by Carly McShane, ‘17
On Wednesday Nov. 2, at 7 p.m. students, professors and members of the Holland community gathered at Hope College to hear R.R. Reno give a lecture on “Restoring Love to the Intellectual Life”. Dean Marc Baer introduced Dr. Reno (Ph.D. Yale University), the editor of First Things magazine and former professor at Creighton University.
Reno began his lecture by laying out his concerns with our current educational culture. He fears that superficial intellectualism has become the norm and that an attitude of knowingness has replaced truly knowing. Secondly, he is concerned with the age of suspicion and distrust where students are encouraged not to accept any claim without thorough investigation on their own. Reno puts forth that critical thinking has become the goal of higher education, the essence of the intellectual life. Professors and administrator want student to ask questions and think critically rather than present answers to questions of consequence. While thinking critically can be good it must not be overemphasized. Instead, the intellectual must devote herself to truth because larger truths are elusive and we must be “animated by love’s reckless passion for truth”.
Next Dr. Reno pointed us to the post-modern mindset influenced by Jacques Derrida’s method of deconstruction and the materialism of Epicurus and Lucretius. Reno claims that both deconstruction and materialism seek to weaken truth in order to lead people to live more peaceful lives. The skeptic or deconstructionist highlights that fact that if nothing is worth fighting for no one will fight and if nothing is worth sacrificing for then no one will sacrifice. While the materialist claims that everything, even philosophy, is just our physical state, which can be explain by the methods of science. Reno points out that neither of these claims are attempting to be nihilistic, they are simply trying to protect people from disappointment. In other words, don’t hope for too much goodness because the world will disappoint, but if nothing matters we can relax not having to worry about the deep need for meaning in our lives.
Unfortunately, this is the spirit of thought that most often dominates the classroom. Often faculty members want to challenge students on their religious beliefs by filing them with doubt, lacking a deep love for truth. They do this not because they do not care for their students but because having intense, substantive beliefs about truth is seen as dangerous. If we want people to be more tolerant and inclusive then a deep belief is a detriment to their ability to live peacefully in an all-affirming society. Having deep beliefs means you will eventually encounter someone who you do not agree with regarding something of consequence, sexuality and marriage for example. So it would seem that it is the job of our education system to ensure that student do not take their deeply held beliefs with them into adulthood. Professors see this as a positive duty because they are forming students into tolerant, peace-seeking individuals. Reno asserts that we dream of a utopia with loose beliefs and no grasp on truth so critical thinking becomes the ambition of higher education, disenchantment a therapy of the soul, and value is given to developing tolerance rather than cultivating a fierce love for truth. Reno digressed for a moment stating that many could claim that the natural sciences and mechanical professions do lead student to pursue truth. Reno insists that while this is accurate in some fashion, the truth that these fields uncover is existentially inconsequential. For example, “your biology class doesn’t help you know what to say to your dying parent.”
Then there must be a better way to encourage devotion and love of truth. Reno believes that we need to be romanced away from error. He points to the book of Proverbs where a group of men are seduced by prostitutes. Lady Wisdom wants to teach them their error by using arguments but her efforts do not win them over. So she tries a different approach wooing the men with a banquet in her palace and beautiful maidservants to call them in. Reno uses this to say that if we wish to cultivate a desire for wisdom we need to enchant rather than disenchant. We need a greater, truer love to pull us away from our false loves. Enchantment can come from the traditions and rituals of our schools (perhaps professors should wear their robes all the time). Professors who are devoted to their subjects and believe in the truth of what they teach enchant students by inviting them into their discipline. In this world of educational enchantment lectures are performances that draw us in and the books that line our professor’s shelves remind us that our love of wisdom has no end.
So, while we should not rid our institutions of critical thinking it cannot be the goal of education. Critical thinking must take place in the larger context of love and devotion. Instead of leading students towards indifference and tolerance we need a pedagogy of enchantment that looks to the transcendent to seek truth and wisdom.