‘Literature is too sacred to be taught’: Lee Siegel on the downfall of the humanities

July 13, 2013 § 1 Comment

I am sending this article around to my friends, family and colleagues, probably to the point of annoyance. But it’s that good. Authored by Lee Siegel, the article runs in today’s Wall Street Journal and is titled “Who Ruined the Humanities?”

I think it’s great for a lot of reasons, but especially because it advances a counter-intuitive and original point. Siegel argues against literature for the sake of literature. More precisely, he argues that the merging of literature (and, more broadly, the “humanities”) into formal academic environments has deprived literature of its soul-shaping power. Instead of feeling that intuitive contact with inspiring words or characters, instead of letting plots and characters speak to us in our natural, meaning-seeking humanity, stories are now broken down into obscure themes and ruthlessly deconstructed into impossibly arcane questions that have to be answered in boring exams. A telling excerpt:

Books took me far from myself into experiences that had nothing to do with my life, yet spoke to my life. Reading Homer’s “Iliad,” I could feel the uncanny power of recognizing the emotional universe of radically alien people. Yeats gave me a special language for a desire that defined me even as I had never known it was mine: “And pluck till time and times are done/The silver apples of the moon/The golden apples of the sun.

But once in the college classroom, this precious, alternate life inside me got thrown back into that dimension of my existence that vexed or bored me. Homer, Chekhov and Yeats were reduced to right and wrong answers, clear-cut themes, a welter of clever and more clever interpretations. Books that transformed the facts were taught like science and social science and themselves reduced to mere facts. Novels, poems and plays that had been fonts of empathy, and incitements to curiosity, were now occasions of drudgery and toil.

Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods. Literature requires only that you be human. It does not have to be taught any more than dreaming has to be taught. Why does Hector’s infant son, Astyanax, cry when he sees his father put on his helmet? All you need to understand that is a heart.

Siegel offers a beautiful description of the power of literature, perhaps the best I’ve ever read:

The literary classics are a haven for that part of us that broods over mortal bewilderments, over suffering and death and fleeting happiness. They are a refuge for our secret self that wishes to contemplate the precious singularity of our physical world, that seeks out the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation. They are places of quiet, useless stillness in a world that despises any activity that is not profitable or productive.

Literary art’s sudden, startling truth and beauty make us feel, in the most solitary part of us, that we are not alone, and that there are meanings that cannot be bought, sold or traded, that do not decay and die. This socially and economically worthless experience is called transcendence, and you cannot assign a paper, or a grade, or an academic rank, on that. Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.

Find the rest here. Would enjoy hearing feedback.

Posted by Matt Emerson.


From Athens to Cupertino

July 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

Today I have an op-ed in my local newspaper, The Desert Sun, that considers two strands, or two broad ways of conceiving, education. I consider these strands in terms of two icons of the Western world, one ancient and one new. Socrates and Steve Jobs.


Posted by Matt Emerson.

When the rock splits to pieces: What we learn from St. Peter

July 10, 2013 § 4 Comments

He got the right answer. In Matthew 15, Jesus asks his disciples a threshold question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” According to Matthew’s well known account, Peter nails it. “You are the Messiah,” he tells Jesus, “the Son of the living God.”

Jesus confirms Peter’s answer. “Blessed are you,” says Jesus, followed by words that have become famous:

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

This encounter is dramatic, a turning point for Peter, Jesus, and the apostles. If Jesus were giving a test, Peter got the “A.” He knew his theology. He was clear about Jesus’ identity and, in turn, Jesus entrusted Peter with extraordinary responsibility.

Peter’s importance and the trust that Jesus has in him is reinforced just two chapters later when Peter (along with James and John) is asked to the top of a mountain to witness Jesus’ dazzling Transfiguration. In that moment, Jesus’ face shines like the sun and his clothes become, as the text says, “white as light.” As if that weren’t remarkable enough, Matthew’s Gospel says that while on the mountain, a cloud cast a shadow over the men and “from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.'”

Not bad. Clearly, Peter’s an important guy. He gets the great title plus a front row seat to a wondrous display of Jesus’ divinity. Peter literally hears the voice of God.

These encounters tell us a few important things about Peter. Peter got Jesus. And Peter’s faith led Jesus to trust him in return, even to cite Peter and his confession (“You are the Messiah…”) as the cornerstone of Christ’s church.

And yet, there is something shocking about Jesus’ trust, about His willingness to hand the keys to Peter.

Not long after Peter is granted this authority, he demonstrates a complete unworthiness to be given it. Peter: the “rock” of the Church, the one who declares the truth about Jesus, disowns Jesus the night He is arrested and shortly before He is crucified. As Jesus had predicted, Peter denies knowing Him three times. The hardships of discipleship — which Jesus had warned about often — had suddenly become real, and when they did so, Peter collapsed. His knowledge didn’t create bravery. Peter could offer intellectual assent, but he wasn’t willing to risk his own bodily safety or reputation. Not yet.

These episodes involving Peter offer eloquent insights for teachers as they struggle to form young men and women. Jesus saw not only whom Peter was, but whom Peter could be. Jesus knew Peter was going to deny Him, but something in Peter led Jesus to realize that Peter’s character was about more than that denial.

In fact, it’s not just that Jesus “saw Peter through” the ordeal and forgave him. It wasn’t as if Jesus said, “Yeah, that Pete; he really let me down. I’ll no longer consider him the rock, but I’ll still forgive him.” What Jesus did was far more radical. In naming Peter the rock of the Church, Jesus was in effect saying: “The qualities of yours that your own decision-making will most call into doubt — fidelity, loyalty, reliability — are the qualities I most value, the qualities I most believe in. You, Peter, are not defined by your one bad decision.”

There are obvious implications for schools. Modeling Jesus, teachers have to teach to the best version of the student, to a version of the student that might not seem obvious to anyone at first glance, to a version of the student the teacher only sees with the lens of God’s love, with the eyes of Christ. If Jesus could see and trust Peter’s capacity to be a “rock” in spite of Peter’s show of fragility, we too have to see and trust the capacity of our students to do the same.

I have to learn to see the student with poor grammar and bad sentence structure as one day capable of being a great writer. More than that, I have to see that talent within him or her right now, even when all evidence points to the contrary. I have to trust in the limitless capacity of my students to be amazing. And as a teacher (and I’m sure parents will identify with this), I have to see past — or perhaps it’s better to say see through — the denials, the betrayals, and the poor decision-making. Our students, like all of us, will make mistakes. They will let us down. They will do things out of character. They will act . . . just like the rock upon which Christ builds His Church.

Without excusing errant behavior, we must remember that sometimes these out-of-character decisions are crucial for a student’s growth. According to the Gospel, once Peter realized that he had fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy about the denials, Peter “went out and wept bitterly.”

Wept bitterly. Imagine that paradox: the rock split to pieces. The rock in shambles. Peter probably turned over feelings of immense guilt, shame, and sorrow. But all of that internal chaos was probably necessary. It taught Peter the value of what was at stake. It called Peter to remember his love for Christ and his authentic identity. And he became, most truly, the rock of the Church, even to the point of his own crucifixion in Rome.

The same goes for our students. Though we might lament their choices, we must let them, too, weep bitterly. They must work through feelings of guilt, sorrow and shame. Our role is to forgive them when they apologize, and invite them to let their messy feelings be graced and purified — baptized, if you will — into a rich elixir of holiness.

Especially relevant for teachers, Peter’s example demonstrates that intellect alone is not enough. The process of absorbing knowledge, of applying it to one’s life, of letting it seep into one’s way of being: it takes time. Knowing that Jesus was the Messiah, beholding the Transfiguration, being with Jesus as he turned water into wine and raised people from the dead: all that was not enough to save Peter from denying Christ. But Jesus gave Peter time. Peter was allowed to make mistakes and apologize, to fall and get up.

If even Peter needed time, then our students especially do, both with their development in faith and in every other area of personal and character formation. If living intimately with Christ for up to three years did not prevent Peter from abandoning Jesus at a crucial hour, we know the patience we must exhibit with our own students.

Jesus loved Peter in Peter’s unformed, wobbly state. Jesus invited Peter to the last supper, to the first Eucharist, knowing that Peter would abandon Him. That example tells us how we should treat those who struggle in faith, or those who are weak in fidelity. It forces us to ask: do we require someone to possess perfection before we let them enter into our community, into our inner circle? In my role in admissions I think through this question often. It’s easy to search for the perfect student, the complete student, the student who will not let us down. But Jesus’ choice of Peter tells us to be open to those who are flawed and to those who are unformed; indeed, not merely to be open, but to seek them out.

In so doing, we are of course being open to ourselves; we who come from dust, we who are also flawed, unformed, and in the process of holiness, we who will also deny, betray, fail, fall and desperately need to feel the faith and the confidence that Christ offered to Peter, and which God offers to all.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

The beach as kairos

July 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Surfers wax their boards with the solemnity of a rite. An infant with doughy arms squirms from a mother smearing sunscreen. Couples kiss and grin and lark on the shoreline, occasionally gliding toes through ruffled blue-green water. A boy builds a city of sand and steps back to behold, his eyes alert with admiration.

Scenes of the beach, the spot where countless people will gather over the next couple months to break from the compulsions of citizenship and career. As I recollect these vignettes, memories from a 4th of July getaway, one of the things that most amazes me is how many people love the beach. Thousands and thousands come each day, and will continue to come throughout the summer. People long for it. And I think that is due to practical reasons of beauty and pleasure which point to additional reasons more profound: the whole event bears many features of a religious experience.

The Sabbath is a day of rest. We are to use our free time to praise and worship our Creator. Part of the significance of resting, of not working, is that normal power relations are temporarily suspended. Vertical gives way to horizontal. The boss sits in the same pew as the employee, the banker prays next to the bartender and the teacher sings with his student. On the Sabbath, we are (ideally) not supposed to do anything that highlights imbalances in wealth or social standing.

The Sabbath, our church-going, also assembles people of diverse social and ethnic backgrounds. In our everyday duties, we tend to associate within the same networks and with people like ourselves. Our routes to work and home rarely deviate. At church, though, we speak and shake hands with those outside our self-imposed borders.

The same intermingling occurs at the beach. As we submerge our feet into the cushy sand, we observe that we are in the company of men and women of all income levels, all races, all religions and all lifestyles. Even more so than church, the beach dissolves the sense of financial disparity. For the most part, expensive jewelry and designer clothes are avoided in favor of a bathing suit whose price no one cares to know. At the beach, we don’t know what kind of car people drive or how big their house is. We don’t see a blue collar or white collar, cuff links or ties. We see piles of towels, bags, and tipped-over sunscreen. We see our common curves and flesh, birthmarks and sprouts of hair.

Though the beach is a place to compare and to gawk, and often to judge, it is also paradoxically a place of freedom and acceptance. Where our bodies are most on display there seems to be the least self-concern. We’re all in it together. Everybody’s vulnerable.

Trips to the beach provide a condensed view of things cherished in common. Dads set up barbecues, moms prep babies for sun. Footballs and frisbees jockey with birds; bodies lie in heaps of sleep, tangled fleshy shrines to a life without hurry. The community is effortless, and we direct our energy to a simple set of essentials, things like family, leisure, conversation, and play. In doing so, we abandon our obsession with time. We enjoy the luxury of not knowing when we arrived or when we will leave. It foreshadows kairos.

Connected to nature, to an interface that cannot be swiped or minimized, we have time to contemplate. We return to the mental state most suitable for prayer. Time spent on the beach is time to brood, to enter that “sweet mood,” as Wordsworth says, “when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind.” We reflect upon decisions that have to be made, plans we hope to achieve, the God we strive to worship. “Have I done it right?” The kids are a year older. Tuition is higher. We’re not getting any younger. The doctor will call with the results. 

Like all true religious experiences, the beach offers an avenue out of the “I,” out of the orbit of self-regard. When people spot the ocean, they usually release a breath of awe, a word of wonder. Arriving at the ocean is like entering a great cathedral. A breeze of transcendence sways our nerves. Our soul detects a reality grand and mysterious, even slightly terrifying. It is most precisely numinous, simultaneously sacramental. The endless vastness of water and sky evidence the magnificence of original creation, the mesmerizing, daunting physical splendor that inspired the first chapters of Genesis. Watching the waves collapse and reform, observing the tide drift back and forth, seeing the sun complete its arc, we know, we feel, that we are witnesses to something that can only be adored. We realize we are creatures, participants in a teeming, superabundant vitality. We are guests only. There is a cosmic machinery with which we can’t tinker, a plan we cannot control. We can only entrust ourselves to it and, like Noah, listen, be taught to navigate its awesome powers.

Of course, the comparison has its limits. The beach is not Eden. No sooner are we lost in adoration than we are scolded for kicking up sand or blocking another’s view. But those moments are trivial compared to the majesty that surrounds us, to the artistry that left me hearing St. Augustine: “Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite.”


Posted by Matt Emerson.

Living the sacred and supernatural

July 2, 2013 § 2 Comments

In the midst of research for a new project, I had occasion to revisit Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. For months I’ve been walking around with a thought in my head that I have had trouble putting into words, but which I’ve wanted to write about or express to students, and it’s perfectly captured in this paragraph:

Man is called to a fullness of life which far exceeds the dimensions of his  earthly existence, because it consists in sharing the very life of God. The loftiness of this supernatural vocation reveals the greatness and the inestimable value of human life even in its temporal phase. Life in time, in fact, is the fundamental condition, the initial stage and an integral part of the entire unified process of human existence. It is a process which, unexpectedly and undeservedly, is enlightened by the promise and renewed by the gift of divine life, which will reach its full realization in eternity (cf. 1 Jn 3:1-2). At the same time, it is precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an “ultimate” but a “penultimate” reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters. (Par. 2)

See rest, here.

How would our lives be different if we lived these truths every second? What would happen if we woke up every day, in the midst of our anxieties and concerns, and reminded ourselves of our supernatural vocation and the gift of our breath and our consciousness?

Posted by Matt Emerson.

Responding to DOMA with the spirit of Lincoln

July 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yesterday I wrote about reactions to the DOMA decision, arguing that some of the opposition disturbed me in its hyperbole and in its mix of despair and vituperation. I tried to offer an approach more sensitive to the human and personal realities at stake, an approach that takes seriously the moral disagreements without reducing people to political issues, without retreating into enclaves of social media.

As I reflected further, I thought of a great passage from one of my favorite books of the last few years, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. It is admittedly a different context, but Lincoln’s comments offer wisdom to anyone engaged in passionate conversation about vital matters, particularly matters that relate to politics and religion. His comments, more importantly, apply to people on all sides of an issue. According to Goodwin:

Rather than upbraid slaveowners, Lincoln sought to comprehend their position through empathy. More than a decade earlier, he had employed a similar approach when he advised temperance advocates to refrain from denouncing drinkers in “thundering tones of anathema and denunciation,” for denunciation would inevitably be met with denunciation, “crimination with crimination, and anathema with anathema.” In a passage directed at abolitionists as well as temperance reformers, he had observed that it was the nature of man, when told that he should be “shunned and despised,” and condemned as the author “of all the vice and misery and crime in the land,” to “retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart.”
Though the cause be “naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel,” the sanctimonious reformer could no more pierce the heart of the drinker or the slaveowner than “penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.” In order to “win a man to your cause,” Lincoln explained, you must first reach his heart, “the great high road to his reason.” (p. 167-168)
Denunciation does not evangelize. Despair does not persuade. Let’s listen to Lincoln.
Posted by Matt Emerson.

From the Supreme Court to St. Paul: thoughts on the DOMA aftermath

June 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

I fell behind writing about the JSEA colloquium, as the schedule of events and long socializing allowed meager moments to crack the knuckles and spend QT with the Mac. But I also withdrew into more-than-usual brooding after the Supreme Court published its decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

It was noteworthy, I thought, that the Court released the decision during the middle of a conference dedicated to the intellectual and spiritual life of the next generation. As hundreds of educators discussed how to adapt to popular technologies and evolving methods of pedagogy, as we shared strategies for preparing minds for a Christ-led navigation of post-high school terrain, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on a question that also involves the future, that also involves a grappling with evolving understandings of the human person and life in society.

In the brief moments I had to read about the decision, I resorted to my Facebook feed and a few news sites, where I saw the just-add-water commentary that is so predictable in the wake of major events. As expected, reactions clashed. Some treated the Supreme Court’s decision with the excitement of a father bursting from the delivery room, newborn in hand; others reacted as if their car had blown a tire and there was no tow truck available. They sat, they stewed, they blogged.

Both sides had their overreactions, but among opponents of the decision there was particular alarm. In much of the criticism there was a hopelessness, a despair, an angry gloom. Someone I don’t know, writing on a friend’s timeline, said that the United States had “officially” become Sodom and Gomorrah. Another person, commenting on a post at America magazine’s blog, wrote, “We’re all Gay Mormons now.”

Not honorable disagreement over an important moral issue; not the understandable disappointment of those committed to traditional marriage; not the respectful summons to additional advocacy: this was not what I was seeing. With few exceptions, what I saw was a breakdown in thoughtfulness, a retreat into catastrophic thinking and, at times, viciousness. In mainstream magazines and from mainstream (or so I’ve always thought) people, I saw the use of a language and tone so hyperbolic you’d think we were living in World War Z.

It was especially bad on places like Facebook and Twitter. Since people “friend” and “follow” the like-minded, few voices exist to offer any cooling, humanizing perspective. People transform their impulses into letters and type away into a virtual gated community. Their online neighbors await to echo the same response.

As I read the comments and compared them to the judicious dialogue underway at the colloquium, I realized what lie before us. It wasn’t the merits of the decision itself that first captivated me; it was the aftermath. The reactions revealed the attraction of extremes, the allure of affirmation, and the ease with which our virtual gated communities can corrode our empathy for those outside the walls.

It reminded me of the debate over immigration. How often does the national conversation turn persons into issues and seclude us from the noble human longings at stake? The population we call “illegals” are moms and dads, wives and husbands, caretakers and protectors. They want what we want. We can affirm the importance of secure borders and also acknowledge the dignity of those men and women. Men and women who, born imago dei, strive for a stable job, a reliable government, and the conditions to flourish and feel fulfilled; men and women who, through no choice of their own, were born into a place that leaves them little chance to enjoy the lifestyle that many of us take for granted.

Ignatian education, all of Catholic education, has its task. As social media lures us to customize friends and news on the criteria of “likes” or “shares,” our schools must introduce young men and women to people and stories that broaden and deepen their worldview. As the Internet dares students to ridicule, to vent from afar, Catholic schools must encourage students to cross into the territory of the designated “other,” to see the person before the issue. Catholic schools must insist, as St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits did, on conversation or, as St. Ignatius put it, “colloquy.”

This does not mean we abandon the Gospel, the teachings of the Church, or the truths of divine revelation. We carry forth with our Catholic faith. It does mean, however, that we honor the full spiritual dignity of those with whom we disagree. The gay couples I know well simply want their love to be celebrated and affirmed in the way that heterosexuals want. Their motivations arise from a wholesome place, and they should not be cheapened.

This is difficult. Really difficult. It is easy to denounce and condemn, much harder to discern. It is easy to dish sneering asides before an audience of flatterers, much harder to navigate competing moral, legal, and theological claims and then articulate a view, in a spirit of charity, to those who vehemently disagree.

It is easy, in other words, to eliminate tension. But that is not the Ignatian mission. It is within what Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., once called “constructive tension” where we ask students and faculty to dwell. In doing so, we draw on the essence of Ignatian identity. As Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., once wrote, “In the Spiritual Exercises themselves there seems to be an inbuilt tension between immediacy and mediation, between personal freedom and obedience, between universalism and ecclesiocentrism, between horizontal openness to the world and reverence for the sacred and the divine.”

To those tensions, we can add many others, including the tensions that surround the way human societies honor love and commitment, and the tensions we especially feel when our moral convictions cause wounds for family or friends, coworkers or fellow citizens.

We will not solve these tensions. There will be tough conversations. But we do have the choice to work through the tensions constructively, with a preference for persons over issues, with humility, and with a spirit charged by the words of St. Paul: “For I long to see you, that I may share with you some spiritual gift so that you may be strengthened, that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by one another’s faith, yours and mine.” (Romans 1:11-12)

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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