Friday, June 29, 2018

Lingua franca

As I mentioned in my prior post, I wrote my English Comp ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ essay on the rock-solid theme: Why We Should Study the Classics. I assume I did okay, as I was excused from Freshman English. Mrs. Briggs, my incredibly staunch Classics-loving AP English teacher, would have been proud—she managed to drill into my head the absolute necessity of a classical education. Without it, she warned direly, we would not be able to communicate with other educated (aka civilized) Americans. We would be considered backwards dolts, fit only for menial labor and would spend the rest of our lives excitedly thumbing through (but not purchasing!) impulse-buy magazines at the grocery store. We would never find a worthy mate, be unable to vote intelligently, and in fact, should probably be neutered so we wouldn’t produce more idiots like ourselves. (I told you she was staunch.) 
I blithely adhered to her dictums and continued in the same vein as I scaled the heady heights of greater knowledge. Staying in that lane was easy; my tiny, conservative Pennsylvania college profs had all quaffed from the same stream. In order to qualify as a truly educated American, you needed to master the central core of wisdom, which was outlined helpfully by centuries of English prep schools and transplanted here by the aristocratic, elitist patriarchy. Fluency in that lingua franca assured your place in legitimate society. Enter Chautauqua, the first serious attempt to raise the standard of education for those least likely to have dreamed they’d ever approach that altar. 
Do I still believe this? Absolutely not. The only thing a classics education does now is separate the student from the masses, not build a bridge. Unless you’re planning to teach the classics (the academic equivalent of working in a buggy whip factory), there’s simply no point in it—at this point in American history, the classics are for recreational use only. 
Mrs. Briggs used to lecture us that we were learning a common language that would enable us to enter a rarified world of opportunity and camaraderie with the finest minds of the ages. And, in a way, that’s still true. I routinely weep over the elegant turns-of-phrases I encounter in Isabella (Pansy) Alden’s works; the nobility of her heroes, the thoughtful story arcs that bring scripture into the everyday life in a beautiful way. But, that ship sailed a few decades ago and for my money, it’s never coming back. 
When a society is gleefully content with the shattered English language used in texting, tweeting, snapchatting, and swaps emojis for an expression of one’s feelings, a meandering syntax doesn’t stand a chance. With the bathwater of cursive, school prayer, rote learning of uplifting texts (Scriptural and otherwise), we often throw out the baby of restraint, nobility, discretion, politeness, and grace. Everyone is up in everyone’s grill. Wildly jiving to your earbud tunes on street-corners while you wait for the bus? No problem, no one will bat an eye. Boarding a plane in your pajamas (and you’re not 3 years old)? No worries, the only folks dressed for travel anymore are the elderly and the stews. Your emails are patrolled by spellcheck; your calls are robot-generated. 
So, why am I studying a year’s worth of 19th century texts? I want to catch a glimpse of what they knew, this generation that could do long division in their heads, memorize the lists of the conquering Roman Caesars, and knew who Jeroboam was. I want to believe that if I stood at an “at home” evening with a CLSC-trained chambermaid, I might be able to hold my own.

“I give you sound learning; so do not forsake my teaching.” Job 4:2

Monday, June 25, 2018

Get me to the Greek

Have you ever wondered why so many Eastern US cities have Greek names, and not just any ol’ Greek names, but those from ancient Greek history? Syracuse, Troy, Ionia, Athens, Ithaca, Sparta, Corinth, Crete,’s because American schools used to teach something called “The Classics.” 18-20th century British and US prep schools and colleges prided themselves on the rigor of these courses comprised of Latin and the accompanying Greco-Roman literature. And everybody was expected to know and understand this common core of knowledge. If you didn’t, you weren’t considered truly educated. That’s why Chautauqua’s CLSC book list was jammed with classics; to expose that chambermaid or blacksmith to Pericles and understand why the battle of Marathon was last bastion against the Barbarian hoards threatening modern Europe’s future. I read the Chautauqua-published text “An Outline History of Greece” by John H. Vincent and James R. Joy (1888) with intense pleasure…so much so, that I might take another turn at it when I’m not under the gun to wrap up my required reading!  

In our country’s early history, education wasn’t necessarily learning to express yourself (in fact, that was rather frowned on), but existed to inscribe the student’s tabula rasa with the finest and best the world had ever produced. Again, that would be the Greeks. Their unmatched valor as warriors, their astuteness as statesmen, their democratic ideals, their brilliance in drama, poetry, the arts, mathematics, literature—essentially, everything started with the Greeks! Such studies were the common coin of the higher education and the architecture of our American social order. Western Civilization, boiled down, was essentially a shanghaied cultural history. And we stole it from the Greeks. This compact book is an idyllic ode to Western Civilization, written in the lyric, exultant voice of one who nearly worships anything that hails from Attic shores. 
See, you don’t probably realize that “Attica” is another word for Greece, do you? Exactly! That’s how distant we are from our rote-based education’s early Spartan sternness (another wasted reference for some, alas). How far we’ve come from the naïve and quaint elders who optimistically named villages for Ancient Greece’s centers of heroism or learning. How far we’ve come from the practice of memorizing huge swathes of the Odyssey or Iliad! The only Homer today’s students know is an idiotic, donut-eating cartoon. If I say “Trojan” what do you think of? Stalwart soldiers? Probably not. See? The modern schoolkid lolls in the lap of indolence, wafting the palm leaf of stupor, languishing away on the modern isle of the lotus-eaters (another reference that probably sailed over the average contemporary reader’s head). 
I’m glad I had what could now be called a “classical education” in the days when the expectation was to trash the old and fling open the doors of the Academy to modern voices. Throwing over the traces of tradition and diversifying the canon, our high school was behind the curve and just on the cusp of the Woodstock-era sea change. Our VERY old-school principal insisted on a classical education—not on his watch would Western Civilization decline! When he retired, the deluge. While I never had the school-age joys of deeply exploring “the Classics,” my conservative Christian college (trying to update their curriculum) blurred their version into something called “Humanities,” roping in art, archeology, music, and architecture with literature. I even wrote my entrance exam paper on why the classics are essential! Can you even IMAGINE anyone saying that today?

You’ll find the stories of revolt, treachery, bravery, slavery, disgrace and triumph here—all written in that wonderfully fluid, purple prose I adore so. No one here is in trouble; they’re in “deadly peril.” Here’s a perfect example of why I wish I were swinging in a hammock, all alone, reading this, rather than hunched over a limp sandwich, nibbling furtively, as I fend off office clamor and try to concentrate. You can’t read a sentence like this without wanting to read it aloud, in ringing tones: “The firebrands smoldered for another decade before they broke out into the conflagration in which the last remnant of Athenian supremacy was consumed.” I mean, really! Today’s digitized and distracted students would never get the end of that sentence without falling asleep or checking Instagram!

Okay, one more example I just can’t bear not to share: “To the possession of vast wealth this man added a readiness of wit, a fertility of invention, a power of complaisance, which invested his manner, when he wished to please, with a singular charm. He was utterly selfish and unscrupulous; and, if we are to believe the stories told of him, his youthful career was one of gilded sensuality and of barbarous ruffianism, hidden under a veil of superficial refinement.” Who is this amazing character? Alcibiades, if you want to know; BTW, a name any Victorian schoolchild would be familiar with!

Read any famous Victorian novel, like Little Women, and you’ll find a dozen references to classic Greek culture, mythology or practice. A group of like-minded young men might style themselves as the “Sacred Band”-that’s a nod to the famed Theban army whose grit and courage was unparalleled in their time. Ever heard of them? I didn’t think so. Know what the Gordian Knot is? Is the glorious defeat of the Spartan 300 a violent video game or CGI extravaganza to you? Why did many Victorian-era libraries and literary circles call themselves Lyceum? Why is a closemouthed person termed “laconic”? Ancient Sparta was also known as Laconia, and were taught to speak in “short, pithy sentences.” Surprised? Me, too. Yeah, you can look this stuff up on Wiki, but when you were a pupil in any respectable school in the 1800s, you were TAUGHT it. Incredible, right? And that ship has sailed, I’m sure, never to approach these shores again. Today’s common cultural references—zombies. ‘Nuf said. What’s the score? These days:  Barbarians 1, Western Civ, 0.   

Leonidas, the Spartan 300’s heroic leader, was told that the Persian enemy was so numerous, that the flight of their many arrows would darken the sun. He replied, “Then we shall fight in the shade.” If your heart quickens a bit when you read that, and you wish you had a noble cause in which to fight, I suspect you’re a closet Romantic (like me) and might just need to read this book!

Bonus: I am always delighted when I find little slips of newspaper tucked into these vintage volumes…this one hid a carefully clipped CLSC notice (see image below--it's sitting on the little book that we're discussing! See the COOL CLSC emblem on the cover! Sweet, right?). The book’s diligent owner, Mrs. Nellie Jordan (whose penciled name graces the flyleaf of this wee book), saved a clipping of the announcement of her CLSC meeting (I only wish I had a time machine!). It reads as follows:  Clio CLC will meet with Mrs. Nellie Jordan Friday evening Nov. 30, 1888, at seven o’clock; the following program will be observed:

1.      Roll Call. Names of authors mention in the required readings.

2.      Table Talk. Current Events.

3.      Last half of questions on “Outline History” in November Chau.

4.      Reading Abou Ben Adem, Mrs. Nellie Jordan.

5.      Biographical sketch of persons named on page 261-272 in Prep Greek.

6.      Reading selections from Charity by Cowper, Rev S.H. Woodrow. To be followed by debate: “Is relief giving the cause of pauperism.”

 “Study to show thyself approved, a workman that needeth not be ashamed…” 2 Timothy 2:15

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The poor are always with us

You can’t plan these things, really. Our country is currently experiencing a crisis around immigration and here I’m writing about a Victorian-era response to an immigration crisis. What are the odds? Anyway, here goes…

You can lead a horse to water. A leopard can’t change its spots. Water seeks its own level. Putting lipstick on a pig. Silk purse from a sow’s ear. I wonder just how many proverbs and wise sayings warn us about the folly of expecting to transform society with ideals concocted in the ivory towers of idealism? In the late 1800s, the first wave of college-educated women descended on an unsuspecting world with the expectation that finally, things would be changed by the work of their lily-white hands. Nurtured on Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, and Jacob Riis, they turned their naïve, sincere eyes on the wretched masses who thronged urban alleyways and vowed to spend their youth and energy turning the tide of human suffering.

Jane Addams, offspring of a senator who got frequent notes from Abraham Lincoln, worshipped her Quaker father’s pacifist ways and helped found the American “Settlement” movement—the first serious effort to help the poor by living among them. Her history-making venture was Hull-House, a huge, ramshackle building that housed both her band of earnest, eager social missionaries and some of the needy they served. "Twenty Years at Hull-House", written in 1911, chronicles the life and work of Jane Addams and her coterie of mostly female helpers. Their mission: to ease burdens, offer hope and a helping hand to the city’s poor immigrant population while preserving their self-esteem, and to do so while sharing their ghettos, not commuting in from the luxurious, leafy suburbs.

I wanted to like this book—and its author—much more than I did. I admired her candor in admitting that young, idealistic woman from privileged backgrounds really have no idea what they’re doing, all good intentions aside. I appreciated her ferocity in championing the interests of Chicago’s poorest; her dawning recognition that overlaying their lives with upper crust culture might be a handicap rather than a hand up. I applauded her when she encouraged 2nd generation immigrant kids to respect and cherish the handicrafts of their elders. She traveled to Russia to meet her hero, Tolstoy, only to get a scolding from the literary giant for her preposterous leg o' mutton sleeves. She established a textile museum,and founded who knows how many clubs and organizations that promoted good fellowship and outreach for the downtrodden. She got all kinds of wonderfully humane laws passed about child labor, sought justice for union scabs, redirected immigrant girls who had been hustled into prostitution, and much more. So, why the lukewarm response for this first female Nobel Peace Prize winner?

I’m not sure, unless it’s the minor strain of self-righteousness in this weighty, very politicized recounting. I felt I was reading a sort of proto-socialism proclamation—and her contemporaries apparently shared my impressions, as she was often associated with the radical anarchist movements of the early 20th century. But then, Jane Addams did more in her life that I could ever hope to even consider, so who am I to even cast the tiniest shadow upon her glory? Her aspirations were noble: “ feed the mind of the worker, to connect it with the larger world, outside of his immediate surroundings, has always been the object of art” (pg 435). But art for art’s sake sometimes falls short. She herself bemoans the futility of some of her work and recognizes the fleeting nature of the “...fanatic’s joy in seeing his own formula translated into action” (pg 269).

I think at the core, I’m sad she barely acknowledges (at least in this book) the self-same work being done by Christians in her neighborhood. And when she does, she dilutes the evangelical outreach by saying it's done to imitate Christ (and she makes up a quote from Jesus to substantiate her point of weird!). If I hadn’t been reading a lot of other Victorian books by Christian authors, I might not have known from this book that any such Christian work took place, much less that it was widespread and hugely influential. Addams tended to view “religious” charities as somewhat disingenuous because such workers based their earthly efforts on eternal values. 

“Twenty Years at Hull-House” is really a perfect representative of the changes to Chautauqua as it morphed from a Christ-centered training conference for Sunday School teachers to its current multi-cultural celebration of all things artistic. Settlement work, once confined to Christians (since they were the only population willing to help the extreme poor) was separated from its sacred roots and transplanted in the shallower field of charity by Jane’s contemporaries and cronies.

There is more than one form of poverty and the poverty of a hopeless life can be eased, but not transformed, by a new job or learning to play the piano. Jesus spoke truth when He admonished us that “the poor you have with you always.” For all Jane’s sacrificial work, huge swathes of urban Chicago remain essentially unchanged to this day. Hull-House has become a museum and the non-spiritual lionizing of art and culture seems to be a big part of its continuing mission. Because I believe, from experience, that only the Gospel transforms lives permanently, I have no hope of a beautiful painting, brilliant literature, a college degree or an inspiring song providing rescue from the deepest poverty. Only the Gospel offers forgiveness from sin and the expectation of a life of light and joy beyond this vale of broken dreams.  

“Having a form of godliness but denying the Power thereof…” 2 Timothy 3:5

Monday, June 11, 2018

Browning’s broken arcs

Am I the only English major on the planet who never really examined the work of Robert Browning? I mean, yes, sure, sure, everyone knows about his flaming love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the romantic trauma that shook Victorian England when he essentially scooped up this wan, invalid poetess and took her off to Italy where they wrote passionate sonnets to each other, right? But what I didn’t know (and now do, thanks to the CLSC reading list!) is that Robert B was a downright Christian poet! I mean, really and truly—much of his poetic outpourings center around his deep, thoughtful, exultant faith in Christ and how he can live it out in this world. Who knew?

Browning views his world with the slightly foggy gaze of the true poet and he never met a lonely dandelion or a city-dweller he didn’t want to immortalize. He’s known for his lengthy poetic portraits of folks like a Syrian, Bible-era traveling salesman, the fishmonger on the street or his pale-but-beautiful beloved. In this “greatest hits” volume, I keep stumbling across poetic snippets I’ve read in other books, like the romances of Christian author Grace Livingston Hill. One of her heroes will start spouting “All that I know of a certain star is, it can throw (like the angled spar) now a dart of red, now a dart of blue…” and the well-read heroine will rapturously finish with the remainder of the stanza. Who knew that was Browning? And “the first fine careless rapture”—(Lord Peter Whimsey fans will recognize that..). And “Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there..” Yep, all Browning. If you haven’t come across a Browning poem since your English teacher tried to pound “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” into your junior high noggin, you might want to give him a go.

Our burly poet often goes off in raptures about single phenomena, like a lunar rainbow, dragging out the metaphor for ages, belaboring it to the point where the editor of this slim volume is finally forced to cut out chunks, give us the missing gist in italics, and then throw us into the maelstrom again in stanza IIX. Because Browning is such a towering figure in English poetry, there’s nothing original I could possible say to praise or pan him. I can add this—I like him.

Browning takes his status as a poet very, very seriously (now, remember, this was the era when the quality and tenor of poetry was argued at parties, critiqued in the newspaper, and used as maiden-bait by mustachioed-and-mutton-chopped chaps). Poetically defending his oeuvre and his life-choices, Browning occasionally has his lyrical dukes up when critics knock his latest ballad. This compilation’s editor pegs Browning aright when he quotes Browning protests that he’s not TRYING to be difficult (something he apparently had to do a lot because of his oddball word choices and blunt rhymes) “Nor do I apprehend any more charges of being willfully obscure, unconscientiously careless or perversely harsh.” (Browning).

Our the editor gently suggests: “The true explanation of it (Browning’s obscurity) seems to be…that he does not think of his audience as he writes, his only care being to express the thought in the way that comes most natural to him….the reader is brought face to face with some soul; the poet has stepped aside…” (pg ii, iii).  

The book’s final poem (Christmas Eve and Easter Day) addresses modern German criticism (a frequent topic in Isabella Alden’s time—German higher criticism claimed that the Scriptures were not Truth, but contained truth and that the Bible was basically out-of-date and can’t be looked at as historically reliable, etc. Our generation’s weekly mainline denomination church closing are part of that harvest.). Listen to Browning dismiss higher criticism with a poetic glove-slapping: “Say rather, such truths looked false to your eyes, with his provings and parallels twisted and twined, till how could you know them, grown double their size in the natural fog of the good man’s mind…” (Christmas Eve, IV).

Browning’s faith speaks with elegance and passion, as when he extols a forgotten musician, Abt Vogler, citing that the music Abt makes is only a necessarily weaker earthly version of the divine music of the spheres. In Browning’s lyrical celebration of these ethereal echoes, is he also making a few claims for his poems?

Therefore to whom turn I but to Thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that they power can fill the heart that thy power expands? 
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before: 
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sounds;
What was good, shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.
(Abt Vogler, stanza IX)

And BTW, what’s with the pomegranates in the book’s title? They’re a fruit that’s famously difficult to eat—you’ve got to patiently score, section and segment the leathery peel to obtain the sweet, succulent, tartly delicious seeds. Like Browning’s poetry; you’ve got to do some digging, but oh, the luscious rewards. 
“My heart is overflowing with a good theme; I recite my composition concerning the King;
My tongue is the pen of a ready writer.” Psalm 45:1