The Grail Code 

Archive for October, 2007

Silly or not silly?

Friday, October 26th, 2007

It’s time to play everyone’s favorite game, “Silly or Not Silly,” in which we mock other people’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

People sometimes ask me, “Is it right to mock the sincerely held religious beliefs of others?” And I answer, “Yes, it is, if they’re silly.”

But everything hinges on how we define “silly,” doesn’t it? And it’s very hard to put a definition into words that will distinguish what makes one set of beliefs silly and another not silly.

Perhaps the best way to get a feeling for the distinction is by looking at a few examples.

Christianity: Not silly.

Those cars weren’t made for the sinners, they were made for the righteous”: Silly.

Traditional Sioux religion: Not silly.

Herds of Rayon-clad suburbanites in fume-belching SUVs stampeding down to a little zoo in the countryside outside Pittsburgh to hear what the white buffalo has to say to them: Silly.

Darwinian evolution: Not silly.

Energy, in physics, as the capacity to work: Not silly.

Practically everything anyone says about “evolution” or “energy” in a “journal of meaningful living”: Silly.

Ancient Maya cosmology and mathematics: Not silly.

Ancient Hindu philosophy: Not silly.

Christianity: Again, not silly.

Pittsburgh new-agers gathering in the West End to celebrate some milestone in the Maya calendar by transmitting energy through the crown chakra in order to bring about the return of Christ consciousness, prepare for the next stage in human evolution, and celebrate the Four Rivers (one of them spiritual) of Pittsburgh as a mirror of the Milky Way Galaxy: Silly.

Looking at these examples, I think we can begin to see what distinguishes certain systems of belief as “silly.” Well-developed and internally consistent systems of belief taught and expanded by generations of the wisest minds in ancient cultures are inherently not silly. That’s true even if you believe they’re false. A Hindu would say that Christian theology is at best an imperfect understanding of the world, but Hindu philosophers admire the subtle wisdom of Christ and never hesitate to say so. Likewise, Christians may not approve of the ancient Maya religion, which included liberal doses of human sacrifice; but no one can say that it was silly, and no one can fail to marvel at the brilliant Maya mathematicians who calculated numbers in the billions when Europeans were still struggling to multiply CXLVI by LXXIV.

But when people raid these ancient systems of belief, take a few technical terms and a misinterpreted idea or two, and toss them all in the blender on the “puree” setting, the result is always silly.

In fact, we can put the matter more simply than that. Swallowing a religion whole is not silly; cherry-picking the bits of it you want to believe is silly.

That’s a very hard saying for Americans to hear. People like me are used to being told we should think for ourselves. We bristle at the idea of someone else telling us what we should believe. Why, that’s fascist or communist or something, isn’t it?

But what does the Bible say about it? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That’s so important the Bible says it at least twice, once in Psalm 111:10 and once in Proverbs 9:10; Proverbs 1:7 gives us the almost identical variant “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”

Now, scientists instinctively know that principle. Not that all scientists even believe in God, although probably most of them do. (It depends, of course, on how you define “scientist”; if you’re an atheist who defines “scientist” as “someone who doesn’t believe in God,” you’ll come up with a different result.) But scientists know that you can’t build your own wisdom on nothing. You can’t decide what you want to believe about physics without first learning the accumulated knowledge of generations of orthodox physicists. You can’t learn what you need to know about dentistry without first accepting that dentistry is already a well-developed science about which your knowledge is less than adequate.

Or, in more general terms, you can’t learn anything until you accept that you have something to learn.

That’s why cherry-picking bits of different religions according to your own whims invariably leads to silliness. When you pick just the beliefs you like from a cafeteria of religions, you’re merely confirming your own prejudices. You don’t learn anything at all, because you never admit any ideas into your mind that weren’t there already. And a closed mind feeding on itself is—well, it tends to be rather silly.

Lancelot (funny how I managed to work him in after 750 words or so) spends the first half of Walter Map’s giant Lancelot cycle pretty well convinced that he knows what’s what. It takes the quest for the Holy Grail to teach him that he has something to learn. Only after he has failed abjectly in his quest is he willing to admit that he doesn’t know everything.

That’s a classic conversion experience. It’s exactly the opposite of the middlebrow cafeteria approach to religion. Instead of picking the beliefs that correspond most closely to what he’s sure he already knows, Lancelot finally realizes that there’s a gaping emptiness inside him, and prays that it might be filled. He acknowledges that the wisdom outside himself is greater than the wisdom inside himself. He’s ready to learn.

And that is why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The truly wise, like Socrates and Solomon, know that they know nothing. Until we’re willing to admit the possibility of a wisdom greater than our own, we’ll never learn anything at all. And if we can’t learn anything, then we’ll never really have the precious freedom to choose what we believe.

Which books are “great”?

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

I promised I’d spend some time talking about what books are really “great,” so I’ll do that now. But first, a few warnings.

1. Not everyone agrees on what books are “great,” because—obviously—not everyone agrees on what makes a “great” book.

2. Some books that are almost certainly “great” don’t fit well in some versions of a great-books education. A book must be not only great, but also discussable.

3. The books actually matter less than the method. This is the most startling fact about the “great books” method of learning: it really doesn’t depend nearly as much as you’d think on the greatness of the books. It depends much more on the method of approaching the books and learning from them.

4. Different books are appropriate for different ages. Second-graders are probably not ready for Einstein yet. (Although my six-year-old son has recently been captivated by string theory and M-theory, which has taught me not to make too many assumptions about what a child is ready for.)

Having said all that, I’ll venture a definition of a “great book”: A great book is a book we keep coming back to. We may not even like it, but we can’t escape it. It has become part of our shared cultural heritage, and even people who haven’t read the book have somehow absorbed something about it.

Lots of people hate Moby Dick, for example, and curse the literature professors who made them read it. But it’s always there on the reading lists. You can’t get away from it, because in the end it’s always worth thinking about, even if you hated it. And even if you haven’t read it, you still know about it. Animated cartoons aimed at children (I’m talking about you, SpongeBob) are quite willing to parody Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the great white whale—and the children know what’s going on.

Another example we might mention is the romances of the Holy Grail, especially the Walter Map version. We couldn’t giggle over our periodic lists of holy-grails-of if everybody hadn’t absorbed some notion of the Holy Grail, though almost always without reading the romances.

No two people will make exactly the same list of great books, and the lists will change over time. I’m sure many people thought The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a shoo-in for “great book” status, but who reads it now? (Robert Benchley gets credit as the lonely voice who called it right: “Of course it is possible for a man to write a great book from which no one would quote. That is probably happening all the time. But it is because no one has read it. Here we have an author [Vicente Blasco Ibáñez] whose vogue in this country, according to statistics, is equal to that of any writer of novels in the world. And as soon as his publicity department stops functioning, I should like to lay a little bet that he will not be heard of again.”)

But, on the whole, the lists will be remarkably similar, and they’ll be more similar the farther back in time we go. The colder the author is in his grave, the more sure we can be that the book is really “great.”

Homer, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Shakespeare, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, Rousseau, Marx, Einstein, just to name a few—these will always be on lists of great books, because they changed the course of human thought forever. It doesn’t matter if you love Luther and hate Calvin, or love Calvin and hate Luther, or hate both, or love both because you have a strangely split and warped personality: their ideas are just too big and important to ignore.

So much for determining which books are great; that leaves us with the problem of which great books are suitable. The answer varies widely according to the subject and according to the target audience.

For high-school or college students learning geometry, for example, Euclid is the obvious and only choice. For biology, you’ll want to start with Aristotle and work up through Harvey and into more modern writers; similarly, for physics, Aristotle through Galileo and Newton up to Einstein and beyond.

The assumption, of course, is that you’ll be using some variant of the great-books method to teach every subject. Many students will be lucky to get a literature class taught that way.

For young children, some of the best things to read are in the Bible. Jesus’ parables are perfect. They’re short, but infinitely thought-provoking. The best discussion I ever saw in a Sunday-school class was on the parable of the workmen in the vineyard, in which the employer pays the last to arrive as much as he pays the ones who worked all day. “That’s not fair!” multiple children shouted at once. Well, why not? Didn’t the first to arrive agree on the payment? And so the discussion goes. Our ordinary assumptions are questioned and our complacency offended right away, which is exactly what Jesus intended. Before you know it, an hour has gone by, and everyone—not least the teacher—has met new ideas and thought new thoughts.

Little fables like Aesop’s are also good for young children. Even The Cat in the Hat is worth talking about—or perhaps I should say especially The Cat in the Hat, with its slightly frightening moral ambiguity. It even ends with a perfect opening question for a discussion.

Experiment often shows which books are good for discussions and which aren’t. Some books that are first-rate just never seem to lead to good discussions.

Finally, there’s the cultural question, which is tricky. St. John’s and some other great-books schools follow mainly the western traditionnot because no one outside the West ever wrote anything worthwhile, but because the readings build one upon another. It can be very hard to approach books that come from a tradition completely outside our own without some serious training in the languages and culture of that tradition. The Graduate Institute at St. John’s offers an Eastern Classics program that includes tutorials in either Sanskrit or Chinese, just as the regular undergraduate program includes tutorials in ancient Greek and French.

Anyway, why should I come up with a list when other people have done it already? Here are some lists you can look at and argue about:

The St. John’s College reading list. This reading list was first put together in the 1930s. It changes a bit every so often, and it’s not always quite identical on the two campuses (one in Annapolis, the other in Santa Fe). But it’s been remarkably stable over the years. It’s actually hard to find another list of “great books” that isn’t at least influenced by this one.

The Britannica Great Books series. If it bears a strong resemblance to the St. John’s list, that’s no accident: the Britannica list was heavily influenced by the St. John’s list.

Thomas Aquinas College has a program modeled after the one at St. John’s, but leaning more toward Catholic Christian writers.

The three lists above all have common roots. Here are some lists that are more or less independent of that tradition:

The Harvard Classics. The famous “Five-Foot Shelf” was a serious attempt to gather every important work in one set and sell them all to the upwardly-mobile as decorative accessories for the well-furnished parlor. Even today it’s not hard to find old copies of the Harvard Classics that have obviously never been read. But it was a good list, and you can read them all on line. It also has the advantage of having been compiled before the St. John’s list, which makes it unusually independent.

The Western Canon, by Alan Bloom. Not really as independent as all that, since Bloom was good friends with some of the tutors at St. John’s and was well aware of the St. John’s list. But his list is interesting and long.

Malaspina Great Books is a very long table of books, each entry with information under five categories: birth, death, period, category, and woman. (The “woman” column contains either “yes” or “no,” as appropriate. Some stunning revelations here. Who knew that “George Eliot” was a woman? I had always assumed he was just a cross-dresser. And the implication of the table that a man is in some way a failed woman is a profounder bit of philosophy than the compilers perhaps intended.) is a site presenting a curriculum designed to teach the Christian worldview through the great books.

The 100 Most Meaningful Books of All Time, selected by a poll of famous authors in 2002. It leans more heavily toward more recent books, and I suspect some of those would have already dropped off the list if you took the same poll now. But you’ll still find a large overlap with all the other lists, proving that there really are some books you just can’t get away from.

A list of colleges offering great-books programs, from the National Association of Scholars. A very large number of them are modeled on the St. John’s program.

A huge list of lists of great books.

Not guilty

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

So the Templars–according to the new information that’s just come to light–were found not guilty of heresy, but guilty of parking in a loading zone or something. The Knights Templar, as everyone who has suffered through The Da Vinci Code knows, are often said to have been custodians of the Holy Grail. “Disentangling fact and fiction about them is difficult,” says the BBC, somehow failing to add that most of the difficulty comes from peddlers of fiction passing off their wares as fact.

But it will be a bit less difficult now that the Chinon Parchment is published. Granted, it’s in a limited-edition facsimile that’s worth more than my car, but it’s still out there now. This is exciting news for historians, but not necessarily for the peddlers of fiction. Oh, who am I kidding? They’re probably already writing new books about how the Chinon Parchemt proves everything they’ve ever said about Mary Magdalene and the little green men from the flying cigars.

Still, it’s always exciting when an important historical document comes to light. For centuries it was miscatalogued, lost in a box somewhere in the Vatican’s secret archive. I have the same problem with my books, so I sympathize with the archivists. It’s not easy keeping track of twenty years or so of accumulation. I can imagine what a mess it must be after you’ve been collecting books for twenty centuries.

A halo of saints

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Back to the Great Books shortly, but fist some other Arthurian business. “King Arthur’s Saints” is a fascinating roundup of all the Welsh holy women and men who had something to do with the historical Arthur, if there was a historical Arthur. Many thanks to “Suburban Banshee” for “Aliens in This World.” King Arthur without his halo of legendary saints would have been nonsense to the Welsh in the Dark Ages. “It’s very sad that it’s not part of popular consciousness, just because it wasn’t Malory’s big thing,” the Banshee says. It wasn’t Malory’s big thing, we might add, because–curiously enough–it wasn’t Walter Map’s big thing, either: he needed sinners, not saints, to build his grand allegory of sin and redemption. So here’s a side of dark-ages British folklore we don’t get to dip into very often, but I know I’ll be doing more dipping now that I’ve been pointed in that direction.

Great books for every subject

Saturday, October 13th, 2007

Great books for every subject?

You may have thought of the great-books approach as a way of teaching literature, but it can do far more than that. Great-books colleges like St. Thomas Aquinas or St. John’s apply the same method to physics, mathematics, and biology that they apply to philosophy and literature.

Is that really a good idea? Well, once again, we go back to Socrates.

In one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Socrates asks an ignorant slave boy how he would double the area of a square. He draws a square in the sand. I was going to go out to the sandbox and take some digital pictures, but (as I mentioned somewhere before) writers have deadlines, so I’ll do this the quick way. So here’s our square:

Now, how would you double the area?

The slave boy gives an obvious answer: make the sides twice as long. Okay, so Socrates tries that:

But look—if you draw two more lines, you see that we have four squares equal to the first one:

We haven’t doubled the area. We’ve quadrupled it.

At this point, your ordinary snooty upper-class Greek might have just laughed and told you that you couldn’t expect anything better from an ignorant slave. But Socrates doesn’t do that, because he’s trying to show us that somehow this knowledge is already in the slave’s mind, if we can only draw it out. So he leads the slave boy through this reasoning. I’m going to summarize it briefly, though in the original dialogue it takes a while, because Socrates has to make sure that the slave boy comes up with all the answers himself.

If I draw a diagonal through the first square, then I’ve divided it exactly in half, haven’t I?

And if I do that to each of the other squares, then I’ve divided each of them in half, too. And look—I’ve made another square.

But we said the large square was four times the area of the original square, didn’t we? And now we’ve divided each of the four small squares in half. So we have a square that’s half the area of the large square. But since the large square was four times the area of the original square, and this one is half the area of the large square, that means this one must be twice the area of the original square. We’ve succeeded in doubling the area of the square.

Now, Socrates could have just told the slave boy that, to make a square double in area to a given square, you make a square on the diagonal of the given square. If he had beaten the slave often and severely enough, he could have succeeded in making him memorize that as a fact of geometry. Instead, he let the slave make all the steps of the reasoning himself. Now the slave knows why that square is double the area of the original, and he’s not likely to repeat his mistake of doubling the sides. By discussing the problem, he learns the solution far more thoroughly than if he had just been told to memorize it.

The slave boy and Socrates are just two people. But in a classroom you’re likely to have a dozen or more. They’ll all have different abilities. Some will be slower to pick things up, and some will be faster. So the conversation becomes more complicated, and more complicated often means more productive.

But doesn’t this variety of abilities lead to problems? Won’t slower learners hold the fast ones back? Won’t the faster ones rocket past the slower ones, leaving them confused and frustrated?

The answer, it turns out, is no. And this is what makes the great-books method the truly democratic method of education.

Great books: what really happens in the classroom

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

So we were just about to talk about what happens in the classroom in a “great-books” education.

In the most radical form of great-books education, there are really only two steps.

1. The students read a certain assigned reading.

2. They sit around and talk about it.

That’s pretty much all there is to it. Every program will make its own additions to the basic method, but the core, the sitting-around-talking part, is what really makes the whole thing work.

Now, this business of sitting around and talking—what we call a “seminar”—sounds very informal, but in fact the seminar is a very formal affair. It’s the formality that makes the informality work.

First of all, there are certain assumptions that act as a kind of constitution or fundamental law of the seminar.

The first rule is that the text itself—not what we think we know about the writer’s time or home life or psychological difficulties—is the thing under discussion. If we’re reading Plato’s Republic, then we’re talking about what the book itself says, not about what the Greeks thought (whatever that might have been) or about what the introduction to our edition of Plato thinks the book says. You might say the seminar has a strong anti-academic bias: no one is taken as an “authority” on what the author said except the author.

The second rule comes from the first: there are no authorities at all. Every reasoned assertion is allowed—but of course you have to be ready to back it up by arguing from the text in front of you. When I say that there are no authorities, that includes the teacher. It even includes the author of the book we’re discussing. If you think you find a flaw in Plato’s reasoning, you go right ahead and point it out. Of course, chances are that someone else in the discussion will challenge you, so you have to be prepared to out-argue everyone in the room plus Plato.

Finally, a third rule, no less important than the other two, is that we must maintain civility at all times. That can be hard when you’re having a violent disagreement, but it’s vital if the discussion is going to help anyone learn anything. It’s also essential because the discussion has to be free if it’s going to work. For example, it won’t work if students have to raise their hands and be recognized to speak. That freedom can only be allowed if it doesn’t turn into license.

Certain traditions can help enforce those three rules. For example, at many great-books schools—St. John’s among them—everyone is always referred to by last name in class: always Mr. Smith, never Jim. Now, it’s one thing to refer to an adult college student as “Mr. Smith,” but it might seem a bit odd to do that in a second-grade class. Yet I’ve heard of successful elementary great-books programs where they do just that.

Why? Well, there are two very good reasons for that rule. The first is that it keeps up the atmosphere of formality that’s necessary for a civilized discussion. The second is that it makes the students and the teachers equal—and it does so, not by lowering the teachers to the students’ level, but by raising the students to the teachers’ level. That’s a tremendously important distinction. You know how easy it is to lose control of children if they stop seeing you as an authority. But it’s amazing how responsible even young children become when they’re treated as responsible adults. Now, I’m not telling you to let second-graders drive cars, but I do think the last-name rule helps even elementary students keep up a responsible and civilized discussion. It’s even more effective in high schools, where the students are desperately snatching at every opportunity to prove that they’re adults.

So how does a seminar work? The students and teacher sit in a square or circle facing each other. The seminar begins when the teacher asks a provocative opening question—something designed to get the discussion started. One I particularly remember was for the creation story in Genesis: “Is God good?” It needs to be a simple and yet open-ended question.

After that, there’s almost always a long silence. It’s not required, of course—anyone could jump in at any time and try to answer the question. But from experience I can tell you that there’s almost always a long silence. You get used to it.

Finally, someone speaks up and attempts an answer. If the opening question was any good, of course, there will be something to say on both sides, so almost as soon as somebody attempts an answer, someone else will start to argue the other way.

From here on, the teacher ceases to be a teacher and becomes part of the conversation. Actually, of course, the teacher has a lot to contribute to the conversation. If you’re the teacher, it’s your responsibility to help guide the discussion so it doesn’t stray too far from the subject. (You learn a lot of useful stock phrases, like “Getting back to what Miss Harris said earlier about…” or “But I wonder whether that answers the question Mr. Lopez brought up earlier about…”)

It’s also the teacher’s responsibility to correct obvious errors when nobody else does. With students who are new to the seminar method, it’s important to try not to say simply, “No, that’s not right.” It’s important to encourage the students to find their own mistakes: “Does that take into account what Lancelot says when…” and so on. With students who are used to the seminar method, a teacher can just say, “No, that’s not right,” because they’re used to thinking of the teacher as just another voice in the conversation, and they won’t have any inhibitions about saying that voice is wrong. (And many times the teachers will be wrong, and the students will be right.)

What’s going on here? The students are learning to think.

That’s the most important thing. You’ve probably heard great-books fanatics talk about “learning to think” lots of times, and maybe you dismissed it as propaganda. But it’s the most important skill the students will learn, and—more than any other skill they might learn—it’s a skill with real-life applications.

When I was researching my first great-books lecture a few years ago, I found that a number of studies by prominent academics with impressive batches of letters after their names show that students in grade-school great-books programs showed better reading comprehension, better critical-reading skills, better problem-solving abilities, and better writing skills. If I had those studies in front of me, I’d give you all the information about them. But I don’t, and I regret to say that I don’t even have the time to go looking for them. That’s very frustrating to me: I hate to suggest that there’s scientific evidence for something without giving you the evidence. But writers have deadlines, and I have some pressing ones. If anyone can leave a comment pointing us toward the sorts of studies I’m thinking of, I’ll be very grateful.

I do remember, though, that what was particularly interesting was that students who had been low achievers in standard school programs showed even more improvement than students who had been high achievers. The great-books method was actually accomplishing democratic education, by giving students the thinking skills they need in the real world, and by raising the low achievers closer to the level of the high achievers.

It doesn’t seem too hard to see why that might happen. In the seminar method of learning, you have to be able to judge conflicting assertions on their merits. You also have to be able to frame questions that will get you the information you need, and you need to be able to judge whether the answer really answered your question.

If you’re in a position of authority—a teacher in a high school, let’s say, or president of France—you have to make decisions based on conflicting information and opposing assertions. That’s just what a great-books education prepares you to do. It’s just what a standard education discourages you from doing.

Once again, I could put it in terms designed to offend and provoke you. Ordinary education prepares you to be a docile follower; great-books education prepares you to be a leader. Ordinary education makes good citizens of a tyranny; great-books education makes good citizens of a democracy. No one who has learned to argue with Plato will take something as Gospel truth just because some political leader says it’s so.

Well, you might say, it sounds like a good thing as far as it goes. But this great-books stuff is just for English classes. How do we teach math and science and the other things our children need to learn?

And that’s the subject of the next article. The amazing thing about the great-books method, it turns out, is that it works for just about any subject.

Am I being fair?

Friday, October 5th, 2007

I’m back from homecoming at St. John’s, where I found everything pretty much the way I left it, except that some of the borderline-slum houses I remember from my days in Annapolis are worth a million dollars now, and two new dormitories are tucked away in the back campus where they don’t interfere with the sight lines down to College Creek.

And so I’m brimming with things to say about the Great Books, whatever they are, but first a small distraction. A kind reader has asked me whether I’m really being fair about the “aim” of American education, which I said was not to teach but to create a kind of caste system. Surely, he says, the real aim is to find which students need help, so that they can get the help they need. Granted, that doesn’t happen as efficiently as we’d like, but “it doesn’t seem right to me to interpret a deficiency in practice as an ‘aim.’”

So am I being fair?

Well, of course not. When have I ever tried to be fair? I think “provocative” is what I’m going for.

But the question is a good one. And I think we need to judge the real “aim” of American education, not by what we think we’re trying to do, but by the results we’re willing to accept.

First of all, I should make a distinction between standardized tests and grades. There is some motivation for schools to raise their average scores on standardized tests. The school administration’s performance is often judged on those scores. Grades are different, though, and grades are more what I was talking about.

If the purpose of grading students’ performance was to find the ones who needed help and help them, then the result should obviously be a gradual improvement in grades. Perhaps half the students might get poor or failing grades in elementary school, but by high school most of the students should be getting an A or B average, because they got the help they needed.

But we would not tolerate that. That’s why I say that the aim, whatever we tell ourselves, is really to sort and rank the students, not to help them learn. If we had a school where almost everyone was getting an A, even if it was because almost everyone was doing excellent work, we’d identify that school as a problem and fix it, and we’d keep fixing it until we saw the proper spread of A through F grades. Thus it seems to me that the ranking is in fact the most important thing in our ordinary American system of education, and everything else must be adjusted or fudged until the ranking comes out right. Whatever is the most important goal is what I call the “aim” of an endeavor, and the aim of education in America is to rank, and only secondarily to teach.

Of course, the aim is much more transparent when the grading is done “on a curve,” so that the average score in the class counts as a C no matter how good or bad that average is.

So after thinking it over, here’s my answer: No, I wasn’t trying to be fair, but I think I actually was fair without trying.

(C) 2006 Mike Aquilina and Christopher Bailey