28 May 2016

'Seeing With Tears'--Shaping Students' Affections

This is from an article I wrote for our school newsletter, the Epiphaneia, Spring 2016. I have left the formatting as it appears in the newsletter:

In his award-winning book, Dante the Maker, William Anderson relates Dante’s poetic techniques and achievement to fairly modern psychological theories. In one passage, he writes:

If the dominant hemisphere [of the brain] is concerned with what Michael Polanyi calls “explicit knowledge,” then the other hemisphere enfolds what he has pointed out as our much greater reserve of information, our “tacit knowledge.”…The voices, music, and mental visions of the Purgatorio [the second cantica of the Divine Comedy] are examples of the working of this non-dominant hemisphere, revealing how its function, rightly understood and used, seems to lead inward to the repose of contemplation.

It is a complex idea, and the potential ramifications are no doubt endless. But to my mind there is a direct connection between the “voices, music, and mental visions” of the Purgatorio—along with all of its other essentially educational techniques, running the gamut from didactic speech to the reliefs carved by the hand of God into the side of the mountain—and our desire to practice “shaping students’ affections for Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.” For if students’ affections are to be shaped, and it must be admitted this is a daring proposition, then it will surely be less by explicit than by tacit knowledge. Indeed, I can’t help but think such a shaping will take place through something very like the Liturgy.

This is the basic intuition behind Reformed philosopher James K.A. Smith’s notion of liturgies “as pedagogies of (ultimate desire).” Of course, neither is it entirely unknown to the Protestant tradition before him. The great English reformer, Richard Hooker, famously observed:

Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto….Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary, and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression….

All of this is, of course, a commonplace among the Fathers. St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the “harmonious life” that “singing [the Psalms] seems to me to offer through symbols,” and St. John Damascene writes movingly of the effect upon him of liturgical art: “I have often seen images of this tender scene [the Sacrifice of Isaac] in pictures and I have not been able to pass from seeing it without tears, so skillfully does the artist bring this story to my sight.”

These men are obviously speaking primarily of the great tradition of the Church’s worship and liturgical arts. But the question remains, what does this shaping of the affections look like in the classroom?

I suggest it begins in two places: the material (or curriculum) and the teacher. The material, naturally, must be the best. We read the greatest, the most beautiful, the most true and morally good, but also in some cases simply the most important works of all time. They work in myriad ways upon students’ affections—through their language, their images, their stories, and often just in the spirit (or Spirit!) behind them, for “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” If this does not teach love of that which deserves it, I fear little else can.

In regard to the teacher, that giant of education, John Henry Cardinal Newman, has written: ‘The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already.” Any teacher must be aware of his or her frequent failure to live up to this responsibility, but I daresay we can accomplish much here, in direct proportion, I believe, to our own love of the material itself. If the students sense how much we ourselves stand in adoration before the truths and beauties that we teach, then I think they must at least sense too the call of these upon their own hearts.


seraphim said...

Would that make the heresy of the Purgatory more 'acceptable' (for an Orthodox, I mean)?

Anonymous said...

Aaron, still eagerly awaiting the promised follow-up(s) to your great December post on Acedia.