William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The 2014 CS Lewis Lecture By RR Reno: The Piety of Pedagogy. Guest Report by The Blonde Bombshell

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The working topic for the lecture was “CS Lewis: First and Second Things“, no doubt inspired by the words of the Master himself, and perhaps with a wink toward a certain publication. However, RR Reno pivoted to present a talk that was subtitled: The Pedagogy of Piety.1 Dr. Reno’s remarks focused on the intersection of culture and academic life and how the students are poorer for it.

The talk was inspired by a letter signed by Columbia and Barnard College faculty urging the continuance of the ban on ROTC on campus after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was rescinded:

But here is the most profound point of opposition between the military and the university as institutions: ROTC, and the military in general, trains people for obedience to the chain of command, whereas the university cultivates a critical and constantly questioning consciousness.

The phrase that Dr. Reno honed in on was “the university cultivates a critical and constantly questioning consciousness.” Ah, yes, critical thinking. He noted that while curriculum committees can disagree about course content and measures of success, all faculties, across all campuses, can stand with one voice for “critical thinking.”

When Reno taught classes on ethics, he would duly assign the pro and con readings on abortion, assisted suicide, and other controversies. Once the students were versed in both sides of an issue, Dr. Reno employed what he called a “pseudo-Socratic” method, which he did not find to be very successful. He realized he wasn’t imparting the ability to think critically.

Students who have been incubated in “critical thinking” exhibit a “fear of error” at the cost of truth, and are “overcommitted to things that are only half true.” Reno alluded to Pascal’s Law, “the certainty of our knowledge is inversely proportional to its significance.” Today, “only small truths are affirmed” and “expertise without wisdom” reigns.

The difference between “critique” and “criticism” was noted: a critique “pulls down” and is not able to build up, which is a perfect segue to Descartes.

Descartes’s willful destruction of the “old house of knowledge” and his replacement of one much more attractive and comfortable to the skeptical mind leads to the present day, where professors are dedicated to promoting “the critical” and who are “constantly questioning consciousness.”

The first step to getting a student to engage in critical thinking is to ask him or her to “step back” from whatever belief or tradition that they have previously held dear or had some esteem for. Once he is unmoored from his previous experience and education, he is ready to think critically; or, as a cynic might put it, is primed to more easily accept the word of the professorial clergy.

Today’s academics have a studied “distance” and “coolness”. They lead lives “untroubled by the big questions.” They are “freed from truth.” They adopt “culture for the sake life” rather than the other way around.

To paraphrase John Henry Newman, “souls are made for knowing” and the modern academy does not offer much in this regard. Reno’s primary point is that the university system cannot tell students how to “live well.” It cannot tell students what to say to their dying mother, or determine whom they should marry. The big questions are things that students, and former students, are left to grapple with on their own (and again, without the solace of any organized belief system that may have had the misfortune of being formed before one’s eighteenth year).

How can we pull ourselves up from this lowly state? Drawing support from Aristotle and Plato, Reno’s solution is more math and more literature (but not literature that is a front for the social theory du jour). Mastery of math allows students “the foretaste of knowing”, it helps them to “savor truth”, it “trains souls to recognize truth.” Literature can fulfill somewhat of the same purpose, but perhaps not as completely or robustly as mathematics. Spenser’s The Faerie Queen was cited as example of writing than can contribute to the “pedagogy of piety.”

What is missing from higher education is the “wise man”—the man who has a “settled conviction” and exercises “purity of thought” which leads to “purity of soul.” There is much to be learned from the Bower of Bliss.

In the Q&A, Reno noted that culture in the US “hasn’t changed since 1969” which brought an energetic objection from Dr. Como. Reno said the clothing hasn’t changed; blue jeans are still commonly worn. “When I go into a coffee shop, the music is the same as it was in 1969. It is as if I were still in high school.” Como could not overcome this point and settled back in his seat.

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1There was a fuller title, but not recorded. Your unintentional correspondent did not think to pull out paper until the remarks were well underway. The remarks may not be recorded as originally ordered.

A footnote: Taking the subway on the way home after the lecture, I could not help but notice a young girl across from me with the spanking-new Grateful Dead backpack and wearing pants which were a curious patchwork of corduroy that my babysitter would have worn in 1969, but with a red label sewn in the seam to indicate their expensive nature. The only difference is that my babysitter would have sewn her equally garish garment herself. That is probably the biggest change from 1969: the accouterments of culture can be purchased, and do not have to be manufactured at home.

12 Comments

  1. I can’t believed I missed this. Damn it!

  2. Briggs

    November 26, 2014 at 9:26 am

    All,

    I meant this to go up today, but inadvertently published it yesterday morning and didn’t notice the mistake for an hour or so (hence the seemingly early comment). It’s obviously been restored to its rightful place.

  3. Could you provide some background on Dr. Reno?

    “When I go into a coffee shop, the music is the same as it was in 1969. It is as if I were still in high school.” The last coffee shop I was into was blaring recently produced, repetitive noise, but it was on a college campus I’m to blame. I’ll take 1969 music over 2014 every day of the week. It may not be great music (in an eternal ethereal sense) but at least it had some variety in melody, volume, beat, and lyrics.

  4. Briggs

    November 26, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Gary,

    Editor at First Things, etc.

    Here’s another talk by him:

    http://www.firstthings.com/events/christian-witness-in-america

  5. Thanks for the link. I’ve only had 10 minutes to view his responses to questions at the end, but Reno clearly is thoughtful and tempered.

  6. Briggs

    November 26, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    Gary,

    He also chose his suit well and has an eye for color.

  7. Alas, it was indoors so we don’t know about his hat.

  8. I didn’t realize till now that my undergraduate and masters level education have infused me with a “critical and constantly questioning consciousness”. I am fulfilled. But I’m also obedient so I must be confused.

  9. “the university cultivates a critical and constantly questioning consciousness. ”
    In what alternate universe is that? Can you say hubris? The college faculty evidently has a high opinion of themselves.

  10. Briggs

    November 26, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    All,

    I’m not with Reno on the math. There are many immoral mathematicians and godless mathematically adept scientists. In our culture we are too likely to turn a mathematical education into scientism. What we need is more reading of books written before 1900 (many after that are good, of course, but you can’t trust schools to pick them).

  11. Although academe does, rightly, invite its charges to question that deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind prior to the age of eighteen, the unfortunate result in too many cases is graduates who have merely replaced those with new prejudices accepted with no greater examination.

    One can while away a rainy afternoon attempting to conjure up a proposition so preposterous that an academic has not espoused it, and the mere fact that the proposition is inconsistent with common sense is to some graduates an indicium of its superiority.

    Yes, education can teach one that he should question his intuition. But I’m not sure that a majority of college students have the capacity or inclination to do so with any thoroughness, or, if they do, that their professors can teach them how to. Too many people go to college.

  12. If you replace ‘math’ with ‘Euclid’, then you have something. #2 son and a friend did the summer program for high school students at Thomas Aquinas this year, and came back all fired up from doing Euclidean proofs. If they got nothing else out of it, seeing the beauty of Euclid was well worth it.

    For many of us, seeing how you can actually use logic to get from a few assumptions and definitions to something you *know* is true (given the assumptions and definitions, of course) is a life-changing experience. You learn about carefully stating assumptions and definitions , carefully defining the question to be proven, and building a step by logical step proof. And then an entire system built up proof by proof – great prep for Aristotle and Thomas, and a bit of inoculation against the likes of Hegel.

    For those of us with good mathematical intuition, it formalizes what we might get by feel; for those with little or no mathematical intuition it is pretty mind-blowing.

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