind along with it. If prose lacks rhythm, it leaves us behind. Our attention is too easily diverted from the direction the author intends us to move.

(Something similar is true of all art, from music through to architecture and even painting, which, although seemingly static, requires us to move our attention through time in order to absorb it. A painting that can be appreciated entirely at a single glance, without leaving something further to explore, is probably not a very good painting.)

This insight into the musical nature of all speech, especially poetry, and the refusal to draw any clear lines between poetry and prose, lies close to the heart of his argument in this essay. Patmore finds support in Hegel’s writing on music and metre, to the effect that the rules of formal versification do not impede, but rather facilitate, the “free outpouring of poetic thought”. He then goes on to analyse the relationship of life to law in the various degrees and kinds of metre in poetry, “from the half-prosaic dramatic verse to the extremest elaboration of high lyric metres.”

Although he defends the rules of versification, he also argues that the best poetry does not follow the rules tamely and as if mechanically, but will convey feeling by constant little tensions with the underlying structure, little departures from the standard pattern. (The same is true in music. It must constantly surprise us in little ways; which it can only do if the form to which it basically conforms creates a framework of expectation.) Thus “there seems to be a perpetual conflict between the law of the verse and freedom of the language, and each is incessantly, though insignificantly, violated for the purpose of giving effect to the other.”

Patmore believed that music and metre “is as natural to spoken language as an even pace is natural to walking.” Just as “dancing is no more than an increase of the element of measure which already exists in walking, so verse is but an additional degree of that metre which is inherent in prose speaking.” He goes on to demonstrate as much with some choice examples of English prose, which leads him into a technical discussion of metrical accent and tone in poetry and prose, comparing Greek and English forms.

From there he returns to the theme of music in poetry – what pleases us in verse, he says, is not merely rhythm, in the sense of a measured beat, but “rhythmical melody”; not monotones like the ticking of a clock or the pulsing of a chime, but the repetition of sounds in which can be heard (or imagined) a variety of tones. The very highest form of verse therefore coincides with the highest form of human speech, namely song, where all these factors are combined with the thoughts and ideas that may be suggested in words.

This does not mean that all poetry must be spoken aloud or performed, quite the contrary. Patmore notes that “few lovers of good poetry care to hear it read or acted; for, although themselves, in all likelihood, quite unable to give such poetry a true and full vocal interpretation, their unexpressed imagination of its music is much higher than their own or any ordinary reading of it would be. Poets themselves have sometimes been very bad readers of their own verses; and it seems not unlikely that their acute sense of what such reading ought to be, discomposes and discourages them when they attempt to give their musical idea a material realization.”

A discussion of “metrical isochronism” or the necessary division of verse into intervals of equal length – the definition of metre – leads to the point that “catalexis”, when syllables seem to be missing from the regular metre, must require the substitution of appropriate pauses (which often play a more important part than those due to punctuation). On this basis, and the general law that he formulates to the effect that English verse is made up of metres bounded by alternate accents – so that the measure of verse is twice that of prose – he concludes that there is no such thing as “hypercatalexis” or superfluous syllables, but that all English verse in common cadence can be measured in dimeters, trimeters, or tetrameters; that is to say, in groups of 8, 12, or 16 syllables.

The final section of his essay distinguishes the three great classes of English poetry: alliterative, rhyming, and rhymeless or “blank” verse. Rhyme is “the great means, in modern languages, of marking essential metrical pauses.” Alliteration, or the repetition of consonants, which is the basis of Anglo-Saxon poetry, is also a way of marking the metre by “conferring emphasis on the accent”. Patmore continues in a detailed discussion where I won’t try to follow him, but his intention is first to defend and explain the important role of alliteration, cunningly used even in modern verse to enhance the impression of metre “as if by magic”, and then to defend the use of rhyme against its critics (such as Thomas Campion), before finally discussing the metres used in blank verse in the final paragraphs of the essay.

His final words of advice are to the young poet. “No poet, unless he feels himself to be above discipline, and therefore above the greatest poets of whose modes of composition we have any record, ought to think of beginning his career with blank verse.” It is much easier, according to Patmore, to begin in other, more apparently difficult metres: “The greater the frequency of the rhyme, and the more fixed the place of the grammatical pause, and the less liberty of changing the fundamental foot, the less will be the poet’s obligation to originate his own rhythms.”

In Patmore’s Preface to the third edition of Unknown Eros in 1890 he wrote what amounts I suppose almost to a kind of summary of his great essay on metrical law. It reads as follows:
To this edition of “The Unknown Eros” are added all the other poems I have written, in what I venture—because it has no other name—to call “catalectic verse.” Nearly all English metres owe their existence as metres to “catalexis,” or pause, for the time of one or more feet, and, as a rule, the position and amount of catalexis are fixed. But the verse in which this volume is written is catalectic par excellence, employing the pause (as it does the rhyme) with freedom only limited by the exigencies of poetic passion. From the time of Drummond of Hawthornden to our own, some of the noblest flights of English poetry have been taken on the wings of this verse; but with ordinary readers it has been more or less discredited by the far greater number of abortive efforts, on the part sometimes of considerable poets, to adapt it to purposes with which it has no expressional correspondence; or to vary it by rhythmical movements which are destructive of its character.
Some persons, unlearned in the subject of metre, have objected to this kind of verse that it is “lawless.” But it has its laws as truly as any other. In its highest order, the lyric or “ode,” it is a tetrameter, the line having the time of eight iambics. When it descends to narrative, or the expression of a less-exalted strain of thought, it becomes a trimeter, having the time of six iambics, or even a dimeter, with the time of four; and it is allowable to vary the tetrameter “ode” by the occasional introduction of passages in either or both of these inferior measures, but not, I think, by the use of any other. The license to rhyme at indefinite intervals is counterbalanced, in the writing of all poets who have employed this metre successfully, by unusual frequency in the recurrence of the same rhyme….
I do not pretend to have done more than very moderate justice to the exceeding grace and dignity and the inexhaustible expressiveness of which this kind of metre is capable; but I can say that I have never attempted to write in it in the absence of that one justification of and prime qualification for its use, namely, the impulse of some thought that “voluntary moved harmonious numbers.”

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Rider of the Spaceways

As part of an occasional series on superheroes, this is extracted from an essay I wrote some time ago (not sure where) that concerns the moral effect of some comic books.

The Silver Surfer was one of Jack Kirby’s inventions for Stan Lee's Marvel Comics, a silver-skinned alien on a flying surfboard endowed with the “Power Cosmic” (the ability to play around with – reshape and transform – matter and energy). This meant he could generate really big explosions if needed, and was basically much more powerful than most other Marvel characters, if he used his full strength. But what made him interesting was that he usually didn’t. The Surfer was a victim. We’ll come back to that.

Why a surfer? True, it was the era of the Beachboys (the Surfer made his first appearance in 1965). It also looked very cool when he summoned his board while jumping into the air and soared away. The theory behind this
was that the cosmos is a great sea of energies, on which the Surfer could skim and navigate. His original role was that of herald to the planet-eating predator, Galactus: a giant in an emblematic, hi-tech purple costume who needed to consume large amounts of life-energy to survive. In Kirby’s mythopoetic imagination Galactus was “Power”. Kirby saw the Surfer as a being of pure energy created by Galactus, his task being to search out planets for his master to devour. For the original 18-book series devoted to the Surfer, which appeared without Kirby (who returned only for the final episode), Lee developed the back-story of the character further. Instead of being created by Galactus, the Surfer had volunteered to serve Galactus in order to save his home planet Zenn-La. The story was told in the first issue of the new comic book in 1968.

In his first appearance, the Surfer brings Galactus to earth, but out of pity for the humans turns against his master – for which crime he is sentenced never more to roam the spaceways, but to be confined to earth behind an invisible barrier. His compassion, coupled with the enmity of those he tries to save and his longing for his beloved Shalla Bal back on Zenn-La remained consistent features of the series. Like Spider-Man, only more so, the Surfer has few, if any friends. His weird appearance and immense power causes him to be feared and misunderstood. Every superhero comic has to contain at least one battle, but most of the fights in The Silver Surfer are due to his being attacked through some misunderstanding, and having to defend himself.

The character of the Surfer has nobility, despite his occasional bursts of uncontrolled anger and the frequent recourse to self-pitying monologue. In the third issue, the spiritual dimension comes to the fore, with the appearance of the devil himself, Mephisto, who uses Shalla Bal as bait in a trap for the Surfer. He gives his reasons on page 20: “SINCE THEDAWN OF TIME – SELDOM HAVE I SENSED SUCH GOODNESS OF SOUL – SUCH PURITY OF SPIRIT – AS I SENSE WITHIN THE SILVER SURFER. ALL THAT YOU ARE – ALL THAT YOU STAND FOR – IS ABHORRENT TO THE LORD OF THE LOWER DEPTHS! SO LONG AS YOU EXIST, MEPHISTO’S SCHEME SUPREME WILL EVER BE IN JEOPARDY!” It seems that mankind is near to complete submission to the devil’s will, and the Surfer stands in the way as a beacon of uncorrupted moral goodness.

The Surfer descends into hell, unafraid of anything Mephisto can do to him (“YOU CAN DO NO MORE THAN SLAY ME!”), and unmoved by the temptations he offers (wealth, women and power). Implanted in Mephisto’s brain for a battle of wills, the Surfer is victorious. Even the temptation of being reunited with Shalla Bal is ineffective, since as they both know, “HOW CAN LOVE HAVE MEANING IF IT COSTS YOUR VERY SOUL??” Separated by a universe, they will belong to each other forever, and this bond Mephisto cannot destroy.

The Surfer thus has saintly attributes, but he is far from perfect. In issue 15, after jumping too quickly to the conclusion that the Fantastic Four have betrayed his trust, the Surfer muses: “WAS I TOO HUMAN…OR…NOT HUMAN ENOUGH?” The story and dialogue of the classic Surfer comics were always concerned with the ambiguity of human nature and existence: a humanity that tears itself apart with war and greed, that fears the stranger and inflicts pain without thinking, yet rises to great heights of virtue and wisdom, as though yet to “come of age” as a species. What is of interest about the comic is not just the artistry of the pages, and certainly not the quality of the writing, but the Big Questions raised about our existence in a majestic, unpredictable, beautiful cosmos. Despite all the alien species encountered, somehow humanity always remains special, our freedom and our inviolable conscience the pivot of every story.

I have been writing only of the classic Surfer. Of his more recent appearances I know much less. He appeared in one truly dreadful film (Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer.) There was a decent enough animated series that can be found on YouTube. The 18 issues I referred to have become collectibles. In 1987 he was given a new series, presaged in 1978 by a Kirby-Lee graphic novel in which he regains the freedom of space in the service of Galactus. For this novel, the whole story was revised somewhat, but the great Surfer themes remain. As Lee explained in his Preface, “Ever since I first saw our gleaming sky-rider, when Jack placed the initial drawing on my desk, I felt he had to represent more than the typical comicbook hero. Somehow or other, Jack had imbued this new, unique, totally arresting fictional figure with a spiritual quality, a sense of nobility, a feeling of almost religious fervor in his attitude and his demeanor.” The closing words of the comic are these: “ONLY TRUTH IS CONSTANT! ONLY FAITH ENDURES! AND ONLY LOVE CAN SAVE THEM – BUT WHERE CAN LOVE BE FOUND?” “FOR ONE SHINING SECOND OF ETERNITY, THE WORLD KNEW SUCH A LOVE! BUT WHAT A PRICE WAS PAID!”

I wonder if anyone has written a thesis on Stan Lee as a moral influence on our times. His perennial themes are the goodness and uniqueness of the human person, the supreme importance of self-giving love, the challenge of making moral choices in a fallen world. In the recent spate of comic-book movies based on some of his most popular characters he appears in a series of cameos. In Spider-Man 3, the conclusion of a trio of films about the battle between good and evil (finally in the soul of the hero himself), he appears alongside Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker looking up at a billboard praising Spidey’s achievements and comments, “You see, one man can make a difference.” It is the message he wants to get across in all his work, a message he managed to convey in coloured pictures. We don’t have to despair in the face of overwhelming evil or the impersonal scale of modern society. Life will be a struggle, but it is worth fighting for purity, for nobility of soul, for justice, for kindness. Chivalry lives. The greatest heroes are ordinary people like us. Grace can strike anyone, like a gift of superpowers from the bite of a spider or a burst of radiation; the question is how we will respond to it. Will we become a hero or a villain? In the words of Spider-Man, “You always have a choice.”

Kids around the world have received a moral education from Lee’s comics. It is just a pity they often haven’t had it from anyone else.

PS. The Surfer dropped into the Atomic Pizza cafe in Oxford recently, where I snapped this picture. He looks hungry enough to eat the whole place. In the window I could see Robin (from rival comics company DC) already getting up to leave. Wonder who else was there?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Interview

Charlotte Ostermann interviews Stratford Caldecott about Beauty in the Word, and its predecessor, Beauty for Truth's Sake.

1. Fr. Giussani speaks of the ‘risk of education’. What risks do you think need to be taken in the education of a child?
The risk we take is that the child may question and ultimately disagree with us. There is a place in education for “learning by heart” and for the authority of the teacher, whose role and office is always worthy of respect, just is there a role for training in certain important practical skills, which must be taught by a master, but in the end the purpose of education is to free the mind to such a degree that the pupil can contemplate the truth directly. The child must outgrow the teacher. Thus the teacher – and this may happen at any time and in unexpected ways, not
just on graduation day – may be asked to learn from the pupil. In the book I ask whether education should be centered on the child or on the teacher, on learning or teaching, and I conclude that child and teacher must be viewed as persons-in-relation, and so the correct balance is one in which the relationship between them is given its due.

2. Where, in education, does/should a student practice the exercise of his/her freedom?
“Freedom” is not just for playtime or break, although playing is an essential part of education. In a sense the goal of education – certainly the goal of a Liberal Arts education, which begins in kindergarten – is the growth in freedom, both intellectual and spiritual, that comes from knowing the truth. It is the truth that sets us free. Or at least, through learning the truth – about the world, about ourselves – we gain a more important kind of freedom than any we acquire by, let’s say, increased mobility, or more shelves in the supermarket. So our education, which leads us out of ourselves, or beyond ourselves (the word educare means “leading out”), is all the time leading us into a wider world, a greater freedom.

It is very important to apply this also to ethics, to the moral development of the child. We grow up these days to think freedom is all about choice. I saw an advertising billboard the other day, announcing “Freedom is Choice.” But that’s not quite true. We can have all the choices in the world and not be free, if we are not strong enough to choose the right thing, the thing that will make us happy in the long term. Real freedom is this inner power to make a moral choice and stick with it – the very old word for that power is “virtue.” The moral education of a child is the way he or she grows in real freedom. If freedom is simply choice, and it doesn’t matter what choice as long as it’s ours, then all of traditional morality looks like a set of restrictions or obstacles to our freedom, because it tells us we can do this but not that. But the right way of seeing it is to realize that having a strong moral code, and having integrity in the way we live it, is the way we grow in freedom. So freedom grows not just with truth, but with goodness, and in fact truth and goodness go together. The further you travel towards the one, the closer you get to the other.

3. The school tends to become a community for the child, but not for the family as a whole. What problems does this cause, and can you suggest remedies?
The Church rightly teaches that the parents are or should be the first teachers of the child, and that the family is the first school of humanity, just as it is the first cell of society. The responsibility of the parents for the education of the child continues for many years, but there is a tendency in the case of parents who send their child to school (I’m not talking about homeschoolers here) to rely on the institution to supply everything, and not even to inquire what is being taught, and how. The parent may feel unable, whether for lack of time or lack of expertise, to enter into that process. In extreme cases this means allowing the State to educate or even indoctrinate the child. In any case, the separation between home and school is potentially unhealthy for both child and family. Naturally there will be dysfunctional or troubled families where everyone would agree it is a good thing for the school to take over the responsibility for the child’s education from the parents. And naturally, too, where the school belongs to the parish the problem of separation may be overcome to some extent. But in general I would say it is important for the parents where possible at least to take an interest in the child’s schooling, to try to follow what is being taught, and to supply what seems to be lacking, rather than allow the two worlds – that of home and of school – to become completely separated, as if they were different worlds. If the parent loves the child this interest will happen naturally, but it needs to be allowed for and encouraged. The school should help parents to know what is going on with their child, and to become actively involved if this is at all feasible.

4. In Beauty for Truth’s Sake, you call us to live the liturgical year more fully, as an immersion in the cosmic order that underlies mathematics, geometry, and the arts. What are the implications of this (focus on liturgical time) for our design of Catholic schools?
Of course it has huge implications for the design of the school, and of the curriculum. A friend of mine once said of the tabernacle in the church that if you insert the Eucharist into a wall, the wall should change. Things should be so ordered as to emphasize or “teach” the presence of the Lord in that space. Similarly with time. The structure of our day should give a central importance to times of prayer, and our week be structured around the Sabbath. (You have written on this beautifully.) We should live partly in liturgical time – conscious of the feasts and seasons of the Church and the saints’ days. In a Catholic school the same is true. Without trying to force belief where there is none, opportunities for prayer and visual reminders of God should be everywhere. These can be quite subtle. In the book I argue that architecture and even geometry are a visual language. As such they can be used to convey a religious meaning, or a secular one. Most school buildings are designed to convey a secular world-view. I am not saying that you can make the school more Catholic just by adding a few pointed arches or some symbolic decoration, but traditional societies knew how important it is to surround people with reminders of heaven or of their sacred stories. We have largely forgotten this because our civilization is very cerebral, very word-oriented, very abstracted. We should look for ways to nourish the Catholic or sacramental imagination without inducing a kind of spiritual claustrophobia in the non-religious. Beauty is the key – if we try to make things beautiful the job is well on the way to being done. And don’t be fooled by that old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, even if it was Shakespeare who said it first. We may have different tastes and respond to beauty in different ways, but there is something objective about it as well, something universal, and that can be demonstrated.

5. Parents without a rich, Catholic, classical, musical education do not have time (during child-bearing years!) to reclaim, or recreate it for themselves. Can they learn alongside their children, or should they turn things over to the better-educated?
We are always learning, though perhaps it gets more difficult as we get older. Lack of time for formal study doesn’t matter that much. We learn other things – we might be learning how to cope with stress, how to manage time, how to pray in the midst of a busy life, and so on. Let’s hope we can always grow in wisdom! Having children, even just observing them, and of course interacting with them, accommodating ourselves to their needs, creating a healthy ethos in the home, these things are ways that we learn. Following as best we can the things our children are learning in school, this is also an opportunity for us. The key thing is not to renounce all responsibility just because we don’t feel well-enough educated ourselves. We can always be involved to some degree, and if our children see in us the kind of humility that is prepared to listen to a teacher even as an adult, that can be an object-lesson for them too.

6. Great liturgy is great education. How much damage can be done by poor liturgy? How can parents respond positively and protectively when liturgy seems to fight against the formation of their kids?
Liturgy is a school for our humanity. But as you say it can be done badly – even if there are no actual abuses, and the official rubrics are observed to the letter, there can be a lack of attention, a lack of true reverence, a pomposity or coldness, that is off-putting and communicates the wrong message especially to the young, who are sensitive to these things. In some cases the experience of bad liturgy can turn someone against the practice of their faith. Catholics need to defend their liturgy, especially from abuses, and it is our right to insist that things are done properly. But the most important thing, even when reacting against a legitimate grievance, is to be in the right spirit oneself – not a spirit that is self-righteous or contentious, arrogant or harsh, but one that is gentle and respectful, humble and prudent. Arguments over liturgy can divide a parish against itself, and make the church a battleground. That can’t be right. And of course we have to remember that tastes differ, and that looking at the liturgy to criticize it is not going to help anyone to pray. If the Mass is valid, even if it is a bit of a mess (a priest I knew used to end his celebration with words that sounded like “The Mess is ended”), nevertheless Christ is present and grace is flowing from heaven. It is up to the Church to offer the Mass correctly; it is up to us to learn and to teach the right way to participate and to receive…

7. You’ve said that all subjects should be taught with a sense of their story – the history of the subject’s development. Many of us parents and teachers have a weakness in this area. Do you have recommendations for books – upper elementary, let’s say – to help us teach children this way?
Well, I wouldn’t be too rigid about this, but I wanted to make the point that every subject – every science and every art, let’s say – does have a history. It doesn’t just drop from the sky. And often learning the human story of how certain discoveries were made, how the subject has evolved through time and what it tells us about our humanity and our culture, add to the fascination of the subject itself. I thought that might be the case particularly with mathematics, for example, which many young people (myself included) have found off-putting when it is presented as a highly abstract set of rules and formulae to be learned by heart and applied to problems. A more interesting way into the subject is to be shown how mathematics is a process of discovery, in which each breakthrough is a creative response to a challenge, and each builds on those that came before. There is a human story to be told about math and geometry, and it may be that this will help to engage a child’s imagination more effectively than a purely abstract presentation. It’s a strategy, anyway. And the same kind of thing is true of other subjects. In this way, too we build up the understanding of our own culture and tradition that Christopher Dawson thought was so important.

8. There are dangers to systematizing education, and dangers to non-schooling. What counsel do you have for those designing courses, programs, schools about how much structured vs free time to allow?
Be intelligent about it! And be sensitive to the situation you find yourself in, and the people you are working with. I have no intention of proposing an ideological solution, or a simple recipe for a “good” education. I just wanted to develop an approach that would respect what we know, as Catholics, about the human person. That is to say, the human person as called to fulfillment in love, and as having a “right” to be loved. And the human person as fundamentally curious, desirous of truth, responsive to beauty, possessing a moral conscience. If we get that right, we are off to a good start, and we have a better basis on which to build an educational system.

9. We know a lot about the dangers of media and computer use. What do you think about the place of computer use, and development of computer skills in the curriculum? (side note: a local Catholic high school here gives every student a computer, and the geometry class is all done on computers….no compass, no proofs, no constructions!)
Computers are another area we need to be intelligent! It is so easy to throw technology into the classroom in a way that will have a disastrous effect on education. I talk about this a bit in Beauty in the Word. Computers can make us stupid – or rather, reliance on computers makes us stupid. The availability of calculators deprives us of the opportunity to learn how calculations are made. Mobile phones in class distract us in ways that seriously damage our ability to learn. Education, as I try to argue, is largely about paying attention – the child paying attention to the teacher and the subject, the teacher paying attention to the child. Computers and other technologies have to be integrated into the educational setting in a way that does not undermine that quality of attention.

10. What do you think of all-day kindergarten? 180-day, or year-round schooling? Pre-school? Twelve-year college prep education? What proportion of a day, year, life should formal education occupy?
I don’t feel able to go into that level of detail just yet. I would want to listen to the experience of parents and teachers first. The books I wrote were supposed to prepare the philosophical ground for the next phase of the project, a stage of listening and consulting that would lead in turn to the production of some practical resources for schools. Among other things, we want to give some attention and exposure to examples of good practice in education, experiments that have succeeded, new schools that seem to be getting things right – so that others can draw upon this experience.

11. There is so much to teach, and so little time! You’ve described a wealth of story, poetry, drama, sacred geometry, life-skills, math, history, science, literature, theology, and more. It is all so important, and our kids are growing past the ‘right stages’ so fast. How can we approach this all without anxiety, pressure, fear?
I would say that it is important to realize three things. First, that we are never going to get everything right. We just have to try to do the best we can with the materials and circumstances available to us. Second, that children are more resilient than we think, and education is not something we have to do to the child but something the child will do for himself or herself with our help (and sometimes without us). It is a matter of kindling an interest that, once sparked, will grow into a blaze, drawing fuel to itself. The third is that, as Catholics or just as religious believers, we know that God cares for and guides each human soul, and so – thank goodness! – whatever we succeed in doing or fail to do, the child’s fate is not entirely dependent on us.

12. What deficiencies have you had to overcome in your own education? If you could master one skill you don’t currently possess, what would it be? Why?
I was fortunate in many ways – in my parents, and in the schooling I received – and yet inevitably there were deficiencies and gaps. I have learned a great deal from my family, especially my wife. Leonie is a great mother and teacher, as well as writer. A lot of what I write comes from her, or what I have learned from seeing her in action. But in terms of specific gaps in my education, I never got the hang of music theory, and also I regret not mastering mathematics. In that case it was out of a reluctance to keep asking the “stupid” questions. Instead I kept quiet and pretended to understand when I didn’t, or learned the methods for getting the right answers without really comprehending the principles involved. And I regret not learning other languages, perhaps at an earlier age when they are said to be easier to acquire. I am sure a mastery of several languages is a great help in life, and a great enrichment. But I am grateful for what I did manage to learn, and to the many good teachers who helped me. I wish in later years I had gone back to thank them – I’m sure many teachers never know what an impact they have had, and how much good they have done.

13. In Beauty in the Word you say the human person should be educated for imagination, among other things. Please tell us more about how to educate for imagination.
Imagination comes naturally to children, unless it is beaten out of them in some way. So we educate for imagination simply by giving it some encouragement. The best stimulus, of course, is for the parents to read stories to the child from an early age – as soon as possible. Then we encourage children to play, to explore, to invent games. We play with them, if we are able. In a more formal setting, use drama, music, dance, poetry, storytelling, mime, to teach parts of the curriculum, or integrate those methods into the teaching. Take the children, if you can, to see things and places that will fuel their imagination, even if it is only a field trip in the park, sketching plants, or a visit to the museum, looking for their favorite object and then talking about it to the class. Bring in a guest speaker or two, to tell about their experiences. Encourage children to talk to old people, even to “interview” them, to find out what the world used to be like. When teaching history, try to bring it alive, help them to see that history is all about real people and what they chose to do, and what happened to them as a result. Don’t be afraid of fairy tales and mythology. G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy writes about the truth that is in such stories.

14. What is a good approach to dealing with error – non-Catholic belief systems, heresies, disputes among Catholics, apologetics – during our Dialectic and Rhetoric phases of education? How can we equip the kids to think through to Truth without confusing them?
First, you spoke of the Trivium as a series of “phases” – Grammar, Logic or Dialectic, Rhetoric – and that comes from the famous essay by Dorothy L. Sayers called “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Certainly that is a helpful way of thinking about it. The child does go through these developmental stages. But there is another sense in which the child never outgrows Grammar, never outgrows Logic…. That’s just a footnote here, although it’s important in the book. But your main question is very challenging. How do we present the possibility of error, and heresy? We are trying gradually to enable children to think for themselves: does this mean we don’t teach them what we know as true? I think Sayers was right that at a certain (early) stage, children aren’t much interested in being presented with lots of alternative views; they just want to know what’s the case, and they are looking for someone to teach them “with authority.” They are trying to orient themselves. Clearly this should be the role of the parent, in the first instance – to give the child a world-view and a framework, a sense of direction, of right and wrong. And then we have the Church. As Catholics we are on solid ground when we say that these things in the Catechism are true, and these things are not. We never outgrow the Catechism or the Creed – instead we grow into them. But it’s no secret that some drop away, and that many adopt other views. As the child becomes aware of alternate points of view, different ideas of truth, it is important that we convey that we believe what we do not just out of habit or fear, but because there are good rational reasons to accept the authority of the Church as the guardian of revealed truth – despite all the scandals, all the accusations that children will inevitably hear. We mustn’t split faith from reason. We have to be able to show that reason grows alongside faith and that both are needed, and that they help each other (as Pope John Paul II says in Fides et Ratio).

15. To join with other parents, or with a school, I give up flexibility, individualized instruction, some authority over curriculum and philosophy. What do I gain?
You gain the resources of an institution to help educate your child, including experienced teachers. The child maybe gains a set of friends and experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have had. And you gain all those hours in the day when they are in school!

16. To homeschool, I place demands on myself for continuing education, judgments as to philosophy and curriculum, investment of time. What do I gain?
The things you learn from teaching them. And the closeness: all those hours, months, years of your child’s life that a school would have stolen from you!

17. What questions would you ask about a teacher before placing a child in his or her classroom?
Why did they go into teaching? What do they get out of it? Do they like children?

18. Catholic schools usually require university-trained, state-certified teachers whose education in pedagogy and understanding of the human person has been, at least, non-Catholic and, at worst, anti-Catholic. Where are Catholic teachers being trained to teach and to help develop schools along the lines you describe in Beauty for Truth’s Sake and Beauty in the Word?
I wish I could say, “All over the place,” but I can’t. In England, the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham does a good job giving teachers a Catholic formation. In the US, I have the impression there are several good programs. But I haven’t done the research on this yet. Up to now, my interest has been primarily in developing a theory of education, and practical applications have had to wait. I’d be interested to hear if anyone knows. That'll go into the next phase of the project.

19. Your books are the kind of ‘Rhetoric’ that invites conversation, opens dialogue, asks leading questions. Your readers from all over the world are letting you know about their new educational models, experiments and ideas. Can you tell us about some of the most promising?
Well, as I said, we’re still only at the beginning of this process. I am sure as the book circulates we’ll get many more people writing to us. In the book I refer to St Jerome’s Academy in Hyattsville, which I think – if things continue to go well – could be a kind of model for schools of the future. I also recently found out about the plans of the Clairvaux Institute to establish St Gregory’s Academy in Scranton. That sounds extremely promising! And there are lots of other green shoots around. Dale Alquist of the American Chesterton Society has founded a school, as has the C.S. Lewis Foundation, and I was recently in Italy where the Chestertonians have also founded an independent cooperative school. Of course there are also several small liberal arts colleges that are worth watching, including Thomas More College in New Hampshire which has recently reformed its curriculum in interesting ways. Meanwhile the Benedictus Trust wants to create the first Catholic liberal arts college in the UK, though it is still seeking support. My own book Beauty in the Word was commissioned by a group in England that aims to produce a number of resources for the reform of Catholic education in the coming years. Other projects are perhaps still too embryonic to mention here. As I find out about things I will make sure to list them on my blog so that others can see what is out there. We need to pool our ideas and experience, and the blog is obviously a useful instrument for doing that.

Charlotte Ostermann is the author of Souls at Rest: An Exploration of the Idea of Sabbath. Need a speaker?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Themes of the book: 4

4. The Mother of the Liberal Arts. In the ancient sources, Wisdom or Sapientia (Greek Sophia) is sometimes identified with Christ, and he is shown standing or seated on the lap of Mary as the Seat of Wisdom. But often Sapientia is a female figure, and as such she is regarded as the "mother" of the seven liberal arts by Cassiodorus and Alcuin.

In the book, there is a section – the Endnote starting on p. 153 – where I explore this idea, along with the meaning of Beauty and the other Transcendentals that converge on God. I argue that the "Wisdom" of God can be identified with Beauty as something inherently "liberating". The Beauty or Glory of God corresponds at its highest point with the divine Infinity, the fact that God's own being is inexhaustible and therefore he is a continual delight to himself, a source of eternal rejoicing, of bliss. So the joy we associate with Beauty is a pointer to the depths of Being in God. And this Beauty is ultimately the same as that "Wisdom" described in the Books of Proverbs and Wisdom as being by God's side from the very beginning, perhaps as the divine idea of creation itself, or as a sort of "uncreated nature".
"For wisdom is more moving than any motion: she passeth and goeth through all things by reason of her pureness. For she is the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowing from the glory of the Almighty: therefore can no defiled thing fall into her. For she is the brightness of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image of his goodness" (Wisdom 7:24–6). 
The book tries to trace the way each of the "ways" of the Trivium contributes to the growth in wisdom. Through the mastery of language in memory, thought, and conversation, we become able to grow into our humanity, discovering a wider world and able to discern truth from falsehood, astute in judgment, in communion with others. But the process of education can be corrupted when its aims are lowered from the attainment of wisdom and subordinated to that of a career, or when the very possibility of attaining truth is denied on all sides.

Wisdom is the inspiration and the goal of the Liberal Arts, which are the "seven pillars" of the house of rejoicing, and love, and freedom. Each of the Arts was meant to prepare the ground of the body, soul, and spirit of man for the freedom in truth that comes from the knowledge of God, only finally attained when philosophy and theology give way to contemplation and union. For "we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, since we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

Friday, August 3, 2012

Themes of the book: 3

3. The Spiral Curriculum. The liberal arts, of course, are not everything. They were not the whole of ancient education either. For Plato a rounded education would begin with "gymnastics", meaning physical education and training in various kinds of skills, and "music" meaning all kinds of mental and artistic training. In the Laws (795e) he describes these as physical training for the body (including dance and wrestling or martial arts), and cultural training for the personality (including sacred music), so that young people spend practically their whole lives at "play"(sacrificing, singing, dancing: 803e) in order to win the favour of the gods.

The range of studies that were later codified as the liberal arts are to be built on this double foundation, and they in turn are for the sake of our growth in true inner freedom, in preparation for the highest studies – the contemplation of God, in philosophy and theology. In the Laws, Plato calls the liberal arts studies for "gentlemen", although he specifies that even the "man in the
street" and "tiny tots" should be taught the rudiments. In this place he divides them into three, in addition to the music and dance discussed earlier: "(1) computation and the study of numbers; (2) measurements of lines, surfaces and solids; (3) the mutual relationship of the heavenly bodies as they revolve in their courses" (817e).

An education devised along these lines (not too slavishly, because Plato's proposed legislation can be rather oppressive) could be said to be based upon a spiral curriculum, since each of the essential elements are returned to again and again, each time at a higher level of development, until the gaze of man is entirely on God, through the ascending path of a dialectic that leads beyond argumentation towards contemplation.

The liberal arts are not for the sake of anything else; they are not vocational in any narrow sense. They contain their aim within themselves. Even the study of numbers and ability to measure is not strictly for the sake of the many practical applications to which these skills lend themselves. In themselves, taught in the right way and studied in the right spirit, they are really about harmony, proportion, beauty, and therefore they lead the mind to the source of all beauty.

These notes are intended to help readers engage with the text of Beauty in the Word. 
NEXT: The Mother of the Liberal Arts.

Themes of the book: 2

2. The Transcendentals. I find the triad of the Trivium (Memory, Thought, Speech, or if you prefer Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric) echoed in many others, from the Trinity of divine persons on down through the various levels of creation. The Trivium is therefore intimately bound up with the divine image in Man, which is a Trinitarian image. God himself is the source of Memory, Thought, and Speech (Being/Father, Logos/Son, and Breath/Spirit).

One of those triads is composed of the so-called "transcendental properties of being", meaning properties that are so "general" that they can be found in varying degrees in everything that exists. The three I mean are Goodness, Truth, and Beauty – although one might also look at the threesome of Unity, Truth, and Goodness. As I explain (Beauty in the Word, p. 157), such triads are impossible to align definitively with particular members of the Trinity, because they can be looked at under different aspects. In fact each is one of
the Names of God, and applies to all three divine persons. The human being who searches for any of them is on the road to God, on whom these three roads converge. The Transcendentals are vitally important if we are to understand the world as a cosmos and build a civilization worthy of our humanity.

I want to propose an idea that came to me after writing Beauty in the Word, that might serve as an interesting footnote, or open up another avenue to explore. It is this. Human civilization seems to have three pillars: Law, Language, and Religion. It is these that make us into a community or nation. And in each case the aim or goal is one of the Transcendentals, even if they cannot reach that goal without divine assistance. The aim of the Law is goodness, the aim of Language is Truth, and the aim of Religion is (spiritual) Beauty -– that is, holiness. Culture is the result of all three; of Law, Language, and Religion acting in concert (body, soul, and spirit, as it were).

But how does this relate to the Trivium? Law it seems to me aims to recall us to our true nature, or encourages us to rise to our highest nature. In that sense it corresponds to Memory or Grammar. (The moral or natural law, as Pope Benedict has written in his little book On Conscience, may be equated with Platonic "reminiscence", which is in Christian terms an awakening to our true nature in God's intention.) Language then corresponds to Thought, meaning the human quest for truth in all things. (For in order to understand reality we must discern the Son, the Logos of all things.) Thirdly, Religion in the sense of a tradition or path of holiness is what gives the spirit that animates the community. It is this that makes us aware of our intimate relationship to each other, able to speak "heart to heart".

This is an extension of an idea I put forward in the book, that before we reform our schools we need to understand more deeply the goal of education, which is a truer humanity and a civilization of love.

NEXT: The Spiral Curriculum.