Saturday, August 28, 2010

Beauty for Truth's Sake - a review

If I could pick my top five topics to think about on a regular basis, three of them would be faith and reason, education, and, of course, mathematics. Thus Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education seemed like a perfect book for me to read and contemplate in my spare time. In it Stratford Caldecott offers something of a "manifesto" summarizing a view of education which sees the classical Western Liberal Arts tradition as a means of integrating faith and reason, art and science.

There is much to appreciate about the book. The beginning is quite strong, displaying a clear sense of what has gone wrong in modern education on the philosophical level. The opening lines read,
"In the modern world, thanks to the rise of modern science and the decline of religious cosmology, the arts and sciences have been separated and divorced. Faith and reason often appear to be opposed, and we have lost any clear sense of who we are and where we are going."
Why is this a problem? I think Caldecott sums it up nicely when he says,
"The purpose of an education is not merely to communicate information, let alone current scientific opinion, nor to train future workers and managers. It is to teach the ability to think, discriminate, speak, and write, and, along with this, the ability to perceive the inner, connecting principles, the intrinsic relations, the logoi, of creation...

As the title of the book suggests, one of the key integration points between these seemingly disparate areas of knowledge is beauty. "Everything," Caldecott says, "is true, good, and beautiful in some degree or in some respect.... Beauty is the radiance of the true and the good, and it is what attracts us to both." In particular--and this is part of what I found intriguing about the book--mathematics is a key to understanding how the classical tradition sought to "perceive the inner, connecting principles" of the universe.
"Theology, therefore, has an important place in the integration of the arts and sciences. Equally important, however, is a symbolic approach to number and shape--that is, the awareness that mathematics has a qualitative, as distinct from a purely quantitative, dimension."
Caldecott spends a couple of chapters in the middle of the book illustrating that qualitative dimension of mathematics, using examples from the ancient Pythagoreans, numerology from the Bible, and various other musings on the relationships between numbers, shapes, and the world around us. It is a rather delightful survey, ranging from the Tetractys to the five Platonic solids to the golden ratio. It really is a shame, in my opinion, that modern mathematical education leaves very little room for this kind of appreciation of mathematical objects.

Let me briefly outline the structure of the book, to show how these ideas are expressed as a whole. The Introduction states the problem as I have, and offers three guiding principles. The first is, "The way we educate is the way we pass on or transform our culture.... The fragmentation of education... is a denial of ultimate meaning. Contemporary education therefore tends to the elimination of meaning...." The second is, "The "re-enchantment" of education would open our eyes to the meaning and beauty of the cosmos." The third is, "The cosmos is liturgical by its very nature." In this way Caldecott makes it clear from the start that education can never find true integration without a religious foundation. This raises interesting practical questions, but this book doesn't deal with them.

Chapter 1 sets about calling us to return to an idea of education as a means of becoming "truly free, fully human." Caldecott wants us to see that education is not just about what is useful. It is, in the great Socratic tradition, about gaining knowledge of "the forms, or the highest causes," which one can only attain "through the systematic ordering of the soul." In Chapter 2, he shows us that this path requires awakening the "poetic imagination," the ability to find "within the self something that corresponds to the object, thus leaping over the barrier between self and other." Thus symbolism comes to play a key role throughout the remainder of the book. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 essentially serve to illustrate the "poetic imagination" at work throughout the Western tradition. I've already mentioned the mathematical objects; there are also a number of excursions into theology, as well as music, architecture, ecology, and astronomy. Throughout these chapters one gets the sense that while Caldecott may not be advocating a return to a medieval understanding of the cosmos, he certainly seems to have an affinity for it. Chapter 6 argues quite strikingly for that third principle mentioned in the introduction, that "the cosmos is liturgical by its very nature." He thus argues that any real education must involve elements that are at least implicitly religious.

The conclusion is perhaps the most explicitly religious, in fact explicitly Catholic, part of the whole "manifesto." He says, "As we have seen, the Liberal Arts were intended to conduce to freedom of mind, and they were developed and nourished by the Catholic Church." He then explains that the modern conception of freedom is deprived of a certain fullness that is granted by the Christian (Catholic) view.
"The best way to put this might be that the Christian conception of freedom is larger and fuller than the modern conception, for it includes both vertical and horizontal dimensions. The horizontal dimension encompasses the world we see directly, and the vertical allows for degrees of being and value, invisible realms, formal causality, and so on. ...

In the traditional "three-dimensional" world, the self was encouraged to collect itself together in a point, in order to attach itself to a vertical axis, a spiritual "path." ... Modernity, on the other hand, rejects the existence of the vertical altogether, or the very possibility of thinking in terms of up and down. ...

In a flatter universe, freedom had to be reconceived as entirely a matter of movement within the horizontal plane. I am assumed to be "freer" the more places I can go to, the more things I can choose on the supermarket shelf, the more people I can have relationships with. And that is why the Church claims today to be in the business of liberating human freedom, by making known the beauty of truth in its fullness.

Now that I've summarized the book, let me get into my complaints. I agree with Caldecott that the fragmentation of knowledge is symptomatic of some deep problems. I also agree with the basic idea of seeking beauty in the universe, and that the pursuit of knowledge is, at its core, about love. But I would challenge some of the assumptions of his "Christian Platonism."

Before I do that, though, let me make some slightly more superficial comments. I have to say, and I think many readers would agree with me, there were many times during the reading of this book when I thought "Re-enchantment of Education" simply meant redecorating the universe with medieval superstitions. Certainly Caldecott was aware of this as he was writing, which is why he made the occasional remark that he is not trying to undo the Enlightenment or go back to the Middle Ages. Yet these remarks have little force behind them; he doesn't seem to have anything good to say about the Enlightenment in any meaningful sense.

On a related note, Caldecott relies so heavily on his own Catholic tradition that it is difficult for readers outside that tradition to understand the appeal of his illustrations. For instance, he mentions more than once how cosmically significant it was for Christian that there are seven days in a week and seven sacraments. Well, suppose there aren't seven sacraments... Does that mean the universe is less enchanted with meaning? In one part of Chapter 4 he wanders off into a discussion about the filioque controversy, a subject which is thoroughly uninteresting to many of us. Even more importantly, such controversies aren't settled by geometric arguments, and Caldecott's references to the relationship between mathematics and theology are more likely to offend believers of different theological persuasions than they are to enlighten anybody.

Chapter 4 ends with a paragraph that begins, "Speculations like those I have mentioned in this chapter will appear forced to many." Believe me, they did. I found circles and lines to be wholly inappropriate for trying to visually represent the Trinity. I found the comparison between Jesus and the line perpendicularly connecting a point on a circle to a given diameter also rather "forced." And the ratio between this line in the "golden circle" and the circumference, why, it's miraculously just over 7! The amount in excess of 7 which we find in this ratio is, of all things, what Caldecott thinks might correspond to that "tiny and indispensable human contribution needed if heaven is truly to descend to earth." In other words, heaven divided by earth = 7 (God's number) + some tiny human contribution = pi * ((2 * phi) - 1) = 7.02481473...

It is worth noting here that the number of man's symbolic contribution in this calculation is irrational. All this to say, one has to be very careful before going off to find the logoi of creation. This search can easily degenerate into such absurd arguments as "there are seven sacraments because there are seven days in a week." It might be postmodern of me, but different cultural perspectives really are worth keeping in mind as we examine the connections underlying things in the world. For instance, the octave interval in music might very well have a special relationship with the number "eight" in the West, where eight might have special theological meaning (on the eighth day Christ rose again) or other kinds of meaning. But, lest we forget, this association is based on Western musical scales. Other cultures have more varied intervals, and therefore the association doesn't work. That's often how it goes with Platonism. You think you've found the form of which all the world is a reflection, but then you realize it's just your own perspective being forced on the world around you.

Now I am starting to get into my deeper qualms with Caldecott's assumptions. Consider this third vertical dimension of human experience, which he proposes in his conclusion. It is as if he says we ascend to heaven through the illumination of education (the right kind of education, anyway). This is indeed a very Platonic way of viewing things, but not a very Christian one. In the gospels, wisdom is given to ordinary people. It is all about grace, not enlightenment through systematic human effort. As I have already suggested, there is no guarantee that such systematic efforts would lead one closer to heaven. Human beings have difficulty seeing the difference between the beauty inherent in the universe and their own prejudices based on cultural conditioning.

Another point I would make is that this Platonic notion that Ideas are ultimate reality (the "thoughts of God," for a Christian Platonist), and all else is reflective of these pure Ideas, is in some sense to deny the goodness of creation. Creation has its own reality that is not a mere shadow of something else. I'm sure this point has been made plenty of times by people much more theologically astute than I, but from my own perspective it is important to recognize that every single thing you see and feel has its own existence. Yes, it is all made of the same basic stuff--i.e. matter and energy governed by universal laws of physics. But to have the underlying principles is not to have the thing itself. The world is not translucent. I don't agree with this idea of looking at the world as if the only thing that makes it good is being a channel through which to see something else.

In terms of application I think this point can be rather significant. As in I don't think it's necessary or fruitful to link every scientific discovery to some theological precept. I don't think mathematical objects have some inherent mystical meaning. In terms of mathematics education, I do think it would be helpful for people to be taught that mathematics is more about inner relationships than it is about formal operations, which can have nothing to do with reality. Far from vindicating Platonism, however, I think this just points for the need for human beings to be connected to things. Caldecott gets it right when he talks about the "poetic imagination," at least insofar as he describes human beings as inherently connected to creation. But I think he gets it wrong when he posits a realm of pure Ideas which have some higher reality than the world of tangible experience.

The last thing I'll point out is that Caldecott seems, in spite of himself, to miss the strong distinction between Platonic idealism and Christian realism. Related to Platonism is, I think, a tendency to try to escape realism. If the most important thing is to ascend to the Forms, then it becomes less important to actually deal with the gritty details of the real. I submit that this is a theological weakness in Caldecott's understanding. He spends some time in first chapter talking about "Beauty on the Cross." There is, paradoxically, a great deal of beauty on the Cross of Christ, but the other side of that paradox must always be remembered. The crucifixion was a gruesome, grotesque thing. The Incarnation itself was an "emptying" of Christ to the point of humble obedience.

It is important that we as Christians remember this, so that we, like Christ, can enter into the world as it actually is, and not as a mere reflection of perfect Ideas. True education demands a certain realism. We cannot gloss over the details. We must be willing to face the world as a complicated, often frustrating place. We're not going to be able to transcend uncertainty and confusion. Even Christ himself prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Father, if it is your will, save me from this hour." And on the cross he cried out, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" How much less will we be able to transcend the uncertainty of this life? Caldecott criticizes the postmoderns for doubting the human ability to obtain truth, but to a certain extent the postmoderns are right. It is not necessary to believe that truth is "relative" to have a healthy skepticism about the human ability to possess truth. We have to be realistic about ourselves, and about the world we live in. And instead of trying to transcend this world, we ought to follow Christ's example; he stepped down from his position of transcendence, that he might enter into this world--not, I believe, to show us the way out of this world, but to begin to transform it.

Caldecott is right about the most important thing: it all comes down to love. It is difficult to know what direction love should take us. While I don't agree with the direction Caldecott proposes, I think he is right to give us an alternative to our current approach to education. We do live in a beautiful universe, and it would be a waste to treat it in the purely utilitarian way that students are encouraged to now. Perhaps there is a better approach, one that relies not so much on enchantment as on the love of the universe for what it really is.

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