Saturday, April 9, 2011

Education and the arts

I’m reading I’ll Take my Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition slowly. Very, very slowly. This is a reread, since my reading goal this year is to read again a dozen books that have had a major influence on my thinking. I don’t remember when I first read it—it’s not on any of the lists I’ve kept since 2003, but my 2005 list is missing, so maybe it was that year. Certain essays of the book are heavily underlined, but the second one didn't have any underlining at all... until now.

Here’s a fairly long passage that leapt out at me just now:
Education can do comparatively little to aid the cause of the arts as long as it must turn out graduates into an industrialized society which demands specialists in vocational, technical, and scientific subjects. The humanities, which could reasonably be expected to foster the arts, have fought a losing battle since the issue between vocational and liberal education was raised in the nineteenth century. Or, they have kept their place by imitating the technique of their rivals, so that one studies the biology of language, the chemistry of drama, the evolution of the novel, and the geological strata or fossil forms of literature and the fine arts. That is, they abdicate the function by which they were formerly able to affect the tone of society. So far as they still maintain this function, they still face a dilemma. Either they will appear as decorative and useless to the rising generations who know that poetry sells no bonds and music manages no factories, and hence will be taken under duress or enjoyed as a pleasant concession to the softer and more frivolous side of life. Or, the more successfully they indoctrinate the student with their values, the more unhappy they will make him. For he will be spoiled for industrial tasks by being rendered inefficient. He will not fit in. The more refined and intelligent he becomes, the more surely will he see in the material world the lack of the image of nobility and beauty that the humanities inculcate in him. The product of a humanistic education in an industrial age is most likely to be an exotic, unrelated creature—a disillusionist or a dilettante.
(“A Mirror for Artists,” Donald Davidson)

[emphasis mine]

That’s something to think about, isn’t it? How do we guard against that—our children becoming unhappy “disillusionists”? I know I struggle against cynicism.


  1. I like that idea of rereading a dozen books that have been a major influence on your thinking.

    And the quote was fascinating since it is something I often wonder about -- to what extent education should prepare a child to "fit in" and to what extent it is to fit him to be different, with all the difficulties that entails. I don't think there is an easy answer.

  2. This is one of my husband's favorite books and he has read assorted essays to me over the years.

    Isn't Davidson's stated dilema of "fitting in" the dilema of a Christian as well? Don't we become spoiled for this world, become discontent with the world, the deeper our faith and relationship to Christ? Isn't this really St. Augustine's cry of "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord"? I think perhaps one of solutions is first to admit to our children that disillusion is possible, indeed even likely, and then how to make peace with it by finding solace in Christ. I think the saints were probably disillusionist, which put them on the road to sanctity.

  3. Willa, Peter Leithart, I believe it was, once said that we should have about ten books that were our closest friends -- that we knew intimately and read regularly. That's why I'm rereading books that have been important to me in the past. It's been very interesting, having those "Oh yeah, that's where I got that idea from!" moments as well as understanding things this time that I didn't before, or seeing new applications.

  4. On the subject of fitting in, Rick Saenz mentioned something about that in his comment to this post at Cindy's blog. I'd like to quote the whole thing, but here's something that I'd never thought of before:

    "Right now I'm reading James Davison Hunter's To Change the World, which makes the case that Christianity did not succeed because it was true, but because Christians took that truth into the secular marketplace of ideas and triumphed on the market's terms. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and so on were excellent thinkers by everyone's standards, not just those of the Christian ghetto."


What are your thoughts? I love to hear from you!