Abraham Lincoln: 200 years

It would be unjust to fail to mention that today marks the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, unquestionably one of America’s greatest presidents. When I was a child, the silhouettes of Washington and Lincoln had an iconographic power over me. The face on the penny, the curly beard, the strong, arched hairline above the noble brow, the resolute expression all wormed their way into my childish reverence.

Now my relationship with Mr. Lincoln is more complex. I don’t think he needed to fight a war that he seems to have deliberately provoked. I don’t believe he did it to end slavery. But how I do thank God that he did end slavery. How I thank God that he spoke of healing, “with charity for all, with malice toward none.”

I wish he hadn’t set such a strong precedent for setting aside the constitution in times of national emergency. But I thank God for the amendments that ended slavery.

I wish he hadn’t accelerated the transfer of power to the federal government. But I thank God that the federal government intervened on behalf of the oppressed when the local governments were the oppressors.

Only the future will tell if we can settle the contradictions in our national character. I am only as optimistic as the American educator cultivates wisdom and virtue in her daughters and sons.

But, Mr. Lincoln, I thank you for putting in motion the energies that ended slavery and for striving to bring healing to a broken people.

Requiescat in pace.

Wild and Whirling Words

If I were to blog every day from here to July I could not adequately explore the reasons for and importance of the idea of Nature as a theme for our conference this summer. Let me say this much to begin:

Postively, nature is what makes true education possible. By true education I mean what educators meant until well into the 19th century whenever they spoke about education: the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, or, even more briefly, the pursuit of virtue (since wisdom is a virtue).

If there is no nature, there is no virtue, for virtue is precisely the refinement of a nature. If there is no such thing as human nature, a nature that is common to all human beings, then there is no common excellence that we can pursue. If, for example, we do not share a common set of faculties (e.g. the faculties of language, morality, reason, etc.), then we cannot work together in the attempt to perfect those faculties.

This might seem a little silly to some. Who would deny that there is such a thing as human nature? Well, that depends what you mean. There have been philosophers who have come right out and argued that there is no such thing. On the other hand, most politicians would argue that there is such a thing because every non-philosopher or “uneducated” person and even some educated people are perfectly aware that we have a nature. The politicians can’t afford to lose the votes of the illiterate masses like you and me.

Which makes them even scarier, because frankly most politicians don’t believe in human nature. So that brings up the negative side of the argument. We need to talk about nature because without it there is nothing to restrain the powers that be.

The one thing I want to know about anybody who wants to lead me is, “What do you believe I am?” Take a teacher, for example. If you are going to teach me, I want to know kind of being you think I am. What potentials do I carry. What would give me health and what disease? What are my parts? Do I have a soul? What is it?

If you can’t answer those questions, you have no right to try to teach me or my children. If you think the highest potential my children possess is to contribute to the economy, I don’t want you near their minds. If you think there misbehavior can be thoroughly explained by chemical or environmental causes, I will stand between you and them.

All of which is quite dramatic and exciting – though sadly true. But I’ve put my children in private schools and home schooled them. Most of my readers are Christians and virtually all the rest at least have great respect for the classical tradition and what Christianity contributed to the progress and preservation of the human race. What does this mean to you?

Consider this: since the mid-nineteenth century, schooling all around the world has been driven by a volatile cocktail of Enlightenment and Romantic ideas about what a human is (human nature), how we learn (the nature of learning), how to assess learning (the nature of assessment), what a human can know (the nature of knowledge), what God is and how He relates to His creation (the nature of God), where the universe came from and what it is (the nature of “nature”), how to approach literature (the nature of language) and the arts (the nature of human creativity), and on and on.

We who are trying to re-engage the Christian classical tradition, not trying to restore a corpse, but trying to recover something vital, will be unable to think clearly as long as we adopt the categories and even the metaphors of the conventional educational establishment. And the one category they have labored hardest to eliminate or, failing that, turn relative, is the category of nature.

It seems to me that modern thought does away with the concept of nature for the simple reason that it doesn’t want to be known. It is a dessert. It is a weed-infested garden. It is unsatisfying. “Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.” “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.”

But we follow their theories, buy their text books, practice their pedagogy, submit to their assessments. We ought to listen to what they say. Then we can respond and say ourselves:

“These are but wild and whirling words.”