Knowledge vs. Truth: A Cry for Help

As many of our readers know, this is my first semester teaching at a Christian college, and I find myself less prepared than I expected to be. I am mostly ready to teach the material I have been contracted to teach–but the students have thrown me for a loop here and there. I have had students who are concerned with the explicit content of some of their readers–but I understand and sympathize with their concerns. I have had students complain about the perceived difficulty and impracticability of my course–but that’s a universal complaint, and I’ve never taken it particularly seriously. (The student who came to my office to wonder aloud why he or she had to work so hard without a guaranteed “A” dropped my course later that afternoon, and I wish him or her the best in his or her future academic endeavors.)

But one incident has shaken me up, perhaps more than it should. I completely overhauled my English Composition course this year, to the point where it’s now one-half “big ideas” discussion course and one-half introduction to classical rhetoric. As such, we begin with a text that has one foot in each camp: Plato’s Phaedrus. (If you’re wondering where I’m headed, listen to our Richard Weaver trilogy from the spring.) Because I can’t expect freshmen at my college to come in with even a working knowledge of Plato, I begin this unit with a broad overview of the Theory of Forms and its relation to the Phaedrus. Because the topic of this dialogue is ostensibly male/male love, I also give a brief explanation of Greek sexual mores. I went through this latter subject as briefly and gingerly as I could, and I was even careful to bring it back to the New Testament at the end.

The next day, I received a phone call from a student who informed me that he or she had dropped my class; when I pressed the issue, I received three justifications: first, “I don’t see how reading Plato will help our writing”; and secondly, “hearing about all that…stuff doesn’t help my walk with the Lord.” I am willing to disregard the first point, which is the same “I’m smarter than all my teachers” hogwash everyone encounters, whatever and wherever they teach. But the second complaint has shaken me up a bit. Besides the fact that I brought Plato around to Christianity multiple times, I’ve always seen all knowledge as interconnected. There’s no such thing, in my view, as a non-theological fact. Obviously, my student disagrees, so I bring the matter before the narrow wedge of the public this blog serves:

  1. Am I wrongheaded in viewing the conditions of Greek pederasty as related, however distantly, to this student’s spiritual walk?
  2. Is it my responsibility to convince students that this is the case?
  3. How on earth do I go about doing so?
Your comments are appreciated.

12 thoughts on “Knowledge vs. Truth: A Cry for Help

  1. Many students are likely to find the classics very strange in their first encounters with them. I certainly did but for me that was part of the attraction of the classics, an encounter with a very different world. It is very easy to sanctify this feeling. I guess that I would begin by looking at someone who most Evangelicals think writes well. Despite his pipe-smoking, beer-drinking Anglican life most Evangelicals consider C S Lewis to be Evangelical-kosher. Lewis often references Plato, both in the Narnia series and in his other writings. Towards the end of the Last Battle one of the characters explicitly compares the ‘true Narnia’ to the Forms in Plato. Discussing Lewis and why he considered both Plato, and the Christian engagement with his writing over the last 2000 years, enables students to move from the known to the unknown.

  2. Hopefully you’ll find this more useful than my suggestion years ago that you use Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when teaching Plato.

  3. I’d recommend that you not worry about it. My field (psychology) is even “worse” than literature in certain Christian circles, and despite teaching in Christian colleges for the past eight years, I’ve only had a very few students react like yours did.

    Some of your students want to go to a Christian school so that they will not be challenged with the possibility that any of their ideas are wrong, so that they can be given a neat toolbox of apologetic arguments so they can defeat atheists and evolutionists and godless liberals, so that they can get the degree that will allow them to do some kind of ministry, and so that they can find a nice Christian spouse. They’re not there to think, and making them do the hard brain work makes it look like you’re trying to undermine their faith.

    It’s connected to some of the same issues that you dealt with in your podcast about being an intellectual in the Church.

    Don’t let it rattle you.

  4. Andrew, it was to me that you made the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance recommendation, if I remember right. That said, your C.S. Lewis recommendation is spot-on: I make a point of mentioning Lewis early and often when I bring young evangelicals in contact with Plato.

    Michial, we’ve already talked in pre-show about this, so I’m writing this mainly for adding my perspective in hopes that the conversation can go forward. One of the rhetorical topics that I’ve used when broaching this topic with worried students is the definition of the Christian college as a safe context to encounter dangerous ideas. The question I always pose to such students is whether they’d rather encounter these hard questions while surrounded by sympathetic friends, faithful professors, and dedicated campus ministers; or whether they’d rather come up against them in the workplace (I refuse to call such a context “the real world” as opposed to where I live) and have to rely on electronic communications to bounce ideas off of friends. Framed that way, most students agree that it’s better to run into Plato (and all the weirdness that comes with it) within the context of the Christian college.

  5. I’d like relate an anacdote on the question you didn’t ask, because it is easier than the one you did…the practicality of classics and literature.

    I met a gentelman once who had a masters degree in comparitive literature (which he got ‘for fun’ after a degree in international studies. He said his family joked about the lack of utility of his degree. He went into espionage and said that he had been better trained for the work in his lit degree (deconstructing difficult texts) than any of his co-workers. He described it as the ‘most practical’ degree he possibly could have gotten.

  6. Thanks for the advice and encouragement, gentleman. I will certainly bring up Lewis in tomorrow’s class–and from now on when I teach Plato here at Crown. And I will also take Charles’s advice not to sweat it.

  7. This is a tough one that I encounter from time to time in political philosophy (as a grad student at a nominally Christian school and an adjunct at a much less nominally Christian school). I’ve found that using the apologetics approach can be useful. That is, I occasionally make the argument that understanding Plato and his world -whether you agree with folks like Origen and Clement that there’s a unity between Plato and Christianity or with folks like Tertullian that there’s a sharp disconnect- can help us understand the current situation of the Western world; which in turn can help us as Christians speak the Gospel to it all the more clearly.
    Even more than that, as Christians we are heirs to a tradition that has been engaged with Greek thought since the very first apologists, and to ignore that thought is to ignore our own intellectual and moral heritage.
    Those are, I think, very surface-level answers, but they occasionally get the trick done.

    Having said that, I’ve been teaching for a while now and I would further suggest that at heart, the student’s claim that “hearing about all that…stuff doesn’t help my walk with the Lord” is most likely code for “I don’t want to take this class anyway, and I have Christian buzz words that can help me get out of it with a clean conscience; in fact, I might be a better person for bailing early.” I certainly know that was my attitude from time to time as an undergrad…

    All that to say in answer to your questions:
    1. No.
    2. Yes, but only to the limited extent that their objections are actually to the source material, and not based in laziness or apathy.
    3. I look forward to seeing how this gets answered, and then potentially stealing said answer and applying it to my own classes.

  8. Nate, you are correct. I suggested that you use Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a contemporary text when introducing students to Plato.
    I’ve subsequently come to consider that an unwise suggestion, not because it is a rather uneven text that is historically inaccurate in places but because it is deeply ambivalent and indeterminate, qualities unlikely to throw light on another text.

  9. My feeling is that you may wish to modify your persona as a teacher. Knowing you merely from the podcast, let me risk putting you on the couch, anyway.

    The first problem is that you often come across as self-effacing, and this can serve to undercut your own authority in the classroom.

    Secondly, your students are presumably more conservative than you are. (At the very least as William Perry’s Schema of Intellectual Development shows, young students are pedagogically conservative.) As an often unrepentant liberal, you are now in the position as a representative of the Establishment(your beloved “pederasty”)and they came/were sent to a Christian school to escape from such things I presume.

    I think it’s very important for you to do this or these Christians just are the dumb, anti-Science, anti-Englightenment fools that leftists like Chris Mooney, Dawkins and the drive-by media like to represent Republicans and Christians as.

    You have my permission to ignore the mound of red meat I threw out in the previous paragraph, but take the advice I recently read from a veteran teacher. He said, “Start off the term as Atilla the Hun but end up as Mr Rogers.” Nix it with the self-effacement.

  10. John, I’m actually pretty different on the podcast than I am in the classroom, especially the first few weeks of the semester–in fact, I had four or five people drop another class, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I was too Hunnish. The self-effacement doesn’t come into the classroom very often. But thank you for the suggestion.

  11. 1. Am I wrongheaded in viewing the conditions of Greek pederasty as related, however distantly, to this student’s spiritual walk? Nope
    2. Is it my responsibility to convince students that this is the case? If you want them to read the material and be interested in the material.
    3. How on earth do I go about doing so?

    I use this with my friend who had problems with employing somebody to do work who was living an “alternative lifestyle”. If I only did business with Christians, I couldn’t do business. In the same way, if they don’t want to read books about sinners, tell them to put their Bibles down.

  12. I’m just flying by following “A.S. Byatt” and Ragnarok and so have only read/heard a little of your site.

    re: students’ actions.
    People’s stated reasoning and their under-lying motivations can differ wildly. Younger people seem likely to be more disturbed when confronted with distasteful, worrying and exciting views around sexuality. That only a few of your student are exercising their newly acquired freedom to avoid subjects which they find threatening suggests that your presentation and material is OK.

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