“If trees were tall and grasses short, / As in some crazy tale”
—G. K. Chesterton, “By the Babe Unborn”
What parent has not both delighted and despaired at the never-ending inquiries of children? First come the “whats” of the small child who has barely learned to speak, a stage that can be endearing and exciting for adults. But even the parent who first swelled with pride at his child’s questions—taking them as a sure sign of great genius—may well find himself cursing under his breath by the time young Einstein has uttered his thousandth “What is that?” in a week. As a child, my wife inadvertently made a parody of herself—providing us with a perfect illustration of this developmental stage—when, after winning the “Most Inquisitive” award at her preschool graduation, she approached her mother and asked: “Mom, what’s ‘inquisitive’?”
Then come the dreaded “whys” of the adolescent: Why can’t I wear that skirt? Why do I need to learn chemistry? Why do I have to go to church? By this time, the formerly proud parent will wish he could only trade his great genius for any well-mannered moron who would just do as she’s told. Alas, no such trade is possible, and Dad—if Dad be of a philosophical bent—must resign himself to hope that behind the bite in these questions hide a daughter’s first probings into the mysteries of beauty, nature, and the transcendent. Then again, perhaps he does not hope in vain. As the transition from “whats” to “whys” suggests, when children grow so does the depth of their questions; the comparatively simple matter of naming and identifying objects sets the stage for wondering about reasons and purposes. As Joe Sachs puts it in his translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, “[a]ll human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing.”
Skip ahead a few years, however, to when these adolescents reach the twelfth grade. As a high school economics teacher, this is when I see many of them for the first time. I have often noticed with discouragement that by the time the students get to me, they have lost something of that urge to know. While they still ask questions, all too often they are of the purely rhetorical kind: the possibility of finding an answer does not even seem to be on the horizon. For example, the class may be discussing a text touching on ethics, politics, or economics, and eventually someone will inevitably ask: “Who’s to say?” As I like to point out to my students, this question could mean, “What makes for a reliable judge?” Taken this way, the question could move the discussion into deeper waters, but unfortunately it almost always means: there is no reliable judge.
At what would seem to be the opposite extreme, many of the other questions I get betray a desire to get from me a simple, clear cut answer that will require little further thinking and ensure an A on the test. At times, the class seems to me a balancing act between keeping the students from a jaded nihilism one second, and an unthinking acceptance of my oracular economic wisdom the next. This strange mixture of intellectual jadedness and naïveté should especially concern believers, for a young Christian who sets upon life in the modern world suffering from either affliction—or both, as is often the case—is unlikely to remain one for long. In the end, either extreme tends toward the same result: to cut off at the root the process of “stretching out” that, according to Aristotle, lies at the heart of our nature. How are educators to prevent such an outcome?
If human inquisitiveness is such an important part of who we are, it should be surprising—not to say distressing—to witness how much, in thought and practice, we’ve parceled out knowledge into countless independent fiefdoms. Vartan Gregorian, former president of Brown University, addressed the problem of academic fragmentation in “Higher Education in an Age of Specialized Knowledge,” his 2003 Jaroslav Pelikan Lecture for the Library of Congress. “Higher education has atomized knowledge by dividing it into disciplines, sub-disciplines and sub-sub-sub-disciplines, ‘even though . . . scholarship, learning and life have no such artificial boundaries’” he states, citing a 2002 report on higher education sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. In the current climate, a student or scholar of theology considering mathematics, a natural scientist inquiring into political history, or, for that matter, a businessman pondering a work of art, will find it hard to be taken seriously—such interests will mostly be perceived as hobbies or distractions from his real work, irrelevant to the small branch of knowledge or practice that is his proper concern.
I speak from personal experience. A few years ago, I completed a master’s degree in Liberal Arts at St. John’s College in Annapolis. When people ask, I enjoy describing the program as a de-specialization; over four intense semesters, we studied some of the most influential works ever written in the areas of literature, politics, history, philosophy, theology and . . . math and science? People are used to lumping together the first set of disciplines under the broad title of the humanities, so it is not difficult for most to envision connections between them, but many find it hard to imagine how math and science could fit alongside the others into one coherent curriculum of graduate study. When I recently spoke with a friend about some of my classroom activities—dissecting a squid, for example—his puzzlement about my program only increased. He proceeded to ask a series of questions which boiled down to this: “I thought you were a literary sort; what does a dead squid have to do with anything?”
What indeed. I confess that despite my enthusiasm for this class and the program as a whole, I could not then find a coherent way to answer. Am I, after all, just a hobbyist? Wasting my time? Failing to begin serious work in a particular field? A vague reference to “the unity of knowledge” will not do. As my inability to answer suggests, my friend’s question is a legitimate one. Knowing many facts (or even many ideas) about many things is not equivalent to having a grasp of the whole—of the universe of knowledge. Understanding connections is paramount, especially in our increasingly fragmented world.
Perhaps the first thing I should propose is that the question of the squid is not necessarily legitimate by nature; it may have arisen simply as a symptom of pathologies particular to contemporary academic culture. It may be a consequence, wholly or in part, of our own artifice as regards thought and practice about knowledge—of the current tendency within the Academy to fragment knowledge into “sub-sub-sub-disciplines,” as Gregorian teases, and the effect this process has had even upon popular culture. Note that the question would seem absurd to the child asking “what is it?” while he points to every other thing in sight, as it would to an Aristotle or a Leonardo. Of course, there are differences between forms of knowledge, but it is significant that the child whose curiosity has not yet been deadened desires to know simply, not to know linear algebra, or French military history, or late medieval painting. Still, none of this can brush aside the question. Calling it a symptom does not remove the difficulty. The question itself must be addressed.
Those who inquire about knowledge inquire also about learning, and it is with the latter that our search for an answer should begin. What sort of thing is learning, and what place or purpose does it occupy within the context of human life? Here, the monster of theory threatens to rear its head, but instead of dealing in abstractions, why not engage in the act of learning itself and consider what insight we might gain by staying close to the particular problem at hand? That problem, of course, is the squid.
Perhaps you have never seen a squid other than in pictures or in a plate of fried calamari. If so, then the best description I can give is that it is a creature that, were you to encounter it in a science fiction novel, you would consider lacking in verisimilitude. Nature and life often play these tricks on artists: there are real skies and landscapes so perfect that if you saw them in a Thomas Kincaid painting you would find them ridiculous, and no novelist would ever get away with inventing a death like my grandfather’s—the way he passed away at the exact moment the priest finished administering the sacrament, laid his hands upon him and said “I leave you in the grace of God.” I say that the squid is this kind of creature: too strange to be real, except that it is.
The squid is classified as a cephalopod, and this title alone should give you an idea of its strangeness, for it means the creature’s feet are attached to its head. Just below its large dark eyes they start: ten tentacles, two longer than the rest, smooth on one side and covered with fleshy round suckers on the other. As if all this were not odd enough, it is not the creature’s anus but its mouth that you will find between its legs. And what a mouth it is! Instead of the fleshy opening one might expect is a dark beak—a beak such as one might find on an owl or some other bird of prey. Then above the eyes, underneath the smooth surface that an innocent onlooker might take for an extremely large forehead, are its gills, ink sac, digestive tract, as well as the counterparts to its heart. Had the creature dissected been a male, there also would we have found its penis. And yes, you read that right. It’s above its eyes. Under its “forehead,” which opens on one side around the head like a skirt. Now do you understand what I mean when I say it is too strange to be real?
So it can hardly be denied that the squid is an interesting animal. What then? What is the value of considering this animal, if any, beyond satisfying the particular interests of the biologist? Perhaps the first thing to note is that whether or not we see the point, as non-specialists, of studying the squid, we are inevitably drawn, upon observing it, to ask questions. “What is it? How does it live?” we wonder. “Why is it?” we may even be tempted to ask. But such questioning, inevitable as it is, is a complicated matter. We bring all sorts of assumptions into the asking, and even more into the act of investigating. When we attempt to understand a thing we are assuming much about its nature, our own, and that of the entire cosmos. Good questioners that we are, we must not leave our questioning itself unconsidered.
Because the end or purpose of an object or an activity must be some sort of good (real or perceived), as Aristotle points out in the Nicomachean Ethics, it follows that in asking and investigating we are manifesting a belief that knowledge and understanding are somehow good for us. It follows, too, that if wonder and questioning come naturally to the healthy human being, then so does this belief. We may be conscious of it or not, but our actions declare that one way or another it must be present within us. Thus we bring to light a fundamental assumption about our own nature that we had previously ignored, or as Socrates might put it, we recollect something we already seemed to know about ourselves, but had forgotten. And all this because of a dead squid.
Digging a little deeper, we discover a second important assumption: the idea that things in the world have a particular way of being that can potentially be understood. This assumption becomes evident when we consider how deeply we abhor pointless tasks. We might feel less pity for Sisyphus eternally pushing his stone up the mountain if only there were some ultimate object to his labors, no matter how intense they may be. But it would be pointless to undertake a task whose end we judge to be truly, inherently impossible. Therefore, into our first inquiries about the world we bring the assumption that that world speaks our language and can share with us its secrets—if only we can persuade, press, or woo it into doing so. To state it differently, we begin our career as questioners with the assumption that the world functions rationally; that the active being of things is somehow analogous to the workings of our minds; that what is outside us is somehow commensurable with what is within, and therefore knowable.
This idea may or may not be correct—modern philosophers like Kant would certainly deny its truth—but the point here is only that it is present as a starting point to our questions, and that it was the dissection of a squid (of all things!) that gave us occasion for bringing it to light. In allowing us to unearth these assumptions or previously unconscious insights about ourselves and the world, a dead squid can be a doorway to wonder and self-knowledge. One might say the beginning of all philosophy is a dead squid. For, as Aristotle would put it,
by way of wondering people both now and at first began to philosophize, wondering first about the strange things near at hand, then going forward little by little in this way and coming to impasses about greater things, such as about the attributes of the moon and things pertaining to the sun and the stars and the coming into being of the whole.
Moreover, by allowing us to engage in this activity, the strange, as-yet-unknown squid becomes an opportunity for self-realization, for in the process of introspection that our original “what is it?” initiates, we discover that the asking of such questions is essential to our being and identity. This is because we can recognize ourselves, know ourselves, and therefore be ourselves, precisely through and in this act. But we must not stop there. We must realize also that since questions are ordered toward answers, an openness to the possibility of knowing truth is an essentially humanizing stance.
Learning, then, has everything to do with being human, and cannot be atomized and fragmented lest we do the same to our very being. Thus the question of the squid is turned on its head: if a dead squid is pertinent to the act of being human, to what is it, from our perspective, not relevant? Because our excessive compartmentalization of knowledge is highly artificial, to ignore a small thing like a squid as a part of the whole can impair our vision of other particulars, and thus negatively affect an activity that is at the heart of who we are. Consider also that when educators focus exclusively on the idea of critical thinking, without emphasizing at the same time constructive thought that reaches toward answers, they effectively destroy their students’ hope even in the possibility of truth, undermining the entire process of “stretching out” that the search for it initiates. In other words, the current approach to learning can cripple our souls.
Consider again Aristotle—perhaps the father of all broad thinkers—and the way he drew upon knowledge of the arts and crafts to illuminate the workings of nature, politics, and ethics. Time and again throughout his Parts of Animals, Aristotle likens nature to a craftsman who endows his creations with every tool necessary to live their own particular kind of life. So used are we to this way of thinking—even within the context of evolutionary theory and the way nature selects for parts that provide an advantage to the organism—that we forget there is a metaphor involved, without which it may have been impossible to begin making sense of nature. The metaphor involves a creative leap, for throughout the Parts of Animals Aristotle insists, as a sort of premise or hypothesis, that nature does not work in vain. For him, the identity of a thing is inseparable from its activity: an eye that cannot see is not an eye except ambiguously, like a glass eye or a painted eye might be. Consequently, he is always inquiring after the functions of the different parts, assuming that each has a particular object and activity. It is not necessary that this be so, but approaching nature in this manner allows Aristotle to begin making sense of it, to begin understanding patterns and connections. Moreover, the analogy of art gives Aristotle a motivation for investigating nature:
If we study mere likenesses of [natural things] and take pleasure in so doing, because then we are contemplating the painter’s or carver’s Art which fashioned them, and yet fail to delight much more in studying the works of Nature themselves, though we have the ability to discern the actual causes—that would be a strange absurdity indeed.
The same approach allows Aristotle to gather much keen insight into a variety of particular subjects, much of which would have been lost had he subscribed to the popular notion of learning and knowledge that is dominant today.
Of course, we do not need and cannot have an expert’s knowledge of every possible subject. Rather, we need to cultivate the habit—which is to say, the virtue—of regarding knowledge as interconnected and making an effort to understand new ideas and information within the context of the whole. Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that given the current patterns in schooling, most students who don’t plan on becoming veterinarians would ever see much value in dissecting a squid. We teach our students a range of subjects, assuming this will magically make them “well rounded,” but never give them the tools for bringing to the surface the questions that naturally arise in the course of their studies, and relating them not simply to a potential profession, but to their personal and even spiritual lives.
Current initiatives to bring coherence to our educational system, such as the Common Core Standards, are likely to exacerbate this problem rather than fix it, because they ultimately regard education merely as training. Perhaps the public school system can hope for little more, but private and faith-based schools, especially Catholic schools, could do much better by turning for their “common core” to the obvious alternatives: philosophy and theology. I do not mean merely adding classes in these disciplines to the course catalog, in which case they may become two more irrelevant electives, but rather ordering the entire curricula of our schools, as well as the school culture, towards the love and pursuit of truth. Instead of thinking of philosophy as an ancient ancestor from which the modern branches of learning evolved, we ought to think of it as the one sea into which flow the many streams of knowledge, each of them contributing its little part to our understanding the whole (and, in Christian schools, to our knowledge of God and his Creation). It is possible to teach math and chemistry—or economics, for that matter—in ways that explore the subjects fully and sincerely, while also pointing beyond them. I know because I’ve seen it done as a student, and because as much as possible I try to do it myself as a teacher. Economics, for example, is the social science that deals with making choices under conditions of scarcity. This definition involves the assumption that we choose what benefits us (in economic terms, we seek to “maximize our utility”), but how can we do that without exploring first what is actually good for us or for society, and thus reaching out to ethics and politics? If this model of education sounds utopian, look up “Great Hearts Academies,” talk to one of their graduates, or consider the work being done in many classical high schools and Great Books colleges throughout the country. As they prove, it is possible to educate young men and women who can tell the difference between a bumper sticker slogan and an actual thought, who can distinguish between science and scientism, who can see life and learning as one and the same.
It goes without saying that this is not an easy task, especially when fragmentation within the Academy feeds into the more devastating divorce of learning from life. This rupture must be undone if a universe of knowledge is ever to be reconstituted from the countless, self-contained multiverses that Gregorian describes. Today, only niche schools and parts of the homeschooling movement have taken seriously the fight against fragmentation, but they cannot win it alone. Christians, especially those whose tradition emphasizes the unity between faith and reason—think, for example, of the tremendous effect the Catholic educational system could have—are in a unique position to lead the way towards a model of schooling that takes seriously the humanizing value of education. Moreover, in a world where a naïve fideism simply will not do, we need to educate a generation of Christians who can see through the flimsy thinking that supports many common objections to their faith—who are able to make careful distinctions and stretch themselves to understand the truths of reason and revelation as contiguous and coherent. In our cacophonous Internet Age, only those who can regard learning as an essential part of their humanity will be able to meet without despair the challenge of contextualizing the countless bits of information they encounter daily into a coherent picture. Those who care about the future of scholarship and education—not to mention human happiness—should find this a difficult but worthwhile effort. Because constant wonder about the strange squid near at hand is the duty of everyone who aims to be serious about the business of being human.