Blood on the Chalkboard

Faith, Fear, and Education

Adam Morton / 11.6.19

“Instead of the schools existing to educate, they exist to provide a safe space from education.”

So a friend described the goals of a certain party within her church. In a panic that their colleges are “liberalizing” (which is to say, scattering weeds within a carefully tended garden of white conservative Protestant subculture), they want to see the present order overturned and replaced with education within policed, ecclesiastically-approved boundaries. Contrary voices are to be shouted down, excluded, cancelled. Members of this party are, in other words, “snowflakes,” in concord with so many others who fear free inquiry on both right and left. We could lampoon or lament them, but I think it worthwhile, for a moment at least, to take them seriously. Their views, and those of their ilk, are not fundamentally the products of a recent overemphasis on self-esteem, of weaponized diversity, of a simple recurrence of fundamentalism, of white male supremacy, or of some age-old conflict between science and religion. These explanations have varying degrees of truth and applicability, but all are only particular expressions of a fear more basic, universal, and realistically grounded than almost anyone wants to allow. The snowflakes are just like us.

Few willingly claim the mantle of anti-education (any more than they admit to being “anti-science”), but that is only because education, like science, has been defined as an unqualified good, a uniformly wholesome slice of sunshine and apple pie. It isn’t anything like that. Education is good, but to understand what sort of good it is, we also have to understand that it is painful. Education is a constant wounding, as happens when the sharp edges of reality collide with the fragile self. The point of writing a paper or taking a test is, sad to say, precisely the set of red marks that you fear. They tell the truth, and they tell it about you. My dear sister’s college acting classes attacked her sense of self in an even more direct way. In order to learn to apply makeup, she had to learn what was wrong with her face: “Wow. You have a really big nose! I never realized how big a nose you had until today. Did anyone else in the class ever realize how big Allison’s nose was before today?” (I share that nose.)

Education hurts, and it has to hurt, because it means nothing if it does not confront me with the myriad ways the world hasn’t bothered to conform to me. The essential character of learning is not that of my being added to, built up in what I already am, but in my deficiency being hammered home so that I might change. The theologically minded may note how near this is to what is sometimes termed the first or pedagogical use of the law. I am mortal, deficient, not enough — and the world tells me so constantly. The Ten Commandments may say it with particular clarity, but a mirror, an uncomfortable reading assignment, or a failed translation exercise on a weekly Latin quiz all say the same thing. I am wrong.

In idealizing education, we deny the pain that comes with real learning. Yes, we admit that it takes effort, but we do not readily admit what the object of that effort is. When we learn, we are not engaged in a struggle to master some set of material, but to master ourselves. The German language or the terrifying facts of America’s racial history are all the same with or without me — it is my German that needs work, my view of what America is, and who I am in it, that needs adjustment. I have to come to terms with my nose.

This description might understate the risk of learning. Even old Aristotle knew that learning requires pain, but pain can be endured if we know that it is temporary, and that what waits on the other side is worth the journey. What ought to give pause — and what the “snowflakes” intuit — is that we have no guarantee that ever-greater learning will help and not harm us. I cannot be sure that the world intends my good, or anyone else’s. Indeed, much evidence weighs against it. I know, however much I resist this knowledge (snowflake that I am), that there are things which I could learn that will not make me happier, stronger, or kinder, but only break me. I know this because it is a boundary I enforce for my son. He is four, and I delight in the fearless joy with which he approaches this world. For his father, protecting that joy presents a paradox. I want him to learn without fear, and so I tell him that the world is good. In order to maintain that sense of good, I protect him from the things that he should actually fear.

What does it mean that it is almost uniquely the province of dark legends and speculative fiction — from Simon Magus, through Faust and Frankenstein, to H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King — to willingly entertain the notion of truly dangerous knowledge, of things human beings are better off not learning? Are we so confident that this is incorrect, that the world opens up into bright vistas of benevolent reason, and not into chaos and madness? Note — such horror would have no purchase over us, no affective power at all, if we did not implicitly recognize its truth. Genesis 3 speaks of a knowledge which is not good, and not for us — and dares suggest that this wound remains with us today. Perhaps we should wonder that so many people pursue education at all. There’s something unnatural about desiring it.

In fact, few want to go very far with education (and here I do not principally mean the classroom, which is after all a very protected space). One could call this a lack of courage, but it is also, and perhaps more important, a lack of trust. When there is someone we trust leading us, someone who has seen the other side and lived (so to speak), we can be brave enough to receive the good of education in glad anticipation. My sister laughed off the comment about her nose because she trusted her teacher. When there isn’t such a guide, we are likely to hide, even inside the classroom. No space will ever be safe enough. Instead, we will “learn” only what reinforces ourselves, to make our minds ever-constricting safe spaces. Snowflakes are always clad in fig leaves.

What Luther had to say about learning theology — most significantly, that it requires the attack of the evil one, so that I might really know my savior — turns out to apply in some sense to all learning in this world. None of it happens without faith, without trust. None of it happens without blood. Christians once created the university as a place of free inquiry, and have often since threatened to destroy it, and in each case what is at stake is precisely whether the word of the creator can be trusted over the noise of the world and the voice of the serpent. Is this wounded creation good, or is it evil? Can we trust that, though knowledge comes with pain, it cannot destroy us? If creation truly is good, if in it God will be for me and not against me, I have no pledge to rely on but the promise of the one for whom even the monsters of the deep (whether Cthulhu or Leviathan) are only good creatures, whispering their secret covenants to the Lord who made heaven and earth. There is no safe space and no hiding from him.

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