Alfred the Great’s England

Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

When I was writing my book Saints and Scoundrels, one of the most fulfilling chapters was my chapter on Alfred the Great. I have been fascinated by King Alfred (849-899) ever since I was a boy and read the famous story about him burning the honey cakes. But what impressed me the most when researching for my chapter was the extent to which King Alfred laid the foundation for modern England.

Although King Alfred is considered one of the early kings of England, in actual fact England did not exist in the ninth century. Alfred was the King of Wessex, which was one among a number of small Saxon Kingdoms at the time.

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The Beauty of Critical Thinking Skills

In Episode 4 of “The Robin and Boom Show,” I observed that our goal as parents is not just to help our children develop critical thinking skills, but to help them grasp the beauty of critical thinking. Here’s what I said.

“…we can show the beauty of critical thinking to our children if critical thinking is seen and taught and lived out as a subset of wisdom. It’s very possible to, and indeed necessary, to show our children that wisdom is beautiful. This comes across in the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures where wisdom is portrayed as a beautiful woman and with metaphors that show that wisdom is not just the right thing to do – it’s not just the right thing to do to go and get wisdom – but this is what a beautiful flourishing life looks like. If as parents we raise our children with a holistic lifestyle where we’re living out what we’re teaching them, where we’re showing them that wisdom and critical thinking are part of the good life, part of what human flourishing looks like, then critical thinking can be situated within this larger context where they see it as beautiful.”

Beauty and the Sacramental Vision

From my article ‘More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts‘:

“Being able to just be in the presence of beauty is central to coming to know God and to participate in the sacramental life. As students come to appreciate beauty for its own sake—independent of utilitarian goals—their souls are prepared to receive God at a deep, pre-cognitive level.”

Wisdom from St. Basil the Great

“As for those things that are of service to you in this temporary life, do not regard them as great. Through concern about these things do not neglect the life that comes first for you, but be attentive to yourself, that is, to your soul. Adorn it and take care of it, so that all the filth befalling it from wickedness may be removed through attention, and all the shame due to evil may be cleansed away, but adorn and bright it with all the beauty that comes from virtue.” St. Basil the Great

 

Mr. Rogers, Count Vronsky, and Classical Education

Since writing my article ‘Fred Rogers vs. Oprah Winfrey,’ I got a chance to see Tom Hanks’ new film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I thought it was a beautiful, moving film, and I came away wanting to be a better person. Interestingly, I went with a group of friends who were divided between those who loved the movie and those who hated it.

One of the people in the group who didn’t like the movie texted me the next day, saying he thought the film was opposed to the values of classical education.

Tertullian (155-220) once famously questioned what commonality there was between Athens and Jerusalem, indicating his suspicion of attempts among his contemporaries to synthesize Christianity with Greek philosophy. My friend asked a similar question, “What hath Mr. Rogers Neighborhood to do with classical education?” His answer was just as emphatic as Tertullian: NOTHING.

Well, that got me started, and for the rest of the day my poor friend was inundated with a series of text messages explaining why I thought the Mr Rogers’ movie was congruent with the values of classical education. (For me, any type of communication is serious discourse, even text messaging.) Below I will copy and paste my side of the conversation because it gets to the heart of something that is of profound interest to many of my readers, namely the relationship between classical education and emotional wellness. To respect my friend’s privacy, I will not be sharing his side of the conversation, although my replies do make reference to his objections.

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The Robin & Boom Show #05 – Interview with Michael d’Esterre on Classical Education and Emotional Wellness

What is classical education? How can the liberal arts fortify children against anxiety, depression and addiction? What was Charlotte Mason’s contribution to classical education? These are some of the questions that Robin and Jason explore with this week’s guest, Michael d’Esterre. Michael is a clinical social worker in Spokane Washington, who is turning to the liberal arts to find answers to some of our society’s most pressing problems, including mental disorders and addiction.

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Identity Politics

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about the problems with “identity politics,” but what exactly is this pernicious ideology? The simplest explanation is that identity politics makes a person’s particular group paramount, so that group-identity forms the lens through which to view political issues or make policy decisions.

Identity politics draws heavily on certain variants of postmodernism which sees all of us trapped in micronarratives that define us and prevent intelligible interaction across our ideological divides. (I have discussed this in my article, ‘John Milbank and the Life of Pi.’) Society becomes reduced to a battleground among competing among groups, who are locked in a zero-sum battle for power.

Identity politics has been a growing concern in the political left ever since Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), and later the Frankfurt School, reinterpreted Marxism to no longer be about economics but about power. The resulting “social Marxism” no longer divides society into economic classes, such as proletariats and bourgeoisie, but instead divides society into various group identities, such as race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. (I have discussed the history of social Marxism in my article ‘The “Quiet Revolution” of Cultural Marxism.’)

A toxic mix of identity politics, postmodernism, and social Marxism, now dominates the humanities departments of most universities, as Rod Dreher has been documenting at The American Conservative. The result is that it is impossible to look at history, religion, literature, culture, and art, without these disciplines becoming fodder for ideology and politicization.

Although identity politics has largely been limited to the political left, it has seen a precipitous rise among right-wingers in the United States since around the middle of this decade, as I discussed in my article ‘The Republican Retreat to Identity Politics.’ Whereas left-wing identity politics owes itself to post-war social Marxism, the new right-wing identity politics comes from the long re-mapping of American conservatism in the post-cold war era, having recently been fueled by the rise of left-wing identity politics, unsustainable immigration, political correctness, and virulent attacks against Judeo-Christian culture.

Politicians who have succumbed to identity politics see little problem pigeon-holing individuals into belief-patterns based on their group identity, on the assumption that someone’s skin color, ethnic origin, gender, or sexual preferences ought to determine their political beliefs. For example, last year Democrat Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts went on television and announced,

“We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.”

Responding to Pressley’s comments in Tablet Magazine, journalist James Kirchick observed that her identity politics differs little from classic racism:

“Insisting that someone with a ‘brown’ or ‘black’ face must endorse a set of ideological precepts (presumably dictated by Ayanna Pressley)—in other words, that one’s skin color ought to determine how one thinks and acts—is textbook racism.”

Pressley was not an isolated case. Pigeon-holing people based on race is now routine within corporate America thanks to equity policies. The basic idea behind equity policies goes something like this: the different races all have their own perspective; therefore, in order for our corporation to have a access to all the perspectives, we need to put policies in place that enforce racial stratification. This theory might make some sense if members of each racial group thought and acted as a uniform block, but this is far from the case. As Jordan Peterson observed in an interview, “It’s such a pernicious philosophy because it’s predicated on the idea that the way someone thinks is inextricably tied with their group identity.” In another interview he warned that dividing people up into groups leads to “an enhancement of our tribal proclivities.”

Peterson’s point about tribes is crucial. Human beings have always struggled with the polarity between the tendency to break up into competing tribes, on the one hand, and the tendency to control social division through totalitarianism, on the other. Historically, nations avoid these extremes by being held together by common memories, customs, symbols, myths, legends, and strong social institutions that act as a hedge against both tribalism and totalitarianism. In its most rigorous and consistent form, classical liberalism de-emphasizes or ignores these deep-seated cultural-symbolic underpinnings of civil society and attempts to secularize the public life, often migrating transcendence to the claims of the state. This creates a dangerous vacuum in which citizens find themselves without the basic building blocks of national cohesion. This inevitably results in human beings looking to their most basic and primitive bonds for cohesion, thus reverting to a raw tribalism. A secular and materialistic society offers little scope for the type of roots that humans innately long for, while the isolated individualism of Western capitalism leaves humans without a sense of healthy community. All of this creates a dangerous vacuum in which it becomes easy to start looking to race and ethnicity to fulfill our need for identity and inner cohesion. The reason this is dangerous is because every time a nation goes down this road, thousands to millions of people have died. If the West continues this dangerous experiment with identity politics, it is only a matter of time before blood begins flowing in the streets.

Further Reading

Education Should Nourish Our Souls

From my Touchstone article ‘More Than Schooling‘:

“Our loves orient us to visions of human flourishing that pull us towards a certain telos far more effectively than someone trying to push us there. …the real competitor of classical education is not the public schools, as so often thought, but the panoply of what [James K.A. Smith] calls “secular liturgies,” which also aim to capture our imaginations on an instinctive level. For him, Christian education is important, not because the public schools are so bad, but because shopping malls, commercials, and clothing advertisements are so good, or appear so to the impoverished soul.

The idols of the materialistic world usually reach our hearts only because they have first captured our imaginations. Now, capturing the imagination is also what a liberal arts education should fundamentally be about. It’s not simply about learning things, but about being nourished, and coming to love what is good, true, and beautiful at a gut level.”

Virtue and Classical Education: A Commencement Address to a Graduating Class

When Odysseus turns from Calypso and her promise of immortality, he chooses to embrace the distinctively human virtues that make him vulnerable to weakness and pain.

Once Albert Einstein was traveling on a train from Princeton when the conductor came down the aisle punching tickets. When the conductor reached Einstein, the great physicist reached into his vest pocket, but could not find his ticket. So he reached into the pockets of his pants, but still he couldn’t find the ticket.

The conductor said, “Dr. Einstein, it’s ok. I know who you are.”

As if not hearing these words, Einstein continued searching for the missing ticket. As he opened his briefcase to look inside, the conductor said again, “Dr. Einstein, we all know who you are. I’m sure you bought a ticket. Please don’t worry about it.”

Einstein nodded appreciatively. The conductor continued down the aisle punching tickets, but behind him he could see the scientist down on his hands and knees looking under his seat for the missing ticket.

Rushing back to him, the conductor said, “Please, please Dr. Einstein, do not worry. I’m sure you bought a ticket. We know who you are and really, it’s no problem.”

Einstein stood up, looked the conductor in the eye and replied, “Young man, I too, know who I am. What I do not know is where I am going.”

Einstein wanted to find his ticket so he could remind himself where he was headed. Continue reading

Worldview Education, Technology and the Value of Boredom

This morning while doing some research for a couple clients, I came across two interesting articles that seemed to connect.

One article was a piece by Rod Dreher talking about his time at the recent Society of Classical Learning (SCL) conference. Titled ‘The Problem with ‘Worldview’ Education‘, Dreher shared Joshua Gibbs’ insight that “real art is not something that calls forth an immediate response. You have to contemplate it, turn it over in your mind for a while.” Gibbs went on to suggest that one of the casualties of the worldview-based approach to education is that the rush to analyze texts through a worldview grid can prematurely foreclose–or even completely short-circuit–this necessary process of wondering about and contemplating texts.

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