Mark Noll on teaching (as a sort of withdrawal) or research (as attending to all reality)

I see this “avoiding the political infighting” as a sort of “Benedict option” for Christian intellectuals. The pull between “teaching-centered higher education” (Mark Schwehn) and what Mark Noll seems to be recommending here is a quite strong internal conflict for me. Truth be told, I’m inclined to teaching for “the virtues of attending to students as people.” However, I find Noll’s appeal persuasive: “the comprehensive reality of Christianity itself demands specifically Christian consideration of the world we inhabit.”

“An even more substantial objection grows from a consideration of the modern academy. Surely evangelicals are better off avoiding the political in-fighting, manifest secularization, power mongering, and ideological warfare that so often characterize modern academic life and that have been the subject of sharp public criticism in recent years. 26 If evangelicals inhabit a brackish intellectual backwater, they are still spared the perils of a tumultuous sea upon which ships are going nowhere. A great modern university might keep the sort of inscription that still adorns Kinsey Hall on the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles — “Psalm 119: 18. Open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” But the reality of what occurs in the research universities often mocks the pieties of earlier generations. When this argument is made with Christian subtlety — as it has been made, for instance, in a recent apology for teaching-centered higher education by Mark Schwehn of Valparaiso University — the argument carries weight. 27 Schwehn’s case for the virtues of attending to students as people as opposed to the pursuit of research as an end in itself, for historically anchored religious conviction over ultra-chic ideological posturing, is compelling. The weight of such an argument means that an appeal for intellectual effort must be precise. In appealing for Christian scholarship, the point is not primarily academic respectability, and certainly not the mindless pursuit of publication for its own sake that bedevils the modern university. The point is rather that the comprehensive reality of Christianity itself demands specifically Christian consideration of the world we inhabit, whether that consideration is of social theory, the history of science, other historical changes, the body, the arts, literature, or more. Christian appeals for learning should not ask for a downgrading of teaching, an elitist rejection of insights from ordinary people, or an aestheticism that excludes all but the cognoscenti. They should ask rather that explorations into the broader and deeper reaches of the intellect be considered a complement to, rather than competition against, person-oriented, teaching-focused, and democratically inspired intellectual life.”

Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 29-31.

Quotable: Aristotle, on education

This is one of my favorites. I thought of this quote about every week when I was teaching.

“We ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right eduction.” Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1104b11-13

This should be added to the picture.

“Since things that are found in the soul are of three kinds–passions, faculties, states–excellence must be one of these. By passions I mean appetite, anger, fear, confidence, envy, joy, love, hatred, longing, emulation, pity, and in general the feelings that are accompanied by pleasure or pain; by faculties the things in virtue of which we are said to be capable of feeling these, e.g. of becoming angry or being pained or feeling pity; by states the things we of which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions, e.g. with reference to anger we stand badly if we feel it violently or too weakly, and well if we feel it moderately; and similarly with reference to the other passions.

“Now neither the excellences nor the vices are passions, because we are not called good or bad on the ground of our passions, but are so called on the ground of our excellences and our vices, and because we are neither praised nor blamed for our passions (for the man who feels fear or anger is not praised, nor is the man who simply feels anger blamed, but the man who feels it in a certain way), but for our excellences and our vices we are praised or blamed.

“Again, we feel anger and fear without choice, but the excellences are choices or involve choice. Further, in respect of the passions we are said to be moved, but in respect of the excellences and the vices we are said not to be moved but to be disposed in a particular way.” (1105b19-1106a6)

Aristotle goes on to say that virtues or excellences are states, the things by which we stand well or badly with reference to the passions. So, I suppose the question now is what sort of “thing” is a state? These “things” are clearly related to the passions, but how? Are they the regulatory conditions? And if so, what constitutes these conditions for Aristotle? What constitutes these conditions for us? Or are we prepared to dismiss his categories entirely? Finally, how are choices “involved”? All of this is fertile ground for further ethical reflection. But, at least for me, this muddles up the flash card version of Aristotle on emotion.

Thoughts on Preaching and Relevance

Nearly every preacher makes it a priority to make his sermon “relevant” to his audience. The difficulty with this aim is that it often assumes that “relevant” and “interesting” are synonymous. In other words, a sermon must be relevant in the sense that it must capture the audience’s attention and imagination, leaving them with a concrete take away for practical living.

I have two serious criticisms of this approach. First, that something is “interesting” has as much to do with the character of the receiver as to do with the qualities of that thing. The job of a teacher, for example, is not only to pass on a body of “information” to his hearers, but also to persuade the hearer to see this bit of cultural tradition as vital both to self-understanding and to a broader understanding of the world. The teacher is working on the affections of the students, seeking to bring about interest in important areas that our tradition has always though ought to hold our interest because of their tremendous value in culture making. When my students say that the material is “boring” I hear the following: 

“I am unable to connect this material with any part of my regular patterns of thought in any way which I perceive to be interesting. In other words, it just might be the case that this material is so far above my understanding that I don’t even have a conceptual grasp about what it might be saying. Or I might be saying, that I am unable to connect this material with any real basis from which I make decisions, either due to inexperience or ineptitude in my decision making faculties.”

I understand the very fact that they find it “boring” is owing largely to a deficiency on their part. Now, granted, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to find ways to convince the students of this. But it is also incumbent upon students to deny their intellectual vice, which is the cause of their finding the world boring. They have a responsibility to be amateurs (French for “lovers”) in a radically interesting world.

Second, this approach assumes that “practical take-aways” are the most necessary part of change. Important to my critique of the discussion above is that an significant problem with American culture is that it finds really crucial things boring and really insignificant things exciting. How does one correct this with five steps? While personal and very practical changes are a part of what makes something “interesting,” this is only part of a larger pedagogical aim, to give the student (or congregant) ordered affections which flow from a proper understanding of the world and result in proper behavior. To skip to behavior is to truncate personal formation and to create mindless congregants. This is very far from Paul’s aim in Romans 12:1-2 where he sought to renew minds. The doctrine, for Paul, led to a proper assessment of self, others, and the world, which, in turn, led to proper activity in the world.