Only the Free Mind Contemplates

October 6, 2018 • Posted in Uncategorized
by Cyril Gary Jenkins, PhD
Director, St. Basil Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture

“The thinking man, if he wants his thought about freedom to be complete, must also reflect—on the basis of his own experience—that freedom is inseparable from consciousness and the conscious experience of pursuing and discerning truth. If freedom is really free, it must be part of self-reflective thought, or logos; otherwise freedom would be identical with chaos.”
Fr. Patrick Reardon, “Pastoral Pondering,” Sunday of All Saints, 2016

icon of St. BasilModern education has turned students into commodities, into cogs for some great machine, and nowhere is this more on display than how the powers-that-be treat what they expect from teachers and professors. Higher education’s current craze, indeed the mania of the last few decades, from state education boards, departments of education, university educational committees, and accrediting agencies, is constructing a pedagogy around outcomes, goals, objectives, and assessment, and all able to be placed in some index of metrics and measurable results. In short, they have turned teachers into technicians of learning.

This is all the language of bureaucracy as applied to education, and is predicated on the fraud that the progress of the mind can be measured. This arises from the Enlightenment, and in particular as it was applied in the Prussian universities of Berlin, Tubingen, and Halle. In the discipline of history this means I have to go through the risible trouble of giving a contrived final exam at the beginning of the term that demonstrates my students know next to nothing about the subject, and then incorporating what I putatively want them to know in the course description (wherein I state my outcomes and objectives by simply putting my final exam essay questions in the first, now two page, paragraph). I then have to teach the whole course with the goal of having my students show through exams or essays that they have mastered and can imaginatively (I can only wish) regurgitate what they previously didn’t know.

This is all OK, I guess, when we are speaking merely about information, a sine qua non of the real goals of my department, and those once common among an older generation of Historians. The real goal is to produce self-disciplined minds that need not contrived and merely outward strictures defined by the integration of some factoids to govern them, for they govern themselves, i.e., their minds have been liberated (the ‘goal’ of liberal education) from either their appetitive dispositions, or the myriad distractions that plague an undisciplined mind, or the soul numbing tripe that currently passes for art and literature; and been liberated to a world of contemplation, thought, and the great conversation that is ever-new, ever-demanding, and ever-important. In short, they are free citizens within the great republic of letters, treating with other citizens of this vast commonwealth with their questions and the insights these questions imply. These goals still have a place among many Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation scholars, and I have found them as well among a few Enlightenment scholars (e.g., Alan Kors), and among many Americanists. But for many historians, all of this obiter dicta just stifles research, or demands too much time in class, grading papers, and entertaining students with their queries about the demands Plato, Boethius, Dante, or Montaigne make on them.

What “measurable education” has done, because I cannot measure that second item, is turned my ever-expanding syllabus into a lie, or at least a really earnest fraud. I have a colleague at a very respectable liberal arts college who once informed me that she has a colleague in German Literature whose syllabus is 80 pages; she recently updated this to it now being almost 200 pages. This is like the map that is so detailed that it is coterminus with the land it covers. I remember a number of classes in my college that had no syllabus. We showed up, the teacher told us what we were doing, what books we would read, and what we should write for a research paper. At the end of every week we were told what we would cover the next week. In Greek class I was expected to study an hour-and-a-half a night and stay on top of my vocabulary. What we learned as regards what we read from our texts and heard in class was thought of as but the basis for our education: what we were really doing was learning to learn, learning to address the larger questions, and learning how to unearth the larger questions buried under our texts. If we discussed “the unexamined life is not worth living,” this prompted in us automatically the questions of what type of a being was man that he could examine his life, and based on what rule could this function happen and according to what standard? What things impeded the examined life (we would never have thought that it would be a syllabus), and how could they be overcome, were also avenues of pursuit. In my course covering Theological Anthropology, which also encompassed hamartiology (the study of the nature of sin), I began looking at why St. Paul termed “the man of sin” by that moniker. What type of human was this that could be characterized by that which itself had no existence of itself, and how did he remain human, if his chief characteristic was sin? Granted, part of what prompted me to that investigation (I was a freshman in college at the time) was that we had been arguing eschatology in the dorms: amillenialists and dispensationalists in cage matches at 4 in the morning. Was this figure someone who consummated our “present evil age,” or was he a character of specific relevance to St. Paul’s day? I look back now, bemused, but in truth, though the school I attended was pretty weak in many areas, it was not, at least my first year there – things would change – with respect to the lively debates we students had among ourselves about matters prompted not by the syllabus, but by our extra readings and the questions they and our classmates were generating.

In this regard, a syllabus is anti-educational, for it supposedly gives the contours of the course, and then prompts a response from the students (which they judge when they have their student evaluations of the class) whether I as their professor stuck to the syllabus, did I execute it? The UVA professor, Daniel Willingham, who has lots of insights into learning and students’ antipathy to it, maintains that this is one of really only two questions on an end-of-the-term student evaluation, the other is, did you like the teacher, and everything else really boils down to these two questions. Thus evals tell us nothing about learning, since that second question (do you like me) will color the first. Real education will push students past the syllabus, for a course, especially on the undergraduate level,  is only the beginning, the merest introduction, to the subject.

The most important thing a professor can cultivate in any student is a love of the chase: pursuing truth, and pursuing those who have pursued, and engaging with those still in the hunt. How do you measure that? How do you write that into the syllabus? Our philosophy department (great people, each and every one) has been waging a war with our university assessment committee about having as one of their goals a love of learning. Well, you can’t measure that, they were told, so you can’t have it as part of your student learning plan. They wrote back that the very term philosophy means a love of wisdom, so how could they be banned from including that in their mission statement and thus in their syllabi? In History we put such immeasurables in our mission statement and have yet to be called on them. What is all of this, but the destruction of the academy by educratic apparatchiks. Why? Well, part of it comes from the government meddling (i.e., dolling out money, which all comes with strings – and it seems for most the goal is not the money, but the strings) which demands that schools show that what students (the government) are paying for they are getting. We were warned of this first by that brilliant rogue Thorstein Veblen, and more recently by the past provost of Columbia, Jacques Barzun. Donors (and the government) want a say about their money. In the case of government, schools have become just some other department of state. Think of universities as operating with the efficiency and professionalism of the VA. Thus, teachers and mentors are no longer free to teach within a Socratic framework, for the measurable information that I impart to my students is only the basis, the building blocks of real learning: that Charles the Great was crowned Imperator and Augustus of the Romans by acclamation of the Roman people and at the hand of pope St. Leo III on Christmas day, AD 800 is information. The significance of the event is something that needs to be drawn out in light of Rome’s relationship to Constantinople and to the Lombards and to the Franks, and in the relationship in turn, of the Franks (and the English educational domination of the Frankish church in Alcuin) to Rome, and finally both actors’ relationship to the Roman past, and to the vision of this event moving forward to Otto the Great and then Heinrich II and Heinrich III and Heinrich IV in the eleventh century. Yet it is not merely even this, but the ignition of the fire that drives students to see that more was going on, and that the matter is not merely what some Germanic king did or had done to him by some bishop. It has enormous consequences in modern questions about what is Europe, what is the structure of imperium (sovereignty), what distinguishes empire from kingdom, and both from ‘states.’ All of this and the pursuit of these questions last a lifetime, and you cannot measure that on a final exam. Further, could anyone imagine a syllabus whereby Socrates/Plato would teach what he had imagined in The Republic, and it still being The Republic? or one for what Mentor imparted to Telemachus, and entailing what any father imparts to his children, or specifically fathers to sons and mothers to daughters? Anyone?


Free thought cannot be graphed. Information, yes. And I am not belittling information, not at all. My students need to know a great deal about the Merovingians and the Iconoclastic controversy and its implications before we get to AD 800, but information is only the beginning of knowledge, and even its measurement comes in all sorts of shades. No, what is free, truly free, is internally defined, and not externally constrained. I can erect all sorts of categories, but ultimately I want my students to come to the conclusions themselves. My one colleague said his vision of the perfect classroom is one in which a visitor would not tell who was the teacher and who the students. I do not know if I would go quite that far, but instead rather that the visitor would be at great pains to know this. Perhaps I do not dream big enough.

I had a seminary professor tell me that the only free mind is the insane mind. Yet it is, in fact, not free, for ultimately it does not govern itself. Education’s goal, its real objective is to have minds who are disciplined enough to prompt and follow their questions, and to begin the approach to their own answers within the confines of Truth. St. James said that the law of God is liberty: like the rules in tennis, it sets us free to play the game. This is wisdom, and like the love of learning, it cannot be measured.

As Orthodox Christian we have a rich legacy left to us by the Church, in both the Fathers and from the Byzantine period, about what education is. Our Church celebrates the three holy hierarchs, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom, men steeped in pagan learning, oratory, literature, and philosophy, and especially in the first two. To them education’s goal was contemplation, of both texts (where we begin to learn this discipline) and of God. Thus we must take every measure to learn how to learn, to be trained in thought, and to use whatever means God has left us in creation, not only in what we think of as nature (plants and animals) but even in the fruitful if wayward mind or men. St. Basil in his Address on Greek Literature to Young Men noted that “We must needs believe that the greatest of all battles (for our souls) lies before us, in preparation for which we must do and suffer all things to gain power. Consequently we must be conversant with poets, with historians, with orators, indeed with all men who may further our soul’s salvation.” Of interest in particular, though doubtless he has Herodotus, Thucydides, Demosthenes, and Isocrates in mind with historians and orators, is his inclusion of poets, which could not have excluded Homer. Indeed the church used Homer in teaching children how not only to read and write, but also to how to think and contemplate texts (theoria). The emperor Julian the Apostate, realizing the invaluable tool Homer was to this end for the faith he had abandoned, forbade Christians from using pagans in the education of their children. Not to be left without resources, the priest Apollinarus (father of the heretic of the same name), put the book of Joshua into heroic meter. Yet when Julian died (363), the church abandoned Apollinarus’s efforts and reverted to using Homer (ironically, the bête noire of Calvin, Sebastian Castellio, would put the Pentateuch into classical Latin since obviously Moses was a man skilled and learned in all classical forms and thought; Calvin was not amused).

Gregory the Theologian, in his funeral oration on his dear friend, Basil, recounted their days in Athens and their education, one that saw the need to employ all of God’s gifts to us:

I take it as admitted by men of sense, that the first of our advantages is education; and not only this our more noble form of it, which disregards rhetorical ornaments and glory, and holds to salvation, and beauty in the objects of our contemplation: but even that external culture which many Christians ill-judgingly abhor, as treacherous and dangerous, and keeping us afar from God. For as we ought not to neglect the heavens, and earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them, and honour God’s works instead of God: but to reap what advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers; not raising creation, as foolish men do, in revolt against the Creator, but from the works of nature apprehending the Worker, and, as the divine apostle says, bringing into captivity every thought to Christ (II Corinthians 10:5), and again, as we know that neither fire, nor food, nor iron, nor any other of the elements, is of itself most useful, or most harmful, except according to the will of those who use it; and as we have compounded healthful drugs from certain of the reptiles; so from secular literature we have received principles of enquiry and speculation (theoria), while we have rejected their idolatry, terror, and pit of destruction. Nay, even these have aided us in our religion, by our perception of the contrast between what is worse and what is better, and by gaining strength for our doctrine from the weakness of theirs. We must not then dishonour education, because some men are pleased to do so, but rather suppose such men to be boorish and uneducated, desiring all men to be as they themselves are, in order to hide themselves in the general, and escape the detection of their want of culture (Oration 43).

For our fathers among the saints, the purpose of this broad reading was to exercise the mind to virtue, to contemplation. The idea that the attainment of freedom to worship and serve God, to contemplate on all His many and wonderful works, and to pursue the Good, the Beautiful, and the True, was something that could be measured by assessment belies the very notion that we are free, and that only in freedom can we come to God. The quote that opened this post details in full what the vision of the Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture will be. Should we ever decay from this, I pray our contributors would cut off all funds, our board shut us down, and our students run screaming from us to find places where real learning is pursued.


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