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and Barnard College faculty urging the continuance of the ban on ROTC on campus after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was rescinded: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.
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.