Letter from the Editor Summer 2020: Of Books and Beasts

Of Books and Beasts

One of the ways we can understand ourselves better is to look at the metaphors our culture uses. Medieval and ancient peoples drew their comparisons from nature. Today we often look at things in terms of machines or computers. We tell our unmotivated children they need to “get it in gear.” When we forget something because we have too many other things going on, we complain that our “hard drive is full.”

The work of philosophers such as René Descartes and scientists such as Isaac Newton started us in this direction, as they began to see the world as a machine and its workings as the kinds of mechanisms coming increasingly into use in their time. When you are surrounded by a certain kind of thing, you begin to see other things in terms of it.

In recent years, the mechanical has been slowly giving way to the digital. Instead of talking in terms of rotating and pumping and pushing and pulling, we think in terms of download speed and bandwidth.

We tend to think of learning much as we think of factories or computers. We talk of inputs and outputs and performance and results. This is on clear display, not only in how we purport to teach children, but also in how we test them. We think Chromebooks can replace teachers and that statistics will prove that they can (they can’t). In consequence, schools come more and more to resemble factories, and students to resemble products.

Older classical thinkers did not view the cosmos as a machine, but as a vast and living organism.

This was reflected in the medieval bestiaries. A bestiary was a book in which readers were invited to learn lessons about life and about themselves from the natural world. They were hand-written and illustrated (in other words, created by people rather than machines), and contained stories about real and mythical animals. They called upon readers to learn from them and to imitate their noble aspects.

Animals were symbols of and pointers to the meaning of the world, and instructive for human behavior. And many of the lessons were theological.

It was believed that it was natural for “things to appear in images,” says Thomas Howard,

—royalty in lions and kings, strength in bulls and heroes, industriousness in ants and beavers, delicacy in butterflies and fawns, terror in oceans and thunder, glory in roses and sunsets–so, of course, the god might appear in flesh and blood, how else?

This could still be seen in the old school readers, such as the McGuffey Readers. Even non-living things were fodder for moral lessons:

If I were a sunbeam
I know where I’d go;
Into lowly hovels,
Dark with want and woe:
Til sad hearts looked upward,
I would shine and shine;
Then they’d think of heaven,
Their sweet home and mine.

This way of looking at the world reflected a belief in a meaningful cosmos—an ordered and purposeful universe which extended from the most seemingly insignificant rock to the highest human sovereign—and this view extended to the way students were viewed and the way learning was conceived.

When the Roman orator Cicero cast about for a metaphor for the difficulties of study and the compensating rewards of knowledge, he found it in his garden: “The roots are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.”

Learning is largely a matter of being planted in rich cultural soil so that the mental and spiritual capabilities of students stand the best chance of being properly developed. And we as parents and teachers need to fertilize our students’ souls with good literature, as well as stake them upright when they are young so they can grow straight in the face of the cultural winds that might bend them in the wrong direction.

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