An odd couple: shop class and word-craft contra mundum

It does seem rather strange that for the past twenty or more years, although many people have been lamenting the decline of the liberal arts in both the secondary and collegiate levels in favor of more “useful” or career-driven pursuits, there has not necessarily been a comparable rise in techne or craft or apprenticeship in secondary schools. 

There are, at least, robotics classes or robotics after-school clubs, and there are art classes, which involve some kind of physical engagement with material things beyond pen and paper, but there are very few home-ec or shop class courses left in most schools. For all the hand-wringing over reducing classical education in the liberal arts to mere career-prep, one does wonder how useful many of the courses students take in this supposedly utilitarian educational era actually are. The liberal arts and classical education advocates among us may be missing the mark somewhat if we are lamenting an over-emphasis on the practical in education. 

The above musings are provoked by my reading of the first few chapters of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work for a reading group I recently joined. From the back cover:

Those of us who sit in an office often feel a lack of connection to the material world and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing.

Crawford intersperses personal narrative, detailed descriptions of grappling with stubborn motorcycles with history and philosophy as he diagnoses our dissatisfaction with abstracted office work.  But abstracted office work is often preceded by abstracted schoolwork.

In a chapter entitled “A Brief Case for the Useful Arts,” which paradoxically calls to mind many recent essays attempting to defend the liberal arts and humanities against the encroachment of more pragmatic areas of study, Crawford explains how “blue collar” trade and craftsmanship brings human beings into contact with a stubborn, material world that resists our manipulation and ideological interpretation.

In other words, shop class reorients us toward reality:

The craftsman’s habitual deference [unlike the consumer or typical student] is not toward the New, but toward the objective standards of his craft. However narrow in its application, this is a rare appearance in contemporary life–a disinterested, articulable, and publicly affirmable idea of the good. Such a strong ontology is somewhat at odds with the cutting-edge institutions of the new capitalism, and with the educational regime that aims to supply those institutions with suitable workers—pliable generalists unfettered by any single set of skills. (19, emphasis added)

That last phrase could be easily inserted into many a typical defense of the liberal arts: we aren’t reducing education to “any single set of skills” but are preparing our students for life itself

But when Crawford says “unfettered” here his tone is unmistakably ironic: it is this lack of tethering to concrete things that has unmoored us from reality, from ourselves. 

You could quibble a bit over his identification of man-made objects and tools with the natural, physical world that we did not make, but I see his point.

I wonder… perhaps there could be a rapprochement between the liberal and utilitarian (“servile”?) arts as mutually ennobling and distinctly human endeavors—and mutually resisting the fragmented mishmash of undergraduate ideological offerings at your typical university or the lock-step college-prep courses at your typical high school?

At the risk of stretching his ideas too far, I will say that I’ve been surprised by how so much of what Crawford says about working with cars and motorcycles applies to working with a different kind of reality; not material, but nevertheless stubborn and resistant if you take it seriously: the world of words—of poetry and literature. 

He observes, “The repairman has to begin each job by getting outside his own head and noticing things; he has to look carefully and listen to the ailing machine” (17).

I mean, that description could easily describe Elizabeth Bishop crafting one of her attentive, perceptive poems about a fishhouse or a moose (the latter actually took her twenty years to finish). Her poems, though personal and warm, are famously self-effacing– she “gets outside of her own head and notices things” with a kind of relentless dedication rare even for poets.

In a story about a coffee table he made as a young man, Crawford muses on that object in the same way that many a poet has mused upon the (im)permanence of his poems: “Shared memories attach to the material souvenirs of our lives, and producing them is a kind of communion, with others and with the future” (15). Crawford really sounds like a poet there, reflecting on the ability of his art(ifact) to outlast himself and to bring him into connection with others. One thinks of Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, or Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
   So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

“This,” of course, being the carefully-crafted poem that we’re still reading four hundred years later. Communion with the future, indeed.

In this same section, Crawford quotes philosopher Hannah Arendt in order to explain the satisfaction a mechanic experiences in successfully fixing a particularly troublesome engine, but his reflection speaks just as beautifully to the poetic act:

“The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors.” All material things turn to dust, ultimately, so perhaps ‘permanence’ isn’t quite the right idea to invoke here. The moral significance of work that grapples with material things may lie in the simple fact that such things lie outside the self. (16)

Later, he argues that shop class has the potential to cultivate the virtue of humility and a unique way of reading the world: “Piston slap may indeed sound like loose tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly attentive to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is an ethical virtue” (99).

And as he interweaves quotes from Iris Murdoch (this guy did get a Ph. D. in political philosophy from U Chicago), Crawford explicitly acknowledges the similarity between artist (poet?) and mechanic that I’ve been noting:

[…] to respond to the world justly, you first have to perceive it clearly, and this requires a kind of “unselfing.” […] “[V]irtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” This attempt is never fully successful, because we are preoccupied with our own concerns. But getting outside her own head is the task the artist sets herself, and this is the mechanic’s task, too. Both, if they are good, use their imagination “not to escape the world but to join it, and this exhilarates us because of the distance between our ordinary dulled consciousness and an apprehension of the real.” (100, emphasis added)

There’s this strange overlap then, I think, between the “useful arts” and the “liberal arts”, between mechanics and poetics, between shop-class and word-craft—at least insofar as these human activities involve a wrestling with a reality that resists you, that calls you out of yourself and yet, in a way, gives you back to yourself. Both are deeply engaging, and, when done well, ennobling.

I included the phrase “contra mundum” (“against the world”) in this post’s title but maybe I ought to have said “pro mundo” (“for the world”). Both shop class and word-craft are very human activities that can orient us in a more humble attitude toward the world, yet against worldliness, and I think Crawford would agree with me there. It’s odd, isn’t it, to associate techne (practical knowledge) so closely with sophia (wisdom)?

But then again, Jesus was a carpenter.

7 Quick Takes Friday (3/7/14)



My twin sister is coming to visit me for the next week! I am so excited! Perhaps I will bring her in for show-and-tell at school…



Something to meditate upon during Lent.

Whatever your views on the violence in Syria or what is happening between Russia and Ukraine, I think this video is very beautiful and very powerful. So often we take for granted that certain parts of the world are experiencing violence–in some vague, other-worldly kind of way. But what if it were happening here? Or what if it were happening in a country we don’t usually think of as war-torn?


Here are some samples of my students’ recent work on Julius Caesar. The assignment was to draw a cartoon of Act 1, Scene 3.

(Click them to enlarge)

source: One of my students drew this! See the lightning storm? And all the crazy prophetic events happening on the upper right? And Casca freaking out in the bottom left? So, so good.

source: Another student! Here are the strange, prophetic signs in much more detail. Caesar will notice all of these and decide whether or not he wants to go to work on the Ides of March…

source: Another student! A very nice summary of the discussion taking place between Casca and Cassius.


Speaking of old, classic literature that was written such a long time ago in weird language I don’t understand and which cannot possibly be “relevant” to my life now, Ms. Shea…

A UD student has a wonderful article over at Public Discourse: “A Rational Defense of the Humanities” by Antonio Sosa.

A taste or two:

Here, Sosa summarizes not only the arguments of scholars like Rebecca Schuman, but also of some of my own beloved high school sophomores who grumble about having to plod through Shakespeare:

More than being simply obsolete, the thought of previous times is thus seen as unintelligible and hence inaccessible in any meaningful way; only the thought of the present, of our time and our concerns, is intelligible and hence only the thought of the present can be studied seriously. In other words, the study of humanistic thought is ideological by definition. (Sosa, via Public Discourse)

And, further:

By this line of reasoning, Macbeth, for example, cannot guide us with respect to the problem of tyranny. Macbeth cannot teach us what is always true concerning the problem of tyranny as it is found in disparate moments across human history, but only what was true relative to a particular moment in history, i.e., Shakespeare’s moment.

On the basis of this view, the study of Macbeth should indeed be neglected in favor of more contemporary works. Or, if it is to be read, it should be studied in light of the recognition that the value of what it has to teach is obsolete. (Ibid)

Okay, I should stop before quoting you the whole article, but one last quote that reminds me a lot of G. K. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead”:

If the greatest works of literature cannot emancipate man from his historical parochialism, then the greatest works of literature are merely the greatest statements of historical parochialism. Rather than study literature in order to acquire breadth of perspective, and so learn to distinguish the ephemeral problems that concern certain men at certain places from the fundamental problems that concern man everywhere and always, we would study literature to become further confirmed in the views to which our particular time has predisposed us. (Ibid… GO READ IT)

And this is the narrow, limiting sort of “broad-minded” English class I would like to eradicate from the face of the earth.


Here is G. K. Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” quote for you to ponder and enjoy:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. (Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,”Orthodoxy)


About my last post: If I Could Teach One Thing About Writing…

What I find really interesting is that so often, posts I spend a lot of time and labor over do not seem to resonate with people as much as posts (like that one) that I wrote rather quickly and did not revise or change very much. I wonder why that is.

It is true in my songwriting, too. I  find that a song I write in 10 minutes is usually better appreciated by most people than a song I begin, and stop, and begin again months (or years) later and finally finish after a lot of agonizing.

“Write drunk, edit sober.” – Hemingway

I wonder if that phenomena has to do with what Flannery says about “the truth being in you.”

Now, don’t tell my students this, but…

maybe too much editing and revising is a bad thing sometimes. Because then you rethink what you want to say, and you worry about “the message” you are sending, and you can be tempted to ignore whatever truth has miraculously bubbled up to the surface of your page without you really realizing it.

Of course, this would be contra to Hemingway’s dictum: “Write drunk, edit sober” or this interesting take on the art of writing:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.
(Ernest Hemingway, “The Art of Fiction,” The Paris ReviewInterview, 1956)


What do you think? Does revising sometimes inhibit the art of writing– or is it, as Hemingway seems to claim, itself the art of writing?


And this is a PERFECT ending to a 7 Quick Takes Friday in Lent, especially for someone who spent a little too much time in Louisiana:

Is it okay to eat alligator during Fridays of Lent? Does alligator count as fish or as meat?

Archbishop Gregory Amond’s Letter in response to a special request. Diocese of New Orleans.
source: Catholic News Agency

Read it all here.

Happy Lenten Friday! Enjoy your alligator!

In Defense of English Majors, Part III

I have written two other posts about this:

Part I

Part II

Yes. Yes yes yes.

Over at The New Criterion, Mark Bauerlein takes up the recent flurry of articles, blog posts, research studies and news stories about the decline of “the humanities” in education.

And he entices us with a fantastic title that I could not resist, and hopefully you can’t either:

“What Dido did, Satan saw and O’Keeffe painted.”

He very rightly points out that most of the people who are attempting to salvage or defend or praise the humanities are doing it in the wrong way. They say things like: studying the humanities makes us critical thinkers! The great books help us to be better businesspeople! The liberal arts “free” us and make us nicer! Companies are actually looking for English majors who can string a coherent sentence together! All this reading and writing pays off.

Perhaps you are already seeing the ridiculous mistake.

A taste of Bauerlein’s analysis:

In a word, the defenders rely on what the humanities do, not what they are. If you take humanities courses, they assure, you will become a good person, a critical thinker, a skilled worker, a cosmopolitan citizen. What matters is how grads today think and act, not what Swift wrote, Kant thought, or O’Keeffe painted. No doubt, all of the defenders love particular novels and films, symphonies and paintings, but those objects play no role in their best defense. Ironically, the approach resembles the very utilitarianism the defenders despise, the conversion of liberal education into a set of instruments for producing selected mentalities and capabilities. (Bauerlein, “What Dido Did,” The New Criterion)

Yes, this is the problem.


When I worked as a marketing intern in the Admissions Office at UD, I encountered it frequently. How can one possibly market a Catholic liberal arts education in this economy? How can we show parents that spending their money on us will be worth it? What accolades can we cite? What statistics do we have? What successful graduates can we laud?

Bauerlein also points out that not only are the anti-utilitarians making utilitarian arguments, they are also missing the real thing itself. What do they mean by “the humanities,” exactly? What subjects? What books? They avoid that rather obvious question altogether.

The paradox is this: They affirm, extol, and sanctify the humanities, but they hardly ever mention any specific humanities content. The American Academy report terms the humanities “the keeper of the republic,” but the names Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Bernini, Leonardo, Gibbon, Austen, Beethoven, Monet, Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Martha Graham never surface. (Ibid)

My guess is that this is because “the humanities,” if you sat down and tried to name the authors you meant by that euphemism, are mostly dead white men (with notable exceptions). And in today’s culture, it is very unpopular to extol the wisdom of dead white men.

Moreover, the “outcomes” these humanities defenders insist make the vague and undefined humanities worthwhile are also always too vague and undefined to be convincing. (“Critical thinking skills?” What is that anyway? And didn’t we learn that in high school? “Global citizenship?” “Being more human?”) Nobody will argue with these noble outcomes, but nobody will sacrifice a $100,000 a year paycheck for them either.

Pardon yet another quote, but I think Bauerlein just might be referring to UD students here:

People back the humanities with their feet and pocketbooks because they savored Monet’s seascapes, got a thrill when Frederick Douglass resolves to fight Mr. Covey, and relax after work with Kind of Blue or Don Giovanni. They had an 11th Grade English teacher who made Elizabeth Bennet and Henry V come alive, or they recall a month in Rome amid the Pantheon, St. Peter’s, the Trevi Fountain, and Apollo and Daphne as a high-point of their college days. (Ibid)

Although we spend a lot more than “a month” there. Ahem.

Interestingly enough, I think his main point here has a lot to do with the problem I was exploring in my Dissecting the Frog post. As English teachers, how do we balance inspiring our students to experience the mystery of the story, and at the same time demand rigorous analysis, while never turning that story into a mere specimen to be picked apart so that it is no longer recognizable? I don’t know how, exactly. I’m fumbling my way toward it.

Another part of the problem I have noticed is this: as Flannery says, “Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it” (Mystery and Manners, via The problem is that high school is democratic — it is for everybody. Increasingly, and perhaps for all practical purposes now, so is college. So how do you teach art to everybody? To the students who don’t want to be there and who could care less about art?

The wide-eyed optimistic teacher in me would say, “But they do care. They just don’t know it yet! Or maybe they don’t right now, but they will, once I show them how beautiful Homer is. Because they are human and they are drawn to goodness, beauty and truth.”

The first few months of teaching in ACE almost cured me of that delusion, though strangely I still cling to it.

In class, the other day, I was trying to get my kids to get beyond their hatred of reading anything remotely challenging so that they could see, for a moment, the horror of Achilles dragging Hector’s body around the walls of Troy. So I told them to stop, put their pens down, pick their heads up, and look at me. Then, silently calling upon the Muses to sing in me the wrath of Achilles, I described the scene to them in my own clumsy words.


In that fifth period class, there was a long silence afterward– especially because I tried to draw for them Priam and Hecube and Andromache with little baby Astyanax staring down from the wall, transfixed in horror.

Yet my words are not Homer’s — and they are not even Edith Hamilton’s. But what do you do when your students won’t even bother reading Hamilton’s?

“Exposure works better than explanation, participation better than entreaty” (Bauerlein).

Yet not all of them will choose to participate. Not all of them will care. Most of them will never bother with “the humanities” because they are “boring” and “I don’t get it” and “this is hard, Ms. Shea.” And maybe it is not even right of me to demand that they care. I am sure that God does not want everyone to be an English major. Scientists, politicians, and businessmen are noble professions too.

But perhaps some of my students will care, no matter to what vocation they are ultimately called — and these students may not always be the ones you (or I) would expect.

As Flannery says,

The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose via

In Defense of English Majors, Part II


So I have been thinking a lot lately about being an English major and the value it has, ever since exploring the topic in my first post here.

And then a good friend of mine posted this article on Facebook: “Who Ruined the Humanities?” by Lee Siegel. In this highly interesting (and highly irritating) critique, Siegel argues that it is a good thing that the humanities–and the English major in particular–are falling into decline. 

In the swirl of recent online articles about why the humanities are disappearing and how  we can possibly save them lest we suffer intellectual and moral armageddon, Siegel’s approach offers a kind of appealing, unique alternative. He offers the ever attractive counter-intuitive advice: Don’t attempt to stem the tide–roll with it. The English major in particular is not worth saving, anyway.

Now he’s got our attention.

After outlining the brief history of the English major–which Siegel proposes developed chiefly as a  post WWII response of academic people trying make sense of the moral devastation the world had just experienced–he describes how the academic study of literature actually ruins  “the expression of feelings too prismatic for rational articulation.” Indeed, he claims that “Literature is too sacred to be taught. It needs only to be read.”

I can hear my students cheering in the background (especially the ones who don’t read).

Siegel describes how, in his own life, he loved reading at an early age but so many of his college classes twisted what he had loved into some kind of unrecognizable intellectualized ideo-babble. The English major is, hence, both harmful and unnecessary:

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.

So you see, I am not making a brief against reading the classics of Western literature. Far from it. I am against taking these startling epiphanies of the irrational, unspoken, unthought-of side of human life into the college classroom and turning them into the bland exercises in competition, hierarchy and information-accumulation that are these works’ mortal enemies. (Siegel, “Who Ruined the Humanities?”)

It’s a rather compelling argument. I, too, learned to love literature long before I really studied it. And I majored in English because of that love, that incandescent experience Siegel describes. I try to show my students all the time how works that seem at first so distant from us–Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice and Antigone–are actually speaking to our deepest questions and fears. “All you need to understand [them] is a heart.” That is true.

But the English teacher in me, who also loves analyzing syntax and diction and discovering the intricate ways authors create those works of art, objects very strongly to the rest of his argument. Here are my two main objections:

1) This is perhaps the most obvious point: poor English teaching does not, by itself, discredit the value of good English teaching. As Siegel himself acknowledges, there are both wonderful and horrible college professors who can either foster or destroy students’ love/understanding/interest in almost any subject. Although it may be true that many (perhaps even most?) literature departments across the country are doing more harm than good with their ideologically-driven abuse of art and language, there are also many that approach English the proper way. See the University of Dallas English department website for a stellar example. To entice you:

The [UD] program in literature provides a course of study in those authors who best exemplify the capacity of imagination to grasp truth. Teachers and students seek to learn what the best of the poets understand of nature and human experience. In this mutual learning enterprise, students and teachers are related as beginning and advanced students of their common masters, the major imaginative writers. (from website)

This is hardly the stuff of books being “taught like science” and “reduced to mere facts” or “occasions of drudgery and toil” (Siegel).

Okay, and I have to include this too:

After my first visit to UD in the spring of 2005, I came upon my friend and colleague, Alban Forcione, surely one of the five or fewer greatest scholars of Cervantes alive, [and told him] that we had wasted our lives teaching in the Ivy League and that I had found the place at which we could have spent our careers with better effect.

-Robert Hollander

Princeton University Professor of European Literature and French and Italian, Emeritus.

You can’t really get better praise than that for a humble Catholic liberal arts school.

2) And then there is this idea that literature is too “sacred” to be taught. What nonsense. (Please excuse my irritated tone in this paragraph, but I’m using it because I’m feeling irritated.) I suppose we should dismantle all theological studies in all universities as well since God–much more so than literature–is too sacred for our prying minds. Or perhaps the biological sciences because the earth is too beautiful and too sacred for the taint of intellectual inquiry. Or the medical fields since the human body, this mysterious and intricate composition of ensouled matter, is too sacred for X-rays and CAT scans.

Is literature sacred?


Is it therefore something *only* to be “experienced” and “appreciated” by the emotional and spiritual sides of us, and protected from our ravenous intellects?

Of course not.

When functioning at its best, human reason approaches mystery with an audacious kind of humility. Dare we approach Homer and Dante with our fallible intellects and our flawed academic theories? Yes- just like Saint Augustine, with far greater trembling, approached the Holy Trinity with his clouded mind, sinful heart, and theological talent.

For more great reading on English majors, and the “cognitive empathy they bring to the table,” check out this interesting article that adds more fuel to this conversation by Bruna Martinuzzi.

When my kids this year ask me why they have to study all this stuff in English class, I’ll just tell them I’m helping them develop “cognitive empathy.” And when they say “Why do we have to analyze this? Can’t we just read it?” I will say, “Yes, let’s just read it. And then we’ll analyze it.”

Dante warns his readers that plunging into his Divine Comedy is dangerous, and is a journey that cannot be taken lightly. But I think a good English teacher, like Virgil, does his or her best to guide the student through the labyrinth of analysis and context and all the other academic jargon, and does so as a fellow-traveller, filled with wonder at the images they encounter together.

Students during their Rome semester. Source:

In Defense of English majors

This New York Times article, “Decline and Fall of the English Major,” is right up my alley.

Parents have always worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature. Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.

You should go read it.

ImageI want so much to agree, and think fondly of my undergraduate years exploring the liberal arts, and truth, beauty, and goodness.

But the anxious parents’ common question reminds me also of the discouraging questions so many of my kids asked me these past two years: “Why we gotta read this? When am I ever going to use this, Ms. Shea?”

And then they would look at me and expect me to give them a satisfactory answer in 2 minutes or less.

Usually, I would say something like, “That is a good question, but the answer is a long one. I’ll give you a couple of thoughts about it now, but feel free to come discuss it with me later at lunchtime.”

Only 2 students ever did come later at lunchtime.

And it’s a very difficult question to answer not only because a lot of people aren’t really listening, but also because, although I understand the parents who worry about their English major daughters and the high school students who complain about being bombarded with a lot of useless information, I simply don’t agree with their premises.

Part of me wants to grant those premises and say: Yes! Being an English [or insert other liberal arts here] major is useful! You need to know how to write and think critically no matter what you do! Think about job interviews! Think about college! Look at me!

… Well, okay, don’t look at me, I don’t make any money. 

The other part of me resists. It does not want to give in. It wants to say: You know what? You’re right. Being an English [or other liberal arts] major is useless. Completely useless. It won’t help you do better in your football game tonight.  It won’t help you in the 10 jobs you are probably considering for your future right now, nor will it help you in hundreds of other decent jobs. And no, it won’t help you make a lot of money. But that’s not the point. I’m not asking you to learn how to write an essay or read this book because it’s useful. I’m asking you to do it because it is good that you do it. 


What I really said (once, to one of my juniors) was this: “Okay. Let’s take a minute and think about this. Lots of us like to work out, go running, lift, right? Why?”

“Uh, ’cause coach make us.”

“Okay, yeah, but why does he make you?”

“So we’ll be healthier and stronger. Better.”

“Right. But think about it. Realistically, when in your life are you going to HAVE to run 5-6 miles? I mean, you can choose to if you want to, but it’s not immediately useful to everybody. When in your life are you HAVE to going to lift weights, over and over again?” [I began demonstrating with hand motions here] “Like doing this thing? Yeah, you might have to lift some boxes when you move out of your parents’ house, but you don’t need to kill yourself at the gym to do that.”

I paused, wondering if I was getting anywhere.

“English class is like that. But this time the muscle we’re exercising is your brain. It needs to stretch and move and lift. Yeah, maybe you won’t become a professor or researcher or journalist. Maybe you will never have to write an essay again in your life after you graduate high school. But that’s not the point. It exercises your brain, makes it stronger and healthier. And you will need your brain for the rest of your life.”

Okay, that got a few nods of approval.

But of course that answer did not really satisfy them either. And although I think it is helpful, I don’t think any student chose to major in English because he wanted to “exercise his brain.” He majored in English because he loved it.

Stanley Fish offers an incisive critique of Klinkenborg’s article, and really all liberal-arts lovers’ sentiments, here. Be forewarned, it’s rather depressing. And I am still digesting it.

As much as my heart disagrees with him, I think he’s right. So many of us liberal-arts people do “alternate between grand, un-cashable claims and pie-in-the sky proposals that have no traction because there is barely a suggestion of a road map that might lead to their realization.”

But that’s the difficulty, isn’t it? Aren’t we saying that there is not a clear “road map”? Aren’t we saying that when you look for the truth, you might find yourself going down paths you never thought you’d have the courage to take, or fording through treacherous ideas that only few people have really contended with? And all you really have are your critical thinking skills and your faith to guide you?

But maybe all these are more key terms that are just “spectacularly empty”:

 … just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite. (Stanley Fish)

Reader, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Oh, by the way, Stanley Fish. A parting shot: as an English major, I think Emily Dickinson would have this to say about using “spectacularly empty” words. Perhaps we do it intentionally:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—


Speaking of Amazing Catholic Schools…

A recent UD graduate just published a beautiful article about my alma mater – capturing not only the love so many of us feel for her, but also a glimpse into what Catholic education should be like. It is on the University News website.

Very much worth the read: Goodbye, Farewell, Amen: An Adieu to UD by Daniel Orazio

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.
– Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins