It’s been a dispiriting day.
Not because of the iron gray New England skies; I’m used to their severe beauty. Not because my students don’t know how to write; they haven’t known how to do that in my near thirty years of teaching. Not because the young people I teach are sullen; they’re generally a cheerful lot, and we get along splendidly. Not because I am a lone soul at my school; there are dozens of professors who slap me on the back and cheer me for this book or that essay or the madcap trick I played in the classroom. I’m not alone, and if I ever did feel abandoned, the Blessed Sacrament rests in the tabernacle in our chapel nearby, and I can drop by for a few moments of prayer.
But there are days when it seems that what I do for a living is foreign to my colleagues, and would be distasteful to them if they knew what it was. Here’s my job, as I see it. I am charged with introducing young people to beautiful and profoundly wise poetry, primarily but far from exclusively written in the Renaissance and before. My ancillary job, arising from my participation in our program in Western Civilization, is to introduce those same youths to the beauty and the wisdom of the theology, philosophy, and art of that long stretch of centuries.
The description, however, isn’t yet adequate. I didn’t understand it back when I began, but I now see that my reverence for the works I teach must help build up the souls of my students. I want them to be “born in wonder,” as the fine motto from John Senior’s program in the humanities put it. Wonder is that magnetic pull that directs the soul towards its true north; so I am a bearer of Good News even when the poetry is not specifically religious, though it often is.
It follows that I can’t teach something I hate. Unless the subject matter is purely malignant, like Nazism, or Maoism, or Stalinism, I don’t know that anyone can. Hate is a cement block for the soul. You can never come to know another human being, or any deeply human work, if you have immured yourself in the cell of hate. Even the absence of hate, though, is not enough, not for truly human knowledge.
I cannot approach the poetry of Shelley, who was an abominable cad, and whose politics I reject, unless I feel the sympathetic stirrings within me when he sings of the skylark, or when his Prometheus proclaims his victory over the old stifling traditions. If I cannot love Shelley provisionally for the sake of the poetry, and really believe that I can in some measure learn from him and on his terms, not mine, then I had better not teach his works. I’d better leave them to someone else.
It also follows that I can’t teach something I reduce, even if I appear to approve of it as I do so. The Baptist’s brave words, “He must increase, and I must decrease,” must apply to me, as regards the works I teach and the students who need my guidance. I cannot use poetry merely, no matter the worthiness of the use.
Anatomical drawing of a skull by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489
That’s a difficult prohibition to observe, since we’re only human; we grow tired, we cannot hold more than a few things in mind at once; the work of genius is fearfully and wonderfully made, and rather than stammer before it, the reaction most natural and wise and just, we feel we must say something, anything, and so we seize upon what we find convenient or comfortable.
Everyone, then, reduces. We must, or every great work of art would stun us into a permanent silence. But we must never reduce by program. When we do that, we instruct students in arming themselves against art. We teach them to rob the work of its very being: that is what “deconstruction” is, an act of violence against the offense of wonder.
Yet this is quite common in the academy among professors of the humanities, and the bigger and richer and more notorious the school, the more common, as unexceptional as a drunk in a fraternity house.
What, then, dispirited me today? A proposed course on fairy tales. Those tales are rich funds of folk wisdom, found around world. They demand our respect; I wouldn’t trust a man who despised them. But I’ve just reviewed a syllabus, written in jargon that is its own mocking parody, for a course which aims to expose these works of art as if they were relentless vermin, always returning through some cultural crack or vent to spread the bacilli of misogyny.
Imagine a fundamentalist preacher proposing a course on rock and roll, as a tool of Satan. Imagine a Kleagle proposing a course on black authors, to eviscerate them. Imagine a functionary of Al-Jazeera, proposing a course on Judaism.
Not that we’d accept any of those. They’d be condemned as exercises in raw prejudice. Oh, we would bring forth doubts about the credentials of the proposers, but that’s not to the point. A tooth with credentials makes the venom go in.
I know why two or three of my colleagues were enthusiastic about that course in poisoning a student’s love for fairy tales. They are animated by politics. I understand that, as I understand a politician openly on the take. There’s something oddly admirable about Tammany.
What’s hard to understand is the acedia of the others. They themselves do not pervert the literature they teach. They love poetry. But perhaps all of the secular assumptions about the academy keep that love straitly bound: only to the work, or to the classroom, or to a few special students. And the many unknown patients of thaumolysis – wonder-destroying – are forgotten.
And for that, dear readers, when you send children to college, you put yourselves in hock to the eyeballs.