Is there anyone who was not profoundly touched by the flurry of open letters that loving parents wrote to their daughters concerning the recent election of our new president? (for example here and here and here)
Ms. Sallie Krawcheck consoles her daughter after the election thus,
You cried the morning after the election. You got angry later that afternoon. And the next day, you told me that maybe the outcome was a good thing, because it made you want to accomplish something important with your life. And to be successful despite the obstacles that remain for women in politics and in business and in…you know, life. In some ways, it feels like it’s getting harder, doesn’t it?….
I find this sort of open communication especially poignant. And I am quite certain that Kitty was enthusiastic about her mother sharing her feelings with the world at large.
If there is one thing I know about young people it is that they do like everyone to know how they are feeling. While preserving the intimacy that is found in a face-to-face discussion, or a personal note, the open letter provides an opportunity to employ this intimate interpersonal communication as a MANIFESTO to the entire world! Wonderful!
As it is a brand new year, I too, will adopt the same method in discussing a matter that is near and dear to my heart, and which I know is sacred to the feelings of my own children, especially my daughters. I too shall “pen” an open letter! It is high time to talk seriously about a sensitive matter, time to talk about an embarrassing subject, a subject so universally misunderstood, so painfully obtained, so essential yet so entirely impractical in the modern world. And what is this subject?
It is liberal education.
Granted that not all of my daughters, due to their young age, have suffered the trials and tribulations of attaining a liberal education, I will address them all as if they have already completed their respective educations.
While I appreciate the idea of writing an intimate open letter to a daughter, as the father of nine daughters, I would expect a somewhat greater latitude in the tolerance extended to me in writing a single letter to my daughters en masse. The task of writing nine such intimate open letters is just a little daunting for one whose communication skills are minimal!
“Dear Rose and Sarah and Margaret and Anna and Mary and Christine and Lucy and Cecilia and Gracie,
I am sorry that you live in a world where an authentic Liberal education is not the norm. I am sorry that the beauty and necessity of such an education is not obvious to everyone you meet. It can be frustrating to have to always be defending and explaining liberal education to almost everyone, can’t it?
You have spent years studying Latin, chanting forms, memorizing principal parts and acquiring vocabulary. You can spot a passive periphrastic and parse a gerund. You know all about the supine (mirabile dictu!) and the ablative absolute.
You have gone to considerable pains in acquiring the fundamentals of Greek. Maybe you have had some personal misgivings about the six principal parts in Greek! Why can’t there just be four for heaven’s sake!?
But now you can chant the fist lines of the Odyssey!
That is pretty “cool.” Who doesn’t want to do that?
And you can follow it up with the Aeneid!
How does one explain why this is worthwhile to anyone who doesn’t grasp its significance already? How can you share the beauty of Virgilian dactylic hexameter or the beauty of his chiasms, senechdoches, metonomys, syncheses and anastrophes to those who were not fortunate enough to encounter them for themselves? Maybe there are some who place no value in such beauty?!
Maybe in a moment of frustration when others do not see why these things are beautiful you blurt out “If you don’t already know, then I can’t explain it to you” like Will Kane in High Noon!
Maybe there are times when you feel sad because you are unable to share beauty with others and you felt something like Odysseus when his heart melted at the song of the minstrel and,
“tears wet his cheeks beneath his eyelids. And as a woman wails and flings herself about her dear husband, who has fallen in front of his city and his people, seeking to ward off from his city and his children the pitiless day; and as she beholds him dying and gasping for breath, she clings to him and shrieks aloud, while the foe behind her smite her back and shoulders with their spears, and lead her away to captivity to bear toil and woe, while with most pitiful grief her cheeks are wasted: even so did Odysseus let fall pitiful tears from beneath his brows.”
It’s ok to cry from time to time! There is no shame in crying or weeping or groaning. Aeneas also groaned heavily from time to time.
Extemplo Aeneae solvuntur frigore membra:
ingemit, et duplicis tendens ad sidera palmas
talia voce refert:
At once the limbs of Aeneas are relaxed with cold; he groans and stretching both palms to the stars he says such things with voice…
It’s ok to groan.
The collapse of language and of syntax and of Grammar in our culture is certainly something to groan heavily over. The utter collapse of the knowledge of the grammar that is common to every language is something far more profoundly terrible than a dozen or so shattered ships on the Mediterranean sea. And if Aeneas raised both his palms to heaven merely about a terrible storm brought about by Juno and her pawn, that windy god Aeolus, then certainly you my daughters can raise your palms to heaven and groan heavily about the complete negligence of grammar in our society!
And what about triangles and squares and pentagons and circles and cubes and spheres and dodecahedrons? Such beautiful realities are rarely studied in our time for their own sake, but reduced like everything else to the level of their utility.
Who is there today that loves them as they ought? Who is there to marvel at the properties of, say, parallelograms on the same base and within the same parallels? Who is there who will appreciate unique construction of the hexagon inscribed in a circle?
Who is there to say in the face of death, like Archimedes,
Don’t disturb my circles!
No one really cares about these things any more. No one, mind you, except for God, and his Angels, and you my dear daughters.
And who knows? May it be that perhaps one day, one day when you shall have families of your own that maybe….maybe your children will also love the very ideas that God has concerning the mathematical realities that He has created; Eternal truths concerning mathematical realities that only you and anyone else who has tasted them will appreciate.
Tonight I looked up at bright Venus, and thought of you. I have long forgotten my Ptolemy now, and my Copernicus, and my Tycho Brahe, and my Kepler, and my Galileo, and my Newton. But I did not forget that there is a beautiful cosmic order outside of myself that I did not create, and about which I can do nothing except to know. You know these things now better than I do. Your study of Astronomy, as brief as it was has opened the book of the heavens for you.
I wish I was as eloquent as Demosthenes! I could then speak fittingly and compellingly and persuasively about the beauty of liberal education. I never practiced Rhetoric like he did, filling my mouth with pebbles and struggling to speak articulately in spite of them.
If I had done that perhaps I could now describe with fitting eloquence the beauty of the human mind which is worthy of cultivation for its own sake.
We spend a great deal of time and money cultivating the small plots of earth on which we live with flowers and herbs and annuals and perennials, how much more worthy to spend just a portion of our earthly time cultivating our minds with the truth and perennial wisdom of the ages. And that is what you have done.
Ah! The glories of the word! The logos! Man is given the gift of speaking the word. He is in the image and likeness of God Himself, The Divine Poet, who also spoke The Word. Albeit it takes us a few more words than it did Him to express even our most meager thoughts.
You have spent years now learning and practicing your minds in Logic. I have long since forgotten how to identify syllogisms in any one of the four figures, nor can I distinguish a Bocardo from a Darapti from a Celarent … but with a little refresher I know that you could explain it all again to me.
You have not just occupied the best part of your thinking years practicing to varying degrees the arts of the Trivium and the Quadrivium….but now you have entered into the very secrets of Philosophy that Hugh of Saint Victor talks about.
And why are there secrets of philosophy? Well they are secrets not because anyone is intentionally hiding them. No, they are secrets because very few appear to know them. And even sadder, very few appear to want to know them. And still fewer there are who appear to know where the answers are to be found. Where are the answers to the most significant questions?; where are the answers to questions like, what is motion and what is time? What is life and what is the soul? What is man? What is friendship and what is the state? What is the good? and What is God?
But you have heeded the advice of the seven wise men of ancient Greece when they said
and you have heeded the words of Socrates when he said
“The un-examined life is not worth living.”
and you have hearkened to the warnings of the great Heraclitus when he said
“We ought not to act and speak as though we were asleep.”
and when he warned you not to be like the many, for
“The majority of people have no understanding of the things with which they daily meet, nor, when instructed, do they have any right knowledge of them, although to themselves they seem to have.”
No, you have listened to the wisdom of the ages and have attuned yourselves to Wisdom. And you have progressed very far indeed.
None of us there are who are perfect. All of us struggle to understand to varying degrees.
But I am very proud of you for the efforts that you have made to expand your souls to the extent that you have.
Now there is also the entire matter of “the beautiful” which you, oh my daughters, have not neglected. You have as far as possible tried to cultivate your own hearts in the appreciation of the beauty that comes not so much through the liberal but rather through the fine arts.
And this is no easy task in a culture in which the ugly is ascendant. Your love for beauty is manifest- whether it is the beauty in music and dance, or beauty in art and architecture, or beauty in poetry or beauty in graceful behavior or the beauty that can be found everywhere only by those who have eyes to see it.
You have not just realized that liberal education involves the formation of the mind, but you have understood that it involves the formation of the heart as well. There are some who, perhaps coming to an appreciation of the life of the mind a little late, have excelled in the liberal arts and philosophy but have not trained their tastes and sensibilities in the beautiful.
Over many years from your earliest youth you have acclimated your hearts to the beautiful, and consequently you have made your own souls lovely homes for the reception of the true and the good!
And what is the end of all this?
True, liberal education is not all by itself the sum total of what a human being needs to be happy. It is also true that a liberal education appears to never be fully possessed by anyone you meet. It might sometimes appear to you that the liberally educated human being is like one of those “limits” that Calculus speaks of, some kind of asymptote always approached but never quite reached.
But this should not disturb you. We all know about the imperfections involved in human nature ever since Adam’s happy fault.
But through your efforts, through your liberal education, you have disposed yourselves towards the workings of grace. You have disposed your hearts towards the worship of God in spirit and in truth.
And this is the end to which all of our efforts find a happy conclusion. This is the natural end of a liberal education as strange as it may seem in the midst of a Geometry or Latin exam.
I am very proud of you, dear daughters, and I love you.