Our college, like most others, has adopted the new mode of “distance learning” during the current crisis. What if our students begin to learn a new kind of engagement with the written word precisely because of this momentary break from the habits of life at school and of absence from each other? I can’t help but think of it as an expansion of our students’ horizons.
A week or two before Easter, the Wyoming Catholic College community was just getting used to the new technology of online learning, and the transition was not smooth. According to a quick survey sent out by Dean Kyle Washut, certain approaches, such as live Zoom meetings, worked better than others, particularly written online discussions in real time. In order to get an even better sense of what worked and what didn’t, Dean Washut organized Zoom sessions with the different classes at the college to touch base about the situation, allowing those of us in the administration and on the faculty the occasion to field complaints, answer questions, take good advice, and offer reassurances.
In one of those conversations with the freshman, a student said something that struck me as particularly insightful. He and his classmates clearly miss the usual classroom experience, and this new mode of “distance learning” changes their relation to the great authors in our curriculum. Ordinarily, they read the text in the library or the dormitory, where others are reading the same thing and commenting about it, all with an eye to the discussion that will follow in seminar. But reading alone puts the reader in a different relation to the text. The student commented that he felt it was the first time he had engaged this author deeply on his own. I’m not sure which book he had in mind—perhaps Plato’s Republic—but he clearly meant that now he must be in direct dialogue with the long-dead author, whether it be Plato or Dante or Dostoyevsky.
We take writing for granted, of course, and with the greatest books, we consider their writtenness higher and better than mere speech, because writing requires intense and deliberate thoughtfulness—and more important still, “second-thoughtfulness.” Anything written well enough to be preserved for its greatness has been thought and re-thought, written and rewritten, until the very shape of the narrative or argument or image comes to seem permanent and inevitable. Part of the great reward of an education like the one at Wyoming Catholic College is learning to read such texts well.
Yet one of the first great writers in the philosophic tradition, Plato himself, is the first to voice a critique of writing. In the Phaedrus, Socrates tells the story of the Egyptian god who invented written letters and made the argument that writing would be a great aid to human memory; he was rebuked for his lack of foresight, because the real effect would be an increase in forgetfulness and the displacement of real knowledge from within the soul to the external written form. Socrates laments the artificiality of it:
I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. . . . You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.
I can’t help thinking Socrates (who did not write) goads Phaedrus to think of a different kind of reading and writing. We would not know Socrates, for example, had not Plato and Xenophon written. In “writing Socrates,” Plato finds a way to allow dialectic both within the text and with the text.
What our freshman was discovering, in other words, was the kind of dialogue that draws the reader into the living presence of his great interlocutor’s thought. Regardless of what we think of Machiavelli’s impact on the modern world, it’s hard not to admire his description of his own reading in a letter to his friend Francesco Vettori. After describing how he spends his days, he writes,
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.
Suppose, then, our students begin to learn this kind of engagement with the written word precisely because of this momentary break from the habits of life at school and of absence from each other? I can’t help but think of it as an expansion of our students’ horizons, one that I hope they will bring back to the classroom. Our common hope here at Wyoming Catholic is that the occasion to return will bring with it a new appreciation of the books themselves, the most ancient technology of preserving thought.
The real teachers in a curriculum like ours, as any professor would be the first to admit, are the great authors in our tradition. All of us, students and professors alike, learn from reading them with greater and greater context and intensity. The students might be reading alone now, but they still need their professors, who are committed to reading each work afresh no many how many times he or she has read, discussed, and written about these great works. There is a plan, a hope, a vista for each class. Students find their private thoughts changing as they tune themselves to the harmony of the conversation. The simulacrum provided by contemporary technology is one for which we must be grateful under these circumstances, as we are grateful for books, but we look forward to the recovery of the whole reality of Wyoming Catholic College.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “Girl Reading” (1909) by Edmund Charles Tarbell and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.