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Posts Tagged ‘the permanent things’

To Educate in the Permanent Things

In Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Politics, Walt Whitman, Western Philosophy, Writing on March 20, 2013 at 8:18 am

Allen Mendenhall

This article originally appeared here in The American Spectator.

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama proposed changes to preschool, high school, and college education, respectively. His proposals generated praise and condemnation from the predictable cheerleaders and naysayers. Some celebrated his efforts to expand early childhood education; others suggested that he should have focused more on the student loan crisis; still others, not to be outdone, pointed to school funding, teacher salaries, grading, standardized testing, technology, and foreign study as the pressing issues that he neglected to address with sufficient detail.

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about how to improve American education from the top down. But positive change rarely happens through centralized design; it arises spontaneously through the interaction of human agents operating within and among social groups. The State cannot plan and then promulgate a proper education, and legislative enactments cannot reflect the mores and traditions of local groups with differing standards and expectations. The most prudent and humble proposals for improving education are not couched in statist, Platonic terms about civic education and human perfection; instead, they approach learning modestly, on the individual level. They entail the everyday interactions between teachers and students. They are not stamped with the approval of politicians, unions, think tanks, or interest groups.  They take place in the classroom, not the public square. A teacher anywhere, whatever his station, school, or background, can implement them in his course without disrupting the pace or provoking the ire of the educational establishment. The best of these, because it is so easily executed, is simply to teach what T.S. Eliot, and Russell Kirk after him, called “permanent things.”

The permanent things are the inherited principles, mores, customs, and traditions that sustain humane thinking and preserve civilized existence for future generations; their canonization in literary, philosophical, religious, and historical texts happened and is happening in slow degrees. We can trace the permanent things through curricula that emphasize the ultimate values of prosperous societies. An informed, laborious study of the perennial themes and archetypal patterns in what are variously denominated as the Great Works, the Western Canon, or the Classics can help us to organize and make sense of the permanent things. There are those who would object that this approach seems too hopeful and ideal. But no one has suggested it as a panacea, of which there are none, and anyway, is there a proposal that could be simpler, more straightforward, and more workable than assigning and discussing the Great Works?

As early as 1948, Eliot remarked that “there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the essentials of our culture—of that part of it which is transmittable by education—are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” It might be asked just who these barbarian nomads are and why we ought not to welcome their cultural practices and assumptions. The barbarian nomads could be, I think, any group lacking in historical perspective and mostly ignorant of the illuminating continuities that have guided our weightiest and most imaginative thinkers. The practices and assumptions of these nomads are not grounded in lived experience but aimed at utopian projects such as ensuring equality, creating fundamental rights, or eliminating poverty, and, to the extent that these practices and assumptions deviate from enduring norms, they cannot be said to have flourished ever.

To study the permanent things, on the other hand, is to consider the prevailing and profound ideas from certain times and schools in relation to other such ideas from various times and schools throughout successive eras. It is to map the course of perennial ideas to examine how they apply to different settings and generations. It is both sequential and diachronic in its approach. Its chief benefit is to put ideas into context, which is to say that it is to make us aware of our own presuppositions and perspectives that necessarily arise from our social, cultural, and historical situation.  Each thinker lives in his own specific era and place and cannot gain knowledge in a vacuum outside of time; our era and place shape the manner in which we think and restrict our ability to imagine conditions beyond our immediate and tangible experience.

This is not to submit that our ideas are determined for us, only that we enter into experience with certain perceptions that we have no control over. They are there because of the conditions present at the time and space in which we exist.  A sustained study of the permanent things will show us that our perceptions are not totally alien from those of our predecessors, although the respective perceptions are different. It also teaches us to compensate for our prejudices and to avoid thinking that our necessarily limited perspectives are unconditionally true and universally acceptable, even if they have verifiable antecedents. It reveals, as well, that schools of thought cannot simply be deemed later versions of earlier schools just because the two are in agreement about certain points. Finally, although we cannot escape those presuppositions that are embedded in our thought and culture, being alert to their probable existence can counteract their possible effect.

A rigorous study of the permanent things provides a lodestar for evaluating particular ideas against that which has been tested and tried before. Ideas that seem new always have traceable antecedents, and individuals equipped with a fundamental knowledge of the permanent things are able to situate purportedly novel ideas alongside their forerunners. These individuals recognize that change is not always progress; sometimes it is decline, deterioration, or decay. Only a sense of the continuities of history and thought can demonstrate the difference. Our political pedants in general and President Obama in particular insist on recognizing and implementing new institutions as if a radical departure from historic standards and established customs is itself the mark of good and lasting policy. Yet the permanent things show that even the most exceptional thinkers, those who represent the spirit of their age, whatever that might have been or might be, are part of a greater tradition.

It may be true that to study a particular thinker’s cultural milieu and biography is requisite to placing his ideas into their proper context and to highlighting the unacceptable premises of his philosophy; nevertheless, cautious interpreters ought to consider whether his thoughts necessarily lead to certain consequences, or whether the events that seem related to his thoughts arose accidentally, apart from his philosophy. Put another way, the cautious interpreter must carefully consider causation: whether theories actually generate particular circumstances, or whether those circumstances would have come to pass regardless of what the thinker spoke or wrote. Mussolini, for instance, praised William James, but it does not follow that anything James said or wrote endorses or enables fascism. He who would suggest otherwise betrays an ignorance of James’s work. The permanent things can help us to distinguish the true forms and implications of an individual’s thought from their appropriations by hostile forces.

By studying the permanent things, moreover, we learn that we cannot achieve the proper education through mere funding; nor does the solution to schooling gridlock and setbacks come from student aid, dress codes, student evaluations, tuition, or whatever. These issues begin to seem fleeting and trivial to one with an historical sense. They are at most temporary struggles, and although they are important, as all struggles are important, we are not to subordinate liberal learning to them. The best way to achieve the liberal learning necessary to make important and meaningful distinctions about our complex world is, as I have suggested and as it bears repeating, through a holistic, painstaking exploration of the permanent things. This means not only reading the Great Works for their content, but analyzing them in light of their place in history.

The beauty of this approach is that anyone can carry it out; the wisdom of it lies in its civilizing effects. Whether one is a homeschooling parent, a public school teacher, the leader of a local book club, or simply a curious-minded autodidact, the permanent things are available to him in texts, waiting to be sifted through and analyzed. It is true that there is disagreement as to what constitutes a Great Work and by what criteria, but it does not take more than research and commonsense empiricism to discern which pre-twentieth century texts have withstood the test of time. Teaching the permanent things does not require a large-scale, bureaucratic, administrative overhaul. It does not demand central planning or the implementation of mass, curricular programs; it can be accomplished through decentralized networks of concerned individuals. If parents would teach their children, friends their friends, colleagues their colleagues, and so on, we would in the aggregate become a more literate, astute, and informed society. And as our politicians lecture us about our duties even as they demand our money, we can take comfort in the proverb that these things too shall pass.

Hyperspecialization and the “Permanent Things”

In Arts & Letters, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, The Academy, Western Philosophy on January 11, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Hyperspecialization in the academy is an enemy of the permanent things.  It has caused scholars to become bogged down in particular eras and woefully constrained in their knowledge of people, events, and ideas from periods outside of their specialization.  The result is that scholars tend to see the world through the lens of their narrow academic focus.  A historian of 19th century American slavery will try to find the residue of slavery in all features of the present era.  He may not realize how distorted his interpretation of the present is in light of his immersion in his scholarly field.  Moreover, his data are atomized; therefore, he cannot have a comprehensive sense of the trajectory of history.

A related problem is over-infatuation with present ideas.  There was a time when philosophies prevailed for centuries, but lately new philosophies seem to spring up every decade.  For thinkers to commit unreservedly to a present philosophical fad is to guarantee their intellectual obsolescence.  Close association with fleeting fancies will blind thinkers to the different manifestations of traditional theories, and it is an awareness of the varying manifestations of similar theories that characterizes the great thinker.

There are benefits to specialization to the extent that it generates efficiency in the way that, in economic terms, division of labor generates efficiency: one scholar works on details that supplement the details provided by another scholar and so on until all of the details in the aggregate enable us to draw general conclusions.  But this process occurs to the detriment of the individual scholar, who becomes alienated from the general conclusions because his profession diverts his activities to the details and minutiae.  We need more scholars who are aware of the general conclusions and can identify and illuminate the permanent things.

A rigorous study of the permanent things provides the lodestar for evaluating particular ideas against that which has been tested and tried already.  Ideas that seem new have traceable historical antecedents, and individuals equipped with a fundamental knowledge of the permanent things are able to put seemingly novel ideas into their proper context.  Such individuals recognize that change is not always evolution; sometimes it is deterioration.  They also acknowledge the value of intellectual flexibility: to spot and utilize ideas with which one disagrees enables the integration of information that, in turn, enables a more thorough understanding.

A Quick Musing on Death and Time

In Arts & Letters, Essays, Literature, Writing on August 5, 2011 at 10:48 am

Allen Mendenhall

There’s an essay by Abraham Cowley, the seventeenth-century poet, called “Westminster Abbey,” that’s so strikingly relevant that it reads as if it were written lately, perhaps by a man like Russell Kirk.  The speaker muses about his stroll through the great cathedral.  He remarks that the gloominess of the place, the solemnity of the building, and the condition of the people who lie in it would seem to fill the mind with melancholy and thoughtfulness.

Having spent the previous afternoon meditating in the churchyard and cloisters, amusing himself, he claims, with tombstones and inscriptions, he now considers the grave as a strange register of experience, a satire upon the dead.  “Most of them,” he says of the tombstones and inscriptions, “recorded nothing else of the buried person, but that he was born upon one day, and died upon another: the whole history of his life being comprehended in those two circumstances, that are common to all mankind.”

Reduced to the facts of birth and life, as though nothing took place in between, the departed human reminds one of the permanent things, which find their most magnificent expression because of impermanence and death.

Cowley’s essay seems relevant because death is always with us, always relevant.  The contemplation of death, Cowley suggests, raises dark and dismal thoughts in timorous minds.  But to those who, like the speaker, take a broad view of nature in her deep and solemn scenes—who improve themselves on thoughts that others consider with terror—the contemplation of death is humbling and awesome, revealing as it does the vanity of grief.

As the speaker entertains himself by digging a grave, he considers “what innumerable multitudes of people lay confused together under the pavement of that ancient cathedral; how men and women, friends and enemies, priests and soldiers, monks and prebendaries, were crumbled amongst one another, and blended together in the same common mass; how beauty, strength, and youth, with old age, weakness and deformity, lay undistinguished in the same promiscuous heap of matter.”

These bodies, imagined or seen, allow the speaker to feel an intimacy with death: an intimacy that ultimately leads him to reflect “with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions and debates of makind.”

“When I read,” the speaker declares, “the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together.”

These words are only more resonant in light of the distance between us and Cowley, the some three-hundred-forty-four years that separate his death from the present.  What was real and existent for Cowley is not even memory for us.  We have memories of memories, and words recalling memories that we fill with our own experience.  But we don’t have the moments themselves.  We can’t have those back.

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