Mike St. Thomas on Alan Jacobs
A dozen years ago, I spent some time tutoring a home-schooled student through his senior year of high school English. His parents subscribed to a very religious curriculum, and for an hour or so each week I would discuss Shakespeare or Dickens with him and help him work through his essays. He was required to complete a substantial thesis before he was allowed to graduate.
When I read the assignment, I was shocked to learn that it neither granted students the freedom to choose their own topics nor come to their own conclusions. Instead, the curriculum required all its students to defend the same thesis: that a certain infamous 1973 court case was an immoral decision. As a lifelong Catholic, I agreed with the argument he had to make, but I was deeply bothered by the coercion his curriculum used to get him to make it. Why ask him to write a thesis if he was not able to pursue the truth for himself?
Admittedly, this example is an extreme case. But it is unique in degree, not kind; like many attempts at Christian cultural renewal, the curriculum treated religious education as a means to the end of correcting social ills. Consider our current discussion about how Christians should respond to the very real problems of late modernity, such as the decline of family life and what Pope Francis has called our “throwaway culture.” Prominent Christian intellectuals, such as Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher, suggest that Christianity is incompatible with the current liberal order, and urge the conscientious faithful to reject much of what the world has to offer in hopes of establishing, as Deneen says, “alternative forms of community…[so that] a different experience of political life might arise.” Should Christian renewal measure its success by its ability to effect political renewal? What is the proper relationship between the City of God and the City of Man? These questions are central to Baylor professor Alan Jacobs’ most recent book, The Year of Our Lord 1943.
In it he studies another historical moment in which Christian leaders called for social renewal at a time when the future of the liberal order appeared uncertain. His book focuses on 1943 in particular because, with the Allies more hopeful of victory, the leaders of the West had started to think about rebuilding in the wake of Hitler’s defeat. Jacobs examines the thought of five thinkers—Jacques Maritain, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and W.H. Auden—who hoped to renew the West through a distinctly Christian vision of education. Though they disagreed, often significantly, on how to achieve this vision, all hoped to re-orient education around questions of human purpose, which, they felt, the modern era had all but abandoned in pursuit of practical goals.
Christian humanism, in this sense, is opposed to technocracy, and the pragmatic educational vision of John Dewey serves as a foil to Jacobs’ five. More subtly, Jacobs (an Anglican) implies that a genuinely Christian humanism must also reject theocracy. Early on in the book, Jacobs presents the example of the movement at the University of Chicago in the decade before the war, to resist totalitarianism by focusing education on “moral and intellectual and artistic and spiritual development.” Led by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the movement deemed religious knowledge as a priori superior to any natural kind, including philosophy, and Adler especially had little tolerance for disagreement. First principles were not debatable. Throughout his narrative Jacobs returns to Hutchins and Adler as a kind of theocratic hedge against which his five figures were sometimes inclined to bump.
Of those, Jacques Maritain comes closest to this hedge. A de facto advisor to the Chicago project, the neo-Thomist believed that to renew itself, society needed to return to what he termed Integral Humanism, a proper relationship of human and divine concerns that achieved its apotheosis in the Scholasticism of the High Middle Ages. Critics accused him of being nostalgic and authoritarian, attempting to do the impossible by trying to recover a qualitatively different age. In the Terry Lectures, which he gave at Yale in 1943 (published as Education at the Crossroads), he fleshes out, for a secular American audience, a kind of pedagogy of Integral Humanism.
The result is a more complex and sophisticated vision than his Chicago counterparts were able to convey. At times he sounds like a modern Montessori educator, speaking about the importance of the “vitality and intuitiveness” in young children. At others, though, he plays into the hands of his secular critics. Citing Aquinas, he claims that the biggest enemy to education is “to prefer searching to finding and to perpetually pose problems without ever solving them.” Perhaps understandably, he’s responding to the modern phenomenon of encouraging “critical thinking” without any concern for substance, but his lifting the pedagogy of the High Middle Ages and inserting it into a secular, anxious age should give his audience pause. Doubt, not certainty, is our reality, and contra Maritain, the job of the modern teacher is to help students recognize that there are, in fact, things to search for and problems to be posed.
What Maritain fails to sufficiently recognize is that solutions to problems will not always be found, for paradox lies at the heart of Christianity. How else to explain that the last shall be first, the poor are really rich, and that death is not the end? Attempting to grasp the spirit by the flesh—or, in St. Augustine’s terms, attempting to pin down the City of God through the City of Man—necessarily uses force, as the example of my high school senior attests. In setting itself again the chief sin, in the eyes of many, in American culture, his curriculum did not grant him liberty to pursue the truth—he was forced to arrive at a forgone conclusion.
How do you lead the spirit by the flesh without doing violence to the spirit? To answer this difficult question Christian education has historically pointed to the importance of desire. Jacobs understands this, and claims that his thinkers tried to raise questions of human nature “in such a way that a Christian answer to them was made compelling.” To which I would add, but without subsequently making it compelled.
St. Augustine’s idea of rightly ordered love (ordo amoris) sheds light on the importance of leading by desire. In Book 15 of The City of God he writes: “we do well to love that which, when we love it, makes us live well and virtuously.” Importantly, virtuous actions themselves are not first things. Jacobs quotes Graham Greene to emphasize this point: “Courage smashes a cathedral, endurance lets a city starve, pity kills.” Education must be concerned, firstly, with love, drawn by desire.
Among Jacobs’ five figures C.S. Lewis follows Augustine most closely. Jacobs, who has published an entire book on Lewis (The Narnian), focuses mainly on Lewis’s 1943 Abolition of Man, in which Lewis attempts to correct what he understood to be a devastating error being perpetuated at that time by secondary-school Literature classes. In one textbook, the authors cite the example of Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the waterfall with two tourists, one of whom calls the falls “sublime,” while the other calls it “pretty.” Coleridge applauds the former and corrects the latter, but the authors of the textbook argue that he is wrong to do so, since both are simply reporting their feelings, to which no value can be assigned. Lewis objects: “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it.” In the modern age Lewis takes the task of education to be restoring value to human sentiment by properly tuning it to the key of the world beyond our heads.
On the other hand, Lewis rejects the notion that beauty itself is an adequate foundation on which to erect his humanism. One of his most popular works, The Screwtape Letters, published in 1942, was born out of a dispute in Theology over whether aesthetic taste was a Christian virtue. Lewis demurred. In Jacobs’ words, he felt that “there is no necessary and inevitable role for any element of human culture in relation to the ‘first things’ of Christian life.” He soon set to work on Screwtape to demonstrate that “the first answer to the question of whether a given activity is for spiritual good or ill must always be that it depends.” It depends, that is, on where that activity directs our love.
Jacobs is a tremendously lucid writer, and though he quotes heavily and covers far-ranging intellectual and cultural ground in a short amount of time, the narrative unravels seamlessly, a masterful feat. For the most part he hides behind his thinkers, content to present their ideas in their best light and places them in contrast with each other when applicable. Yet his preferences emerge, and he nudges the reader towards those thinkers whose first things remain in the terrain of spirit, not flesh.
T.S. Eliot is not one of those thinkers for Jacobs. While some of Eliot’s poetry is among the most spiritual in the English language, his cultural criticism is firmly set in the City of Man. In 1943 Eliot began writing Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (eventually published in 1948), in which he comments on the relationship among religion, culture, and education. A high Tory, Eliot emphasizes the importance of social classes in transmitting and developing culture, and he assumes that culture progresses from more primitive stages “toward functional complexity and differentiation”—from “folk poetry” to Paradise Lost. Jacobs astutely concludes that his cultural criticism espouses values that are conservative, but not necessarily Christian.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Eliot the critic squirmed when forced to reckon with subjectivity. In his well-known essay “Hamlet and his Problems,” he objected that Shakespeare did not ground Hamlet’s madness in something more tangible—an “objective correlative”—that would have given ballast to his murderous thoughts, but he misses the possibility that Shakespeare was attempting to capture, in Hamlet, a distinctly modern—and distinctly subjective—sensibility. Lewis, too, in The Abolition of Man, insists on the objectivity of the experience of Coleridge’s tourists at the waterfall, even though modern society considers such an experience subjective. Inhabitants of an older age might have been able to have such a “congruous” experience, to use Lewis’s term, but it seems inaccessible to most inhabitants of an industrial, technological culture. How does the Christian faith address this falling off?
A more pertinent question, in light of Augustine, is how does it direct our love without attempting to instill it upon us by force? In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, those who return from the real world to the dark cave to teach its residents must first forcibly turn them from the shadows towards the light, for the prisoners do not know enough to desire anything else besides what they already know. Yet once they are pointed towards things that are more real, force has no place in their instruction, since they are naturally inclined to seek the truth. Plato concludes the allegory with a powerful affirmation of the natural desires of the student:
[Education] isn’t the craft of putting sight into the soul. Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately.
Importantly, Plato rejects the notion that the student is an empty vessel who needs to be filled with sight. Sight is already within us, and we are born with the ability to distinguish the more from the less real. In this allegory, a teacher’s role is to lead from behind, prodding her students to look at the right things, but not instilling in them certain feelings about those things.
Many attempts at Christian education seem to start from an opposite premise. Such an approach takes education to be a stamp upon the student, and takes the quality of the imprint (often measured in terms of piety) to be the value of the education. Consider the recent scandal at the Franciscan University of Steubenville when the English department chair assigned his class Emmanuel Carrère’s The Kingdom, which contains a brief sexual description of the Virgin Mary. After an extremist Catholic website drew attention to the syllabus, the university’s president demoted the chair and prohibited the book from ever being taught at the school again.
Augustine and Plato both reveal this approach to be wrongheaded. Their shared emphasis on our natural desires makes the case that the stamp of our education—the image of God, we might say—is not applied from without but is already present within us. In fact, it is the very thing which enables learning to occur at all. The job of an education is to coax the imprint to the surface.
What this means in our age is that a Christian education must embrace subjectivity. Among Jacobs’ five figures, the poet W.H. Auden most fully understands this. In 1943 he gave a series of lectures at Swarthmore College that centered on vocation, which he defined as “subjective requiredness,” a calling that emerges from within. Both traditionalists and progressive reformers fail to draw forth this vocation, Auden argues, because they overemphasize the relationship between student and teacher. The former stress “authority and obedience,” while the latter prefer “mutual interest and affection.” Rather, he said, teachers should aim “to exhibit in our pupils that careful indifference, that conscious refusal to help…which is, I believe, the proper educational obstacle to arouse subjective passion.” After leading us through Auden’s pedagogy of subjectivity, Jacobs offers us perhaps the closest thing to an endorsement when he writes that “a humanistic education that encourages its students to think vocationally is itself a refutation of Fascism.” It comes as no surprise that Auden thought liberal democracy to be the best guardian of this kind of subjectivity, and Christianity to be the best guardian of liberal democracy. At the same time, Auden’s Christianity was not for anything. Faith, being interior, is a first thing, and he discouraged any attempts “of using Christianity as a spiritual benzedrine for the earthly city.”
What does Jacobs think of the prospects for genuine renewal? Though he remains mute on the current debates of the present day, he considers technocracy’s grip as too powerful to be broken by any program of reform. In his afterword he introduces a sixth figure, the Frenchman Jacques Ellul, who suggests that the foremost job of Christians in effecting renewal is to pray. Jacobs, only somewhat ironically, calls Ellul’s “hope for miraculous deliverance” more realistic than any other plan.
He would have done well to connect Ellul’s ideas more closely with those of Simone Weil. Weil is a difficult thinker to pin down, and her life was explosive, contradictory, and short. To an extreme degree, she identified with the poor and the outcast, and in 1943, at the age of 34 she most likely starved herself to death in a sanatorium in England in solidarity with those living in occupied France.
Jacobs spends most of his time on Weil’s The Need for Roots, written in the months before her death, and he reveals her intense convictions to be a kind of concentrated version of the animating principles of his project. Weil believed that whenever Christianity operates with temporal authority, it denies its own identity, because it turns the faith into a matter of force. It is no accident to Weil that, for Christ to redeem the world he had to suffer his death, without resistance, at the hands of the Roman Empire. Christ’s refusal to coerce his enemies—either by intellectual fiat or by physical force—marks the perfection of his sacrifice.
In 1942 she wrote a letter to her close friend Father Jean-Marie Perrin, later published as “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” which draws upon the Christian mystical tradition to argue that a Christian education should teach students how to pray. In the contemplative understanding, this means teaching them how to be attentive in a radically receptive sense. Weil argues that whenever students pay attention this way, whether to a math problem, a history lesson, or the writing of an essay, they learn how to communicate with God. Jacobs mentions the letter in passing, but misses its import to his book.
Near the end of the letter, seemingly off-handedly, Weil unloads a piercing insight that links the cultivation of attention with the cultivation of community:
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.
In Weil’s powerful statement, a genuinely Christian renewal must be contemplative, which means that it demands us to attend to what is at hand with love. All else is secondary. Rare and difficult though it may be, perhaps Ellul’s “miraculous deliverance” is possible. In his masterfully written and important book, Alan Jacobs has indeed given us something to love.
Mike St. Thomas is the English Department Chair at the Portsmouth Abbey School in Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter: @Mike_StThomas