Sound Thinking

6 May

Questioning the world’s assumptions down to their very roots

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/06/21

John Milbank on the need for a more robust apologetics

On Volume 115, of the Journal, I interviewed theologian Andrew Davison about his 2011 book Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy, and the Catholic Tradition (Baker Academic). One of the things he talked about was how he persuaded John Milbank to write the foreword to the book. That foreword bears the title “An Apology for Apologetics.” In it, Milbank notes that apologetics “has come to mean a theologically secondary exercise: not an exposition of the faith, but the defence of the faith on grounds other than faith — on one’s opponent’s territory, where one risks remaining in a weak or even a false position. The best that such a posture can hope to achieve would be the occasional demonstration that one’s adversary has somehow missed the authentic wider ground of her own standing. But calling this very standing into doubt would appear to be beyond the apologetic remit.

“For these reasons apologetics often fell into disfavor within twentieth-century theology. Instead, what was recommended was an authentic exposition of faith, capable of persuading the non-believer to start to inhabit the alternative world which that exposition can invoke. In this light apologetics appeared to be a compromised exercise, unlikely in any case to succeed. And yet, the latter assumption was belied by the wide popular reach of some apologetic writing, most notably that of C. S. Lewis — the sign of the success of his Screwtape Letters being that they were often much admired even by those whom they did not convince.”

Milbank goes on to ask whether it was ever correct to assume that apologetics should have a secondary and deferential role. “Perhaps the exposition of faith always includes an apologetic dimension?” Perhaps “any successful exercise of apologetics, like indeed that of Lewis, must contain a strong confessional element which convinces precisely because it persuades through the force of an imaginative presentation of belief. . . .

“Instead of . . . a falsely ‘neutral’ approach (and one can think here of the folly of much ‘science and religion’ debate in our own day) which accepts without question the terms and terminology of this world, we need a mode of apologetics prepared to question the world’s assumptions down to their very roots and to expose how they lie within paganism, heterodoxy or else an atheism with no ground in reason and a tendency to deny the ontological reality of reason altogether. . . .

“[W]hile the truths of the Creation, the Incarnation, the Trinity and of Grace are replete of themselves, they complete and safeguard rather than destroy our sense of natural order and human dignity. This means that they themselves presume such a defence [as is offered on behalf of revealed doctrines], and therefore that belief in these supernatural truths cannot survive the threatened collapse of the ordinary and perennial human belief in soul, mind and will, and its intuition of a teleological purposiveness in all existing things.

“For this reason today apologetics, which is to say Christian theology as such, faces the integral task of at once defending the faith and also of defending a true politics of civic virtue (rooted in Platonic and Aristotelian assumptions), besides a renewed metaphysics of cosmic hierarchy and participatory order.

“Yet today also we have a more specific sense that such a metaphysics was lost through an assumption that the only ‘reason’ which discloses truth is a cold, detached reason that is isolated from both feeling and imagination, as likewise from both narrative and ethical evaluation. Christian apologetics now needs rather to embrace the opposite assumption that our most visionary and ideal insights can most disclose the real, provided that this is accompanied by a widening in democratic scope of our sympathies for the ordinary, and the capacities and vast implications of the quotidian — like the road running outside our house which beckons to endless unknown vistas.”

27 Apr

Dialectic of reverence and rebellion

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/27/21

Matthew B. Crawford on the personal knowledge acquired in apprenticeship

“Some of the best pipe organs in the world are made by George Taylor and John Boody and their team of craftspeople in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It is a business in which the employees require long acculturation into the history and finer points of the trade. They are able to trace lineages of who taught whom in the overlapping networks of apprenticeship among shops that do similar work around the world. In this fraternity, which includes people living and others long dead, the spirit of emulation and rivalry is intense; they try to outdo one another in making the best organs possible. The work is historically and socially situated in this way, and seems to invite each of its practitioners to experience his or her own development as a craftsperson as a chapter in a longer historical arc.

“In the United States (but not Germany, for example), the idea of apprenticeship is criticized for being too narrow an education. It is said that what the economy demands is workers who are flexible. The ideal seems to be that they shouldn’t be burdened with any particular set of skills or knowledge; what is wanted is a generic smartness, the kind one is certified to have by admission to an elite university. This fits well with our ideal of the unencumbered self, and with Kant’s exhortation to view ourselves under the generic heading ‘rational being.’ We are told the economy is in a state of radical flux; ‘disruption’ is spoken of as though it were a measure of value creation, and so a twenty-first-century education must form workers into material that is similarly indeterminate and disruptable. The less situated, the better.

“But consider that when you go deep into some particular skill or art, it trains your powers of concentration and perception. You become more discerning about the objects you are dealing with and, if all goes well, begin to care viscerally about quality, because you have been initiated into an ethic of caring about what you are doing. Usually this happens by the example of some particular person, a mentor, who exemplifies that spirit of craftsmanship. You hear discussed in his voice, or see pleasure on his face, in response to some detail that would be literally invisible to someone not initiated. In this way, judgment develops alongside emotional involvement, unified in what Polanyi calls personal knowledge. Technical training in such a setting, though narrow in its immediate application, may be understood as part of education in the broadest sense: intellectual and moral formation.

“Technologists who work in a long tradition with inherited forms also offer a useful contrast to our current image of the innovator-entrepreneur as a sort of existential hero who creates the New ex nihilo. After a period of solitary gestation in a California garage, he emerges to disrupt us and deliver us.

“What emerged in my conversations at Taylor and Boody is that the historical inheritance of a long tradition of organ making seems not to burden these craftspeople, but rather to energize their efforts in innovation. They intend for their organs still to be in use four hundred years from now, and this orientation toward the future requires a critical engagement with the designs and building methods of the past. They learn from the past masters, interrogate their wisdom, and push the conversation further in an ongoing dialectic of reverence and rebellion. Their own progress in skill and understanding is thus a contribution to something larger; their earned independence of judgment represents a deepening of the craft itself.”

— from Matthew B. Crawford, The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). Crawford discussed this book on Volume 128 of the Journal. He talked about his 2020 book, Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, on Volume 150. A reading of his 2006 article “Shop Class as Soul Craft” is available as one of our Audio Reprints.

27 Apr

Craftsmanship and the infallible judgment of reality

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/27/21

Matthew B. Crawford on the psychic satisfactions of manual work

“I began working as an electrician’s helper shortly before I turned fourteen. I wasn’t attending school at that time and worked full-time until I was fifteen, then kept the trade up during the summers while in high school and college, with steadily increasing responsibility. When I couldn’t get a job with my college degree in physics, I was glad to have something to fall back on, and went into business for myself, in Santa Barbara.

“I never ceased to take pleasure in the moment, at the end of a job, when I would flip the switch. ‘And there was light.’ It was an experience of agency and competence. The effects of my work were visible for all to see, so my competence was real for others as well; it had a social currency. I was sometimes quieted at the sight of a gang of conduit entering a large panel in an industrial setting, bent into nestled, flowing curves, with varying offsets, that somehow all terminated in the same plane. This was a skill so far beyond my abilities that I felt I was in the presence of some genius, and the man who bent that conduit surely imagined this moment of recognition as he worked. As a residential and light-commercial electrician, most of my work got covered up inside walls. Still, I felt pride in meeting the aesthetic demands of a workmanlike installation. Maybe another electrician would see it someday. Even if not, one feels responsible to one’s better self. Or rather, to the thing itself — craftsmanship has been said to consist simply in the desire to do something well, for its own sake. If the primary satisfaction is intrinsic and private in this way, there is nonetheless a sort of self-disclosing that takes place. As the philosopher Alexandre Kojève writes: ‘The man who works recognizes his own product in the World that has actually been transformed by his work: he recognizes himself in it, he sees in it his own human reality, in it he discovers and reveals to others the objective reality of his humanity, of the originally abstract and purely subjective idea he has of himself.’

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But the tradesman must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away. His well-founded pride is far from the gratuitous ‘self-esteem’ that educators would impart to students, as though by magic.”

— from Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (Penguin Press, 2009). A reading of the article on which this book was based is available as one of our Audio Reprints.

22 Apr

Educational provocations

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/22/21

Steve Talbott on establishing ends for education before selecting means

“I have, in the following collection of short statements, attempted to gather some thoughts that could usefully stimulate discussion among school board members, parents, and teachers, as well as students in the upper grades. I certainly cannot claim whole, or even part, ownership for many of these statements. I have sifted the underlying truths from my own experience, from conversations with friends and colleagues, and from the educational literature. . . .

• Lack of information has not been the bottleneck in education for decades, or even centuries. Rather, the task for the teacher is to take the infinitesimal slice of available information that can actually be used in the classroom and find some way to bring students into living connection with it.

• The single thing children suffer from most in today’s society is the lack of close relationships with caring adult mentors. . . .

• The quality of kids’ play is correlated with their later cognitive, aesthetic, and social skills. There is, on the other hand, no demonstrated positive connection between these skills and early computer use — and there may be a pronounced negative connection. . . .

• Elementary schools should not be vocational training centers.

• The task of schools is to encourage the development of children who can decide what sorts of job are worth having in the coming century, not to train children to fit whatever jobs the system happens to crank out.”

— from Steve Talbott, Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines (O’Reilly, 2007). Steve Talbott talked about this book on Volume 88 of the Journal. 

22 Apr

The flickering of the American mind

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 04/22/21

Diana Senechal on problems of distraction in education

“Our newer technologies do not cause our distraction, but they may encourage and exacerbate it. Postman warned that ‘in every tool we create, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself.’ Our Internet may contain the idea of luring us away from wherever we are and whatever we are doing: animated advertisements crawling across the screen, a popup survey, a registration request, links that promise to fill the gaps in the blogs we read. There is very little on the Internet that encourages us to stay put and read something several times. Instead, we are pulled on to the next thing, to readers’ brief comments on it, to comments on the comments, and to links from the comments to something else. . . .

“When we fail repeatedly to give our full attention to something that matters, we eventually conclude that it doesn’t matter all that much. We may decide that it is really the blogs, tweets, and texts that count — after all, they are reaching people and making it out into the wide world. . . .

“Distraction results in a scattering of intentions; to end distraction, one must gather oneself in some way; one must be willing to give something priority for a while. That is not a cure, of course; one does not overcome distraction just by granting importance to something. But this granting of importance is a start. . . .

“It seems obvious that schools should help students learn to read and work thoughtfully, to develop a life of the mind. Instead, there is a growing emphasis on visible activity and productivity. What isn’t visible or tangible seems threatening, because it could be anything or nothing. How do we know that students are learning if we can’t see signs of it here and now? How do we know that the class has accomplished anything if there isn’t a product to put on the wall? . . .

“Educators across the ideological and pedagogical spectrum agree that students should be engaged in their learning. But what does engagement mean? Does it mean that students take their studies seriously and work toward better understanding and mastery? Or does it mean that students show certain external behaviors — such as sitting up, looking up, taking notes, participating in groups, and never being idle? The internal and external forms of engagement are not necessarily at odds with each other. But when the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the external, students have no letup. They must show activity and results whether they have meaning or not. They must respond instantly to directions and stay on the mark at all times. Dreaminess and lingering questions have no place.

“To a great extent, American schools encourage students to rely on external stimuli and external results. The schools themselves, especially struggling schools, are in constant turmoil, so it is difficult to be still with anything. Year after year, they change their curricula, schedules, classroom setups, paperwork, pedagogical approaches, administrative structures, and more. . . .

“Why is it so difficult to tackle distraction in schools? Does it have some kind of appeal for the adults as well as the children? Or is it just so daunting that we give into it? One possibility . . . is that distraction masquerades as focus. When children are kept active with one fast-paced project after another, they don’t have a chance to fall out of line. Nor do they have to do anything particularly difficult. It looks as though the class is functioning well; administrators observing the class take note of the teacher’s control and the students’ participation. When the tests are not particularly challenging, the test scores, too, may indicate success. Many argue that the ends justify the means: if test scores are going up and discipline is good, the method must be working. But we must ask in what sense is it working.

“A more disturbing possibility is that we have paid too much homage to quick, visible results, no matter what their underlying value. We have become what Martin Buber described in 1923 as the ‘capricious man,’ who ‘only knows the feverish world out there and his feverish desire to use it.’”

— from Diana Senechal, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012)