Sunday, June 8, 2014

veritable sabbath of the mind

"Words are life, Liesel."
--Max, The Book Thief


Now that my college education has ended, pretty much the number one thought that has been churning in my mind is the importance of an education, and why everyone ought to have as much of an education as they can.
Mostly, of course, when I mean an education, I mean those fields of study which the human race has cultivated since the middle ages, and before that in antiquity.
The arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which have given us some of the world's greatest poetry, drama, and literature of all natures.
Geometry and arithmetic, that art of unlocking the world's form with numbers and heart-bracingly elegant equations, dazzling in their simplicity.
Astronomy, the practice of looking beyond ourselves, to gain some perspective by charting the infinite.
Music, that discipline of crafting audible mystery.
These disciplines that have yielded so many great artists and scientists, writers and readers, great thinkers, who were adept at listening to the world around them.
Education depletes our lonely state in some way, for it unites us to the rest of the human race. As we race about in our Priuses and browse the internet on iPhones we live a life so different from the medievals, we are almost an alien race--a people quite disconnected from the past.
But not quite. 
For we too can behold the marvelous carved stones of Westminster, and our hearts can beat faster as we climb with Dante through the strata of the Paradisio.
Our literature and our art, our science particularly, brings us into step with the great march of persons who have gone before us.
And, sometimes, it introduces us to literary (perhaps even spiritual) fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. We do not have to call just one person "mother and father" when it comes to writing, there can be many teachers whose work nurtures us, as if we were their child.
 Flannery O'Connor taught me what I know, quoth the lovely woman with the peacock feathers inked onto her hand. She spoke her name with a sweet and easy familiarity that transcended casualness, and approached reverence, as if naming a dearest friend or sister. 
Beating in sympathy with hers, my heart knew instantly what sort of connection she could claim with this woman Flannery. Although I cannot claim to understand the empathy that must exist between author and reader after years spent reading for a doctorate degree, I had already felt an inkling of that connection the first time I read Madeleine L'Engle, or when I read Surprised by Joy. When you find an author who seems to write with words they hand-picked from your own private imagination, you cannot help but feel some deeper love for them than just a cursory fondness. Dubbing someone 'your favorite author' is perhaps one of the greatest compliments you could ever give another human.
The word 'author' is filled with much more depth and height and greatness than simply a title meaning 'purveyor of stories.' 
At its sweetest and dearest, 'Author' is someone who has taught you something so integral it has formed everything else you know, a someone who has not just shaped your education, but who has been your education.

Education introduces us to the heights of beauty that other human beings have achieved.
In the face of the many atrocities of the world: Apartheids, Holocausts, Genocides, Wars, human beings treating their brothers like cockroaches, bombs that rip apart homes, education stands as, not an answer, not really.
I don't know if one can point to all the great works of literature as somehow creating enough beauty or goodness and truth to account for the snuffing out of a human life.
The problem of evil, the dilemma of pain, particularly pain that humans are capable on inflicting on other innocents is a troubling problem, and all the great thoughts of the ancients cannot reconcile why a child should suffer a bloody and painful death (c.f., The Brothers Karamazov).
I sincerely doubt we can look to art to provide the salvation we seek in the face of death.
But, let us listen to the words of Death himself. Death, the all-too-familiar narrator in Brian Percival's symphonic cinematic retelling of Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, after recounting his encounters with many different characters of the story in their last moments, murmurs simply:
  I am haunted by humans
Who is this race of people who, in the midst of war, can read together around candlelight?
Who are these strange creatures who, when there are men being dragged off to fight all around them, find some solace in the beauty of a sunlit forest?
Who are these people who, while engaged in the bloody battle of survival, can write down the poetry that wells up inside them, and the thoughts that lift them to the stars?
Who are these men whose minds contemplate the heavens on whale-ships and ponder the ocean while wandering deserts?
Who are these sisters and brothers who can look their executioners in the eye and let the last words that leave their lips be: forgive them, for they know not what they do?

I don't think art and literature can ever answer the question of pain.
And all the education in the world will never outweigh the evil that is one man rising up to strike down his brother.
Rather, education gives us proof of the greatness that humans are capable of, in spite of (or a more disturbing and mysterious and altogether probable theory--because of) the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
In the midst of great hardship, of deep sorrow, of wasteful death, and senseless tragedy, a human can still seek beauty. The wretched miseries of a country riddled by deep injustices can become a story such as Les Miserables. The product of a country scourged by cruel tsars and dictators is the canon of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Gogol and Pushkin. A man going deaf can become the sounds of Beethoven's fifth.
An education exposes us to the heights and depths of beauty humans have sounded.
Through our education, we learn the thoughts thinkers have discovered as they have set their minds towards plumbing the mysteries of the universe.
It exposes to us the truths that humans have uncovered while seeking to answer the question of Pilate: What is Truth?
Human beings are masters of imitation.
When we watch how our forefathers and mothers have made art in the midst of adversity, how our ancestors sought truth in the midst of lies, and how the generations that came before us learned to find beauty in an angry and cruel world, we learn how to do the same.
We are exposed to the responses so many men have given to the question that haunted Pilate, the refusal of so many men to portray the world as only suffering, the insistence of so many men to create something beautiful, 'useless' though it may be.
Their responses to the world around them give us pause. For a second--for a daring, bold, tantalizing second--they suggest to us that perhaps we are greater than the easy answers and mindless distractions of our world would want us to believe.
Our minds, intended to plumb the depths of the cosmos, are meant for greater things that beating Angry Birds.
For education, art, literature, science, all these great achievements of human beings are really just symptoms of the deeper grandeur that lies within each human soul.
The David, the Duomo, The Tempest are all just evidence that prove the cosmos' hypothesis.
Human beings haunt death, because there is something in each human that death cannot touch.
There is a resilient bit of indestructibility inside each human that bursts forth in the poetry of Keats or Tagore, or the paintings of Caravaggio or Dalí.
This is the importance of education.
It is not that Education outweighs Evil.
It is that education unlocks the power that rests inside each human soul to fight the darkness.
Education instructs each of us in how great and ordinary humans who came before us contributed to the light.
Through their example, we learn the courage to do the same.

Thus Freedom now so seldom wakes,
 The only throb she gives,
 Is when some heart indignant breaks, 
To show that still she lives.
 --The Harp that Once Through Tara's Halls, by Thomas Moore

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