Archive for May, 2012

Assessment and Hoodless Hoodings

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

You speak of the “bane of assessment”, the foolishness of supposing that knowledge is a matter of facts and skills that can be measured statistically and recorded on charts and graphs.

Guénon would presumably have considered this one more “sign of the times”, yet another symptom of the “reign of quantity”. He’s speaking in what follows of “the state of mind of persons who look for the whole of reality in ‘becoming'”, but the antecedent of his initial pronoun might as well be “assessment” or “outcomes based education”:

“It amounts to the negation of all real knowledge whatsoever, even of a relative kind, since the relative is meaningless and impossible without the absolute, the contingent without the necessary, change without the unchanging, and multiplicity without unity” (The Crisis of the Modern World).

I agree, of course, that assessment is a serious ill plaguing contemporary higher education, though perhaps not the worst of its ills. Earlier this month I was asked to give the keynote at my university’s doctoral hooding ceremony, and I used the occasion—with the president, provost, and assorted deans on the stage behind me—to poke a little fun at this foolishness. Needless to say, it deserves a considerably harsher critique, but one does what one can in such a context. Better the gentle and elusive mocking, sometimes, than the outright attack. Here, if you’re interested, are my remarks on that occasion:

It’s a pleasure and privilege to be asked to speak to so erudite an audience on so joyful an occasion, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. This is the second time this academic year I’ve had the honor of addressing Carolina students during an important rite of passage. Last August I was invited to give the keynote at the opening Convocation as we welcomed the newest members of the University’s family to campus, and now I find myself at the opposite end of the educational spectrum as we bid farewell to our most seasoned scholars. My words at the beginning of the year were meant to inspire and exhort. Today I congratulate, offering my very best wishes to all of you: the newly minted doctors, of course, but also your families, friends, and mentors. I congratulate, but I also feel the need to expostulate. Here’s why.

A couple weeks ago my wife and I had a visit from some friends from Germany, a fellow academic and his wife, and during the course of their stay I mentioned that I would soon be speaking at my university’s doctoral hooding ceremony. The man, a recently retired professor of music in Dsseldorf, smiled somewhat ruefully as he recalled the German Student Movement of 1968. It seems that protests against the perceived conservatism of the academic establishment during that tumultuous time had included stripping the hoods from the gowns of hapless professors as they made their way toward their lecterns, while the students ominously chanted the slogan Unter den Talaren, Muff von 1000 Jahren: “Beneath the gowns, the musty odor of a thousand years!” The upshot, he said, was that German universities dropped the hooding phase from their doctoral graduation ceremonies, and in fact many discontinued using academic regalia altogether.

Well, I don’t know how musty you may be feeling this afternoon. But my friend’s recollections have led me to ponder the significance of what we’re up to today at a deeper level than I ever had before.

As you probably know, the academic hood has its origin in the cowl of the medieval Christian monk, the first universities in Europe having grown out of earlier monastic and cathedral schools. Unlike this colorful bit of cloth dangling over my shoulders, cowls served a thoroughly practical purpose, keeping their wearers warm during the long winter hours they spent chanting the office in drafty and unheated churches. The cowl was bestowed on novices in a special ceremony in which they made their solemn vows, committing themselves to a life of prayer and promising to uphold the discipline of their religious order, even as the hood will soon be bestowed on the new doctors in the audience as they in turn commit themselves to a life of teaching, research, and administration, upholding the scholarly standards of their respective disciplines.

I was aware of this slice of history already, but hearing about the student protests of the late ’60s in Germany got me thinking. Why do we academics continue donning and bestowing hoods anyway? We’re not monks, after all, or at least most of us aren’t, and our buildings are heated in the winter, the current level of state appropriations for higher education notwithstanding! What’s the logic in having a hood that no one actually employs as a hood and that very few ever wear except on fancy occasions like this? Why not follow the revolutionary German precedent, even if for non-revolutionary reasons, and do away with this vestigial piece of fabric? Mind you, I’m not myself advocating this break with tradition. On the contrary, I yield to no one in my love of pomp and circumstance, and empathize completely with the Chinese sage Confucius, who once defended the ritual sacrifice of sheep by telling someone who objected to it, “You love the sheep, but I love the ceremony” (Analects 3.17). Nonetheless I do wonder why, especially here in this country—an ocean away from the “mustiness” of Bologna, Paris, and Oxford—the custom of doctoral hooding has held on for so long. What’s the sense of it?

I can imagine one response to this question. There’s no sense to it, the cynic will say, but neither—he will add—is there any sense in much of modern higher education, and that’s precisely the point of the hood’s continued use! In publicly donning a garment which is so far from serving its original purpose that we’re obliged to wear these silly hats in ironical compensation, we academics perform an important if somewhat comic role. We stand as emblems of the numerous antinomies lying at the heart of the contemporary university, an institution which still claims to be a portal to self-knowledge and the examined life while at the same time functioning as a large and often unwieldy business enterprise. Decked out for occasions like this, says the cynic, we’re visible reminders of what happens when (for example) we treat a student’s grasp of King Lear or the Symphony No. 9 in D Minor or The Second Treatise of Civil Government—or, for that matter, the Second Law of Thermodynamics—as if it were a measurable “learning outcome”.

I myself am no cynic, however, or not at least when I’m not involved in assessment! While I certainly see these various levels of irony, both sartorial and otherwise, I prefer to look upon this pseudo-cowl of mine in much the same way as I look upon my pseudo-degree designation, as a superficial deception masking a deeper and altogether positive truth. I’m reminded of a Zen Buddhist saying: “Even false words are true if they lead to enlightenment; even true words are false if they breed attachment.” True enough, the garment affixed round my neck isn’t really a hood, or not at least a certain kind of hood, one that protects from the weather. But so what? The Ph.D. that’s affixed to my name isn’t really a Ph.D. either. I’m a Doctor, for sure—that’s just Latin for “teacher”—but I’m not a Philosophiae Doctor, not in other words a teacher “of philosophy”, or rather not a certain kind of philosophy, the kind which consists in sorting through types of argument and in using terms like modus tollens.

But again I say, so what? At a deeper, etymological level, philosophy is significantly more than inferential analysis, even as a doctoral hood is something more than a warmer for ears. Coined by the ancient Greek Pythagoras, who was as much a mathematician and physicist as he was a philosopher in our modern, departmental sense of the word, the term “philosophy” is rooted in the philia, or love, of sophia, or wisdom; and wisdom (howsoever you might choose to define it) is a virtue over which no single academic discipline could ever claim a monopoly. Everyone who wants to know what is so and to live accordingly is a philosopher, whether his degree is in anthropology or zoology or anything else in between; and anyone who evinces his love for such knowledge in a way that elicits a similar love in other people is a teacher of philosophy, whether he’s an administrator or researcher or anything else in between, and whether (I might add) his name is followed by Ph.D., Ed.D., D.N.P., D.M.A., Dr. P.H., or no suffix at all.

No suffix at all? Wait just a minute. Is that where this is all going to end? We’ve labored hard for these abbreviations, you may be thinking, and was it only to be told now that it doesn’t make any difference? Those German students stripped their professors of a piece of extraneous cloth, but this professor now proposes to strip us students of our very degrees. Well, hardly! If that is what you’re thinking, you couldn’t be more mistaken. I assure you, quite the contrary, that thirty-some years have in no way dimmed my own delectable memories of the goal you’ve arrived at today, and I’m happy to congratulate you all very heartily for the tenacious intelligence and intelligent tenacity that have brought you to the pinnacle of student accomplishment in your several fields. Nevertheless, as I bring these remarks to a close, I certainly would like to strip us all of the notion that being a Doctor is somehow dependent on a smattering of letters and periods. Surely there’s more to being a teacher, whether professionally or incidentally, than a simple suffix, even as there was (and is) more to being a monk than one’s headgear.

If only the hoodless hoodings we’re about to witness would draw our minds and hearts back to the ancient Greek roots of our true vocation, a vocation we share fundamentally with all human beings, then the seeming duplicity of this ceremonial bestowal will have served, after all, a very practical purpose.

A Gospel Puzzle

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

I too was newly struck by the passage you mention (Mark 8:22-26) the last time I studied it in the daily readings from the Gospel. What you call “magical” miracles—that is, miracles in which Christ, rather than simply healing someone by a word or by commending the person for his faith, makes use of some physical element—are all quite intriguing. In this case, of course, we have an example of such a miracle in which, even more intriguingly, Christ seems not to succeed the first time.

And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town.

Perhaps we’re meant to conclude that the blind man himself needed to be more deeply committed to the Truth before his healing could be fully effected; one notices that the first time he merely “looked up”, while the second time—in the translation you’re using—he “looked intently”. According to the Authorized (King James) Version, in the former case the man “looked up”, but in the second case Jesus “made him look up”. Either way there appear to be two distinct levels or degrees of intensity, and only after the second is realized does the miracle occur.

As for the admittedly puzzling fact that the man is instructed by Christ to go “to his house” but at the same told not to enter the town, here’s what St Jerome has to say:

“Note the text exactly. If we consider the literal interpretation only, it does not make any sense. If this bind man is found in Bethsaida and is taken out and cured, and he is then commanded: ‘Return to thine own house,’ certainly he is bid to ‘return to Bethsaida.’ If, however, he returns there, what is the meaning of the command: ‘Neither enter into the town’? You see, therefore, that the interpretation must be symbolic. He is led out from the house of the Jews, from the town, from the law, from the traditions of the Jews. He who could not be cured in the law is cured in the grace of the Gospel. It is said to him, ‘Return to thine own house’—not into the house that he considers his own, the one from which he came out, but into the house that was also the house of Abraham, since Abraham is the father of those who believe” (Homily 79).

Babylonian Babies

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

We definitely have a God-given ability, and responsibility, to fight against evil; one thinks of Christ cleansing the Temple. Indeed all the traditions allow for the exercise of “holy indignation”, though at the same time they all equally caution that such indignation is to be directed in the first instance against our own fallen nature. One thinks of the distinction in Islam between the greater and the lesser jihad. In much the same vein the Fathers teach that when the Psalms talk about slaying enemies, this is in reference to fighting the demons and endeavoring to exterminate sinful thoughts when they are still small (hence the “Babylonian babies” of Psalm 137) and before they turn into passions.

The problem, of course, is that like everything God gave us we’ve managed to corrupt and pervert our fighting capacity, using it not in defense of justice, whether inward or outward, but for our own selfish ends. Indignation is then far from holy! We simply want to “get back at” the people who’ve harmed us or—even more reprehensibly—who’ve simply gotten in the way of our getting what we want. The way, or at least one way, to begin again using this capacity in a way Heaven would approve is to realize that “turning the other cheek”, rather than a sign of weakness or wimpiness, is actually a manifestation of real power. The Taoists are especially good on this point, the Tao Teh Ching being perhaps the best book in the world for showing how true strength is to be found, paradoxically, in seeming weakness.

Do you know the story about the Imam Ali? Engaged in a campaign of the lesser jihad, it seems he had an enemy pinned to the ground and was about to cut off his head when the man spat in his face. Ali immediately put his sword back in its sheath and walked away. When asked what in the world he was doing, he explained to his companions, “I refuse to kill when I am angry.”