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Life, the Universe and Everything

Stratford Caldecott's Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education
Life, the Universe and Everything

Ken Myers, in one of his interviews with Stratford Caldecott on The Mars Hill Audio Journal, remarked: “Thinking deeply about education leads quite naturally to thinking deeply about culture more generally, so it should come as no surprise that some of the most perceptive books diagnosing cultural disorder or prescribing forms of cultural flourishing are, in part or in whole, about education.”

Whether or not Myers is right, and I believe he is, there certainly have been a plethora of books in recent years, detailing the problems of higher education in America. One of the deepest of these problems, which appears everywhere in this discussion but is rarely mentioned directly, is that of the purpose for education, especially the task of so-called “higher education”. Is it to train our leadership for tasks that will benefit society? Is it to create “new” knowledge by any means necessary, prescribing forms of cultural flourishing, as Myers put it? Is it to create—or better to shape—a certain kind of student? Is it all three of these?

Both these books (Berry’s work is really an essay, reprinted from his 2009 collection Home Economics) deal with this issue head-on, and come up with similar answers, though in very different ways. Caldecott’s work, perhaps best read in tandem with his recent follow-up work Beauty in the Word (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2013), attempts to put the importance of mystery back into the educational process, condemning the divisions created in education by the rise of modern science and a concomitant decline in the appreciation of an overarching religious cosmology. Berry takes on the university in America particularly, though he nowhere eschews the idea that the problems he articulates are absent in Western higher education generally. He finds the same problem of the separation of faith and reason, of nature and grace, in education and relates it to the commercialization of education, especially its focus on what he calls “career preparation” and the specialization of knowledge that focus requires. Both works are superb entries into a discussion of education in America, both as a means to diagnose the problem and to prescribe solutions. Neither the diagnoses nor the prescriptions are new, but both these works are so nicely laid out and clearly articulated that they are works anyone involved in higher education should know about and pass on to others.

Beauty for Truth’s Sake is not limited to higher education per se; much of what Caldecott describes both here and in Beauty in the Word, is applicable to education from the student’s earliest days, and, as we mentioned above, for anyone interested in “the search for beauty in art, science, and the cosmos—in short the search for the Logos” (p. 16). The reason for this is not hard to grasp because Caldecott bases his suggestions in a revival of the classical, medieval educational system of the “circle of learning”. This pattern of education is organized into two groups of seven areas, the famous trivium of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry and music, an arrangement that gave rise to the more modern “arts and sciences”. This pattern of education is to be followed because it forms a basis for all future knowledge; it serves as “a framework within which civilized thought and behavior could be transmitted down through the ages” (p. 24).

Caldecott organizes his book in six chapters: the first two historically and philosophically introduce his notions of the importance of unity, harmony and symphony in education; the next two focus on the mathematical basis for the quadrivium; and the last two explain music and liturgy as two lenses through which to view the educational process. The two middle chapters are meant to be provocative (Caldecott told Myers: “The mathematics part of the book is a little bit playful to get us to think more profoundly about things we might not have considered in thinking about education.”) and stray from the broader themes of the book in some boring and confusing ways, but the chapters surrounding these two are excellent in their appeal to the need for the “ressourcement” humane learning needs and the renaissance that “return to the sources” will help bring to American life and culture.

Berry’s essay is a famous one, and has been handsomely reprinted by The Trinity Forum in their “Trinity Forum Reading” series. The introduction by Blews, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, is brief, biographical and to the point. He summarizes Berry’s main ideas well and, while strongly praising his essay, rightly criticizes it, too, for its “perhaps overly critical judgments” (p. 8). Berry writes beautifully, and the sustained metaphor of seeing truth as a great tree, the knowledge of which begins with grasping its trunk, and only much later moving into its branches, serves as a wonderful jumping off point for discussions of many different kinds. One of these of course is how the person grasping the trunk of truth continues to realize their attachment to the trunk in the face of their work among the branches. Another way Berry frames this discussion is by making a critique of the specialization and commercialization of modern higher education, and its need for a metanarrative that brings coherence, harmony and symphony to the wealth of data being produced in it today.

Sometimes discussing, sometimes merely referring to such diverse themes as standards, testing, apprenticeship, departmentalization and the teaching of the Bible as literature, Berry is quite clear that the university is lost largely because it has lost its foundation in the truth, both in its questions and in its applications in the world. As he puts it, “If, for the sake of its own health, a university must be interested in the question of the truth of what it teaches, then, for the sake of the world’s health, it must be interested in the fate of that truth and the uses made of it in the world.” (p. 31). Otherwise the university will remain the “loose collection of lopped branches waving about randomly in the air” (p. 17) it resembles today.

If our society is to flourish in this post-modern age, its educational system will have to be rebuilt. This is not simply because of the invasion of the internet and of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) into the university system, but much more because it long ago lost its moorings in the formation of human beings as whole persons and the attendant quest for truth that so enables that formation. Anyone interested in participating in this grand reconstruction could not possibly do better than to begin with these two works.

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