A long time ago I wrote, in an article “The Lovely Dragon of Choice,” that the best things in our lives do not come as a result of our choice or planning. You cannot draw up a blueprint for the manufacture of joy. To the extent that you try, you render yourself numb to the possibility of joy. The Spirit blows where it will.
I am teaching at Thomas More College, where there is much joy, and perhaps more of what I’ve called joy’s country cousin, mirth. It is not planned. It is the natural effervescence of young people who like one another, because they do know one another, all of them.
We are too small for loneliness. They like one another, and they sometimes fall in love, because they have not been handed over, in libertarian manacles, to the vices of our time. For there is no sin without those who suffer from it, as the collapse of family life and community life in our time has shown.
Yesterday as I was walking to class, two of my students, an alto and a bass, were singing “White Christmas” out of the window, in harmony, hailing the arrival of the first snow. They sometimes hiccoughed in their harmony for laughing. I sat at lunch next to a student and a colleague, the former carving up the latter over a chessboard. Every day I see things I have not seen before. They are ordinary things, in order, and not the result of a committee.
There is an intellectual and artistic liveliness among them too. One of them, perhaps the quietest of all, spent fifteen minutes asking me questions about free verse, blank verse, why stress was the most prominent feature of English verse, whether that was so in other languages, and where he could learn more about the matter. I gave him a book to read.
Another came by to talk about the interconnections among Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, the Book of Job, and the first chapter of Genesis. This isn’t put on. I walk downstairs to the lounge, and two boys are playing some fierce ping-pong, and other people are talking about old television comedies, and still others are chatting happily about some slippery point in philosophy.
There are two things we do plan, and it seems to me that other colleges are deliberate where they ought to be free, and free or apathetic where they ought to reason things out.
Our curriculum leaves little to chance or choice. That is to say we have a curriculum, because we have a clear idea of what a person educated in the liberal arts should know. We do not think that you get brains from a salad, a course in Victorian tailors here, a course in the New Orleans hurricane there, a course in elementary Spanish so that you can order a tequila in Tijuana, and a course in “gender and genocide,” so that you will want one.
If the curriculum is not for you, then God bless you and give you the grace to grow in wisdom and understanding wherever you go, even in partibus infidelium, or sub more saevorum.
Yet there’s a real freedom in our curriculum, just because there is no urgency of choice; the dragon does not glare at us from his cave. We are not its serfs. We do not map out the future of a young person, tailoring every class minute to a plan for future work, so that if you wish to become a lawyer and you have not taken your pre-law class by the end of sophomore year, you shall be lost, forever lost.
We know no race to the bottom, as students frantically choose courses that are silly or trivial, so that they might pad their grades; which is like paying seven or eight thousand dollars for cotton candy.
At other schools, the appearance of liberty belies the ruthless economy of the sexual revolution. Be licentious or be alone. Students there may choose from a broad variety of ways to commit the same old sins, world without end. You may color mud in all the hues of the rainbow, but it is still mud. We understand instead that the moral law liberates, just as girders and struts allow you to build a house rather than a lump with a tarpaulin over it.
Oh, the students at Thomas More do worry about their grades, a little, and they suffer the slings of fortune; but the general sense is that all we have is a gift we have not deserved; like the ancient apple tree in the field by the chapel, nearly hollow and full of burls, but putting forth its miraculous blossoms every April, and bearing fruit too, and who knows how many apple trees in the nearby woods owe their being to its stubbornness, and the chance hunger of a bird or a squirrel?
My very presence at Thomas More, too, was not planned. Not one good thing I have ever done or enjoyed in my life was the result of my foresight and determination. I had planned to grow old at Providence College, but God saw it otherwise, and so did the administration there, which ended up blessing me against their will.
So for the first time in my career, which now is long in the tooth, I come home happy every day, knowing I have done a few good things for young people who appreciate them.
We begin each class with a prayer, and maybe that sums up what I am trying to say, with I fear not enough success. It is a part of the plan of our school, this prayer. But when we pray, we suspend all our plans, don’t we? We cease for just a moment to care what other people think of us. We are, for just a moment, vulnerable to grace. And the fresh air comes.