For the second semester in a row, I handed out copies of “What I Learn From Exams”. Last year, it led to intense in-class discussions about what grades mean to students, and about aspects of our college’s culture that inadvertently feed excessive anxiety about exams, nearly suffocating the real desire for learning we so carefully try to cultivate. This year, we did not discuss it in class, perhaps because I have mostly freshmen, who have yet to experience the frenzy of exam week. But at a lunch table Thursday, I asked one what she thought of it, which provoked a common discussion of the topic at the senior-dominated table, and provided myself and a fellow tutor a bully-pulpit for preaching against grade consciousness.
It also provided the opportunity for one senior to voice something that had been troubling her for some time. Senior year, she said, had caused serious crises for her. Reading some of the modern philosophers, and learning more of modern science and mathematics, had raised questions for her about things she thought she knew, and she didn’t know how to answer them. She wasn’t too challenged by Hegel, but Marx seemed to her scarily compelling. Dedekind and Lobachevsky have made her question her certainty about Euclid’s geometry, and Maxwell’s electromagnetic studies made her doubt she understood anything about the composition of the material universe.
The whole experience had depressed her. She felt her legs had been cut out from under her. This wasn’t what she thought would happen. She expected that her Catholic liberal education would give her an understanding of theology and philosophy together with the tools of the liberal arts that would allow her to answer the confusions of the modern world, and prepare her to save people from its deceits. Instead she has found she more profound questions than ever.
I felt for the girl, but I am afraid it also gladdened my heart. I had had this student when she was a freshman. Throughout the year, she revealed a beautiful soul. She was an important part of a most memorable conversation of Plato’s Symposium. I always like to start that seminar, which culminates the entire year, with this passage:
Now up to this point my tale could fairly be told to anybody; but from here onwards I would not have continued in your hearing were it not that…I share the plight of the man who was bitten by the snake: you know it is related of one in such a plight that he refused to describe his sensations to any but persons who had been bitten themselves, since they alone would understand him and stand up for him if he should give way to wild words and actions in his agony. Now I have been bitten by a more painful creature, in the most painful way that one can be bitten: in my heart, or my soul, or whatever one is to call it, I am stricken and stung by [Socrates’] philosophic discourses, which adhere more fiercely than any adder when once they lay hold of a young and not ungifted soul, and force it to do or say whatever they will….Every one of you has had his share of Bacchic frenzy of philosophy, so all of you shall hear. You shall stand up alike for what then was done and for what now is spoken. But the domestics, and all else profane and clownish, must clap the heaviest of doors upon their ears.
My question to the freshmen is this: Have we had a share in the “Bacchic frenzy of philosophy”? This is a question that I usually have to ask several times during the discussion, since my students have a difficult time even imagining the experience Alcibiades described. In this particular discussion, when the wildness of the claim about philosophy finally became clear, some eager conversationalist in the group said, “No! It’s not like you wake up in the morning thinking about this stuff.” To which the student of my tale replied, “Oh yes you do!” and proceeded to defend Plato’s presentation for the rest of the evening.
I often wondered whether she had continued to live the philosophic life with that intensity. Her quandary as a senior shows that she has indeed. It is a terrible thing to discover that the road to wisdom really does lead into valleys of darkness and doubt, but wisdom is a woman hardly to be gained without trying the depths of the soul. The education of the philosopher, as Plato saw it, should hopefully follow upon a healthy education of heart and imagination, but needs to proceed through mathematical studies, to test the student’s power of reasoning and the love of learning, but even more to discover whether he would be alive to wrestling with the most difficult questions about the foundations of mathematical thinking, which, since math promises to reveal the foundations of the material world, involves wonder about everything. Plato would have his overseers choose those young for further training (what he called “intellectual gymnastics”).
My own collegiate experience mirrored that of my student. The first two years, focused largely on Greeks, Romans, and Medievals, made me confident that there was beautiful and good truth that could be known, while the last two years presented modern challenges that I could not completely and satisfactorily answer. After graduation, this experience made me hesitant to strike back against those I thought presented wrong ideas, and more inclined to ask them questions to discover why they thought what they did. That was hard! I did not like being unsure of myself, especially when it concerned matters that were important to our faith. But, in the long run, I think that listening to those in error (an ability fostered by my liberal arts training) provided me with a deeper understanding of what was attractive about their error, and so an ability later in life, having incorporated what was worthwhile into my own view, to offer more satisfactory answers to those who were struggling with the same issues.
I shared much of this with my troubled senior, and I hope that it offered her comfort. At one point she exclaimed, “If it weren’t for the Faith, I don’t know what I would do!” I concurred, adding that our Faith in the One True, Good, and Beautiful allows us to face the real state of our knowledge. As Socrates said to Meno, in a passage that has dominated my intellectual life, “That knowledge differs from true opinion is no matter of conjecture with me. There are not many things which I profess to know, but this is most certainly one of them.” Socrates and his philosophic frenzy enters into our heart, making us restlessly suspicious of what we think we know. This can lead to skeptical despair and even in our days a high rate of suicide. Thank God that we have the reliable authority Socrates lacked, so that we might be able to bear the realization of our own ignorance, and learn to be so patient and docile that we can gradually approach the gates of the house of wisdom.
I left the table grateful to be working with such a beautiful young soul, while praying for God to present to her with His rod and His staff. That night, my wife and I decided to return to the College for Adoration. As we walked into the chapel, we were stunned to see it filled with well over 100 students, kneeling before the Lord in the monstrance, while student-led choirs filled the chapel with their pure voices raised in adoring song. This is the heart of Catholic liberal education.