For the Love of Learning
The task of the Modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. – C. S. Lewis
Perhaps it is the essence of the (so-called) “learned” to grumble about the (so-called) “learner.” Sometimes, I am sure, the complaints come from a sense of superiority and a place of pride, but I would wager that the majority of the complaints come from good intentions being frustrated. Teachers are, more often than not, delighted with having learned something, and by that delight are compelled to aid others to it. Dazzled by the light, they wish to lead others from their darkness. Having found some bit of wisdom, they call aloud in the streets. But very many seem quite content with shadows. Wisdom’s voice dissipates, unheeded, with the breath on which it was borne.
In a recent article for The Point, Agnes Callard laments that “the real college scandal” is not that colleges now perpetuate an elite or ruling class, not that they have failed to pursue social justice, not that they seek to maximize financial profits, not that they have failed to produce better or happier human beings. These may all be true. But the real scandal, she says, “is the fact that so many people who attended one seem to have no idea what it’s for.”
This is somewhat substantiated by the survey conducted in the same issue of The Point. Students were asked, among other questions, “what is college for?” and responses ranged from “coming to an understanding of who I am and what I want for my life” to “[it is] training of a kind, for the rest of your life.” No doubt it is true that these things happen at college. And they are not necessarily bad. But is that really what college is for? Ought those be the ends of higher education?
But before we are too hard on the contemporary pupil, David Smith has offered a caution worth considering. In his On Christian Teaching, he insightfully observes that not all students who acquire bits of info in the most simple way possible (i.e. not by reading required texts but by using Google or other search engines, online group collaborations, or simply asking the teacher for “the most important part” of the reading which would appear on the test), and hastily memorize those bits in order to spit it back out on tests, are in fact being lazy. No, they are being smart, in the way our education system teaches them to be smart: they are utilizing the most efficient way to accomplish a task.
Our current educational model presents education to students as a task to be “completed.” Given that students have been taught to think like computers, the presentation of a task to those students will inevitably result in task flows and efficiency charts. Why accuse the student of sloth for finding the most efficient way to accomplish their goal?
Compounding the problem are the universities, who seem to have bought into an overly consumeristic interpretation of themselves. As Andrew Louth sums it up:
“If we academics are workers, then there should be a product and it had better be saleable or at least subject to quality control. This is the rationale of Quality Assurance Assessment (QAA) and the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE): we produce education, which is consumed by the students, and research, consumed by our peers, and these things can be quantified and assessed.” (75)
This has had a deleterious effect on the academy, he continues. “[T]he principle of leisure to contemplate is not only not conceded, it is no longer even understood. It has been eliminated by government policy that, first, industrialises [sic] universities (turning them into some sort of intellectual factory), and then seeks to employ the principle of supermarket: pile them high and sell them cheap.” (76)
In contrast, Louth points to a classical distinction: “The active life [βίος πρακτικός] is concerned with doing things, and the moral and political questions that this entails; the contemplative life [βίος θεωρητικός] is concerned with beholding things.” (71) Contemplation is about beholding. And contemplation is what the university (at least the humanities) should be about:
Our justification as academics is not that we turn out students with transferable skills of comprehension, analysis, and an ability to communicate intelligibly… We do that, and it may well be only universities that can do that, but it that is regarded as the reason for our existence, then I fear that we shall cease even to achieve that. Our justification must be that academics are people paid to have time to think.” (76)
Attention: A Prerequisite to Education
Perhaps it would do well to ask, with Louth, what if “education” (again: I’m thinking primarily about the humanities) were presented to students not as a task, but as a place set aside for thinking, especially for that kind of thinking that Louth calls “contemplation.”
A good place to start, I propose, is by leading students to develop what I’m going to call attention. If we are honest, many of us identify with the words of Augustine, “Behold, my life is a distraction” (Confessions, 11.29.39). He describes distraction as a kind of “stretching out” over things that have been and things that may be. Such distraction makes us thin, sort of like butter scraped over too much bread.
He then beautifully contrasts his distracted life, pulled in many different directions, with the one God who is rich in mercy:
But because your mercy is far greater than my [distracted] life . . . and because your right hand has gathered me up into my Lord, by the Son of Man, the Mediator between you, the One, and we, the many . . . I press on, not as stretched out over those things past and future, but as stretched forth toward things present; I press on, not distractedly but with attention toward the prize of my heavenly calling.
Elsewhere Augustine describes this kind of attention using the common experience of squinting in order to focus on an object of sight. We notice something in the distance that is not entirely clear but piques our interest. So, we lean in a bit and squint. Attention is a kind of mental squinting, when we intentionally narrow our focus, shade the peripheral, and make ready our minds.
One of the activities that my wife and three kids love is to sit and stare at those “I Spy” children’s books. I’m very often astounded at the increasing ability in our young kids to sit still and, for long periods of time, focus on a single picture—searching intently, scrutinizing every detail. And they love it. My wife is working with them to develop that precious capacity for attention.
I’ve also thought about this often when birding with my wife. Why do people go out to sit and observe? As Hopkins profoundly observes: “My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” I think that a large part of the answer is: to behold; humans who learn to do it, love it. Learning can legitimately be for the sake of doing. But some learning, indeed, the highest kinds of learning, are not for doing but for seeing. And this pursuit is borne by love. Attention, we might say, is for the love of learning.