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When I Was A Child I Read Books

The Pulitzer Prize winning author of novels like Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home, Marilynne Robinson is one of America’s best living writers. But, while perhaps best known for her fiction, she is also one of the most thought provoking essayists of our time, on par, dare I say, with Wendell Berry. Like Berry, she is concerned that our national future is threatened by our tendency to dismiss community as an integral part of our existence and to deny the sanctity of human life as a reality that drives the decisions that we make, to say nothing of our interactions. Indeed, she writes in the prologue to her newest collection, When I Was A Child I Read Books, that the fulfillment of the democratic ideal upon which our nation was founded is dependent upon a proper understand of human nature.

She writes, “To identify sacred mystery with every individual experience, every life, giving the world its largest sense, is to arrive at democracy as an ideal, and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching due reverence. It is a vision that is wholly religious though by no means sectarian, wholly realist in acknolwedging the great truth of the centrality of human consciousness, wholly open in that it anticipates and welcomes the disruption of present values in the course of finding truer ones”.

I love that phrase: “the disruption of present value in the course of finding truer ones.” That’s a loaded phrase and one that captures nicely what our goals are as classical educators. We guide our students through the murky waters that are “present values” towards the rich land of “truer ones”. Truth be told, my job – my mission – should be to open my students’ eyes to reality of those truer values, to help them see and appreciate and understand. To help them recognize that their – and indeed my – present values are but mud pies from the slum compared to a vacation at the sea.

But Robinson goes on, and what she writes next offers a profound challenge to those of us who are a) in the business world, b) concerned with economics (as a practical reality rather than simply a theoretical study), and c)interested in the souls of our children and students.

“The economics of the moment, and of the last several decades, is a corrosive influence, undermining everything it touches, from our industrial strength to our research capacity to the well-being of our children…what if our institutions were in fact the product of good intentions? What is the cynicism that is supposed to be rigor and acquisitiveness that is supposed to be realism are making us forget the origins of the greatness we lay claim to – power and wealth as secondary consequences of the progress of freedom…?”

A few pages later she continues:

“At a certain pointI decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty…we have a society increasingly defined by economics and an economics…which assumes that we will find the shortest way to the reward, and that this is basically what we should ask of ourselves and – this is at the center of it all – of one another.”

We can never, as classical educators, assume that our students are simple. They are not; the very nature of human existence is complicated . Yet that’s exactly what our modern pedagogical systems and our economically driven academic programs do. That’s exactly what our modes of assessment assume. Too often we teach our students to find the “shortest way to the reward” like some lab rat in a maze. Too often we allow the economics of the moment and present values to undermine the fundamentally humanistic truths of classical education, truths that actually respect and acknowledge the value of the Imago Dei within them. Far too often the bottom line is our guiding light.

Science and economics, both valuable in their own way and in the proper context, Robinson writes, “can give us knowledge, but [they] cannot give us wisdom.”

As the Proverbs cry, let us be driven, above all, by the pursuit of wisdom.

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