Tag Archives: James Carse

Embracing the Barbarian Invasion

Every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them “children.”  Hannah Arendt

One of the wonderfully gratuitous features of my early years as a college professor was the opportunity to teach regularly with a couple of master teachers. During the first decade of my teaching career at Providence College, I taught on an interdisciplinary Honors Development of Western Civilization team every year with two such colleagues. images[6]Rodney was a teaching icon from the English department who now, a few years after his untimely passing, has a tree on campus, a seminar room in the brand new humanities building, and an annual lecture named after him. One of the most dynamic and engaging pedagogues I have ever encountered, I remember telling Jeanne shortly after meeting Rodney in the middle nineties in my first year at Providence College that “when I grow up, I want to be Rodney.”

rays[1]The other member of our teaching triumvirate, Ray, is an extraordinary professor out of the History department. He is also one of the flat-out finest human beings I have ever had the privilege of knowing. This coming spring Ray and I will be teaching a colloquium together for the third time the past four years, and class fondly referred to by students as “Nazi Civ.” I am a far better teacher and human being for having spent so many years in the classroom in the company of these outstanding colleagues.

Because we spent so much time together in and out of the classroom, the three of us got to know each others business over the semesters a bit more than is typical between professional colleagues. We often spoke of our children; Rodney’s and Ray’s were young adults at the time, while mine were in high school and junior high. One morning before class as we were getting coffee in the break room, Rodney was bemoaning the fact that he had returned home from work the previous day at 5:00 in the afternoon at the very same time that his son, yowl-380x190[1]a twenty-something who was still living at home, emerged bleary-eyed from his basement bedroom for the first time that day. As we compared notes about the shortcomings and failures of our respective offspring, Ray, who I had always pegged as the perfect father and husband, grew reflective. “I’ve heard so many parents talk about the wonders of parenthood, how raising children is such a privilege, how their children’s growing up years were the best years of their lives,” he said. “I guess I must have missed that.” Preach it, Ray. For all of our politically correct claims about the wonders of child rearing, all parents know that Hannah Arendt’s “tiny barbarians” comment is absolutely true. Civilizing barbarians is hard work.

Conan-the-Barbarian[1]The word “barbarian” is from the Greek word βαρβαρος (barbaros), the term Greeks used to refer to anyone who was not Greek. To the refined but xenophobic Greek ear, the sounds coming out of a non-Greek speaker’s mouth sounded like “bar, bar, bar”—hence, “barbarian.” We would call such persons “blahblahblahrians.” The wider connotation of “barbarian” is simply someone or something that does not fit into the expected categories, abide by the accepted rules, or behave according to agreed-upon standards. That description certainly fits children and a lot more—I frequently call our 196834_112520205494582_3062546_n[1]dachshunds barbarians when they pee or take a dump in the middle of the floor, just as I would probably call a human being a barbarian (and worse) if they did the same thing.

And yet there is something exhilarating about having barbarians in our midst. A world without barbarians, without unfamiliar hordes pressing against the outer walls of our holy-of-holies comfort zones, is a world that eventually would stagnate into a smug status quo. I realized this past semester, as I do in varying degrees every semester, that one of the regular features of what I do as a teacher is to let the barbarians loose on the civilized yet unexamined thought processes of my students. conan-barbarian-04_510[1]Philosophy is an inherently barbarian discipline because it’s entire raison d’etre is the challenge to consider that one’s most cherished beliefs might indeed need improvement, that the doors and windows to the inner sanctum might regularly be opened to allow the smelly and scary barbarians in.

Several years ago, when I was still an untenured assistant professor and should have been keeping my mouth shut, I recall being involved in a conversation about this feature of philosophy during a philosophy department meeting. We were in the process of crafting a new “mission statement” for the department, an exercise guaranteed to generate disagreement. Title[1]One of the older members who had been chair of the department for a couple of decades before my arrival, a Dominican priest, proposed that our mission statement read that “The mission of the philosophy department is to teach the Truth.” Period—and make sure that it’s a capital “T” on “Truth.” I, along with several others, suggested that this would presume that we possess the Truth with a capital T, a presumption that is directly contrary to the very spirit of the philosophical enterprise. In a condescending tone (or at least so it sounded to me), another priestly colleague said “Vance, some of us around here think we have the truth,” to which I replied “And here I thought we were a philosophy department.”

So how does one keep the pursuit of truth alive without it being sidetracked into defense of the Truth? Over the past several years in my teaching and writing this question has been directed more and more toward the arena within which Truth rears its ugly head most often—religious belief.collegeville-lecture-31[1] During my sabbatical semester at an ecumenical institute five years ago I described my original book project as follows: “Is it possible to live a life of human excellence, of moral focus and spiritual energy, in a world in which the transcendent is silent, in which God is arguably absent?” As I led an afternoon seminar based on my early work on this project with a dozen fellow “resident scholars,” one of them—a Lutheran pastor—asked “But Vance, don’t you have to believe something with certainty if you’re going to call yourself a Christian?” To which I replied, “I don’t know—do I?” I had been wondering that for many years, but this was the first time I had said it aloud. And it was liberating. What would a faith that in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred, look like?

As I’ve dug into these questions with new energy and focus over the past few years, several matters have begun clear, beginning with the fact that the transcendent is not silent after all and God is definitely not absent. They just show up in entirely different places than where we have traditionally looked for them. And I am finding that, for me at least, a vibrant faith requires little in the way of defending the Truth, but rather a willingness to welcome the divine even when wrapped in unexpected packages. JCarse3YT1.2c_000[1]As James Carse writes,

This is Christianity’s strongest feature: it tirelessly provokes its members to object to prevailing doctrines without having to abandon the faith . . . Neither Christianity nor any of the great religions has ever been able to successfully erect barriers against the dreaded barbarian incursions of fresh ideas. 

Such barbarian incursions are not to be feared or defended against. They are to be invited and welcomed. Just as the millions of tiny barbarians who invade the world every year are actually the way in which the human species is renewed and regenerated, so the regular introduction of barbarian ideas into our civilized and supposedly completed belief systems will keep those beliefs from turning into idols. What would a faith in which no “truth” is a “Truth,” a faith in which no cows are sacred look like? It would look a lot like Faith–the real thing.

How to Educate a Story-Telling Animal

Man is in his actions and practices, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

I suspect that all academics who can still remember their graduate school days will recall books in their disciplines that were all the rage, books that all of the graduate students talked about but that no one had read. after virtueDuring my graduate years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two of these books were Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I don’t recall exactly when I finally read Rorty’s book (I promise I did), but I recall very clearly the circumstances surrounding my first reading of After Virtue. My teaching assignment for the fall semester of my second year at my first teaching job after my PhD included two sections of “Ethical Theory.” Although according to my vita my systematic area of specialization was ethics, this would be my first opportunity to actually teach an ethics course.

In the early part of the summer, I constructed a typical introductory ethics syllabus, a cafeteria-style tour through relativism, egoism, divine command theory, utilitarianism, and Kant, followed by an applied topic or two. Shortly afterwards, I happened to come across After Virtue as I was rearranging a bookshelf in my office, and decided that it was about time I read this book that everyone had been talking about. I expected it to be my “fun” reading for the summer. It absolutely blew me away—I story telling animalsat up late at night and finished it in less than a week. I could not get out of my head the possible implications of MacIntyre’s claim that human beings are “story-telling animals” for ethics and teaching. As soon as I finished the book I immediately went to my office computer—we had no computer at home—located my newly constructed ethics syllabus, and deleted it. Reading After Virtue changed the way I think about ethics. I have taught upwards of forty sections of introductory ethics in subsequent years; virtue ethics eats up more and more of the syllabus each time. But the most important pedagogical question After Virtue raised for me struck deeper than “How should one think about the moral life?” Because if it was truly the case that the dozens of students in my classes each semester are “story-telling animals,” the most important question for me became “What is the best way to invite/seduce such an animal into the life of learning?”

Over the almost twenty-five years since that summer of MacIntyre, I have become convinced that students flourish most often in a learning environment when the teacher is willing to place her or his own narrative on public display, particularly the portions most intimately related to her or his own life of learning. VM Ruane 9It’s a strange but true fact that my students know more about me than anyone other than Jeanne and my immediate family, simply because I put myself—my foibles and fears as well as my certainties and successes—on public display every time I enter a classroom. I get my students to start thinking about themselves in narrative fashion by showing how my own narrative has been written and shaped by what I have read, studied, and experienced. They learn that Aristotle is on our ethics syllabus because thinking about virtue and moral excellence as habits to be cultivated rather than rules to be obeyed has made a profound difference in my own moral journey. They learn that the relatively obscure Simone Weil is the syllabus because a seemingly random encounter with one of her essays changed my life many years ago. And so on.

Stories are not only the natural context within which human beings understand themselves and each other, but often are also vehicles of inspiration. What is it about stories that grabs the attention of co-learners in ways that facts or objective descriptions cannot? carseTheologian James Carse writes that “The way an audience is visibly awakened by a narrative example during an otherwise precisely factual lecture shows that stories touch closer to a listener’s center than accurate descriptions of objective states of affairs.” In my experience, students care less at first about what a text is saying than about what this text is doing on the syllabus. More directly, they want to know “Why does this text matter? What difference has it made in your life?” And the only possible answers in response to such questions will of necessity be narrative in structure. According to Richard Rorty, the classroom must be a place where “the teachers [are] able to teach the books which have moved them, excited them, changed their lives,” inspired by

An encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, line or archaic torso which has made a difference to the [teacher’s] conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself: an encounter which has rearranged her priorities and purposes.

The only way that there can be “joy in the work,” to use Simone Weil’s phrase, is if there is an example, a lived story, of such joy on display. Over the many years of seemingly endless core curriculum reform debate on my campus over the past decade, I often argued that the true point of what we are doing in the classroom has, first and foremost, little to do with content. What we are doing is facilitating and nurturing the attitudes and skills of lifetime learning. macintyreSuch attitudes and skills must be shown in embodied form.

Telling a story is a creative activity—telling one’s own story is perhaps the most important creative activity a human being ever encounters. As MacIntyre tells us, it is through paying attention to the narrative structure of human reality that we begin to fashion the disparate, fragmented aspects of our existence into a unified, morally responsible whole.

To be the subject of a narrative that runs from one’s birth to one’s death is . . . to be accountable for the actions and experi­ences which compose a narratable life . . . in what does the unity of an individual life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life.

And telling a story is more than getting the facts straight. A life lived with only the facts in mind is a life subjected to “just one damn thing after another.” As James Carse points out,

No matter how carefully we line up the historical data or how honestly we report the actual events through which we have lived, these do not by themselves tell the story of our lives. To tell all is not to tell a tale.facts Getting the facts straight is not enough to find the story to which they belong. In fact, getting the facts straight is a very different activity from that of finding a story that can be “faithful” to the facts.

Good story telling, like good pedagogy, is attractive and seductive. Each individual human story is endlessly hopeful; there is an inherent joy in shaping the classroom experience within narrative parameters. Because the stories being told are the ones that matter most—the stories of our lives.