Pagan Ping-Pong

Some things you can only discover by teaching in a certain format. For years I taught four separate preps every semester, but it was only when I began to teach multiple sections of the same prep that I realized what a wild card a given set of students could be. An approach that worked well in a 10 a.m. section might fall flat in the following section. More interesting, however, is what happens when you cram several different courses back-to-back.

Last spring, for instance, I taught three different courses in a row: Humanities II, Senior Capstone, and a freshmen honors seminar on human nature. I would begin the day at 8:00 teaching Luther, Montaigne or Bacon, but switch at 9:30 to Plato or Frederick Douglass. Then I would round out the day from at 11:30 to 1:00 with King Lear or Mary Shelley. In many cases, ideas discussed in one section would reappear in another in weirdly applicable ways. I recall at one point in the semester thinking that Aristotle and Dostoevsky were playing ping-pong in my brain.

This fall has produced something similar. During the day I have been teaching Humanities in its semester-length version. Since the end of October, however, I have also been teaching the same course in its eight-week accelerated night format. This means that for the last few weeks I've been simultaneously teaching the front and back halves of the same course. This juxtaposition forces me to intellectually inhabit the very dichotomy around which I organized the material.

Indeed, I had one large goal in mind when I first designed the course: I wanted students to grasp the fertile tension in Western culture between its Hellenistic and Hebraic traditions. In a nutshell I wanted them to understand the weirdness of having a pagan Greek love for the physical body fused into Michelangelo’s Christian statuary. But teaching the front and back of the course at the same time has revealed something else to me.

I play favorites.

I can’t help it. Try as I might I just can’t bring the same passion to Dante's medieval Christianity as I do to the pagan Greeks and Romans. I have discovered why too. It occurred to me over the weekend that the Greco-Roman writers tend to think inductively. They study the world in all of its worldly messiness. Thus Greek mythology is psychologically realistic and Homer wants us to get real about war and human life. Similarly, Socrates wants his fellow Athenians to clear false-thinking from the human mind, and Sophocles wants his audience to see through their blindness. Even Seneca urges us to set more realistic expectations. All of these poets, playwrights and philosophers attempt to see human life as it is, to diagnose it, and--sometimes--they prescribe a response about the best way to live.

After Augustine inductive thinking like this begins to disappear. The TRUTH has arrived; it has been proclaimed to the world, and now humanity has to think deductively within the officially prescribed box. The question is no longer “What is the best kind of life for a human being?” It is “Am I living the one and only official best kind of life?” The intellectual action switches from induction from particulars to deduction of particulars to the single, all-encompassing idea. And this is why I can't bring the same passion to teaching the Inferno. I can certainly admire Dante for his schematic brilliance. He constructed an elaborate cross-section of the medieval universe with every piece fitting wonderfully into the grand design. It was an impressive achievement, but my admiration begins to dissipate when I remember that Dante’s universe is static and does not value open debate or critical questioning. The Greeks were restless, quarrelsome, and self-doubting. You only have to look at Aquinas to see what happens when this kind of creative restlessness is made to deduce itself into a prescribed box.

You can find deductively-arrived at boxes in contemporary higher education as well. We have created all sorts of new academic subjects to study: peace studies, ethnic studies, gender studies. In many cases programs like these reclaim unjustly neglected ideas, traditions and histories, which is valuable work. At the same time, though, some of these programs tend to operate within an over-arching TRUTH. They think deductively, analyzing questions not in an open search for answers, but to fit all of the evidence into some grand, confirmatory design. There’s a medieval stultification to such enterprises and--just as with Dante--they arouse no passion in me.

Good heavens, I never would have suspected years ago that I would become such a fuddy-duddy, yet here I am.


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